The Season of Love

Christmas-LoveI’m celebrating my seventieth Christmas this morning and in another eleven months I will enjoy a birthday that makes me a septuagenarian. That’s a great number of December twenty-fifths, and somehow they have always been of great comfort to me even in years filled with tragedy. Christmas for me is bigger than me or any individual. It represents a brief moment when the vast majority of the the people in the world pause to celebrate, some for religious reasons and others just to have a good time. Whatever the motivation the season is all about showing our love for one another. It reminds us that our purpose here on earth is bigger than our individual needs and wants. From the humble beginnings of a baby born in a stable came a revolution in thought that eclipses even the greatest generals and politicians of history. Whether one believes in the sanctity of Jesus or not, there is little disagreement that His message of compassion and understanding is the key to peace on earth, goodwill toward all.

Perhaps my all time favorite Christmas card was a cutout of the word “Love” with the simple message, “Love was born at Christmastime.” I suspect that it moved me so because I had just delivered my own little girl only days before receiving it. I understood then as I do now that each tiny person who comes into to this world has the potential to be an apostle of Jesus’ message of unconditional love. Our challenge in life is to demonstrate kindness and understanding and to use our talents and our blessings for the good of all mankind. It is a daunting task, but one that brings us much joy when we make the attempt and find even a small level of success.

Even more so than Valentine’s Day, Christmas is all about love. As we gather with family and friends we demonstrate our humanity and its glorious potential. We celebrate each special person remembering those who have passed through this life before us and dreaming of those who are yet to come. We exchange gifts as an outward sign of our feelings for one another. We feast on our bounty as a way of sharing and enjoying our blessings. We send greetings to those who have touched our lives. We assess our yearly progress in becoming better persons who follow the message of giving and sharing and loving.

The world is an enormous place. Many among us have beliefs far different from our own. Christians celebrate the coming of the Savior. Jews continue to follow traditions as they await the fulfillment of a promise. Muslims follow the teachings of their Prophet. The nonreligious seek answers to life’s great questions in the words of philosophers and intellectuals. Our commonality lies in our very human quest to be good people whether for purposes of salvation or simply because it is the right thing to do. Christmas day is a time to embrace all of our brothers and sisters without judgement or self-righteousness. It is a moment to enjoy our individual uniqueness and to celebrate our own journeys through life.

There are those who are suffering on this day. It is up to us to remember them as well and to do whatever we can to help them. Maybe that means little more than brightening their day with a quick phone call or the delivery of food or a small gift. We’ve all endured Christmases that were bleak and challenging, but somehow even the most horrible situations have a way of turning around as long as we just keep trying.

Whether one believes that the little baby who so changed the world was truly the Son of God or just a very wise teacher, His words to us were always so simple to understand. By example and deed He demonstrated that every person is important and worthy of our love. Whether it be innocent children or those with whom we disagree He taught us to forgive and embrace everyone. The traditions of the Christmas season were all invented by people who followed Him to commemorate all that is best in our natures. The trees and sparkling lights are signs of the amazing power of life. The gifts are symbolic of our naturally giving natures. The food and the celebrating point to the fact that happiness is all around us and is meant to be shared.

So on this Christmas day of 2017 my hope is that each of us will find the spirit of love and peace that was born in Bethlehem so long ago. For over two thousand years mankind has been attempting to emulate better and better versions of our humanity. We have certainly missed the mark over and over again, but the most important point is that we continue to try even as we falter. Live your life today as though it is your grand opportunity to truly become the message of this season. Spread the love.

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Outdoor Illumination

Griswold-house-Christmas-Vacation-movie-in-lightsI miss all of the lights that used to glow all over my neighborhood. For some reason very few people near me are bothering to get enthusiastic about outdoor illumination this holiday season. My daughter’s neighborhood in Sugar Land has been glowing for weeks now, but mine is mostly dark save for the house across the street. I suspect that my husband Mike might have been willing to join the energy saving club had I not insisted that we were going to buck the trend and light up our little cul-de-sac with a bit more merriment. It took us longer than usual to accomplish this year because winter storms came making the task almost impossible. Eventually the sun returned and along with it came my resolve to deck our halls.

