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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A New School Year Has Begun

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 Our new school year started last week.  We started a couple of weeks before Labor Day so that we could ease into our schedule and still have some time for sleeping in occasionally (my son) and finishing up some summer projects (me).

Last year was the first year of homeschooling just one child, and I really enjoyed it.  We read Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy together, we listened to Rufus Fears tell wonderful stories about Famous Romans and audio books of classics and fun books, we read history books, science books, and books just for fun, we wrestled with math and delved into astronomy and biology, we sweated over Latin, and I taught my son and some of his friends about Material Logic and Composition.

It was a great year so I’ve been looking forward to this year being more of the same.  I will be teaching my son and his friends Rhetoric this year, which is still a challenge for me and for my students.  For me, because I am essentially self-taught.  That leads to a tendency to second guess myself too much and, at times, wonder if I am truly giving my students what they need to succeed in their writing.  It is a stretch, but every time I teach Rhetoric (this is my third time), I learn so much more about writing, communication, understanding my audience, figures of speech, etc. that I cannot be sorry that I am, once again, stepping outside of my comfort zone to challenge my students with Aristotle.

My son and I will be studying early modern history and literature.  This term we are reading Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, which is an old favorite, and Paradise Lost by John Milton, which I have never read before and am eagerly anticipating.  I have borrowed Leland Ryken’s guide and C.S. Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost in an attempt to understand this great English epic.  It only seemed appropriate to read Paradise Lost after reading Homer’s, Virgil’s, and Dante’s epics over the last two years.   For fun, we are reading The Lord of the Rings aloud, which fits right in with all of the other epics we have read and are reading.

There is something special about reading these great epics with my children.  Over the years, they have allowed our family to create a shared vocabulary and history together.  We often refer to children’s books, story books, and great books in our conversations with each other.  Homeschooling has given our family a special bonding of common experience.  As hard as it has been at times and as much time, energy, sweat, tears, and frustrations it requires, I will never be sorry for going on this journey with my children.  These last two years with my youngest will fly by so fast, and I fully intend to cherish each day before I launch my last “chick” into the world.

Like a River Glorious

 

I was thinking about my grandmother tonight as I was driving through town.  An old hymn came to mind and while I was singing it softly to myself, I remembered that it was a favorite of hers.  Her name was Gladys but everyone called her “Glad.”  I think that she was the happiest, most cheerful person I’ve ever known.  We had a joke in our family that when someone exclaimed that they were glad about something, the answer was always, “You’re not glad, Grandma’s “Glad.”  The name fit her so well that no one else could claim it.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized that while part of her cheeriness was personality, a lot of her “gladness” was due to her love for Jesus and what He had done for her.  She used to sit at her piano and play and sing hymns, she always talked about how much she loved the Lord, and I believe that He put that gladness in her heart as a result of her great faith and trust in Him.   She was only about five feet tall but while her physical stature was small, her faith was enormous.

It wasn’t until tonight that I paused to wonder if my parents named me “Joy” in part because of Grandma.  I was a bubbly, cheerful child who loved to laugh and play music and sing, like Grandma.  My parents could not have known my personality before I was born and just like Grandma, part of my cheerfulness was due to personality, but I, too, have a depth of joy and gladness that comes not just from my personality but from my relationship with my Lord.  His goodness and mercy and love towards me fill my heart to overflowing with gladness.  I inherited more than my love of music, recipes for “Grandpa cookies” and authentic New England clam chowder, memories of climbing roses, johnny jump-ups and a hillside of sweet-peas, knowledge of basic crochet stitches, and a pin with photos of my father and grandfather; my heritage is a rich one of generations of people who know the deep, abiding joy that comes with knowing Christ.

So, as I sang the old hymn, I remembered Grandma and how she loved this hymn and it reminded me of how much the Lord has given me, not only from my grandmothers and grandfathers, father and mother, and other family members but perfect peace and rest and trust in Him.

Like a river glorious, is God’s perfect peace,
Over all victorious, in its bright increase;
Perfect, yet it floweth, fuller every day,
Perfect, yet it groweth, deeper all the way.

Refrain

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest
Finding, as He promised, perfect peace and rest.

Hidden in the hollow of His blessed hand,
Never foe can follow, never traitor stand;
Not a surge of worry, not a shade of care,
Not a blast of hurry touch the spirit there.

Refrain

Every joy or trial falleth from above,
Traced upon our dial by the Sun of Love;
We may trust Him fully all for us to do.
They who trust Him wholly find Him wholly true.

–Frances Havergal

 

April is Poetry Month – Day 29

We love Winnie the Pooh at our house.  I don’t mean the Disney version but the original Winnie the Pooh books by A.A. Milne with pictures by E.H. Shepard.  Many things from those books have become part of our “family vocabulary” over the years:  I talk about being a “bear of little brain” when I forget things or do something silly, we talk about all of “Rabbit’s friends and relations” when there is a large group of attendees, I scold the boys to not be like “Rabbit” when they get bossy, a person who looks at life from a gloomy perspective is an “Eeyore”, I encourage them to eat well by remarking that they don’t want to grow up “small and weak like Piglet”, a person who is bouncy and tiring is a “Tigger”, and so on.

