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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

jer ryder legos Christmas tree

The middle of our Christmas journey is always just that: the middle.

By which I mean: it is messy and rich and full, crowded with some of my favorite holiday traditions and the constantly-in-motion bodies of my two nephews. We are already a little tired, having flown 1,700 miles and driven nearly another 400.

blue sky highway Texas

This year, the drive happened on Christmas Eve – blue sky, long straight highways, Sara Bareilles and Mumford on Spotify, boy-band holiday music when we started to go a little crazy. It ended with my dad greeting us at the door: “We have to leave for church in 45 minutes!”

There was a mad scramble to wrap the last few gifts, kneeling on the guest room floor surrounded by Scotch tape and scraps of wrapping paper. I barely had time to brush my hair before we piled into the car. J and I snapped a photo in front of the lobby Christmas tree before heading inside, hoping we could get a seat – the 4:00 service tends to be crowded.

k j Christmas tree church fbc

Somehow, in spite of the lead-up, I was able to relax then: to exhale into one of my favorite church services of the year. You can count on a few things at my parents’ church: glittering, glorious Christmas trees; Doris on the pipe organ; familiar faces from my childhood and teenage years; and all the verses of as many carols as possible.

candles Christmas Eve silent night fbc

This was Christmas: relishing the third verse of Joy to the World and holding hands with my mother as we lifted our candles during Silent Night. This was Christmas: listening to a string quartet, my husband’s tenor voice, the babbles and cries of so many babies.

This was Christmas: coming, perhaps, no closer to understanding how or why God came into our midst, but choosing to acknowledge and celebrate. We cannot explain, but we rejoice.

moms tree gifts

We headed back to my parents’ for a pre-gift-exchange smorgasbord: cheese and charcuterie, apple slices and carrot sticks, square pretzels topped with chocolate and mint M&Ms. My nephews, decked out in their Santa shirts, could hardly wait to get to the unwrapping, but first we snacked, and then we listened to my sister read the story that still moves me, every year. “For unto you is born this day.” Unto us a child is born, and nothing will ever be the same.

nephews unwrapping presents gifts Christmas

This was the year of the Legos: the boys are obsessed, and they received sets from multiple family members. (Their other favorite thing was a pair of tiny laser guns – a gift for my dad, who still loves to get toys at Christmas.) We had presents that night and stockings the next day, and there were chocolates and new socks, scarves and Starbucks cards and fancy tea (for me).

The weather – after a freak dust-and-rainstorm, complete with tumbleweeds – continued mild, and we spent two afternoons in my sister’s backyard playing football and baseball and climbing on the swing set. We grilled burgers and ribs and did full justice to all the traditional holiday sides (most of them potato-based). I went for a few solo runs in my parents’ neighborhood, looping through the familiar roads under (mostly) bare branches and blue sky.

sneakers rocks running west Texas

The hubs, fighting sinus trouble, won the Best Uncle Award for playing every kind of sport (and Lego) we could squeeze in. My brother-in-law showed off his model train, and more quietly, his grilling skills. I slipped out onto my sister’s front lawn to snap pictures of the sunsets. And the best, as always, was being together.

If you celebrated, I hope your holidays were lovely. Now: onward into 2019.

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cotton mural texas

The shape of our Christmas journey has changed a little over the past few years.

When we moved to Boston, J’s parents and sister were still living in the eastern suburbs of Dallas, where he grew up. My father-in-law talked for years about retiring to “the country,” but I secretly never believed they’d actually do it. Until one summer day in 2015 when they shocked us all by announcing they were moving to a tiny East Texas town we’d never heard of.

Now, instead of staying in the suburbs, we fly into DFW, pick up the rental car and drive east for about an hour, to a cluster of small towns set off the highways amid cotton fields, (mostly) defunct railroad tracks and a few smallish lakes.

lake ray Hubbard Texas

It’s still a relatively quick drive into Dallas, and we end up going in at least once while we’re there, to meet up with J’s high school choir friends and sing Christmas carols. My husband, the lifelong choir nerd, is not a fan of most pop Christmas music, but he loves – and so do I – the chance to sing a cappella arrangements of the classics.

girls caroling

It always takes us a few songs to warm up, and there’s always at least one carol we don’t quite hit (this year it was O Tannenbaum). But we find our way through the familiar sheet music, singing Hark the Herald and Joy to the World, O Come O Come Emmanuel and O Come All Ye Faithful (with at least the first verse in Latin). We always do multiple renditions of Jolly Old St. Nicholas and Jingle Bells, and this year, Kelly had a surprise for us: actual sheet music for the absurdly complex version of We Wish You a Merry Christmas. We wind up with a few non-Christmas classics: the alma mater (even I know all the words) and The Lord Bless You and Keep You.

