Not A Holly, Jolly Christmas

A snow hug…photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

The 2018 holidays are officially behind us, and there are those among us heaving a huge sigh of relief.

Not everyone has a holly, jolly Christmas.

I helped a friend yesterday mostly just by listening. Her extended family and friends had been giving her a hard time because she hadn’t been upbeat enough for them over the holidays.

Three years into having lost her husband of 39 years, she has tried explaining to them the double-whammy she faces. Her husband died in mid-November 2015 so that means there are two sets of family holiday traditions that no longer exist for her.

Both Thanksgiving and Christmas are forever changed.

When a person of deep significance in your life dies, the holidays can be devastating. So many memories are tied to the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. Yes, that year of “firsts” is the worst, AND some people are never able to fully recover to celebrate again.

That does not make them bad people or somehow wrong.

There are individuals (whom I choose to believe are well-intentioned) who want to impose a “could you just get over it and move on” directive on others.

If there is any wisdom I have gained in this life it’s this: Grief and the process of recovering from it is a highly personal state. There is no timeline for when we “should” or “need to” adjust to life without someone we love.

And again, the memory-laden time of the holidays can be overwhelming. Some of us may want to immerse ourselves back into life, being surrounded by people. And some of us don’t. We just want to go away on a trip or be left alone.

There is no wrong answer.

No one has the prerogative to tell others how to live their lives. It’s enough to show up for them, listen empathically, and love them. We include them in events but we don’t guilt-trip them into attending if they say no thanks.

And please don’t look pained when folks say the name of the person who has died. Join them in saying the name! When we dance around their loss by talking about anything else, well, that’s less than helpful.

My friend’s face truly lit up when I brought up my own favorite memory of her husband. “I remember the time James was trying to make homemade spaghetti sauce and he…”

Remembering the dead is not maudlin or living in the past. It’s supporting people who are really saying, “I still love and miss this person and I don’t want him to be forgotten.” Or “I need you to remember her like I do.”

Forget the gift wrap and the bows next year. Give the gift of remembering someone no longer on this earth to the person who is missing them.

Keeping Time Beautifully

Keeping TIme

The cover of the Linnea Design calendar book

In this big-box store, Amazon-Prime economy, it’s easy to forget about the small businesses of the world. One Christmas gift for my daughter Laura was a gentle reminder to me that there are companies among us who truly care about each customer, who put their soul into their products, who want to astonish us by both their products and their service.

One of our family Christmas traditions concerns calendars; Laura thoughtfully chooses photos to match monthly birthdays and anniversaries then puts together a memory-filled Shutterstock photo calendar for me. I search for an interesting, nothing run-of-the-mill calendar that I know she’ll enjoy.

My search this year took me to Linnea Design via Amazon. They specialize in poster type calendars with rich colors. I could have bought the calendar on the Linnea site, but I got it for the same price plus free shipping on Amazon, so….

But when the Amazon package arrived in a regular Amazon box with bubble wrap, I realized I hadn’t read the description fully enough. The pages are indeed individual posters, so I needed to buy a frame for them. I went back to the Linnea site, ordered the frame and a monthly book (with the same poster pages) for my desk.

Upon its arrival, I found that the company had inadvertently sent another poster calendar along with the frame and book.  I called to let them know so they could adjust their shipping practices if necessary. But mainly I called to tell them how impressive their packaging is.

The poster calendar was in a bright red, heavy stock, tri-cut folder that fit the poster pages exactly. It was adorned with a wrap-around two-inch white ribbon and sticker. This was then placed inside green tissue paper, folded with precision, and taped. Clearly, someone invested time and care in ensuring that this looked great!

The phone was answered by a woman, a real person, on the second ring. I was trying to ascertain if there was a customer service manager, and the woman said, “Oh dear. It sounds like you’re calling with a complaint. How can I help you?”

