Making Up For Our Years Without Christmas

10885594_685613064885216_9056017391288911443_nFor the first seven or so years of our marriage, my husband and I did not celebrate Christmas. As I write these words, I’m surprised that we rejected such an enduring tradition from our lives for so long. We were part of a cult-like group that didn’t believe in Christmas. We interpreted a scripture verse to mean don’t celebrate any holidays:

“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord, and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it.”—Romans 14:5-6 (Orthodox Study Bible)

We weren’t the first people to reject the celebration of Christmas—the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been doing it for many years. But most of the folks in our little group were raised in Christian families and churches in the South, and it was difficult for our families when we chose not to participate. I can still remember how much it hurt to tell our parents that we wouldn’t be giving them gifts and that we ask that they not give us gifts. For so many years our home was not aglow with Christmas lights and enriched with the aroma of pine needles from Christmas trees. A few Christmas cards did arrive in our mailbox, but even those teetered off when we didn’t reply.

Christmas 1978. Jonathan was 16 months old. It was our first year to celebrate Christmas in the 8 years we had been married.

Christmas 1978. Jonathan was 16 months old. It was our first year to celebrate Christmas in the 8 years we had been married.

And then somehow—I can’t remember this part of the story—we changed our minds. I do remember when it happened, because our oldest child was just over a year old. Thankfully he didn’t have to endure years without Christmas, since he was only four months old during the first Christmas season of his life, when we still weren’t participating. I can still remember the joy I felt at seeing his joy—first at the Christmas tree in our home, and then at the gifts, and the sounds and smells of Christmas as we walked through stores and drove through neighborhoods to look at the outdoor Christmas lights.

Burke's 2I love going to stores that are decorated for Christmas. Especially the small stores, like Burke’s Books, where the window decorations are always so creative. As I left with my bundle of books to give as Christmas gifts, I paused in front of the store and sang (yes—and I didn’t care if anyone walked by and heard me) a few verses of “Silver Bells”—especially the part that says, “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style . . . . As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.”

Yes, the music! I had missed singing Christmas carols—and actually I still miss this, since traditional American Christmas music isn’t sung in the Orthodox Church. It’s not that we’re against it—it’s just that those carols aren’t liturgical, and so they aren’t part of our worship. Some of our parishioners do go as a group to sing carols at a local nursing home every year, and some traditional Christmas carols are sung in our church’s annual children’s Christmas play. But being part of the Orthodox Church is still a bit “foreign” to one born and raised in Mississippi, and living for the past thirty years in Memphis. Some Orthodox traditions run counter to our culture.

Like the Nativity fast, which lasts from November 15 until Christmas. This period is similar to the forty days of Lent that lead up to Pascha, the Orthodox celebration of Easter, only a little less strict. We fast from meat, dairy, and even fish and wine on many days. What’s hard about this—especially as compared with the season of Great Lent—is that the rest of our culture is celebrating with delicious food and drink during this time. Everyone else is partying before Christmas (my husband and I are invited to three Christmas parties this year, and look forward to all of them), whereas our church encourages us to begin the celebrations on Christmas, with emphasis on the “twelve days of Christmas” that start with Christmas, rather than ending with it.

I find some of our traditions distract from the season. Like when we celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. We have Vespers, then our teens put on a play about the real Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Parishioners bring toys, which our church gives to a local Christmas “store” for parents who can’t afford to buy gifts for their children. And we share refreshments—candies and cookies that contain no milk, eggs, or cheese. No hot chocolate. No egg nog. These must wait until Christmas Day and after. So it always feels to me a bit like a semi-feast.

Christmas cardsI don’t mean to sound like Scrooge, but I obviously struggle with some of the traditions of my Church. Especially when they seem to tamp down the joy and excitement that I missed during those years when we rejected Christmas altogether. This year I’m trying to be positive and focus on giving to others, prayer, and taking time for silence and inner peace. One way I’m doing that is by incorporating prayer into one of my favorite traditions—writing, addressing, and mailing Christmas cards. As I address each card and write a short note inside, I say a prayer for the person or people who will be receiving the card. Since I send out over 100 cards, this is an opportunity for quite a bit of prayer. And just for fun, last night I counted up the states where our Christmas card recipients live, and found there are 22. It’s fun to think of those friends and family who live everywhere from Florida to the state of Washington, and from southern California to Maine, all receiving our cards, and our prayers.

‘Tis the season, y’all.

Bright Ideas and Inspirational Quotes

Beth, Gabby and Susu brave the snow blizzard at the Denver Zoo! (Pops took the picture, and Kevin took 2-year-old Izzy back to the car early.... it was freezing!)

