All the Shining Gifts…

The satirical website The Onion recently featured this in one of its “fake” news bulletins: “White House Warns Supply Chain Shortages Could Lead Americans to Discover True Meaning of Christmas.”

What a concept.

Around all the phony talk about “a war on Christmas” and given the excesses of the online buying orgy that is “Black Friday,” it does us well to pause, reflect and remember what we celebrate just as winter begins and we creep toward a New Year.

I usually try to find time around Christmas to re-read some favorite things and re-watch some favorite movies. It helps to make the season bright.

I’ll read again the Christmas scene in Willa Cather’s remarkable Death Comes for the Archbishop, a book that creates “a luminous calm” as we enter the life of a priest struggling to bring the religion of the old world to a new world.

Bishop Latour comes to his dining room for his Christmas dinner and after a prayer joins Father Joseph for the first course, “a dark onion soup with croutons.” The bishop tastes, “critically,” Cather says, and then smiles at his companion. The soup is wonderful. The moment is blissful. The companionship sublime.

“When one thinks of it,” the bishop says, “a soup like this in not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.”

What a wonderful way to think about what will grace your table this Christmas.

Speaking of bishops, I will watch – we always watch – the 1947 film The Bishop’s Wife, a wonderful little movie that features Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young. The bishop’s Christmas sermon will make you forget any supply chain issues.

Loretta Young and Cary Grant in the best Christmas movie you may never have seen

I’ll find the time to read again – I always do – James Joyce’s The Dead, not strictly speaking a Christmas story, but a perfect little tale set at the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the evidence of Christ’s divinity to the Magi. Joyce’s novella is, of course, loaded with characters and images and meaning not the least being the exploration of the divide we all face between life and death.

Better it is, Joyce tells us, to “pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

I’ll spend some holiday time remembering, like Dickens, my Christmas past. I have an enduring memory of an uncle of mine – my mother’s brother – being the first person I ever knew who had an artificial Christmas tree. My mother was too proper to say so, and I know these fake trees are now all the rage with millennials, but she was appalled by that tree. Me, too. Still am.

Yup. That’s it…

Mom was so passionate about the perfect “real” tree that she would, if necessary, make her tree just right by carefully grafting a spare branch into a bare spot on the tree, tying the evergreen with black thread to hold it in place.

I can still see my dad at the Christmas tree lot holding the eighth or fifteenth or thirtieth candidate tree for mom’s inspection. That one is too bare on the left. This one too tall. That one too squat. Ah, that might do.

That cheesy, silver tree of my uncle’s came in a box. You snapped it together limb-by-limb and then illuminated it with a groaning rotating light that changed color. It was hideous, which makes the memory of my mother stringing lights, placing ornaments and hanging tinsel all the richer.

Family legend held that we developed the tradition of exchanging presents on Christmas Eve the year after my older brother woke up the household at 4:00 am on Christmas morning tearing into his gifts. As my brother and I grew older the Santa Claus visitation was always arranged while dad took us to “run an errand” or look at Christmas lights in the neighborhood.

Like a visit from Marley’s ghost, I can clearly see the living room, mom’s tree, my Christmas stocking and my brother’s and the little Christmas figures she would haul out every year.

In so many ways for so many people it has been another brutal year – a pandemic that will not end, a political system riven with senseless partisanship, a lack of good faith everywhere you turn. The notion of the greater good, the common interest, a commitment to others before self seems as dead as Scrooge’s old business partner Jacob Marley. 

I like the Dickens Christmas sentiment best of all. In the great scene in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge encounters the ghost of his former business partner, he tells the ghost that he had once been a great businessman. Marley’s disagreeing response is, in many ways, the essence of the story, the essence of Christmas.

“Mankind was my business,” Marley says. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Let all of us this Christmas make humankind our business. It is, after all, the birthday of the prince of peace we celebrate. Supply chains and tinsel should not get in the way of that.

What would He wish for? Not division, not strife or hunger or intolerance or unkindness. He would celebrate life and love and ask that we remember – and live accordingly – able to embrace the little things that make a fleeting life larger and better.

“All the shinning gifts,” as David Niven’s Bishop Brougham says, “that make peace on earth.”

Here’s to all those memories and to a better tomorrow. Happy Christmas.


