Christmas Memories

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As I spent time this last week, preparing for Christmas, I couldn’t help but reflect on past Christmases and, especially, preparing for them with my mother. Just a few of the memories that I pondered this past week…

My mother loved Christmas. She started her preparation during the after Christmas sales each year as she stocked up on half-price wrapping paper, Christmas cards, ornaments, and sometimes even a present or two.

Throughout the year, she would buy presents for her friends and family as she came across something she thought they would love and then she’d tuck it away until December. By the end of October, she had typically finished with present buying and turned her focus to the other aspects of the celebrations.

Every year, we would bake Christmas cookies together. Mother made several kinds each year to give away. She also made her “famous” Chinese Fried Walnuts, which I had forgotten until my dad asked me the other day if I ever made them. I told him no, but that I would give them a try if he could find the recipe in my mother’s recipe box for me. 

Every year she made sugar cookies for us to decorate, but she always had a few new kinds to try, some of which were successful and some not. I remember two things we tried together, in particular. One of them was no-cook mints, which never set, and we ended up pitching the lot. She and I laughed about those mints every year.

The year I was in French class, I offered to make something for our Christmas party. I chose the Buche du Noel without realizing what I was getting myself into. My mother was appalled when she realized how much chocolate and how many eggs were required for that cake.
 
Fortunately for both of us, my grandmother was visiting. She had made jelly rolls many times and she taught me how to do it. It was the first of many Christmas logs (the English translation of Buche du Noel)I made over the years. I don’t make them every year, but I will make one this year since we will have a full table of people to eat it.

Then there was mother’s Christmas brunch, which she held for many years. She would make her fruit cup, several quiches, and many other delicious treats and invite people over for an open house one Saturday morning each December. People loved her food, the beautiful decorations, and my mother’s friendly warmth. She loved people and had many, many friends so our house was always full that morning.

Decorating was a large part of our celebrations. It was decreed by my mother that no Christmas music or decorations were allowed until after Thanksgiving. She always liked each season to be celebrated for itself. I found out years later that the Christmas music ban was actually to keep my brother and me from listening to the annoying Chipmunks Christmas record year-round. She figured that she would lose her sanity if she had to listen to it more than one month a year. We had many other beautiful Christmas albums though, and the house was filled with music all month long.

Every year we went out as a family for a “real” Christmas tree. Some years we got them from corner lots. The years we lived in Connecticut, we lived next door to a Christmas tree farm so we simply popped down the road and cut ourselves a tree. Then we decorated it together although once my brother and I went off to college, my mother did it on her own. 

We put Christmas music on, my dad put on the strings of lights with the huge colored bulbs in the days before mini lights, and we placed the ornaments. Mother always cautioned us to place them carefully in an appropriate spot for the ornament, something I still do to this day. Then there were the icicles, those strings of silver paper you put on the tree after all the ornaments were in place. My dad and brother liked to just toss them on while mother and I placed them carefully, one strand at a time. She finally stopped using them because they got caught in the dog’s feet and because they had the tendency to clog up the vacuum. 

Over the years, she collected handmade ornaments. She would make a different kind of ornament every year and so did many of her friends. Eventually the tree was covered with only handmade ornaments and she gave me the antique glass ornaments, which belonged to my grandparents and great-grandparents for my tree. I also have many ornaments that she made for me.

We had window candles in every window and bits and pieces of holiday cheer spread throughout the house. A yearly box of holly from my grandfather was eagerly looked for. He had two mammoth holly trees on his farm, one with the traditional red berries and one with yellow berries. Each year at the beginning of December he would send my mother a big box of holly, which she arranged in a cut glass vase in the corner of the living room. It would last throughout the month and was appreciated by every one who came to the house.

Then there were the Christmas cards, stacks and stacks of them. My parents sent Christmas cards to dozens of people every year. Mother wrote little notes and sometimes long notes on each one, sharing the highlights of our year. She was faithful to correspond with friends and relatives, even those she would never see again. It is one tradition that I discontinued in my years of single motherhood and I’m often sorry that I did as I have lost contact with old friends and cousins over the years.

When my brother and I were small, our Christmas stockings were ones that my grandmother hand-knitted for us. When we grew up, mother cross-stitched stockings for every one in the family. They were works of art, which required several months so she did one a year for each of the adults in the family and made simpler applique stockings for the grandchildren. We still hang those stockings each year at our house.

Of course, church was a central part of the Christmas season for our family and still is. We would celebrate each Sunday of Advent, go to the annual Christmas dinner, hear the Christmas cantata, go to the Christmas Eve Candlelight service, and other special celebrations, such as caroling throughout December. Mother did her best to keep Christ at the center of our thoughts although it was difficult with the excitement of presents and cookies and parties filling our minds.

On Christmas Eve, my father sat down with us and read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas every year before bed. Then we would put out cookies and milk for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph and go to bed. Mother always warned us that Santa wouldn’t come if we weren’t asleep. 

She often told us the story of when she was a little girl. She wouldn’t go to sleep one Christmas Eve. Finally, she heard a loud voice, coming from downstairs. “Is Veda Lee asleep yet?” Her mother responded that she was not. Mother heard the jolly voice continue, “Well, alright, I will bring presents to the rest of the street and come back, but if she still isn’t asleep, I won’t leave any presents for her.” Mother said that she never went to sleep so quickly before or since as she did that night. We were always impressed that our mother had heard Santa’s own voice and were quick to fall asleep ourselves, just in case.

