Merry Christmas

Christmas

It’s Christmas Day! Few people will be reading a blog this morning but nonetheless I will offer my take on this glorious holiday. It is rather incredible that so many are celebrating the birth of a child who came into this world over two thousand years ago. He grew into a remarkable man with a simple but profound message that we should always strive to love one another This was the essence of his teaching, something that we all too often forget as we focus on rules for behavior and judgements of those who don’t comply with our own beliefs.

From the humble beginnings of that baby boy came a ray of hope that has transcended time. Whether or not we accept him as the Son of God there is great power in the example of compassion, sacrifice and forgiveness that he gave us. His words resonate in any time just as they have for thousands of years. Celebrating his birth is fitting, but more important is following his commandment to love.

If there is one gift that we should offer on this day it should be understanding even of those who drive us to the brink with what we view as faulty thinking. None of us have a corner on the love of Jesus of Nazareth. He offers it to all just as he wants us to also do.

So enjoy this day and remember the true founder of the feast even it you think he was little more than a very nice man. We should call this holiday Christmas because it would not be here without him. We have yet to fulfill the crux of his teachings. Perhaps one day we will get beyond the frailties of our humanity and bring the light of his love into the world for all to feel.

Merry Christmas!

Our Crazy Christmas Eve

Christmas-Candy

It’s Christmas Eve and I feel as giddy as a child because this evening my big extended family will gather together at my niece’s home to celebrate together. It’s quite a shindig with people traveling from the north, the east and the west to be together as one great big crazy family. It may quite possibly be my most favorite evening of the entire year.

Time was when we gathered at my Grandma Ulrich’s house with all of my aunts, uncles and cousins. I still can’t believe that all of us fit into her tiny home but we somehow managed to cram inside where the noise and laughter was so loud that it must have been heard in downtown Houston. We feasted on apples and oranges and mixed nuts and old fashioned hard candy while my grandmother reveled in having her whole family around her. I always thought it was the most magical place on earth.

Eventually my grandmother died and one of my bachelor uncles did his best to keep the tradition alive but it was never quite the same and when he too left this earth nobody had the will to host such a party each year. That’s when my brother stepped up to have a celebration at his house for our branch of the clan. On the first occasion he made Rueben sandwiches for everyone and a new way of partying was born. Eventually his daughter took over the reigns as the family grew and grew.

It has long been said that only the bravest of souls dare to attend one of our Christmas Eve parties. It’s a way to determine whether or not prospective brides or grooms will be able to adjust to our wild group. Only the strong survive the noise and the chaos that we think of as great fun. It can be an unnerving experience but once someone proves to have what it takes, they tend to embrace the fun and long to be part of it each year.

We are a very open and loving group. We like anyone and it shows in the diversity of ethnicities, political persuasions, religious convictions, and personalities of the people that we embrace unconditionally. Nobody has to be a certain way for us to love them, but they will have to have a bit of patience with the roar of conversations and laughter.

Our gift exchange can get rather competitive and certain members of the family are particularly good at knowing how to walk away with the best possible gifts. They possess strategies that win year after year while the rest of us resolve to figure them out in the next round of the game. We take our rules for the sport quite seriously and each year there is someone who wants to change them at the eleventh hour. So far we have prevented such a travesty.

I spend an entire year searching for something that will garner the fancy of the crowd. Some years I have done well. Others I have sensed the disappointment of someone who chooses the Echo Dot that I brought and doesn’t know how to use it. Everyone likes gift cards but there doesn’t seem to be much thought or fun in that so I strive for the unique.

Sometimes I just sit quietly on the couch observing all of the fun. I’ve watched my children and nieces and nephews grow from children to adults with families of their own. We always seem to have a new crop of children to delight us with their Christmas time innocence Our own heads are greying or balding and our skin shows wrinkles of age but somehow we don’t feel old at all on Christmas Eve. We become like kids again.

I keep reading that the family unit is being threatened and that time with extended family is becoming less and less common. I truly hate to hear that because it has been the crazy crew of relatives who have sustained me through all of the uncertainties of my life. On that first Christmas after my father died it was at my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve that I knew I was going to be alright. I felt the outpouring of love all around me and understood that I was part of a group that would never let me and my brothers down. Somehow they never did.

