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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Isn't it funny how knowing the story behind a song (or book or movie) can endear that song to you in such an overwhelming way?

I've always been drawn to the Christmas song "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'. A few years ago, my husband and I attended an awe-inspiring Christmas concert with Steven Curtis Chapman and Mercy Me. During the concert, as the melody and a deep base beat played ever-so-softly in the background, they shared with the audience a glimpse of the events that had inspired the lyrics to this song, written by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow so very long ago on Christmas Day in 1964.

After the concert, I investigated further, seeking more detail to the story. I learned that, in a very short time span, Longfellow had lost his wife to a tragic accident in their home, and his son had returned - critically injured - from the American Civil War that was devastating his beloved country. I can only imagine that his faith was being tested beyond measure and his hope for peace - in his country and his own life - was weak.

Something changed on Christmas Day 1964 when Longfellow penned the poem, originally titled "Christmas Bells". Maybe it was the re-election of Abraham Lincoln and, with that, the possible end of the terrible war; maybe it was the relief that came from his son surviving; or maybe it was the churches that - during the war - would ring their bells on Christmas as a call for ceasefire, bringing peace to the nation, if only for a day.

Knowing the history behind the words has made this song become even more beautiful, sorrowful, haunting, and hopeful. In many ways, it is a call for peace. Something we all hope for.

If you haven't already heard them, here are a few of my favorite arrangements of the song:

Mercy Me, from 'The Christmas Sessions' (my absolute favorite arrangement ... unfortunately this upload skips a bit, but it's still hauntingly beautiful!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzJ9wieZH0M

Casting Crowns, from 'Peace on Earth': http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bK8xB1opuQ8

Steven Curtis Chapman, from 'All I Really Want for Christmas' (btw ... the title song, which is about adoption, will bring tears to your eyes): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JH5dPy0gwD0

Hope your Christmas was a blessed one! And, Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Christmas Picture Book Must-Read!

As I've mentioned before, our household is a big fan of Karma Wilson and her 'Bear...' books. And, this is the very book that started the 'Bear...' craze in our household.

In "Bear Stays Up for Christmas", Bear's friends make a valiant effort to keep him awake for Christmas. Their efforts are successful ... but all that hard work keeping Bear awake makes Mouse, Hare, Badger, and the rest of the friends VERY tired. That's OK ... Bear's got them covered, and he works through the night to ensure a special Christmas for all of them.

The rhyming text is perfection, and the illustrations are so warm and cozy, it makes you want to snuggle up with Bear and his friends in his lair.

It's targeted to 4-8 year olds, but the pictures, lively characters, and catchy rhymes make it perfect for younger children as well.

If you're looking for a warm and fun holiday picture book classic for your family, "Bear Stays Up for Christmas" is guaranteed to please ... even when it's not the holidays (this is one we do NOT pack away after Christmas is over!).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sweet 'Yuletide'

We were visiting one of my favorite places ... spring, summer, fall, winter, I can spend oodles of time at Al's Garden Center no matter the season.

Their store was a veritable winter wonderland. We were admiring the intricate railroad town. My son couldn't take his eyes off the train as it chugged by again and again.

My eyes, however, were multi-tasking ... watching the train, taking in the beautifully-decorated surroundings, and people-watching, when the most gorgeous shock of color caught my eyes.

I had to investigate. Certainly, this beautiful plant was only flowering during this frigid time of year because it was currently housed in the greenhouse.

I abandoned husband and kids at the train table and made my way over to the colorful blooms. It was a Camellia 'Yuletide' ... a plant that celebrates Christmas by blooming in December with big, bright red flowers and vivid yellow stamens that pop from a sea of shiny evergreen leaves.

Talk about a cure for the winter 'brown-ness' that has overtaken most gardens by now!

Sadly, I do not have the space. But, if YOU do ... run, go get one! Put one of these stunners in a big pot on your front porch and - voila! - your entryway is effortlessly decorated for Christmas! (The blooms last through February!).

Enjoy your week!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Real St. Nick!