Beth, Gabby and Susu brave the snow blizzard at the Denver Zoo! (Pops took the picture, and Kevin took 2-year-old Izzy back to the car early…. it was freezing!)

Happy 4th Day of Christmas! We got home from Denver last night, after spending five wonderful days with two of our “kids” and all four granddaughters, and the magic of a white Christmas. Being a city girl, it’s always fun for me to see the wildlife near our children’s homes… this time two coyotes and several rabbits. Our days were spent playing games (7 different games with the girls!), watching football, eating (of course!) and catching up on the lives of our kids who live so far away. Every day was special, but a couple of special memories are the night we went to Zoo Lights with our daughter and her family… only to encounter a blizzard as we tried to walk through the beautiful sights!

Guinea Pig Nativity bookAnother special memory was reading A Guinea Pig Nativity with our son’s daughters, and then playing with their Guinea pigs, Snowy, Noah, and Luke. (This is a wonderful little book, even if your kids or grands don’t have Guinea pigs!) Here’s a hilarious You-Tube video of a live Guinea Pig Nativity play!

Snowy and Luke

Snowy and Luke

 

 

 

Pops getting ready to read A Guinea Pig Nativity to Grace and Anna

Pops getting ready to read A Guinea Pig Nativity to Grace and Anna

 

 

My first gift from Jared!

My first gift from Jared!

Oh, and exchanging gifts. I love presents… to give them and to receive them. And to watch our granddaughters spend hours enjoying their new toys and games.

I was blessed to receive several really special things this year, including earrings from Jared, personalized stationery, personalized traveling jewelry case, Echo Dot for my office (we also have them in our bedroom and den), individual fondue mugs (I love chocolate fondue!), and more.

3 gifts

 

My daughter and daughter-in-law both know how much I love quotes. Beth (my daughter) gave me this wonderful book, A Woman’s Book of Inspiration: Quotes of Wisdom and Strength, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi.

Work Hard

 

 

My daughter-in-law See gave me this little “Bright Ideas” set with a wooden stand and a collection of quotes you can change out on the stand. So I’m going to post some of the quotes they sent me from time to time here on my blog. Starting with today.

From “Bright Ideas”:

work hard.

stay humble.

From A Woman’s Book of Inspiration:

Everyone has inside of her a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is! – Anne Frank

I chose these quotes to share today because as I approach the beginning of a new year, I move forward with thankfulness for the good things that happened in 2017 but also with an eagerness to begin something new… a new book, or two! And also to learn to love more, as Anne Frank said. And as Tim McGraw sings:

When those dreams you’re dreamin’ come to you
When the work you put in is realized
Let yourself feel the pride but
Always stay humble and kind

Thanks, always, for reading (even when I’m gone for a week during the holidays!) and remember that I love to hear from you, here or on Facebook or Twitter.

Christmas Day at Beth Cushman Davis and Kevin Davis's lovely new home, with their family and Jason and See Cushman and family.

Christmas Day at Beth Cushman Davis and Kevin Davis’s lovely new home, with their family and Jason and See Cushman and family.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

We’re off to Denver to spend Christmas with two of our three kids and their families (which includes our four granddaughters!) so no time to write a blog post this morning. I’ll just send our Christmas card to all of my readers, and thank you so much for reading, for commenting, for friending me on Facebook and following me on Twitter. I’ll be back next week!

I’d like to mention that it’s also been a banner year for William Cushman, who, among other honors, received the 2017 Inter-American Society of Hypertension Lifetime Achievement Award, in recognition of scientific contributions that have substantially influenced the field of hypertension across the American continents. He received the award at the group’s meeting in April in Argentina. His achievements were too many to mention on our Christmas card, but I’m so proud of him. You can read more here.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

 

Christmas Card 2017

Christmas card BACK 2017

Christmas Stories Revisited

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Me on our spinning wheel with my Chatty Cathy doll, circa 1961.

Three years ago I did a post about Christmas stories, which has links to several entertaining stories and essays. Today I’d like to share a wonderful story you can LISTEN TO HERE from a friend and writer who lives in Alabama, Kerry Madden. “Santa Secrets” is funny but also poignant. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Also Harrison Scott Key’s wonderful story, “The Christmas I Don’t Remember,” published in Savannah Magazine. (Key has an essay in the anthology I edited, Southern Writers on Writing, coming from University Press of Mississippi in May of 2018.)