Now my brothers and I are hopefully sending the same message to our children and grandchildren. They are part of a loving group that will always be ready to embrace them. There is no more important knowledge to give our young.

I suppose that I have been very lucky to have a yearly reminder of my good fortune. Not everyone has experienced the joy of being loved by so many. I hope with all of my heart that our tradition continues through the coming years. It is a living example of what the Christmas spirit should be.

Another Place In Time

Dickens

I live less than an hour away from Galveston, Texas, a heavenly island in the Gulf of Mexico with a storied history. On a lovely day it’s easy to understand why it was one of the fastest growing and most influential cities in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s avenues boasted lovely Victorian homes, many of which still stand, and panoramic views of sandy beaches and the ever changing sea. It was a mecca for entrepreneurs and folks hoping to enjoy a better life. It certainly seemed to be a place that would fulfill all of the hopes and dreams of its citizens. In 1900, a storm approached that would destroy much of the city and kill more individuals than any other hurricane ever has. The terror of the night when nature turned what had been a model city into splinters dashed the optimism of many, but not the underlying spirit of the city of Galveston itself.

While the neighboring town of Houston became the behemoth of growth and progress Galveston settled for transforming itself into more of a sleepy resort and home for a determined populace that would forever boast of the courage and ingenuity of those who were BOI, born on the island. They literally raised the entire city and built a seawall as a defense against future hurricanes. While the citizenry has seen destruction from storms again and again it always finds a way to bounce back from the momentary setbacks and to enjoy and celebrate life on the island.

There are a number of festivals that have become traditional in the city that is a little bit New Orleans, a little bit refined gentry, a little bit touristy, and always bold. It feels as though life in Galveston is a year long party, a determined celebration of life. Perhaps it is so because the people there understand just how tenuous the human experience actually is.

My favorite of the Galveston festivals has always been the Christmas themed Dickens on the Strand. The buildings of commerce from long ago Galveston still grace the landscape near the city’s port, a place where immigrants first saw the land of the United States and where titans once ruled. Lovely shops and restaurants now attract visitors from places near and far. It’s a wonderful weekend haunt for residents of Houston and its suburbs and for vacationers from other parts of the country and sometimes even the world.

In early December the Strand is decked in Christmas finery and peopled by actors in regalia from the time of Charles Dickens complete with visits from Queen Victoria herself. Those who attend the annual party often wear period costumes filling the street with a long ago feel as they walk among wardens from London, men in top hats, and ladies boasting their finest bonnets.

There are craftsmen and merchants selling all form of goods from Christmas ornaments to art and fine clothing. The smells of roasting chestnuts and cinnamon treats fill the air along with the music of bagpipes and the tunes of Irish jigs. It’s a kind of frivolous way to simply enjoy the season without the worries of time constraints and shopping lists. For a moment it feels like Galveston may have seemed in the long ago when Victoria was still on the throne and a lovely December day in the city was filled with soft sea breezes and brilliantly blue skies. It’s a time when everyone is friendly and happy and seemingly without cares.

The event extends from a Friday evening preview until late afternoon on Sunday usually on the first December weekend before the big Christmas rush begins. Each day features a parade and St. Nicholas wanders through the crowd ready to pose for photos and a recitation of Christmas wishes. One might encounter a band of pirates or a group of steampunk dandies, There are British Bobbies and Scottish clansmen. In other words, its a feast for the eyes and the imagination.

My husband Mike and I have generally arrived incognito in our modern attire but this year we decided to join in the fun of dressing as characters from the past. Mike was particularly impressive with his striped grey suit pants with matching vest, his long coat, top hat and paisley cravat. His neatly polished shoes and silver handled cane made him a Victorian dandy for certain. I found a long black skirt to pair with my high collared white blouse which I adorned with a cameo pin that came from either my mother or my grandmother. I found a hat worthy of a visit with the queen and wore a black shawl in case the fickle weather turned cool. I also happened to have a pair of black boots with three little button fittings to secure them. On the whole we looked rather authentic and turned a head or two as we strolled down the Strand.

