Blogmas 2019 Day 8: Jenny and Emily Attempt to Make Santa Hats (A Video)

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Jenny and I ransacked the sewing room and attic for fabric, faux fur, cotton balls, yarn, and anything else we thought might be useful for making Santa hats. Then we sat down on Jenny’s bed and, with only our imaginations to guide us, tried to make Santa hats.

And we filmed the whole process.

Thanks for watching! We had so much fun making this.

In 2020, I hope to buy some video equipment and make even more videos. If you’re interested in subscribing to my YouTube channel, where they’ll all be uploaded, you can go to youtube.com/emilysmucker and click the red “subscribe” button. (But don’t worry, I’ll still share them on my blog too.)

 

Blogmas 2019 Day 7: Childhood Christmas Memories

plastic animal toys on wooden surface

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Today I’m googling “Blogmas post ideas,” because I spent all my blogging energy editing a video for tomorrow’s post.

Hmm…”Childhood Christmas memories” looks like a semi-promising idea. Let me recall a few Childhood Christmas memories.

Memory 1: The China Tea Set

When I was a kid I absolutely adored the book A Bargain for Francis. In it, Francis longs for “a china tea set with pictures all in blue.” And of course I longed for one too, after reading of her adventures.

One Christmas I opened my presents, and behold! There it was. A china tea set with pictures all in…well…blue and pink. But close enough.

I mean, it was a very cheap tea set, but I thought it was the best thing ever. I started having tea parties with my sister Amy. Mom would give us grape soda to put in the teapot, and I called it “purple mint tea.”

I think of myself as immune to product placement from internet influencers, but I’m totally susceptible to product placement in books. I wonder if that will become a thing. Or if it’s already a thing and I just don’t know about it.

Memory 2: The Christmas Play

When I was still young and cute, I was in the Christmas play at school. I don’t remember what it was about. I just recall that my character’s name was “Jessica,” and I had funny lines that made everyone laugh. “Clothespins anyone?” was one of them. Another was “is it raining?”

Then I grew into an awkward age where I was too young for the serious parts and too old for the cute parts. But I still wanted to be the star of the show. We were doing “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and I was the first to volunteer to play Alice Wendleken, so I should have gotten the part. But instead, the person in charge (I don’t even remember who it was) gave the part to my cousin Jessi.

Instead, I was given this dumb role that had, like, two short lines or something. My character’s name was Maxine.

Well, I decided that I was going to rise above my circumstances. I was going to play Maxine to the best of my ability. Since she seemingly had no personality, I was going to create a personality for her.

I decided that Maxine would be a shy character, and I tried to say my lines in a shy way. Unfortunately, this also made me hard to hear. “Talk louder, Emily!” Sigh. How frustrating. They didn’t understand my true acting abilities. They didn’t understand that Maxine was supposed to be quiet and shy.

In adulthood, I’ve tried to milk a moral out of this story, but I can’t figure out how to do it. When I direct a drama, I want the actors to be content to make the most out of small roles. But I also want them to speak loudly.

Memory 3: My adorable brother

As a child I thought my brother Ben, who was three years younger than me, was the most adorable, hilarious human.

One December I saw him with a pair of my purple craft scissors, trying to wrap them up. He was giving them to me for Christmas, even though they already were mine. I thought it was the cutest funniest thing ever.

Another Christmas we got a box of gifts from Grandma, and one gift had developed a small hole in the wrapping. We all noticed the hole, and we all saw what appeared to be socks inside, but we were all too polite to mention it.

Then Ben said, “I know what this present is! It’s SOCKS!!!” And I thought it was the best “Emperor’s new clothes” moment ever.

Memory 4: Forcing Myself to Like Gifts

As a kid, I made up some weird Christmas rules for myself. Like, the worst thing ever, in my mind, would be to know what your present was before you unwrapped it. I did everything in my power to not know what I was getting until I pulled off the wrapping paper, and if I did find out earlier, I felt cheated. (That was part of the reason I refused to acknowledge that there were socks in the package in the previous story.)

Another Christmas rule was that I had to like my presents. No matter what I got, I forced myself to like it. If nothing else worked, I pretended that it was magic.

One year my brother Matt got me plastic African animal for Christmas. Little cheap ones. Normally, I was much more into girly presents like china tea sets. But I was determined to like this gift. I forced myself to play with those plastic animals all the time. I made them all into characters, and acted out stories with them. I told myself that African animals were much cooler to like than china tea sets. Because even though I liked girly things, all the characters in my favorite books were tomboys, so I wanted to be a tomboy too.

And what do you know, I liked that Christmas present after all.

This has been Day 7 of Blogmas. If you’re interested in reading a (fictional) Christmas story I wrote, click here. And come back tomorrow evening for what will be (in my opinion) the crowning jewel of this entire Blogmas series. That is, a fun video I did with my little sister Jenny.

 

Blogmas 2019 Day 6: Peace on Earth (A Christmas Story)

boy beside christmas tree illustration

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

Important note: While the setting of this story is eerily similar to Brownsville Mennonite School, and it features a certain piece of greenery that also appeared at BMS under similar circumstances, I promise that this story is a work of fiction. The setting is real-ish, but the characters and plot are all made up. 

Peace on Earth
By Emily Smucker

Christmas had thrown up in the corner store. Decorations spilled out of bins. Kristen heard someone curse loudly, and when she walked down the chip aisle to investigate, she saw Clive, on a step ladder, struggling to hang a giant “PEACE ON EARTH” banner on the back wall. 

“Got any coffee?” she called to him. 

“Yep,” he said, pounding in one last nail. “Donuts too. You want a nice, fresh one or a half-price one that didn’t sell yesterday?”

“Give me the fresh,” said Kristen. “It’s gonna be a long day.”

“Oh yeah?” Clive jumped off the ladder and surveyed his work. “What’s happening over at the school today?”

“It’s just crazy this time of year. Everyone’s trying to get tests done before Christmas break, and plan the Christmas party, and practice for the Christmas program. But that will be over tonight, thankfully.”

