Archive for the ‘Christmas memories’ Category

Our pastor’s devotional message for Christmas Eve was rich with ideas to ponder.  He unwrapped (literally and figuratively) the three gifts of God given us in Christ’s birth, using Luke 2:1-20 as his text.

“For unto you is born this day a Savior…”

The first gift God gave was Salvation. We need to be saved FROM our sins (as a drowning man in rough seas must first be pulled from the water);  we are saved TO a faith community and a relationship with God (as the drowning man is hauled into a lifeboat); we are saved FOR a walk in new life and new purpose (as the man is returned to the safety of dry land).   Forgiveness, repentance and recompense.  If we refuse to forgive a repentant brother in Christ, are we saying that Christ’s death was not sufficient for the task? If God forgives, can we refuse to ?

…”Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.”  

The second gift God gave was Peace.  Peace in this world doesn’t mean the absence of conflict, but the presence of the Savior in the midst of conflict. We will never have true peace among all men on this earth until the Lord’s return, but in the meantime all His children can experience His peace which is beyond human reason and comprehension, because we have His presence with us, living in us.

The third gift of God that night was Hope. While Salvation speaks to what is past, and Peace allows us to live in this present life, Hope looks forward to that blessed day when we shall be with God in glory. Death will be swallowed up in life, every tear will be wiped away. Do you know this verse of “Joy to the World”?

No more let sin or sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground!

He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found…

Far as the curse is found… Far as, far as the curse is found.

May your Christmas be rich with the gifts of Salvation, Peace and Hope.

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The last time I saw The Nutcracker was December of 2007.  I was delighted with the production, and it unexpectedly brought back memories, which I blogged about at the time.  Here’s what I wrote:

…I recollected a part of myself yesterday afternoon, while sitting in a darkened theater watching a splendid production of the ballet, The Nutcracker.  An especially lovely segment screamed for applause, and I began it…and there she was.  Right beside me, grinning with delight at the magic of the performance and with satisfaction at being “old trigger wrist”–her cupped hands like gunshots echoing.  Mom. Except of course she wasn’t there, couldn’t be there.   (more…)

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It doesn’t matter

if the snow was falling

fierce or lazily or not at all.

The sinless Son of God

was bright enough without that pall.

The world, cold, dark and rough

at heart,

whether encased in ice

or just crouched low and acting tough

under its crust of piety—this world

was due to be


by the pure white heart of love.

May you be dazzled by God’s love throughout the coming year.

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from Advent Longings, copyright 1997.

“Soon–please, Father, soon,” she pants, shifting her weight on the blanket-draped straw, trying to outwait the pains. This wave over, she lies back, her breathing heavier now than the beasts’, hulking in the gloomy corners.

At least it’s quiet here, she thinks, grateful for relief from the bustling, crowded street…the noise has faded with the end of day, and is more muffled here through the sturdy stable walls. Joseph did his best, gathering blankets, linens, a clay lamp and oil–though it cost them all the little store of coin they had. A servant kindly brought them bread and wine. It will be their last meal before…he comes.  Bread stays their hunger, and wine dims her pain a bit, so she can sleep.

Waking as midnight deepens, far along in pressing, urgent pain, she stares up at the dusty beams.  The lamp’s weak glimmer throws up just enough pale rays to cast odd, wavering shadows, and to make the cattle monstrous.  Try as she might to make no sound, a groan escapes–Joseph wakes at once, attentive, though it isn’t nearly time yet.

Now, however, when she shuts her eyes she is aware of something that approaches–not a shape exactly…more a light.   It’s far away, but she can sense it speeding toward her, and her heartbeat quickens.  Gasping now, with single-minded focus she fixes her eyes on the lamp flame, waiting for what she knows will come.  Now, in the breathy stillness, when she groans again, it is as if the whole world groans with her in eagerness, waiting with her and working, leaning toward that long-awaited light.

