Favorite Authors: Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy_L._Sayers

While I read widely and in a variety of genres, my favorite fiction books are invariably British detective stories, and the author I like best of all in that genre is Dorothy L. Sayers. I first discovered the Lord Peter Wimsey novels just after I graduated from university. I don’t remember now just how I found them, but I suspect that I was wandering in the public library after work one evening and picked one up. Or it could be that someone recommended them to me, knowing I enjoyed Agatha Christie. At that point, I had read most of Christie and was looking for a new author.

However it came about, I soon discovered how much I liked Sayers. Her plots were clever but fair. The clues were always there if you looked hard enough for them, but she didn’t make it easy for you. The first several Lord Peter novels are not great character studies. As much as I enjoyed them, Peter seemed a bit too good to be true and Bunter was almost too perfect. The mystery plots are gems though. Where else would you read about advertising agencies or change ringing (ringing of the bells in church towers)?

In each book, there is a depth of knowledge that enhances the reader’s experience. There is something to learn, something to dig into, something to be exposed to for the first time in such a way that your interest is grabbed and you can’t wait to find out more.

For instance, I had never read much about the fens and how they flood. A cricket match was a plot point in one novel, and I’ve been intrigued by the game ever since I first read about bowling and achieving a century. I suspect that Bellona Club is the origination of my interest in World War I and Remembrance Day is now a date on my calendar (Veteran’s Day for us in the U.S.). I learned that Dukes were tried by the House of Lords rather than in a regular court so that they could be tried by a jury of their peers (this right was abolished in 1948). Lord Peter novels first introduced me to first editions, the color primrose, shell shock, and the lot of a generation of unmarried women due to the numerous casualties in the Great War.

My favorite books are those with Harriet Vane. She was introduced in Strong Poison. Shockingly for the time period, she was on trial for the murder of her lover. In the 1930’s, good girls didn’t live with men who weren’t their husbands, and Harriet’s background (daughter of a country doctor) seemed to indicate that she was one of the good girls.

However, she lived in Bloomsbury and had picked up some of the Bohemian ways of that set. For a time she had set up house with an artist, but broke off with him several months before the events in Strong Poison took place. Her ex-lover was murdered, she was accused, and Lord Peter first saw her in court while she was being tried for the crime.

Harriet brings a three-dimensional character to the Wimsey books that makes them good novels as well as great detective puzzles. Her inner dialogues, choices, and interactions with Peter help to elevate the books to a higher level than most other mysteries. Gaudy Night, one of my top five favorite novels of all time, is a masterpiece of learning, character, plot, and description. When I finally had the opportunity to go to Oxford for the first time not many months after reading Gaudy Night, I walked the streets with Harriet beside me.

Busman’s Honeymoon introduced me to poetry and one of my favorite poets—John Donne. I especially enjoyed the quote game Harriet and Peter play with the police inspector. My school French was required to translate a letter written to Peter in that language. There is no translation because Sayers assumed that her readers spoke that language as many educated people did in her day.

If Sayers had just written these detective stories, she would be remembered as an author. However, she also wrote plays, essays, and produced an excellent translation of Dante. In fact, her translations of Purgatorio and Paradiso were the first I encountered and they still have a special place in my heart. Her essays are amazing, and one of my favorites, The Dogma is the Drama, is a first rate defense of the importance of theology to the Christian.

Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s works and about her life helped me to realize that Christians can be intellectuals. I found many more Christian intellecturals afterwards, but her top notch scholarship combined with her strong Christian faith  gave me “permission” to be a thinking Christian.

I had been surrounded by Christians all my life but it was mostly those who weren’t Christians who read the Great Books and wrote strong essays and became scholars. Sayers introduced me to the grand tradition of the Christian scholar and the fact that women can be scholars, too.

Her study of medieval Italian during the air raids of World War II sent me back to my Latin and gave me the desire to read medieval literature. Her theological essays gave me the impetus to go deeper in my own theological studies. And, of course, her essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, was one of the main starting points to the eighteen years of homeschooling I did with my children. I wanted that kind of education for them. I wanted them to be as learned, as tough-minded, and as logical in their thinking as she was.

