Another Christmas

Christmas 2010 has come and gone.

In an attempt to prevent myself the embarrassment of collapsing into bed like a senior citizen, well before nine o’clock, I  hope to capture a few highlights of the season here in my blog.

My Christmas began with a recipe for a fruit cake. Great-Grandmother was a formidable guardian when it came to family recipes. However, I managed to persuade her to share her fruit cake recipe with me back when I was getting married twenty-six years ago.  When my own parents were getting married in 1961, handing out pieces of fruit cake to guests was a common wedding tradition, and I wanted to carry that forward. My future husband’s grandmother made her fruit cake  annually, at Christmas time.  Full of whole almonds and fruit and candied peel and laced weekly with a hearty dose of brandy, this was a fruit cake that even people who professed to hate the stuff could not resist nibbling.  My husband and I decided to make the cakes this year to share with our family. Great-Grandma has been gone for twenty-four years, and it was really neat to bring a tiny bit of her back for Christmas. The cake tasted just like hers.

Ice candles were also a part of my family’s Christmas this year (see picture above). My husband has made these glistening ice domes for many years now. With a lit candle inside, they are a beautiful spectacle through the long, dark winter nights.  The ice walls protect the flames inside, and the flickering fire-casts on the white snow are beautiful.

Our tree was lovely this year. My husband went out to a tree lot and chopped the tree down himself. It fit the family room perfectly–the height was just right, and the branches were perfectly spaced. This tree was so symmetrical; it hardly needed a stand. My daughters strung popcorn and wound it around the branches.  For some strange and unbeknownst reason, this seemingly perfect tree was completely dead within days. Sitting on the couch, you could hear the ping of tiny needles, raining down on the presents beneath. Plugging in the lights was a risk–did we want twinkling lights or bare branches? The slightest movement brought a new rain of needles. The kids winced every time they tried to delicately lift a candy cane from the branches and unleashed a new torrent. By the time presents were opened this morning, we had to sweep a layer of needles off their surfaces. By the end of the present-opening, the  carpet under the tree was completely hidden under a thick blanket of green needles.

Christmas Eve at St. John’s last night was truly beautiful. St. John’s is an old church, not overly big–enough room for a pleasant crowd, but a very intimate space. Ledges run along the walls under the stained glass windows, and these ledges were lined with greenery and lit candles. Poinsettias and greenery festooned every corner and nook. Lit wreaths were hung on the walls. In the candlelight, the church was the most beautiful and Christmas-y environment I have ever seen. It would be impossible to be without the Christmas spirit in that church last night.  I was invited to help with the singing that evening, and there is nothing I enjoy more on a Christmas Eve than singing. Making music is the best part of Christmas. The congregation was in shadowy candlelight as I sang my solo, so I had a hard time making out faces. Somewhere near the back, I had heard the unmistakable voice of an autistic boy, blurting out his happiness in tones that were anything but hushed. But, he quieted. Brian played the introductory notes and I sang the first verse of  “All is Well,” a gorgeous Christmas song by Michael W. Smith. It starts out softly and builds through the three verses. Brian joined in harmony on the second verse, and by the third, we were giving it!  The last note of the song came off well, and I was thinking to myself, “Good, that went all right…” when suddenly, the autistic boy at the back of the church yelled out, “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” It was epic. “Amen!” I thought. Near the end of the service, the boy came up and someone gave him a tambourine. He stood at the front of the church and  banged on that tambourine and spun in slow, happy circles, to the closing songs. Afterwards, Brian gave me one of the beautiful white poinsettias to take home with me, and I think of that joyful Christmas boy every time I look at it.

Late this afternoon, after the dishes were done and the mess was put away, we set off for the woods. A hike was “the carrot”–something I had been looking forward to for two days, the way I was going to wrap up Christmas.  The cold air was invigorating after two days in the hot kitchen. We had some light as we went into the woods, but by the time we rounded the trail and came up beside the creek, the sun was down. There was a brief, orange flare of sunset, and then we were walking in darkness. No sound but our feet crunching through the snow. The end of the day and the season fell on me in that quiet place. Peace.

So, another one done. The shopping, the wrapping, the groceries, the baking, the cooking, the mess…there is no exhaustion quite like Christmas exhaustion.

Still, Christmas is a special time. If you can find a moment to pause in the middle of all the craziness, there are many blessings to be found, hiding in all the nooks and quiet places of the soul.