The first phase of the project involved climbing into the attic and crawling to its farthest reaches to retrieve the boxes holding all of our materials. Since my knees are a shell of their former selves I had to wear kneepads for this part of the venture. Then came the real fun which involved testing all of the strings of lights before hanging them. Invariably there will be a set or two that has somehow decided to die during the long hibernation period from one year to the next. Because I have no desire whatsoever to examine one hundred tiny bulbs to find the source of the problem I generally just toss the nonfunctioning array and substitute one of the new strings that I have purchased as soon as the Christmas items show up at Hobby Lobby along about August. I’ve learned the hard way that waiting until December is like playing Russian Roulette. The odds are very good that nothing will be left anywhere if I procrastinate, so I grab spares right away even though it feels strange to invest in Christmas gear when the temperature is hovering in the high nineties.

Once I have determined that all of the lights that we will use are in working order Mike and I get down to business. Mike has a routine that he follows to hang icicles along the fence line of our corner. He is quite meticulous. Each box is carefully labeled and stored in such a manner that there is rarely any problem with the procedure. My methodology is a bit more haphazard. I’m so ready to put Christmas away come January that I tend to just throw my lights into a big container where they manage to get tangled somehow. I utter more than a few naughty words as I struggle to untie the knots. Then I create a lovely twinkling pathway by scooting along the sidewalk on my bottom. Invariably I will be in the process of just finishing a section when half of the string decides to die. That’s when the real despicable language escapes from my mouth and I begin collecting demerits from Santa for my profanity.

Eventually we both manage to line the perimeter of our home with lovely twinkling lights that would be wonderful all alone but we have more to add. A jolly snowman sits at the edge of a flowerbed. He’s been bringing joy for years now. He used to blow away and end up dangling from his electrical cord in the middle of the yard but Mike finally found a way to keep him in place by tying him to a tall stake. He’s happy throughout the season now even though he looks a bit like a prisoner.

We place a lighted Christmas tree in the middle of the yard. It’s a wooden structure that is anchored into the ground. I keep an assortment of replacement lights for it because there always seems to be one or more that decide not to operate. I sometimes think that Mike would love to get rid of the display because it’s difficult to store. It won’t fit in the attic so it has to sit along the wall all year long getting in his way. He glares at it now and again, but puts up with the inconvenience because it’s one of my favorite things. After the tree is in place I bring out a set of lighted boxes that look like gifts that I set them lovingly in front the the tree.

Long ago my mother-in-law gave me some birthday money that I used to purchase a cute wooden Santa from a craft store in Beaumont. He’s a great little character that I set on the front porch. He has a few design flaws that have created some problems over the years. There is a little circle at the top of his cap that fell off almost as soon as I brought him home. We used glue, gorilla tape and all sorts of adhesives in an attempt to repair him but nothing has worked for very long. I think that Mike wonders why I keep Santa, but he understands how sentimental I am about the old fellow so this year he tried a new repair trick. He performed an operation on the old guy which he referred to as brain surgery, attaching the little ball with both a screw and some glue. It appears to be the fix for which we have long hoped. The only problem now is that a stiff wind has a tendency to topple St. Nick, so we have to place him in a corner out of the line of fire. So far all is good.

Thanks to Costco and my tutoring we were able to invest in a new wreath and lighted garland for the front door. The fresh new greenery happily gives the place a much needed uplift. Added to that was my idea to place an indoor tree on top of a table upstairs in front of the big window above the front door. It sets off the whole display quite well and brings balance to our efforts. Finally we installed a set of huge multicolored light bulbs along the sidewalk leading to our entryway. They are a bit comical and reminiscent of Whoville, but I love them.

Mike’s job is to get all of the illumination in sync with timers so that we don’t have to turn our handiwork on and off during the season. It automatically lights up the night each evening and politely darkens when it’s time to go to bed. Mostly it is a grand way to welcome visitors to our neighborhood and to spread cheer to our neighbors.

Mike and I aren’t the energetic kids that we once were. By the end of our work my back was screaming at me and asking why I was silly enough to do so much bending. I’ve filled the cuss jar to the brim with my outbursts that make Griswold appear to be a choir boy by comparison and Mike does his best Grinch impersonation mostly to play with me. When all is said and done we are always happy and proud that we did this one more time. I think our neighbors like it too.

