Epiphany 2020

Yesterday, January 6, was the twelfth and final day of Christmas. In the Christian calendar, it’s commemorated as the Feast of the Epiphany, marking the visit of the Magi to honor and worship the baby Jesus. Accordingly, our clothespin nativity now includes three richly dressed figures, accompanied by a fluffy and festively adorned camel. The biblical account reveals little about the identity of these visitors. They’re described as “wise men from the East,” likely astrologers, as they were led by a star to Bethlehem and the home of the holy family (Matthew 2:1-12). Their offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh attest to their substantial wealth. Because of their Eastern origins, they were probably not Jews. Some sources suggest that they could have been priests of the Zoroastrian religion, widely practiced throughout Persia. Their inclusion in the nativity story serves to demonstrate that the baby Jesus was sent by God to be a savior not only for the Hebrew people, but for all nations. The first to arrive on the scene of the holy birth could not have been more different from the Magi. They were the shepherds, lowly Jewish locals who received a direct invitation from an angel. Thus, the message is clear: the divine child was sent for the good of every one of us. For people of all societal levels, poor and rich, servant and king, near and far. May those of us who profess to be Christians do our best to extend the message of Epiphany, and the message of God’s love, to all our brothers and sisters.

*************************************************************************

This post was delayed by a day because yesterday I was transfixed, like people the world over, by images of a mob storming our nation’s Capitol. Ironically, this attempt to subvert our democratic process was carried out by supporters directly incited by the “Law and Order” president. A pastor friend of mine has referred to the calamitous events of the day as the “Epiphany Riots.” I join her in hoping that the sight of these disturbing images might prompt at least some Americans toward an epiphany* of their own.

*According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, an epiphany is a “usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”

Oh, Christmas trees, 2020

This year’s peculiar pandemic Christmas season has been lacking (and lackluster) in too many ways. But it also brought about a return to some activities that I thought might have been largely confined to the past. In an earlier post, I wrote about how my daughter and I, home bound together in the family pod, were inspired to make a new type of Christmas ornament for the first time in years. It wouldn’t be right to consign our Band of Bulbs to a table or shelf. They needed an appropriate home for the holiday, as did our creations from years gone by. They needed a Christmas tree. No. Not just one. If all were to be accommodated, several trees were required. My daughter was adamant about this.

Last year I didn’t find the time or energy to put up the tabletop tree in our playroom. I’ve been known to grumble that this slightly bedraggled tree’s ideal location is a crowded corner of our messy basement. But this tree is particularly dear to my daughter’s heart. It’s the locus for most of the ornaments of her childhood, many of which we made together, such as bread-dough clay snowflakes, stars and candy canes, awkward wrapping paper angels, and little drums of felt and spools. It’s the place for decorations that she bought, with her own money, each December at her elementary school’s holiday book fair. Its base provides the perfect spot for a gathering of stuffed animals consigned to the attic for the rest of the year. It sets the room warmly aglow with its multicolored lights. Once fully decorated, I have to admit that it’s a wonderfully cheery sight. And when positioned in a corner just so, its pronounced slant is barely noticeable.

We hadn’t put up a tree in my mother’s house next door since her relocation to Virginia three years ago. Again, with time on her hands and a general absence of social activities, my daughter took the lead. Nana’s house, she insisted, must have a tree. Wasn’t there one lying forlorn, in pieces, in the basement? It’s been eleven years, when we spent Christmas in Atlanta, since she’d seen the ornaments my parents and I had collected and crafted over the years, the ones I remember so well from my childhood. Even the hand-written, idiosyncratic labels on the boxes bring me smiles and vivid recollections: Handmade Fancy Balls. Santa Makings. Big Red Balls. Angels & Rudolfs. So it was a special pleasure to unpack these vintage treasures again with my daughter, as Mama and I recounted the stories of Christmases past that they prompted.

Even some of the smallest of trees were decked out in lights and baubles this year at my mother’s.

Back at our house, the three skinny alpine trees in the dining room serve as the setting for most of our cork and pinecone people, pasta angels, Cape Cod scallop shell angels, and now our Bulb Buddies.

