The Faces of Christmas

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About half a dozen years before my mother-in-law Rosalie died, I interviewed her to preserve her life story not just for those of us in this generation who loved her, but also for the future ones who would never have the opportunity to be part of her life.

One of my interview questions was, “Tell me about your favorite Christmas.”

It didn’t take but a few seconds for her to reply, “The last Warrenton Christmas when Honey was still alive.”

Honey was her beloved husband of 67 years when he died in 1995.

And a Warrenton Christmas referred to Christmas at my home. My husband and I had the youngest grandchildren in the family as well as the roomiest house, so it made sense for everyone to meet at our home. And the tradition was cast.

In Christmas of 1994 Laura would have been eleven and Tim was eight; just the right ages for their faces to show joyous anticipation of all things Christmas .

Around the table many faces portrayed happiness at seeing one another. Some faces were tired from having worked busy schedules right up to the big day. A face or two showed the strain of trying to do too much in the week leading up to December 25.

The faces of the matriarch and patriarch of the family showed overwhelming love for each one of us, and there was something else there too.

I call it thoughtful appreciation. It was as if Rosalie and Carroll realized how deeply they were blessed, and they didn’t want a single joy to go unnoticed.

You know, I’m a proactive hostess, doing as much ahead of time that I can. I think each year that THIS Christmas I’ll have time to sit and visit with each person before dinner, but then the day arrives and there seems to be a constant flow of “one more thing” to do.

This year, really…I mean it. I want to be like Rosalie and Carroll were on that day from my past and be thoughtfully appreciative of every single blessing that surrounds me.

I am wishing the same for you.





Not So Far Away In A Manger

Being a little obsessive, it bothers me when Christmas cards, decorations, and plays depict the Wise Men showing up at the manger in Bethlehem the night Mary gave birth. The Bible tells us that the Magi were from “the east” (scholars disagree about whether this means Babylon or Persia or Yemen or elsewhere), so unless they were teleported, actually they showed up weeks, months, or years after Emmanuel arrived.

Sometimes it seems like we know the story of Jesus’ birth so well that we don’t think about it in depth anymore. It becomes one of those, “this happened, and then…and then…and then.”

 It’s good to ponder about points we don’t understand. So when I was considering what I thought about the Wise Men’s point of origination, I came across two interesting aspects.

 One pastor, Steve Simons, has a theory that the Wise Men came from Turkey. What? Yes, Turkey, but hold on. If the Magi CAME from the East, how could they follow a star leading them East? Turkey is north and west of Bethlehem.

 Also, as I learned at Bible study recently, the Gospel was written in Greek. Some scholars think it likely that the New Testament writers lived in Greece. A portion of Turkey (formerly named Anatolia) was to the east of Greece. And the Greeks called Anatolia East or Rising of the Sun. So it could very well be that when the writer of the book of Matthew referenced Wise Men from the East, he was referring to Anatolia, which is nearly a thousand miles from Bethlehem so they still wouldn’t have arrived on the very night.

 The second point I wonder about is why the Magi stopped in Jerusalem to inquire about where the new king was. Why didn’t they just keep following the star? Why did they need the priests and scholars to tell them that scripture pointed the way to Bethlehem?

 Then while actually plotting to kill Jesus, King Herod told the Magi to come back and tell him after they’d found the baby so he could worship him also. But Jerusalem is SIX miles from Bethlehem! Why didn’t Herod send out soldiers to go find the child that night? Why would he have trusted and waited for these strangers to come back with the news?

 Who knows? I’m sorry if you thought I was going to come up with the answers. My point is this: We take a lot on faith that we don’t truly understand. And not just with the Christmas story, but with everyday life.

 Tragedies affect every single one of us at some point. Illness and death turn up in our lives. People cheat, lie, steal, and murder. We abuse animals and children and each other. Natural disasters upset earth’s normal balance. We don’t understand. Life can seem so unfair.

 In those most devastating moments, our faith may be the only rock on which we cling. We believe and we hold on.

 And so I promise to get over my silly focus on the Wise Men showing up later rather than sooner. They DID show up, and that’s what is important. Just like us, it’s vital that we keep showing up for one another, being there, late or not.  






Because That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It!


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My sister Bev shared that as her whole family sat around their Thanksgiving table, someone asked, “What are we doing for Christmas?”

Bev’s grown son (who himself has adult children) looked as though someone had just made an inappropriate remark. “Why, we’re coming here, of course. Just like always,” he replied.

Many kids, even grown-up ones, really like to hold on to the traditions of the Christmas season.

I recall that after my own children were out of high school, I suggested altering the Christmas Day breakfast. My son Tim threw a fit. How could I even suggest NOT having cinnamon rolls as part of breakfast on Christmas?