When I said that actually I was calling to say thanks for making my day with this beautiful packaging and product, I could hear her beaming through the phone line. Then she said, “Wait until you see next year’s packaging! We’re already working on a custom ribbon.”

I did mention the extra calendar, and she said to keep it and thanks for letting them know, that she would pass it along. Then she said, “We have just six employees, so I won’t forget.”

Six employees. And according to their site, one of them appears to be a dog:

“Sparky, the Wonder Dog, is the morale officer in charge of snacking.”

Buying from a nice small company made my heart go pit-a-pat. I wonder which of the six employees wrapped the calendar. Although he’s referred to as a “wonder dog,” I’m willing to bet it wasn’t Sparky.

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Linnea Design

 

The Sounds of Christmas

Sounds of Christmas

photo by Norma Thatcher

Please note:  Today’s post is based on the Christmas letter I included with my cards this year.  So if you are a close friend or family member on my card list, you may be reading this twice! But there is additional information contained here plus there are some great links at the bottom.

Jingle bells, silver bells, church bells, sleigh bells, the Salvation Army Kettle bell—they’re all part of the sounds of Christmas.

We create the crinkly noise of placing a gift in tissue paper before it’s placed in a box. Roll out that giftwrap…cut, fold, fold in the sides, then fold, fold the top and bottom ends. The tape makes a zipping sound as we tear off pieces to seal up our offering.

We chop, measure, and pour ingredients into the bowl. There’s the whirring sound of the mixer, the rattling of the cookie sheets. The timer dings when the cookies are baked to perfection.

If we listen, there are many sounds of Christmas besides the familiar carols and hymns.

I wonder what sounds were heard as the first Christmas arrived. Was it noisy or quiet?

The book of Luke is quite stingy with details. Did Mary and Joseph make the hundred mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem alone or perhaps travel with others making the same trek to their ancestral hometown? We like to assume they took along a donkey to carry their belongings and for Mary to ride.

And yes, we are accustomed to the “no room in the inn” story, but there are Biblical scholars who insist that Bethlehem (off the beaten path) could not have supported an “inn” in its accepted meaning. The New Testament Greek word used (kataluma) actually means guest room; so it may actually have been no vacancy in the guest room of someone’s house.

Luke doesn’t actually state that Jesus was born in a barn. The statement of Jesus being laid in a manger (an animal food trough) is likely what brought forth that understanding. Did Mary and Joseph, as some scholars insist, end up staying in a lower room of a home that housed both people and animals? It would have been terraced to separate the animals from the human living area. It makes sense there would have been a manger.

The truth is we don’t really know about Jesus’ actual birth. Maybe Mary and Joseph weren’t even alone. Perhaps other women, per custom, assisted Mary while the men waited elsewhere smoking cigars.

We can’t be certain of any specific sounds of that night. And that’s OK.

I choose to believe the time just after Jesus’ birth was peacefully quiet. The new little family of three was settling in for the night. The cattle were slowly shifting around trying to adapt to the change in circumstances. Light from the magnificent star overhead cast about, cutting the darkness.

Quiet. Stillness. Peace.

Advent, done well, helps prepare us for the arrival of our King. When the commercialization of Christmas seems intent on overwhelming us with the non-stop noise, we need only step back into that moment of quiet, stillness, peace…and reflect on God’s gift of his Son to the earth.

The name says it all: Immanuel – God with us.

May God continue to be with you at Christmas and in the coming year.

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Over a thousand people came together for this video – a must watch!

Amy Grant’s “I need a silent night”   

One view on inn or guestroom

 

 

Merry Plastic Christmas

Christmas tree farm

Photo courtesy of Analise1988 on Pixabay.com

The American Christmas Tree Association sounds so, well, all-American. Say the name aloud and your brain may conjure up a Hallmark vision of a family and their dog tromping through a snow-covered field of trees as they search for their very own tree to cut down.

The ACTA’s marketing plan has enabled them to more than double their market share of tree sales since 2010. That year 8.2 million trees were sold compared to 2017 when that figure jumped to 21.1 million.

