Merry Christmas!

Here is my Christmas gift to you: nuggets of Christmas cheer, warmth and sugar, all wrapped up in a tidy sampler box with pretty wrapping. Dig in! 

You’ll find family stories, music, dance, art, a little history, a photo or three. As usual, I leave off the names so I won’t embarrass anyone.

Some of you have been with me through thick and thin this year, as I tried to get this blog off the ground. We did a great job working together and I thank you for your support, but especially for your submissions.
Over 10 months, we've had almost 2,000 visitors from every corner of the globe. Today, I can count on 10-20 of you to drop by each day. I hope you come back often next year and leave some footprints on your way out.  

So, dear reader, here's hoping this is a memorable holiday for you. Maybe you'd like to write about it? If so, consider sharing your thoughts here.

We’ve got a big year ahead, one that’s certain to take all our strength and resolve. With some big issues on the table and few resources to work with, we have our work cut out for us, don't you think?

Let's relax next week and enjoy as much time as we can with our family and friends. See you next year. 

All best wishes for 2010! 

Joyeux Noël!
Children's Nativity, Charlemont Federated Church, 2009

The story I’m about to tell is true, even if you’ve heard otherwise. Don’t believe anyone else. I was there.

It happened in 1987 or 1988, a few days before Christmas. My boy was in high school in the leafy suburban town where we lived, about 50 miles east of Manhattan. 

Now, just because I was a single mom did not mean we were living in poverty. We weren’t. I owned a house, and was getting ready to send my son to college. 

Although I started out with a 20-month-old baby, a laundry bag and but a few dollars in my pocket when I moved to New York in 1974, over the next dozen years or so, I clawed my way into a comfortable middle-management position at the sixth largest newspaper in the US. Unlike many of my sisters raising children alone, I was doing well, with the insomnia, grey hair and stress-related health problems to prove it. 

Our days began early and ended late. To keep sane, I ran at the beach before work. Just about the time my son hopped on his school bus, I was out the door and on my way to a 3-mile walk/run. I did this most days, in most kinds of weather. It was heaven and, if something interfered with this routine, I was out of sorts for days. 

So, by mid-December, the days were so short, you could yawn and miss one.  It was 25 degrees in the sun. Not only had the cold shut down my run, but snow and ice were falling, intermittently, which meant I had not been worth talking to for at least two days. 

The morning in question began badly. For the umpteenth time that month, the kid slept through his alarm and missed his bus. This meant I had to drive him to school, which nixed any chance for exercise, even if I wanted to just walk a mile in the neighborhood. 

I wasn’t happy about this, and let him know. 

By the time I got him to school then got out on the road to go to work, it was snowing again. Hard. Even worse, it was beginning to stick. I was already a little late, but figured I could make up some time once I got out of our development and onto the highway.

At the first light, I got stuck behind a 1970-something Cadillac with bad rings, one exuding billows of blue smoke that got sucked into my circulating vents, which then threw it out the little slots on the dashboard and right at my face. Petroleum residue was burning up the oxygen in the car so fast I could barely breathe, so I rolled down the driver-side window. Immediately, snow blew into my face, coating my glasses. Meanwhile, the windshield fogged up so I couldn't see, anyway.    

To continue, click on Read More.
The Christmas Revels

Have you ever heard of the Christmas Revels?  It’s a holiday celebration based on the way people from many different cultures have celebrated the solstice, Christmas and the start of a new year. It’s a loud and glorious event, filled with pageantry and silliness as well as dignity and drama.

Borrowing from the indigenous and later cultures of the British Isles, northern Europe and other northern regions, singers and dancers of all ages keep the flame alive by staying as true to tradition as possible. Instruments are acoustic, dancers are amateur, singers are pretty good but all volunteers.

Every program contains some of the same elements—the Yule log or a reasonable facsimile, Christmas stories, a Mummer’s play, Morris dancing or other ancient dance, familiar and esoteric music, but always sing-alongs, and always the song Lord of the Dance

We’ve gone several times to the Boston version, and loved every minute of it. One year they featured music and tales from French Canada; one year, Germany; and another time, medieval Europe. The music, staging and costumes were magical. 

Considering the recession and the weather, we opted for the cheap version this year, and attended a Welcome Yule program in our area. It saved us about five hours on the road, and quite a bit of money. 

All in all, both the Revels and Welcome Yule progams lift our spirits and remind us what we have in common with our ancestors from way, way back. It’s tough going through dark times. Rich or poor, old or young, we need to know there’s a light somewhere ahead---literally or figuratively—to show us the way out of the dark and cold. Call it rebirth or whatever you will. If we didn’t have Christmas at this time of year, we’d have to invent it.

