Christmas Eve 50 Years Ago

Five decades ago on Christmas Eve astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were the first men to orbit the moon. This flight–Apollo 8–is the one during which Anders snapped the famous “Earth rise” photo. But they did something else as well.

They broadcast to the largest audience that ever listened to a human voice. And all the instructions NASA gave them was that they should say something “appropriate.” I can imagine people all around the world waiting, holding a collective breath, to hear what these men would say.

And so, three men drifting through the vastness of space with the moon below them and the blue swirl of Earth so far away it fit behind Anders’ thumb, read the first ten verses of Genesis from the King James Bible.

Anders – “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.”

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.  

LovellAnd God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.  

BormanAnd God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas–and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

I can’t think of anything they could have said that would be more perfect.

Merry Christmas.

Christmas in Appalachia

Christmas treeWhile I suppose we were relatively modern when it came to my childhood Christmases, the old-timey traditions are still hanging on in the mountains. And there are some I very much think we should revive for broader use. Here are a few of my favorite Appalachian Christmas traditions:

VISITING – My 85-year-old cousin and I were lamenting the fact that no one visits anymore. It was customary throughout the year, but especially on Christmas day. The idea was to simply get out and see your neighbors. In my experience, the older folks stayed at home awaiting company while the younger ones did the traveling. You didn’t stay long, but there were refreshments–fruitcake, cider, cookies–and it was bad luck not to partake lest you spoil the Christmas Spirit.

CHRISTMAS GIFT – If you go a bit further back, there was a tradition of carrying small gift items like candies in your pockets as you went visiting. If you met another visitor the first one to say, “Christmas Gift,” would win a gift from the other.

DECORATIONS – There was plenty of greenery to be had–pine, holly, or even bittersweet–and it was simple enough to cut a tree. Decorating the tree was another matter. Common decorations included popcorn strings, paper chains, seed pods wrapped in the foil from chewing gum wrappers, gingerbread cookies, and scraps of bright fabric.

SERENADIN’ – No, not caroling. The idea was to gather as many noise-making items as you could lay your hands on–cowbells, shotguns, pots and pans, etc. A group of serenaders would then sneak up on a neighbor’s house after bedtime and commence to making as much racket as possible. The neighbor would light a candle or two and invite the seranaders in for refreshments. If the neighbor heard the group before they got started, he’d fire off a shotgun to let them know they’d been “caught.” And then he’d invite them in for cider anyway!

A CANDLE IN THE WINDOW – This had a couple of meanings. First, it was a welcome for visitors or even strangers–light for the path and warmth for the feet. Second, it indicated that the Holy Family would be welcome and wouldn’t have to sleep in the stable.

TALKING ANIMALS – Okay, so this is just superstition. I think. The idea is that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals can talk. I actually worked this one into The Sound of Rain with Judd remembering a time he and his brother Joe snuck out to the barn in hopes of chatting with the family’s livestock.

So if you see me next Tuesday, watch out. When I holler “Christmas gift,” I’ll be expecting a little something. And in turn, I’ll be sure to tell you what Thistle had to say at midnight the night before.

The Church in the World

BBQ 10-18This year, our church opted to do something a bit different in place of our usual homecoming. We hosted a party for the community.

Instead of focusing on our history, reminiscing, and then feasting in the fellowship hall, we invited the neighborhood to come out for free BBQ. And it was great!

This wasn’t about getting people to come to church and then feeding them. While they were welcome to come to services, they were also welcome to just come eat and enjoy some great bluegrass. It was about getting the community together to talk, eat, tap their toes and . . . well . . . spend time together.

Instead of a homecoming that focused on our past, we focused on our present. Our here and now going on right outside our door each and every day. Don’t get me wrong, I love history. (Shoot, I write historical fiction.) But it was nice to look out instead of in this year.

I hope we do more of this type of thing. I hope we continue looking beyond the walls of our church building to get to know our neighbors. Seems like there’s some scripture that mentions that very thing . . .

Mark 12:28b-31 – “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

When they tell you to go jump off a bridge in WV . . .

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Summertime view from the New River Gorge Bridge overlook.

On October 22, 1977, the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, WV, officially opened. At the time, it was the world’s longest single-span expansion bridge at 3,030 feet across. That’s 390 feet more than half a mile.

When you’re driving across, it seems further.

Each October the bridge is open to pedestrians for one day–Bridge Day–which is this coming Saturday. They actually close the bridge for most of the day, which means if you want to drive from one side of the gorge to the other it will take 20 minutes instead of 30 seconds.

People celebrate Bridge Day by doing fun things like listening to live music, competing in a chili cook-off, taking tours down into the gorge, and jumping off the bridge.

Yup, you read that last one right. It’s 876 feet from the middle of the bridge to the river below and people are allowed to rapel and base jump. They sign up way in advance and vie for the chance to do this. Seriously. Jumpers need to have training and experience, but anyone can do a tandem jump with a group called Tandem Base. Well, the first 16 people willing to pay $1,275 for the chance can.

If you were thinking about surprising me with this as a gift, that’s okay, I’m good.