It’s too bad that most of those 21 million “trees” were manufactured in China.

Yes, the ACTA represents artificial Christmas tree manufacturers whose products are made primarily of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and metal.

PVC is a petroleum-based, non-biodegradable plastic. It does not have a healthy reputation. Why have Americans been seduced by the “natural looking” plastic Christmas tree?

Some people cite environmental reasons: Leave our trees alone!

But real Christmas trees are grown specifically for harvesting! Growers replant 1-3 seedlings for each tree harvested. It takes 7-10 years for a tree to grow before it’s harvested for sale

So citing “environmental reasons” as the reason to buy a plastic tree from China (how big of a footprint is that?!) doesn’t make sense.

The association that represents real Christmas trees is the National Christmas Tree Association. Their members are actual people; real Americans growing trees in America. Many of them, such as Loweland Farm where I buy my tree each year, are multi-generational family owned businesses.

Here is some information from their site: “While they’re growing, Real Christmas Trees support life by absorbing carbon dioxide and other gases and emitting fresh oxygen. The farms that grow Christmas Trees stabilize soil, protect water supplies and provide refuge for wildlife while creating scenic green belts. Often, Christmas Trees are grown on soil that doesn’t support other crops.”

And think about the memory making aspect: I dare you to compare the idyllic scene noted earlier of the family choosing a tree (either to cut down or to pick one that has been pre-cut) to pulling a dusty box from the attic or basement or garage and sticking plastic branches into a metal trunk.

Oh I know there are more expensive flip trees and snap trees that go up in less than a minute. Some are even pre-lit so you don’t have to string the lights. And of course, you can spray a fake scent on your fake tree to make it seem more real.

Recycling a real tree (some call it treecycling) has gotten easier. Earth911.com states on their site that over 93% of real Christmas trees are recycled.  Most communities have tree pickup service so the trees can be chipped or shredded to produce mulch.

Living where we do, we simply drag our tree back into the woods.

Artificial trees are not recyclable since PVC is non-biodegradable.

Yes, the out-of-pocket expense for a real tree is more on an annual basis. Like other expenses, I include the cost in my Christmas budget. And yes, certainly there are those with allergic reactions to real trees, and I’m sorry those folks miss out on the real-tree experience.

But for the rest of you with artificial trees (and you know who you are!), I encourage you to leave that box in the attic/basement/garage next year and buy a real Christmas tree.

Get back to keeping it real, baby.

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New York Times article on real vs. artificial

Some facts about real Christmas trees

 

 

The Not-So-Perfect Tree. Again.

Christmas tree

Photo by Norma Thatcher

My Christmas tree is lopsided by nature. It has some serious gaps. Branches stick out here and there. And it seems that every year I forget that Fraser firs relax and lower their branches as they adapt to our home’s indoor climate. So the ornaments hanging on my tree’s lowest branches are now grazing the floor.

I’m neither complaining nor upset. These anomalies make my tree all the more endearing to me.

In 1981 Woman’s Day magazine reprinted a story from Guidepost’s Family Christmas Book. Written by Dick Schneider, it told the story of an evergreen tree growing in a small kingdom in Europe. The tree believed it had a chance to win the most perfect tree contest; the prize was reigning in honor in the palace hall for everyone to admire.

Each evergreen vied for this honor. They kept their branches closed tightly so the sleet and snow wouldn’t cause issues with their perfection. On windy days they opened their branches so the breezes could pass through without causing harm.

But the star of the story took pity on various animals and birds as the winter weather got progressively worse. It lowered its bottom branches to protect a rabbit being chased by dogs. The tree opened its top branches to shelter a wren. During a windy gale, our tree with a heart protectively closed its branches around a fawn that had strayed from its mother.

So what had been absolute perfection was now a sorry sight. The bottom branches drooped. Gaps had been opened and would not close. The trunk leaned a little to the left. Broken branches oozed pine gum.