The big tree in our living room was the last to go up. We decorated it over a period of nearly a week. No ornament, even those that were damaged or funny-looking, was left out this season. Each one found a place on the tree. I bought no new decorations at all this year. None, indeed, were needed.

The boxes of holiday trappings stored at my mother’s house and mine would likely be considered mere clutter by many. But to me, to my daughter, my mother, and to some degree, even to my husband, these battered containers are filled not with stuff, but with happy memories. They spark joy. And joy has been elusive and fleeting throughout 2020. Let’s seize it, and savor it, where, when, and while we’re able.

I wrote about some of the best-loved ornaments on the family Christmas tree of my childhood in several posts from 2015. See:

Childhood Treasures on the Christmas Tree

Vintage Pinecone Elves on Skis

Uncle Edwin’s Silver Stocking

Unsilvered WW II-Era Ornaments on a Kentucky Cedar

Christmas Eve 2020

In the absence of a live nativity at our church this Christmas Eve in the time of Covid, I cannot offer my usual photos of curious onlookers mingling happily with the sweet-tempered camels Samson or Delilah. Or with their other charming cohorts, the brown burro, the velvet-coated humpback ox, the several sheep or goats.

Here instead is this little clothespin nativity that my daughter and I made together many years ago. Simple and humble, made from materials we already had, it seems especially appropriate this Christmas Eve. It points toward what’s important, what’s essential, on this night and every night. The message of Christmas is, in one word, love. Love embodied in a baby. A baby sent by God to grow up and model love not only to his human contemporaries, but to all future generations. The message is so powerful that it remains as vital today as it was 2,000 years ago.

It’s the love that mingles the divine and the human. It’s the love that shines in the darkness. And the darkness, including the darkness of a pandemic, will not overcome it.

For more on the Christmas message of love (and for photos of our live nativity friends), see last year’s post: The Timeless Message of Christmas Eve.

With Time at Home, a return to Christmas crafting

During my daughter’s younger years, she and I continued the tradition of making Christmas ornaments that my mother and I had begun in my childhood. (See Working Like Elves, and Next-Generation Elves, both from December 2011.) It’s been quite a while since D and I have created a new ornament, but with the unusual circumstances of this holiday season, the conditions were conducive for at-home crafting again.

In a long-forgotten handmade box among the Christmas decorations at my mother’s house, we found brightly colored vintage bulbs and various other odds and ends. Amidst the jumble were toothpick and pipe-cleaner arms from two of our past creations, the pinecone and cork people.

Cork and pinecone people, among pasta angels and Cape Cod shell angels.

My daughter and I had the same idea at once: Christmas bulb beings. Equipped with a newly uncovered box of miscellaneous ornament makings from Mama’s basement, we spent several happy hours, much as in Yuletide days of yore, working together at the playroom table. (We spent additional time attempting to remove Superglue from our fingers.)

Our new group of Christmas characters includes several with wooden beads for heads, like these red and green twins in acorn caps and sparkly pipe-cleaner scarves. . .

. . .and this royal-looking girl with gold accessories.

There is one apple-headed figure. My daughter enjoys the surrealist touch.

A pom-pom headed boy in a straw hat carries two miniature Christmas ornaments.

A cowboy in a black hat holds a lasso. There’s room in our bulb bunch for all types.

We made a few angels with wings of silk flower petals or glitter-covered card stock.

The bulb beings appear to be settling in well with their fellow ornaments. They owe their existence to the pandemic. Another Covid silver lining. The biggest, for me, of course, is having our daughter here for an extended stay. May you and your family find special blessings during this most peculiar holiday season.

Deck the Tree stump (2013) + Update (2020)

In 2013 I wrote a post about decorating the tree stump at the edge of our front yard with a Christmas wreath. In the course of seven years, the stump has changed substantially, as most of us have. I didn’t hang the wreath the past two years, but this year it seemed fitting to do so. The original post appears immediately below, followed by the current update.

