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Christmas in Jail

City-County Bldg from City Hall

The upper floors of the City-County Building in Madison, Wisconsin are part of the Dane County Jail

“This is the first time I’ll be in jail over Christmas. I’ve been in jail a couple times before, but never over Christmas. I feel so bad for my family. Being in jail hurts my family more than it hurts me. I feel so bad for my kids. I’m really hurting my family by not being home with them for Christmas. I can’t let this happen again. I’ve got to get my life back together.”

The young woman struggled to keep tears from seeping out of her eyes as we went around the circle in the jail chapel, talking about what the Christmas story that we had just read in Matthew and Luke meant to us today.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like for my mom to be in jail over Christmas when I was a little girl.  It’s hard to picture my mom being in jail. I think the most illegal thing she ever did in her life was speed up to 70 miles per hour to pass a car on curvy Highway 12, driving from Cambridge to Madison on her way to work in the morning. The speed limit was 65 back then, and she had a gadget in her car that buzzed when she reached 66 mph. That didn’t happen very often.

Family Portrait - about 1960

Family portrait, about 1960: Nancy, Dad, Mom, Danny, Marian

But supposing Mom was in jail, whether guilty of anything, or not… What would Christmas have been like for me?

  • No Christmas baking: No cut-outs to frost and decorate. No Norwegian cookies. No date bars. No new recipe experiments – Mom tried out one or more new recipes every year. No homemade peanut brittle. No Holiday Hill whipped cream cake…
  • No one to ensure the whole house was decorated for Christmas, not just the tree.
  • No one to help us memorize our parts for the Christmas program in church.
  • No perfect Christmas presents. Mom always figured out what we wanted most, and managed to do all the Christmas shopping during the lunch hours of her job in Madison.
  • No one patiently trying to teach us patience on Christmas Eve as we waited for Dad to finish milking the cows and then come back into the house so we could open our presents.
  • No Christmas stockings. Mom always gave each of us one of her old nylon stockings with runs to set out on Christmas Eve for Santa to fill with an orange, an apple, a candy cane, and a few small wrapped presents for us to open on Christmas morning.
  • No special dinner on Christmas Day. Pan-fried chicken was my favorite.
  • No one to play Scrabble with me on Christmas afternoon.

I understood the young mother’s point in the jail circle. Christmas is a very important time to be with family, not to be sitting in jail. But that’s the situation for her this year. The other inmates understood her point, too. They felt the same way.

As we continued around the circle, we got to me. I commented that hearing the whole Christmas story read in one sitting – the shepherds, Jesus’ birth in the stable, the wise men – reminded me of a question that’s printed in the bulletin of one of the churches I’m playing at this Sunday. “If you could play a part in the Nativity story, which role would you want: shepherd, inn keeper, wise man, angel, Mary, or Joseph?”  I said that I would either want to be an angel or a shepherd. It would be so much fun, so thrilling to be singing – or playing an instrument – to be welcoming Baby Jesus into the world. Several of the inmates explored this idea for themselves. One said, “Oh, I’d want to be a shepherd. It would be so exciting.”

Nativity images

When we all finished sharing our thoughts on what the Christmas Story meant to us this year, it was time for our annual Christmas carol sing. I went to the piano and Chaplain Julia handed out song sheets. She told the inmates they could keep the song sheets if they wanted, but she would have to remove the staples before they could take them out of the chapel. Most of them wanted to keep the song sheets.

Christmas carols

Chaplain Julia said they could request two things – the song to sing and which verses to sing. The first song requested, as soon as Chaplain Julia asked for requests, was the last song in the booklet, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The requester asked for all verses. Actually, all verses were requested for every song we sang. And, boy, did we have fun singing! There was never a long, awkward pause waiting for a request. As soon as we finished one song, another request was immediately out there. The women sang every song with enthusiasm, as a truly special women’s choir. I think we all identified with the angels. We sang a lot of angel carols – “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” As usual, we ended with “Silent Night.”