In fact, when the Queen arrived on her sleigh to choose the most perfect tree, she was horrified to see this example. She considered having it cut down and burned immediately. But then…she noticed the feathers sticking out from the upper branches and the tracks of the various animals that had found shelter and protection from the tree, and her heart melted with understanding.

When the Queen chose the damaged tree as the most perfect, everyone in the kingdom agreed. “For in looking at its gnarled and worn branches, many saw the protecting arm of their father, others the comforting bosom of a mother, and some, as did the Queen, saw the love of Christ expressed on earth.”

And that’s why real Christmas trees, including mine, are not perfect.

Trees serve as a role model for us. They remind us to open ourselves to the world, to serve others, to be the one that helps when others say no.

The last sentence of the original story sums it up beautifully: “…the trees have learned that the scars suffered for the sake of others make one most beautiful in the eyes of God.”

Vintage Was Not An Advantage

vintage tablecloth

The vintage cloth with new “vintage-looking” decorations.

Last year I found a beautiful vintage tablecloth for my large dining room table.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you likely know I cherish my finds of “gently used” old items.

When I sit in my small antique rocker, I consider the many babies who likely have been lulled to sleep by its subtle to and fro movement.

I picture my secondhand serving bowls and platters gracing the tables of families long gone from this earth. It’s OK that I spend time hand-washing these dishes that were created prior to the moment when “dishwasher safe” imprinting was a reality.

And so I imagined that my long vintage tablecloth would also add the same type of ambiance to the gatherings at our home.

But there is one serious drawback I hadn’t considered. Vintage cloth translates to the situation of that behemoth of a covering needing to be ironed.

Ugh. I can’t stand to iron. I’ve avoided ironing my entire life. Full disclosure: When I was a cheerleader in high school, I didn’t see the need to iron my whole blouse since 98% of it was covered by a pullover sweater.

So I took a shortcut and ironed just the collar and the cuffs on the sleeves.

My mother was appalled.

Alas, there are no ironing shortcuts with a tablecloth.

I lugged the ironing board up from the basement and begrudgingly began the task. I stopped to write a note: “Buy wrinkle-free large Christmas tablecloth.”

Because ironing provides time (in this case, LOTS of time) to think, I thought, you know, I have some friendships that fall in similar categories as tablecloths.

Some are no-iron/wrinkle-free that require little work on my part to maintain in excellent condition. Others are a little more fragile…vintage-ish and require some tending to maintain.

My wrinkle-free friendships are just that…I feel super comfortable in them without worrying I’m going to say something that might be taken the wrong way. These no-iron women and I truly understand each other.

The requires-tending friendships are also meaningful to me, and I need to adjust my attitude regarding the care they require. I can’t begrudge the time they take; I want to honor the time they take.

We knew the truth when we were kids; we knew it as young adults. It’s good to remind ourselves of it as we grow older. Not everyone can be our best friend or even be included in a group we consider our closest friends. AND…it’s still wonderfully fulfilling to have friends outside that circle.

And I have great news! For $12 my local dry cleaner will wash and iron my vintage tablecloth for me.

I found an ironing shortcut after all.

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A site for vintage tablecloths

 

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime? Or How About Some Tinsel?

Ornaments

Photo courtesy of cegoh on Pixabay.com

I once got in trouble with HR. No one likes to get a notice that the head of Human Resources wants to see you, right?

As I made my way to the “principal’s office” that early December day,  I did a mental check of what it could possibly be about. If you know me (or have been reading my blog for very long), you know I’m a good girl, a straight arrow, the epitome of “always does the right thing.”

It turns out I had been caught soliciting.

No, not that kind of soliciting.

You see, a co-worker had lost all her Christmas decorations when her basement flooded the previous spring. I overheard her talking about how deeply distressed she was about the thought of a tree without ornaments.