“Your Christmas program is tonight?”

“Yep. 7 PM. You’re invited, if you want to come.”

As soon as the invitation was out of her mouth, she regretted it. Stocky, balding, chain smoking Clive was her friend, of sorts. She saw him every day on her way to school when she stopped in for her morning coffee, and she usually ended up ranting to him about her job. The students who never got their homework done. The parents who didn’t care. Clive heard it all. But the reason she told him these things was because he had no connection to her little church school. And anyway, what would people think if he showed up, with his yellow teeth and tattoos? And he’d for sure need at least one smoke break.

Oh well. She couldn’t exactly rescind the invitation now.

“Where is your school, again?” Clive asked. 

“You’ll see it on the right as you drive out of town. Parkville Mennonite Church.”

“Oh yeah, I know where that is. I didn’t realize there was a school there, too.”

“The school is just a few rooms connected to the church building. But the program will be held in the church sanctuary,” said Kristen.

“Maybe I should give you the sign for your school,” said Clive, pouring her coffee into a red to-go cup and fetching a donut with his little tongs. “It seems a little religious for me.”

“Huh? What sign?”

He nodded to the back of the store. Peace on Earth

Kristen resisted the urge to laugh out loud at the thought of hanging such a sign in her chaotic classroom. “You know, it would be a shame to take it down after you spent so much time hanging it up,” she said, handing over a $5 bill.

He handed her the coffee and donut, as well as her change. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? ‘Peace on Earth’ for the craziest time of year.”

It did seem ironic, but Clive was an atheist and she didn’t want to agree with his atheism. She smiled uneasily. “Um, well, thanks for the coffee! Merry Christmas, Clive!”

“Merry Christmas!”

As Kristen walked toward the door, the radio stopped it’s progression of Christmas carols for an important announcement. “It’s just about time for our Christmas tree giveaway! Caller number 9 will get a brand new Christmas tree…”

The doors of the corner store shut behind her as she walked towards her car, in the cold drizzle of December.

“Oh there you are,” said Miss Troyer when Kristen walked into the classroom. “Did Madison hand in her Social Studies PACE to you yesterday?”

“Yeah.”

“Did she quote the Gettysburg Address to you?”

“…No…”

“Oh. Okay. She needs to do that before she can take the test.” 

Kristen felt her heart sink, partially from the subtle failure vibes, and partially because this was one more thing she had to push a student to do before they’d be ready to leave for Christmas vacation.

“Can’t she just take the test, and study the Gettysburg Address over the holidays?” Kristen asked.

“Did Madison suggest that to you?” Miss Troyer asked. “That is a classic example of a student trying to make you forget. Don’t fall for it.”

This was the problem with being an assistant teacher instead of the head teacher. She had no power to give Madison grace, but she would, she knew, have to do all the grunt work to study with Madison until the Gettysburg Address was memorized forwards and backwards.

The door opened. Xander and Skyler Miller ambled in and stood sleepily by their desks. They were closely followed by Amber Troyer, Miss Troyer’s niece and Xander and Skyler’s first cousin. She usually rode to school with them.

“Miss Kristen, did you make my Mary costume yet?” Amber asked. She always whined when she asked questions, and it set Kristen on edge. 

“I told you, I didn’t have time to make a whole new costume,” Kristen replied. “I just shortened the lavender robe from the costume closet.”

“But it’s waaaay too big for me!” Amber whined.

“We’ll add a belt. You’ll be fine.”

More students were pouring into classroom. Danny, who always had a slight mildew smell, as though his shirt had sat in the washer too long before getting dried. Philip, who was at that stage of life where he thought making fun of people would make him cool and likable. And Madison, who was supposed to memorize the Gettysburg address.

“Wow Miss Kristen. You’re drinking corner store coffee again? What, there was no pond scum available?” said Philip, with a sideways glance at Madison.

Madison, as usual, ignored him as she walked past to her desk.

“Wait. Madison?” Kristen was just about to ask her about the Gettysburg address, when Terance came bursting into the classroom.

“Hey! Hey!” Terance always reminded Kristen of a puppy with too much energy, but today he was in rare form. “Hey, is Dave here? I need to borrow his truck.”

“Borrow his truck?” Mrs Troyer looked up from her computer. “Why on earth do you need to borrow Dave’s truck? The bell is going to ring in five minutes.”

“I won a Christmas tree!” he almost yelled.

“What!”

“Yeah! They were giving one away on the radio, and I was the ninth caller!”

“You need my help too, right?” said Xander.

“And mine!” said Skyler.

“I can help! Please Mrs Troyer, can I go help?” Philip chimed in. “Terance is too scrawny to heft a Christmas tree by himself.” 

“A Christmas tree? What’s this about a Christmas tree?” three more students were entering the classroom.

“I won a Christmas tree on the radio!” said Terance. “Where’s Dave?”

“You what?!?”

The bell rang, but everyone ignored it. “Quiet!” said Mrs. Troyer, her calm, chilling voice inches from being raised. “Quiet, or you’re all getting demerits.”

The students shushed. Then Dave walked in, late, and the uproar started again.

“Quiet!” Mrs. Troyer yelled, this time. She rarely yelled. Everyone, including Kristen, shrank into their desks. “Terance, I’m happy for you, but there’s no use picking up the tree now. Wait until after school, when you can take it straight home.

“But I don’t want to take it home, Mrs. Troyer. I want to give it as a gift to the class. The girls were talking about decorating the class for Christmas anyway.”

“There’s only three days left of school before Christmas break!”

“But don’t you want them to be pretty days of school? And don’t you want a real Christmas party on Friday? We can put the gifts for the gift exchange under the tree! Please please please?” He fell down on his knees before her, dramatically.

Mrs. Troyer couldn’t help but smile. “Fine.” Terance leapt up, a grin on his face. “But you have to be back by first break, because that’s when dress rehearsal starts.”

