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.

Preach it, John!

church-doorsYesterday our pastor talked about the third chapter of Matthew. You know, John the Baptist preparing the way for Christ. Basically, it’s about John preaching repentance.

And John must have been an effective preacher, because he inspired the crowd to ask what they needed to do to avoid being cut down and thrown into the fire. John’s answer is surprisingly simple.

  1. If you have more than you need, share what you have with someone who has less than they need.
  2. If you’re a tax collector, collect only what you’re authorized to collect.
  3. If you’re a soldier, don’t extort anyone by force and be content with your salary.

Although it seems underwhelming, his response was so powerful, the people wondered if John might be the Messiah. So what’s powerful about this answer?

It seems to me, what John was telling people, was to simply do what’s right. But I was also struck by what he didn’t tell them. He didn’t tell the people to make sure their neighbors where giving to those in need. And he didn’t tell the tax collectors to make sure other tax collectors where following the rules. And he didn’t tell the soldiers to check in on other soldiers who might be extorting others. or complaining about their pay.

I know I’m all too often guilty of excusing my own behavior by comparing it to the behavior of others. Do I give as much as I can? No, but I give more than she does. Do I break the rules? Maybe, but not as drastically as he does. Do I harbor discontent? Well sure, but I’m much more justified than they are.

And I think that’s where we can get stuck with John’s simple instructions. Basically, he’s telling the people to look after their own business and do what’s right. But as soon as I think someone else isn’t doing right, I figure that gives me permission to slide a little myself.

John preaches a marvelous sermon. Do what’s right in God’s eyes. If only John had handed out blinders.

Appalachian Thursday – Christmas Countdown

Christmas 1974Guess what? It’s 12 days ’til Christmas! Yup, Christmas is less than two weeks away. Are you ready? Are you counting down with joy and anticipation? Or is there a little how-will-I-get-everything-done dread mixed in there?

When I was little, we had a count-down to Christmas wall hanging my mom made. It was in the shape of a Christmas tree and had 24 little beads from which we would suspend 24 little, felt ornaments. There was an angel that went at the top as well as a Santa, little wrapped packages, a candy cane with sequins–it was wonderful. And I always got to hang the first ornament since my birthday was December 1.

I LOVED counting down to Christmas when I was a child growing up on the farm in WV. Each year I looked forward to all the things we got to do as we counted down. Here are just a few of my favorites:

  • Singing carols in the car. Snapping our fingers for reindeer hoofs up on the housetop. Dad substituting our names as he sang, “First comes the stocking of little Sally (his nickname for me).” Rudolph and Frosty and oh, what fun!
  • Decorating sugar cookies. I now know this makes my mom a saint. Arming three kids with frosting and sprinkles is a bold move.
  • Decorating the Christmas tree we cut on a neighbor’s farm. Dad did the lights and hung his one ornament remaining from childhood–a tattered cardboard Santa. We Santagot to do the rest. And no clumping icicles, if you please.
  • Hanging our stockings and posing for a picture looking up the chimney. As if we thought Santa would be up there before we went to bed.
  • And if we were lucky, sledding and playing in the snow!

My husband and I have our own traditions to mark the days until Christmas–a gathering with friends, Christmas Eve services, fudge (the marshmallow fluff kind), and stealth decorating (he’s not as big a fan of glitter and greens as I am).

But all too often our grown-up traditions get bogged down in hurry and self-imposed pressure to make this Christmas the best ever. This December I’m encouraging you to remember what it was like to be a child counting down the days–not wondering how you would fit it all in and get it all done–but wondering how much longer must I wait?

Because we are children, after all. God’s children. And what we’re waiting for is a chance to celebrate the best present ever.

Merry Christmas.

The Pleasure of Boring Days

snow dogWell, we didn’t quite get the foot and a half of snow predicted, but I’d rather the weather forecasters overestimate than under. Still, it began snowing Saturday and there was a lovely layer of snow when we woke Sunday morning. The result was a delightfully quiet day at home.

In light of the forecasts of impending doom, I did my usual weekend shopping on Thursday. And church was cancelled on Sunday. Which meant . . . most of my typical weekend tasks were off. Which meant . . . the chance to experience a bit of boredom.