Additional Reads:

A few other items of interest…

America is now in fascism’s legal phase

This piece is, admittedly, pretty hard going for Christmas, but it is very important.

Jason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky professor of philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of How Fascism Works.

“Often, those who employ fascist tactics do so cynically – they do not really believe the enemies they target are so malign, or so powerful, as their rhetoric suggests. Nevertheless, there comes a tipping point, where rhetoric becomes policy. Donald Trump and the party that is now in thrall to him have long been exploiting fascist propaganda. They are now inscribing it into fascist policy.”

The warning signs are all around us. Link here to Professor Stanley’s piece in The Guardian.

And…this is highly recommended. The clear and present danger of Trump’s enduring “Big Lie,” a superb piece of reporting by Melissa Block on National Public Radio.

Jane Smiley on Her Writing Process, Beloved Pets, and Writing in Paris

Something a bit lighter here.

Jane Smiley is a novelist and essayist. Her novel A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992, and her novel The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton won the 1999 Spur Award for Best Novel of the West. She has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1987. Her novel Horse Heaven was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2002, and her latest novel, Private Life, was chosen as one of the best books of 2010 by The AtlanticThe New Yorker, and The Washington Post.

Link to the podcast interview.

The Most Scathing Book Reviews of 2021

“Among the titles being cast into the maw of the volcano this year: Blake Bailey’s oozing hagiography of Philip Roth, Mitch Albom’s latest cavity-inducing parable, Andrew Sullivan’s overfull toilet of essays, and Malcolm Gladwell’s smug apologia for American butchery.”

The most brilliantly bilious book reviews of the year.

Enjoy the holiday weekend. Stay safe. Get your booster. Thanks for reading.


Season of Hope…

After spending the first 40 years of his life in the wind-swept northwestern corner of Nebraska, my dad developed a few good lines about what winter was like in those parts. 

He joked that an out of state visitor once asked, “What do you people do around here in the summertime?” Dad’s response: “Well, last year it came on a Sunday and we had a picnic and a ballgame.” One of his favorite lines became a favorite of mine: “You get used to the change of seasons – ten months of winter and two months of damn poor sledding.” 

Northwest Nebraska in winter.

In her writings about the rough sandhill country along the upper Niobrara River, my dad’s home ground, Nebraska native Mari Sandoz equated winter with the end of things, that time “when dry snow fell like dandruff from a gray sky.” The long, dark days and nights before the green shoots of spring break ground led Sandoz’s homesteading father to drink too much and tolerate too little. Mari titled the last chapter of her memoir of her father – “winter.” 

It is a damn good thing winter arrives in near proximity to Christmas. Without the opportunity to experience the season of hope and reflect on the prospects for a better future, facing the bleakest months might just make all of us as grumpy as old Mr. Potter was before George Bailey helped straighten him out. 

What is there to say of the end of this awful, deadly, confounding year? How about good riddance? 

When it comes to 2020, I’m reminded of the famous speech by the British politician Leo Amery in 1940. Amery delivered his remarks in an entirely different context, but the sentiment is spot on: “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.” 

The tired cynic in me has had enough of the crazy conspiracy politics of division of these interminable twelve months. My optimistic, hopeful self longs for reason, calm, caring and competence. My emphasis is on hope. 

As the Reverend Henry Brougham – played by the elegant David Niven – reminds us every Christmas at the end of the wonderful 1947 film “The Bishop’s Wife,” we have this season of hope, after all, because “It’s his birthday we are celebrating.” And, as Henry says in his Christmas eve sermon, “Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most … and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched-out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.” 

David Niven and Cary Grant in “The Bishop’s Wife”

The American fabric is badly frayed as the awful 2020 comes to close. The fabric is in urgent need of repair. All the shining gifts are within our power to bestow. If any of us thinks the stitching up of our national fabric will happen without diligent work by each and every one of us, we’d be wrong. 

All things, it is said, are political, but the best of things – the hopes for the future we each hold dear – are surely about more than politics. And it all begins with hope: “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” 

There are certain things to wish for Peter Wehner wrote recently. “Honor, decency, courage, beauty, and truth. Tenderness, human empathy, and a sense of duty. A good society. And a commitment to human dignity. We need to teach others—in our individual relationships, in our classrooms and communities, in our book clubs and Bible studies, and in innumerable other settings—why those things are worthy of their attention, their loyalty, their love.” 