The uproar started again, as all the boys tried to convince Mrs Troyer that Terance needed them to go along and help with the tree hauling. Kristen just sat back and sipped her coffee. It was funny, she thought, how some students could get by with so much more than other students. Amber, for instance, was technically an angel student, as far as grades and demerits went. But her terrible whine made Kristen want to never, ever, give her what she wanted. But Terance, who was actually a rather naughty student, could get by with a lot just by being his happy, charming, joking self.

The bell jangled extra loudly as Kristen entered the corner store for the second time that day. 

“More coffee?” Clive asked. 

“Actually, I need a tree stand,” said Kristen. “You sell those, right? And some of those little Snickers bars to bribe kids with. And do you have some extra strength double sided tape? Is that a thing? The bricks keep falling off the Bethlehem Inn. Oh and safety pins. And yes, coffee.” She paused. “Rope! Do you happen to have rope?”

“I have thin twine, but if you’re planning to hang one of your students, I’m not sure it’s strong enough.”

She laughed despite the morbidity, because it hit a little too close to home right then. “Nope. Belts for the wise men.”

“And the Christmas tree stand?”

“Don’t even ask,” she said wearily, hunting down the twine and tape as Clive filled another coffee cup. She put all the items on the counter and he rang them up for her. 

“I hope your program goes well,” he said, handing her the receipt.

The “your program” grated on Kristen’s nerves. It wasn’t supposed to be her program. Mrs Troyer was directing it, and Mrs Bontrager, Madison’s mother, had volunteered to teach the music. When asked, Kristen had agreed to be assistant director, but she didn’t think it would mean very much. Maybe telling a few students to speak up or pay attention.

But before she knew it, it was her job to find costumes for everybody, and her job to scour Pinterest for set ideas, and her job to make sure the students knew their lines. Besides telling the students to speak up or pay attention.

Mrs Troyer sat on the front bench, directing, but that was it. It was similar, Kristen thought bitterly, to the way the entire school was run. Mrs Troyer did the important stuff, but Kristen got the brunt work.

But after Kristen had a few sips of warm coffee, and was alone in her car for the few minutes it took to get back to school, she decided that this assessment of Mrs Troyer was really unfair. Mrs Troyer was a great teacher, she really was. She was pragmatic. And while sometimes abrasive, you always knew where you stood with her. There was nothing false about her.

Kristen’s annoyance at the moment was mostly centered on Mrs Bongrager. Mrs Bontrager was a sweet lady, but…well…she was supposed to be the music teacher. Just music. But, “oh, don’t you think it would just be so much nicer if the wise men had belts?” She’d said. “Those costumes are just so shapeless.” And so there was Kristen, the afternoon before the program, buying twine at the corner store.

Her arrival back at school caused quite a stir. Everyone was in the church, going through the dress rehearsal. But Terance saw her and leaped out of his seat. “Did you get a stand for my tree?”

“Yes.”

Before she knew it, all the older boys had fled the sanctuary and were racing down the hallway that connected the church portion of the building to the school wing. “It’s just the little kids singing. We’ll be back soon,” said Terance, when Kristen tried to stop them. 

The tree was leaning against the wall in the school entryway. Dave and Terence wrestled it into the classroom, where they tried to set it up.

“It’s too tall!” Skyler called out helpfully. 

“We need to cut the top off,” said Dave.

“Let’s just set it up in the entryway,” said Kristen. “There’s plenty of room out there. Terance! Where did you get that knife?”

Terance looked at the giant knife in his hands. “Umm…”

“You know knives aren’t allowed in school, right? Hand it over. And let’s haul this back into the entryway.”

“But then the little kids will get the Christmas tree too! I want it to be just for us older kids!” Terance complained, somehow managing to still sound charming. “It’s my tree, I should get to decide where it goes. Come on. I’ll just use my knife to cut off the top, and then you can confiscate it,” he said, giving her puppy-dog eyes. 

Kristen’s patience was wearing extremely thin. But was this a battle worth fighting? Mrs. Troyer wouldn’t have allowed it. The girls would have gasped in shock at the very idea of mercilessly chopping off the top of that beautiful tree. But they weren’t here, and they didn’t have to deal with this.

“Fine,” said Kristen. 

The tone of her voice made all the boys straighten up and get to business. Terance hacked off the top of the tree, and the boys set it up in the stand and added some water.

Then it was Kristen’s job to get everyone back to dress rehearsal, including some girls who had wandered off to the bathroom and never come back. Amber’s voice drifted out of the bathroom door as Kristen walked up to it. “And I told her I had a nice dress I could wear to play Mary, and she told me I didn’t need to because she’d make me something, and then she made me wear this. Miss Kristen just wants to control everything.”

“You’re needed on stage,” said Kristen, opening the door. Her voice was tense. She’d decided, once and for all, that it was useless to try to liked by her students. 

The girls filed past her. Amber’s chin was up, but at least Madison looked ashamed. As they walked away, Kristen found herself confronted by Mrs. Bontrager. “Oh, Kristen!” said Mrs. Bontrager brightly, waving a program that Kristen had designed the day before. “Don’t you think it would just be so nice if the programs had a picture of the nativity on them? I just think that would be so nice. And I noticed there were no Bible verses in it. Don’t you think it would be so nice to have some Bible verses in it?”

By 6:50 pm, Kristen found herself perched on the back bench of the sanctuary, where the makeshift lighting and sound booth was located. She surveyed the program in her hands, still warm from the printer, but containing both a picture of the nativity and several Bible verses.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Kristen read the familiar verse and sighed. She was inches away from believing in Clive’s atheistic notions about Christmas. It did seem awfully un-peaceful, and currently, Kristen felt very little good will toward men. 

Oh! It was 7:00. She dimmed the lights, and the children filed in, singing as they came.

The program went relatively well, all things considered. Dave only forgot one of his lines. Only two bricks fell off the Bethlehem Inn. The sound system only glitched a couple times. And then they were singing the last song, the whole school, standing on the risers with their battery-powered candles which gave them all an angelic glow.

Peace on the earth good will to men

From Heaven’s all-gracious King

The world in solemn stillness lay

To hear the Angels sing

Afterwords there were finger foods in the fellowship hall. Kristen passed through the din, collecting costumes from all the places they’d been haphazardly strewn.

