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Sandy Carlson asked me to participate in this writing exercise. The instructions:

  1. Write a paragraph next to the last paragraph in the tag that is passed to you, and add a link back to your site.
  2. Use a title that suits your thoughts and ideas.
  3. Tag as many other bloggers as you wish.

Sandy wrote these beautiful words:

Christmas is about choosing to love. We reflect on the birth of Christ from the point of view of faithful people who know Jesus’ life story. We know what he will make of his life. We see it as prophecy fulfilled, and so it was because of the choices Jesus Christ made. Born into a troubled world in which the Jewish people suffered at the hands of Rome’s domination system, Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is inside each person. He taught this as a lesson for all people everywhere: That loving kindness and compassion are the gifts of a warm heart; each of us must choose to nurture these gifts and to give them away. Then we transform the world. Jesus chose to do what he was called to do, and it did it to his last breath and beyond.

The other day I tried to photograph the figures of my inexpensive bisque nativity. The pictures that resulted were mediocre photos, but the exercise because an act of devotion and discovery for me. Looking through my camera and studying each figure carefully, I saw the obvious: That only the arms of the new baby are open. All others’ are closed in humility and worship. Here is the Christ child reaching for the whole world; here is the whole world focused on his gift, needing it so desperately.

Christmas is about choosing love with open arms.

Sandy summed up the spiritual essence of Christmas so beautifully that I am simply going to add, “Amen and amen!”

For me, the meaning of the season, like my faith, has evolved over the years, but the two constants that make the holidays special for me are the sounds and, of course, family.

It simply isn’t Christmas without the music. One of my favorite holiday tunes was written by Dan Fogelberg who succumbed to cancer at only 56 years of age on December 16, 2007. If lives have soundtracks, Dan Fogelberg’s earliest (and best) works are certainly part of the musical backdrop of my time on this planet. If you have never heard Netherlands, you have missed one of the best albums ever recorded. Although he is gone, he leaves a rich musical legacy and, for many of us, our memories of events, people and feelings are intricately intertwined with his powerful tunes, evocative words, and strong, clear voice.

My Christmas memories largely revolve around making music. From Sunday School Christmas Eve programs (after which we always got a book of Life Savers from the Sunday School Superintendent) to countless Christmas Eve candlelight worship services to Christmas concerts presented by the concert bands of which I am a member. When I think of Christmas, I remember all the times I played “Silent Night” on the organ, piano or flute while the lights were dimmed, the candles flickered on the altar, and the congregation sang quietly but with more emotion than any other time of the year.

When I served as the church organist, my mother and #1 Son always attended the 11:00 p.m. service, after which we would bring Nana home and spend some time having a late night snack while watching the worship service broadcast from the Vatican at which the Holy Father presides. We loved listening to the choirs and hearing yet another Christmas message. Then #1 Son and I would head home. As he got older, he helped me arrange the presents from Santa, usually offering to eat the cookies we put out for Santa, but leaving plenty of crumbs and one half-eaten treat on the plate so that his brother would be convinced that Saint Nick had really visited and enjoyed the snack.

My father was the first to leave us and his death inspired us to implement new traditions. Eventually, my mother-in-law and mother also died. To assuage our grief over lost loved ones, we have never again celebrated in exactly the same ways as when we were all together. Now I, BigBob, and my sister and brother-in-law have come to terms with the realization that we are “the old folks.”

The Christmas photos tell the story and remind me that time definitely goes too fast. Before we knew it, the fun of buying and hiding toys, visiting Santa, and trying to get four very busy boys to cooperate for a holiday photo shoot evolved into considering when finals end, what to buy the girlfriends, and discussions like this:
“Are you sure there isn’t something you want besides money?” “Well, yeah, I want a _______ which is what I’m saving up the money to buy, but if you want to just get it for me, that would be o.k., too.” The blank has stood, over the years, for many items ranging from a car, a sound system and fancy wheels for the car, a computer, a trumpet, . . .

My sister and I groan when we recall 1993. She still reminds me that it was my idea to give my mother a nice studio portrait of all four boys, then 10, 6.5, 4 and 2 years of age. We survived the sitting (although I’m not sure the photographer did . . . she was discussing a career change by the time we finished) and purchased a photo package. We mailed a couple of pictures to our mother’s sister in South Dakota in plenty of time for a pre-holiday delivery, but unfortunately forgot to tell her that the photos were going to be our mother’s Christmas gift.

I was married on December 7, specifically because I loved the Christmas season and had resolved that if I married in a church, I wanted to do it at Christmas time so that the sanctuary would be decorated.