Such things are also worthy of hope, our “expectation and desire” that a new year cannot provide the luxury of forgetting the awful year passing away but can renew our purpose and restore our faith that the future can be better than what we have had to endure. The heartbreak and despair of 2020 cannot and should not disappear, but with just enough determination we can make the new year a better year than the one we gladly leave behind. 

“The year 2020 gave the world perspective,” Len DiSesa wrote in his letter to the editor of the New York Times this week. “We took so much for granted before the pandemic entered our lives: dining out whenever we wanted to; dropping in to see friends; hugging our relatives; traveling at will. It is part of the human condition to not appreciate something until it is taken away . . . We have all been stung by this disease, and many have suffered much more than others. But when it is eventually eradicated from the planet I hope we all remember how truly awful 2020 was, and acknowledge the perspective it gave us to appreciate what 2021 can bring.”


After the awfulness of 2020, America needs to unplug and restart, focusing on what really matters – our kids, grandkids, parents, grandparents, our friends, community, the basic decency and fairness that exists in your service club, at your local library, in the nurse who lives down the block and the kid who shovels snow. 

“It has always seemed strange to me,” John Steinbeck wrote in his enduring classic Cannery Row. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding, and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” 

So, the heck with selfish meanness. Enough with self-interest that divides. Let us celebrate the better things we can hope for in a new year, and accept the wisdom of Winston Churchill who said at Christmas 1941 – the end of another awful year – that Americans and their British cousins should embrace “the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart.”

Suspend the hum bugs. Winter is really just a prelude to spring. Look ahead to the picnic and the ball game. This season of hope is the dawn of better days. Extend the out-stretched hand of tolerance and seek the healing balm of hopefulness.

And, yes, God bless us, everyone. 


Additional Reading:

Some additional reading suggestions you may find of interest…

Notre Dame 

“Notre-Dame embodies France’s noble, tragic history, from St Louis trudging on bare feet, holding aloft the crown of thorns, to Napoleon’s vainglorious coronation and General de Gaulle dodging sniper fire to praise God for the liberation of Paris.

“When fire ravaged her on April 15th, 2019, the world, too, discovered how much it loved Notre-Dame. French officials were amazed by the sympathy and money that poured in. ‘She is not Notre-Dame de Paris but Notre-Dame of the World,’ says Olivier Latry, the cathedral’s organist.”

Notre-Dame of the World

A great story from The Irish Times.

Science and the Humanities

Long time readers know that I have a passion for “the humanities,” the academic disciplines that encompass history, literature, language, philosophy – in other words the study and understanding of the human condition. 

I really enjoyed this piece, in part, because I learned that the celebrated Dr. Anthony Fauci studied not only science, but the humanities. 

“Although perhaps only recently a household name, Fauci is no Tony-come-lately. Over the past four decades he’s played prominent roles as a scientist, physician, administrator and spokesman. You know what he’s been up to over the past several months. But what of his previous nearly 80 years? And what made him the figure he has become?” 

Read the whole thing from The Conversation

Trump’s Pardons Make the Unimaginable Real

President Donald Trump issued more pardons yesterday. What next?

Tim Naftali write in The Atlantic:

“Will Trump be the first to test the constitutionality of a self-pardon, just as he has tested the limits of so many other constraints on presidential power? Precedent has never mattered to him. He has reportedly been asking aides about the possibility of a self-pardon since 2017. Unlike Nixon, he can’t even hope for a pardon from his immediate successor. But neither can he count on the Supreme Court to uphold a self-pardon; in summarily dismissing Trump’s effort to overturn the election, the justices reminded him that a president should not count on the support of his appointees.”

Who knows what a president without principles, shame or boundaries will do? We’re about to find out.

Read the full story and you’ll be ready if the outrage comes. I’m betting it will.

Be safe and I send to you and yours the best for the Christmas season and a better 2021.

Thanks as always for reading.


Christmas Memories…

      “It’s Christmas Eve! It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be.”

                                                                                        – Bill Murray in Scrooged. 


