Tag Archives: Christmas

Thoughts on the Feast of Stephen

As I wrote the date in my journal, I appended, Feast of Stephen. That set me thinking about how far removed contemporary culture (myself included) is from the time when saints’ feast days were equated with calendar dates in ordinary vernacular. History and/or Shakespeare buffs will know that the Battle of Agincourt was fought on St. Crispin’s Day. But what time of year is that? The rabble in the Globe Theater knew. 

I am reading a book about the northern border of the U.S., which begins with a history of sixteenth century French exploration of North America. That led me to read up on the preceding forty years of religious wars in France, where I found a reference to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. St. Bartholomew’s Day? When is that? Sixteenth century Frenchmen knew. 

St. Swithun’s Day? Yes, he did exist, and there is a reason for the rhyme tying his feast day with a weather forecast. No, I am not going to tell you. Have your own fun looking it up. I will only divulge that the Feast of Stephen falls on December 26, which is also The Second Day of Christmas.

Of course, we have our own (almost) contemporary saint’s day massacre (St. Valentine’s). But aside from Valentine, and of course, St. Nick, what saint’s days take your mind immediately to a calendar date? St. Stephen is my limit.

Looking out on this Feast of Stephen, I did not see snow, deep and crisp and even. I did see a lake of fog in the valley below. That’s been a feature of the last few days. Below is a series of photos taken on Christmas Eve as day broke—the Cumberland Mountains stark against a clear sky with a lake of fog in the valley below. (Photos begin at 7:25 am and end at 8:29.)

It is too cold this time of year to do my journaling out on the deck, so that series of photos represents jumping up from my writing every few minutes to walk out onto the deck and capture the sight. I claim my journaling as my current contemplative practice. But sometimes I wonder. My entries often seem little more than making “to do” lists and “Dear Diary” reporting, more narcissism than contemplation. The saving grace is that the exercise forces me to pay attention, to be present. 

We bought this place in 2017 and spent the entire fall of that year on the initial round of renovations before moving in; 2018 was a year of trying to settle in and planning how to accomplish the other improvements we thought were needed; and 2019 has been the year of the contractor. Major sweeping changes to two bathrooms, removal of some scary trees overhanging the house and garage, reshaping the drainage around the uphill side of the house, construction of safer and more convenient exterior access to our downstairs. Enough! Our resolution for 2020 is “No more contractors!”

Both the tree removal and the drainage improvements sent Bobcats up and down the old logging road that is our principal access to our meadow. Now that steep pathway is a muddy mess, likely to stay that way well into spring. I am especially anxious to put a deep organic cover over the roots of a huge chestnut oak, to help it recover from the compaction of all the unaccustomed traffic. If it fell, it would likely take with it the whole 200-foot long row of big trees bordering the west edge of the meadow. I have a truckload of leaves at the top, and a similar pile of wood chips at the bottom. But the muddy steep slope is too much for The Goat. So I reverted to more primitive technology—raking the leaves onto an old bedsheet and lugging it on my back like Santa’s toy sack. Later I hope to do the same with the wood chips, although that will be an uphill slog.

2019 ends—and 2020 will begin—with a big push to get our studio, shop, and garage sorted for future creative endeavors. Construction leftovers and an excess of “that might be useful for shelving (or storage or…” have all these spaces overcrowded to the point of gridlock. We have goals:

  • Nancy’s studio table art-ready, not cluttered with sheet music and bins of miscellania to be sorted 
  • My shop cleared of unusable wood scraps, with dreamed-of work stations functioning 
  • The music end of the studio free of intruding leftovers so that we can walk in, pick up mallets, and play.

These last few days of clear skies and warm temperatures have me wanting to play in the woods. There is easily a couple of weeks of tempting tasks calling me out there, and I will heed some of the calls. But cold and wet days will return, and we will continue to tackle the studio and shop. It looks to be a very good year.

A Longer View

“If we ever move,” Nancy had declared, “let’s get a  level lot, so we can watch sunset every night.”

Boy, did we fail that one!