“I liked it. You did well.”

Kristen looked up, but the smell of cigarette smoke had already alerted her to who it was. “Clive! You made it!”

“Yep! Wouldn’t miss it. I’m not religious, but it’s a nice story. And the little kids sure look cute in their sheep costumes. You did good.”

“Thank you,” said Kristen. This acknowledgement of all the work she’d put into the production was gratifying. 

Then, “I brought you something,” said Clive. He held up a torn box of Christmas lights. “Someone knocked it down, and it busted. I was just gonna pitch ‘em, but I thought I might as well bring ‘em for you. You just got a Christmas tree today, right?”

“Yeah, well…”

“Hey Clive!” Terance was rushing by, his plate piled high with cookies and chips and green rice krispy bars. “Hey, what’s that?”

“Clive brought some Christmas lights for the tree,” said Kristen. She was surprised that the two of them knew each other, but it actually made sense. Terance was forevermore forgetting his lunch, and begging to be allowed to go to the corner store to pick up something to eat.

“Cool!” said Terance. He balanced his water cup between his plate and his chin, and took the lights in his free hand. “Xander! Madison! Look, I got lights!”

A crowd of students collected around him, and they all disappeared into the classroom. Great. Now they’d all be eating in there, leaving one more room to vacuum after everyone was gone. 

It’s over. The worst is over. You should be relaxing, Kristen told herself. So after one last trip to return the rest of the costumes to the costume closet, she got herself a plate of food and sat down next to Daisy, an old friend from high school. Daisy was already half done with her food, but Kristen launched into conversation anyway. “Remember when that was us, acting in the Christmas program every year?” she asked.

Daisy laughed. “Oh yes. Remember the year when I played Mary, and Mr Krabill wanted me to wear that awful costume that made me look actually pregnant?”

“Yeah!” said Kristen. “And then Myron was so jealous that Rob got to play Joseph, and help you hobble your way to Jerusalem.”

“Mr Krabill didn’t think my wobble looked pregnant enough. Or that Rob was helping me enough. It was so awkward!”

They laughed at the memories. Funny, Kristen thought, that only several years after that incident Daisy was pregnant for real. And married. To Myron.

“Oh, hey Kristen!” It was Myron himself. Before Kristen could respond, he’d turned to his wife. “Are you ready to go honey? I want to get home before the snow starts.”

“Wait, it’s gonna snow?” Kristen asked.

“Yep!” said Myron. Then, “Where’s Cassie?” he asked Daisy.

“Last I saw her she was in the rec room with her friends.”

Myron went off to fetch their daughter. So strange, Kristen thought. Only a few years older than me, and they already have a first grader.

“Well, I have to go,” said Daisy, shoving the last bits of her food into her mouth. “It was great catching up.”

“Of course!” said Kristen. “Drive safely!”

With the threat of snow looming, it didn’t take people long to clear out. Some people stuck around for a bit to help with cleanup, but soon it was just Kristen, Mrs Troyer, and Mrs Bontrager left. “I just think we should make things nice for church on Sunday!” Mrs Bontrager said, grinning sweetly, and Kristen rushed off to make sure the sanctuary was vacuumed, and the urinals were flushed, and the sticky juice residue was wiped off the table upstairs.

 She met Mrs Troyer in the foyer. “I’m taking off,” said Mrs Troyer. “It’s starting to snow, and I live up in the hills. But I think things are pretty much cleaned up. Maybe just double check that the lights are off.”

And she walked away, through the large front doors of the church.

The church was empty. Dark. Almost hollow feeling. Kristen walked down the hall, switching off all the forgotten lights. The women’s bathroom. The utility room. The far light in the kitchen. Then, into the school section, where she switched off the light in the office.

It was completely dark now, except for the faintest glow seeping under the door of the main classroom. Oh yes, the Christmas lights on the tree. Should those be switched off too? 

Kristen opened the door, and for the first time, saw the tree in all its glory.

In the dimness, you didn’t notice that the top was lopped off. It was strung with Clive’s lights, which twinked, faint and alluring. And there were other decorations too. Things the children must have cobbled together with construction paper, and tape, and some glitter and pipe cleaners from that random drawer in the yearbook room. All enchanting, and dangly, and festive.

The absolute stillness deceived her, and it took her a second to notice that she wasn’t the only person in the room. It seemed that Mrs Bontrager hadn’t left yet, and she sat cross-legged at the foot of the tree, flanked by her daughter Madison. Dave was here, and Terence. And Clive, too. Crusty old Clive, staring up at the beautiful tree, transfixed.

The snow began falling in earnest, tumbling softly in the glow of the lamppost outside the window. And it occurred to Kristen that the hard part really was over. Tomorrow it was just a couple self-tests and a bunch of tests, and then the Christmas party on Friday, and then there’d be a whole week-and-a-half of vacation. 

She should leave soon, she knew. Before the snow started sticking. But first, enchanted by the atmosphere, she, too, sat on the floor and enjoyed the moment. Because for the first time that season, she actually felt it.

Peace on Earth. 

 

Blogmas 2019 Day 5: My Favorite Christmas Traditions (And Giveaway Winner!)

Image may contain: ocean, sky, cloud, outdoor, nature and water

An actual snap of last year’s Christmas

Alright. The moment of truth has arrived. The giveaway winner is…

Mary Lynn Derstine

Congrats, Mary! I sent you an email and haven’t heard back from you yet, so check your inbox!

Now, on to the bulk of this post. Last year, a reader suggested that I write about my favorite Christmas traditions.

My family isn’t really the type to intentionally craft a meaningful collection of Christmas traditions. I mean, we buy each other gifts and open them on Christmas morning as, I assume, most families do. Although as time goes on, we’ve shifted that “Christmas morning” around to accommodate various family members. Last year we celebrated on January 5. This year it’ll be December 30.

Nevertheless there are some random things we’ve done so often they’ve become traditions. And also one very intentional, very unique tradition, which I’ll talk about first.