My Dad loved to tell a Christmas story that a minister friend told him years ago. A group of first graders were lining up to take their places in a Christmas pageant and the minister was asking them what part they hoped to play – shepherd, one of the
wise men, maybe an angel. One little guy piped up and announced that he hoped to be “Round John.”

Round John and the Christmas pageant
Round John and the Christmas pageant

“Round John,” the minister said with a surprised look on his face. “You know,” the little guy said, “like the song – Round John virgin.”

I was once in a Christmas pageant – surprisingly as an angel – and wearing my nifty little costume, a cape-like affair with a row of tinsel-like material glued or sewed to the fabric. While waiting to make my entrance, I was sitting on the floor, back against the wall when my tinsel-like material came in contact with an electric outlet. I’m often still as oblivious as I was at age six. Sparks flew. A smell of burning fabric filled the room. The angel was sparking, but spared. No one died, thankfully. The show went on. My mother was appalled.


Family lore holds that our tradition of opening gifts on Christmas Eve dates to when my brother was discovered under the tree at 3:00 o’clock on Christmas morning ripping into his presents. He had simply decided he had been in bed long enough, damn it, it was time to get on with the main event. Mom and dad, probably still a bit groggy from one too many Tom and Jerry’s, heard the commotion and lit up the living room. Reprimands to brother Rick quickly gave way to smiles and a cup of coffee.  Christmas came early – very early in the morning that year. Mom, needing her beauty sleep, decreed that henceforth Christmas would come even earlier – on Christmas Eve. Good call, Mom.


My mother made fruit cake. Now, before you seize up and start thinking, “I know fruitcake – also known as the brick doorstop” learn about her fruitcake. By the way, there is no truth to the rumor that there are really only about 500 fruitcakes in the entire world that are perpetually re-gifted. That is an urban myth, at least I think it is.

No store bought fruit cake for us...
No store bought fruit cake for us…

I can tell you this: my mother’s fruitcake was precious, good stuff and none of that neon electric colored, store bought fruit for Mrs. Johnson. She used fruit cocktail – from a can. Her fruit cake was dense and moist, soft and substantial. I loved it. She knew I didn’t appreciate the chopped walnuts that her recipe called for, so – love you Mom – she always made me my own loaf of fruit cake sans walnuts. She would drizzle a little powdered sugar frosting on top. Oh, the memory.

I’ve had floating islands in fancy restaurants, clafoutis to die for, cherries jubilee and mousse aux chocolate, but would trade them all for one more slice of Mom’s fruit cake. It probably tastes better in my memory than it did for real, but she did go to the trouble of leaving out the walnuts. Love is a sweet taste.


Merry Christmas and thanks for reading…Now…Come let us adore him… Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

PS: The new Bill Murray Christmas special is very sweet, a little weird and full of funny stuff. Have an eggnog and watch while we count our blessings.


Christmas, Civil Rights, Egypt, Film


Charles Dickens, with his enduring 1843 tale A Christmas Carolinvented much of what we consider the traditions of Christmas – the gifting of presents, the big dinner and the fostering of good will and glad tidings. We each build upon the Dickens’ Christmas with our own traditions that lead to memory and, I’m convinced, contribute to much of the pleasure that is Christmas. One of our Christmas traditions has become the viewing of a wonderful movie – one of the very best Christmas movies ever – The Bishop’s Wife, a 1947 classic starting David Niven, Cary Grant and the lovely Loretta Young.

The plot, not unlike Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, involves a charming angel named Dudley (played by Grant) who answers a prayer from the Bishop (Niven) who is struggling to raise the money to build his magnificent new cathedral. Dudley charms everyone, including the Bishop’s attractive wife (Young), and eventually helps the Bishop realize that there is more to his Christian leadership than fundraising and catering to the wealthy parishioners who are intent on building a big building.  With the annual viewing of The Bishop’s Wife it’s never difficult to find the real meaning of the season and the film always leads me back, Dickens-like, to Christmas past.

As 2012 gives way to the promise – eternally optimistic here – that our politics will move to the center, that reason and facts will come to prevail on hard cases as diverse as guns and climate and that jobs and education and cancer cures become the headlines of the New Year, I’ve been thinking about traditions that through the years have come to define memories of Christmas. Dickens may have invented the modern Christmas, but my mother perfected it. And, while Cary Grant’s angel reminds us what the season is really all about I am annually drawn back to – the tinsel.