Or did we? There is a level bench for the driveway, which follows the topographic contour. And a subterranean one for the basement slab. All of which only slightly negate the elevation drop of 70 feet in 300 from the high to low points of our lot. Gardening and landscaping will be a challenge.

On the other hand, if and when the time comes, we can live on the main floor, descend two shallow steps, and walk to the mailbox along that level driveway. Not many homes in our part of the world offer that kind of level.

As to the view, it is true that thick forest lies to our west. But we have seen some spectacular sunsets filtered through that forest, more than we ever saw from our old house.

When we named this blog, The View from Blackoak Ridge, we described the “view” as “in part, a visual look at our physical surroundings” (but) “also an intellectual, spiritual, emotional view from where we are at this stage of our lives.” Being hemmed in by suburbia, the “visual” views were decidedly short range, and the visual descriptions tended toward the microscopic. (See the category, Frog Blog.)

We have moved just two miles. We are still on the same ridge, but on the back side, on the edge of city/suburbia. Some previous owner had removed trees downslope, opening up a meadow below and a “Wow!”-eliciting view of the Cumberland Mountains in the distance. Our physical view has expanded. We not only see sunsets filtered through the forest, but, I expect, in the months and years ahead will see the play of sunrise, sunset, and moving clouds on those distant mountains.

My “intellectual, spiritual, emotional” views are also tending toward the macroscopic. We have been through major changes with our parents, and I see and feel the weight of time on my own body. I am—we are—more intentional in our choices of how to spend our time; more fully into “the age of active wisdom” than when this blog began.

We are moving to the new house in the final days of 2017. It is Christmas as I write, and will still be Christmas liturgically when we move. All New Years bring new adventures; this one is pregnant with possibilities. The “bleak midwinter” gives way to new beginnings. Happy New Year! And may all your Christmases be bright.

Turducken Trees and Other Thoughts on the Season

I am told there is a dish called turducken—a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey. The name came to mind when shopping for a new artificial Christmas tree. That industry seems to think it a good idea to combine multiple types of foliage in one tree—mixing tips of white pine, fir, spruce—a frucepine? We were almost forced to buy one.

We put up an artificial tree, largely because of allergies. I could extol other virtues, but you have heard all the arguments and have come down on one side or the other. I am not here to change your mind. We have reaped a quarter-century of use out of just two such trees.

Last year, when we plugged our tree in and noted the large dark section where yet another string of lights had failed, we felt it was time to buy a new tree. That’s when we discovered turducken trees. And no other choices.

We had hoped to upgrade to LED lighting, but the price was too steep, so we hauled home the least ugly of the incandescent-lit turduckens and unpacked our treasure. It was a day of thrill upon thrill. Somehow, the lights had been strung on this tree with the branches in the upright (folded for storage) position. There was not enough slack in the wiring to allow the branches to unfold. We re-boxed the turducken (mostly turkey at this point) and used part of the refund to buy yet another supplemental string of lights to stuff into the dark places on our old tree. We’d make it last one more year.

Fast forward to last weekend. An even larger dark section greeted us this year. Again, the question, Is this the year? Again, the trip to Home Depot. We found the turducken fad still alive and well. But, this year there is choice. And the price of LEDs has fallen. We scored a new, LED-lit, mono-species, fake tree. Sometimes, it pays to wait a year.

Waiting. That’s what we do in Advent. Liturgically, that is part of what the season tries to teach us. Wait. Anticipate. Long for. With faith and patience. But it is a hard lesson, one never fully learned.

We went to visit my mother recently. At a coffee stop, I was watching the baristas—how fast they worked, how they juggled to keep the inside line and the drive-through moving! I was grateful to not have their job, their stress. At the same time, I realized that I was also getting restless, slightly irritated—Why is this taking so long? Waiting. It will take a few more Advents for me to learn that lesson.

During our visit, Nancy’s Advent word-of-the-day site served up “Be.” To be, not to act, is another take on the waiting that Advent requires of us. Just be present and attentive. It is a lesson especially appropriate to visits with Mother. There is not much to be said, not much to be done. We sit together, sometimes just reading, napping, or watching the birds outside her window.

