I LOVE CHRISTMAS CARDS. Here are the ones we’ve received so far this year.
I used to do posts about my favorite Christmas cards:
“On the Eve of Nativity” (also in 2010)
“The Best Christmas Card Ever” in 2009
What do my “favorites” have in common? Most of them include original art and/or writing by children. Some have icons done by the sender. Others have nostalgic or historical value. Two families who have been mentioned by me in the past have come through with yet another “favorite Christmas card” this year.
Erin and Christian Moulton’s card features original art by one of their sons and text by another.
Anne Marie and Josh McCollum’s card (left) also has original art by one of their children.
What do these two families have in common? They’re Orthodox (hence the icon art) and they both homeschool their children.
My two favorite original art cards done by adults?
This one (below) from my high school friend, Kit Whitsett Fields, a fine artist whose work adorns several walls in our home.
And the one below that from Damon and Weezie Boiles. Weezie designs these herself (don’t know how!) and the people, dogs, cars (she did a house for her in-laws’ card) look just like the real thing.
(I’m having technical difficultlies and can’t get the art work to insert in the right order, but you can figure it out.)
This time last year I wrote an end of year 2013 post: “The Semantics of New Year’s Resolutions.” Shortly after that post I decided to choose my “One Word” for 2014: mindfulness. Of the 9 people from all over the world who chose mindfulness (and registered it at the site) three of us are from Tennessee. Not sure what that says, but I thought it was interesting. Looking back on 2014, I realize that I completely forgot about mindfulness much of the time. But the days I did remember it were times of peace and inner growth, whether I was applying mindfulness to eating, to relationships with others, or to spiritual things.
Karissa Sorrell introduced me to #oneword365 in her post one year ago today: “The Year of Presence.” Her One Word for 2014 was “present.” I’m anxious to see what she writes about this week as we enter 2015.
having the power or function of generating, originating, producing, or reproducing
I wasn’t able to reproduce (hence all the wonderful adopted kids!) but I can generate. I love this detail from a fresco at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas, showing Joseph teaching Jesus carpentry. The abbey calls itself a “generative community.”
Originally I heard the term in Ricahrd Rohr’s wonderful book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Generative is a characteristic of a hero—the level I’m aspiring to in this second half of my life. As Rohr says:
The hero’s journey is always an experience of an excess of life, a surplus of energy, with plenty left over for others. The hero or heroine has found eros or life energy, and it is more than enough to undo thanatos the energy of death. If it is an authentic life energy, it is always experienced as a surplus of an abundance of life. The hero or heroine is by definition a “generative” person to use Erik Erikson’s fine term, concerned about the next generation and not just himself or herself. The hero lives in deep time and not just in his or her own small time. In fact, I would wonder if you could be a hero or heroine if you did not live in what many call deep time—that is, past, present and future all at once.
Deep time. I like that. So I guess if I’ve got a New Year’s resolution it’s to live in deep time. And to become a generative hero.
My number two granddaughter, Anna Susan, loved the movie, “Big Hero 6,” and especially loves Baymax, the helpful robot character. Here’s a short video showing Hiro meeting Baymax for the first time. I like him, too. He gets his generative power from water, a life source I need to make better use of myself. (So I guess one of my New Year’s resolutions might be to drink more water.) Baymax was created to be a healthcare companion. Co-director Don Hall said:
Baymax views the world from one perspective—he just wants to help people.
In some traditions December 26 is the first day of Christmas, and in others it’s the second day of Christmas. Either way, in the Orthodox tradition, it’s the Synaxis of the Theotokos. You can read about it here. Or here.
But my favorite contemporary story about the second day of Christmas is in yesterday’s New York Post: “On the Second Day of Christmas.” It’s about a wonderful ministry called Little Flower Projects, which helps children born with mental or physical hadicaps that overwhelm their families:
They are embraced and celebrated as individuals whose presence on this earth — even those who may live only a few hours — enriches the world and all those around them.