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It happened again:  I went out on a limb (OK, a very small branch) and organized an ensemble to sing special Christmas music on a Sunday morning, and then the weather caused us to cancel church services.  that’s two years in a row now. I know I’m not really a choir director, but I’m hoping that this isn’t God’s veto of my efforts…

Have I made it clear that Christmas music is my all-time, lifelong favorite genre?  My CD collection and piano arrangement library will back me up.  I could listen to Christmas music for two days straight without any repeated discs.  So of course I have always loved singing in a Christmas choir.  I must have been in 6th grade the first year I was part of a choir that sang for Midnight Mass.  That became the norm till I went to college in Boston.  The Boston University Choral Union/Madrigal Singers also sang wonderful Christmas music.  Then after several wilderness years in Southern California (where no amount of tightly drawn drapes and frigid A/C could convince us that it was really December), we were back home again in Indiana, and singing at candlelight carol services on Christmas Eve.  Many seasons at church have included a large-scale concert, sometimes with drama.

It’s all wonderful: the music, the decorations, the colors.  And it’s all fraught with risk and tension:  will the weather cooperate? Is there any other time of year with a more unfortunate combination of mammoth expectations and potentially devastating disappointment?  Just this past week, ice storms have canceled not just our humble offering, but the huge Christmas concerts, cantatas and musicals of many large churches.  All that work, all those rehearsals, all that publicity…wasted.

It all makes me wonder whether we should scale back our expectations, our preparations…and perhaps give God more elbow room in which to work.  Ironically, of all the major concerts I can remember, whether as a participant or an observer, one stands out, and it is one of the humblest.

It was a year when our church was in transition, and we weren’t trying to do anything very ambitious.  A simple ceremony of lessons and carols was our goal.  Readers were stationed at various places in the sanctuary, on both the floor and balcony level.  The choir sang some carol arrangements, and the congregation sang others.  Toward the end of the hour, a good friend of mine, a teacher, stepped forward in the balcony to read Luke 2: 4-7.

So Joseph also went up from
the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of
David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and
she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and
placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

We’ve all read or heard that passage more times than we could count, right?  I know I have.  But even as I try to describe this scene for you, I’m getting choked up.  For whatever reason, at that moment the reality of bearing a child in a stable, wrapping him up and putting him in a feed trough became vivid for Portia.  We could hear it in her voice.  Those of us, like me, who were at the right angle, could look up into her face as the picture before her eyes moved her to unexpected tears.  …”no room for them in the inn” was spoken with such halting effort that it was barely audible.  But we all heard it.  We all “got” it.

The choir was supposed to sing then.  I think it was an acapella arrangment of “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”…I’m not certain.  But what I remember clearly, some fifteen years later, is that every singer–and the director–had such a lump in his  or her throat that we could scarcely sing.  The first verse was whispered through tears before we began to pull ourselves together.  It could have been goofy or embarrassing, but it wasn’t.  It felt holy.

Portia apologized later:  “I guess I was worshiping too much before I got up to read.”  Too much? Is that possible?   Even now I cannot read that verse without remembering that night.  I cannot read it without weeping.  No room for the Lord of Heaven…the Holy One asleep on the hay.

And yet these pictures are so commonplace now.  Our senses are saturated with manger scenes: wood, porcelain or plastic; oil and watercolors; greeting card, poster, coloring book; television, church service, movie theater.  We’ve seen it too often.  It doesn’t rock us as it ought to.  But once, for a moment, it took my friend’s breath away.  And God let us all share that moment.  It wasn’t big and dramatic and played before a packed house.  It was just a small evening church service in December.  I’m so glad we didn’t get snowed out that year.

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(adapted from Advent Longings, copyright 1997)

Listen to the voice of patience, the voice of God-fearing, God-trusting patience, through long dark years of waiting.  Listen to the voice of Simeon:

“They come and go.  From first light until last, from snuffing of the lamps to their rekindling–shuffling and shy or proud, pretentious folks–all of them come, and go.  They bring their offerings, or buy them here:  the lamb or kid or pair of turtledoves…they make confession, swear a vow, say a thanksgiving prayer–and then they’re gone, back into the world out there.

And with each footstep, I ask, ‘Is it now?  Could this one be the One You promised us?  He who will invest our coming and going with real meaning…Salvation and glory–not for the space of a day, or a year…not at the constant cost of bloody beasts…but everlasting Hope for our nation, and a light to lighten the whole world’s night!’

