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: Emmanuel

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” John 1:1-4

“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:” John 1:10-12

“And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

“And the angel came in unto her, and said, ‘Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.’ And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

“And the angel said unto her, ‘Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.’

”Then said Mary unto the angel, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?’ And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’

”And Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.’ And the angel departed from her.” Luke 1:26-35, 38

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” John 1:14

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.” Isaiah 9:6-7

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria). And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

”And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them,

”’Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’” Luke 2:1-14

Above presents, lights, trees, decorations, memories, movies, plays and programs, music, and food, Christmas is Emmanuel. Emmanuel is God with us.

”God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

”For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23

”For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23

”…If you will confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart we believe and are made righteous, but with our mouths, confession is made bringing salvation.” Romans 10:9-10

God gave the greatest, most valuable gift of all. Our life cost Him His Son.

We are offered an opportunity to know God. Not just know about Him, but really know Him. Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes by hearing the Word of God.” When we hear God’s Word, faith rises in our hearts and we have the privilege of responding. If we confess we are sinners, and believe on Jesus Christ for our salvation, we are saved. We are brought from death in sin to life in Christ.

Coming to Christ, becoming a believer, is not a few special words, or ceremony, or magic actions. Coming to Christ is simply believing.

I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Just as an example, you might pray, “Dear God, I confess I am a sinner. Please come into my life. I want Jesus Christ to be my Lord.”

Emmanuel. God with us, now and forever. Undeserved. Unearned. Yet God gave Jesus to us anyway. God became like us, so we could be like Him.

From our family to yours, Merry Christmas.

Emmanuel.

Christmas Is: Trains!

What would Christmas be without trains? Many kids dream about waking on Christmas morning and finding a Lionel model train running under the tree.

Almost everyone loves the story “The Polar Express”, and for good reason. The movie contains everything of childhood dreams, especially discovering Santa is real! What could be better than riding an old-fashioned steam passenger train to the North Pole?

Trains have been a part of Christmas since the beginning of rail travel. My favorite part in the movie “White Christmas” is the scene on the Santa Fe train heading from Florida to Pine Tree, Vermont. Some day we would like to take a cross-country trip by train and enjoy sleeping and eating on board. We have taken a few train trips that were several hours but never overnight.

I have been working hard on the Maple Valley Short Line. I wanted to have at least a line running when Christmas came, but I’m not sure it’s going to happen. One of my major challenges is the depth of the two ends of the layout. It’s a bench design with a depth of thirty-six inches in the middle areas but the ends are forty-eight inches. That means I’ve made it impossible to reach all the way across the layout to lay the track. So, here I am, on top of the layout, laying track on the outside curves. I’m kneeling on 3/4” plywood, supported underneath by thinner plywood placed between the cork roadbed on the branch lines.

A big step of progress was securing my two scratch-built bridges. The trestle over the river is rock solid and I can’t wait to see trains running over it.

I’m using 36 inch flex track for the entire layout. I have a lot left over from my two previous layouts but I discovered not much of it is usable. I fasten the track using white glue, then pins through the ties as provided in the flex track. I then use jars of coins to weigh the track down until the glue is dried. It works great. (I’m the reason the government is running short on coins.)

Every HO modeler knows the challenge of curves when you’re using flex track. How do you join the rails in such a way that there is no kink at the joint? Here’s what I do. I’m sure it’s no secret, and nothing many others don’t do as well.

Rather than squaring off the rails, I leave the ends distant from each other as shown in the picture. For the joining piece of flex track, I cut the number of ties off necessary to make the extending rails reach the rails of the glued section. I then carefully trim off the plastic “spikes”, one on each side of the rail ends. I slide a rail joiner onto the rails of the glued section. I thread the new rails through the empty plastic spikes until the rails slide into the rail joiners.

After making sure the fit is tight, I put white glue on the cork roadbed for the new flex track. I pin the track and add the jar weights. On to the next! The pins in the ties are a perfect distance so the jars of coins fit between them.

This photo shows the completed joint without any noticeable kink between the rail ends. Smooth operation without the cars wobbling every time they cross a rail joint is important. My strategy works pretty well.

Another challenge I’m anticipating is pouring epoxy on the riverbed. I’m excited about doing it, but I’m concerned about the odor from mixing the epoxy. I should probably mix a little bit in the garage so I can see how strong the smell is before I do it in the basement.

I actually have a few cars on the rails now so I can check for smooth rolling. I love the sounds of metal wheels clicking over the rail joints.

