If We Make It Through December

Each December I think it will be different. This will be the year I shake my winter melancholy. This will be the year my delight grows day by day. These are days of ornaments and sugar cookies and twinkling lights. Aren’t they supposed to be happy?

But this year is much like every other year. The ornaments shatter, the cookies crumble, and those new LED bulbs cast a cold-hearted glow.

More than ten years ago, I spent a few December days watching my friend’s little girl. My friend was in the hospital laboring to deliver a baby boy whose heart had already stopped beating. Over the weekend, I took care of another little girl who has no idea her parent’s hearts are broken.

All weekend, in the background, Over the Rhine was singing, “If we make it through December we’ll be fine.”

Christmas at Longwood Gardens

This was going to be the year I would look on the bright side, but I have just about accepted that there is no bright side in December. Only darkness and the pin-prick lights on the Christmas tree, and tonight is the longest night.

At one in the morning on the fourth Sunday of Advent, my friend’s little girl threw up. When I found her, she was crying, and her beautiful curly hair was smeared with vomit. While I bathed her and toweled her dry, I thought two things: Why is this happening tonight? and Thank you, Jesus, that I can do this for my friend.

This is what we do in December. We bake sugar cookies, and we scrub vomit from the sheets. We cry for our friends and we cry for ourselves, and we hand out bars of chocolate tied with red and green bows. We make toasts to the new year, and we wonder how we’ll ever survive another one.

We pray come, Lord Jesus, come, and we remember that he already has and that he’s seen it all before. The vomit and the death. The good food and the hunger. The love and the loss.

I don’t know if I’m angry, or tired, or simply sad, but I will keep baking cookies. I will continue hanging ornaments, and I will make my husband climb up on the barn roof to secure a lighted star.

Because somehow despite it all (or because of it?) I still believe that there is a God up there in heaven who has made us this promise: “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).

We live somewhere between the promise and its ultimate fulfillment. It is a land where tears drop onto festive wrapping paper. A place dusted with cookie crumbs and peppermints. It is empty stockings hung by the fire, and it is our hope, perhaps a little shaky and unsure, that one day we will wake and those stockings will be full.

But it isn’t only a one-day hope. Perhaps if we make it through December we will be fine, but I don’t want to be fine. I want more than that. I want better than that.

I want gladness.

Gladness like the taste of sugar cookies and candy canes and the cinnamon rolls I make every Christmas morning.

Gladness like the face of a child when snow finally does fall.

Gladness like every bright, sweet gift that comes to us only in December.

Be Not Conformed

I wrote a version of this post last year for the website Deeper Story. It feels even more true this year.

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I am standing in the yard with a rake in my hands when I feel the circle of the year begin to tie itself up with a neatly finished knot.

Since moving to this old farmhouse on the hill, my late November chores are always the same. Chopping up the great drifts of fallen maple leaves with the mower. Cleaning out the brittle tomato vines and the slimy, still-green nasturtiums from the vegetable garden. Covering each raised bed with a winter blanket of chopped leaves.

I tear the blackened cords of morning glory and moonflower from the porch, scattering the seeds of next summer’s flowers in the process. Our compost bins overflow.

I circle the fruit trees in our tiny orchard with deer fencing. I mound the roses with wood chips.

The year is dying. The trees and shrubs prepare to sleep. And every wheelbarrow load of mulch underscores the end of our year’s work.

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November Light on the Red Barn

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My friend and I meet each week in the local, big-chain coffee shop. December was still weeks away when I walked in to find that our familiar corner table now sat beneath dangling paper bells. And was it snowing in there? I am sure it was snowing glitter.

It felt so deeply wrong but also festive, and I wondered if I had become a thirty-seven-year-old curmudgeon.

I’m not the bah-humbug type. I don’t begrudge anyone their seasonal fun. But it was clear to me, sitting in a coffee shop that shone like red tin foil, that my heart, mind, and soul were tuned to some other rhythm.

It was still November, and I was not ready for Christmas feasting. The old, dying year hadn’t yet been laid to rest.