My corner seat is dark–my eyes, too weak to read, don’t need to see the scroll now anyway.  Your Word I’ve hidden in my heart, and I am sure, waiting and watching in these shadows, You will not let me sink into the greater darkness before I see the first rays of the dawn You’ve sworn will come…

Outside the dusk is thickening into night again–and so I light my candle, and I wait.”

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Our poor birch tree, 12-20-08

Our poor birch tree, 12-20-08

I’ve been wishing for time to continue my Christmas reminiscences, and at last the gifts, the cards, the baking and mailing and other duties are all complete.  I have the leisure to skate back down memory lane again.  In honor of our current ice storm, I’m returning to another memorable Christmastime storm, the first year we were married.

It is December of 1983 and I have just come through my next to last semester of finals at Boston University.  I’ve also just survived my first really serious bout of flu since I’ve been away from home.  Realization of adulthood has hit home in a new way: Mom isn’t here to take care of me when I’m sick.

This year our newelywed present to each other is a train trip to visit Dennis’ family.  We’ve splurged on a sleeper from Boston to Bryan, Ohio, where my brother-in-law will pick us up.  We leave on Christmas Eve and arrive Christmas morning.  Meanwhile, on Christmas Eve morning, both of us are still working: he’s selling smoking pipes and tobacco at Ehrlich’s, one of the oldest businesses in Boston; I’m in Revolutionary costume (kind of) at The Boston Tea Party Museum, a tour guide with no tourists today, not even the intrepid Japanese who dutifully get off  the bus, snap a picture with me and ask “Please…why called ‘tea party’?”

A rare snow is falling over the city, which I have swept off the gangplank leading to the museum, which is a barge moored in Boston harbor.  I’ve brewed some hot tea for the non-existent customers, and now I’m huddled in the gift shop with the clerk.  I’m sitting on a tall stool reading Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend–both for pleasure and to get ahead for my lit class next semester.  Its setting on London’s Thames River, dirty, wet and cold, strikes the right chord as I shiver in this wooden structure perched over the harbor.

After a quiet hour or so, a visitor approaches the ticket window.  His coat is unzipped, his head bare on this windy, snowy day.  He gestures toward the replica ship floating below us, and says something we don’t quite catch.  He turns to look over the railing and all at once–he’s gone.   That didn’t compute…did he just…? We turn to one another and then, SPLASH! We hear him hit the surface of the icy harbor.  Without my coat, I run out the door of the shop and rush to the railing.  There is our “guest” treading water directly below me, yelling, “I’m free!  I’m free!”  Great.  A nut.

My colleague calls 911, I grab my coat and run down the gangplank and along the outside of the barge/museum to the back where our security guard’s houseboat is tied up.  I’m not sure what he can do, but it makes me feel useful in the face of this irrational act.  Was it a suicide attempt?  Was the guy just stoned?  Looking for a warm bed on Christmas Eve?  The police motor up in their official boat, scoop him up and take him away.  I hope he found what he was looking for.

So that singularly strange event frames my first married Christmas, and everything after,  no matter how surreal, doesn’t top that.

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(from Advent Longings, copyright 1997)










Our hillside fire seems feeble tonight.
Although it is a warm clear night, there is
no moon.  The flames reflect in eyes, on beards,
more like the rush lights on our hearths at home,
where women wait, weaving to ease the hours
until this shepherds’ watch is over and
we head for home again.  The vast mantle
of inky sky is no more bright or dark
than a thousand others we’ve sat under, wide
awake or dozing, ‘midst the soft and rumbling
breath of sheep, the fire’s crackle.  But
this sky presses down, pulses with promise.