Click here for more on Revels or Welcome Yule, or watch the video below. There are Revels celebrations in a number of major US cities, and I suspect many other communities besides ours hold Welcome Yule nights, especially if many residents have northern European ancestry. 


Christmas Music II
Here are a few more selections from some of my favorite Christmas albums. 

First, Linda Ronstadt sings Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming with the voice of an angel.
Stevie Wonder recorded Someday at Christmas at least 15 years ago, but the song is as fresh today as it ever was. I love this song and am surprised it isn’t more of a staple in holiday music collections. 
Following a similar theme, Bette Midler belts out her best version of From a Distance, complete with a seasonal message.  

Christmas Music I

Music is and always has been one of the most important aspects of my life, so for the past few years I’ve given Christmas music CDs to many friends and relatives. Not your usual carols or silly Santa songs but rich, vibrant music, appropriate to the season and the Christmas story. 

Below and in the next post are selections from some of those albums.

First song is I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, sung by John Cash (as he liked to be known). Believe it or not, this song was written during the Civil War by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Listen to the lyrics and you might think it was written yesterday. Many church bells will ring at noon in our town on Christmas, how about yours?
Second selection is the contemporary song Breath of Heaven, written and sung by Amy Grant. I sang a solo on this with our church choir several years ago at a Christmas Eve candlelight service. I wish I could say I sounded as good as Amy Grant, but I did my best. It's such a haunting melody, I dare you to try to erase it from your memory once you've heard it.
Next is I Pray on Christmas, sung by The Blind Boys of Alabama, featuring Solomon Burke. This will get you in the mood if nothing else does. It’s raw, it’s real, and the lyrics are quite moving.

Do you know this guy?

is way overdue for a trip to the barber shop.
always wears the same outlandish outfit.
has a goofy laugh.

obviously eats and may also drink too much.
keeps endangered species as pets.
probably exceeds the speed limit.
should be investigated by OSHA for labor practices at his business.
stays out way too late!

I bet know him but if you’re unsure, click on Read More for an even bigger hint. 
Christmas Birthdays

Lots of people I know have birthdays on and around Christmas. That must be tough, especially when you’re a kid. 

My dad was born on Christmas Eve  in a Kansas farmhouse with no electricity or running water, in brutal weather. His mother was 40, pretty old to be having a baby in 1917.

My mother once commented about how sorry she felt for my dad's mother. It must have been really hard, she said, going into labor and giving birth in the dead of winter, just as everyone was preparing for Christmas Day. Not that the event would do much or could change their routine very much, holiday or not. 

They might have done some extra baking for Christmas, or might have cooked a special dinner on their wood stove. Since they had a pump organ, they probably sang some songs. My dad told me once he used to get fruit and nuts for Christmas. When he was schoolage, his dad would make little toys for the kids, or his mom would make them clothes. 

I imagine a neighbor helped her with childbirth, or maybe her husband, since he delivered plenty of cows and horses on the farm. There were five other children under the age of 11 in the house, making seven mouths to feed plus a newborn. They had already lost one child to infection.

My dad wasn’t a complainer, but he did tell me once that it wasn’t much fun having a birthday on Christmas Eve because people forgot, or didn’t want to send two gifts, or just assumed he would be swept up in the excitement of the holiday, and that would be enough. Of course, it wasn’t. We always got him presents for both holidays, although we probably would have gotten him a nicer birthday gift if we had celebrated it on July 24, instead of in December. 

So, if you have friends or family with Christmas season birthdays, please don’t forget them. Find a way to let them know they’re just as important to you at Christmastime as they would be on any other day of the year. 

Here's Last Month of the Year, one my favorites sung by more of my favorites, The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Toy Swap

At some point in our lives, most of us experience a very lean Christmas. Ours was probably when my son was 6 or 7. I had been out of work for almost a year, but would start a new one on January 2.  In the meantime, we made do. Still, I had nothing extra to spend for Christmas that year. 

I wasn't the only one in a panic over Christmas presents. Most of my single-parent friends were in similar situations. 

A bunch of friends suggested we go through our kids' toy boxes and pick out stuff that was still good but hardly or never used. We would get together at one of our houses and have a toy swap! That way, all the kids would get something new, and we wouldn’t be spending our last dollar on presents. Actually, each child got lots of new things, which might be the secret of that swap's success.  

My boy loved the puppets and puzzles and paint sets he got that year, and never once noticed that he didn’t get anything from his wish list. Oh well, maybe next year... 