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 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world …”

I’ve known those words since childhood. But I think that it is only now, having watched the year circle this hilltop a few times, that I feel the rift, small but growing, that lies between me and long familiar patterns.

It turns out there is a difference between the earth and the world. One is a circle, a globe if you will, shaped by the shifting tides of work and rest. The other is also a circle, but it is more like a hamster’s wheel jangling away beneath twenty-four-hour floodlights.

I am increasingly out of sync with the world. I am longing to inherit the earth.

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November Sunset

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December blows in on a polar wind. We mark this month’s progress with a circle of candles. Sunday after Sunday there is more light by which to see.

What I see, from the top of this hill, is an earth gone to sleep. While the world spins itself out in dizzy circles of consumption, the earth recognizes that its work is done. New things, like new years, begin with sleep (which is to say, surrender), and winter is a season for rest.

I like to think that this is what it looks like to store up treasure in heaven. The trees know they need only wait. A few more months, and heaven will return every good thing we have lost. That is the meaning of spring.

The world knows little of Advent and will be, I fear, all worn out by the evening of December 25. The traditional twelve days are too many when the feast began in mid-November.

But the earth has one sermon that has never lost its power.

When spring returns, even the weary world rejoices.

These Farmhouse Bookshelves (Advent 1)

Books are a year-round pleasure in this house.

I always have a bedside pile (okay, tower) of books I am currently reading, and I read aloud to my children (yes, even my twelve-year-old) nearly every day. But something happens to my book love when we feed the last of the porch pumpkins to the chickens and go in search of our Advent wreath.

It becomes an obsession.

Perhaps it’s the early darkness and cold and all those hours to fill indoors. Perhaps it’s the discipline of Advent observance. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of Christmas. Maybe it’s because I am buying so many books to give as gifts. Or, maybe it is for every one of these reasons.

However I account for it, our December days are marked by the turning of pages.

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During Advent, my reading takes on a heightened focus. I don’t read anything “just because.” For instance, this is the month when I reread Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher.

I think of this novel, set in snowy Scotland in the days leading up to Christmas, as my version of those sentimental holiday movies so many enjoy this time of year. It’s a great, warm, afghan of a novel, but it’s made of high-quality Scottish wool. Nothing cheap or slap-dash here. Pilcher’s story is full of love and sentiment but never sentimental. I am always so glad to pick it up again.

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One of our favorite recent read-alouds would make a great stocking stuffer (it really is just the right size! and price!). It’s The Children of Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren, of Pippi Longstocking fame.

I bought this book after enjoying her picture book Christmas in Noisy Village (Picture Puffin) for years. The Children of Noisy Village features the same children but describes their activities not only at Christmas but all through the year on a traditional Swedish farm. It’s a chapter book, but the chapters are brief. It’s pretty much an ideal bedtime read.

I think anything Scandinavian is perfect for the Christmas season, but I am recommending this book because my two sons, one a reluctant reader and the other a reluctant reader and reluctant listener, both adored it. The storytelling is simple and so true to childhood. It’s all about food and games, special celebrations and traditions, childish friendships and milestones as momentous as being given the responsibility for shopping at the village store entirely on your own.

We finished the book weeks ago, but when my nine-year-old quoted one of the lines from the book last night at dinner, the boys and I were practically rolling on the floor with laughter.

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I love to read through a daily Advent book and usually alternate between Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas and God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (Reader’s Edition). But there are so many wonderful, possibilities for a daily devotion. This would be the perfect time of year to begin one of my favorite books, Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season (The Crosswicks Journal, Book 3).

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name has exactly twenty-four stories from Old Testament beginning to the birth of Jesus and makes ideal Advent reading with small children. I have also enjoyed Ann Voskamp’s beautifully illustrated Advent devotional Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas with my older kids.

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I know that for many, December begins with a Christmas tree. We won’t cut down our tree for a few weeks yet, but our anticipation begins when I pull out our collection of Christmas storybooks. I’ll gather those books from a shelf in the third floor-closet on Sunday afternoon (something that will require at least four trips up and down those narrow, old stairs) and tell you about a few of them next Saturday.