Having adopted three children without “special needs,” I’m acutely aware of how healthy and blessed our family is. And I’m so impressed with the philosophy and love of the folks at Little Flower.
On the second day of Christmas (which is all about love, although the traditions vary) and every day of the year, I’ll close with a picture of our healthy family celebrating the winter wonderland in Denver together this Christmas. All except Jon, who’s working back home in Memphis and also flying med-evac out of Oklahoma this week. Happy Second Day of Christmas, everyone!
It’s Christmas Eve and I’m in Denver visiting children and grandchildren. And not writing. Not even blogging about writing. Celebrating the season with our Grand Christmas Angels. (The ones on the front of our Christmas card.)
But as long as you’re here, how about some beautiful Christmas music?
I know I’ve posted links to these Serbian Christmas videos before, but they are favorites of mine so here goes. Enjoy!
And for my fellow country music fans:
I wish for all my readers a joyful and peaceful Christmas Eve and a glorious Christmas Day.
Today’s post is the last in my series on Christmas traditions, and I’m thrilled to have my friend Susan Marquez contributing a guest post. Susan is a gifted writer, a devoted wife and mother, and a wonderful friend. I hope you are blessed, as I was, by reading her post. I have titled it,
“Honoring Christmas Past in our Homes.”
There was a time when I felt like a schizophrenic during Christmas. I loved to visit a local nursery that has easily a dozen Christmas trees on display, each decorated with a different theme. I would go from tree to tree and fall in love with each one, wanting to duplicate it on my own tree at home. The problem was that I’d buy a few ornaments from each display tree, and when I got home, I’d have a conglomeration of ornaments with no theme at all.
I grew up in a home decorated in traditional forest green and crimson red. Years later, I surrounded our family in bright lime green and purple decorations that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. What was I thinking?
As the years went by, and I would balance my checkbook in January, realizing that I was spending far more on gaudy decorations than I was spending on gifts when no one in my family really cared about my latest decorations.
A few years ago I realized I had over twenty big plastic bins filled with a variety of Christmas decorations. It was way more than I’d ever need to decorate our modest home. Then something happened. A big something. Our daughter almost died. But she didn’t, and her survival and recovery from an unimaginable accident changed my perspective in a big way. (Curious? Read about it at www.youcantstopthisdancer.com.)
I began to think back on the Christmas seasons of my youth. In our little house on Chiswick Circle in Jackson, Mississippi, I used to stand in front of my mother’s dining room buffet and marvel at the nativity set made by grandmother, a ceramic artist in Meridian, MS. She used real gold on the gifts of the wise men, juxtaposed by the rustic creche where the Holy Family overlooks the baby Jesus laying in a manger filled with straw. There were cows, donkeys and sheep, all guarded by shepherds. A beautiful angel overlooked the manger. I have memories of looking at each figure in awe of how the story all came together.
Our Christmas tree was in the living room, separate from the den. It was a quiet room and the tree glowed in splendid colors, lighting up the room in a most magical way. I loved looking at all the ornaments on the tree and then I’d lie on the floor and look at the patterns the lights made on the living room walls. My mother loved to play Christmas albums on the large console stereo in the living room, which made the scene all the more special for me.
This year I thought back to the insane amount of decor I used to put up, covering every surface high and low, and I wondered what my own children would remember about Christmas in their childhood home. I thought long and hard about the statement I wanted to make this year. Christmas isn’t about excess and over-the-top decorations. It’s a time to celebrate Christ’s birth, and how that event changed our world going forward. It’s about family and traditions and love.
So this year, I spent nothing on decor. Not one dime. I lovingly displayed the collection of Snow Babies belonging to Nicole and as I placed each one, I remembered the reason it was purchased. There’s the soccer Snow Baby, for the year Nicole scored a goal on St. Joseph’s girls’ soccer team. There’s the hockey Snow Baby for the year Nicole was a color-announcer for the Jackson Bandits. There’s the Wizard of Oz Snow Babies that remind us of Nicole’s favorite movie of all time, and much more.