You could say that my mom was a perfectionist. She never had a hair out of place, dressed as well as dad’s paycheck would permit and cultivated a sense of style that would not have been out of place in Hollywood or the Hampton’s. Not bad for a farm girl from western Nebraska. In terms of Christmas, for mom nothing succeeded like excess, particularly when it came to tinsel. Mother loved tinsel – silvery, shiny, straight and in volume. To hang the tinsel properly required, or course, a perfect tree. If the tree dad found wasn’t perfectly shaped, mom would get her sewing scissors out and cut and paste a branch or two until the shape suited her. Then came the tinsel, carefully preserved from year-to-year, stored safely away from one Christmas to the next. Occasionally she would agree to discard a short piece that had survived one tree too many, but not often. I distinctly remember “volunteering” to help mom hang the tinsel one year and being instructed in the fine art of making sure the strands were perfectly straight and in sufficient number. I didn’t have the tinsel gene and eventually backed off and allowed the tinsel queen her dominance. Perhaps that experience scared me for life because I shudder at the very sight of Christmas tree tinsel to this day. Some traditions are best remembered and not practiced.

Mom had certain traditional Christmas foods that would make a once a year appearance right about Christmas Eve. She made a sticky white candy – Divinity – that I never particularly warmed to, but – brace yourselves – her fruitcake was tremendous. I’ve heard all the bad jokes about Christmas fruitcake, but none of those put downs applied to mom’s cake. It was lighter than most fruitcakes, moist and lacking those awful candied fruits that often seem to have been as well preserved from year-to-year as the tree tinsel. Mom used fruit cocktail in her cake and when she learned that I didn’t particularly care for the walnuts that she added to the recipe she made me a walnut-free cake for my personal consumption. Heaven. No appetite for tinsel, but I can still taste that fruitcake.

My dad had few Christmas traditions other than to occasionally experiment with a Tom ‘n Jerry mix or to place the plastic Santa and two reindeer on the steep roof of the little house we lived in in Chadron, Nebraska when I was just old enough to have Christmas really register. Those were the days when Christmas lights were constructed so that one broken bulb would darken an entire string of lights. I can still see him outside struggling in the December darkness and cold to find and replace the offending bulb. He found it then came inside and sipped a Canadian whiskey and a splash of water while watching his elegant wife hang that damn tinsel. Dad knew better than to offer to help. Smart man that he was he admired perfection, cocktail in hand, from a distance.

As I grew older Christmas involved reading from the Gospel of St. Luke, a Christmas Eve buffet supper and memorable gifts. I still remember the bicycle and the double set of Tinker Toys. There may have been socks and gloves and pajamas, too. I gave my mother what I considered a lovely bottle of Evening in Paris cologne one year and, bless her heart, she acted like I had personally acquired the dime store fragrance from Coco Chanel.

Now, all those warm Christmas memories constitute the very best gifts I have ever received. Tinker Toys come and go, the tinsel gets discarded and the cologne fades, but the memories remain and thankfully new ones are created, including the memories I now carry of the carefully constructed scene and precious words at the end of that favorite Christmas movie. As David Niven’s Bishop Henry steps to the pulpit to deliver his Christmas sermon at the end of The Bishop Wife, Cary Grant’s angel – work completed – stands outside the church in the gently falling snow and listens to the words that have now become part of my Christmas memory.

“Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking,” the Bishop says. “Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled… all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we are celebrating. Don’t ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most… and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”

Happy Christmas…and thanks for checking in here. All the best in 2013.


Christmas, Egypt

Christmas Memories

‘Tis the Season

Long ago I ceased being focused on what some nice spouse, relative or friend would place under the tree with my name attached. As much as I appreciate the generosity and the thought, Christmas has become for me a season of memory more than gifts and I find myself increasingly transported back to cold winter days where the thoughts are warm and inviting.

I was lucky enough to once spend Christmas in Paris and the City of Light did not disappoint. Christmas Day Mass at Notre-Dame – the Cardinal presiding and the music spectacular – followed by lunch in a memorable cafe on the Ile St. Louis. What a day. What a Christmas.