I became a scholar, a thinker, a true reader, a lover of poetry, and a writer as a result of my first picking up a mystery novel. That’s an amazing influence and the reason I place Sayers in the top five of all time best mystery novelists. She certainly earned her title as one of the Queens of Crime. I highly recommend her novels for anyone who likes detective fiction or just wants a good book to read. Who knows? You may be inspired to go off on an intellectual journey of your own as a result.

Advertisements

Lights So Lovely

pexels-photo-63507.jpeg

We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it. – Madeleine L’Engle

Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life. John 8:12

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Matthew 5:14

We live in a confusing and tragic time. Natural disasters, political chaos, and horrific tragedies surround us. As Christians, we hold the treasure of the gospel, the good news that brings hope and light into our dark world.

However, the best way to share that treasure effectively is to shine as lights, reflecting the light of Christ, in our communities and in the lives of the people we know . Jesus told us that we were the light of the world. The apostle Paul said that we hold the treasure of the gospel in earthen vessels. The Bible tells us over and over again about the patience, the kindness, the gentleness that God has for His children. How can we, as His representatives and with His Spirit within us, be any less patient, kind, and gentle with those around us?

If we are shining as lights, if we are loving and kind, if we are sacrificial in our care for one another, the people in our lives will come to us to find out the secret of why and how we can live that way? While there may be those who choose darkness, there are also many whom God is calling, those drawn to His light and love and joy.

It is important that we live our lives with love and gladness and joy and service because the world is watching us. Why do we choose to give up our own rights for others? Why do we love the unlovely? Why do we sacrifice our own time/money/power to help others? Why do we give up our own wills to serve others?

The Christians in ancient Rome drew the attention of even the emperor because they rescued and raised the children, who had been left to die in the streets and on the hillsides. Christians fed the hungry, they cared for the sick, they clothed the naked. They weren’t powerful politically. Most of them were rather poor, especially once the persecutions started. But, in the end, Christianity overcame all the pagan gods because of love, just as God’s love overcomes all of our own defenses and rushes in and sweeps away our preconceptions, our false ideals, our barriers.

For who can defend against pure love? Who can hide forever from the light? One of the things that confused the Jews most was that Jesus did not come as a conquering king, riding a white horse, and expelling the Romans from the Promised Land. Instead, He came to serve and to die so that He might save His people from their sins. His love conquered their hearts. His love conquers our hearts. And His love will conquer the hearts of all those whom God has called.

John Donne said it well in his poem:

BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

It is the love of God which batters his heart, enthralls and ravishes him. The love of God will do the same to and for us. Christ said a servant is not greater than his master. Thus, we should not expect to share the gospel except by the means He used.

Jesus never allowed for sin or idols in people’s lives, but He always spoke to them in the context of loving them. He loved the rich young ruler when He said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” He had compassion on the Samaritan women at the well when He shared with her that He could give her living water and He spared the woman caught in adultery with the admonition to repent.

I think if people around us are offended, it ought to be because of their rejection of the gospel message itself, not the delivery. In the song Could You Believe, Twila Paris wrote:

Could you believe if I really was like Him
If I lived all the words that I said
If for a change I would kneel down before you
And serve you instead
Could you believe?

Let us be the sweet aroma of Christ to our neighbors and friends. Let us serve them with gladness and joy. Let us shine so brightly and beautifully that “that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it” as Madeleine L’Engle said.

Do you live this kind of life? I am aware of my continual failures, of my sinful selfishness and self-absorption. But the desire of my heart is to live for Christ and so I am compelled, I am persuaded that this way of life is the means by which we can spread the good news abroad of Jesus and His love. Won’t you join me in living in such a way that the watching world says, “I want what they have.”

My Reading Life

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me. —C. S. Lewis

Bookroom corner

For anyone who has read my blog for any length of time, I’m sure you’ve discovered that I love to read. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t love books or have time for books in my life. As a child, the bookcase in my room was a never-ending source of delight. I read and reread favorite books. Every year a friend of my grandmother’s gave my brother and me books for Christmas. The Velveteen Rabbit, the Little House books, The Little Princess, and a set of six matching hardbacks, including titles such as Mary Poppins and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe were some of the titles I remember receiving from her.