Of course, being bored REALLY means doing the stuff I’d like to do every day. I read (Where the Crawdads Sing), I tromped around in the snow with my husband and dog, I began a jigsaw puzzle, I worked a crossword, I plotted a new story, I cooked and ate, I put up Christmas decorations . . . in other words, I just did what I felt like.

Being bored is LOVELY.

Of course, it’s lovely because it doesn’t happen very often (and because we didn’t lose power). I suppose it might get old after a week. Or two. But, for now, I’m grateful for a bit of boredom.

Appalachian Thursday – Mountain Saints

devotionalAppalachia is about people as much as it is about place.

We have a lovely Christmas tradition at my church. Our pastor gathers scripture for each day of Advent (December 2-24 this year) and assigns them to volunteers who then write a short entry for a devotional that’s handed out to the congregation.

I think this is our third year and I LOVE reading the thoughts and ponderings of my church family each morning. Of course, I also LOVE sharing my own thoughts. This year I was given two scriptures–the first being Psalm 90, a Psalm of Moses. Not your typical Christmas reading. I’d just been to visit one of the saints of the church (in her 90s) when I sat down to write my entry for December 4. I was struck by how much she and Moses had in common. And so I wrote this about one of the amazing people in MY Appalachia:

EVERLASTING
Psalm 90

Establish the work of our hands . . .

Her mother made the dress, stitching love and hope into every seam. A 1950s confection of white lace over taffeta, sleeveless with opera length gloves, tea length.

Let your work be shown to your servants and your glorious power to their children . . .

There was one child, a girl, a pearl without price. Now the child watches over the mother, offers what comfort this world holds.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us . . .

Her brother survived the war. After peace was declared, his plane crashed in the ocean. Afflicted with just twenty-one years.

The years of life are but toil and trouble . . .

Oh, but the joy of a good man. A good marriage. Sixty-seven years. She can close her eyes and see him on the day she wore white lace over taffeta.

You sweep the years away like a dream, like grass renewed in the morning . . .

She knows the joy of thrusting her hands into soil, of making flowers grow, of inviting life to spring from the earth. The pot on the windowsill reminds her.

A thousand years in God’s sight are nothing more than yesterday . . .

Without saying the words, she loves these mountains that are as old as the world. Older than she is or ever will be. Made from the same dust.

The Lord is her dwelling place.
From everlasting to everlasting . . . God.

Car Commercials and Birthdays

birthday giftsIt’s that time of year. The time when car commercials begin subtly hinting that this year a Jaguar or new SUV would be the perfect gift.

And while I wouldn’t say no to a Jaguar (even if it DID have 981 miles on it), that really isn’t my idea of a good gift. Rather, this past weekend was my idea of good gifts.

Yup, I turned 39 + shipping on Saturday. (I’m 47, I just get a kick out of that phrase!) And the people who love me best knew EXACTLY what kind of gifts I’d like.

There was the delightfully thoughtful gift from my husband–a new office chair for all my writing (plus dinner out!). We’ll actually shop for the chair this week since he’s also thoughtful enough to know I’ll have a strong opinion about it.

There was the collection of items from Mom & Jean. They commissioned a bookmark painted with watercolor thistles (my dog’s name) and queen Anne’s lace (my bridal bouquet). There was also a Luckenbooth shipped all the way from Scotland with a “stone” made from the compressed stems of Scottish heather. Sigh. If you don’t get that one, read The Christmas Heirloom. Now I have my own brooch passed from mother to daughter.

Then there was all the singing. The ladies at church sang to me (and Meg, who shares my birthday) as we decorated for Advent. Dad sang his own made up version of a birthday song for me. Mom sang. And best of all, my almost eight-year-old niece belted out Happy Birthday twice. And she remembered that 12/1 is my birthday. Remembering birthdays is her super power.

Finally, we extended my birthday into Sunday to celebrate with my adopted family (also Thistle’s godparents–dogparents?). Since mom’s far away and not up to baking anymore, I called her for the recipe for MY chocolate cake and made it myself. My friends asked me what I wanted for supper (adobo chicken and these AMAZING crispy potatoes) then we topped it off with Mom’s cake.

So am I just bragging about what a great birthday I had?

Oh, maybe a little bit. But mostly I’m pointing out that the very best gifts aren’t something you park in the driveway. Rather they’re anything laced with LOVE.

Now these three remain, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Happy birthday to me!