When we finished singing, Chaplain Julia asked me, “Could we choose to be Baby Jesus in my question of who we would like to be in the Christmas Story?” She said, “It would be wonderful to be Baby Jesus and feel all the love of everyone singing to me.” The inmates agreed.

I guess a little miracle happened in jail last Thursday. The women who came to the chapel to worship God and sing Christmas Carols, walked in feeling the weight of being in jail over Christmas, away from their family and loved ones. When they walked out of the chapel and were escorted back to their cell blocks, their spirits were lifted. I’m sure some of their spirits were still praising God, singing “Glo-ri-a in ex-cel-sis De-o.” God’s love was being experienced right there in jail.

angels and Mary and Jesus

This picture may be bleached a little too white, but it still shows love – wondrous heavenly love and peace present on Earth.

 

 

Christmas brings out the Poet in me

I am not a poet – but every once in a while, especially around Christmas, I like to play with song lyrics. Several years ago I was a real estate broker, and I rewrote six Christmas songs with a real estate theme. The new titles were:

  • Christmas Tree in condoO Real Estate, O Real Estate  
  • O Little Town of Cambridge
  • Go Tell it to the Whole World
  • All I want for Christmas Is …
  • I’m Dreaming of a Good Housing Market
  • We Wish You Some Real Estate Sales

I won’t share all the lyrics here. (Email me if you want them.) But to give you an idea of how much fun I had, here’s part of the first song (to the tune of “O Christmas Tree”).

O Real Estate, O Real Estate,
The time to sell is coming.
O Real Estate, O Real Estate,
The time to sell is coming.
To sell a home at Christmastide
Spreads hope and gladness far and wide.
O Real Estate, O Real Estate,
The time to sell is coming.

Like I said, I’m not a poet, but I sometimes have fun playing with lyrics. I guess I can thank my mom for that. When I was in junior high school, Mrs. Neupert, my English teacher gave us the assignment to write a poem for National Library Week. I had no idea how to start. I talked with my mom about it, and she said the easiest way to write a poem is to think of a song you really like to sing, one with an especially catchy tune, and write new words to it. She said the tune that worked best for her was “Oh, Susanna,” the old western song by Stephen Foster. So I tried it. The only words I still remember from my poem are the opening line, “I went down town the other night to get myself a book…” I can remember singing the song over and over again in my head until I got my new lyrics just right. I think I actually wrote four verses. I wish I still had them, but I don’t. Anyway, I have the memory of having lots of fun writing my poem for National Library Week.

Last year I took the very rhythmic Christmas poem, ‘Twas the Night before Christmas, and rewrote some of the words to use as a Christmas card for the people who live with us and for the friends who work for us at Country Comforts Assisted Living, to explain that instead of giving them individual Christmas presents we were donating a cow in their names from the ELCA [Lutheran] Good Gifts Catalog. Here’s that attempt at my poetry.

Christmas Cow

‘Twas the Night before Christmas at Country Comforts

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the earth
Lots of people were hungry, despite Jesus’ birth.
Many stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that kind people would have something to share.

The children were cuddled all snug on the floor
With visions of bread and milk and maybe something more.
And Mim in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap
Were racking our brains for a present to wrap.

When out on the roof there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutter, and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of midday to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a beautiful cow…. To my eye came a tear.

She was black and white, a cute little calf.
I smiled when I saw her, then let out a laugh.
A wink of her eye and a swish of her tail
Let me know – soon there would be milk in a pail.

‘God’s Global Barnyard’ came right to the rescue,
A cow for a family in need, yes, we knew
Would be the best gift we could possibly give –
All of us at Country Comforts can help one family live.

A share of a cow is a mere fifty dollars.
“A gift for each person,” sweet Floey then hollers,
“Adds up to a cow for a family in need.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good deed!”