I had the bright idea to ask our co-workers if they would donate an ornament or two from their own stash. People brought in lovely ornaments to me. When I made the presentation to her, she cried in gratefulness.

And that was my crime…soliciting used ornaments for someone without any. Guilty as charged.

Yes, I understand that “personal selling” in an office can get out of hand. Through the years, I’ve bought my share of Girl Scout cookies and elementary school wrapping paper. I’ve donated to wonderful causes. It’s hard to tell where to draw the line.

But give me a break. Where does inappropriate soliciting stop and nit-picking begin?

I was reminded of the incident listening to an NPR show the other day. Joy Cho (author, decorator, and founder of the company Oh Joy) was taking viewer calls and emails about holiday decorating on a budget.

A woman whose father’s house had been flooded by Hurricane Harvey asked for an inexpensive way to replace the ornaments he had gathered over the years and lost to the flood waters. As with my co-worker, the dad’s original ornaments and decorations held much meaning to him. New ornaments, fresh from the store packaging, just wouldn’t be the same.

The daughter asked for help in providing her dad decorations that would be “meaningful, decorative, and festive, but also not a huge investment.”

Joy Cho suggested that the daughter send an email to all the relatives and her dad’s close friends. Tell them what happened, and then make this request: “Let’s all send him one ornament that means something to us or reminds us of him, and let’s surprise him with that.”

Cho suggested that the givers write a message with their offerings.

She asked the listeners to imagine the man’s reaction when all those packages started showing up at his door.

What a wonderful new start to a familiar Christmas tradition!

Gee, I wish I had thought of that.

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Transcript of NPR show

 

The Ultimate Lost and Found Department

Lost and Found

Photo courtesy of Jan Baby on Pixabay.com

Last year my step-daughter Melissa said she had a surprise for me. She prefaced its unveiling by announcing, “You’re either going to be really mad at me or really happy.”

When she opened her car’s back door, I saw two boxes I’d been missing for over a dozen years.

In the early 2000s, we packed our belongings into storage units while securing land and building our home. Especially fragile or meaningful boxes were stashed with friends and family; the group included Melissa who had held on to our Christmas decorations.

When the house was finished in 2004, we retrieved our worldly goods from their various locations.

That first Christmas, I couldn’t find the stockings for the mantle that my children had loved since they were little. And then I realized I was missing other little Christmas decorations here and there.

Melissa was adamant that nothing of mine was left in her attic. I chalked up the mystery to the boxes had just somehow gotten lost.

Last spring when cleaning out her attic, Melissa found the two stray boxes that had gotten separated from the rest. No, I wasn’t mad; I was indeed happy to reclaim that part of our family’s Christmas story.

Isn’t it great to find something that’s been missing? Even if it’s been missing just a little while? And even when it’s something ordinary like a hat or a glove that you know likely isn’t really lost; it’s just been temporarily misplaced. It’s such a relief to find the thing.

Lost and found is a concept that holds such importance that there are three parables of Jesus covering the topic: the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost (prodigal) son.

Have you ever considered that the three parables follow the same storyline? To quote Our Daily Journey from January 23, 2012, “All three stories can be summarized by just four words: lost, search, found, rejoice.”

And by rejoice, I don’t mean the finders did a little happy dance. No indeed! They invited friends to join them in a feast and celebration of joy over finding what had been lost.

It’s the last week of November. Advent, the season of preparing for Christmas, begins this Sunday. I believe the reason it’s such a season of joy and celebration is that we’re readying ourselves to be reminded that the world was lost until some poor shepherds found a baby in a manger.

We celebrate now because we already know how the story goes.

That gives a splendid meaning to the term lost and found.

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Our Daily Journey talking about the lost and found parables

 

Not Just Any Christmas Tree

 The day after Thanksgiving I make a 45 minute drive to Loweland Farm in Middleburg, Virginia, to purchase my Christmas tree. They are open for tree sales exactly seven days (Thanksgiving Friday, Saturday and Sunday and the first two weekends in December).    