Merry Christmas. Thank God for leftovers.

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December Woods

We used the last of the watery winter light to venture into the woods yesterday afternoon.

The walking was slow. The snow beneath our feet was frozen into pits and bumps, dusted with a fresh topping of new snow. A very gentle sprinkling of snow was coming down–very tiny, fine flakes, almost invisible. The setting sun drained most of the colour out of the landscape. All was in gray shadow. The woods was soundless, but for our feet crunching along the trails. We did not hear so much as the call of a bird. The trees stood dreaming along the white trails.

As we approached the fork in the trail, one path leading along the creek to the hilly ravine, and the other over the foot-bridge  and up through the “church,” we happened upon a  lovely surprise. Someone had come with garlands and bows and glimmering balls and had dressed a pine for Christmas. There was even an angel, quietly meditating in the high branches. We paused and admired for a few minutes, and then set off across the bridge.

Just a narrow black channel of water was left in the creek below, trickling faintly between the encroaching walls of ice. Already, there were animal tracks along the snow-covered ice at the edges of the stream.

Up the hill to the church. Already such a silent place, the thick snow added another layer of quiet  as we went along under the arching spruce. We were reminded of storybooks, filled with woodland creatures in sweaters and hats, living in their tree houses, peeking out tiny, hidden windows, and wondering if Santa will ever find them. The path with its snowy boughs would have made a perfect Christmas card.

Another hill, and we found ourselves under the towering pine trees, all standing perfectly still. Often, near the top, the pines sway when the wind comes through their upper branches. That afternoon, they did not so much as quiver.

I was thinking about how completely colourless everything was in the fading light when some bright dots of red caught my eye. A snow-covered bush, still bright with tiny scarlet berries, reminded me that even winter has its colours. Not like fall or spring, when the colours are in such a multitude; the eye doesn’t even know where to begin…but in sparse, unexpected places, and all the more delightful, for that.

The Concert

Christmas is officially here. I’ve heard “The Messiah.”

My friend Ursula, whom I have not seen in some time, invited me to meet her in a nearby city. We had an incredible meal together before the concert. I frankly do not know how we managed to eat because I cannot recall a moment when we stopped talking (or laughing). The wine was superb. After dinner, we walked the drift-lined sidewalks to the concert venue, past a landmark park filled with huge, old trees–every one of them lit up for Christmas. We went up to the balcony and found our seats, just as the orchestra was beginning to tune up.

The sound of an orchestra, testing their bows across the strings–the random mishmash of notes jumbled together…that last moment when the musicians are individuals, before the music marries them all together. I love the anticipation in those few moments–something divine is about to happen…!

Applause for the soloists and the conductor. He stepped on to the podium, raised his baton. Breathless…instruments up, bows poised…and out wafted the exquisite first notes of the overture.

Rapture.

Maybe it was because of where we were seated, up above the chorus and the orchestra. Maybe it was because this was the first time I have been in the audience for “Messiah” rather than in the chorus…the performance seemed to me a gentle presentation of this renowned Oratorio.  The soloists’ voices were controlled almost to the point of restraint, without actually being restrained. They were thrilling to listen to. The conductor, in a few carefully chosen sections, brought the singers back, where in other performances, I remembered “giving ‘er.” The effect was truly exquisite. The musicians were spot-on. The sound of strings always breaks my heart in the most delicious way. After they finished playing the “Pastoral Symphony,” all I wanted was for them to back it up and just play it again.

As I looked across to the other side of the hall, I remembered my mother and Oma, sitting in their balcony seats, listening to me sing in the Chorus in the same choir, in the same hall, almost twenty years earlier. My Oma loved the Messiah, and had sung it many, many times herself, as a younger woman. In fact, I still have her personal copy of the score, yellowed with age but in every other way, unchanged and timeless, as it will always be. I remember her beaming face, looking down at me as I stood in my tuxedo blouse and long skirt on the stage. As the Alto and Soprano soloists delivered their respective “He Shall Feed His Flock” solos, I remembered the time where I sang those pieces to my Oma and Opa on one of their last  monumental anniversaries. All through the performance, I felt as I though I were enjoying it with my Oma. What an incredible gift at Christmas. My friend and I sighed and made subtle happy noises all through the concert. I have to thank her for tolerating my humming and occasional outbursts of singing–I could not control myself…

An unforgettable evening….thank you, Ursula. Thank you, Symphonic Chorus and Orchestra.