My apologies to Clement Clarke Moore for taking such liberty with his classic Christmas poem.

cow head w cowbell outside cropped flippedThis year I’m playing around with “Jingle Bells” by James Lord Pierpont. I’m struggling to find the best onomatopoeic word for the sound of a cowbell – Clanging bell? Clinking bell? Bonging bell? I’m still working on it…

Whether you like to play around with words and music like I do, or if you prefer to play online by exploring wherever google takes you, or however you like to play – I hope you find plenty of time to play this holiday season. I’m sure play is one of the gifts of the spirit that the authors of the Bible just forgot to mention.

As an old proverb says, “The body heals with play, the mind heals with laughter and the spirit heals with joy.”

A-D-M 05-06-07 2 adj

Doris and Mary, former residents of Country Comforts Assisted Living, playing with Abbey, laughing, and experiencing joy.

 

 

The Worst Sin of All according to Floey

Floey sittingMy new dog Floey and I are still getting to know each other. Christmas Day will mark the one month anniversary of Floey’s adoption date. Mim and I and all of our 93-year-olds are so happy that she joined our family. Floey loves all of us, but it’s clear that I am her favorite. She follows me everywhere. Right now, I’m sitting at my desk, and she’s sitting close beside me.

One day last week as I was reading my daily devotional book, A Book of Wonders, by Edward Hays, I decided to ask Floey what she thought about what he said. The title of the reading was “The Absolutely Worst of All Sins.” He said that in our culture, we tend to think of sexual sins as the worst sins of all. Then he added, “Yet among preliterate hunting and gathering cultures, like the Native Americans, children were taught that the worst of vices was stinginess. Not sex, but greed in all forms, was abhorred.”

I knew that Floey had been born on an Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. I wondered if any of their early Native American moral code had rubbed off on her. I asked Floey what she thought was the worst sin of all.

“That’s easy,” she replied. “Stinginess.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “You didn’t hesitate at all with your answer. Why is stinginess worse than murder, or rape, or anything else?”

“Just think about it, Mom. You know that love is the greatest gift anyone can give, right?”

“Yes,” I replied, and she continued, “What is the opposite of being loving? It’s being stingy, right?”

“Floey, you’re really smart for a pup who’s not even a year old yet.”

Floey sitting - profile“Tomorrow, December 24, I’ll be 11 months old, but I’ve lived and learned an awful lot in those 11 months, and I’ve done a lot of thinking about what’s good and what’s bad in life. When people, and all other creatures, as well, are kind and loving and generous, the world is a better place for everyone.  But whenever someone is stingy, they’re looking out only for themselves, and the world is a little less good for everyone – including the stingy one. They start worrying about getting and protecting their fair share rather than contributing to the good of everyone.”

“Wow, Floey. You’ve really done a lot of serious thinking for a pup so young! Since we’re having such a good conversation, let’s change subjects and talk about something I’ve been thinking about lately – the commercialization of Christmas. What do you think about that?”

“You’re not really changing subjects with that, Mom. The commercialization of Christmas is the best thing to happen to temper the sin of stinginess.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“What do you think about when you go Christmas shopping?”

“I guess I think about what each person on my list would like to get, and where I might find that gift for them.”

“That’s all about being generous, not being stingy, right?”

“I guess so…”

“Think back to your earliest memories of Christmas shopping. Tell me about them.”

“Those are good memories. Let me start with some background. It seems that every year in December we get some foggy days. Farmers call it ‘case weather.’ We just had some foggy days last week. Remember?”

“Yeah. I remember. But what does that have to do with Christmas shopping?” Floey asked.

“I’m getting to it. I grew up on a small farm. We had about 20 cows and between 300 and 400 chickens. My dad supplemented the milk and egg income with a cash crop – tobacco. Raising tobacco was somewhat controversial because my parents were opposed to smoking, but tobacco was the most lucrative crop we could raise. Essentially, tobacco is what paid for all the “extras” in our lives, like new clothes, piano and organ lessons, and when we were older, college tuition.”

