Best Christmas Ever

We’ve had a white Christmas. In fact, it’s been white outside our windows for two weeks now, and today’s predicted rain is pelting down in more snowflakes. We haven’t had a Christmas like this since I was a child growing up in the Robe Valley of Northwest Washington.

The icy highways, the snow-blocked driveways and side roads, aren’t all that remind me of those long-ago Christmases. TV this morning told of an unprecedented decline in expected retail sales. Our culture has trained people to think that “shopping ‘til they drop” is normal and necessary. But with thousands losing their jobs and people afraid to spend what they have, for many of us this has been a scaled-down Christmas. Despite the dismayed store owners out there, a new generation is learning that joy is not something that must be purchased.

Some are finding, as my family did the year of our “Best Christmas,” that giving of oneself is the finest way to give and get joy.

That year, about 1948, the loggers had been out of work for months because of a long strike. Then winter hit hard with deep snows that kept them out of the woods. Daddy’s unemployment compensation barely stretched to cover groceries for the family. At night after the five of us had gone to bed, we lay upstairs listening, tense and frightened, as Daddy worried loudly to Mama about how we were going to make it through the winter. One night, I heard our stalwart father break down in tears. That scared me more than any of his worrying. “We can’t buy anything for the kids this Christmas,” he wept. Mama murmured something comforting. Their voices went on for a long time, too low to understand, and I lay there, thinking about what I’d heard.

At twelve, I was learning to sew. I would make doll dresses for my sisters. I could embroider something pretty for Mama. I could make candy for Daddy and I’d think of something for the boys. We could have Christmas without money.

That year, as usual, we went out in the woods and cut our own Christmas tree. We decorated it with the familiar glass balls and candles in their metal clip holders and put the cardboard angel on top. We children wrapped our homemade gifts and put them under the tree. We’d tried hard to keep our secrets, and on Christmas Eve anticipation kept us awake, whispering and giggling.

Finally morning dawned, cold and snowy. We hurried into our clothes and dashed downstairs where lamplight warmed the kitchen and the scent of brewing coffee announced breakfast. But the sight of the Christmas tree stopped us short. A beautiful doll, almost as tall as sister Patty, stood beside it. She had yarn pigtails and wore little girl shoes and socks and a pretty pinafore dress. Her arms and legs moved, so Patty could make her walk. Mama had sewed her from muslin, stuffed her parts, then painted them with a flesh-colored mixture of leftover house paint. The doll had big brown eyes and a painted smile and rosy cheeks. Patty squealed with joy and hugged her.

Under the tree, Billy found a red tractor made of wood, with wooden wheels that really rolled. Daddy had made David a sled with wooden runners and painted it red, too. For Lois and me, the oldest children, he and Mama had made sewing “birds” from plywood. They looked like pelicans, with pincushion wings and a pair of scissors that slipped through a slot in the head to make the big bill. Each sat on a plywood base behind a revolving circle studded with nails which held colorful spools of thread. A folded measuring tape tucked beneath each bird’s body. Lois and I felt grown-up to possess our own sewing supplies in such a cute and portable “kit.”

In addition to all this, Daddy had steamed and shaped the ends of some long pieces of lumber to make skis. He’d sanded them smooth, varnished them, and attached leather straps to hold them to our feet. They didn’t work very well in our usually soft, wet snow, but that was okay. We had fun slogging through our clearing and down the little hills out front. Even at our young age, we recognized the time and care and love that had gone into making our perfectly chosen gifts.

Although we couldn’t wait to play with our new gifts and were eager to get outside to try out the skis and David’s sled, first we had the fun of opening the rest of our homemade gifts. Our parents beamed with pride and so did we kids, for our simple Christmas turned out to be our most memorable one ever.

Christmas Gifts in a Seismic Economy

Outside my office, the world is gray and white. The snow has stopped falling, but is heaped almost knee-deep on the lawn. Each leaf still clinging to the native shrubs in our front yard mini-forest bears its own fluffy load and is tipped with the start of its own icicle. A solitary rufous-sided towhee flashes bright flanks as it hops past my ground-level window to scratch for bugs in the ivy under the deck. An undulating line of snow geese follows-the-leader across the dark sky beyond the drooping cedar.

I should be Christmas shopping, but we’re snowed in. I’m rereading some of this year’s Christmas letters and cards.

Each year I look forward to my dear friend Mary Armstrong’s Christmas masterpiece. No one better captures the essence of the season than she does. This year she talks about gift-giving in a “seismic economy.” She gave me permission to share part of her letter here:

“…a small sign…lettered with the message, ‘Kindness Matters’…hangs now in our kitchen, a gentle reminder of something beyond portfolio and asset value: the gift of kindness. Could our roller coaster economy, distressing as it surely is, contain a hidden lesson we may have forgotten? Perhaps beyond the mall, beyond the in-your-face glitze urging us to spend and spend some more, rests a galaxy of gifts to be rediscovered.