Sometimes the cycle of life breaks traditions for us. As little ones grow up, get married, buy a home, and have their own little ones, going “over the river and through the woods” to Grandma’s house may lose some of the original appeal.

And as the Matriarch of the family herself ages, cooking, cleaning, and baking for a group of people (even those she loves dearly) begins–as the years unfold–to be a bit too much. I’m actually dreading the year that I start to feel those twinges that, “maybe this is the last year for this.”

We expect life to go on status quo. This time, this present, feels as if it will last forever, even as logically we know that to be untrue.

My Episcopal church uses handmade kneelers, and each one tells its own brief story of the person for whom it’s dedicated. Looking at the kneelers you can guess from the dates of his life and death, that this sailor did not survive World War II. And that young girl didn’t even make it to age eleven. This woman lived to 97.

After spending thirty years at St. James’ some of the people named on the kneelers I recall. But many I do not. That makes me feel a bit sad. These people, regardless of how long they lived, each mattered tremendously to their families and friends.

During the Christmas season we especially remember all those who are no longer part of our earthly family. They are a deep part of our traditions and in this way we feel a special closeness.

So yes, the Thatchers will still be serving cinnamon rolls for Christmas Day breakfast.



Let’s Have a Moment of Silence


Photo by Norma Thatcher

“Time passes so fast. Make time to be still.”
― Lailah Gifty Akita

 Why does snow seem to make everything quieter and slower? Even the planes making their way through the air space high above our mountain sound a tad more muffled than usual.

Having grown up in western Pennsylvania, I was accustomed to having snow and a lot of it. I recall Thanksgivings with snow as well as white Easters. Life just went on, snow or not. School was rarely cancelled or even delayed due to inclement weather.

Living near Northern Virginia is much different. Cancellations begin to occur as soon as the phrase “possibility of snow” is uttered by the first meteorologist.

As I woke to the initial snowfall of the season, it was with a sense of quiet anticipation.

Even though there is much on my to-do list for today, the snow is causing me to slow down. It’s good to push pause during the season of Advent.

The lesson I taught to first and second graders last Sunday was about just that. The church calendar gives us four weeks to reflect on the coming of a King and it’s best experienced by not rushing through it. Because when we rush, we miss the intricate details that make the true meaning of Christmas stand out.

Whether you’re enjoying a little (or a lot of) snow or sunny skies and beach weather, I hope you can find some quiet time for reflection, a time by yourself just to be still.

I know that it’s not easy to be still in our busy lives. When you’ve finally allowed yourself to have those few quiet moments, try to let go of the need to mentally plan your grocery shopping or the must-get-done list for next week.

Just be still.

Just be.






Gold, Frankincense, and Ham

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Even if you don’t have small children in your life, you’ve got to read (or perhaps re-read) Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. This is the story of the six Herdman children who cause trouble as the main actors in the upcoming Christmas pageant. The Herdmans are a rag-tag bunch of kids from a n’er-do-well family who have solid reputations for causing bodily harm to each other and to anyone else who gets in their way.

The author tells the story from the viewpoint of Beth Bradley, a preteen girl whose mother Grace assumes the role of pageant director after the seasoned director breaks her leg.

The Herdman kids decided to check out Sunday School after hearing about free refreshments, and they arrive just in time to commandeer the lead roles in the annual Christmas pageant. Having never attended church, or read the Bible, or heard the story of Jesus’ birth before, they knew nothing and were full of questions.

What is a shepherd? Was there a bed in the barn? What were the “wadded up clothes”? Why didn’t Joseph punch the innkeeper when he wouldn’t let them in? What kind of a stupid gift is frankincense?

Imogene Herdman played the role of Mary as though she were the local bossy pizzeria owner. “Get away from the baby!” she yelled at her brother Ralph who played the role of Joseph.

When the play started, Imogene and Ralph stood at the set’s edge looking unsure. They looked like refugees, not sure of what to do or where to go.

The author has Beth comment, “It suddenly occurred to me that this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Family, stuck away in a barn by people who didn’t much care what happened to them.”

When the Herdman Wise Men came up the aisle, the gifts they carried were items from the charity gift basket their family had been given, which included the canned ham.

Somehow it all worked out and the audience murmured that it had been the best Christmas pageant ever, even if they couldn’t identify why.

Beth Bradley offered this observation: “Artists portray Mary as all pink and white and pure…looking as if she never washed dishes or cooked supper or did anything at all except have Jesus on Christmas. But as far as I’m concerned, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman—sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby. And the Wise Men are always going to be Leroy and his brothers bearing ham.”

I’ll bet it was a heck of a pageant.