My family history with raising tobacco goes way back. This picture shows my great uncle Fletcher (2nd from right) taking a break from stripping tobacco with his buddies.

My family history with raising tobacco goes way back. This photo from 1898 shows my great uncle Fletcher (the handsome one – 2nd from right) taking a break from stripping tobacco with his buddies.

“Raising tobacco was a lot of work, from planting it in the spring to harvesting it in the fall to stripping it in the winter. That’s where ‘case weather’ came into the picture. When tobacco was harvested in September, six to eight stalks were strung onto a lath. A lath is like a thick yard stick that’s about five feet long instead of three feet. The laths were then hung in a tobacco shed, the tobacco plants hanging upside down, to dry out. In December when we got several days of foggy weather (case weather), the dried tobacco was moistened from the fog. My dad took the laths of tobacco down from the shed and brought them into the barn. The barn was warm and humid from all the cows living in it. My brother and I had the job of stripping the tobacco leaves off the stalk, leaf by leaf, and laying the tobacco leaves into a press that bundled the leaves into bales of about 40 pounds. Every evening and every Saturday during case weather Danny and I spent many hours in the barn stripping tobacco for two cents a lath. That’s how I earned money for Christmas shopping.”

“Okay, Mom, now I see you’re getting to the point.”

“I worked really hard stripping tobacco the couple weeks before Christmas every year, and I usually earned between five and ten dollars. I felt rich! When I knew how much money I’d earned, I made out my shopping list. Usually, it included Old Spice After Shave for my dad, pretty candles for  my mom, stationery for my sister, and a model car for my brother. If I’d earned enough money, I might get everyone some candy or nuts, too. I always spent all my money on presents for them. It never occurred to me to be stingy and keep anything for myself.”

My family - everyone I bought Christmas presents for when I was a kid.

My family – everyone I bought Christmas presents for when I was a kid.

“That’s exactly what I mean, Mom. The commercialization of Christmas isn’t all bad. It reminds us to be generous to the people we love.”

“I guess you’re right, Floey. I’ll try to think of that when I see all those commercials on TV telling us to shop, just like I think of stripping tobacco for Christmas shopping money whenever I see fog in December. In both cases, I can remember that God wants us be loving and generous – and not be stingy.”

“You’ve got it, Mom. See why I’m proud of my Native American heritage. I see I have a lot to teach you. But that’s enough for today. I think it’s time for another walk. Can we run around the pond again? That’s so much fun!”

Floey standing

The Best Family Tradition of All – Baking Christmas Cookies!

Christmas Cookies

Some of the traditional Christmas cookies Mim and I bake every year. The Norwegian cookies are the golden ones on the right.

For the month of December, Joan Chittister has been focusing on the role of traditions in our lives in her pamphlet, The Monastic Way. On December 11 she said:

Traditions are meant to develop us emotionally, one layer of understanding at a time. It is our traditions – the Easter eggs, the Christmas trees – that lead us back to the very centers of life. They shape us spiritually and form us socially. They are the magnets that draw us to the center of our souls.

Mom-Dad on stumpChittister left out the best tradition of all from her examples – Christmas cookies! My mom baked at least a dozen different kinds of Christmas cookies every December. One reason for so many cookies is that my parents were in a mixed marriage – my mom was Norwegian and my dad was German – so my mom felt obligated to bake both Norwegian and German cookies. Plus, she always liked to try out new recipes. I loved all the Norwegian cookies. The German cookies – not so much. My mom faithfully made the same Korth recipe for peppernuts every year, and every year they turned out the same – as hard as a rock. We let them age for at least a month, because no one ate them (except my dad dunked a few in his coffee), and then we threw the rest of them out for the birds.