The Best Gift Ever

24910097_1677760535622078_6615890065848693126_nI’ve always had my own ideas about religion and politics. I’m an independent renegade when it comes to both, but I still believe in those institutions even though I am quick to critique them whenever I see problems. Thus it was a great surprise to me when I was asked to head the religious education program for pre-schoolers and elementary students at my church many years ago. It was to be the first time that lay people would fill such positions because the sweet nuns who were beloved by the parish were moving away and there were no religious replacements.

Since I am loathe to shy away from challenges I accepted the job and learned that my partner in the endeavor was as feisty as I was. Ours was a collaboration made in heaven if you will. A staff of assistants already existed and the two of them agreed to stay to help us after the good sisters had left. Judy Maskel would be our secretary and all around font of knowledge. Much as it is with outstanding office personnel she had been essentially running the place for several years, and she would prove to be a strong foundation on which we would build a new way of doing things. It didn’t take us long to realize that without Judy we would have been running for cover within weeks. Instead she was an unflinching ally to our cause who somehow managed to very quietly gloss over our mistakes and help us to feel competent even when we were struggling with the task. Over time Judy became far more than someone who kept us from appearing to be fools. She became a good friend, a person whom we loved for her unending patience and sincerely sweet demeanor.

Judy was a beautiful woman with a shock of ginger colored hair and the fair complexion of someone of Scandinavian decent. Nothing was quite as important to her as her faith in God and her beautiful family. She was devoted to her husband and her lovely children and they returned her love. It seemed as though Judy had discovered the secret to balancing life’s demands so seamlessly that she maintained a kind of calmness and perfection in everything that she did. Being around her was an exercise in relaxation. She had a way of soothing even the most tempestuous situation and I grew to truly adore her.

Eventually our parishioners accepted the reality that we would never again have nuns to educate the children in the tenets of our faith. The transition was successful in no small part due to the support of wonderful people like Judy Maskel. She was so admired by those who knew her that folks began to feel that if she liked us, then perhaps they should as well. We pioneered a change that would not have gone so well without Judy.

In the meantime I had finally finished my degree and earned my certification as a teacher. Although I had loved my work at the church I wanted to move into the next phase of my career as an educator, and so I left for a position teaching mathematics. Nonetheless, I had grown so attached to Judy and the others who had been my daily companions in our endeavors that I was determined to continue our relationship.

As so often happens life took hold of all of us. We were busy with our jobs and our families and getting together proved to be more difficult than we had expected, so I began the tradition of gathering with the group at Christmas time each year. In the beginning there were five of us who met on an evening in December to sample goodies and talk for hours about our children and the events that had occupied us since our last rendezvous. It was always a glorious time and I began to laughingly refer to our little group as “the church ladies.” At some point we decided to bring little gifts for one another and it was always fun to exchange the goodies that we had either created or purchased. One of our members made homemade jams and breads that were always the hit of the season. Judy liked to bake little cookies and such now and again depending on how crazy her own schedule had been. Always she came with her smile and a laugh that looked at life from a vantage point of unadulterated happiness and optimism.

The years seemed to go by so quickly. Our children grew into adults and we rejoiced in becoming grandmothers. One by one we began to retire from jobs that had occupied us for decades. Judy had faithfully continued working at the church, watching over the children and the teachers and the directors with the same compassion that she gave so generously and effortlessly. Somehow she always felt like an anchor to everything that is most important in this world, so the annual celebrations with her had a very uplifting effect on me. Whenever December rolled around I simply could not wait for the day when I would get to see the ladies who had meant so much to me, and to enjoy that twinkle of mischievousness in Judy’s bright blue eyes that always brought a smile to my own face.

As we grew older our conversations began to be punctuated with stories of health problems that we were experiencing. One of our members developed cancer and ultimately lost her battle with that disease. Somehow her spirit always seemed to continue to be with us whenever we met, even as the years began to mount along with our own troubles.