In this economy, more parents might want to try a toy swap, if they haven’t done so  already. The grown ups had a good time going through all the toys and "auctioning them off," and the kids loved opening the presents on Christmas morning. 

Through The Eyes Of a Child

I’m guessing it was 1976. We lived in an apartment carved out of a big old house in a small town in New York state, with the owners living on the other side of our front room wall.

The landlady was also my son’s babysitter. At 4 ½, my boy still clung to his belief in Santa Claus, insisting that Santa was real, in spite of what some of his friends said.

It was the landlord’s tradition to host a big family party, complete with a visit from St. Nick, himself, every year. All the kids and grandkids in this big, warm Irish family got together at the house on the weekend before Christmas, for some hot chocolate and shenanigans. 

The parents gathered in the kitchen for drinks. The kids ran all over the house. One of adults lit a fire in the fireplace when, all of a sudden, Santa burst in the front door with a laundry bag full of wrapped presents. The littlest kids shrieked, Santa ho-hoed, and the grown-ups laughed, winked and spilled their beers.

Naturally, Santa knew the names of all the children in the house, probably because he was the oldest grandson. 

My kid was completely captivated by Santa Claus. Just look at the rapture in his eyes. For weeks and weeks, he told everyone who would listen that Santa WAS real and had come to his own house to personally hand him a present. I think it was a Hess truck, one of his all-time favorite toys.

Christmas 1945 -- Cleveland, Ohio
I‘m late preparing for Christmas this year, but have been thinking back on Christmases past, mostly in my dreams.

Maybe it was Seasonal Affective Disorder and the fact that we lived pretty far north, but the holidays were always a minefield in our house, at least when I was growing up. 
I do have some warm memories, though, especially of snow, making all the long distance calls on Christmas Day to Kansas, Colorado and other places we called "home," having dinner at my cousins' house where we sometimes sang folk songs or practiced for and performed piano, violin and cello trios. The two girls were very talented, and although much younger, I was learning to play piano. Caroling was fun, but the mad dash to buy, wrap and hide gifts, wasn’t.

Looking back, here are a few Christmas presents I've never forgotten:

1. A doctor's kit. I believe I was 3. Looking back, I think my parents were concerned about me being afraid of all the doctors I saw over my first few years. I got off to a rocky start with a few correctable anomalies.  
The big black kit contained a toy stethoscope, thermometer, wristwatch, a certificate to hang on the wall, some sort of BP cuff and a big round eye cover, remember those? I don’t remember any insurance forms included.  

2. A bride doll. I was 4 (!). This bride was unusual because she was also a baby (not a babe). You could comb her blond hair and wash her rubber body, but she was definitely a baby, with a bride’s outfit. At 4, I didn’t have a problem with that.

3. A wooden cradle that my dad made as a bed for the bride doll. Made sense to me. I loved that cradle and kept if for many years. I assume my mother threw it out.

4. A few books, including Babar, Heidi and The Fireside Book of Folksongs. I still have what's-left-of-them. 

5. A Kodak Brownie camera. I might have been 8. One of the first photos I took was of the prettiest boat I'd ever seen. It was an ocean liner pulling out of the New York City piers as our school bus was pulling in on a class trip to the big city. The boat was called the Andrea Doria.

4. An English racing bike, when I was around 12 (?). I lusted after those sleek blue and white wheels, and couldn't believe my eyes when I found them leaning up against the wall next to the Christmas tree! We lived in the hills, so it was important to have a lightweight bike with gears to maneuver up and down.

5. A microscope. Not sure how old I was, but probably in junior high. I remember studying the Lafayette catalog for months, then traveling into the city to look at microscopes with my dad. He got me a good one and I still have it, somewhere.

6. A trip to Costa Rica. Not really. When my son was about 9, he cut pictures out of a magazine, glued them on a board, painted it and gave it to me, with a note saying, “Just what you always wanted, Mom, a trip to Costa Rica!” I think I loved that collage as much any real trip, because he tried so hard to give me something special. I still have it tucked away.

7. An engagement ring, in 2002. Dave and I had lived together for a few years and were talking about getting married, but he was dragging his feet. His son John and girlfriend came to our place for Christmas, where one of them suggested we open Christmas stockings first. As I recall, I opened mine last. Inside were a pair of sensible wool socks, some goofy earrings, a few candy canes, and finally a tiny sparkly box wedged into the sock’s toe. I figured it was a trick, but Dave had actually bought me a diamond!  We married 6 weeks later, during Valentine's week. 

What  Christmas presents and other fun things do you remember?  Please leave a note in Comments.