And thank you, George Frideric.

Snow Days

My fifteen-year-old son lives for snow days. Every night, before going to bed, he sticks his head in my room and says, “Night, Mom. Maybe tomorrow will be a snow day!”

“Yeh…that could happen,” I always say, eyes rolling.

Miraculously, yesterday, it did. I went on-line first thing after my reluctant extrication from the sheets yesterday morning. Although my own small city wasn’t hit too hard, the roads were bad and there was a lot more snow on the way. Everything was closed.

After reading through several joyous “Snow Day!” Facebook statuses (my friends list is composed mostly of other teachers), I crept back up the stairs and did what I have dreamed of every work day of my entire life. I got back into bed. It was still warm. My head-dent was still fresh on the pillow. I snuggled in. The wind hurled snow against my window. I feel asleep and stayed that way for four, cottony, dozy, slumbery hours.

When I got up, I tidied a bit and then, noticing the weather wasn’t too bad yet, I got in the car and made a mad dash around town, finishing up all of my remaining Christmas shopping. On the way home a few hours later, it was well past the time school would have ended for the day, and I was still grinning. “Get over yourself,” Meanie Me told Happy Me. “The day would have been finished by now, any way. This snow day is over.” “Yeh-but,” Happy Me told Meanie Me, “By this time, I would have had throbbing feet and I would have been so tired; I would be looking for the nearest family member to start yelling at! And it just so happens, I feel GREAT, not to mention CHEERFUL! So, go suck it, Meanie Me!”

I carried my spoils into the house and wrapped every last thing, tossed it all under the tree. “Done!” Happy Me yelled, to no one in particular. Meanie Me had given up and left in disgust back when we were in the car. I proceeded to the stove to make something hot and yummy for supper. And I had a glass of wine with it.

I drove slowly (still grinning) to my parents’ house after supper for Woody Night. Woody Night is what my mom, sister-in-law, and I call sitting around gossiping, having dessert, and consuming Woody’s coolers. We do it every few months, and the two of them usually knit. I usually sit on the couch, drinking and fighting yawns after a typical day of school.  My mother and sister-in-law both seemed rather pleasantly surprised at my unusually chipper manner. I picked up my knitting needles and started in. I haven’t knit anything for almost twenty years! I still knew how!

What is it about a few found hours? For me, it seemed like I got some time tacked on to my life’s allotted hours. It felt like that–like a gift from God. Not that I find school abhorrent…but at this time of the year, to get some extra rest, and to tackle the endless to-do list…well, a snow day couldn’t have come at a better time.  I went to bed last night feeling so filled with gratitude. When my son suggested that maybe we would get another one the next day, I said, “Even if we don’t, we had this one, and it was great. I’m going to be thankful no matter what happens tomorrow.”

At six a.m., I slipped out of bed and drew up the blinds. The street was a spectacular mess of snow–significantly worse than the day before. The neighbours’ cars looked like giant marshmallows under their hummocks of snow. And the sky was still emptying. A brief gander online…once more, everything closed. I went back to bed, but just for a few hours this time. I’m pretty much caught up on my sleep. Today, I washed my bedding, made a big pot of homemade soup, knit a little more. I have a book waiting, some jottings to do, a Christmas piece to tackle on my piano. All is calm. I don’t get that feeling very often. This “pause” in the routine has taught me that I need to seek out more “snow days” in my life, even if it’s July. I don’t like Meanie Me. I don’t want her knocking at my door any more.

It’s still snowing out there…

Dear Santa

It’s the season for letters to the man in red…here are some gems that I got from a Grade Four teacher that I am acquainted with. Spelling mistakes are included. That’s the way Santa likes it!

This year, I would like a new DSI, a Justin Bieber bed spred, a new lap top=because my lap top has some keys missing and a dog tried to bite it. I also want a hand sanitizer bottle and a flat screen T.V.    P.S. like your reindeer!

The hand sanitizer being in the same thought sequence as the flat screen had me belly-laughing!

I kind of want an XBox360. You don’t half to get me that.

Awww…

How have you been over the last past year? I’ve been great and by the way I know that theres a long noty list so if you don’t mind I’ll have all the presents. And I really apretcheat all of the presents from all of the years. By the way can I have a eal alive elf please or at least a robot to clean up my room. P.S. how many coockie do you want on the plate.

Ho, ho, ho–this kid has some plans for that already over-worked elf, I think!

