Real, Plastic, or Ceramic?

ceramic tree

Putting away Christmas leaves me a little blue. After all the lights, bright colors, candles, sparkle, ribbons, and decorations are boxed up, my house is bleak. Blah.

Last year I began a new practice of creating winter tableaus from bits and pieces of my Christmas decorations. I’ve found that it really lifts my winter spirits.

One of the items I kept out this year is a 6” ceramic lighted tree as shown in the above photo. Although this was a gift from my mother-in-law Rosalie, it reminds me of my own grandmother Elizabeth who had a larger ceramic tree that graced the dining room during the Christmas season.

As it turns out, ceramic trees have quite the history.

According to, ceramic parties were popular in the 60s and 70s. Instead of Tupperware or Avon parties, women with a knack for crafts found themselves at ceramic parties making all sorts of decorations. In November, the crafting focused on Christmas items such as Santas, nutcrackers, and, of course, trees.

I can’t picture my grandmother attending craft parties, so her ceramic tree was likely a gift from someone.

The tree molds were manufactured by a limited number of providers, and that’s why most of the vintage ceramic trees in existence today look so similar.

When the 80s rolled around, this type of group crafting began fading from popularity. By the 90s, people were purchasing ready-made products. says, “For the next 30 years, ceramic trees entered that awkward outdated phase that so often comes between trendy and vintage.”

Enter 2020 and the pandemic. People longed for comfort foods, sweatpants, and nostalgic Christmas decorations. Yes, ceramic trees made a huge comeback this past Christmas. Like me, folks had fond memories of ceramic trees from their childhoods.

For the many people who decided to forego the usual Christmas decorating this year (why bother when no one will be around to see your house?), the ceramic tree filled the need without too much effort.

I hope that next December people will revert to honoring their full Christmas traditions, whatever they may be, and not let the “it’s too much bother” excuse of pandemic times make us lazy.

My Christmas “stuff,” none of it rare or expensive, keeps the story of our family’s Christmases going strong. And I guess I’ll keep telling that story as long as people will listen.


Article from on ceramic trees

My blog from 2018 about live Christmas trees vs. plastic

Images of ceramic trees

Summary of “how-to” make your own ceramic tree. Note, there is a cute one-minute video at the end of the article showing children painting and accessorizing a pre-cast ceramic tree.


A Sacred Space

sacred space

St. James’ Episcopal Church, Warrenton, VA

If you receive a Christmas card letter from me, you’ll notice that today’s post is based on this year’s letter.  Be sure to listen to the music at the end of this post; it’s something that I didn’t include in the letter.


We’ve missed so much during the pandemic. People, most of all, of course, but we’ve also missed activities and events.

I miss places and the one that really tugs at my heart is my church. Yes, I realize that people make up what’s really the church and that St. James’ the building simply houses one particular group of God’s children.

But St. James’ is a sacred space for me. My son Tim’s baptism was held there; 22 years later so was his funeral. My mind brings forth the faces of the children I’ve taught there over the years. I have fond memories of my own children growing up in the church, attending choir practice and other events. The baptisms, weddings, and funerals I’ve attended roll like film credits in my head.

I’ve been stirred to action and inspired to be a better human being through teachings and sermons.  I have been entertained by not just fantastic choirs but musical ensembles and amazing organists. I have laughed and cried there. And while there during troubled times, I have certainly felt love surround me.

One especially poignant moment was when my dying friend Jonathan sat beside me in the empty church. He could not take his eyes from the stained glass above the altar; Jesus’ ascension into Heaven seemed to transfix him.

Our congregation missed Easter inside the church and now we’ll miss Christmas there as well. Our Diocese carefully considers the health and safety of our parishioners and has courageously deemed meeting inside is not in our best interests. For several months we held weather-permitting outdoor services, but sadly, that too is off-limits now.

When we held services in the church parking lot, there were no stained-glass windows. The quiet was broken by voices and laughter from a popular nearby walking trail. Instead of hymns, we heard pop or country music leaking out from the cars driving by. But still, each member, bundled up and masked and sitting in lawn chairs we brought from home, waved and smiled with our eyes at the passing of the peace.

Our church’s governing body recognized the people’s longing for our sacred space. By appointment, individually we can go inside the church to sit, pray, or reflect.

I went in one day recently. I felt pure contentment as I settled onto a pew. After a while, I walked around trying to see the old church with new eyes. When I came to a pew resplendent with color as the sun shone through a stained-glass window, I took it as a reminder of the angelic message to shepherds watching their flocks by night.

“Fear not, for I have good news for you. Even in these dark hours, the glory of the Lord shines brilliantly through in the form of a baby who is Christ the Lord, the Messiah.”

God loves you and will always love you, no matter what. Above all else, know this: You are loved.