Tradition 1: Gotcha Day

On December 24, 2004, my family drove up to the Portland Airport. We walked inside and waited, standing expectantly on the famous teal carpet, waiting for our new brother to arrive.

And then we saw him, coming with my dad down the hallway. We were now a family of eight instead of seven.

Ever since that day, my family has celebrated Christmas Eve as “gotcha day.” We cook traditional Kenyan foods: chapatis and ugali and sukuma and chicken gravy and pineapple and Kenyan chai tea and soda in glass bottles. We spread a bright leso on the table, and decorate with carved animals we brought back with us when my family was in Kenya.

And then we sit around talking about how amazing Steven is, and how glad we are that he’s in our family, and stuff.

Tradition 2: Festive Pancakes

Growing up, my mom did most of the cooking, but she didn’t often cook breakfast. We usually made our own breakfasts. But my dad rather enjoyed cooking breakfast foods. Particularly pancakes. So if there ever was an occasion to make breakfast, my dad often did it.

I think this is where the pancakes-on-Christmas-morning thing came from. Someone needs to cook breakfast on Christmas morning, right? So dad would make pancakes.

And not just any pancakes. Fancy pancakes. Pancakes shaped like turtles. Pancakes colored with red food coloring. Pancakes colored with green food coloring. Blueberry pancakes. Chocolate chip pancakes. All the pancakes.

Tradition 3: Complaining about the Christmas Stockings

I’m trying to remember where the Christmas stocking thing even started. Originally, we just gave presents and didn’t bother with stockings. But at some point I bought a red velvet stocking at a garage sale. And then Amy traced around it and made her own flimsy cotton stocking. And Ben got a cheap felt stocking from someone…a Sunday school teacher maybe? His name was etched on it in red fabric paint.

So, since we had this meager collection, sometimes we’d hang up Christmas stockings. But we never bothered to collect a decent set.

Sometimes we’d supplement our collection with real socks. At one point, we took the stocking that had “Ben” fabric painted on one side, and painted “Jenny” on the other side. I don’t remember why. And one year, someone bought a stocking for the dog at Dollar Tree. And then the dog died, and we started using the stocking for humans. Even though it was covered in little green paw prints, it was the least pathetic-looking of the bunch.

Somewhere, somehow, we acquired these decorative fabric bags that were supposed to hold wine bottles. I don’t know how or why…we don’t even drink wine. But we started using these wine bags as extra stockings to fill in the gaps of our collection.

For some reason we’ve never bothered to purchase or make nice stockings. Instead, this is our tradition: every year we pull out our terrible collection of stockings and mock it mercilessly.

But Mom whipped up this really cute Christmas stocking the other day, so that particular tradition may be on its way out.

Tradition 4: Going to the Coast

For the past…I don’t know…five-ish years? We’ve started a new tradition: We go to the coast every Christmas. We rent a house and just hang out oceanside for several days.

Sometimes we bring our presents along and exchange them in our beach house. But that’s a lot of work, so this year we’re having “Christmas Morning” at home, before heading out to the coast in the afternoon.

Again, I’m not sure how this tradition started. I guess as my siblings started leaving home, we wanted to do something a little more special when we all came home for Christmas. So the coast it was.

Oh, I just remembered. We went to the coast in 2011/2012. So maybe it’s been eight years? Wow!

Anyway. It’s a tradition that’s developed during my adulthood, not my childhood.

So there you have it! My favorite Christmas traditions. And by “favorite” I mean “the only ones I could think of.” But I like them all, so it works.

Come back tomorrow for Day 6 of Blogmas. We’re almost halfway through the entire 12 Days of Blogmas challenge!

Blogmas 2019 Day 4: Take a Sad Song and Make it Better (repost)

Four years ago today, Ben and I went to Thailand to visit our sister Amy for Christmas. What happened next was one of the most dramatic Christmastime experiences of my life. Today, I decided to revisit that memory by reposting my blog post about the experience.

I knew that I’d figure things out eventually and everything would be fine, but sometimes my emotions don’t listen to my logic. I didn’t want to cry, but I felt the tears trickle down the side of my nose anyway. Blast.

What was wrong? Let me make a list:

  1. I had been traveling for a day and a half, with no end in sight, because…
  2. Our flight to Kunming, the second leg of our three-flight journey, was delayed for four hours due to a “mechanical issue…”
  3. Which we didn’t know any details about since we didn’t speak Chinese
  4. However, we knew we’d missed the third flight entirely
  5. And we couldn’t contact my sister Amy and tell her what was going on, because we weren’t able to connect to the internet at the airport
  6. And when the delay was over, and we got on the flight, they kept saying something about going to “Nanning”
  7. But we didn’t want to go to “Nanning,” we wanted to go to Kunming
  8. And then the flight attendant got on the intercom and explained in hard-to-understand English that if we wanted to head on to Kunming after Nanning we had to *garbled words* and collect a *garbled word.*
  9. And I was very confused.

Confusion+tiredness=tears, probably a very natural reaction, but I turned my head to hide them anyway. I looked out the window. And what I saw took my breath away.

Terrace_field_yunnan_china

Source: Wikipedia (Not exactly the same as what I saw, but the closest I could find.)

What are those squiggly things glinting in the sun? Oddly-shaped ponds? I peered closer. Rice fields! Of course!

We flew down, down, over green forests and red, red dirt, and terraced rice fields all over the hills, making the landscape look like a topographic map. It was unbelievably beautiful.

Nanning turned out to be a tiny little airport with only one gate, and a crisp-but-pleasant breeze blew in our faces as we descended the steps of the airplane, a nice contrast to the freezing temperatures of Shanghai. We followed the crowd across the blacktop, hoping we were doing the right thing.

A lady in a long blue coat stood by a door, yelling something, waving a handful of what looked like blue laminated bookmarks. Her voice was lost in the swift breeze. We left the pack, and walked closer. “Kunming! Kunming!” she was shouting, and so we took some blue bookmarks and walked into the gate area through her door.