Deck the Tree Stump (2013)

This December, we hung a big wreath on the craggy silver maple stump in front of our house.  It seemed like an interesting, if unexpected, spot for a wreath.  And by decorating the tree, we could send a message to those who might see it as a business opportunity, as well as to those who think the stump is unsightly and wonder why we leave it standing.  The wreath says, We love this old tree trunk, and we’re letting nature take its course.

Then I thought a little more about it, and the pairing struck me as even more appropriate in its juxtaposition of life and death.  The stump is the opposite of the traditional evergreen Christmas tree.  Firs and spruces, retaining the appearance of vitality through the winter, get the privilege of being cut down, hauled into our homes, strung with lights and ornaments, and left to wither and die.  It’s tough work, being a symbol.  Our maple, though, would be in no such danger.  If intact, it would be gray-brown and leafless by now, like its neighbors in our yard.  But of course, it’s a stump, a snag, and already dead.  Yet it harbors vast, unseen colonies of creatures that go about the business of breaking down lifeless material.  It won’t be long before nature’s course is run.  The stump may not be here next year; its center is soft.  All the more reason to decorate it this year.

My husband and daughter hung the wreath one weekend afternoon, as I was napping, trying to get over a persistent cold.  When I trudged out to the road to see their handiwork, a new insight hit me.

I like to think that God works with us for good, despite ourselves, despite our selfish intentions and our vanity.  I initially wanted to decorate the tree because I thought it would look pretty, if a bit odd.  In truth, it was a way of declaring a certain pride in being different, in having the ability to see beauty where others see ugliness.

But once up, the wreath reminded me of a greater truth, of the essence of my Christian faith.  Out of death comes new, transformed life. How better to say it than in the words of John 3: 16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And then the snow settled beautifully on the wreath and the tree, on the green and the gray, on the quick and the dead, like a blessing from above.

Update: The Remains of the Stump (2020)

The stump lasted far longer than I expected. But nature, human error, and cars have taken their toll. It’s in a vulnerable spot, close to the narrow road, on a particularly sharp turn that’s proven problematic for drivers time and time again. Several years ago one May morning we were awakened around dawn by a policeman at our door. He asked if that was our vehicle outside. “What vehicle?,” I heard my husband ask in a confused tone, after he’d finally made his way downstairs to the door.

“The one in the tree.”

“What?”

And sure enough, it appeared that a dark minivan had merged with the tree. While most of the stump remained, it must have been considerably weakened, as its decline soon accelerated.

Two summers ago while we were away on vacation, a little red Honda found its way quite forcefully into the stump, demolishing half of it. The section that remained no longer looked much like a tree, or even a stump. When that final piece gradually eased to the ground one day this fall, we barely noticed. Why not, one might ask, remove it, at this point? One answer is that, even as a pile of debris, it serves as a barrier for future wayward vehicles.

Last week, returning from a walk with the dog, I surveyed the battered remains of the once mighty silver maple. It, with five others, was planted the same year that our house was built, in 1920. (See The Silver Maples Say Welcome Home, April 2012.) Several large patches of ruffled pale green lichen had sprouted from the decaying wood. Even in its final stages, the tree continues to serve as evidence of the circle of life. (See Underfoot, and Easily Overlooked. . . October 18, 2013.) I thought of the big wreath hanging neglected behind the hockey nets in the garage. Why not, during this Covid Christmas season, decorate the vestiges of the tree as it’s in the process of transformation? The wreath on the ruins is, to me, a reminder that hope does indeed remain. We can have hope in human ingenuity and resilience during the darkest of times, proof of which is offered by, among other achievements, the development of highly effective Covid vaccines in record time. We can have hope in a divine and loving parent, who created not only maple tree and lichen, but also each one of us human children, unique in our blend of talents, strengths, weaknesses and inconsistencies. We were created for a life that increases in abundance as we love one another and rejoice in our differences. We were created for an abundant life that transcends the boundaries of this flawed and fantastic earthly realm.