I think one reason I’ve never written any Christmas stories about my own childhood is because my experiences weren’t all that interesting or unusual or humorous. They weren’t even full of drama, which is kind of amazing, since there was lots of drama in my family throughout the rest of the year. It was as though everyone was their best self for Christmas—I don’t even remember fighting with my brother Mike at Christmas. Here are my favorite memories:

Both my grandmothers (who lost their husbands at a young age) spent Christmas with us. “Mamaw” lived in Meridian, Mississippi, and we were in Jackson, so she would come over and spend a few days with us. “Mama Mary” lived in town, so she would come over on Christmas morning. Having both of them with us made Christmas extra special. I’m remembering them being with us during the 1950s and 1960s especially. (Mama Mary actually lived with us for a few years in the late 1950s.)

My Aunt Barbara Jo and Uncle Dan and their kids, my first cousins Tommy and Amanda, were also a big part of my memories. We did Thanksgiving at their house for many years, but we also visited them at Christmas time (and they were often at our house) where my favorite memory is my Uncle Dan and my father singing “O Holy Night.” Uncle Dan sang tenor in his church choir and Daddy was a baritone. Last night as I watched Brooke Simpson, one of the contestants in the finale on “The Voice,” sing “O Holy Night,” it brought back the memory… and tears to my eyes.

We did Santa Clause until my brother and I were around 7 or 8, I think… and I remember running into the living room to see the (unwrapped) gifts under the tree from Santa. Most of the smaller, wrapped gifts from our parents and others were clothes or small games. But Santa brought things like bicycles, life-size dolls, piano keyboards, and sports equipment. A favorite gift was this whirly-gig thing you sat in, tucked your feet under the seat, and spun around and around like a hamster. The picture at the top of the post is me sitting on it, holding my Chatty Cathy doll, around 1961 or 1962. Of course Mike got bored with it eventually. One day he decided he could make it spin faster if he took a running leap into it, and he missed the seat and cracked his two upper front teeth on the floor. Another time he took it off its frame and road it down the street and crashed at the bottom of the hill. I’m sure the toy wouldn’t pass today’s safety requirements, but we loved it.

Our kids with Omagle car 1985

Our kids with Omagle car 1985

If the spinning-wheel toy (can’t remember what it was called) was the favorite toy of my brother and me, I think that Omagles were probably the favorite childhood toy of our three children. They were giant plastic building pieces and wheels. Our kids made forts and stores and tents, and even this go-cart, which they could ride in. Hours of fun before they had computers and iPads and cell phones. Even before our first video game, Atari. And now Omagles are back! There’s an Omagles Facebook page, and you can buy them from Amazon!

When I got married and we began to celebrate Christmas in our own home, especially once our three kids arrived, we started new traditions. One was hiding the Christmas pickle ornament in the tree after the kids went to bed on Christmas eve. They would come running in to find the pickle, and the finder got an extra gift. We continued this tradition even through their young adult years in college, and we’ve given pickle ornaments to our married kids, hoping they will continue the tradition with their own kids.

Susan Bill Xmas Mag Cover

 

Those are just a few memories. I’d love to hear some of yours… please share them in a comment here or on Facebook!

Happy Holidays!

 

’Tis the Season, Y’all!

Johnsons Christmas 1959We just watched three Christmas specials on TV this week, which always adds to my nostalgia for Christmas past. Growing up in a “dysfunctional” (I’m tired of that word, but it fits) family, I always loved holidays. My mother made each of them special—Christmas, Easter, even Halloween and Valentine’s Day. She would decorate the house and cook special treats and for a few days during each holiday season, all would feel right with the world. Even with our family. I know I’ve posted this before, but here’s my favorite Christmas photo—Christmas eve in Jackson, Mississippi, around 1959. I think we had been to church (or maybe Mom and Dad had been to a Christmas eve party?) and everyone but Mom had already changed into our jammies. Today is my brother Mike’s birthday. He died in 2007 (ten years ago, wow) when he was only 58. Memory eternal, Mike!

gift wrap 4A favorite Christmas memory for me is wrapping gifts. Mother would set up a gift-wrapping station—usually a long table—with lots of wonderful paper and ribbon and special crafty items. After watching her work her magic for several years, I was finally given the reins and allowed to wrap all the presents for our family (except for mine, of course). I would play Christmas music on the stereo and make a cup of hot chocolate and immerse myself in the world of gift-wrapping.

gift wrap 1That’s what I’ve been doing this week. My creations aren’t as fancy as the ones Mom and I used to make, mainly because I have to mail most of them and big bows don’t survive shipping very well. But I still love choosing paper and ribbons every year—this year I’m into red, black, and white, with lots of reindeer and Santas. And beyond the joy of doing something creative, I love imagining each friend or child or grandchild or Godchild opening their gifts, and it fills me with joy.

xmas cardsYesterday I mailed 8 Christmas gifts to 6 different states. I also mailed 100 Christmas cards—another tradition I treasure. I often address and stamp my cards while watching those Christmas specials on TV, chasing that elusive Christmas atmosphere I am craving. We’ve been empty-nesters for sixteen years (hard to believe our youngest turned 35 yesterday!) and it seems I have to work harder to create that festive spirit without children in the house.