It is time now to begin wiring the layout and making block separations. I may have to pick up a few new turnouts because, for some reason, most of the ones I have are right-hand, and my layout has many more left turnouts than previous plans.

After I am finished laying all the track and completing the wiring, I will begin working on ballast. At this point, my plan is to pour it by hand and spread it with a paint brush. I will then spray it with some white glue solution to set it permanently.

I’m looking forward to working more on scenery. I have lots of trees I made from floral wire to finish with latex, paint, and foliage.

Christmas is trains. Whether it is Lionel O gauge, N gauge, S gauge as in the old American Flyer line, or, my favorite, HO, every train looks better in the glow of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree.

Where’s my eggnog?

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: Shopping!

Don’t you love shopping for Christmas presents? Shopping is exciting as we prepare for the great day of sharing gifts with our loved ones.

Let’s be real. The most important question that must be answered as the “shopping days ‘til Christmas” wind down and anticipation continues to grow, is, “Where are we going to eat?” The choice of a place to eat while Christmas shopping can either enhance the experience or bring a cloud.

Christmas shopping at the Somerset Mall was always great fun. The decorations are beautiful, the stores are abundant, and they have The California Pizza Kitchen. The barbecue chicken pizza is amazing! I’m always ready to spend more after eating barbecue chicken pizza. Delicious!

Another place we loved shopping was The Village in Rochester. It was in Rochester while Christmas shopping that my five-year-old grandson said, “Papa, you’re going the wrong way.” I said, “No, I’m not.” He said, “Yes, you are. There’s the McDonald’s we just passed.” He was right. He didn’t get any Christmas presents from me. Just kidding.

The Village always has a beautiful Christmas display. Lights hanging over the walks and drives surround shoppers with a wonderful glow. It’s always fun to go to Pottery Barn at The Village. There is such a wide selection of stuff too expensive to buy, its fun imagining what it would be like to buy them. They usually have hot chocolate available for shoppers, but, obviously, since the pandemic changed everything, hot chocolate at the store is a thing of the past. Sad.

I love the smaller, locally owned, shops. Cottage Outfitters in Caseville, Michigan, is a wonderful place to go. Owner, Jonathan, always does an amazing job staging and decorating. There is always such a welcoming and warm atmosphere, shoppers want to slow down and stay a while.

I think the hallmark of any great store is its ability to create a desire to linger and shop slowly. During Christmas it’s easier for stores to do that, I think, but there are shops that have that natural ability to invite folks in and invite them to stay.

Another wonderful place is The Pineberry Shop in Brown City, Michigan. Loving Christmas and everything that goes with it is an open invitation to be pulled in and The Pineberry does it well. I love walking slowly through the store, taking in all the lights and decorations.

I would love both of these stores, even if my wife did not have a display of her “Up North Flannels” at each of them. For a couple of years now, my wife has been repurposing flannel shirts. She washes and irons them, then I sew on her “Up North” label near the left pocket. They are a wonderful way to be comfortable on those cold days, either outside when a coat is too much, or inside when you feel chilled. The shirts come in a wide variety of colors, all various types of plaid. We don’t have a website and we don’t sell the shirts online. You’ll have to visit Cottage Outfitters, or, The Pineberry Shop!

In my last post, I included many photos of the red truck with a Christmas tree in the back. Here are more! I found these all in one store!

If only I had realized how popular a red truck with a Christmas tree in the back would be, I can’t imagine where we would be right now. I might be sitting in a comfortable chair, surrounded by people I love, listening to wonderful Christmas music, enjoying the glow of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Wait. That’s where I am right now, and I didn’t imagine the red truck with a Christmas tree in the back. I guess we’re doing just fine.

Christmas shopping isn’t about stuff. It’s about lingering in the atmosphere of a desire to give and be with those you love. The smallest item can mean the world when it is given and received with love. Dollar amounts never made Christmas gifts more meaningful. To any mom, dad, or grandparent, it will be that little ornament made at school, covered with spots of white glue, that will last forever and mean the most.

Merry Christmas.

To others, Happy Hanukkah.

To others, Happy Kwanzaa.

To everyone, enjoy.

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: Plays, Programs, and Concerts

In “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as the gang is preparing to rehearse the Christmas play, Linus is confronted by his sister, Lucy, with a script. Linus protests and complains.

Lucy: “Here. Memorize these lines and be ready to recite.”

Linus: “Why do I have to memorize these lines? Why should I be put through such agony?”

Lucy: “I’ll give you five good reasons why you should memorize these lines.” And slowly, folding one finger at a time into a fist, she says, “One, two, three, four, five.”