This weekend, Nancy and I are dog-sitting. Like our Mona, the “grand-dog,” Wonton, was rescued from the pound. He’d ended up there after the previous owners were caught up in a drug bust. He’s a big, exuberant sweetie. He’s missing his folks. Like our Mona, he needs his loving cup topped up often. A nap on my lap is just the ticket. So here we sit, 70-pound Wonton snoring on my lap and Mona napping beside Nancy. These dogs can teach us a thing or two about Advent.

P.S.—I took the old tree outside and extracted the supplemental strings we had added over the years as the originals failed. Four strings, all still working, totaling 300 lights.

Are You Ready … ?

My non-scientific survey suggests that the most common greeting this time of year is not “Merry Christmas,” but “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Is your tree up? Are your garlands and wreaths hung? Are your wireframe reindeer nodding and your blowup Santa bobbing in the wind?

Is your shopping done, the gifts wrapped and shipped (or hidden from curious children and pets)? Are your cards mailed, your invitations delivered, your party eats and drinks laid in the larder? Are the guest beds made, or the travel tickets purchased?

Have you procured the turkey (or ham), the cranberries and yams, the rolls and relish, the beans and beets, the pumpkin pie? Are the table linens ironed, the yule log laid, the scented candles burning? Have you bought your party dress?

It’s a formidable list. And I am sure I remember someone asking me that question the Monday after Thanksgiving. Am I ready? Of course I am n…  Well, wait! Maybe I am.

Time was, I spent many hours Christmas shopping for my family—extended lunch hours and afternoons off from work wandering book stores and toy stores and department stores and hardware stores. Happy hours for the most part. I enjoyed the looking, at least until the pressure of unfilled stockings and the approaching big day began to accumulate between my shoulder blades. More than once, I settled for a book that I had enjoyed, in hopes that my teenage son would find a similar pleasure or inspiration in it.

But as our children grew older and moved away, the drive to pile presents under the tree gave way to the convenience and fungibility of a check written out on Christmas Eve. As the number of people around the Christmas table shrunk year by year, so too did the complexity of the meal.

Xmas Tree-Wreath1We’d already simplified the decorating. We use an artificial tree. No need to argue the merits—tradition and aesthetics vs. convenience and cost. Allergies to conifers dictate the artificial route. The pre-lit tree is half-way done when unwrapped from its 11-month slumber, and the other major elements are similarly quick to unwrap and hang. We have foregone the Christmas card tradition, abandoned the annual newsletter, and rarely entertain, seasonal or not.

The upshot is that I could almost respond, Yes, to the question of the season, even on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Yes, give or take a few hours.

Why? Why the countercultural approach to Christmas? We are not Scrooges, contemptuous of the season. We are not hair-shirt, it’s-Advent-until-late-on-the-24th types; in fact we bemoan the tiny, less-than-12-days window in which our church lets the carols sparkle between the Advent and Epiphany hymns. Nor are we militant about keeping the secular out of the religious holiday.

Lazy? Maybe. I prefer to believe, however, that we are making conscious decisions to have a merry, not a madding, Christmas. We have watched friends and family driven by the season, and decided early on to enjoy it, not be consumed by it.

This year, however, I find myself wandering book stores and hardware stores and big boxes again. I baked cookies yesterday. Gluten-free cookies. Just for the fun of it. Just for Nancy and me. Maybe it has something to do with having grandkids. Even though we probably will not see them during the holidays, I have an urge to see packages under the tree.

Am I ready? Well, I wouldn’t mind finding another gift for one or two of those on my list. We are expecting some company, and I haven’t decided what to serve. The guest beds are not made, the floors not vacuumed, the de-cluttering not done. But if you jiggered the calendar and it was suddenly Christmas Eve, I’d be OK with that. I am ready.

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Seasons Greetings.

A Hamster’s Christmas

Recently found in a remote corner of my hard drive:

Humans think they are so smart and we hamsters are simple-minded.  Humbug!  I sleep all day, play and eat and poop and pee all night.  They clean my cage and feed me and supply fresh water.  Tell me, who’s the smart one?  