If you have small children or grandchildren, Advent is the perfect time of year to begin a Christmas picture book collection. I’ve included amazon affiliate links in this post, but one of my favorite sources for beautiful, meaningful holiday books is Chinaberry.

When my kids were small, I began buying two or three Christmas books each year (I found many of them at our local thrift store) and that collection is now my very favorite thing to pull out each year. Better even than the familiar tree ornaments made with macaroni and glitter.

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Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is one of our favorite family books no matter the season. Over the summer, our family visited the original Wilder homestead in Malone, NY. I recently wrote about that visit (and so much more) for Art House America. You can read all about my harvest of memory right here.

For Christmas Eve (And For Always)

For Christmas Eve (And For Always)

I have wanted to share a guest post from my friend Laura for a long time. That I am finally able to do that, and on Christmas Eve, is one more good gift of a season that is full of them.

Laura is a dear friend. She is also a writer of rare talent. I sit up and take notice whenever I read something of hers.

Read the following reflection and then search out her gem of a book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories, and you will understand why.

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After an evening meeting last spring, I turned on my phone and saw messages from my daughter. She wanted to Skype. The last time she asked, two years earlier, it was to announce her engagement. I figured this had to be job or baby.  I drove home through the silent night with a sense of wonder, hope, anticipation. I tried not to speed.

Once I got to the desk and logged on, we chatted for a moment. Then she said, “We have some news,” and slid a grainy black and white image up into the frame.

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The church tribe I grew up in didn’t observe the liturgical year. I knew Christmas carols from school music time and TV. Advent was a countdown calendar, a surprise picture or bit of chocolate behind each day’s cardboard doorflaps.

This past Sunday — same tribe, decades later — we sang some carols. The lyrics are projected on big screens, but not the notes.  When we got to the chorus of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” as I sang the alto “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a” (which has six fewer o- than the melody), I had a passing thought: How do I know this harmony so well?

Not from singing. In the little church where my daughter grew up, Advent culminated in a Christmas Eve service. We are both flutists, and for several years we played a duet. We’d test-driven several carols and hymns at home, and settled on that one, precisely because it was enjoyable, more musically interesting, to play the glorias.

She took the melody. I tried to keep my volume a degree lower than hers, to support but not overpower. There’s a kind of communication between musicians, part keen listening, part familiarity, part intuition. There’s a way that music memory gets in your body. More than once, someone came up to us afterwards with tears in her eyes and told us we somehow sounded like one flute playing harmony.

At the end of the service, someone would dim the lights and we’d assemble ourselves in a circle around the sanctuary, holding our little white candles with their little paper skirts. One light. Two. Silent night, we sang as we shared the flame. Holy night. All was calm. And eventually, all was bright.

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I didn’t cry when I met him. I expected to. But it was such a calm moment. I had just arrived in their bright corner apartment. She went in the bedroom, where his daddy was changing his diaper, and I sat down in the living room. Then she brought him out, so relaxed, already so at ease with him, and introduced him. I stood, the way you would to meet anyone for the first time, and introduced myself. I sang “Happy One Week Old to You,” softly, and stroked his sweet head.

“Would you like to hold him?”

The answer will always be yes.

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I have nothing profound to say about Advent. No neat way to swaddle up this series. I’ve been in churches where it was the focus of worship for four weeks, and churches where it’s not on the radar and some people have never heard of it. I’ve taken and eaten the daily morsel of chocolate in years when I went into a church only to attend a friend’s wedding.

But I know something about waiting. Don’t we all?

I know the story never gets old, that story of the most powerful force in the universe coming to earth to be with us, to be one of us, starting out helpless and needy and soft and beautiful, just as every one of us did.

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I held and beheld that baby boy over the next few days, for hours and hours. Talked to him. Sang to him. Soothed him when he fussed, which was hardly at all. Studied his surprisingly expressive face.