A hayride will take you to their tree field where you can cut your own tree from a selection of spruce, pine, and some fir. But my tree of choice is a Frasier Fir which is NOT a “cut your own.”

 Most Frasiers are grown in a limited area of the Southern Appalachian Mountains at higher elevations in portions of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

 For many years the Farm contracted with a grower nearly at the North Carolina border to cut trees just for them. The trees would be harvested just before Thanksgiving, brought to the farm, and then each tree sat in its own bucket of fresh water to preserve the freshness.

 This year when I surveyed the Frasiers, I was disappointed in the selection. The trees were as amazingly fresh as always, but the branches weren’t as tightly spaced together so there were gaps between each level.

 I politely noted this to the young man helping me and asked for the story. He said this was the first harvest from their own Frasier Fir tree farm in Highland County, VA, after eight years of growing.  (The county is referred to as Virginia’s Little Switzerland. )

 Well, guess what? I didn’t make a 90-minute round trip to come home without a tree, so I chose one that ended up a tad lopsided with branches that stick out here and there like my hair does when I use too much thickening spray for that “natural” look.

But here’s the upside: I had enough room to tuck larger lights into the tree next to the trunk; that provides an unusual effect. And while this is not the widest tree I’ve ever had, the wide-gapped branches provide more room so that every ornament is able to have its own space which means you can actually view each one to appreciate it.

This far-from-perfect tree reminds me of a lesson I teach my students:

Perfect is so boring. Unpredictable individuality is much more interesting and it produces rewarding reactions.

That’s true whether you’re a speaker in front of an audience or a guest in my home sipping hot cocoa while admiring my tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Most WOW! Message Ever

Photo courtesy of Gareth Harper on Unsplash

Note: Today’s post is based on my 2017 Christmas letter. So if you’re on my card list, you’ll be reading something that feels familiar!

Author and speaker Michael Hyatt is adamant in his advice to exceed client/customer expectations. We must do whatever it takes to produce a WOW! response when clients/customers use our products or services.

Consider what must have been the most unrealistic and unexpected WOW! message in history: “Hey Mary. You are going to be the actual Holy Mother of God.”

An unworldly young girl receives the angel Gabriel’s announcement that the Holy Spirit will come upon her to impregnate her and, oh yes, did I happen to mention your baby will be the son of God?

Talk about WOW!

Joseph himself received a WOW! dream notice from an angel regarding the situation so that he understood.

There must have been some really amazing faith between Mary and Joseph for them to accept, believe, and act upon these angelic tidings.

Then the two of them receive the WOW! legal notice: Leave Nazareth and travel about a hundred miles (eight to ten days of walking) to Bethlehem where Joseph’s ancestral records are kept so that your family can be included in the census of the Roman empire.

I have been known to whine progressively louder while in the comfort of a leather seat in a luxury car with the seat warmer turned on high, “It can’t possibly still be eight more miles to the rest area!”

But there is not a word in scripture about Mary complaining about traveling on foot or perhaps riding on a donkey for over a week while heavy with child.

And no matter what concert you last attended, I’m sure the sound and lights can’t compete with the multitude of angels…the great company of the heavenly host who appeared to the ordinary people, the lowly shepherds…the first people to hear the news. The one you have been waiting for is here. The Messiah has been born in Bethlehem.

Can’t you just picture those shepherds looking up into the night sky and uttering a collective job-dropping WOW? And after finding the child, they went around and did what they were supposed to do—spread the good news and, I’m sure, received many WOWs in the process.

It’s easy to understand why the story surrounding the Messiah’s birth is the first chapter of what’s referred to as The Greatest Story Ever Told.

And what would a great story be without a gift for its readers and listeners? The WOW! message for each of us is the most well-known, most widely recognized verse of the Bible: the third chapter of John, verse 16.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  

For God so loved you.

 Yes, you.

 No matter what.

 Wow.