. . .and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out on us through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

–Romans 5:5

At Church, Blue-taped Pews with a side of humor

Due to the pandemic, our church has not held in-person worship since mid-February. Back then, we thought we’d be gathering again in our sanctuary after a few months, at the most. Certainly by the summer. Now, nearly ten months later, weekly worship continues online. Thanks to dedicated, tech-savvy staff and volunteers, the quality improves weekly. We’ve had several drive-in services, with the pastor and music leaders outside, distanced from one another, and congregants in their cars. Our only inside events have been a few small memorial services. As I said in an earlier post (I Wanna be Sedated, October 21, 2020), our congregation has suffered some tragically sudden and unexpected losses this year. At these indoor services, health protocols mandated by our bishop are followed diligently. Attendance is limited to twenty-five, and seating is distanced, with every other pew marked off with blue tape. Masks, of course, are required.

When I recently accompanied my daughter to record her scripture reading and advent candle lighting for an upcoming virtual service, it was our first time inside the church in months. I hadn’t much thought about what I expected our sanctuary, set up for distanced seating, to look like. So I was surprised when we found ourselves laughing.

Every blue-taped pew bore a sign that gently and humorously declared it to be off-limits.

This one might be especially appreciated by our Jewish friends.

I’m glad to be part of a church that finds a thoughtful way to take a light-hearted approach to a serious situation. I’m grateful that my church is taping off pews and modeling the importance of masking. I’m thankful to belong to a congregation that understands and values this vitally important truth: in keeping our distance and wearing a mask, we’re showing love to our neighbors during these anxious and uncertain days.

As we prepare for Christmas, let’s remember that in living out God’s love, a different set of rules applies in this most unusual of Advent seasons. We church folks have often heard fellow congregants, when faced with the prospect of change, make this protest: But we’ve always done it this way! In 2020, and well into 2021, as the vaccine roll-out progresses, we’re called to do things differently. God is calling us to do so. Let’s keep the faith, and not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.

Redeemer, come, with us abide; our hearts to thee we open wide;

let us thy inner presence feel; thy grace and love in us reveal.

–Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates

Words: Georg Weissel, 1642; trans. by Catherine Winkworth, 1855 (Psalm 24)

Music: Psalmodia Evangelica, 1789

Scenes from a Covid Winter Snow

The first snow of the season arrived yesterday. The flakes started out fat and fluffy, blanketing everything quickly in white. Even during a global health emergency, a mid-December snow is beautiful. Christmas-card worthy images of red, white and green abounded: cardinals on frosted evergreen branches, nandina and holly topped with snow.

In an ordinary year, our daughter might not have been home yet for winter break from the University of Virginia. But because of the pandemic, she’s been here since before Thanksgiving. As her social life has been drastically curtailed, a walk in the snowy neighborhood with her mother held far greater appeal than in years past. Her presence during this time has indeed been, for me, the best of Covid silver linings.

After a few hours, the snow turned to sleet, then to freezing rain, as it so often does here in Northern Virginia. Branches, foliage and berries were heavily coated in a layer of ice.

This morning, both porch doors and every outside gate were frozen shut. It was a perilous endeavor to walk from our house to my mother’s next door. Yet the sun shone brightly on each treacherous surface. Ice-glazed red berries and deep green leaves gleamed even merrier in the light.

But the perfect image of our Covid winter may be this: clinging to the tips of spiky brown branches of a dying evergreen, the oblong beads of ice, looking for all the world like frozen teardrops.

December 16, 2020 was our deadliest day of the pandemic yet, with 3,656 lives lost to Covid-19 in the US. The total number of American deaths from the virus approaches 310,000.

The Flamboyant November Sister

November is like two sisters, equal in beauty, strikingly different in style and mood. The younger one looks over her shoulder toward autumn, the elder anticipates winter. One clothes herself in deep, rich jewel tones, the other dresses in a subdued palette of white, black, and many more than fifty shades of subtly nuanced gray. Today, as the sun shines brightly on the last stubborn leaves of fall, a tribute to the younger, playfully flamboyant November sister.

She delights in autumn’s most brilliant shades. She sets the scarlet leaves of a row of sugar maples against a backdrop of perfect, cloudless blue sky.