On January 6th, my mother put all the decorations away. She taught us that Christmas was over after the twelve days.

I did my best to bring my children up with many of the same traditions as my parents enjoyed with us. We replaced the Christmas Eve story with the Biblical account and told the story of Santa Claus with a wink and a nod so that the boys believed in him as they did other fairy tales. However, we kept most of the same traditions, adding a few of our own. I often feel that Mother would be pleased to know that many of her traditions and customs have been continued in my home, and hopefully, in the homes and hearts of her grandchildren.

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Advent

In our country, Christmas is advertised before Halloween arrives. By the first of December, the Christmas season is in full swing. Holiday parties and greetings are everywhere you go. There is extra food, gifts in the shop windows, concerts, ballets, and more.

How different this is from the traditional Advent. Like the Lenten season before Easter, Advent was a time for fasting and preparation. Preparation for the coming of the Christ was the focus as you contemplated Christ’s first coming and looked forward to His second coming. The hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel reminds us of His first coming while Joy to the World anticipates His future return to earth to reign forever.

Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which was the first Sunday in December. The first Sunday’s theme is hope, hope that our Savior will be born to us, hope in God’s promises to us that He will send a savior, hope that the baby born in a stable will transform the world. This past Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, the theme was faith. Faith n the promises of God and in His Son, Jesus Christ, who came to take away the sin of the world.

Each day of Advent, there are hymns to sing and Scriptures to read as we hope and believe, pray and prepare our hearts for the coming Messiah. Over the years, my children and I spent time each day reading about the promises of Christ’s coming, starting in the Old Testament and ending in readings about His birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Advent is from the Latin word, adventus, which means coming. Two ways of counting down the time are advent calendars, where you open a door in a calendar each day of December until the 25th. Also, the Advent wreath is a traditional way of counting down. Each Sunday of Advent, a different candle is lit. The four candles stand for hope, peace, faith, and joy. On the 25th, the center candle, the Christ candle, is lit, signifying that He has arrived.

It is a time to prepare fruitcakes and cookies and other traditional fare, which are then tucked away for the great day to arrive. Christmas trees didn’t become an American and English tradition until the 19th century. For many decades, the tree was put up and lit on Christmas Eve, partly because a live tree doesn’t last long and partly because Christmas itself was not celebrated until then.

There is a song called The Twelve Days of Christmas and we sing about the many gifts that the true love gave to the singer. However, we don’t think about the meaning behind the song. In medieval times, all of the preparation of Advent led to the twelve days of Christmas in which people celebrated the Christmas season. Starting on December 25 and lasting until Twelfth Night, there were feasting and stories and celebrations throughout the twelve days.

Christmas ended when Epiphany, January 6, arrived.

One of the things I often thought I’d like to do is to celebrate the twelve days of Christmas, even if quietly and without big daily feasts and presents, but to save up the celebrating and special treats until the actual day of Christmas and the days following.

This year, as you struggle to buy the presents and prepare the cookies and candies and treats and run around to the various parties, celebrate Advent by spending some time, quietly, reverently, wondering at the coming of the Christ, who came to give His life and save His people. Find time each day to think about that wondrous gift from God and pray and ponder Him in your heart as Mary did. You will find the season has much more meaning as you think about what it really means and how you can know this baby who is the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

Achieving My Goal

There is nothing as satisfying as achieving a goal you’ve set for yourself, especially if that goal is one that stretches you outside of your comfort zone. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I decided to spend the month of November participating in NaNoWriMo to develop the habit of daily writing.

If I had plenty of time at home to work on my goal, reaching it would have been easier, but between going to work daily, organizing a conference, and preparing for Thanksgiving, my time has not been free and easy this month. Instead, I had to do what many writers did over the centuries.  Anthony Trollope, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and many others had to fit their writing in around their day jobs and so did I. Each morning, I wrote until my timer went off, signaling that I had to quit writing for the day and prepare for work.

I wrote about books and reading, my faith, prayer, and listening to sermons, memories of my mother and favorite authors. Despite many responsibilities, I was able to carve out moments for reflection, creativity, and turning my thoughts into words and sentences and paragraphs.

I missed one day of writing and found myself writing in my head instead. I once read that the more you express love the more it grows, and creativity is similar. The more I wrote, the itchier my fingers grew, waiting for the time to put my words on paper.

I never stop thinking, but my thought life can become stagnant when I don’t feed it or let it flow freely. Like damming a stream, you can stop up your mind until the algae forms on top and nothing can grow because the water of your mind is stagnant. On the other hand, when you let your stream of thoughts run freely, the flow brings many kinds of thoughts and ideas and words and mental images tumbling out, eager to be shared. Writing daily gave my thoughts a place to go which, in turn, allowed more thoughts to form.

Before I started, I didn’t know whether I could make the time or have the discipline to write every day this past month. Some days I didn’t want to write. If I did my writing at the start of my day, I was more likely to succeed than if I waited until later in the day when distractions abounded and my brain was overflowing with too much input.

Like regular exercise, I became used to working on a new idea each morning and began to look forward to my daily creative time. I had listed topics for possible blog posts in October, but I ended up using only half of them because the more I wrote, the more new ideas would pop up during the day that I wrote about as soon as I could find time.

November was a good month, and I plan to continue to write or at least edit every day. I hope to share the fruits of my work with you over the next several months.

Do you write every day? If so, when is your best time for writing and how do you carve out time for your creativity each day?