It was only a short wait. I had time to use the bathroom. The toilet was the  the squatting-kind, which made me feel happy inside, because I was in a place that actually felt Chinese, instead of the sterile generic airplanes and airports I normally find myself in.

And Ben was able to connect to the internet and send Amy an explanatory email.

In short, my spirits were refreshed.

Of course with all the hopping on and off of airplanes and shuttle buses, and with boxed dinners being thrust under my nose every time I began to doze, I was quite tired by the time we reached Kunming. Too tired to keep up with Ben’s rapid pace, I sat down to send Amy another email on Ben’s phone while Ben fetched the luggage.

I typed a message, and clicked “send.”

“Message held in queue,” it told me.

I looked up at the message Ben had sent earlier. That one was also “held in queue.” It had never sent. Amy had no idea why we didn’t show up at the airport.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t connect to the internet. The only way to get the password was to put in your phone number, and they’d text you the password. Which didn’t exactly work for foreigners without overseas cell service.

Ben fetched the suitcases, left me with them, and ran off to talk to the people at the China Eastern counter about the next flight to Chiang Mai. I was alone in a strange airport with two suitcases I could barely pull, and no way to contact my family. I spread my Tinkerbell blanket on top of the largest suitcase and lay my head on it. Unbidden, another tear trickled down my nose and dripped off the tip.

Suddenly, someone beside me began talking very excitedly in Chinese. I looked up. A lady with a yellow scarf was gesturing wildly to me. She pointed to her phone, handed it to her friend, and scooted up next to me.

I smiled, wide. The friend snapped a picture.

“I want one too!” I said, handing her my camera so she’d know what I meant.

Then everyone in the friend group wanted a picture with me. They all wore magnificent brightly-colored clothing, and they jammed a red hat on my head and took pictures of me in it.

It was so much fun. They knew two English words, “yes” and “hello,” and I knew no Chinese words at all. One lady tried very hard to communicate, pointing to her nose and tapping her hand and holding up two fingers, but I was completely lost.

Then Ben came back, and they wanted to take pictures of us together, though Ben wasn’t particularly enthusiastic.

They gave me a bottle of water, which was nice, since I’d lost mine along the way, and we looked through the pictures we’d taken and gave each other smiles and “thumb’s up” signs until they had to go.

“So what’s going on?” I asked Ben, my spirits once more revived.

“They only fly to Chiang Mai once a day, so we have to spend the night here,” he told me. “They put us up in a hotel.”

“Did you tell them we were brother and sister so they’d give us two beds?” I asked.

“I just hoped they’d figure it out.”

“WHAT? You just assumed they’d KNOW?”

“I told them we were brother and sister.”

“Oh.”

We waited for the shuttle, and I longed in my heart for some music to listen to.  I had nothing. Even Chinese music would have soothed my soul. Instead  I sang, so softly that no one could really hear me over the general airport buzz, and pretended that I was listening instead of singing.

“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song, and make it bet-ter-er-er…”

“That’s what I’ll do,” I decided. “I’ll make this sad song better. I’m in China. I’ve never been to China before. I’ll have fun.”

We walked into the hotel room, and the first thing I saw was that, blessed relief, there were two beds. As I stood there admiring this fact, I heard Ben say, “wow, the shower’s not very private.”

Yes, that is a giant window between the bathroom and the rest of the room. Ben hung out in the hall while I used the bathroom, and then he got his chance to go when I went downstairs to ask how to connect to wifi.

“It’s easy,” said the receptionist. “No password.”

It wasn’t easy, though. Facebook wouldn’t open. Gmail wouldn’t open. Twitter wouldn’t open. Google wouldn’t open. “You can go down and talk to the receptionist this time,” I told Ben.

“It’s weird, though,” said Ben. “I can connect to ESPN just fine.”

“Really?” I tried opening Internet Explorer instead of Firefox. When I typed in “Facebook,” it re-directed me to a Bing search of headlines like “sites blocked in China.”

This was the one time in my life that Bing was more helpful than Google. Because apparently Google was blocked in China. Along with Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Thus began a frantic search for an alternate way to send a message. “Can you comment on Mom’s blog?” “I think I had a Yahoo account once.” “Do you remember the password to Mom’s old Juno account?” “Maybe I could post on my blog.” “I guess I can message my fantasy football league members through ESPN.”

It turned out that Blogger was blocked, but WordPress wasn’t, at least not entirely. A basic HTML version of my blog loaded, but it wouldn’t let me post. I tried posting using my phone.

“Success!” I shouted.

“Oh good,” said Ben. “I don’t know how long it would have been until my friends saw this fantasy football message.”

And then we collapsed in gales of laughter at the random and bizarre communication methods we were resorting to.

The next morning I woke up before Ben, and held a towel up while using the bathroom in the off chance that he groggily opened his eyes. I wondered around the hotel looking for breakfast, and found nothing. It was absolutely frigid, and the hotel doors stood wide open. Burr. I returned to our room.

Besides two pairs of crocks and a roll of toilet paper the size of a can of cream-of-mushroom soap, the hotel room didn’t have much. It did, however, have all the necessities in the way of tea-making.

 

That was quite nice. I wrapped myself in my bedspread and drank tea and ate crackers with peanut butter. Man, it was COLD.

Ben finally woke up. “It’s snowing,” he told me, looking out the window.

“What? Really?”

“Yep. See the snow on that car?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Did we forget to turn on the heater last night?”

“There’s no heater. I checked. There’s no heat in the entire building.”

“Oh.”

Happiest of happys though, when I checked the comments of my blog post I saw that, not only were Mom and Amy vastly relieved to see that we were okay, but a girl that Amy and Ben knew was actually living in Kunming at the moment. Amy typed in her phone number, and I scribbled it down on a piece of paper and went down to the lobby to ask if I could use the phone.

Felicia, was the friend’s name, and she was as friendly as friends can be. “I live an hour away, but I’m not doing anything this morning,” she said. “I’ll take a taxi over right away.”

Ben took a walk while I showered. The water was hot, warming me through and through, and I sang “hey Jude” at the top of my lungs. I was making the sad song better.