The weather was mild this year: blue skies, brisk but not biting winds, and temps in the vicinity of 60 (!) degrees. J took advantage of the hotel’s fitness center, but I made several drives to the park we discovered last year, where, it turns out, I love to run.

park pond blue sky

At the front end of a 10-day trip filled with people, those long solo loops around the pond and the neighborhood saved my life, and helped settle me after a rough travel day.

We kept a few of the traditions we’ve established over the years: the caroling party, a trip to the local pie place to meet J’s aunt and cousins for lunch (and pie); the family gift exchange, where my niece, Annie, got more presents than all of us (also a tradition). And we tried a few new things: Korean barbecue with my sister-in-law, some Tempranillo at the local winery, my in-laws’ new church.

I struggle sometimes to savor our days in East Texas, because I’m already looking forward to what always comes after them: Christmas in my hometown with all the traditions I love, and a few crowded, love-filled days with friends in Abilene.

But this year, for whatever reason, I was (mostly) able to slow down and enjoy this first leg. I wanted to really notice the blue sky and the cotton fields and the sun-bleached buildings. I wanted to remember: there is real life out here, in this place. I wanted to pay attention.

We’re (slowly) finding our way into the new year over here. I hope you are too.

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watch for the light book bed Christmas tree

December reading is always a crazy mix of airplane reading, the last few review books of the year, and a couple of Advent/Christmas staples. (Above: the book of readings that has shaped my experience of Advent since 2001.) Here’s the last roundup of 2018:

Harry’s Trees, Jon Cohen
I grabbed this novel at the library after Anne raved about it. A slow start for me, but I fell in love with Harry Crane, a Forest Service employee who escapes to the woods after his wife dies. I loved the people he meets – Oriana, a young girl who’s lost her father; Amanda, her relentlessly practical mother; and Olive, the elderly pipe-smoking librarian who gives Oriana a book that changes everything. Magical and moving.

Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram
Leigh and Kari both loved this book, and I really enjoyed it. Darius is an Iranian-American teen (and tea lover) who travels to Iran for the first time. His relationships with his dad and little sister were so well drawn and real, and I loved watching him make a real friend and bond with his grandparents.

Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London, Mohsin Hamid
Hamid is better known for his novels – like Exit West, which I loved – but this collection of his essays is wise and thought-provoking. I learned a lot about Pakistan from the “Politics” section, but found more to enjoy in “Art” and “Life.” Found (on sale) at the charming Papercuts JP last month.

Running Home, Katie Arnold
Arnold became a runner as a kid, almost by accident – at the urging of her photographer dad. She chronicles her journey with running (and later ultrarunning), interwoven with her dad’s illness, his death, and their complicated but deeply loving relationship. So many great lines about writing, life, family, and how we shape the stories we tell ourselves. I loved it as a runner and a writer, but I think even if you’re neither, it’s well worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 12).

Star Crossed, Minnie Darke
Justine is a whip-smart Sagittarius with journalistic ambitions and little regard for astrology. Her childhood friend Nick is an aspiring Aquarian actor who trusts the stars for major life decisions. They reconnect – and Justine starts dabbling in astrology – in this fun Australian novel. I loved all the intertwined stories and Darke’s sharp observations about various star signs. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 21).

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, Barbara Brown Taylor
Teaching Religion 101 to undergraduates in Georgia for nearly two decades, Taylor (a former Episcopal priest) found much to admire and even envy in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam. She explores her experiences alongside her students’, and muses on what “holy envy” may have to offer those who are still deeply committed to their own faith. Thoughtful, insightful and so well done, like all Taylor’s books. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 12).

Summer at the Garden Café, Felicity Hayes-McCoy
I loved Hayes-McCoy’s memoir about Ireland and enjoyed her first novel set there. This, the sequel, is charming and fun. It follows the lives of several people in a small village in western Ireland: librarian Hanna, her daughter Jazz, their colleagues and friends.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I received this book as a gift over a decade ago, and I still revisit it almost every December. It’s a story of five loosely connected people who end up in the north of Scotland one Christmas, and the ways they bring hope to each other. So good.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading as we head into 2019?