It was amusing to be approached by strangers who wanted to take their pictures with us. There was even one child who held us in as much awe as she might have done with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. I found myself getting into character and wishing the people that I passed a good day in my most refined accent.

Our afternoon was a much needed diversion from the hectic demands that seem to overtake us the closer we get to December 25. It reminded us to focus on the fun and meaning of the season, perhaps more so because we silently remembered the Galveston citizens of long ago who had so innocently believed that they had found heaven on earth before their lives were ended so brutally and abruptly . Life is indeed short and unpredictable so we have to grab delight wherever and whenever we find it. Dickens on the Strand is a wonderful way to remember to have fun and to love.

Love Was Born At Christmastime

christmas-lights

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so the song goes. Colorful lights add a bit of merriment to the nights, Christmas carols fill the air in cars and homes and stores. Aisles of grocery stores are filled with tasty treats and ingredients for special feasts. We deck the halls of our homes and plan for special parties and lunches with friends. Our Facebook walls and Instagram accounts fill with photos of people having a good time. It feels as though the world is bursting with happiness, so much so that we sometimes forget about those who are suffering from loneliness, painful health problems or profound loss. For some “last Christmas” is not just a George Michael song, but a reality as they face the certainty of death.

It can be incredibly difficult to watch all the frivolities and rejoicing when one’s world feels as though it is careening toward disaster. I know from profound experience how difficult it can be to fake it through the holiday season after the death of a special person. I have spent a Christmas time confined to my home with a serious illness. The season of celebration can emphasize sorrows making them seem doubly hurtful. Sadly there are many among us each Christmas who have difficulty feeling the jocular spirit and in our rush to post our Christmas cards in time and purchase presents for those we love we sometimes forget about them.

It’s not particularly difficult to make a donation on Thankful Tuesday or fill a shoebox with gifts for a child, but taking the time to genuinely remember the people around us who are struggling with sadness is all too often ignored. We sometimes fear talking about unhappy topics or being around someone who is feeling defeated or confused or sad. Instead we seek the comfort of fun people, places, and things. All of which makes life feel a bit more dreary for those whose turn in life is not so jolly at this particular time. It would be nice if we would add to our list of things to buy and do a reminder to set aside some time for anyone who might be having a hard go this December.

I have always had angels in my own life who comforted me when I least expected their notice. I cannot even begin to describe how much their compassion meant to me. When as a child the very thought of Christmas saddened and frightened me because of my father’s death only months before there were lovely friends and family members who came to our home bearing good cheer and sometimes a tin of homemade cookies or just the gift of their time. On the occasion of my Christmas confinement because of a four month long case of hepatitis everyone save for my mother and my husband’s parents avoided our family like the plague. When our dear friends Egon and Marita came to visit it was as though the three kings had arrived to honor us. Another time when my mother-in-law died only weeks before December 25, friends from the school where I worked sent so many greetings and condolences and baskets of flowers and fruits. Just knowing that someone was thinking of me during those sad times brightened my mood and helped me to remember what the holiday is really all about.

Over two thousand years ago a baby who would change the world was born. He grew to preach a gospel of love and compassion. Every aspect of his brief life here on the earth demonstrated what it means to be a human and how we have the ability to elevate the meaning of our lives through faith, hope and charity. He came not as an intolerant judge who lacked an understanding of how it feels to suffer, but instead as a beacon of hope even during the times when our lives feel almost unbearable. He was betrayed by a friend, denied by another, and abandoned by all but one member of the group of apostles that he had formed. He was jeered by a crowd that had only recently cheered him. He died a painful death like a common criminal even though he was an innocent. What he wanted us to know is that even in the midst of injustice, pain, and loss we are never alone. He demonstrated how he expected us to treat everyone. That is the purpose of his birth. He is the reason for the season, and all too often they very idea that we ignore.

I have a cousin who has produced a most loving and remarkable family. In past years he and his wife have been the joy and the life of the Christmas celebration. This year they have endured great health challenges that have made it difficult for them to feel the happiness that they once exuded. On Thanksgiving day every one of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren descended on their home bringing a feast of food and joy. After the dinner the family decorated a Christmas tree, hung lights on the house, set out the stockings and transformed the place into a lovely scene. They laughed, took photos, told stories and hugged each other over and over again. They brought joy to a place that had felt hopelessly bleak. They filled every nook and cranny with their love and no doubt will return again and again during the weeks ahead. They showed us all what Christmas should mean.