I hadn’t packed for cold weather, I’d packed for Thailand, but I did the best I could. A skirt, under which was a pair of leggings, under which were my pajama pants, rolled up to the knees. My light jacket over my t-shirt over my long-sleeved shirt. Socks borrowed from Ben, and a light scarf wrapped around and around my neck. My Tinkerbell blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I was as ready as I’d ever be.

 

“Where do you want to go?” Felicia asked when she arrived, all friendly and smiles.

“Someplace where it’s warm,” I said.

She chatted a bit with the Taxi driver in Chinese. “Do you like hot pot?” she asked us.

“What’s hot pot?”

“It’s a Chinese dish…there’s a heated pan in the center of your table and you put in all sorts of meat and vegetables and make a stew.”

A warm soup in a warm place sounded heavenly. “Sure, let’s do that.”

We walked down the street and around the corner, as I tried to avoid getting water in my not-particularly-waterproof shoes. Flakes of snow nestled into the purple fuzz of my Tinkerbell blanket.

“You just had to be stuck here on the day it snows!” said Felicia.

“Does it not usually snow here?”

“Oh no! They call this the city of eternal spring. A couple years ago it snowed, and people were so excited because it was the first time it had snowed in seven years.”

We stepped into a tiny restaurant that, like the hotel, left its doors wide open. This made me dubious, but it did seem to be warmer in here. Someone gestured to the floor and there, in a square pan, was a pile of burning coals, keeping the customers toasty.

We gathered around the low table: me, Ben, Felicia, and the taxi driver. The waiter brought a pan of broth and set it on the burner in the middle of the table, and then brought us plates of meat and vegetables, and a large kettle full of tea.

 

This already seems like a core memory, forever powering travel island. Sitting there on that low stool, in a completely unexpected location, with two brand-new friends.

The taxi driver ladled meat and veggies into my bowl. “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Chinese?” I asked Felicia.

“Syea-syea,” she said.

“Syea-syea,” I told the taxi driver. I now knew a word in Chinese.

But what I remember most was the juxtaposition of cold and warmth. The snowy wind blew in the open door, nipping at my nose and freezing my toes. The coals warmed my legs, as I tried to get as close as possible without burning the edges of my Tinkerbell blanket. The soup warmed my insides, and the kindness of strangers warmed my soul.

IMAG0158

Photo credit: Ben

My logic was right. We figured things out, and everything was okay. We paid for the hot pot with the 400 Yuen we’d been given as compensation for our delayed flight, and gave the leftover money to Felicia hoping to cover a fraction of her taxi cost, even though she insisted it was okay and she was happy to come.

We went back to the airport, checked our bags, and got on the plane for Chiang Mai. We were delayed over an hour while they sprayed the snow off the plane and waited around for other unknown reasons, but at this point that seemed like pittance.

“How many hours have we been traveling?” I asked Ben when we finally reached Chiang Mai and were filling out immigration paperwork.

“Fifty hours,” he said. But I added it up later, and it was actually sixty-two hours. Over two and a half days.

But we fetched our suitcases and walked through the big glass doors, where Amy was waiting with her arms full of hugs.

We had finally arrived.

Blogmas 2019 Day 3: Finding Christmas (Guest Post)

girl eating cupcake while sitting beside woman in blue denim distressed jeans

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Today, I’m sharing a guest post by blogger Alison Martin. As you will see in this post, Alison is a talented writer who also works as a nurse. She writes about her life on her blog, Under Seven StarsEnjoy!

“Tender Tennessee Christmas” by Amy Grant wafts through the air, invoking deep inside me a feeling of nostalgia so strong I want to burst into tears. I can’t explain it, the flood of memories this song brings to me, the sadness…

I am seven, and we are going to the cabin for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. It is snowy and evergreeny and exciting, and there’s a fire at the cabin—love surrounds me in the form of my favorite cousins, my uncles and aunts, and a new Precious Moments nightie—made by my Grandma and matching all the other girl cousins’…

I am nine and riding in the back of the family minivan with my mom and dad in the front talking, while we drive on a dark Sunday evening through a winter wonderland of snow and sparkling Christmas lights. We are driving to a church where my dad will preach this evening. My mom’s favorite Christmas album by Amy Grant croons through the air. I am warm, and I am safe, and I am loved…

I am ten, and I am curled up on the couch the afternoon before Christmas eve. We had school that day, and we tramped through the cold in our coats and boots and mittens to Christmas carol and pass out Christmas cookies to the neighbors. We opened presents back at school, and I got a fuzzy burgundy blanket, so soft, from my favorite teacher ever (who ended up being my brother-in-law three years later). That afternoon I read Alice in Wonderland and sucked on a candy cane while wrapped in my new blanket in my favorite corner in the living room. Contentment was so easy…

I am eleven and waking up to a snowy day after Christmas and feeling excited about every single one of my gifts and the love that prompted my family to buy them for me. Especially thrilling was the little red camera my dad had picked out for me himself…

I am nineteen, and I am in the van once again with my parents, driving through our neighborhood decked with lights. I am burned out from working with my dementia residents in the nursing home every day, the ones who are dying… I am surprised that I don’t feel the Christmas magic I usually feel as we complete this yearly tradition. I mention this, asking why Christmas feels so shallow when once it felt so wide and deep? My dad answers and says philosophically that that’s how life is when you grow up, and that’s why you need to have children so you can see it deep and wide again, through their eyes.

And I am twenty-three, and I don’t have any children, so I can’t see Christmas through their eyes. I don’t have a dad to tell me comfortingly that that’s how life is, and I wonder again why Christmas feels so shallow when it once felt so deep and wide. Nostalgia makes me want to cry, because where is that tender Christmas I used to know? Why do I feel like December will fly by in a flurry of deadlines and stress?

What does “peace on earth” mean as I watch people die in my work at the hospital or brush with those who are sick and wish they could die or watch those left behind try to cover up their loneliness in this happiest time of the year? It’s all shallow, and I am not seven. I can see now behind the tinsel and the music. I can see that it’s a cover, and Christmas joy is a myth. The world in this month is the same as it is the rest of the year.