Judy had been diagnosed with a rare disease that runs in the DNA of Scandinavians. At first her symptoms came in small doses and she was able to come to our gatherings with her old hopefulness and sense of humor. Over time the illness progressed, and even though she complained very little we were able to see her decline. She became quite thin and there were signs of worry in her blue eyes that twinkled less and less. She seemed preoccupied with her thoughts and her pain, but she was determined to hang in with us and to show us a brave front.

Last year she spent time in a rehabilitation facility. When two of us went to visit her she was struggling with her fate. It was apparent that the disease was overtaking her in spite of her courage and determination. She wanted to reassure us, but she no longer had the energy to protect us from the truth of what was happening. When she recuperated and returned home we were overjoyed and hopeful that she would somehow overcome what had seemed to be her ultimate demise. Even when she was unable to be with us at our luncheon we all managed to laugh and rejoice in what appeared to be her recovery.

As we began to plan for this year’s reunion we learned that Judy was in a nursing home in League City. A kind of pall came over those of us left in the group when we realized that she had become so sick. We were planning to visit her when we learned that she had died. Somehow it was shocking even though she had often explained the ultimate effects of the disease that had overtaken her. In a strange twist I found myself experiencing the same calmness that she had always provided me even as I felt the pangs of sadness. I smiled at the thought that she had truly become an angel in heaven.

That same night our city filled with a lovely dusting of snow. Our first sight upon awakening the next morning was heavenly and peaceful, and I immediately thought of Judy Maskel. It would have been so like her to find a way to ease our sadness. I wondered if perhaps she had been somehow responsible for requesting that God send us a little gift to make us smile. It’s certainly something that she might have done. She was always so thoughtful and giving like that.

There are only three of us left from our original group. We have plans to meet later this month. We will miss Judy because she represented the very best of us. Hers was a beautiful soul that always lit up the room with her unconditional love and patience. She quietly impacted everyone who ever knew her. She was a helpmate and a font of wisdom. The most remarkable gift that she gave us was herself, and that was the best gift ever.

Making Magic

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Each of us have so many Christmas stories, many of which are worthy of a spot on the Hallmark movie channel. One of my favorite yuletide tales came from author Truman Capote who shared memories of one holiday that he spent with his aunts in Alabama. It was a lovely vignette that spoke volumes of his love for his relatives and their love for him. There is much beauty in the humblest of celebrations and my own childhood is filled with them.

After my father died we were always on a tight budget, but my mother was a very creative soul who had a way of making virtually everything fun. We’d make dozens of cookies while Christmas music played on our Victrola. We loved to sing along while we worked which gave Mama the idea of teaching us how to sing The Little Drummer Boy in four part harmony. First she listened to the song just enough to transcribe all of the words. Then she assigned our various parts and showed us how to put all of them together. It was a great deal of fun, much like it was for the boys who sang with Bing Crosby in the movie Going My Way. It took us quite some time to perfect our routine, but when we finally achieved perfection we felt like singing angels.

Mama was somewhat mischievous when it came to searching for a Christmas tree. She always seemed to choose the day with the most horrible weather for that adventure. She would even laugh when the temperature became lower and lower and the rain began to fall by declaring, “It’s the perfect day for getting our tree.” I think that somehow she thought that the weather outside had to be frightful for us to fully appreciate the experience. We’d inspect the ones in our price range as though we were judges in a beauty pageant until we all agreed on the perfect candidate. Our mother always insisted on sawing off the bottom of the trunk and storing the tree in a bucket of water overnight before setting it in the center of the picture window in our living room. Then the decorating would begin complete with some of those cookies we had made and maybe even some hot chocolate that she prepared with real cocoa and milk. She had particular rules about how each step of the process should be done and the results were always glorious. What I loved the most was the scent of the needles filling the house with the perfume of the season.

Mama loved to go out looking at the Christmas lights on people’s houses. One of the best places in the city back then was near the cemetery where our father was buried. I’m not quite sure how she worked her magic but she managed to make the ritual of putting flowers on his grave less sad by ending the task with ice cream and a drive along the enchanting streets. The best of the displays was a Nativity scene complete with the music of Silent Night. Of course that always inspired Mama to suggest that we sing our way back home. I always thought that my mother had missed her calling. She should have been a Broadway star. She was an extraordinary dancer and had a knack for music that was uncanny. She seriously had enough skill to be a professional even though she was completely self taught.