What I didn’t foresee was how busy life would become either because of my own educational, professional and musical pursuits or the kids’ activities. So we didn’t get around to celebrating our anniversary until after Christmas, but by then we were on vacation and able to relax and enjoy ourselves.

Of course, Christmas time also means my birthday! Being born on December 21 has both advantages and disadvantages. Growing up, I was always disappointed because I never got to have a classroom party — we were always on Christmas vacation. And parties with my friends were always “iffy” propositions because of all the other activities. I learned to be flexible and graciously accept invitations to celebrate between Christmas and New Year’s. My parents, however, made sure that my birthday and Christmas were two distinct occasions, commemorating my birthday on the 21st no matter what else was happening. My mother did, however, always put my birthday presents under the Christmas tree but they stood out from the other packages because they were disguised in pink paper, rather than traditional Christmas wrapping.

Still, over the years, friends have been guilty of sending an occasional Christmas card bearing this message: “P.S. Hope you had a happy birthday.” Although I give them credit for remembering, no one endears him/herself to me with that approach! It always stings a bit, but I do understand what a busy time of year this is, so I never dwell on it and always forgive, even if I don’t forget.

Jan Karon is one of my favorite authors. I have read all but the newest of her Mitford series of books revolving around the adventures of Father Tim Cavanaugh, a fictional Episcopalian priest in a small town. In Shepherds Abiding, Father Tim heads down to the church to open it and prepare for Christmas services. Like Father Tim, I have spent countless hours in a cold, empty sanctuary preparing for the faithful to arrive and worship. Those times can be stressful and nerve-wracking, but also extremely peaceful and centering.

For all of us this Christmas, I wish the same things that Father Tim prayed for during those moments when he was alone in his church in the presence of his Lord:

He knelt and closed his eyes, inexpressibly thankful for quietude, and found his heart moved toward . . . all families who would be drawn together during this time.

“Almighty God, our heavenly Father. . . ” He prayed aloud the words he had learned as a young curate, and never forgotten. “. . . who settest the solitary in families: We commend to thy continual care the homes in which thy people dwell. Put far from them, we beseech thee, every root of bitterness, the desire of vainglory, and the pride of life. Fill them with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness. Knit together in constant affection those who, in holy wedlock, have been made one flesh. Turn the hearst of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents; and so enkindle fervent charity among us all, that we may evermore be kindly affectioned one to another; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

In the deep and expectant silence, he heard only the sound of his own breathing.

“Amen,” he whispered.


  1. What a lovely post. I think it is beautiful that December has so many layers of meaning for you.

    Emily R’s last blog post..FLUFFY!

  2. Janie,
    I walk for exercise, and I often choose a word as a koan for this time of meditation. Today I will choose family. God bless your family at Christmas and always. Thanks for going along with this one.

    SandyCarlson’s last blog post..Had a Bath Today?

  3. Amen!
    I can’t believe you have an anniversary, birthday, and Christmas all in one month and then trying to keep up with all those children and music activities…I’m surprised you had time to write this!
    You go girl!

    Just Jen’s last blog post..Christmas Greeting

  4. Thanks for sharing your Dan Fogelberg memory with me. I clicked on your “About” link and realized one of my top 10 movies is on your list – I Love You To Death – cracks me up every time!

    dara’s last blog post..Going Postal, or I Love Small Towns

  5. What a lovely post. I also like Dan Fogelberg and was saddened by his death. With a Birthday soon after Christmas, I know what you mean by getting the “ps Happy Birthday” notes at Christmas. Mine usually come about a week AFTER my Birthday, with ‘oh, its so close to Christmas, I forgot’. And, I just read your blog today, so Happy Birthday! (yesterday). You get to celebrate on the Winter Solstice.
    (P.S. – Merry Christmas)

  6. I totally hear you about being a Christmas baby, my birthday’s the 26th. One year my friends threw a party for me in June to make up for the utter lack of any attention on my actual birthday!!

    Kamsin’s last blog post..Holiday Memories! ???????

  7. Birthday Gifts for Men

    I too understand about the birthday/christmas celebrations. My son’s birthday is on the 20th of December. My wife and I make it a point to make sure that the two days remain TWO separate celebrations but I think he is affected by others in the family when they give him his gifts.

    It’s an awkward topic to bring up to other people that have been so generous as to give him a gift.

    @KAMSIN, I’ve thought about that half birthday in June idea. I may have to do that next year!

  8. The magic of christmas is truly wonderful. I know how it feels to have birthday you can’t celebrate in class. Mine comes smack in the middle of the summer vacation.

    Eva White’s most recent blog post..Another Horrifying Headline

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