Shallow, swiftly passing, painful.

But Mary brought forth a Son in pain, and there wasn’t even room for them in the inn. This is the world we live in, where there sometimes isn’t room for us in the inn, and we huddle outside alone. We huddle alone in our tense thoughts while the world celebrates around us. We forget that this is why the Savior was born. Not for the happy and whole, but for the world that is alone and in pain.

And then I remember that, after all, Christmas was never about glittering perfection. A perfect world did not need a Savior. This world I live in—this world lacking peace, this world where death over-rules love and pain is the name of the game—this is the world that needed a Savior. Christmas was never about the feelings of excitement and everything merry and bright.

Unto us a child is born… A small baby, not able to speak healing to all the nations yet, but a baby is born. Hope is given to us. Hope and the promise of peace. And there is my Christmas, deep and wide… My Christmas gift is hope and here is my peace. The dead will live again…

And one day He will wipe away the tears that cloud our vision, and we will see again through the eyes of a child.

 

Blogmas 2019 Day 2: Deep Analysis of the song “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”

photo of girl sitting near christmas tree

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

The other day I was sweeping the floor and humming “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” to myself, as one does this time of year. And I realized that I have a lot of thoughts about this song. Not criticisms really, just thoughts.

Like first of all, I always imagine this song taking place down the street at my neighbor’s house. Especially when I come to the line,

A pair of hop-a-long boots and a pistol that shoots
Is the wish of Barney and Ben
Dolls that’ll talk and will go for a walk
Is the hope of Janice and Jen

Because as anyone who lives around here knows, Leroy and Anita’s two youngest sons are Barney and Ben. And they were always talked about like that too, as a pair. Barney and Ben. Never Ben and Barney, or Barney and Andrew, or Andrew and Ben, even though there was a third brother named Andrew. Always Barney and Ben.

Also, there was a sister in the family named Janna, which is similar to Janice. Maybe if Andrew had been a girl they’d have named him “Jen?”

Then I started thinking about the gifts that these children in the song wanted.

First, what the bunnyslipper are hop-a-long boots?

Jenny and Amy told me that they always imagined that hop-a-long boots were 7 league boots. Personally, I always imagined boots with thick heels embedded with a spring, like a pogo stick, so you could go bouncing along on the heels of your boots.

We called on Aunt Google.

Apparently in the ’40s and ’50s there were popular books and movies about a cowboy named “Hopalong Cassidy.” So these boys wanted cowboy boots like his. “Hopalong boots.”

Meanwhile, in the world of this song, Janice and Jen want “dolls that’ll talk and will go for a walk.”

This had me nostalgic for a moment. I remember, as a kid, dreaming about the idea of a walking doll. Or a talking doll. Oh my, how wonderful would that be! If only such a thing existed!

Similarly my mom, growing up in the ’60s, used to begin her Christmas list every year with

  1. Big doll
  2. Little doll
  3. Walking doll
  4. Talking doll

Like me, she never received a walking or talking doll…at least not as a child. But unlike me, it wasn’t something she dreamed up. She’d see advertisements in the Sears catalog for walking dolls and talking dolls.

Which makes me wonder. If walking dolls and talking dolls have been around so long, and if this is something that little girls dream of owning, why isn’t this a bigger thing? Why aren’t store shelves lined with walking, talking dolls? How come my friends never had them? How come I never saw them in movies, or read about them in books?

My personal theory is that while walking dolls and talking dolls may seem cool in theory to little girls, in reality they’re just creepy. Uncanny valley stuff. After all, remember how in 2015 Mattel was trying to be all hip with the times, and created a wifi-enabled Barbie doll with a Siri/Alexa-like voice system that could hear what you said and respond? I mean, it was a BIG DEAL. I read this fancy New York Times article about it.

And then…nothing.

It never caught on. It never became a thing. Its Amazon page now says it’s “discontinued from manufacturer,” and shows it rated 2 out of 5 stars.

It’s just so fascinating to me, that technology can only go so far before we’re all collectively like, “no, that’s creepy. I’m not buying that.”

Anyway, back to the song. So after Barney and Ben want a toy gun and some boots, and Janice and Jen want a walking, talking doll, we get to the line And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again.

This line always sticks out to me, because I remember being a kid. I remember at the end of summer vacation, my mom saying, “I’m dreading school starting up again. I’ll miss my kids!” And that always made me feel so warm and loved. I’d overhear other parents, in Goodwill or wherever we used to go in those days, talking about how they couldn’t wait to send their kids back to school. What must that be like? To be a kid and know that your parents didn’t want you around?

I mean, I’ve never been a parent. Maybe it is so difficult that you secretly look forward to school starting again. But it’s always bothered me when this sentiment is thrown out casually, almost like a joke. Like, your kids are listening to you, and that’s a really mean thing to say.

Moving along to other parts of the song, I find that some of them are rather strange. I mentioned this in last year’s Christmas Songs that Don’t make Sense, but the oddest part of this song is the stanza:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Soon the bells will start
And the thing that will make ’em ring is the carol that you sing
Right within your heart

That literally makes no sense. Where are these bells that will “start?” And if I sing a carol in my heart, they’ll ring? How is that different than “starting?” And why are we singing carols in our heart to make some bells ring?

Also, I can’t figure out what “silver lanes” means in this first stanza.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Everywhere you go
Take a look at the five and ten, it’s glistening once again
With candy canes and silver lanes that glow

Unlike with the hop-a-long boots, Google was no help to me here. Some people thought “silver lanes that glow” meant icy streets, but how would there be icy streets in a five and ten store? Others thought it meant the aisles of the store, which makes more sense, but how are they silver and glowing? There wouldn’t be ice inside the store, would there?

Still, you have to admit that for all it’s oddities the song, and in particular its primary line, is super catchy. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. My sister Amy claims that it’s the most-used song in Instagram stories this time of year.

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for Day 3 of Blogmas!