This year event organizers have also added a high line–no experience required–that allows adventurers to ride a zip line 700 feet from the bridge to a road below.

Phew. I’ll just have a pepperoni roll, listen to some music, and enjoy the view.

Here are a few more crazy facts about the New River Gorge Bridge:

  • It weighs 88 million pounds. Held up by a single arch.
  • The Washington Monument would fit under the bridge with 325 feet to spare.
  • Throughout the year there are Bridge Walk tours offered. They guide you on a stroll of the full length of the catwalk under the bridge. People pay to do this.
  • When the bridge was opened in 1977 it cut the trip across the gorge from 45 minutes to 30 seconds.

If you want to learn more about Bridge Day or the bridge itself, click here. I recommend a visit. Although I can’t advise you about jumping off of it.

Praying with Jane (Austen)

JaneHow could I resist?

I was offered an opportunity to be part of the launch team for Rachel Dodge‘s new devotional Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane AustenSign me up!

I’ve read and reread all of Austen’s novels and while I was vaguely aware that her father was a clergyman it never occurred to me to think of her as a person of faith. But it turns out she left three written prayers that were saved by her sister Cassandra.

Prayers Composed by my ever dear Sister, Jane.

Growing up immersed in the Anglican church, Jane likely took part in family prayers each morning and evening, attended multiple–lengthy–services on Sunday, and spent a fair amount of time in personal prayer each day.

This is a side of Jane Austen I wanted to know more about.

And, since I might have some compulsive tendencies, when I noted that there are 31 devotions AND 31 days in October, I jumped into the book last week. The verdict? It’s DELIGHTFUL. Dodge does a lovely job of parsing the prayers as she weaves in scripture and snippets from Austen’s stories. All while consoling, inspiring, and encouraging me to examine my own faith.

I’m so delighted to share with you about Praying With Jane. Even though I’m only eight days in, I can already heartily recommend the book for yourself or as a gift for your favorite Jane-ite. It’s a treasure.

Appalachian Thursday – Old Timey Recipes

recipe bookMy friend Valerie recently gave me a treasure. It’s a copy of the 8th edition of Old Timey Recipes from 1975 as collected by Phyllis Connor. Inside the front cover someone wrote, “West Virginia, August 1976.” Since I would have been five years old then, I think I can safely say this is the food of my childhood!

Books like this one are priceless when I’m writing a novel and want to describe a meal or a way of preparing food. In addition to recipes “current” in 1975, Phyllis added this note, “We have put in a sprinkling of old timey recipes which are really out of date (such as sassafras jelly or hog jowl with turnip greens) but these are added because of their special interest.

Well, thank goodness–those are just what I need! There are also recipes for hickory nut cake, molasses candy, corncob jelly, vinegar pie, lime pickles, leather britches beans, clover tea, and moonshine. Talk about Appalachian cooking!

Since hickory nuts are in season right now, I thought I’d share the cake recipe with you. Of course, the REAL first step in making it is gathering and cracking all those hickory nuts. Warning, if you hit one wrong it will go flying!

HICKORY NUT CAKE

1/2 cup butter and shortening, about half and half
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk
1 cup chopped hickory nuts
4 egg whites beaten stiff

Cream butter, sugar and vanilla until fluffy. Sift flour, baking powder and salt. Add alternately with the milk to creamed mixture. Beat until smooth. Fold in nuts and egg whites. Pour into 2 greased 8x8x2 pans. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes. Cool. Before serving put layers together and frost with sweetened whipped cream. Sprinkle with chopped hickory nuts. -Mrs. H. T. Matthews

Appalachian Thursday – Hurricanes

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Our coastal home following Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Talk about wanting to head for the hills!

Having lived on the coast of South Carolina I’ve had more experience with hurricanes than I like. We actually moved to the mountains of western North Carolina in large part because of flooding from Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

But the mountains are not immune from the ravages of hurricane weather!

In The Sound of Rain, I centered the story around Hurricane Hazel, which struck the coast near the NC/SC state line in 1954. Thus far, it’s been the ONLY category 4 hurricane to hit North Carolina. But that’s far from the only thing that made Hazel exceptional.

She hit at high tide during the full moon causing an 18-foot storm surge. There are harrowing stories of people stuck in trees, in attics, and swept away never to be seen again. But that wasn’t the worst of Hazel.

Most storms lose their steam after they make landfall. Hazel made her way north, hugging the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Wind gusts near 100 mph were felt as far north as New York. It was also an incredibly fast-moving storm, making landfall in the Carolinas the morning of October 15 and reaching Canada the following day.

The storm wrapped up the worst of her rampage in Toronto where she still had the strength of a category 1 hurricane and caused catastrophic flooding and destruction.

In The Sound of Rain, Judd Markley helps survivors in Myrtle Beach, SC, before heading home to West Virginia to help his family with damage there. While a purely fictional account, it was accurate. My home state was dramatically impacted by the storm–especially in the southeastern part of the state.

I hope, wherever you are, you’re safe from the storm. And I pray Florence isn’t one of those storms we’re still talking about decades later!