In years past, our Christmas Eve midnight mass ended in candlelight with the choir and congregation singing this blended hymn.  Christmas blended hymn of Night of Silence and Silent Night by St. Olaf Choir, Minnesota  

It’s A Different Life, But Still Wonderful

a wonderful life

It’s my tradition to buy a few truly meaningful Christmas ornaments for my daughter and her husband and present them at Thanksgiving. This year I found a ball that had gold-leaf applied against a brilliant aqua background. It resembles a globe which relates to my son-in-law’s profession. A simple lantern-shaped green glass ornament fits in with my daughter’s no-frills style.

An ornament for the couple that would demonstrate something positive about the past year proved more elusive. So many of the handmade ornaments on Etsy made a connection to the pandemic. Elves wearing masks and the zeroes in “2020” being represented by rolls of toilet paper seemed to be quite popular themes.

But even though this year was filled with a worldwide devastating pandemic, political divisiveness, civil unrest, polarizing views on various issues, economic problems for our families and businesses, ALONG WITH all the personal issues that we individually face, I wanted an ornament that represents HOPE.

I found it in a simple silver bell with an attached tag that reads, “It’s a wonderful life.” It is, of course, a reference to the 1946 movie of the same name. Movie ratings/review site “Rotten Tomatoes” gives this consensus: “The holiday classic to define all holiday classics, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of a handful of films worth an annual viewing.”

The movie is the story of George Bailey who, for at least the early part of his life, longed for adventure and to live somewhere other than the small town of Bedford Falls where he grew up. But he ended up marrying the first and only love of his life from the town and having a passel of kids. Along the way, he helped most of the town’s people in small ways that had a much larger impact than he realized.

When George is faced with a financial crisis caused by an incompetent uncle (an arrest warrant for George has been issued), he decides the world would be a much better place if he’d never been born. A Heavenly angel named Clarence intervenes and shows him what the world would be like NOW if George had never existed.

It turns out that it would be a dark and terrible place.

And so it is for all of us. Regardless of what we may think about ourselves, we have each made a tremendous difference in people’s lives. It’s easy to consider our family and respond, “Well sure, I guess I’ve been a good mom or dad to my kids.” Or “I love my parents.” And maybe, “I’m supportive of my brothers/sisters.” Hopefully, we can see the results within our family.

But just like with George, it’s the small, seemingly inconsequential acts of kindness we perform for other people outside our circle that turn out to impact their lives in ways we may never know.

So as Christmas approaches and the complex year of 2020 winds down, I want each of you to know I truly do believe it’s a wonderful life and that I’m so thankful you are in mine, even if I don’t know you except by your act of kindness by being a reader of this post.


The nine-minute ending of the movie


Crosses On The Tree


crosses on the tree

A friend asked the significance of the crosses on my Christmas tree. After all, we’re celebrating the birth of Jesus in this season and not his death.

On the first teaching card in the Godly Play lesson titled Faces of Easter we don’t even see the face of Jesus; rather, we see the faces He sees as he looks up as a newborn. Part of the lesson says, “The baby may even see the image of the cross on the faces of Mother Mary and Father Joseph.” As the teacher says those words she gently finger-draws a cross just above the bridge of the nose on the faces of Mary and Joseph.

To me, Christmas and Easter are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without the other.

And one way they’re linked is by something as simple as a breath. Jesus took his first breath the moment he was born and his last breath when he died on the cross that Good Friday.

Unless we have a medical condition that inhibits our ability to breathe, we give virtually no thought to this autonomic body function that connects us to the universe. Go ahead right now and take a deep breath and appreciate what links you to the rest of humanity.

When we’re desperately ill, we may not be able to breathe on our own. And when we’re frightened or numb with anxiety or grief-stricken, it can seem as if we have forgotten even how to breathe.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is Breath of Heaven sung by Amy Grant. Songwriter Chris Eaton, a friend of Amy’s, originally wrote the song with different lyrics except for the chorus. Amy convinced him to let her rewrite the words to tell the Christmas story from Mary’s perspective.

Grant says the song has turned into a prayer for her. The reason it turns into a prayer is that it fits the circumstances of so many people; it is a cry for mercy. On she is quoted as saying: “Some nights on stage I can hardly get through the song for knowing all of the collective, unspoken pain of the lives in front of me. And so the words become my prayer for the listener…”

I think of each of you as I look at the crosses on my tree. Whatever joys fill your life, whatever heavy loads you are bearing this Christmas, my loving wish for you this season is a sense of peace with every breath you take.


Amy Grant – Breath of Heaven

Just Like Cupcake

Today’s post is based on my 2005 Christmas letter.

In November 2004 we made the difficult decision to put down our beloved family dog of thirteen years. Like most old dogs, Cupcake had developed many physical problems. She endured twice daily insulin shots for diabetes. Minimal pain medication for her aching joints had to be carefully monitored as it could have further damaged her ailing liver. Cupcake’s clouded over eyes severely limited her vision. She was nearly deaf as well, and she often became confused, appearing to not know where she was.

We no longer put her on a leash for walks since there wasn’t a risk of her running off. She loved to be outside; rooting around near the trees and bushes smelling for squirrels and other dogs. I usually lingered slightly behind her, letting her enjoy herself. At some point, she would look up and her body would stiffen. I knew she was afraid that she was lost and alone outside. She would stand frozen until I came up to her, touching her gently, saying her name and telling her I was there watching over her. I swear I could see the relief that flooded over her old body. Soon, and with a little spring in her step, she would continue on her way.