And then I put out my grandmother’s nativity set. Now nearly 60 years old, it’s still as awe-inspiring as it was when I was a young girl, despite one of the donkey’s ears being much shorter than the other due to our dog Roxie biting it off when she was a puppy.
I have the old eggnog set my mother used for holiday gatherings, and I used it to serve eggnog just last week to members of my book club who gathered at my home for our Christmas party. Snowflakes purchased from a dollar store years ago hang from the light in our foyer, while a wreath sent from my friend Jonni Webb reminds me of our wonderful times together in Maine.
We didn’t pay for a Christmas tree this year. Instead, I am using a tree made by metal artist Stephanie Dwyer. She gave me the tree several years ago, and it stands year-round in my entry hall. This year, I pulled it into our den and put a single strand of vintage lights up the middle before adorning the branches with hand-made ornaments–some made by my talented father and friends, and others purchased on my travels. It glows just as beautifully as those remembered trees from my childhood.
A pair of carved Santas stand sentry on my sideboard, made by my father who took up woodworking after retiring. It is a message to me that it’s never too late to learn something new.
Because I haven’t been shopping for new decor, I’ve been able to gently ease into the holidays while recalling fond memories of Christmases past. My house has never looked better, and I’ve realized now, more than ever, that my family has been so blessed.
A couple of months ago I did a post about my friend Joanna Siebert, and her daughter, Joanna Campbell. This delightful mother-daughter team had published a book, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food. I had the pleasure of attending their book signing in Little Rock in October and meeting Joanna, the daughter. (I already knew Joanna the mother.)
Yesterday I asked Joanna S. for permission to reprint one of the stories from their book. I hope you enjoy “Christmas Eve Chocolate Communion” as much as I did. Joanna S. will be reading it on the local (Little Rock) NPR station at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve. I’d love to hear it in her voice, but I’ll be in Denver. ENJOY, everyone!
Christmas Eve Chocolate Communion
By Joanna Seibert
The bare-footed tiny angels with their silver tinseled halos and shiny white gowns have all fluttered and twirled up and down St. Luke’s Episcopal Church aisles as “This is My Dancing Day” is played on the harp. As the Christmas Eve pageant progresses, theyoungest angels add in an extra two step dance back and forth between the steps to the altar where baby Jesus is resting and their parents’ pews. Next appear brown robed little shepherd boys processing down the center aisle to see the baby Jesus. The clank, clank of their shepherds’ staffs that look more like adult walking canes are almost in rhythm with the violinist playing “What Child Is This?” No live baby Jesus this year, just a doll, actually as our administrator named her, “Scary Doll.” Her mouth is wide open like a bird, and she is obviously a blue eyed girl doll well wrapped and lying in the traditional manger that has been used in so many other Christmas pageants before, by history, fifty-seven counting this year. Teenaged Mary and Joseph try to comfort and quiet the shepherds and angels as the story of Jesus’ nativity is read by older youth dressed in white choir robes. I-phones, flash photography, videos are in abundance as proud parents and grandparents search for their special shepherds and angels.
Max sweetly sings unaccompanied the last verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” as the pageant ends, and our rector goes and sits with the children on the chancel steps. He pulls out a tray of chocolate pieces. He passes the tray around and asks each child, “What does the chocolate candy look like?”
“Square, dark brown, “ words are heard.
“Does anyone know where chocolate comes from?”
“The candy store,” is the best answer.
