Christmas Is: Delightful!

Delightful is really the only way to describe Christmas. Whether everything happened the way it was supposed to or not, the beautiful holiday came and went, and it was and is delightful.

Today, I chose again to not only look closely at the Christmas tree which is still lighting our living room, but to take pictures. I do it because, as I wrote previously, it is so easy to forget how special each ornament is and how each contributes to the beauty of the tree.

I’m thankful for artificial Christmas trees. There are no needles on the floor, the tree didn’t stop soaking up water two weeks ago. We bought a new tree this year. It’s 7 1/2 feet tall, but it’s more narrow than the old one. We also bought new lights, the LED type. We weren’t sure whether we liked the new lights, but after a few days we were used to them.

We have candles in every window I’m still turning on each night. The twinkle lights on the house will be on longer than normal to show support for all of our great first-responders and front-line workers in the fight against the virus.

The small tree is our Jesse tree. Each of the handmade ornaments relates to a Scripture and devotional about the lineage of Jesus back to King David and his father, Jesse. In anticipation of Christmas, each day we do the reading and place an ornament on the tree.

In one church I was privileged to pastor, there was an older couple who loved Christmas, I think more than anyone I had ever met. They had no children of their own but were young at heart and loved everything Christmas represents. Each year, they began decorating their home in September. In literally every room of the house there was a beautiful Christmas tree. Every year they provided a beautiful dinner at their house for the staff and volunteers of the church. It was amazing.

The couple’s appreciation of beautiful Christmas decorations extended to the church building as well. They provided beautiful garlands and floral decorations. They insisted on using real Christmas trees. Big ones. Two were fifteen feet tall, the middle tree was twenty, all were decorated with lights and ornaments. The trees were on the stage and had to be wired to the walls to keep them standing. They were beautiful, but what a mess.

Being the never-ask-for-help kind of person I am, and I don’t say that proudly, it’s a terribly uncaring trait, after Christmas I took the trees down myself. All fifty feet of them. I somehow pulled them out the side door and in so doing, removed the few remaining short Douglas Fir needles left on the well-dried and brittle branches. Luckily, I avoided impaling the beautiful grand piano and didn’t break any of the specially-made stained glass windows. I spent an hour literally shoveling pine needles off the floor. The next year I insisted on artificial trees. I was surprised when they agreed.

What is it about cats and boxes? Yellow kitty was willing to suffer the indignity of having bows stuck to her fur as long as we didn’t take her tiny little gift box that wasn’t much bigger than her front legs.

One of the highlights of Christmas this year was having an opportunity to show my grandson the Maple Valley Short Line Railroad. He was impressed. Last year we gave him a collection of O gauge trains and helped him get it running. O gauge trains are much better for small hands than the HO (Half-O) that I model.

I still have a lot of work to do, but I now have the outer main line in full operation. I was excited to see the trains running across my scratch-built bridges for the first time.

Probably during the next week we will begin thinking about returning all of the Christmas decorations to the closet. It’s sad but also brings a sense of accomplishment when everything is returned to a pre-holiday appearance. It is also easier when there aren’t a lot of lights to turn off before going to bed. But for today, and surely tomorrow, the decorations are still around us and the lights are still beautiful.

The Peanuts Gang bulb was hand-painted for me by a friend. Amazing. The candle salt-and-pepper shakers belonged to my grandparents. My aunt made the snowman when she was a school girl. She is now in her eighties. My wife’s mother made the lighted ceramic church for us many years ago. All of the Christmas decorations have their special place and each helps make the holiday special.

Christmas Is: Memories!

It’s a thousand million things. Things that you haven’t thought about in years come floating back because you saw a twinkling light and heard a song at just the right moment. You smelled that beautiful aroma of a favorite dish baking in preparation for your Christmas dinner and scenes from a Christmas long ago suddenly take over your thoughts.

Christmas doesn’t end just because December 26th finally intrudes. Christmas is a presence available to us all year round. We just don’t often take advantage of it after the middle of January when we are neck deep in trying to survive the dark, cold, blustery days of endless winter.