“This year especially, could I give the gift of listening? Real listening, without interruption, without time out for commercials, is the rarest of treasures. Could I give the gift of my presence, taking time to actually sit down with someone, hear them with focus, with eye contact, with sympathy and encouragement? Could I just once refrain from offering advice? Could I pick up the phone and simply ask how my friend is doing? Could I give an hour to help out at the food bank, or the homeless shelter, or the drive for warm jackets, or the soup kitchen, or the Church thrift shop, or push a coin into the alms kettle?

“This year, let us shop as the gold—or lack of it—in our wallets will dictate. But may we remember to shop also for that invisible gift wrapped in the beauty of kindness: the gift of myself, the gift of my time. Let us slow our pace, let us listen more, let us speak less, let us reach out to those next door, around the corner, at the other end of the phone, perhaps under the overpass, on a bench in the park, or behind bars.”

***For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11***

Christmas in the Little Things

December 13, 2008

The weatherman came through today. We got the predicated snow! Not very much, but it’s the first of the season here on our hill above Port Susan Bay. It lies soft as a down comforter across the shrubs and lawns. Colored lights twinkle from all the eaves. It’s Christmas in our neighborhood.

More often, December wears a less festive look in this mild climate. Dripping skies, leafless trees, gray skies, a damp wind…but then, Christmas has always been in the eye (and the heart) of the beholder. It burns the brightest in the little things.


The holly
Offers up December berries.

In its branches
Nature sings and celebrates:
Chickadees in neat tuxedos,
Red-sweatered robins,
Svelte varied thrush with banded throat;
And on a weathered rail there lights
one regal jay,
a bandit king in royal blue.

Oh, what a Christmas moment…
God’s joyous gift to this gray day!

Princess Fairy

Marva, the Princess Fairy

My husband had only time to call my name before he fell back on the pillows and his heart stopped. Standing alone beside his hospital bed, I knew he’d already embarked upon his eternal life. Though stunned, I felt wrapped in a kind of peace that held sorrow at bay. I spent the rest of that night at my son’s house. As the hours of wakefulness passed, I lay there imagining what wonders Bob might be experiencing. I was more in awe than in grief…that would come later as the reality of my aloneness sank in.

My children were out of the nest. Not many of my friends or family had yet passed this way…how could they understand? The house was quiet except for our old Irish setter who missed Bob, too, and let me cry into her soft coat. But God had someone special in mind to help fill the empty place in my heart…a little brown sprite named Marva.

My son had been engaged to Marva’s mother for several months. They’d already planned their wedding for June. I’d been slow to recognize the budding romance, probably because of the differences in their cultures. When I realized they were serious, I invited mother and daughter to meet me for lunch so we could get better acquainted. They stepped out of their car. The two-and a half-year-old spied me across the parking lot and flew to meet me, a dozen tiny braids bobbing about her head. “Grandma!” she cried, and launched herself into my arms.

Grandma! I wasn’t her Grandma! But as those little arms went about my neck and she snuggled against me, suddenly the name seemed like the sweetest word on earth.

Rob and Lydia’s wedding went on as planned. Gratefully, I filled my days with making curtains for their house and helping wherever I could. When they left for their honeymoon, just a month after Bob’s death, Marva stayed with me and Sharon Dog. We baked cookies together, we washed dishes together, we drew and cut out paper dolls. I was taking a crash course in Grandma-hood, but Marva was a natural.

Marva knew that Halloween meant costumes and candy. “What are you going to be?” I asked her.

“A princess fairy,” she replied.

So her mother sewed her a gossamer gown of pink, with long puffed sleeves and layers and layers in the skirt. She wore a sparkly tiara, and fluttery, see-through wings. Her daddy made a star-tipped wand as a finishing touch. Marva loved the dress. She wore it to church; she wore it to town. She wore it out. But by that time, she’d made herself a place in my heart that she will never outgrow.


Little girl with dancing eyes,
You stole into my lonely heart.
You wrapped my heartstrings
round you, Princess Fairy,
As if you’d lived within it
from the start.

Sun Breaks for your Soul

Visitors to our area are surprised to find that the “rainy North-Wet” actually is a place of great weather variety. Yes, we do have rain, usually a soft, easy-to-ignore drizzle. We have lots of cloudy weather in the winter. Sometimes it’s a gray blanket shrouding the land for days at a time. Sometimes, the changing clouds and the mist, the fog and the showers give way to hours or days of sparkling sunshine.

Between the rare cloudless days and the gray-shrouded ones, we have many periods of changeable weather which feature that unique northwest phenomenon, the Sun Break.

When the sun breaks through a rip in the clouds and floods the vistas with golden light, heads go up and lungs expand. It’s like a mini-vacation, a kiss of beauty from the heavens, a note of encouragement that brighter days are coming.

I hope these posts will be “Sun Breaks” for your soul.