What is it that unsettles us tonight?
Our daily round goes on without event–
from lambing time to shearing, we keep pace
with seasons, and the stars look on, impassive.
But tonight those cold stars seem to shimmer,
whisper “soon”…and ‘though we shepherds shrug
and shake our heads, we settle with less ease
into the folds of cloaks, and each of us
sits wakeful, and we wonder, “What comes soon?
Or who?  And will we recognize the coming?”
Like as not, out here among the beasts,
we’ll miss it altogether.  Still–as stars
become a candle-flickering haze before
our eyes–we wonder, “When?”  And hope–against
all odds–that it is soon, and we’ll be told…

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Christmas senses

Christmas time, for many of us, means a frenzy of cookie-baking, for parties, for gift-giving, or just because we needed an excuse for a sugar orgy.  Holiday baking often includes recipes that you wouldn’t think of fussing over the rest of the year, with ingredients that are a “splurge” in the budget.  I bake more with butter in December than during the rest of the year.  But this impulse to be extravagant is at odds with the other Christmas imperative:  to make sure that the best-loved recipes always taste the way they always did.

In our family, Christmas tastes like my mom’s iced shortbread cookies, a recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook which is called “ice box cookies” although nobody knows what that name means.  They are melt-in-your-mouth delicious, especially with the pinch of cinnamon that Mom added to the batter, and a confectioner’s sugar icing–also with cinnamon–decorated with sprinkles and red hots to look like wreaths.

Mom baked with margarine, not butter.  I’ve tried this recipe with butter, but for these cookies, it just tastes wrong.  That’s not how Mom made them.  For these cookies, the most important thing to me is that they taste the same way they did 40 years ago. Last year I sent some to Dad, David and Danny, since I’m the only one who makes them now.

These are the same  cookies we always put out for Santa (we couldn’t imagine him wanting any other kind, and we must have been right because he always ate them, leaving a few crumbs). They’re the same ones Mom made for us to take to classroom Christmas parties.  (Sometimes she was really ambitious, she’d shaped them into hearts and send them for Valentine’s Day.  It was a huge bonus to get to have them more than once in a year.)

The first year I sent them to Paul’s kindergarten class for a “winter holiday party” (times having changed by then), there was that odd “‘full circle” feeling which must be part of the definition of adulthood–we are claiming the roles that our parents played before us.

My Mom’s Christmas Cookies (makes about 3 dozen)

3 sticks of margarine, room temperature

1 and 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar

4 egg yolks (I sometimes use 2 whole eggs–practicality trumping nostalgia when I have no use for the leftover whites)

1 and 1/2 tbl vanilla

4 cups of white flour (mix with just a pinch of cinnamon)

1)  Cream ingredients in the order listed.

2)  Shape into circles about 1/4″ thick on baking sheets.  Since there is no leaven in these cookies, the size of your unbaked cookie is about the size it will be when it comes out of the oven.

3)  Bake 10 minutes at 350 degrees F, or until the very edges show a bit brown. Do not overbake.

4)  Cool completely and frost with confectioner’s sugar icing, and top with colored sugar sprinkles.  My mom usually put at least one cinnamon heart on each cookie.

5)  Taste…  Yup.  That’s Christmas.


1 tbl margarine

2 cups powdered sugar

1/8 tsp cinnamon

1 – 2 tbls milk.

Cream margarine w/ sugar and cinnamon. Add just enough milk to make a spreadable consistency. This should frost at least two dozen cookies.

SO…what tastes like Christmas at your house??

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from Advent Longings (copyright 1997)

Isaiah the prophet sits in silence, watching the sunset of a nation… “O Lord, it darkens! Fast the night is falling in our hearts.” He weeps aloud for the glory of Israel, the glory faded now past all remembrance—except his, it seems.

“We’ve turned our backs upon the burning bush. The pillar of fire and cloud no longer guides us. We seek no more the all-consuming fire of Your holiness. You have spoken and we have stopped our ears against You. You have been the light that lightens all our lives, and we have cursed its brightness and embraced the night.

“O Lord, is there no end to all the works of darkness? Will men’s hearts never again be turned to the glory of Your truth? Almighty God, is there not yet a hope for Your people, who were called by Your name? Will the whole world lapse into blackness when their lamp is snuffed forever?”

Isaiah sits in shadowy silence, listening to the wind. And then his hands begin to tremble as a voice fills all his frame, a trumpet voice so forceful it is like a flame:

‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned…
For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given,
and the government will be upon His shoulders.
And He will be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.’

Isaiah sighs, steadies his hand, and takes his pen to write the words of God which will drive back the dark.

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