Riley’s Law of Poopativity

Photo courtesy of Julien Delaunay of Unsplash

I’m not sure how many bloggers reach the point of writing about poop. I may be the first.

Advent begins this Sunday, so rest assured I’ll be back to writing more inspirational pieces than this one. But it’s good to find time to laugh.

I weighed the decision carefully as to whether to write this piece or not. But then I saw the flyer from Bed Bath & Beyond and knew it was a sign to move forward.

All of the parks where I walk my dog Riley have very strict rules about dog waste: If your dog poops, you’re expected to pick it up and dispose of it properly. Period. Most places even provide the bags to use for the cleanup.

There’s a flaw in the dog waste pickup program at one of our local parks. The trash cans are all located near the parking lot. There are none on the walking path that encircles the fields.

Here’s Riley’s Law of Poopativity: 98.73% of the time, Riley decides to poop at the farthest possible point from ANY trash can. That means, of course, that I have the distinct pleasure of carrying the loot bag around for the rest of our walk until we return to the parking lot area.

My guess is that our Parks & Rec could quadruple the compliance rate of dog poop pickup by owners by simply providing more trash cans throughout the park. Problem solved.

Speaking of poop (truthfully, have you ever used that phrase?), I saw a product ad for a gizmo similar to Bowl Brite. What, you’ve not heard of Bowl Brite? It’s a motion activated illumination thingie you stick on the inside of your toilet lid. It serves two purposes for that middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom: 1) It provides a soft nightlight in your toilet so you don’t have to turn on the bright lights. 2) It functions as a safety prop. When the light is red, don’t sit down, ladies, because the seat has been left up. If it’s green, you’re safe.

It appears a competitor has come up a similar idea. The Illumibowl Toilet Projector Night Light (not making this up) creates a reflection in your toilet bowl. They started out with generic images such as a poop emoji. (And who doesn’t enjoy that?!) But for Christmas, you can project an image of Santa floating in the water of your toilet bowl.

Not only would I NOT put a nightlight in my toilet, but also, seriously, who wants to poop on Santa? This is just wrong. And creepy. Very creepy.

And just when I thought I’d reached the end of the line of viewing ads for frivolous and really-who-would-want-that gifts, Bed Bath and Beyond’s flyer proved me wrong.

Calling it a “top pick of the season” for gifts, they are offering the “Poo-Pourri Potty Box.” Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for just $24.99 you can give a loved one a set of three toilet bowl spritzers to mask the odor of you know what.

But wait! The spritzers come in a box the shape of a toilet bowl and lid. I wish I was making this up. Sadly, I am not.

My gift-giving recommendation list for Christmas this year does NOT include Illumibowl or the Potty Box. Because if you buy a special someone either one of those, you’ll likely hear, “Oh, you shouldn’t have.”

And this time the recipient will actually mean it.


Keep Any Memories Lately?


The magazine article was called Memory Keepers. It was the story of five women who preserved each of their individual family’s history by varying means.

The photographer decided she wanted to capture ordinary growing up moments of her three boys. So she took photos every single day. So now when the boys ask, “What was I like when I was little?” she has a photographic history to prompt memories of each day.

One woman, who had an abiding bond with her grandparents, made a large story box representative of their marriage. Vintage mementos, photos, and letters told a visual story of a happy life.

Christmas cookies played the leading role for Liz Spencer’s memory keeping project. For many years her grandmother Ruth baked about 500 cookies each Christmas and presented every family member with an individual container filled with the goodies.

Sadly, Ruth announced her retirement from baking (due to arthritis) on Christmas day 1999. Not wanting to lose the tradition, Liz’s dad took photos of each cookie which Liz used to paint watercolor images to go with each typed recipe. They made twelve books and gave them as presents the following year. The recipe book is, of course, called Ruth’s Cookies.

Another woman found recordings she had made of her grandmother THIRTY YEARS prior! Ersula Knox Odum was a young college student when she convinced her grandmother to be recorded. Grandmother Sula was a fantastic story weaver, singer, joke teller, and the reel-to-reel tapes are filled with her beautiful voice.

Ersula used the tapes to craft short stories about life with grandmother and these were later compiled to form the book At Sula’s Feet.

The final story was of a woman who took up quilt making at the age of 55. It took her five years of working a couple hours a day to complete the quilt’s 25 blocks. Each of those blocks holds a family meaning. The center displays a rendering of the Cape Cod home her parents built. Ten generations of relatives’ names are stitched into the border.

These stories have influenced me to expand my own personal recipe collection. Many of my recipe cards are old with fading print, which makes sense since some of them were typed on an actual typewriter! Some of my recipe pages are torn or have splotches.