Because Mama so loved Christmas music we always attended the concert at our church put on by the members of the choir. It was one of the highlights of the season featuring all of the religious classics. My favorite was always “O Holy Night.” One of my best friend’s mom both accompanied the performers on the piano as well as singing in the most beautiful soprano voice. Our mother’s alto voice might have been a lovely addition to the choir, but for some reason she never thought to join.

Most children discover that their parents are Santa Claus by coming upon their gifts before Christmas Eve. I have no clue how our mom hid our presents, but there was never even a hint of what we would receive until we awoke on Christmas morning and discovered the magic that had occurred while we were sleeping. She even managed to put together bicycles  without our ever noticing. She kept us thinking that Santa was real far longer that most kids today do. I don’t know that she ever really told us the truth, but at some point we figured it out on our own.

Of course the very best part of Christmas for us was going to our grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve. Every single aunt, uncle and cousin was present on that evening and the tiny living room was bursting at the seams. Mama and her siblings competed with one another to see who would select Grandma’s favorite gift. It was fun watching their expressions as their mother opened each package. Many of them attempted to buy her dresses and shoes even though they knew that she would still walk around in her bare feet and would always cut the sleeves off of the bodice for comfort. She delighted all of us with her reactions, and watching her open the gifts was the highlight of Christmas.

There was a TG&Y store near our home when we were children. One Christmas we were shopping there when we saw a magnificent Nativity set. The figures were about a foot tall and they stood inside a wooden manger. We thought it was the most beautiful thing that we had ever seen but it cost about twenty dollars and that was a huge amount of money, Mama wasn’t sure that we should be so frivolous as to even think of purchasing it. Still we wanted that lovely creche so much. Even after we had gone home we kept speaking of it and wishing that we might display it in our living room. After dinner Mama got a strange look in her eyes and announced that if we gave up a little bit of this and that we might be able to afford the luxury. We cheered with glee and jumped into the car as excited as if we were going to buy bars of gold. When we set up the lovely statues on our formal dining table we thought that they were wonderful. We never once regretted our decision to throw caution to the wind because Mama would display that set every Christmas for the remainder of her life.

My brothers agreed to let me have what remained of the Nativity after our mother had died. By then all three of the kings were missing and Baby Jesus had lost an arm, but I am as proud of it as I am of anything that I own. Nobody will ever understand what that little display meant to us back in the long ago. Even though I could replace it with a much finer looking one from Costco I don’t have the heart to do so. I think that Jesus looks glorious just as He is.

The Christmas memories that we make with our children and grandchildren will last a lifetime no matter how simple they are. It’s about love and sharing and having fun. It’s making cookies, decorating the tree, singing and visiting with family and friends. It doesn’t take much to bring magic into our lives, just a bit of time and imagination.

Christmas Treasures

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I love decorating my home for the holidays, but it is always a somewhat bittersweet time. I don’t do coordinated colors and high fashion. Instead my Christmas ornaments come from a varied collection that dates back to a time even before my children were born. This year I have three trees in different rooms of the house. Each of them is filled with memories more than loveliness. They include trinkets made by my children and elegant china and crystal pieces. I have things that I purchased on vacations and at least twenty years of Hallmark ornaments that have tickled my fancy. Friends and family members who have gone to heaven gave me a number of the things that hang on the green limbs of my trees and I recall the times that we shared each time that I take the treasures out of the seven boxes that store them for eleven months out of the year. I shed a little tear here and there as I think back over the people and the years that each piece represents. Setting up my trees is a nostalgic time that requires just the right music or Christmas movie running in the background while I work to place each ornament just so.

I laughed this year as I hung the proof of my longtime loyalty to the Houston Astros front and center on the big tree in my great room. I have two ornaments celebrating the team that I purchased so long ago that I can’t recall exactly when or where I came upon them. Other teams are represented as well. Of course I have one from the University of Houston, but I also boast a little sled from Purdue and a bauble from Oklahoma State University that I purchased on the occasion of my brother’s graduation on a bitterly cold December day. Perhaps my most unusual team decoration is a Houston Oiler blue football player made out of yarn emblazoned with the number of the kicker Tony Fritsch. I bought that one at a craft sale long before the Oilers had moved to Tennessee and changed their name. Perhaps it’s time for me to find a J.J. Watt.