Carey then tells them that the rough leathery rinds of the tropically grown cocoa beans are removed, and the beans are then fermented, roasted and ground until they liquefy into what is called cocoa butter and cocoa solid. He then reads the long list of ingredients in the Christmas candy written in small print on the bottom of the chocolate bar’s gold tin container, “sugar, milk cocoa butter, chocolate, soy lecithin, vanillin, and artificial flavor.” He asks, “Do any of you know what chocolate is like by learning about its ingredients, what stuff is in it, where it came from, or where it was made?” Heads nod “No”. “Yes, only by experiencing chocolate, by eating it, do we know what chocolate really is. ”All of the children eagerly agree with him, and each then receives a generous piece of dark imported chocolate. I hear several “Yumms” and “more”. Carey then asks the children, “Is eating rich chocolate similar to the story of Jesus’ being born into the world? We can learn about God in books, in pictures, in writings, even hear about God from other people, but only when we experience God ourselves, do we really know God.”
I look into the children’s faces and see that the children truly do understand what he is saying, because God is there with them, in them. He’s in their eyes, and he’s in their smiles. And as I look around at the rest of the congregation I see that, indeed, he is there in all of us.
Christmas is God’s offer to each of us to experience in the flesh and taste and see that God is good.
I’ve never tried to write a Christmas story. Unless you count the children’s plays I wrote for our church many years ago. Maybe it’s because my memories of Christmas Past aren’t really all that interesting—neither poignant nor humorous. I suppose I could write fictional Christmas stories, but I’ve just never been drawn to do so. Instead I enjoy reading Christmas stories in journals and magazines. Good ones, that is.
Like this one in Sunday’s Parade: “The Best Christmas Ever” by Connie Schultz. As I read it I found myself thinking, “That could be ME!” I’m sure many women of my generation had the same response, which is part of what makes this such a great essay—its universal appeal.
“Christmas Giving” in Country Magazine (online) reminds us all of the big impact small gifts can make—during the Depression or any time.
Christmas Magazine (also online) has lots of famous but also lesser-known Christmas stories. A couple of my favorites are: “A Halfway Decent Thank-You Note” by Tom Panarese. And there are famous (fictional) stories here, like “The Fir Tree” by Hans Christian Anderson, if you’re looking for something to read to your children.
And Southern authors Pat Conroy and Rick Bragg both have pieces in the December issue of Southern Living.
Yesterday I was in Oxford (Mississippi) with my friend Daphne. We enjoyed lunch at Ajax, shopping on the square, hanging out in Square Books, and ending the day at the upstairs bar at City Grocery where you’ll always find writers or interesting locals. Somewhere during our day I picked up a copy of Desoto Magazine, which is edited by my friend Karen Ott Mayer. Amongst its local and regional treasures was an article about a book illustrated by Wyatt Waters and edited by Judy Tucker and Charline McCord. Christmas Stories from Mississippi was published by the University of Mississippi Press in 2001, but somehow I missed this collection of 17 essays and stories by such authors as Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Ellen Gilchrist, Elizabeth Spencer, Carolyn Haines and others.
So maybe I’ll try my hand at writing a Christmas essay or story some day. If you’re interested in combining writing with arts and crafts—or if you think your children might be—try these “Christmas Story Starters.” I found them at a creative blog called “Imagination Soup,” through this image on Pinterest.
Meanwhile I’m enjoying the Christmas stories that sometimes come inside Christmas cards in the form of family “Christmas letters” and the ones I discover in the season’s flurry of magazines. Don’t let the holidays go by without reading (or writing) a good tale!
Continuing my series on Christmas traditions, I found this wonderful blog post by Paul Smith, “Why decorate the Christmas Tree?” One of the stories Smith shares is about Saint Boniface of Germany. Here’s an icon of the saint.
The story goes that Boniface was telling the pagan German people about Christianity in the 8th century, and to prove their gods weren’t real, he cut down a huge oak tree they held sacred, daring their gods to strike him dead. They laughed at him because he only had a small ax and the tree was tremendous, but a strong wind assisted him and it fell easily. Many who saw this converted to Christianity.