And my family is still wondering where I spent last Christmas!  To them, it’s a great mystery.  It’s no big deal, really.  I was bored, the Big S needed help, so I took a vacation … a working vacation … to the North Pole.

I was jogging on my treadmill and had just taken a break to gnaw enamel off the cage bars when this elf popped up on the other side of the bars.  Yep, a real elf — green suit, pointy hat, the whole bit — singing his own tacky, made-up words to the familiar tune.

“Snowball, with your teeth so tough, won’t you help us out of the rough?”

Turns out that big operation at the North Pole had almost ground to a halt for lack of cutters.  For ribbons and wrapping paper and such.  And the Big S had heard of me and my fine cutters.  I guess my sleek white coat didn’t hurt either.  I’m a natural for all that snow.

Anyway, Elvis (that’s what he said his name was, cross my heart) was practically begging me on bended knee to come on up the North Pole and help them out.  

“Please, Snowball!  We need you, Snowball!  You’re our last hope, Snowball!”

Honestly!  He was laying it on thick.

I can’t say much about my time away — trade secrets, they claim. But we got the job done. And those elves do know how to party after a hard day’s work! I was so worn out, getting back to my treadmill was a relief. 

Silly humans! They’ll never figure it out. 

Some may doubt parts of this story.  This much is certain.  On December 20, 2003, Jay’s hamster cage was found open and empty.  On December 26, Snowball was back in her cage.  No trace of her missing week was ever found in the house — no nest, no chewings, no pee, no poop, no evidence of stolen food.

Advent, So Far

We are a third of the way through December and halfway through Advent, and the fall leaf show keeps on coming. On this morning’s walk with Mona, I saw two different Japanese maples, only half denuded; their fallen drapery carpeting the ground underneath with the same scarlet as that remaining on their limbs. Farther down the street, bright yellow adorned a tree I cannot identify. Nor could the lady of the house, out retrieving her morning paper.

Apparently, we are not very social; the holiday busyness others brag/complain of has never afflicted us in past years. This year, however, is an exception, due mostly to music groups that Nancy has joined. Her community band is busy giving concerts in nursing homes, and another group performed two sing-along presentations of “The Messiah” this past weekend. Our Sunday morning ensemble also has new music to learn.

Nancy’s now the proud owner of full-sized concert bells, a beautiful instrument weighing nearly 40 pounds, which is lugged back and forth between home and church or home and band three or more times a week. Adding in the bass drum she also uses in the band, inventing schemes for transporting musical instruments has become a major part of our lives.

As to Christmas decoration, we traditionally tend toward the church calendar more than the secular one. That is, the decorations do not go up on Thanksgiving to be taken down on the 26th. Rather, we wait until closer to Christmas, and leave them up until Epiphany. The big star is the exception. We like to get it up early in Advent. This year, like our holiday busyness, our decorating schedule is topsy-turvy. Nancy was in the attic shortly after Thanksgiving, and dragged out the Christmas stuff while she was at the other task. So the tree, the lighted wreath adorning our dining room picture window (two-sided, so attractive from indoors or out), and the twinkle lights above the door went up early. But rainy weather prevented hanging the star, which still sits on the porch. I willingly procrastinate on that task; I hate ladders.

That star is a convex sheet metal construction, 36 inches point-to-point, mounted several inches in front of a larger plywood background. A light bulb is fixed in the concavity, so what is seen from the street is the white outline of the metal star. It is a fairly large device, hanging in the peak above the second story. Three years ago, a gust of wind lifted it off its hook. I found it the next morning, quivering above the point embedded in our son’s window ledge. Lethal when flying! So I added a safety screw, driven into the siding. Hanging it now requires two trips up the ladder; one with the star, the next with the drill-driver. Did I mention that I hate ladders?

I am writing this while sitting in the waiting room of Nancy’s doctor. Little more than a year ago, I accompanied her on these trips because she was nearly immobilized. Then came bi-lateral hip joint replacement, enabling her to return to gardening and hardscaping and other physical activity. Today, I am here in my role as sherpa for the musical instruments; her band is playing for hospital staff at lunchtime. In Nancy’s return to music, to painting, to health, we have much for which to be grateful.