The granddaughters always get books, in addition to a special toy and Christmas jammies.

The granddaughters always get books, in addition to a special toy and Christmas jammies.

And speaking of atmosphere, although I do most of my Christmas shopping online, I do enjoy being in stores at this time of the year—especially festive ones like Pier 1 and Macy’s. I participated whole-heartedly in Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, ignoring the nay-sayers on Facebook who feel that these events tend to overly commercialize Christmas. I think they just make shopping more fun! I’ve only got two more people to shop for, and several more packages to mail before our annual trip to Denver to spend Christmas (hopefully a white one!) with two of our kids and our four granddaughters.

gift wrap 2

 

If it seems that I’m finishing up “early,” that’s intentional. Shipping gets more expensive (and the lines are longer) closer to Christmas. Also, I’ve got six book signings for Cherry Bomb this month (one in Memphis and five in different cities and towns in Mississippi) so I’m pacing myself. Tomorrow I’m off to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to sign books at Books-a-Million, something I’ve never done. Afterwards, I’ll drive to Jackson to spend the night with friends who are hosting a literary salon for me Saturday night. I’ll drive home Sunday in time for a friend’s book reading at Novel in Memphis, and for our neighborhood’s annual Christmas parade and tree-lighting, which happens right in front of our house, which faces “Christmas Tree Park” in Harbor Town. Enjoy the pictures from the park, our house, and a couple of neighbors’ homes at the end of this post.

’Tis the season, y’all! I hope you are enjoying it! Stay tuned for posts of a more spiritual nature, as I write about our church’s annual St. Nicholas play, toys for the MIFA (Memphis Inter Faith Association) Christmas store, and Christmas caroling at a local nursing home.

our tree

our angel

Christmas Tree Park

Martinez house

Walker house

Flight, Qwirkle, Hot Fudge Pie, and the Egg Bowl

Our kids aren’t visiting for Thanksgiving this year so we’re going to have a non-traditional celebration. We’re going out for lunch with friends who are also without their kids this year… to one of my favorite restaurants in Memphis—FLIGHT. It’s downtown, about 5 minutes from our house, has valet parking, wonderful atmosphere, and delicious food. Afterwards the four of us will come back to our house for my homemade hot fudge pie with ice cream, and play Qwirkle. (Great fun—if you haven’t played it, add it to your Christmas gift list!)

Flight_Home_Hero

 

Ole Miss(2)We’ll spend the remains of the day watching the “Egg Bowl” on TV. Go, Landsharks!

I just read through my Thanksgiving posts from the past few years, and also reminisced about my favorite Thanksgivings at my Aunt Barbara Jo and Uncle Dan’s home in Jackson, Mississippi. Barbara Jo’s famous cornbread dressing recipe is in one of the posts from 2014, below.

Thanksgiving and Gluttony (2016)

Dealing With a Weight-Loss Plateau (2015)

The Best Thanksgiving Ever! (2014)

The Best Cornbread Dressing Ever! (2014)

Skipping Thanksgiving (2013)

Thankful People (2011)

Grandchildren, Godchildren, and Thanksgiving (2010)

Thanksgiving (2009)

636468843640325496-112317-Ramsey-EggBowl

I’ll close with a few words about gratitude from a fellow Mississippi author:

“Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.” – William Faulkner

The Saint Nicholas Day Snow

St Nick Day Snow coverThe talented children’s author Charlotte Riggle has done it again. With help from the gifted illustrator, R. J. Hughes, “Charli” has given us a colorful, poignant look at a beloved historic figure through the eyes of two families who celebrate his life in The Saint Nicholas Day Snow (Phoenix Flair Press, October 27, 2017). The story does have an Orthodox Christian setting (and characters) but it will capture readers of all religious and cultural backgrounds. Anyone who loves Christmas and tradition and children and story.

Charlotte Riggle, author

Charlotte Riggle, author

Although Charli no longer lives in the South, she was born in Oxford, Mississippi. Her mom used to go horseback riding with William Faulkner’s daughter. Her grandfather was the dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi. She’s currently living in the Pacific Northwest, between Seattle and Mount Rainier. We met through Saint John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, where she was a member for many years before moving to the Seattle area. My husband and I are Godparents to her youngest child, and I’ve been blessed to be her friend for about twenty-five years.