My project is to type up each recipe in a larger, bold font and “scrapbook” them into a 3 ring binder. I’ll add photos and any stories or memories that go along with the recipe. Then on the back of the page, I’m going to attach the original recipe card or page.

So it will become a historical recipe book of sorts.

Sorry…not for sale. It will be a one-of-a-kind book.

But I’m hoping this post will give you some ideas to launch your own memory keeper project.



Are You Feeling It?

Note: This post is based on my 2016 Christmas letter.

The word JOY shows up frequently during the Christmas season. Read the sentiments on the cards you receive this month. My guess is that approximately one third of the cards will contain the word JOY (or some form of JOY such as Joyous-meaning full of JOY or Rejoice-meaning to feel or show great JOY).

We sing hymns such as JOY to the World and the refrain of O Come, O Come Emmanuel that tells us to Rejoice! Rejoice!

We just don’t sing or write the word JOY so much at other times of the year. Isn’t that curious? Because we certainly feel joyous throughout the year.

At the birth of Jesus, the angel of the Lord stood before the shepherds and proclaimed, “I bring you good tidings of great JOY to all people. There is born to you this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

Not just “some” JOY, but GREAT JOY! And not to just “a chosen few” but to ALL PEOPLE. This was not a “don’t worry, be happy” languid statement, but rather a “Hey fellas, I have the BEST NEWS EVER!” proclamation.

First Peter tells us to “be glad with exceeding JOY.” The book of James says to “count it all JOY.” And one of Paul’s epistles reminds us to “rejoice always.”

So I think we should keep JOY active in our lives all year long.

Have you ever noticed that when you greet someone with the question, “How are you?” they typically respond with one of these answers:  Fine.  Great.  OK, I guess.  Pretty good.

I wonder what would happen if we responded, “I’m JOYOUS! Thanks for asking.”

Because isn’t living a life filled with JOY what we seek?

To my readers: OK, I’m waiting for your response: How are YOU?!



Home for Christmas

My friend Cindy calls me her spiritual friend. We worked together 25 years ago, and although separated by a little distance and busy schedules, we meet up several times a year. And when we get together, we pick up as though there has been no time or space between us.

I hope you have a friend like Cindy in your life.

Cindy’s mom Betty had been in failing health for a while. Last fall, though the children each were hoping that Betty would make it through another Christmas because she loved the holy day/holiday so much, they also prayed that God would welcome her into His arms.

A devout Catholic, ironically Betty’s favorite Christmas song was not a hymn; it was I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The family had videotaped Betty singing it only the year before, and it had become a fond memory — a reference point for the grandchildren, as in, “Hey, remember when Gram sang I’ll Be Home for Christmas?”

We do not want to lose our parents to death. We know it will eventually happen, but we pretend it won’t.  When they’re ill and failing, we pray, bargaining with God for another day. That’s for us, not for our loved ones. We are the ones who aren’t ready to let go, to give them back to God. But then, with acceptance of the inevitable, we pray for their release of suffering.

Cindy and her sister were by their mom’s side as she took her final breath on December 16, 2015. Betty’s last word was, “Perfect.” I like to think that single word was not a physical reaction to the sensation of a cool cloth being placed on her forehead, but rather in response to the end of a life well-lived and well-loved.

At the funeral service, the grown grandchildren and their young families circled their grandmother’s casket holding lighted candles while they sang a capella I’ll Be Home for Christmas.

Smiling through the tears, the family knew the song had taken on a deeper, richer meaning for their beloved. Betty was indeed home for Christmas.


To my readers:  Please share a favorite Christmas memory about a parent or other relative.


The Silence was Deafening

There was a special event I enjoyed during the years my children played in the orchestra while in middle school. Each year the Christmas music program finale was Silent Night sung by the school choir. They sang the first verse standing perfectly still. Then they sang the first verse a second time while also speaking with their hands, signing the words. The third time they softly hummed the song while signing. The fourth and final time they simply signed the words as the lights slowly dimmed. The sound of so many hands gently speaking was simply beautiful.

I was reminded of that experience today at a concert called A Celtic Christmas featuring Allison Hampton on the harp and Linn Barnes on the guitar and other stringed instruments. The flautist, Joseph Cunliffe, carried the melody during their rendition of Silent Night. It was hauntingly exquisite. When they finished, the audience sat very still for a few moments. It seemed as though no one wanted to be the first to applaud and break the spell.

In this loud world of ours, it’s good to remember that silence is not a bad thing. We need to have times where we step back from the attention-grabbing noise of the world at large. And so it was good for me to experience that event today, to be part of an audience who heard something so moving, we were stunned into silence, if only for a moment.

Wishing you a peaceful and silent night.

To my readers: Do you have a favorite musical memory about Christmas?