Linus: “Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it’s getting too dangerous.”

What everyone needs when Christmas rolls around is more to do. After we’re finished shopping for everyone on our Christmas list, which means we’ve been to malls, outlets, big-box stores, small-box stores, shoe stores, jewelry stores, tech stores, toy stores, music stores, clothing stores, grocery stores, hardware stores, drug stores, and convenient stores, we need a full schedule of special Christmas programs to perform and attend.

Linus captures the feelings of every child, young and old, who has ever been in the obligatory Christmas play. Schools have them, churches have them, community groups have them, they’re everywhere, and if they weren’t, it just wouldn’t be right. No one likes memorizing lines for the Christmas play. Every parent loves and dreads seeing their little one on stage, realizing before it happens that if they are going to scratch where the sun doesn’t shine, it’s going to happen when they’re the center of attention. And what children’s program would be complete without the child who fights to stand right in front of the mic and sings extra loud.

Christmas programs are delightful even if they’re awful. It was always exciting to begin working on Christmas music in band class. As a band director in a private academy I loved working on the music of the season in preparation for the Christmas extravaganza that happened every year.

I don’t know if church choirs still do Christmas cantatas every year like they used to, but I loved singing in them and then accompanying choirs on the piano during high school. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise, when as His mother, Mary, was espoused to Joseph before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” Those are the words to the first solo I ever sang in church. I think I was twelve. It was part of a cantata called, “Born A King” our church choir performed. Many years later, directing community choirs myself at Christmastime was an exciting experience.

One of the most amazing church pageants (I call it a pageant because program and concert don’t come close) I have ever seen included costumes, incredible acting, a full orchestra, singing that should have been on recordings and in huge concert halls, was presented by a local church. No professionals, just willing, eager, and talented people.

Seeing the Christmas glow on children’s faces is priceless. The excitement in their eyes shines as bright as any candle.

As everyone knows, it’s easy to get swept up in the “must do’s” of Christmas and miss Christmas. Maybe there are a lot of things we have to do that don’t really need doing. Maybe Christmas will be everything we ever dreamed it could be without the details we’ve been striving to complete.

When I was working on my master’s degree in counseling, I had a professor who said something I’ll never forget. He said, “We need to learn to see with new eyes.” I said earlier that if we decorate too early we’ll get to the place we don’t see it anymore. What keeps that from happening is choosing to see with new eyes. If I choose to really see what I’ve seen every day for the last month, I’ll see it again for the first time and I’ll feel that Christmas joy all over again.

How many times have you heard “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby? Not just this year but every year combined? What about “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole or Johnny Mathis? “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey? “Silver and Gold” by Burl Ives? “Rudolf” by Gene Autrey? Try hearing them for the first time. Really listen.

Instead of attending the Christmas program for the n-teenth time, go for the first time. If you have lights on your house, notice the glow inside the house. See it and feel it again with new eyes and see what happens.

Christmas has nothing to do with amounts of anything. It has only to do with what we choose to see and believe. If we choose to really see and hear again, we won’t miss the blessing of Christmas.

Christmas Is: Anticipation!

Many years ago there was a commercial showing ketchup oozing very, very slowly from the bottle and finally falling to the hamburger patiently waiting below. The song, “Anticipation” sung by Carly Simon was playing. It was a display of advertising genius. All these years later I can still see the ketchup and clearly hear the song. I don’t remember the brand name, but I do remember Anticipation.

If Christmas could be summed up in one word, a good candidate would be anticipation. Everyone likes to have something to look forward to and looking forward to Christmas captures most hearts.

When we were kids the Christmas tree was never put up until about two weeks before the special day. Almost everyone was using real trees at that time and if a tree was placed in the house just after Thanksgiving, there wouldn’t have been anything left of it by December 25th. With artificial trees, it’s easy to put the tree up even before Thanksgiving, which many people do and enjoy it for a whole month.

A problem with decorating the house and the Christmas tree too early is that after a while you don’t see it. Oh sure, it’s still there, but now the tree is part of the normal appearance of the living room or wherever you put your tree and you have to purposely stop and look at it to realize again how special it is.

Anticipation loses steam if the flame is lit too soon. When Christmas items begin to appear in the stores in late September, it’s easy to feel excited even though it’s crazy early. I enjoy going to Hobby Lobby just to walk through the aisles of decorations. I have never seen so many nutcrackers in one place in my life. I have found that if I continue to walk through and purposely look at the colors and all the many decorations even though I’ve already seen them all, I continue to feel the anticipation of Christmas.