My mother took us to the library regularly and once I was big enough and strong enough to bike there myself, I would go on my own. We lived in a small town for several years and the library was only a few miles away. By the time I was in junior high, I could go by myself.

I still remember that library. It was a little house on the town square, filled with books. I first read the Anne of Green Gables books and The Scarlet Pimpernel there. It’s funny that I remember no librarians, just stacks full of books to browse and borrow.

When I was in high school, we moved to a different state and I had a job at our town’s public library. That meant that I could bring books home every day after work. I didn’t have to wait for the once a week trip. It was in high school that I discovered Agatha Christie books, selling for 10 cents a piece at our library book sale. I spent many happy hours reading when my schoolwork was done and on weekends. I remember taking a book out with me to the woods, sitting in a chair with an apple and a book on a rainy Saturday, curled up on my bed one weekend with Gone with the Wind and astonishing my mother when I finished it by Sunday evening.

In the library where I worked, the fiction collection started on the left-hand wall, continued around the back wall, and finished on the right-hand wall. I started the A’s with Jane Austen and spent the last two years in high school working through classics like Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, Les Miserables and many others. I also fell in love with the historical fiction books by Thomas Costain, Anya Seton, and Leon Uris.

Despite my studies in college, I still found time for pleasure reading. I mostly had to rely on the books that I had brought from home until my last year in college. The summer before my senior year, I moved to a house within walking distance of the university with a bunch of other girls.

Just around the corner, there was a tiny public library extension and any time I wasn’t at work that summer, I was reading. Our house didn’t have air conditioning and the nights could be unbearably warm so a book to read until 2 a.m. was a help in making myself tired enough to sleep in the heat.

I worked at my university after graduation. On weekends, I poked around used bookstores and made a trip to the main downtown library for something new to read. My collection of books was growing. I started branching out from historical fiction and mysteries into poetry, plays, and literary fiction. I first found Miss Manners and learned etiquette while giggling over her snarky attitude. I read biographies. It was at this time that I first discovered Anne Morrow Lindberg’s books of journals and letters that made such an impact on my life. I was single and not a party girl. I would go to work and afterwards my books would keep me company in the evenings.

I did finally get married, but I didn’t stop reading. My husband was in school so we spent evenings reading—me with my beloved classics and mysteries and he with his school books. This worked out well since it would have been hard if my new husband hadn’t understood my love for books.

After our children came, I was busy most of the day caring for them and the house but I still carved out time for books. With just one baby, I could find time to read while nursing, while he napped, before bed. However, when the second little guy came along, it was much harder. I was on the go all day. Every time I wasn’t doing something, I was exhausted and only wanted to sleep.

I was feeling starved, intellectually and spiritually, without time spent reading, reflecting, and writing. One day, I realized that after the baby’s early morning feed, he went back to sleep and I had an hour before my oldest woke up. Rather than go back to bed, as I had been doing, I used that time to read my Bible, to journal, to read uplifting books. I rediscovered my core being again as God’s Word nourished my spirit and mind, as I read good fiction and edifying nonfiction, as I reflected on new ideas, and wrote about what I was thinking and how I was growing.

When we started homeschooling our children, I introduced reading as a pastime to my children. I had read aloud to them for years, but now we spent long hours every day with books—reading, discussing, narrating. The boys would look forward to library day when we would go for library programs, gather a new stack of books, and spend the evening together, everyone with the book of their choice.

People asked me how I had time to read while homeschooling three children and running the house. My response was that I needed to read in order to do those things. Reading and studying was key to my ability to grow in my faith, teach my children what they needed to know, and to keep my sanity. Studies detailed how many women were on anti-depressants and other drugs in order to cope with the stresses of modern life. I found that if I kept learning and reading and regularly interacting with good ideas, those pastimes helped me with stress. I found strength in the nourishment I was receiving intellectually, emotionally, and, most importantly, spiritually.

These days I still read whenever I can find a few moments. Now that my children have grown up and starting new lives in working and higher education, I work at our local library so I still have plenty of books at my fingertips. Newly published books make their way to my nightstand, piles of books that I’m reading and pondering teeter around my “book room”, and my bookshelves still overflow.