To show that trees aren’t evil—we’re just not supposed to worship them—Boniface began the tradition of decorating fir trees to celebrate the birth of Christ. As an interesting coincidence, the song, “O Tannenbaum” or “O Christmas Tree,” is a German Christmas song.
Whatever you believe about its origin, many people do put up Christmas trees in their homes. Growing up we always had a live tree in our den. I loved the smell of its branches and the joy of hanging all the special ornaments on it. Every year my mother would put new ornaments on some of the gifts for my brother and me, and we’d add these to the tree. This is Mike and me in 1963, when I was 12 and Mike was 14.
I continued the tradition with my own children, and when they grew up and left home I gave them the ornaments from their childhood, which I saved in shoe boxes. Now I’m giving a new ornament to each grandchild every Christmas.
In our living room we also put up a (fake) white feathery tree that showed through our front picture window. This picture of our family sitting under that tree in 1959 is one of my favorites. My mother was 31 and my dad was only 29. Mike was 10 and I was 8. This was our “dressy” tree, not the one we put presents under. I think this was a fairly common thing in our neighborhood in the ‘50s.
And now we live right in front of “Christmas Tree Park” in a neighborhood where lots of folks put up pretty elaborate outdoor decorations. And I enjoy those bunches, but I also love seeing a real tree twinkling through the windows from inside some of our neighbor’s houses.
We’re not putting one up this year because we’ll be in Denver for Christmas. Well, unless you count this tiny rattan tree I got at Target and put in the corner so we’d have something to put a few gifts under. And you know what? I’m counting it. Yep. This is our tree.
I’d love to hear about YOUR family’s Christmas tree traditions. Please leave a comment here or on Facebook. Thanks! And watch for a guest post to end this series next Monday, December 22.
(I’m posting late on Thursday night because I’m leaving early on Friday morning to visit my mother in the nursing home in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m taking her Christmas gifts: warm booties, a soft infinity scarf, and a jingle bell bracelet and necklace. Preparing for the visit fed my thoughts as I penned this post.)
The first time I heard the expression, “bright sadness,” it was used by the Orthodox priest, Father Alexander Schmemann, to describe the spiritual atmosphere attending the Lenten Season. This week I found it between the pages of Father Richard Rohr’s wonderful book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (which I introduced in a post just over a month ago, here.) Waiting for an hour in a physician’s office afforded me some good middle-of-the-day reading time. The book is a treasure on many levels—psychologically, spiritually, culturally, socially. There’s much I’d love to comment on from Father Rohr’s writing, but today’s post focuses primarily on Chapter 10, which he titled “A Bright Sadness.”
As a general introduction to the book’s premise, I’ll tell you that Rohr discusses the two halves of life and how we can best prepare ourselves to move from one to the next with the greatest benefit to ourselves and others. In his Introduction he says:
There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.
I should be finished building my container by now, but my first-half-of-life journey derailed several times and I’m still working on it. But I’m beginning to move on to the inner journey of finding the treasures with which to fill the container. Part of the work of moving on includes both transcending but also including everything from the first half. That takes moral courage, forgiveness (of self and others) and faith. This is where the bright sadness comes in.
As Rohr says:
There is a gravitas in the second half of life, but it is now held up by a much deeper lightness, or ‘okayness.’ Our mature years are characterized by a kind of bright sadness and a sober happiness, if that makes any sense…. There is still darkness in the second half of life—in fact maybe even more. But there is now a changed capacity to hold it creatively and with less anxiety.
Learning to hold the darkness creatively is something I’ve been working on for awhile now, and it fascinated me to read Rohr’s take on this task. And his reflection (as a Franciscan priest) on my faith tradition’s approach:
Eastern Orthodoxy believed that if something was authentic religious art, it would always have a bright sadness to it. I think I agree with them, and am saying the same of life itself.