Another challenge to anticipation is midnight on Christmas day. I’m not one of those who begins looking forward to next Christmas on December 26th but I always feel a sense of sadness when the day has passed. If that happens to you, I think the reason is focusing on the day rather than the season. Anticipation can either center on the twenty-four hour period of December 25th, or we can change it a little bit and anticipate many things during the season. For example, we anticipate decorating the Christmas tree but the tree doesn’t disappear on December 26th. We leave it up until at least a week into January. The food of the season can be anticipated in October, but when the baking begins, it’s not over, it’s just beginning.

Of course, if you are a combination of Eeyore, the donkey in Winnie the Pooh, and Mr. Snuffleupagus, from Sesame Street, like I am, feelings up and down are a constant reality and source of struggle. Finding the balance and choosing what works is the key. The Christmas season can be an emotional roller-coaster. It’s a good idea to remind ourselves it’s not our responsibility to create the perfect Christmas for everyone, or to re-create a detailed copy of everything Christmas used to be when we were growing up or when our kids were all still home waiting to open presents on Christmas morning.

Obviously, anticipation is forward-looking. You can’t anticipate something that has already happened. You might anticipate experiencing consequences tomorrow for something you did yesterday, but simple anticipation is always about something that hasn’t happened yet.

Maybe you don’t anticipate Christmas at all, in fact you would be fine if it never happened. It’s fine to feel that way, I’m persuaded you’re not alone. However, you are still anticipating Christmas, but it’s dread, negative rather than positive. And really, there are lots of reasons one might dread the whole Christmas season.

I completely agree with what Fred, Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew, said to him as he pleaded with him to come for Christmas dinner. He said that even though Christmas never adds a speck of silver or gold to his pocket he believes it does him good and to that he says, “God bless it!” I do too.

Christmas Is: Hot Chocolate!

Anyone who has read a post or two of mine may know of my life-long fascination with trains real and miniature. I have dreamed of living in the days when steam locomotives carried freight and passengers across the country. I was born just a few years too late.

Imagine my excitement when I discovered 1225, the Berkshire class Baldwin Steam Locomotive owned by the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Michigan.

The beautiful locomotive was destined for the scrap pile many years ago when it was rescued by a group of dreamers who hoped to restore it to steam glory. Although the original rescuers did not see their hopes fulfilled, they were the first step in a long journey that ultimately gave the incredibly restored 1225 to the thousands of steam train fans waiting for a ride, including me. Little did those early dreamers know that one day this special locomotive would be used to provide the train sound track for the popular Christmas movie, “The Polar Express.”

I have enjoyed the incredible thrill of riding the “Polar Express” twice. The first time, our daughter and her two young sons and I took the trip. Several years ago my wife and I rode the train to the small Christmas Village in Ashley, Michigan. What a thrill to feel the power of the huge locomotive pulling us to our destination.

If you have seen The Polar Express, you are very familiar with the scene in the rail car with all the children in their pajamas as the dancing and singing waiters serve piping hot chocolate to all the kids. Christmas is hot chocolate!

Hot chocolate has been part of our family forever, and probably yours too. In the old days real hot chocolate was made by heating milk in a pan on the stove, and then adding chocolate syrup or Nestle’s Quik. My favorite was made by mixing Hershey’s Cocoa powder with sugar, stirring in a little warm milk and then adding it to the pan of steaming hot milk. Delicious!

I remember many Sunday nights after church my grandmother came home with us while our parents went out with friends. We always enjoyed hot chocolate and toast while watching Bonanza! For you young ones, Bonanza was a weekly television series about the Cartwright family, Ben (the father), Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe (played by Michael Landon of Little House on the Prairie fame.)

I am such a fan of hot chocolate, I even enjoy it from vending machines. Now that’s a hard-core hot chocolate lover. I hate to admit this, but I have even ordered hot chocolate at Starbucks! Don’t tell anyone. No one goes to Starbucks for hot chocolate, but I have.

Like all mochas from Starbucks, hot chocolate has to be enjoyed hot-hot. There is no such thing as good tepid hot chocolate. For a while, every time I stopped at Starbucks I ordered my mocha at 190 degrees. Literally! One time the barista handed me my cup and said, “Here’s your insanely hot mocha.” Now the “extra-hot” option is hot enough.

After thirty-one years in my previous career, I returned to university to acquire teacher certification which meant 1 1/2 years of classes including a year of student teaching at a middle school. Upon graduation I continued substitute teaching and returned to school again to complete a Master’s Degree in Educational and Professional Counseling. I had the incredible privilege of being a middle school counselor for five years before retiring for real. I told the principle who hired me I felt like I had been preparing for this position for the last forty years. My wife and I retired from the same school district, and both of us miss our family of colleagues at school.