What started as a common pastime as a child has turned into a way of life. I still spend many evenings and weekends with a book and a pot of tea. I do not regret the many hours spent in other people’s lives. I lived a thousand lives, traveled the world, and learned about life from other people’s experiences. Reading has enriched my life beyond all imagining. The reading life is the only life for me.

Favorite Books of 2017

IMG_0101 (2)

I barely achieved my goal of reading eighty books in 2017. It was a year of transition and I have a lot less dedicated time for reading than I used to have. However, I did read some very good books this past year and thought I’d share my favorites.

Top Five Fiction:

News of the World by Paulette Jiles – An older man and a girl make a journey together in post Civil War Texas. The story was great and the details made me feel as if I was making the journey with them.

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline – Christina’s World, a painting by Andrew Wyeth, has long been a favorite of mine so how could I resist this historical fiction novel about the Christina in the picture, her life, and how the picture was painted?

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Beautiful prose and structure and a fascinating story about a Russian aristocrat who lives in a hotel under house arrest in Moscow. While he cannot go out into the world, he soon discovers that the world comes to him. My favorite novel of the year.

The Dry by Jane Harper – A debut mystery set in Australia. The story was so compelling that I read it in less than two days. I’m looking forward to the next in the proposed series.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon – I can’t resist novels based on true crimes and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. In the 1930’s, a New York City judge stepped into a cab one summer evening and was never seen again. This is one person’s idea of what happened to him and the women in his life.

Other than The Dry, which is a mystery set in modern Australia, this was the year of historical fiction. Each of the four books gave me a window into another time and place—Texas in the 1800’s, Maine in the early 1900’s, Russia in the 20th century, and New York City in the 1930’s. Historical fiction has always been a favorite genre, and this year I read a lot of it.

 

Top Five Nonfiction:

Jenny Walton’s Packing for a Woman’s Journey by Nancy Lindemeyer – I was fortunate to discover the very first edition of Victoria Magazine in a grocery store in the 1980’s and read it for many years. My favorite columns were written by “Jenny Walton”, who was later revealed to be the editor, Nancy Lindemeyer. For years, I had wanted to read this book which is all of the columns from Victoria plus other essays and this year I finally found a copy of it. It was beautiful in every way, a book I will read again and again.

The Living Page: Keeping Notebooks with Charlotte Mason by Laurie Bestvater – The only thing I was sorry about while reading this book was that it hadn’t been written while my boys were still in my homeschool. However, it’s not too late for me to become more of a journaler or keeper as Mrs. Bestvater calls herself. This book not only inspires one to keep notebooks and journals but also goes into excellent detail on how to be successful at it.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly – The amazing story of four women who contributed to the space race due to their brilliance in math and science. I had the privilege of hearing Ms. Shetterly speak after I read the book and look forward to reading future volumes of women who have done great things in history and are only waiting to be revealed.

Deep Work by Cal Newport – any of you who have read my blog know how much I liked this book: Deep Work – Final Thoughts

Reading People by Anne Bogel – I love personality tests and take them whenever possible. Anne Bogel took all the various ways of evaluating oneself and brought them together in this book along with explanations of each. It was a fun book to read and helped me to think through more about what makes me tick. If you are a personality test lover, you will adore this book.

Other than Hidden Figures, this was the year of reading books that aided me in thinking about my life and how I’d like it to be within my power to change it. Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies was yet another book in that self-improvement trend this past year. I suspect that with the transition from one type of lifestyle to another, I’m looking to see what will work best for me as I go forward.

 

Series of 2017 – Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series by Deborah Crombie (First book is A Share in Death) – Set in modern England, especially London, but drawing from the history of the various places she uses in her books, Deborah Crombie has written a great series of mysteries. While each one has its own mystery, which is solved within that book, there are overarching mysteries and growth in the characters which deepens this series to something more than typical whodunits. They remind me of Louise Penny’s books.

Audiobooks – Audiobooks are a genre of their own, in my opinion. I think of them very differently from print books. I usually read better by sight so for an audiobook to hold my attention, it either needs to have a compelling story and/or a great narrator. These books had both:

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes – Juliet Stevenson narrates this story of two families and how they become intertwined due to an incident 25 years in the past. It’s basically an English Victoria soap opera but, oh so fun!