I love hearing the stories about Christmas my wife shares with me. She grew up in a wonderful family of eight children, five sisters and two brothers. She was number 7. Her dad loved Christmas and worked hard to make each one special. He often had to work on Christmas Day so opening presents was postponed until he returned, which just made the day even more special because it lasted longer than just an explosion of presents in the morning. Her older brother and married sisters arrived throughout the day with their families. Everyone pitched in to make dinner which was served after her dad arrived from work.

On Christmas Eve, after the children went to bed, my wife’s dad filled a large bowl with fruit, nuts, and candy and put it on the dining room table. Each child had a stocking, which was their dad’s white cotton work socks. Each had an orange, hard candies, and chocolate creams. Her dad decorated the outside of their house with blue lights, his favorite.

My mother was the light of Christmas when I was growing up. She made everything special. In those days, baking the turkey was an all night event, literally. She used to simmer the giblets with celery leaves and onion on Christmas Eve, which made the entire house smell of turkey. It was my job to break the dried bread apart for the stuffing. She mixed the bread pieces with egg, onion, sage, thyme, rosemary, celery, pepper and salt, then literally stuffed the turkey. I guess people don’t do that anymore because it’s “dangerous”. It’s a wonder any of us are still alive. The turkey baked all night and on Christmas day we had an amazing dinner. To this day, I remember the taste and that the turkey was always dry. But that’s why there was lots of gravy, right?

We always had fresh cranberry relish. I helped with that too. I turned the crank on the grinder that clamped to the edge of the table while my mom fed cranberries, orange, and apple into the hopper. Juice always leaked all over the floor. I never liked the relish when I was a kid, but I make it now and I love it. Another irreplaceable dish was a green-jello-cottage cheese-pineapple-I-don’t-know-what-else salad. It was great. Then there was cranberry jello (different than cranberry relish, but necessary), sweet potatoes I never liked but love now, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing (that roasted INSIDE the turkey all night and we all lived), pickles, black olives (which we never had at any other time), and rolls.

Christmas dessert was different than any other holiday, even Easter. My mom made Christmas cookies that were decorated beautifully and tasted amazing. Never saw them again for a year. There were several kinds of pies including pecan, which I never liked, but I love now. Pecan pie is a food group on its own. Just looking at it can make you gain weight. Three minutes of looking at pecan pie is 275 calories. No kidding!

How do you pronounce pecan? One time I was having dinner at a restaurant with a friend who grew up in Russia. The waitress asked if we wanted dessert and I asked for pecan pie, properly pronounced “pee-can.” My friend looked at me in shock and with his heavy Russian accent said, “Pee can? I don’t want pee can. Pee can is what you use for bathroom!” We had a good laugh and the waitress thought we were crazy. I guess the right way to say it is “pa-kahn.” Whatever. I still say pee-can pie.

Would you agree that the best part of Christmas dinner is turkey sandwiches the next day? A couple slices of white meat, Miracle Whip, lots of pepper and salt, more Miracle Whip (and not that low-cal-sugar-free stuff, either.) Spread the Miracle Whip on like you’re frosting a cake. And white bread is best. You have to have white bread because whole wheat or nut loaf won’t stick to the roof of your mouth like a good white bread turkey sandwich will.

To go with your white bread turkey sandwich, cold stuffing, jello salad, and a bowl of microwave heated mashed potatoes and gravy, and finally some of that fresh cranberry relish my mom used to make will set you up right. And to go with all of that, you have to have Vernor’s. Not Canada Dry, not Sprite, not Sierra Mist. Vernor’s. And that’s that.

It wasn’t our tradition to have a huge load of guests for dinner. Grandparents, an aunt, uncle, and cousin. That’s it. Maybe it’s because we had a small dining room which was really just part of the kitchen. I only remember going to someone else’s house for Christmas dinner one time.

One of my favorite memories was getting Christmas candy at church every year. The Sunday before Christmas everyone received a small box of candy. They were always the same, hard candies with awful filling, ribbon candy, a few peanuts, and chocolate creams. The chocolate creams and peanuts were my favorite. I still don’t like those hard candies.

When our children were young, one year my dear wife gave me a compact video camera for Christmas. I was so surprised! I still have all the video tapes and I plan to transfer them to digital format. The next Christmas I started a tradition that lasted until our boys went to college. I snuck into the kids’ rooms on Christmas Eve and taped them sleeping. I always videoed the Christmas decorations, the tree, the village, and the kids. Some of the tapes include my grandmother, who was in her nineties, sitting in a rocking chair wrapped up in blankets and a babushka.