She’s an expert in color theory. She knows that on a complementary base of glowing green, the red and orange leaves of a Japanese maple will appear even more distinctly luminous.

She enjoys a dramatic makeover. This pin oak at the edge of our front yard is an unintentional gift from a squirrel, a sprout from a forgotten acorn buried about ten years ago. Throughout the summer, its coloring blends with that of the neighboring pines. It’s not especially remarkable, and easy to overlook. But come November, the younger, whimsical sister does a spectacular fairy godmother turn, and endows it with a golden radiance.

She loves to accessorize in unexpected ways, often ignoring the rules of seasonal dressing. Cheerfully, she combines the concentrated yellows and oranges of maple leaves and the intense red of nandina berries with the deep fuchsia of summer’s roses.

She pairs the most delicate pale pinks of our trellis roses with the vivid red of rose hips. Somehow it works, especially when the surrounding foliage gleams in tones of green and gold.

As the day goes on, the temperature is dropping and the wind is picking up. By tomorrow, little of fall’s resplendence will remain. Soon the younger November sister will bow out gracefully, yielding to the more austere beauty conjured by her older sibling.

For your consideration, in voting

If, in the unlikely event that you have not yet voted, and have not yet decided how to vote, here is some last-minute food for thought.

One candidate’s modus operandi can be boiled down to a familiar childhood taunt, based on the lie. The blatant, aggressive, unyielding lie. We’ve all heard it: I’m not. You are! For example: I’m not a cheater. You are! There’s also this variation: I didn’t do it. You did! As in: I didn’t kick the dog. You did! The pronoun “you” is replaced as needed.

For most of us, the ridiculousness of this tactic is readily apparent. We know we’d be called out immediately as a liar and a fraud. But for bullies, who wield power through fear, and never, never, back down from the lie, it’s highly effective. 

It has proven to be a surprisingly successful strategy for a president surrounded by a cadre of sycophants. He uses it to shirk responsibility and to deflect blame. It works well when the only objectives are self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. In his words and actions, this president demonstrates, repeatedly, that he cares only for himself. Not for his fellow Americans or the fate of our country. This is especially apparent in his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now that he, thanks to health care largely unavailable to the typical American, has survived the coronavirus, he feels more powerful than ever. He uses our Department of Justice to fight his own personal battles, and he seeks revenge on those who have crossed him. Another formidable weapon that works to his advantage is the rabid eagerness of loyal media allies to sow and nurture seeds of disinformation. I had hoped Donald Trump’s election to the presidency would prompt him to rise to the level of the office. It didn’t. Instead, he threatens the very future of our democracy. Think what he might do, unchecked, in a second term.

The other candidate is another human person, who has his flaws, as humans do. He’s been known to misspeak, as humans do. Traces occasionally remain of the childhood stutter he worked hard to overcome. But he is most certainly not a bully seeking to be a demagogue. He is an honorable, capable, experienced, compassionate public servant. Those last two words are very important. Unlike our current president, his goal is serving the U.S. and his fellow citizens. He has done so, for years, as a Senator and as a two-term Vice President. He has a proven record. He pledges to continue to do his best to improve the lot of working Americans, and he will put actual plans in place to do so.

 

And finally, for my friends who identify as Christian, there’s this warning from 2 Timothy 3: 2- 5:

For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!

Which of the two presidential candidates best fits this description?

I make this modest proposal: Why not follow biblical advice to avoid the candidate so perfectly described here, and vote for the other guy?

Why not?

Halloween 2020 with the Skeleton Crew (and bigfoot, too)

The annual Halloween joyride was on. “Come on, kids!,” beckoned Slim. Our pack is a pod, so let’s go!” This may be Kiko’s favorite event of the year. He loves nothing more than to ride shotgun with with Slim.

To Kiko this means settling in for a cozy doze in the passenger seat, the top down, the sun warm, the wind refreshing. He can count on Slim to take his time with the drive; this will be no quick there-and-back trip, but an unhurried, meandering cruise over roads hitherto unexplored.