One of the poems from the books that has become part of our family vocabulary is The More It Snows.  Often when it snows and we are caught outside in it, one or more of us will quote this little poem/song from Pooh:

The more it snows (Tiddely-Pom)

The more it goes  (Tiddely-Pom)

The more it goes on snowing  (Tiddely-Pom)

And nobody knows  (Tiddely-Pom)

How cold my toes (Tiddely-Pom)

How cold my toes are growing (Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom)

 

A.A. Milne also wrote a couple of books of verses for children, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.  This is a favorite poem from the former book:

 

Lines and Squares

Whenever I walk in a London street,
I’m ever so careful to watch my feet;
And I keep in the squares,
And the masses of bears,
Who wait at the corners all ready to eat
The sillies who tread on the lines of the street
Go back to their lairs,
And I say to them, “Bears,
Just look how I’m walking in all the squares!”

And the little bears growl to each other, “He’s mine,
As soon as he’s silly and steps on a line.”
And some of the bigger bears try to pretend
That they came round the corner to look for a friend;
And they try to pretend that nobody cares
Whether you walk on the lines or squares.
But only the sillies believe their talk;
It’s ever so portant how you walk.
And it’s ever so jolly to call out, “Bears,
Just watch me walking in all the squares!”

Alan Alexander Milne

April is Poetry Month – Day 28

 

When my boys were small, we read a lot of nonsense and silly poems.  One of our favorite books was an old hardback copy of poems by Ogden Nash which I had found at a library sale.  Their “realio, trulio”  favorite poem from that book was this one:

The Tale of Custard The Dragon

Belinda lived in a little white house,
With a little black kitten and a little gray mouse,
And a little yellow dog and a little red wagon,
And a realio, trulio, little pet dragon.

Now the name of the little black kitten was Ink,
And the little gray mouse, she called her Blink,
And the little yellow dog was sharp as Mustard,
But the dragon was a coward, and she called him Custard.

Custard the dragon had big sharp teeth,
And spikes on top of him and scales underneath,
Mouth like a fireplace, chimney for a nose,
And realio, trulio, daggers on his toes.

Belinda was as brave as a barrel full of bears,
And Ink and Blink chased lions down the stairs,
Mustard was as brave as a tiger in a rage,
But Custard cried for a nice safe cage.

Belinda tickled him, she tickled him unmerciful,
Ink, Blink and Mustard, they rudely called him Percival,
They all sat laughing in the little red wagon
At the realio, trulio, cowardly dragon.

Belinda giggled till she shook the house,
And Blink said Week! , which is giggling for a mouse,
Ink and Mustard rudely asked his age,
When Custard cried for a nice safe cage.

Suddenly, suddenly they heard a nasty sound,
And Mustard growled, and they all looked around.
Meowch! cried Ink, and Ooh! cried Belinda,
For there was a pirate, climbing in the winda.

Pistol in his left hand, pistol in his right,
And he held in his teeth a cutlass bright,
His beard was black, one leg was wood;
It was clear that the pirate meant no good.

Belinda paled, and she cried, Help! Help!
But Mustard fled with a terrified yelp,
Ink trickled down to the bottom of the household,
And little mouse Blink strategically mouseholed.

But up jumped Custard, snorting like an engine,
Clashed his tail like irons in a dungeon,
With a clatter and a clank and a jangling squirm
He went at the pirate like a robin at a worm.

The pirate gaped at Belinda’s dragon,
And gulped some grog from his pocket flagon,
He fired two bullets but they didn’t hit,
And Custard gobbled him, every bit.

Belinda embraced him, Mustard licked him,
No one mourned for his pirate victim
Ink and Blink in glee did gyrate
Around the dragon that ate the pyrate.

But presently up spoke little dog Mustard,
I’d been twice as brave if I hadn’t been flustered.
And up spoke Ink and up spoke Blink,
We’d have been three times as brave, we think,
And Custard said, I quite agree
That everybody is braver than me.

Belinda still lives in her little white house,
With her little black kitten and her little gray mouse,
And her little yellow dog and her little red wagon,
And her realio, trulio, little pet dragon.

Belinda is as brave as a barrel full of bears,
And Ink and Blink chase lions down the stairs,
Mustard is as brave as a tiger in a rage,
But Custard keeps crying for a nice safe cage.

Ogden Nash

April is Poetry Month – Day 12

Since I didn’t post a poem yesterday, I thought I would post an extra long one, today.  When my children are in the fifth grade, they study early American history and the poem of the year is Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.   We read other poems by Longfellow and other American poets that year but all three of my children memorized and recited Paul Revere’s Ride by the end of fifth grade.  All of them still remember large parts of it and can recite it even now.

Paul Revere’s Ride

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,–
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,–
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
>From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

 

April is Poetry Month – Day 7

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We read selections from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.  All of my children much preferred learning The Tyger to learning The Lamb.

 

THE TYGER (from Songs Of Experience)

By William Blake

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?