When the boys came home from college for Christmas break I planned to video them again. They expected it and one of the boys set a booby trap in his room that scared the crap out of me.

I wish I could remember every single Christmas as our children were growing up. Thank God for pictures. We now have the joy of watching our children and their families making their own memories. We don’t make Christmas dinner anymore, we’re privileged to have our daughter and her family close by so we go to their house for Christmas. Oh we still make cranberry relish, jello, and coffee cake. But our kids host dinner. It’s always wonderful.

We now share our three boys and their families with their wives’ families. We’re happy for them, just sad for us when the in-between years come.

Christmas is three days away. It always comes and goes too fast. I have walked through the decoration displays at the stores as many times as I could. We’ve been to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland twice, (and I hope to go again while our kids are home this week), we’ve driven to look at Christmas lights three times, we’re almost through our Christmas movie Advent calendar. We have found several great Christmas movies on Netflix and Amazon. The ongoing challenge is to make Christmas last, long, long after December 25th.

Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Christmas Is: Presents! Presents! And More Presents!

Several years ago it bothered me when the big box stores started stacking cheap buy-me-quick stuff almost to the ceiling long before Christmas. I know that Christmas is too commercial, as Linus says, but that’s just the way it is. No matter what, there is still something wonderful about Christmas that seems to catch almost everyone in its grip. Many many people, young and old, are touched by the desire to give. No matter how ornery we might be at other times, most of us still enjoy seeing the joy on someone’s face when they unwrap a gift from us.

The Bible says it is a bigger blessing to give than to receive. That really is true. Opening gifts is fun, but the joy of buying, or making, and giving gifts to loved ones brings a warmer feeling.

One Christmas when I had a particularly grievous streak of ornery, I told our boys to go find all the gifts we gave them the year before. What a stupid stunt. The previous Christmas we gave each of our boys a GI Joe with all the fixings that made them look tough. That might have also been the same year they each got a new bike. I don’t remember. Luckily, my wife was standing right there when I told the boys to go find their gifts and she objected. Strenuously. In fact, she told me I was acting like my dad. That did it. I told the boys to forget it.

I love getting gifts. But not as much now as I did when I was younger. I tease my young grandsons every year reminding them all the presents under the tree are for me but I promise they can help me open them. They think I’m crazy.

I don’t remember opening a gift on Christmas Eve every year as some people do. We always had to wait until Christmas morning, which just made it better. But one Christmas Eve we were allowed to open a gift of our choice. I had been begging for a pop gun and I was sure Santa had brought one early. When the time came, I picked up a present I decided was a pop gun that could be broken down into the size of a shoe box. I breathlessly opened the box and found a pair of slippers. Slippers wrapped in a shoe box. My wife’s family traditionally opened one gift on Christmas Eve, she said it was usually a new pair of pajamas.

I love Christmas and I love presents. I really love those big boxes of chocolates, even though we don’t ever buy them. I love those big goodie assortments all wrapped individually, like little cheese-cake bites, brownies, chocolate-covered pretzels, and M&Ms stuck together with chocolate. I remember nearly forty years ago we received a big flat gift-wrapped box in the mail. It was the biggest assortment of all kinds of great treats I had ever seen. It came from a cousin and I’ve never forgotten it.

Don’t you absolutely love these gift packages? They’re a candy-coffee-chocolate-cookie-pretzel lovers dream! They’re so pretty! They’re almost too great to open.

If you don’t care for the previous choices, here are some more. They’re everywhere! Some of them even have a mug to use when you brew the coffee to drink while you’re eating the chocolate.

If you prefer the brand name items, these could be for you. Starbucks is always a winner, and you can’t go wrong with the Peanuts Gang. Ever.

Here’s a question for you. Be honest, this is just between us. Don’t you wish you owned the copyright on the “Christmas tree in the red vintage truck”? Oh, my word, I do! They’re everywhere. We have one hanging on our front door in the middle of our wreath. There is another one in the cubby collection. Still another one sits on a shelf in the kitchen. We love them! But I wish I owned the idea and copyright, or whatever it is. Whoever came up with this is a genius.