What did you do over the summer? Did you go to the BAHAHAS!!? or dous mrs. claus make you exersize? and speaking of bahamas you get get me a boyfriend ther. I’m just Geussing all the cute guys are ther! HA just kiding!

I don’t think she’s kidding.

Will you send me some luck for my game coming up this weekend. So how is rodolf doing to day? And can I please have world peace.

Nothing like priorities!

I would love a remot control race car for crismass. I was also wundering if you could incloud esher bararys. I would tape a mouse on the top and scar my grama.

I could use some of those esher bararys myself. My son keeps stealing mine out of the Wii remote.

This was at the end of this little girl’s letter:

“Saye’ “hi” to Jesus for me!

That goes for me, too!

Last year you didn’t eat the blueberry cookies but you aet the choclote cookies. Santa could you make me a native girl because my mom’s friend is.

Hey Santa, if you make her a native girl, could you make me a young and skinny one? And I am with you on the chocolate thing.

I whant more chanels on my TV because I don’t hav a lot of chanels on my TV and I will leave t00 cokies and milk and carrots for the raindeer and one more thig i whant good teniballs.

This kid can come to my house and watch all the channels he wants! Bless his heart.

I beleave in you How was your summer. Did you go swimming our did you play mini golf. I would like a milleon dolers, a wame bar guitar, a real skoll. thake you for lisening

OK, this kid can’t come over. I can’t let him anywhere near my skoll. Where does he think Santa is going to get his mittened hands on a real skull??? Santa would have to be either a grave robber, a forensic scientist, or a crazed killer! I can’t see it.

And this one takes the prize for biggest schmoozing….

Dear santa how are you doing and how is misas clos I gess good and gess wut I want for christmas nothing that I want i don’t like christmas just becuse of the presents  I like it just becuse of the fun and your frends and your cusens and the people.

Only Santa can know the depth of  genuine sincerity in these words. But I am looking forward to seeing some cusens myself over the holidays!

Merry Christmas!

Mud Puddle Boy

Mud Puddle Boy’s dark eyes radiate with pure lunacy. The lady who is raising him deserves a medal or a luxurious vacation or the Nobel Peace Prize–something monumental and fabulous.

Because of the construction going on at our school, the yard is the only place left for the kids to use at recess, and it is muddier than one of those hell-hole islands in the Pacific during WWII. Mud Puddle Boy’s caretaker had already made one trek to school at 9:00 when her charge became saturated enough to create his own personal puddle under the bench where he was sitting inside the office before the entry bell even rang. She even took him with her to get the change of shoes she had forgotten on the first trip, delivering him back to school all dry and clean. I was on duty at recess later that morning when I watched him (with utter disbelief…well, no–not really) run at a puddle like a boxer rushes his opponent after the bell, and, with utter abandon, launch himself. The fiendish glee in his eyes was apparent from several yards away. I explained to M. P. B.  that there was no way he would be calling his caregiver to come with dry clothes. He would be sitting in those dripping pants and drenched shoes for the rest of the day. That oughtta fix ‘im. Natural consequences. Add a little shine to my teacher badge for that one.

Except, every time I turned around, it was to see my subject, airborne, about to land in another puddle. Where he would stand, knee-deep, oblivious to the cold, and to the horror of freezing feet in saturated socks, slipping around in soaked shoes.

He was certainly the most manic of puddle-seekers, but not, unfortunately, the only one on this quest. As I stormed around the yard, hollering at various kids to get out of puddles, new splashes could be heard in every direction. I thought of the morning announcements, such a short time before, where the principal politely encouraged students to be aware of the mud and water at recess time, and to stay clear. Yeh…where was HE right now? Inside, wriggling his warm toes in his nice dress shoes, that was where!

Several kids approached me with new M. P. B. developments as I spattered my black suede boots, on my futile mission. The most memorable of those observations was, “Mrs. Austin. M. P. B.  just did a belly flop into the puddle!” The truth is, there was no more stopping Mud Puddle Boy from hurling his crazy form into a puddle than there would be in preventing a star from imploding when it ran out of an energy source. OK, my science may be inaccurate here, but you get the idea.

M. P. B. did not call home (I checked) and therefore, he must have spent the rest of the day in his dripping attire. No doubt, the next recess of the day afforded him another twenty minutes of crazed boogy boarding, without the board. I guess M. P. B. has his own ideas of what is “worth it.”