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birch bark reindeer

On Monday morning, I dropped off a thick stack of Christmas cards at the post office.

The hubs and I sat at the kitchen table the night before, listening to Christmas music, surrounded by sticky labels and the ever-changing list I print off and then mark up every year. We both reached for our phones several times to text friends for new addresses. As I said to Jaclyn, the act of virtually asking for a physical address seems to capture December in the modern world. (That might go double for Jaclyn herself: we met online, have exchanged many snail-mail letters and even met in person a few times, and are mostly keeping up via text and blogs these days.)

I only write down many of these addresses once or twice a year: my aunt and grandparents near San Antonio, my housemates from grad school in England. A cluster of houses in southwest Missouri, where my dad grew up and his family (by blood and by choice) still lives.

Some of these folks I don’t talk to all that often, and haven’t seen for years. But their addresses, and the physical act of writing them by hand, are in there. And sending Christmas cards – choosing a photo, scrambling to update the list, finding an hour to scribble notes on the back of each card to our loved ones – is one of the small but important rituals of the season.

Christmas tree snoopy

Last week, on a rare weeknight at home together, we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol over bowls of spicy carrot-ginger soup, delighting in the songs and silliness and cracking up at the asides by Rizzo and Gonzo. This weekend, we ordered takeout from our favorite Indian place and watched White Christmas. I giggled at Danny Kaye’s facial expressions, marveled at Vera-Ellen’s footwork, and welled up when the General walked down the stairs in his uniform. (Every year.)

So much (I keep saying) has changed in the last few years: my job(s), our address(es), the way we navigate so much of our daily lives. This year, Advent has felt hard and different; I’ve missed some of my usual traditions, like the church Christmas pageant and the a cappella notes of O Come O Come Emmanuel.

But some of the season’s tiny rituals remain the same. J has hung the felt mistletoe ball in the doorway between the dining and living room. The words in my Advent book are still there, sustaining and comforting and sometimes shaking me awake, as I page through them before bed. The cyclamen and poinsettias at my florist are vivid and glorious. The shop windows all over town are sparkly and festive. I’m fighting (hopefully defeating) my annual December cold, and laughing at my sister’s photos of her Elf on the Shelf, Oliver, and his antics.

poinsettias brattle square florist red flowers Cambridge

We are making travel plans, packing, doing laundry, finishing up the Christmas shopping. I am humming the familiar carols, and singing them with others, when I can. (We spent Sunday morning at a lessons and carols service that fed my soul and made my heart sing.) We bought (more) wrapping paper and Scotch tape this weekend, and the tiny coat-hanger tree I’ve had for twenty years is sparkling away on top of the microwave.

Some of our neighbors have set electric candles in their windows, and the sight warms me when I glance outside after dark. Before I go to bed, I pause in the kitchen to glance out the window at the quiet street, then in the living room to take in the glow of the Christmas tree before unplugging it for the night. So much of each day feels hurried and hectic, but just for a moment each night, there is peace.

Advent is about the waiting, the longing, the gaps between what ought to be and what has not yet come. We are waiting, we are hurting, we are tiptoeing toward Christmas. And while we wait, I am savoring every bit of joy.

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wreath old south church Boston

It’s a cold, diamond-bright December, with sharp blue skies and angled shadows that stretch long beginning in the early afternoons. I hurry along the sidewalk in my green coat and fleece-lined tights, avoiding the loose tiles and listening to the repeated entreaties from the homeless guys. I dig in my purse for the bright pink strap that holds my work ID, nod to the security guy and the construction crew in our building. Every week the work looks different: dangling wires, fresh plywood, so many cables and work boots and dust.