When Charli’s first book, Catherine’s Pascha, came out in 2015, I knew she had found her niche. Not that this is the only niche available to her. Charli is a brilliant and gifted technical writer and is knowledgeable in many fields. It takes that kind of genius to write a good children’s book. Genius coupled with an intense love for people—especially children, and even more especially children with special needs and disabilities.

If you’d like to hear more from Charli about this project, read her blog post, “Why I Wrote the Saint Nicholas Day Snow.”

The Saint Nicholas Day Snow will make a terrific Christmas gift for your children, grandchildren, Godchildren, nieces, nephews, and neighbor kids. Read a description and order the book here or from Amazon.

The Great Blessing of the Waters—the Mississippi River!

Coptic icon of Christ's baptism... the Feast of Theophany

Coptic icon of Christ’s baptism… the Feast of Theophany

Today is the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church. Historically it’s been as big a feast as Christmas, with several services on the calendar to celebrate it. Yesterday morning we had the “Royal Hours,” and last night the “First Blessing of the Water” and Divine Liturgy. This morning at 9 we’ll have the “Second Blessing of the Water” and another Divine Liturgy. The water blessed at these services is used throughout the year in various ways—priests use it for house blessings, to bless icons, crosses, waters for baptisms, etc. Parishioners take some of the Holy Water home with us for use in our personal prayers and when we are sick.

 

Blessing Waters in Russia

Blessing Waters in Russia

This year our parish—Saint John (Antiochian) is joining up with priests and parishioners from Annunciation (Greek) and Saint Seraphim (OCA—Orthodox Church in America) parishes for a “Great Blessing of the Waters” down at the Mississippi River. We’ll gather at noon on Saturday, just a few blocks from my house, where prayers will be said and a cross will be tossed into the river. In warmer climates—especially in Greece—young men and boys actually dive into the waters to retrieve the cross. Brrrrrr! (I think our pastor is tying a rope to the cross and pulling it back out.)

 

Great Blessing of Waters by Boris Kustodiev

Great Blessing of Waters by Boris Kustodiev

It’s interesting that this first year that we are keeping this tradition is the coldest weather we’ve had this winter—it’s SNOWING In Memphis today! But our pastor, Father Phillip Rogers, noted in an email to the parish that it’s not as cold as it often is in Russia (see photo and painting).

 

Now that the twelve days of Christmas are over and we are moving into a new season of the Church—and very soon a new “season” for our country—I pray for God’s blessings and for peace in our hearts and in our homes.

 Blessed Feast!

 

The Making of a Book

bk_brown_binding2_lgHappy New Year! For my first blog post of the year, I’m simply going to share an amazing video. Grab a cup of coffee and WATCH THIS to see how books are made by hand, the old-fashioned way.

 

 

 

p12-130613-a2And on this 9th day of Christmas, I offer you 9 ladies dancing. In church lore, they represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continency [Chastity].

Cheers!

On the Fourth Day of Christmas…

four-gospels… my true love gave to me: four calling birds! In the Church’s tradition, those birds represent the four gospel writers—the holy apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (seen in these icons). They are “calling” to the world to hear the message of Christ’s incarnation.

So how am I celebrating the fourth day of Christmas? We just got home last night from spending a wonderful Christmas in Denver with two of our kids and all four of our grandchildren. So we are tired but happy. Of course I’m unpacking, doing laundry, and grocery shopping today (and starting back on exercising on the elliptical)… but it’s also a day for Christmas cardsopening more Christmas cards and reading through so many wonderful Christmas letters from friends and family near and far. Sending Christmas cards is one of my favorite traditions, and receiving them is such a treat.

This year I didn’t come up with a creative way to display them, so I just spread them out on our dining room table as they arrived. This morning I captured them in photos, then I took down last year’s photo cards from the bulletin board in the kitchen and replaced them with this year’s. Well, some of them. (They don’t all fit!)

It was fun to group some of them:

children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews, great nieces, and great nephews

children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews, great nieces, and great nephews

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cards with original artwork (children and adults)

Cards with original artwork (children and adults)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

spiritual/religious cards

spiritual/religious cards

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

kitchen bulletin board (with some of our 2016 photo cards) will stay up until next year's cards arrive!

kitchen bulletin board (with some of our 2016 photo cards) will stay up until next year’s cards arrive!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks so much to everyone who was thoughtful enough to send us a card and/or a Christmas letter this year. I hope you are enjoying this tradition as much as we are!

© Copyright SusanCushman.com