Category Archives: Holiday

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.

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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

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!”

Skeleton Crew, warming up slowly to 2020

Our skeleton friend, Slim, was crestfallen, but not surprised, to awaken at the beginning of October and learn the news of covid-19, or as he refers to it, “the latest pandemic.” He thought he’d misheard at first when I told him there had been nearly 230,000 deaths in the U.S. since February. He remembers the 1918 flu epidemic, when he and my grandfather were taken ill that fall. “Sam and I were hit pretty hard, but we were lucky and managed to pull through. We were young back then, and among the most vulnerable, for some reason. One of our best buddies was not so fortunate. We heard later how worried Nora had been about Sam. So glad he made it!” (I am, too, or neither my mother, nor I, would have been born.) My grandfather was thirty then, a new father to my mother’s older brother, Leland, who was just over a year old, still an only child. Neither my grandmother, nor the baby, was sickened. “After we were out of the woods, Sam and I swapped stories of our wild fever dreams,” Slim recalled. “For two full days, I was in a fox hunt. I was the fox, the hound, the horse and the hunter, all at once. I hadn’t thought about that in years.” Slim is always a gentleman, and he chooses his words with care, typically avoiding expletives. “That was some crazy $#*%,” he said, shaking his head.

The vivid memories of the nightmarish experience, and his shock at so many lives lost in 2020, prompted Slim to take to the swooning bench at my mother’s. As he draped himself in a comforting shawl, he mused. “How many died in what we used to call the Spanish Flu, even though it didn’t start there? Always gotta play the blame game. About 675,000 in the States, over the course of two years? And this pandemic on track to rival it? I thought we’d have learned to do better by this point. What year is it again? Goodness gracious. People know about masks now, right?”

Though knocked for a loop by the grim state of our current covid world, Slim rarely lingers long in life’s valleys. Encouraged by his loving pack, happy to reconnect with our family, he rallied. Soon he was ready to engage in more pleasant reminiscences. . .such as my grandparents’ celebratory wedding dinner at the Canary Cottage in Louisville, on the first day of 1915. . .

. . .and to hear from us about a few good things that happened in 2020, such as the whirlwind trip my daughter and I made from Charlottesville to New York City when she unexpectedly got tickets to Saturday Night Live. . .

. . .and to anticipate a better future, post-pandemic, post-election, posthaste.

By Halloween morning, Slim had the usual spring in his step. The air was invigoratingly chilly, and it was time to get down to business. Halloween would be different this year, but it would still be Halloween. “Onward ho, pack!”

With Liberty and Justice for all!

On this 4th of July, bitter divisions are markedly and grievously evident among so-called fellow Americans.  Is the Covid-19 pandemic intensifying in our country?  Or is it actually winding down?  Do some of our methods of governing, policing and even voting exacerbate inequality ?   Or is the playing field, in this land of opportunity, truly and gloriously level for all Americans?

More than ever, answers to such questions depend upon our perspective.  Our perspective, more than ever, influences where we choose to find our information, and what we perceive as fact or fiction.  And where we choose to find our information, in turn, reinforces our perspective. If we associate almost exclusively with those whose opinions echo ours, our perspective is further fortified, and our views increasingly justified.

Have you ever held firmly to a belief, certain without a doubt of the righteousness and correctness of your conviction?  And then, perhaps in response to an unexpected observation, or a comment by a friend, or a passage in a book, be prompted to rethink that conviction?  And in so doing, to watch the sure foundation develop cracks and crumble to dust? 

I’m recently been reconsidering some of my long-held viewpoints. Most of us probably hold fast to some beliefs that need to be reevaluated.  Some of the “truths” we  espouse may be opinions based on flawed premises.  An openness to new ideas implies a willingness to rethink.   Changing one’s mind may not be evidence of weakness of will or intellect, but instead, of humility that leads to wisdom.  We should be wary of those in leadership positions who claim otherwise.  Let’s not be led astray by those who actively seek to magnify rather than diminish the divisions between us. 

On July 4th, we celebrate our nation’s founding principles of liberty and justice for all.  Shouldn’t we ask ourselves this:  Do we really want these ideals to apply to everyone?  Or only to ourselves?  Is it liberty and justice for all?  Or liberty and justice for me?  Let’s reexamine our perspectives.  Let’s be humble as we try to understand those of others.  We can work toward unity while honoring diversity.  Our country has done this before.  We can do it again. 

Oh beautiful, for patriot dream that sees beyond the years

thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!

America!  America!  God mend thine every flaw,

confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law. 

–America the Beautiful

words by Katharine Lee Bates, 1904

music by Samuel A. Ward, 1888

Memorial Day 2020

Memorial Day has one foot on solemn, hallowed ground and one in a carnival tent. It’s a time for honoring and remembering those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in serving our country. It’s the kickoff to summer fun. It’s flag-draped coffins, wreaths laid on graves, and quiet green fields marked with rows upon rows of neat white stones. It’s barbecues, pool parties, and family reunions. It’s a time to mourn. It’s a time to party. It’s a time to raise a glass in a somber, earnest toast. It’s a time to drink with joyful abandon, perhaps to the point of forgetting.

This Memorial Day is unlike no other. It’s topped with an extra layer of melancholy. The number of American lives lost to Covid-19 approaches, in less than three months, the inauspicious milestone of 100,000. As of publication of this post, the figure stands at 98,034. Among the deceased are those who survived past wars but were no match for this invisible enemy, a shape-shifting virus.

Today, when we honor our war dead, we also pay tribute to those who have lost their battle with a new, confounding foe. We lament the fact that this summer is likely to be short on carefree fun. But it could be empowering to view our actions (and our avoidance of certain actions) as tactical responses in our collective Covid fight. Every time we wear a mask at the grocery, or don’t get together with a big group of friends, don’t travel to visit family, every time we keep plenty of space between us and those we meet, we’re being zealous soldiers. We’re fighting the good fight. It may also help to remember, when we forego an activity that used to give us particular pleasure, that we’re fighting not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones and neighbors.

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Last year at this time, we were in Rochester, NY visiting my husband’s family, something that is no longer advisable. See For the Hometown Heroes on Memorial Day, May 31, 2019.