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card – My son and I listened to this together in the car last spring. The events in the book occur 1000’s of years after Ender’s Game and Card incorporates many thought-provoking themes into this excellent story. We had some great discussions as a result of listening to this book.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman – As I wrote in my initial review of this: “I laughed, I cried, and I laughed again” at this story of an old curmudgeon and the family who moves in next story who just won’t leave him alone with his grumpiness.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – A beautifully told story about a girl’s growing up, told in a series of poems. Sad at times, but still hope-filled.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester – The true story of one of the contributors to the great Oxford English Dictionary and the man who pushed the project through towards completion. Truth is often stranger than fiction and this tale certainly proves that.

 

Favorite Devotional/Theology Book of 2017

Come Let Us Adore Him by Paul David Tripp – a lovely set of devotions about Christmas and its true meaning. Reading it really made the month of December much more meditative and meaningful than it would have been otherwise.

That is a snapshot of my reading year in 2017. I look forward to another great year in 2018. What was your favorite book last year?

Focus Word of 2018

20170510_140503903_iOSAt the beginning of 2017, a friend encouraged me to choose a word to focus on for the year rather than make a slew of resolutions that I would probably end up ignoring. After much thought, I chose the word Transition for 2017. I knew that it would be a year of many endings and beginnings which can be stressful even when those things are good and normal.

Every time I felt grieved at the loss of my work of 18 years or frantic at learning to cope with a new schedule and responsibilities, I would remember that it was a transition year and would give myself some grace. It helped a lot as I adjusted to new schedules, new routines, and new duties.

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with one of my sons, in which he commented that many people these days complain too much about their work, busyness, and life in general. I realized that I, too, had fallen into a habit of complaining more often than being thankful. Last night while watching the movie, Dunkirk, my husband commented that he was thankful he didn’t live in such a difficult time, which reminded me of how blessed we are to live in a comparatively safe country.

With those comments in mind, I decided to focus on the word Contentment in 2018. I have much for which I am thankful to the Lord. My life is full of blessings, small and large, not the least of which is my Savior, Jesus Christ, who leads, comforts, strengthens, and encourages me daily. Add to that, I have family and friends, a beautiful job, an enjoyable and challenging job, and more books than I can ever read. How can I ever feel sorry for myself!

Rather than focus on the difficulties and discouragements of daily life as is so easy to do, I want to look at the blessings instead and be content with where I am in my life and circumstances.

There are many ways to do this. One good way is to read books on thankfulness and contentment. Two I have read in the past and found helpful are The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs and One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.

Another way to cultivate contentment is to count my blessings each morning. After my alarm goes off, I hit snooze, but I don’t use the nine minutes to sleep. Instead I pray and think of the things I am thankful for. This morning I was thankful for a warm bed and a warm house on such a bitterly cold morning. I thank the Lord for a job, for my family and friends, for books and learning, for music and flowers and laughter. Whatever I can think of that is a blessing in my life, I thank Him. It sets my heart and mind in the right direction for the day when I start with a grateful heart.

Sometimes I focus on gratitude and contentment by singing. When my boys were small and complaining, I taught them the old chorus that my grandmother used to sing,

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your many blessings, see what God has done.

Singing praise to the Lord is a good way to combat a peevish spirit. I often sing during my prayer and Bible time, sometimes aloud and sometimes under my breath if the house is asleep. Many times I sing along with the radio in the car as I am driving or sit down at the piano and play and sing hymns and praise choruses. There are many ways and times to sing, and the Scripture encourages us to do so as in Ephesians 5:19-20: speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ….

Writing down my blessings in my journal is another way I cultivate thankfulness. When I see the results of a bitter, complaining spirit, I want to guard my tongue and stop grumbling. Complaint and ingratitude start in my heart and mind. If I focus merely on not uttering complaints, I’ve fought only half the battle. I must start with what I believe, and my words will flow out of the abundance of my heart. Seeing my thoughts and beliefs in black and white on a page helps me to refocus on what is right and true rather than on my transitory feelings.

Will you join me in cultivating a spirit of contentment in 2018? And if you hear me complaining, please remind me of my word of the year. I want to succeed in replacing a spirit of complaint with one of thanksgiving this year.

Christmas Memories

IMG_0038
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.

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.