It dawned on me that most of humanity ends up like Cupcake. Our eyes become so filled with visions of “things” we want that we lose sight of what God wants for us. Our ears turn deaf to His voice when we are too caught up listening to the busyness and needs of our daily lives. We stumble along and are suddenly frozen with fear that we’re lost and alone. Then God touches us gently, speaking our name, and gives us loving reassurance that He is there beside us, watching over us, loving us more than we can possibly know.

With Open Arms

with open arms

The iconic Cristo Blanco, a 26-foot white statue of Jesus Christ, towers over the city of Cusco, Peru, on Pukamoqo Hill. Legend has it that Pukamoqo Hill holds soil from the four quarters of the Inca Empire, so this was a spiritual place for the Incas. Cusco has been described as the gateway to the more famous Machu Picchu.

But an even large statue of Jesus Christ is in Rio de Janeiro. At 98 feet (not including the base), Cristo Redentor, (Christ the Redeemer) stands tall on the summit of Mount Corcovado. It’s said that the statue is the most recognizable landmark of Rio.

What the statues have in common, of course, is the outstretched arms.

Arms open wide can have various meanings. When the arms belong to my friend Judy it means get over here so I can hug you. They can signify this is the real me; I’ve got nothing to hide. Or I come in peace. And as Episcopal priest Rt. Rev. Michael Curry was quoted as saying, “Our belief (is) that the outstretched arms of Jesus…are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

Consider my favorite parable, the prodigal son. When the father in the story sees a far-off figure trudging along the road, he knows without knowing that it’s his son. You remember…the young guy who scandalously asked for his portion of the inheritance before his father died, then left home to squander it away on a wild life. When the money ran out and he was reduced to daydreaming about eating the pigs’ food, he decided to return home and ask for a job working for dad.

This father, who likely had been shamed by that son and who had also probably spent many sleepless nights worrying about his younger progeny in that faraway country, might have been justified in a little passive-aggressive behavior when the boy showed up. Dad could have stood with his arms crossed, tapping his foot on the ground as the boy approached.

But no, we’re told that the father ran to the son with open arms, hugged and kissed him, and then arranged a huge celebration to welcome him home.

Those open arms meant I love you. I forgive you. There is nothing between us that can’t be overcome.

We’re now in the second week of Advent. My wish is that you embrace the beauty and peace of the season of waiting with open arms.


Interesting painting and discussion of Jesus’ open arms

The Color of Christmas

a blue Christmas

This entire day I have been thinking about people I personally know who are suffering in some way. My heart is full of loving compassion for them. If you are one of those people, you will know that this is written for you tonight.

Thanksgiving was not happy for these friends nor will Christmas be merry.

Some of the tragic circumstances involve recent deaths—a loving mom not yet 50, a grandson from a brain tumor. The year of “firsts” is upon those families; the first Thanksgiving and the first Christmas without that special person; birthdays, anniversaries, and other holidays will follow.

One friend has a grievously ill adult child who has spent the past several months in the hospital; this mom already lost her other son a few years ago. I pray for them and have asked many to pray for Denise and Catzby, and yet I feel as though words are not enough. No matter how much I wish I could, I cannot fix this for them and I feel useless.

Some of my friends have a chronic illness and live everyday with pain. Cancer and other life-threatening conditions have entered some of your lives. Getting ready for the holidays may not even be something you’re considering.

Others have lost a special someone…a mom, a dad, a grandmother, a grandfather, a sister, a brother, a son, a daughter, aunt, uncle, cousin, friend. Regardless of how much time has passed since that person’s death, we all miss them terribly. If Christmas was especially important to our loved one, this time of year is even more difficult for us.

And it’s made all the more trying by the “noise” about Black Friday and Cyber Monday and Doorbuster deals and how much everyone will be stressing because there are only 28 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas instead of the usual 35. None of that matters to people who struggle to get out of bed each day because they are desperately sad.

Some churches offer what’s referred to as a blue Christmas service. My church, St. James’ in Warrenton, VA, is one of them. To quote from the church’s website: A “blue Christmas” service acknowledges that Christmas is not always met with joy and celebration. Sometimes it can be difficult to participate in the glad carols and merriment of our Christmas services. This service provides an opportunity to light candles acknowledging the people we miss, the pain or emptiness we may feel.

If Christmas is a difficult time for you, this type of service may offer you some hope, and I encourage you to find a church near you that provides a blue Christmas service.

For the rest of us who are doing okay, let’s remember to live the words of Henri Amiel from 1868:

“Life is short. We do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be quick to love; make haste to be kind.”


The Piano Guys and Craig Aven “The Sweetest Gift”

One man’s take on the “year of firsts”

Invitation to St. James’ Warrenton blue Christmas service on December 18


Not A Holly, Jolly Christmas

A snow hug…photo courtesy of

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.


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.


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