Forty years on I can now smile, sort of, about the hard court mishap that found this committed but awkward second-stringer tripping over his own feet, falling across the back of South Dakota’s best high school basketball player and knocking out my front teeth. It happened on Christmas evening as we practiced for a holiday tournament. Of course, my sympathetic Dad had to remark during the emergency trip to the dentist, “All he wants for Christmas is his two front teeth.” True story.

Speaking of Dad, he often told us the story of a very early Christmas memory of his when he and his brothers found an orange, a brilliant, colorful, tasty orange, in their Christmas stockings along with some hard candy and nuts. A juicy orange in December in Nebraska was, apparently, a very rare and big deal and that lovely memory stuck with him forever.

One Christmas, my father surprised Mom with several very suggestive pieces of, well, underwear. I was too young to know that it was called lingerie. Dad had hidden the various items under sofa cushions and behind the curtains. Mom had, in essence, a Christmas bra and panties scavenger hunt for which she was initially more than a bit embarrassed. Before long, she got into the spirit and would take her time finding the next unmentionable as the old man smiled in anticipation. It’s one of the earliest recognitions I had that my parents really were engaged in a serious love affair.

I’ve been asking friends to remember the best Christmas gift they ever received and the best gift they ever gave. It’s a great question that almost always elicits a big smile, a fun story and a warm memory.

I gave my Dad a box of really cheap cigars one Christmas. Really cheap. I still don’t know what possessed me. He never smoked cigars. He accepted them graciously and, I suspect, quietly sent them to the back yard trash with all the used Christmas wrapping.

Twice in recent years I’ve spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the marvelous old National Park Service lodge on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. What a place. Big fire roaring in the lobby fireplace, the canyon an unbelievable sight always, but extra special when the red and yellow landscape is dusted with a sprinkle of snow. It’s as if a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar had been spread over one of the Earth’s most awe inspiring places.

So, I’ll celebrate Christmas this year with a head and heart full of memory of friends and family and with a knowable of what I have to be very thankful for. I’ll watch Bing Crosby sing his famous song in Holiday Inn. I’ll put another log on the fire and watch Cary Grant help David Niven find the real meaning of Christmas in The Bishop’s Wife and wince at Chevy Chase’s disappointment when his Christmas bonus is a membership in the Jelly of the Month Club.

And, as night settles around, I’ll read again – as I have a hundred times – Joyce’s great story of Christmas – The Dead – with its haunting and magical last lines, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Christmas is memory. Here’s to a happy one for you and yours.


Christmas, Egypt

Merry Christmas

Christmas TreeGhosts of Christmas Past

I was blessed as a kid growing up with a big and diverse extended family. I loved all my aunts and uncles and many cousins were great friends and playmates.

I remember that one uncle, one of my mother’s brothers, always seemed to have the latest gadget or the newest must have thing. When digital cameras were still a distant dream, my uncle had the 1960’s version of instant photography gratification – the Polaroid Land Camera. Make a picture, wait 60 seconds and like magic you had a small, square color picture.

This uncle had an American Motors Rambler, a mostly forgettable automobile that nonetheless was a bit of a novelty when it was introduced. And, apropos to Christmas, uncle had the first aluminum Christmas tree I ever remember seeing.

The shimmery, silver tree came in a big box. You had to assemble it limb-by-limb and once fitted together you could switch on a rotating light with three colored gels that, when positioned just right, constantly changed the tree color from green to red to gold. My mother loved her brother, but was appalled by that tree.

Only one type of tree ever graced my mother’s living room – a real, “live” tree, dripping with tinsel, many, many uniformly sized colored ornaments and tiny little colored lights. Mom was fastidious about most everything. She ironed the dish towels, never, ever left a bed unmade and never went to sleep with a dirty dish in the kitchen sink. Christmas trees in her world were natural, green and, if not just perfect in size and shape, subject to certain engineering modifications. I can still see her cutting off an unneeded lower branch of a big tree and grafting it into a naked spot higher up that just didn’t quite conform to her notion of what a proper tree looked like. She would use black sewing thread to hold the grafted branch in place. Not a chance that this woman would embrace the artificial tree movement.