As I wrote in this article on iconography (published in First Things in 2007):
Icons have a quality that Constantine Cavarnos called hieraticalness or spiritual solemnity. The expressions on the faces of the saints depicted in the icons often reflect the gravity of mankind’s circumstances. As Frederica Mathewes-Green says: ‘No wonder an icon looks so serious. Our condition is serious.’
So what’s the “bright” side of this bright sadness in the second half of life? Again from Rohr:
Life is much more spacious now, the boundaries of the container having been enlarged by the constant addition of new experiences and relationships…. In the second half of life, it is good just to be a part of the general dance…. The brightness comes from within now, and it is usually more than enough. The dance has a seriousness to it, but also an unself-conscious freedom of form that makes it bright and shining.
I want to become bright and shining, like my friend Urania (who died in 2008) and my friend Sally who lives across the street from me. I know that both of these women embraced darkness (in their similar but different ways) in their lives, and became true elders, which should be the goal of each of us as we make our way into and through this second half of life. I watched Urania shine brighter as she approached her death.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the rest of my life. What if I live another twenty years? Will my health hold up long enough for me to enjoy my grandchildren’s active lives if my husband and I retire to Denver? Will I end up in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s like my mother and her mother? How long do I have?
I was watching an HBO special about Susan Sontag the other day in which she talked about how much she loves life and treasures each moment. It reminded me that I was letting my anxiety about the future steal my joy for the present. My life is good. I survived a life-threatening car wreck and am able to do many things I thought I might never be able to do again. I’ve been married to a wonderful man for almost 45 years. We have a lovely home in a beautiful neighborhood where we are growing closer to a special community of people we really love. Our children and grandchildren are living healthy, productive lives. Part of embracing the bright sadness, according to Rohr, is to love what you have. Today I love everything that I have. My container seems just about ready to begin filling with the content it needs to help me shine. As Thomas Merton says (quoted in Rohr’s book):
… no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there…. We are now invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.
I spent a few hours last night with some of the smartest writers I know. We meet regularly to critique each other’s manuscripts. Sometimes it’s a complete essay or short story. Sometimes it’s a chapter or two of a book. Always the writing knocks my socks off. I am honored to be in the company of these men and women. To be called a peer.
Because that’s really what we’re doing when we critique manuscripts written by our fellow writers—it’s peer review. Maybe it’s not scientific like the many articles my husband (a physician) reviews for various medical journals. But the same or similar process applies to reviewing literary work before its publication.
Wikipedia says this about peer review:
Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people of similar competence to the producers of the work (peers). It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards of quality, improve performance, and provide credibility…. Peer review can be categorized by the type of activity and by the field or profession in which the activity occurs….
So, when did this get started? Again, according to WIKI:
The first peer-reviewed publication might have been the Medical Essays and Observations published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1731. The present-day peer-review system evolved from this 18th-century process.
It might have started in the medical profession, but in today’s ever-evolving world of literary publication, readers are still as important to the process as editors, agents, and publishers. Sometimes called “early readers” or “beta readers,” our job is to help the writer make the manuscript the best it can be before she submits it for publication.
The literary agent who has shown interest in my novel has several “readers” on her staff. Small presses and university presses often enlist the help of outside readers. I was recently asked to review a memoir for a university press. My first reaction was, “but I’m too busy doing my own work.” About one second later I realized how selfish that sounded. I remembered that others had taken time to read and review my essays before they were published in several anthologies. I pictured my (very busy) husband laboring over articles written by his peers. Peer review. It’s just part of what we do.
Trial by jury is a form of peer review. A few years ago I was called up for jury duty. Again, my first reaction was selfish—why should I give up my precious time for that? And then I thought about the jury I would want—a jury of my peers. Not a jury of folks who had nothing better to do. I would want people who are intelligent and live active, productive lives. Who are well read, sensitive, and compassionate. These are the same qualities I hope for in the people who read and review my writing. These are the qualities I strive for in myself as I accept the honor and privilege of reviewing the work of my fellow writers.