Don’t forget the forgotten. That was the message of the founder of the Christmas feast, Jesus Christ. It was a plainly simple idea that we would all do well to follow even if we are not religious. It is a certainty that someone that you know needs your love at this time of year more than ever. Be there for them and give them the gift of your love. 

Be Still and Hear

jesus-birth

Christmas is my favorite time of year but it is also when I get more stressed out than normal. I push myself to follow routines and traditions that make me soar with happiness and yet I find it less and less easy to be the old energetic self that manages to get every single thing done without a hitch. Filling my calendar with a “to do” list that keeps me buzzing along hour after hour leaves me anxious and aching in ways that I never experienced when I was younger. It’s difficult for me to admit that I can’t work without rest for twelve hours while attempting to make my home a wonderland worthy of Martha Stewart. It irks me that doing so leaves me exhausted and even crippled and angry at myself. I don’t want to be one of those old ladies who suddenly announces that I’m only going to have a tiny ceramic Christmas tree this year and call it a day. Still, I wonder if I am missing the point of the season when I work myself into a physical and mental frenzy. It is only when I sit quietly beside the lights of the Christmas tree and meditate on the scene of the manger figures that my mother gave me long ago that I feel the essence of the true joy of Christmas.

I’m not becoming a Scrooge or a grouchy old woman. I still love all of the senseless frivolities of Christmas, but as I grow older I feel more and more reverence for the reason of the season. It is breathtaking to realize that two thousand years later so many in this world are still influenced by the life and the teachings of a man whose beginnings were so humble. How is it and why is it that millions and millions have believed in his message of hope and love and faith? Why does letting him into my heart bring me so much peace?

Christianity is built on a mystery that some find impossible to accept while I find it impossible to deny. Jesus has walked beside me through horrific times when I truly felt that I might never find the strength to continue and yet here I am, still inching my way through life one step at a time. I somehow know that it has been Jesus who has provided me with the will to persevere. It is he who has listened to my most private concerns and given me the courage to keep going. It is he who has shown me how to see the beauty of this world and its people. From him I have found great joy in ordinary circumstances. When I still my heart and listen I am able to be a better version of myself than I ever thought possible.

The world can be terrifying these days, but probably no more so than when Jesus walked on the dusty roads of the Holy Land. We humans often make a mess of things, even the messages that he gave us. We have a difficult time accepting differences and seeing beyond the superficial. We judge and compare and do all of those things that have caused hurt and pain. We fret when things don’t go the way we want, growing angry even at God. we sometimes don’t think we even need a higher power to help us. We are after all quite inventive and able to stand on our own feet. We grow proud and unwilling to believe that it is possible that we have gotten things wrong and  we forget that Jesus gave us only one guarantee and that is that if we believe what he had to say by trusting him and loving our fellowman our rewards will be immeasurable.

It’s a simple but difficult concept to trust, to keep the faith, to love unconditionally. Mankind is impatient, doubting. We want proof and somehow we require that proof to being devoid of pain or sorrow When it is not, we despair and forget to watch for the signs of God’s presence in the smallest of things like the babbling of a baby or the rising of the sun. All we need do is be still and listen for his voice and we will feel the power of his teachings, we will know that he is never far from us. What better time of year is there to quiet ourselves so that we might feel his presence?

I know that there are many more religions than the one that Jesus inspired. I truly believe that God has been revealed in many different ways to many different cultures. The Jew, the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Mormon are all fellow travelers on a journey that is fraught with both difficulties and joys. From what I know of Jesus he would ask us to love one another in spite of our differences. He would want us to embrace even those who scoff at the very idea of faith in a God. I find that inspiring and the essence of what this season should be.

I try to listen the the quiet each day and ask Jesus to enter my heart. His voice grows ever louder whenever I do. I feel great joy and hear his command to love. He reminds me constantly not to judge or hate or worry about my fate. I feel only trust that all will be well, that Christmas will continue to celebrate the love that was born on that day of long ago. We will be alright in spite of ourselves because he has shown us how to live.