Someone knew a Christmas tree in the back of a red truck would be irresistible. What a great idea! They don’t have to be exactly the same. If you change it just a little, there are several different renditions and you can get every one of them. In fact, you could do a search during Christmas and see how many different Christmas trees in the red truck you can find. I’m joking, but seriously, we do love the Christmas tree in the red truck. If I had more money than I knew what to do with, I would buy an antique red Ford truck and drive it around with a Christmas tree in the back.

The most fun present is the surprise present. You’re thinking, “Aren’t they all a surprise?” Of course not. Kids ask for what they want, and sometimes they get at least one or two things they asked for. Lots of parents surprise their kids with a gift that is entirely unexpected. As in the movie, “Christmas Vacation”, when Clark Griswold, after finally receiving his bonus from work, said, “With this bonus check, I’m putting in a swimming pool!” which brought screams of excitement from the family, and Clark said, “That’s it! That’s the big one!” The surprise gift.

However you choose to share gifts with your loved ones, anything from the heart is a good gift.

I hope your Christmas is filled with heart gifts.

Christmas Is: Lights!

I wondered when and where the tradition of using Christmas lights began. I have always loved Christmas decorations, especially the lights. I still love driving around the neighborhoods to look at the many Christmas displays, some of which are incredibly detailed with thousands of lights. There are even some homes that have their own FM radio signal so visitors can listen and watch the lights choreographed to music. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to do something like that.

I grew up in a neighborhood where the lots were small and the houses were close. It seemed like every house was decorated at Christmas time. We used to walk around the block to look at the lights and there were so many the glow filled the air brightly enough to easily light our way. It was especially beautiful when there was a blanket of snow on the ground. It was magical.

The tradition of decorating and lighting Christmas trees began with the use of candles. That seems incredibly dangerous and there were probably lots of fires as a result. The lights were used as a symbol of Christ as the light of the world. The practice was actually borrowed from a pagan ritual celebrating the return of sunlight and longer days after the winter solstice.

The tradition of decorating and lighting Christmas trees began in Germany during the eighteenth century.

Naturally, electric light use on a Christmas tree began with Edward H. Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, the man who invented the electric light bulb. Johnson had lights made for him and decorated the Christmas tree in his home with red, white, and blue lights in December of 1882. A newspaper in Detroit published the story. Public display of Christmas lights by businesses began in 1900. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_lights)

I think the article on Wikipedia I used for this information is incorrect. According to the article, outdoor decorating of houses with electric lights at Christmas time began in the 1960s. I think it began long before that.

It’s great to see the light strings with the old fashioned large bulbs making a comeback. The smaller more common bulbs are great, especially the strings that don’t go out if one bulb goes out. There is just something special, to me, about the larger bulbs. I love the way they look. Larger bulbs stir larger memories.

One of the most amazing displays of Christmas lights each year takes place in Rochester, Michigan. Every store downtown is completely covered with vertical strings of lights. When driving through Rochester last summer, I purposely looked at the buildings to see if they leave the strings of lights up all year. They don’t! What an incredible effort by each of the business owners to make such a great event possible! The strings are very close together so the solid appearance of bright twinkle lights is really breath-taking.

Another beautiful display of Christmas lights enjoyed by thousands of people each year happens at Crossroads Village and Huckleberry Railroad, which is part of the Genesee County Parks Department in Michigan. Unfortunately, this year the village had to cancel all of its activities because of the current health crisis facing each of us. Crossroads Village is made up of historic buildings that have been donated and moved to the property. The railroad is an operating narrow-gauge steam locomotive pulling restored authentic passenger cars. At Christmas the locomotive and the cars are decorated with lights and visitors are invited to take the train for a forty-minute ride through beautifully lighted countryside.

Of course, the best way to enjoy Christmas lights is in your own home, sitting near the Christmas tree, with all the other lights turned off. Whether you use colored or white lights, the glow in the room is beautiful. Added to the beauty of the lights is your favorite Christmas music softly playing in the background.

The greatest thing about Christmas lights is that light is light. Whatever other decorations you have or where they came from, lights stand alone but they make everything else more beautiful. A Christmas tree would not be the same without lights.

I hope your Christmas season is filled with lights. Lots and lots of lights. Colored ones, white ones, big, small, twinkling, and glowing.