His mama was studying him one afternoon, on the sofa with her knees drawn up, cradling him on her thighs. It’s still amazing to me that we made him, and he grew inside me and then I pushed him out, she said.

Do you ever look at him, I asked, and wonder what he’ll like, and what he’ll be good at, and who he’ll become?

Her heart swelled, and the overflow, you could practically see it rising in her chest and spilling out her eyes. She just nodded. The wave swamped me too.

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Let earth receive her king.

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Laura Lynn Brown vanquishes errors and makes the rough places plain as a copy editor at a daily newspaper. Her writing has appeared in Slate, the Iowa Review, Art House America and the High Calling, and she is an editor at The Curator. Her book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories was published in 2013 by Abingdon Press. More of her work can be read at her website, lauralynnbrown.com, and her one-year daily gratitude journal, Daylilies.

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Advent (Fourth Monday)

Advent (Fourth Monday)

Four candles lit. Can you believe it?

The season of Advent will soon be fulfilled. Christmas is near. And I am so pleased to share these words from my friend Allison. A fellow writer and gardener, Alison and I met at church. When I say thank you for the many good gifts I have received since moving to Pennsylvania, Allison is always near the tippy-top of that long list. I love being able to introduce you to her today.

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Why Christmas is Not About Giving

Sometimes I really hate getting gifts.

It’s not the gifts themselves I hate. It’s the getting part.

You know the feeling. Your co-worker unexpectedly gets you a Christmas gift, and you can’t hide the fact that you never intended to get one for her. Or your friend buys you an expensive present that you love, and you wonder if you spent enough money and effort to get him a comparable gift.

Sometimes I love giving gifts more than getting them. I get excited about brainstorming creative gift ideas for family and friends—homemade food items or crafts, books I know they’ll like, fair trade gifts, something fancy they couldn’t justify buying for themselves, or something they didn’t know they wanted. I can’t wait to see their faces when they unwrap what I got them and see just how well my gifts fit who they are. I even get a little jealous if they gush over something that someone else got them.

As much joy as I get from giving, it can be a distraction. It can even be selfish. “[E]veryone, even the nominally religious, loves Christmas. Christmas is a season to celebrate our alleged generosity,” writes William Willimon in “Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.”

Giving involves power. I love to be the strong one who tips well, who feels good about writing the big check for the soup kitchen, who tries to do more than my fair share of listening to and helping my friends, who doesn’t mind spending a little extravagantly to get my family what they really want. I want them to be indebted to me, maybe even dependent on me. They usually appreciate my gifts, but even if they don’t, I get to feel useful and generous.

For me, Christmas is too often an opportunity to secure a little more power in my relationships through giving. But Christmas isn’t about using gifts to gain power. It isn’t even about using gifts to express love for people.

Willimon puts it bluntly: “We prefer to think of ourselves as givers—powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are.”

Christmas is about receiving the gift of God Himself. In this relationship, we have no power at all. We are embarrassingly needy, dependent on the generosity of another. We are forever in His debt with no hope of reciprocating. We now have the costliest, most precious gift imaginable—God’s gift of His very self. A gift we despised and rejected, because we were too proud to admit we needed it.

This lesser-known Christmas carol reminds us of just how much Christ gave—and gave up—for us:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.

He impoverished Himself, left the glories of heaven, came down to our level, spent all He had on us so that we, through His poverty, might become rich.

So in the remaining days before Christmas, set aside those glittering gifts. Open your hands. See how empty they are. As empty as a virgin’s womb. Now stretch out your hands toward the manger. Receive the Christ child, and the wealth of His love, into your arms.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Yes. And this is why God’s Name is blessed above every other name, for He is the all-powerful Giver. “Hallelujah! Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb.”

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Allison Sheeler Duncan is a writer and theology nerd who is learning (slowly) to love receiving gifts as much as she loves giving them. She works as a communications specialist at a university in southeast Pennsylvania, and she enjoys writing in calligraphy, growing heirloom tomatoes, and singing at least some of the right notes in the alto section of her church choir. She blogs at www.shiningfromshookfoil.com.


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