My first Hallmark ornament was a replica of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie. It portrays him whistling and steering his ship so contentedly that I smile every single time I see it. To this day it remains my favorite among all of the members of my now extensive collection. I have an obvious preference for all things Mickey or Minnie. Various renditions of them dominate my selections. This year I added a metal lunchbox with Mickey’s image that even includes a tiny thermos inside. That one takes me back to my youth and the warm milk that I drank along with sandwiches that were always a bit stale after sitting in my locker for several hours. I can almost smell the aroma of all of the homemade lunches that my classmates brought and I hear the clink of the lids at they clattered open on the long tables where we sat never dreaming that we would one day grow old.

I also have a thing for Snoopy and Charlie brown. I can’t seem to get enough of those delightful characters. My favorite in the mix shows the whole gang singing in front of a scraggly tree. It makes me think of some of the fresh trees that we had when I was a child. It took a bit of work and a great deal of tinsel to transform them, but when they were finished they were so lovely. I used to lie on the floor gazing above at the lights and the shimmering icicles. Our mother gave us very serious lessons on how to distribute the silver slivers so that they hung just right. I haven’t seen any of those of late and wonder if they are even made anymore. They were almost as messy as the needles that fell from the limbs of the trees, but they were enchanting as they reflected in the glimmer of the colored lights.

For several years now I have purchased the annual Swarovski crystal ornament, a tradition that I began in 2005 after visiting the factory in Austria. Each year is celebrated with a different snowflake crafted in beautiful glass and marked with a tiny silver date plate. They hang so delicately and catch the light in their gorgeous facets. I have made it a yearly ritual to purchase the newest one around the time of my November birthday. I suspect that the lovely creations will one day become heirlooms along with the china gingerbread men that I collected for many years.

When I was still working I signed up to purchase a set of Victorian houses that came to my house once a month for at least two years. They are quite delightful to me and represent the kind of home that I often dreamed of owning, but was never quite able to do. They remind me of the structures in the Houston Heights, a neighborhood where my grandparents lived when I was very young, and where my father-in-law now resides. They literally speak of Christmas to me and the gatherings that we shared each year when my daughters were growing up. We always drove to my in-law’s house so excitedly in anticipation of a great feast and lots of love and laughter. My mother-in-law eventually passed the holiday tradition down to me when she found the efforts needed to cook for so many to be too taxing. Even though I have done my best to create a new tradition, I suspect that everyone who once went to her home misses the feel of that old house and her special touch as much as I do.

I’ve got Harry Potter and Cinderella, golden aspen leaves and glittering pine cones, marshmallow men and gnomes, angels and nativity scenes. The story of my Christmas life fills the trees, telling of fun and friendships and memories. Tying all of it together is Santa Claus who laughs and smiles and glitters with glee. I’m a sucker for anything prtraying the jolly old man. I so vividly recall the magic of his visits when I was young. I can still feel the excitement of trying to sleep on Christmas Eve so that his sleigh might land on our roof to deliver toys for me and my brothers. I never quite understood how Santa did all of the wondrous things that he did each year, but I believed with all of my heart, and I still do. Christmas is truly a time for family and friendships and love and maybe even a miracle or two.

It’s been a tough year for so many in Texas, Florida, California and Puerto Rico. Many of us  have lost loved ones and worried over those who are very sick. I suspect that we need Christmas a bit more than ever. It seems as though we are rushing it here in Houston, but I understand why. Our trauma has been great and we are still reeling and recovering from the floods. Things appear to be back to normal, but there are many who are not yet back in their homes. They may be spending Christmas in a hotel, an apartment or in a room in someone else’s house. Many of their own Christmas treasures washed away in the waters. I thought of them even as I gazed at my own collection that made it through unharmed. My tears of joy and nostalgia were tinged with a touch of sadness for all that has been lost. Still, the real message of Christmas is one of hope. The reason for the season is still about a baby born in a humble manger who came to provide us with the promise that we are never alone. Perhaps this year it is more important than ever to remember what our celebrations should be all about. It doesn’t really matter what our religious beliefs may be, but that Christmas is all about love.