In honor of St. Nicholas Day, which was this past Sunday (I know, I know ... I'm late! :-)) ...

Santa Claus … love him and the joyful spirit of giving he brings to Christmas. I believed in him for a long time. I don’t remember the turning point when I went from a staunch believer to one who believed in the magical feeling he brought to Christmas, but knew it was my parents leaving the goodies. I do remember, over the course of several years, having questions … logistical questions that made me doubt the whole flying reindeer, down the chimney story. But, I never expressed my doubt out loud or asked questions of my parents, nor did I transfer any of my uncertainties to my three younger sisters.

Fast forward to me as a parent … still loving the magical feeling that Santa brings to Christmas, loving watching my children excitedly pour over toy catalogs as they carefully choose what they will request from Santa, and feeling just a tad bit of guilt as they ask a million and one questions about the Man in Red! After all … I’m kind of lying … which, as we’ve ingrained in our children’s heads … is generally enough to put you on Santa’s ‘naughty’ list! Did my parents feel this way? They never said anything to me. My transition was just … natural. It just happened.

So … we are trying, gently, to weave in the true story of St. Nicholas. When I was in college, I did a semester of study abroad in Austria. I was so fortunate to be there during the holidays and experience the celebration of St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. On this day, children awaken to find their shoes filled with chocolate gold coins, oranges, and other special gifts. This day is a celebration in honor of St. Nicholas, a real person who lived in the fourth century and was the very model of love and generosity. While he and his generosity are believed to be factual, they sparked the larger-than-life legends and tales of Father Christmas and Santa Claus.

“Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend”, by Julie Stiegemeyer, is one children’s book that paints a picture of the true St. Nicholas via a fictionalized story. It’s a tad overtly didactic (I tend to prefer covertly didactic :-)), but that’s okay, it gets the message across. And, it has a great ‘Dear Grown-Up’ section at the end that nicely details the life of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.

So … for now, we’ll read this book, talk about the real St. Nick … and hope that Santa and Saint Nicholas (a.k.a. the truth behind Santa) someday in the future meld nicely into one another without drama!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Little More Hopeful

"Peaceful, Snowy Christmas" by B, December 2008

Every December for the past three years, my son has gone to the ‘Share’ drawer of his allowance box and retrieved a collection of one dollar bills that has been growing over the course of the year. This year, his younger sister was inducted into the fun with her own, slightly smaller, collection of bills.

The sum doesn’t amount to anything earth-shattering - maybe thirty to forty dollars. We then head out on what has become one of our favorite shopping trips of the year.

We look for puzzles, drawing paper, colorful pens, pencils, and crayons, play-doh, sporty Hot Wheels cars (for the boys!), Hello Kitty jewelry (for the girls!), cozy socks, and whatever else strikes us as something that might be fun or useful for the patients at one of our local children’s hospitals or for the kids that will be chosen as part of Operation Christmas Child.

Our children get to choose the cause. And, while we may gently guide them to certain aisles of the store or give them little ideas, it is their money and, ultimately, their choice of gifts.

Every day, I give thanks for two healthy children and pray for children whose health, wellness, and safety have become battlefields they face daily. The little friend who is on his eighth round of chemotherapy for a brain tumor; the young classmate who lost all of her beautiful curls to the poisons trying to kill the leukemia; and the innocent toddler who can’t yet defend himself against a parent’s anger and lack of self-control.

I feel helpless. I can’t take the cancer away and I can’t shield them from being hurt by someone who is supposed to protect them. So I pray … alone, and then with my children, so they gain a sense of appreciation for being healthy and safe, and a desire to help those who are struggling with the opposite.

That desire to help is what our shopping trip is all about. After they have made their purchases, we drive to the hospital or the designated Operation Christmas Child drop-off site, where they pass the treasures along to a representative of the organization.

We don’t get to see any of the children that receive the toys, but we hope the gifts bring smiles and glimpses of joy to their faces on Christmas morning. Our gifts may be small in number, but they are a tangible way of feeling just a little less helpless and a little more hopeful. And, they are a way to celebrate love and generosity … the true spirit of Christmas.