I can rest assured that Slim and the gang will be back with plenty of time to set up for the Halloween festivities, which this year, thanks to the foresight and organization of young parents, involves a neighborhood parade and safely distanced candy give-aways.

Nearly every year the Halloween joyride yields some unexpected pleasure. This year it was the spotting of one of Slim’s more reclusive pals who happened to be walking along a woodsy section of road. “Trevor!” Slim yelled, braking so suddenly that the chihuahua twins Ruth and Rocky ended up atop Kiko in the front seat, briefly waking him from his nap. “I can’t believe it! Is it really you?,” asked Slim incredulously.

“Indeed, it is I. Trevor Wildermann, III, at your service,” replied the tall, hirsute figure, barely visible among the shadows.

“Unbelievable. I awaken to a covid pandemic and run into the true King of Social Distance, the original wild man himself!,” Slim exclaimed. “What brings you to the suburbs of Northern Virginia?”

“I just returned from early voting. It’s the last day for it locally. I’m a citizen now, of course. Have been for some time. My house is just there among the trees. Mostly quiet eccentric types in this neighborhood. They’re discreet. And they know not to refer to me as “Bigfoot.” The vulgarity of the common parlance offended Trevor to his core. His feet weren’t even especially big, considering his height. “I’m confident that the secret of my whereabouts is safe, unless perhaps you, Sir, decide to reveal it to some goofball at the Travel Channel. You wouldn’t, would you?”

After Slim pledged total silence regarding his friend’s Virginia residency, Trevor invited him to pull the car around back and join him on the open-air courtyard for drinks and snacks. While Kiko and the pack explored the artfully landscaped gardens and drowsed in the sun, the two old friends indulged in a leisurely catch-up. Luckily, Slim had planned the joyride for early in the day.

The Hotel Wilder Mann in Passau.

The two had met in Bavaria during one of Slim’s Grand Tours of Europe in an earlier century. Trevor’s family has owned and operated the historic Hotel Wilder Mann in the Danube River town of Passau since the mid-1500s. It’s his custom to spend the spring in his charming hometown, where the Easter season, very dear to his heart, is so beautifully celebrated. The covid outbreak prevented his return this year, much to his disappointment. The fortuitous encounter with his old friend offered a welcome bit of consolation.

The ornate Wilder Mann sign at the Hotel.

As the afternoon shadows lengthened and the pups began to get restless, Slim felt the tug of duty. It was time to get back to prepare. The two friends said their goodbyes with reluctance, yet rejoiced in knowing that this time next year, they would meet again.

Upon his return, Slim got to work. We had decided to greet trick-or-treaters from my mother’s house this year, as it’s more easily accessible for the parade. Slim placed two tables near the street on which to lay out a wide array of candy. He made sure to include goodies that the nut-allergic could enjoy. He set up chairs for everyone at the top of the driveway, so we could watch the festivities from a safe distance. Kiko, who didn’t know he’d be spared the constant doorbell ringing of a typical Halloween, had retreated upstairs earlier to his night-time bed.

Before long, the first vehicles of the parade began to approach from the nearby cul-de-sac. While there were plenty of walkers, other kids were conveyed in decoratively festooned golf carts, cars and SUVs. There were riding mowers and Radio Flyer wagons carrying puppies and toddlers. Parents and kids were masked and careful about maintaining distance between family groups. Most neighbors participated, with candy-laden tables set up at the base of driveways. The happy, expectant spirit of Halloween flourished, despite the unusual circumstances.

Slim was buoyed by the treat of seeing his dear friend, the elusive Wildermann. Even if that chance meeting had not occurred, he claimed, he would still have dubbed the evening a satisfying success. As he reclined again on the swooning bench, his mood was one of jubilant calm.

Before he retired for the night, our wise October companion offered these reassuring words: “Never underestimate life’s capacity to surprise you and to cheer you, especially when you least expect it. I’ll go back to sleep soon, and I’ll dream sweet dreams. Meanwhile, you’ll get through this thorny patch. I’ve got a good feeling about it. Cheers to 2021!”

A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.