It’s funny the things you remember from long ago. I certainly remember that cutting edge aluminum tree, but also can see mom standing on tip toes hanging long strands of tinsel, insisting that each piece be absolutely straight. I once offered to help, but was politely and firmly told there was only one way to decorate a Christmas tree and I was welcome to help, if I did it her way. I watched.

While I did not inherit mom’s fascination with Christmas tinsel, I did get her natural tree dominate gene. And like a visit from Marley’s ghost, all these years later, I can see clearly the living room, mom’s tree, my Christmas stocking and my brother’s and the little Christmas figures she would haul out every year.

Memories – those ghosts from years past – are the real joys of Christmas now. No coal for me and no fake tree. Just a lifetime of memories and mother decorating her tree.

Merry Christmas and happy memories.

Christmas, Egypt

Merry Christmas

Charles DickensA Dickens of a Christmas

There is a current school of thought that holds that Charles Dickens “invented” many of our current customs regarding how Christmas is celebrated. For sure his story about the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge has become a timeless classic and the Christmas feast a much anticipated routine.

Truth be told, the celebration of Christmas has long been a work in progress – sorry Bill O’Reilly – and always the subject of some controversy.

The Boston Globe had a wonderful piece this week about how the celebration of Christmas has evolved over the centuries in New England. It is worth a read. I learned, for instance, that Boston Puritans in the 1600’s effectively outlawed Christmas.

As author Stephen Nissenbaum writes: “On December 25, 1685, Boston Magistrate Samuel Sewall proudly wrote in his journal that ‘the Body of the People profane the Day’- that is, the town’s residents went about their work as usual – ‘and blessed be God no Authority yet compel them to keep it.’ Indeed, in a kind of reverse Blue Law, for a quarter century during the mid-1600s the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts actually outlawed its celebration.”

What were those Puritans thinking?

Garrison Keillor had some choice things to say recently about messing with Christmas tradition. He doesn’t like it, and he likes Silent Night just the way it is and, by the way, he isn’t crazy about those “lousy holiday songs” either, thank you.

“Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off,” Keillor wrote. “Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don’t mess with the Messiah.”

Keillor’s column, big surprise, offended Unitarians (and Jewish songwriters) and may have, momentarily, pleased that policeman of Christmas correctness the bombastic Mr. O’Reilly. Who’da thought that possible?

As for me, I like the Dickens Christmas sentiment best of all. In the great scene in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge encounters the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, Scrooge tells the ghost that he had once been a great businessman. Marley’s disagreeing response is, in many ways, the essence of Christmas:

“Mankind was my business,” Marley says. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Now, there is a Christmas sentiment.

Best wishes to you and yours for a Very Happy Christmas. And, yes, I’m sticking with “Happy Christmas” – not the popular and generic “Happy Holidays.” My own tradition.

Thanks to Dickens for that great story. I like what it has done for Christmas.

Arizona, Christmas, Church, Visions

Establishing a Vision

ArizonaArizona Seeks Better Jobs, Environmental Protection

A fascinating series of stories in the venerable Arizona Daily Star, the Tucson paper, reporting on a massive statewide public opinion survey conducted by the Gallup organization and commissioned by the Center for the Future of Arizona.

The survey effort is designed to build upon a statewide visioning exercise and has resulted in an impressive action report – The Arizona We Want.

As the Star reported: “‘Most states don’t tend to have a vision,’ said Lattie Coor, chairman and CEO of The Center for the Future of Arizona and Arizona State University president emeritus. ‘The Arizona We Want’ report was released this month.”

Perhaps it is no big surprise that quality, 21st Century jobs topped the list of Arizona priorities, followed by protecting the state’s natural wonders and improving opportunities for young people.

Like most of the rest of the West, Arizona’s political leadership is locked in a prolonged battle over budget cutting and fiscal priorities. The state has a huge deficit to address and a legislature not often on the same page with the governor. So, it is also not surprising that the Gallup survey finds that folks in Arizona have lost confidence in their political leadership. A remarkable finding: only 10% of those surveyed, and it was a huge sample of 3,600 interviews, expressed confidence that the state’s political leadership would look out for their interests.

An old saying comes to mind: If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.

Some in Arizona are trying to determine where the state is going. At least that much is encouraging.