One of the joys we experienced at school was serving the most amazing hot chocolate I have ever had. Each Christmas our lead secretary prepared for us what actually should be its own food group. This raised the term “hot chocolate” to a whole new level. The ingredients included a bag of dark chocolate chips, a can of sweetened condensed milk, a quart of whipping cream, and two gallons of whole milk. It was my privilege to serve each of our teachers a steaming cup of this tasty drink topped with peppermint marsh mellows. The crock-pot of hot chocolate was heating up in our back office, so it was my responsibility, obviously, to do a taste-check periodically since my office was just a few steps away.

Many years ago, my wife’s mother introduced us to home-made hot chocolate mix which we still use. It’s easy to make and we love it. I pour two packages of Carnation Powdered Milk in a large decorative jar. I then add a little more than half of a large jar of Coffee-Mate, then a bag of Ghirardelli Hot Chocolate mix. I shake it up in the jar until everything is mixed together. We keep a scoop in the jar. Boiling water added to one-third cup of mix (give or take according to taste) will give you a delicious cup of hot chocolate. Dropping a small candy-cane into the cup adds just the right amount of peppermint flavor.

Christmas has a magical way of bringing us back to the simple things that matter. Hot chocolate is one of those things that, if you let it, will help you rekindle what makes Christmas Christmas.

Here’s to another cup of great hot chocolate!

Christmas Is: Movies!

Advent calendars are popular and there are endless varieties. We decided several years ago to use our Christmas movies as an advent calendar, which means we have at least twenty-five Christmas movies. And with so many streaming channels the offerings are non-stop. Just this week we watched “Christmas on the Bayou”, “Christmas in Mississippi”, and “The Christmas Contract”.

Our favorite movies are so familiar we really don’t need to watch them. We can quote the lines just by thinking of the title. You can too. For example,

”I wouldn’t let you sleep in my room if you were growing on my a**.” Of course you know the movie.

How about, “Thanks for the Christmas card you sent me, Violet!” Sure you know that one, you’ve been watching it every year since 1965.

This might be a little more difficult, “Hey Mack, can you tell me the way to Redbud?”

”How’d you know my name was Mack?”

”Just a guess.”

”Why don’t you guess your way to Redbud?”

Maybe you’ll do better on this one. “Coming into Pine Tree! Coming into Pine Tree.”

No? Well, how about, “If the United States Post Office believes Kris Kringle is the real Santa Clause, we agree. Case dismissed!”

Maybe this will ring a silver bell, “The Rose Suchick Ladder Company.”

Doing better? Try, “Me? You want me to be the director of the Christmas play?”

Another, “You wouldn’t happen to have eight thousand dollars would you?”

”No, we don’t need money in Heaven.”

”Well it sure comes in handy down here, Bub!”

This one is too easy, “Why’d you take your shoes off?” “Why are you dressed like a chicken?”

This is getting ridiculously easy now, “Oh no! No one’s leaving this fun old fashioned family Christmas! We’re gonna press on and have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Kaye!”

Are you feeling pretty confident? Try this, “George Bailey, I’ll love you till the day I die.”

A little more difficult, “Label-label-label, I must have a label!” “I feel light as a feather, I’m giddy as a school boy! I must stand on my head!”

How about, “That was the dumbest speech ever! It was short. We loved it!!”

Obviously, some of these are in the same movies, like, “I knew it was you. I could smell you getting off the elevator.”

And, “Keep the change ya filthy animal.”

And, “We bein’ scammed by a kindy-gadna.”

From a different one, “I wish I had a million dollars. Ah, hot dog!”

And another favorite, “You don’t honestly believe I would check ten-thousand twinkle lights without making sure they were plugged in.”

Everyone will know this, “Lights please. And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.’”

Merry Christmas everyone. Enjoy your favorite Christmas movies, whatever they are, but especially, the time you spend with family watching them.

Still wondering about some of the movie lines? Here they are, in order. And yes, I wrote each of these from memory. Movie lines is a favorite game we play with our family.

Home Alone
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Funny Farm
White Christmas
Miracle on 34th Street
The Santa Clause
A Charlie Brown Christmas
It’s A Wonderful Life
Home Alone
Christmas Vacation
It’s a Wonderful Life
Scrooge (With Alastair Sim)
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Home Alone 2
Home Alone
It’s a Wonderful Life
Christmas Vacation
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Luke 2:8-14)