Katie selfie mirror post bike ride

There hasn’t been much snow so far. If I bundle up well enough, pull on a vest and two pairs of gloves and a blue fleece-lined headband, I can still hop a Blue Bike across the river from Harvard Square in the early mornings. I’ve come to enjoy skimming down Mt. Auburn St. to Mass Ave, then across the bridge by MIT, heading for the skyline, from the old neighborhood to the new.

commonwealth avenue brownstones Boston blue sky

We finished up Morning Prayers with a week of Advent hymns: Comfort, comfort ye my people. Watchman, tell us of the night. People, look east, the time is near. On Friday, after the final service of the term, we crowded into the kitchen downstairs for coffee and blueberry cake. I took my husband to the carol service on Sunday night, red poinsettias and thundering organ music and clear voices ringing out from the balcony. We stood with the congregation and sang a few of my favorites: Silent Night, Hark the Herald, Angels We Have Heard on High with its trilling Gloria.

red poinsettias flowers church

I’m thumbing through my Advent book again, reading wisdom from Sylvia Plath and Kathleen Norris, poetry and plainspoken prose, awe and wonder, longing and praise. For the first time in years, we are adrift this Advent, unmoored from a church community, except for my mornings at Mem Church. It feels strange and hard, and also this is where we are: right in the middle of more change and transition, of messy, ordinary life.

My florist’s shop is bursting with poinsettias and cyclamen, with miniature trees and tiny birch-bark reindeer. I stop in weekly, still, for roses and red tulips and a hug from Stephen. At home, we’ve finally decked our tall tree with ornaments, a colorful hodgepodge of old and new. The Christmas shopping is half done, the cards ordered and received but not sent, the packing not even thought about. We are living in the in between.

snoopy tree lights Christmas

I watch the sun rise out the kitchen window, my elbow brushing the geranium still stubbornly bursting with scarlet flowers. I sink into bed at night with a book, the glow of the Christmas tree from the living room just visible through the doorway. I take solace in a hot cup of chai, in the smile of a friend. I keep moving, because that is, as always, the only thing to do.

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wreath tree NYC Christmas

It’s no secret that I love New York City: in the fall, in the spring, even in a sweltering summer heat wave. But I’d never seen the city decked out for Christmas, and I’d always wanted to. So, when my husband told me he had a work conference in Chicago, I made plans for a quick solo trip: 48 hours to wander on my own. It was, as you might expect, glorious.

Every time I go to New York I fall in love. This time, it was with crisp Snapdragon apples and pumpkin cookies at the tiny farmers’ market in Abingdon Square; with the stands of freshly cut Christmas trees on so many corners, tunnels of prickly green. I even fell in love a little bit with the tree-seller who called “Merry Christmas!” and actually tipped his hat.

high line view NYC blue sky

I fell in love with running on the High Line: bold blue skies and views across the Hudson, public art and the sharp angles of skyscrapers and the pounding of my own feet. After my run, I stopped at the Hudson Cafe for oatmeal and a cup of strong Earl Grey, and fell in love with a little dog named Stella. Her owner invited me to sit down and chat, and we talked public transit and city life and unexpected career moves. “How long have you lived in the neighborhood?” I asked her. She grinned, a little wickedly. “A hundred and fifty years!”

Cornelia street cafe awning NYC

I fell in love with the cheery red-striped awnings at the Cornelia Street Cafe just off Bleecker, and with their excellent eggs Florentine (oh my). I fell in love with the stunning array of artisans in the maker space at Chelsea Market, and with the quiet, unpretentious Epiphany Library branch on East 23rd Street. I ended up there when I needed a place to rest my feet and charge my phone (because Hermione is right: when in doubt, go to the library).

red decor west village

I bought a rush ticket to Saturday night’s Live from Here with Chris Thile at the Town Hall. And while I knew I loved Thile’s mandolin music (I’m a Nickel Creek fan from way back), I fell completely in love with his warmth and charm onstage. When he invited the audience to sing along with a few lines from a John Denver song about home, it felt both magical and holy. I’ve been humming those lines ever since.

Some trips to New York are full of new discoveries, and some are about revisiting old favorites. The best are a bit of both, and this was no exception: I made sure to pop into Three Lives for a browsing session and a bit of eavesdropping on the friendly booksellers. I visited Pink Olive and refueled later with Earl Grey at Joe. I went back to Bar Six, back to the Strand, back to the Bryant Park holiday market at the main NYPL branch. I went back, most of all, to the city whose streets I find endlessly fascinating.

I didn’t make it to Rockefeller Center or walk down 5th Avenue to see all the decked-out department stores. But I did get a little of that holiday sparkle. And I did my favorite thing to do in New York: wander to my heart’s content. It was, as always, exhausting and lovely.

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sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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