Some of my fondest Christmas memories are spending a couple evenings every December decorating both light and dark cookie cutouts (sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies). My mom frosted each cookie and Danny and I carefully decorated them with every color of sugar my mom could find – red, green, yellow, blue, purple, pink, and multicolor nonpareils. We also used red-hot candies, and little silver and gold balls. Sometimes we would even cut up red and green gum drops to make leaves and berries to decorate wreathes. Our cookies were almost too beautiful to eat, although that never stopped us.

By Christmas we had stacks of cookie tins filled with hundreds of cookies. Even though we ate heartily, there’s no way we would ever eat that many cookies. But my mom had a better idea anyway. Just before Christmas she boxed up a selection of cookies for a lot of the older people in Cambridge who didn’t bake their own Christmas cookies, and we made a delivery run a day or two before Christmas.

When I was in my twenties and living with Mim in Chicago, baking Christmas cookies together was one of the first traditions we established. We had to negotiate on whose recipes to use. Over the years we’ve worked it out. We use her mom’s recipe for Krumkake and my mom’s recipe for Berliner Kranzer. We carried over the tradition of making lots of different kinds of cookies – more than we could possibly eat – and solved that problem by hosting the coffee hour after church the Sunday closest to Christmas. Our Lutheran church in Chicago had lots of retired Swedes as members, and Norwegian cookies were close enough to Swedish to bring back pleasant memories on their taste buds.

Christmas Cookies at Resurrection

The cookies are arranged. The candles are lit. The postlude must be starting. Mim’s ready to pour coffee.

When we were in our forties we moved back to the farm in Cambridge. Soon afterwards, Mim’s mom had a stroke which left her paralyzed on one side. She came to live with us for the next five years. I can still picture her sitting at the dining room table in her wheelchair, rolling out Kringla, a doughnut-like soft Norwegian cookie, rolled by hand into a pencil-like shape and twisted to look like a pretzel. She also helped us decorate cookies. One day our youngest niece Emily joined us to work on decorating cookies together. What better activity to bring multiple generations together than decorating Christmas cookies!

From left to right - Marian frosting cookies, Emily decorating, and Selma and Megabyte supervising.

From right to left – Marian frosting cookies, Emily decorating, and Selma and Megabyte supervising.

Seven years ago, when we moved to our condo, my sister Nancy, who lived nearby, came over to spend a day baking Christmas cookies together. I think we baked about six different kinds in that one long day. By the end of the day we were exhausted, but we had something beautiful and delicious to show for our efforts. And it was fun working together, using the cookie-baking skills we had learned from our mother. The next year my sister passed away. Last year around Christmas time Mim and I went to see our niece Michelle, Nancy’s daughter. She served us Christmas cookies – just the like ones her mom used to make. The tradition continues.

Cindy, my brother’s daughter, is also carrying on the Christmas cookies tradition. Even though Cindy is gluten intolerant, she enlists her nieces to help her bake and decorate some of the most beautiful cookies I’ve ever seen.

Joan Chittister has it right –

Traditions are meant to develop us emotionally, one layer of understanding at a time. It is our traditions – the Easter eggs, the Christmas trees, [the Christmas cookies!] – that lead us back to the very centers of life. They shape us spiritually and form us socially. They are the magnets that draw us to the center of our souls.

Now I need to get back to baking cookies. We’re trying three new recipes this year, plus baking most of our family standards. I plan to bring a selection to my brother’s family. I guess I might pack up a few cookie tins for some friends, too. But I don’t think I have to worry about the cookies not getting eaten. Our 93-year-olds like our Christmas cookies just as much as our youngest nieces and nephews, and the next generation beyond them…

Emily w decorated Xmas cookies

 

Living inside a Broadway Musical

Last weekend was like living inside a Broadway musical – like “The Sound of Music.” Life wasn’t an opera – our conversations were spoken, not sung – but the whole weekend seemed to flow from one musical moment to the next. It’s almost like we were taking the message of the Psalms – to sing to the Lord – very literally.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
[Psalm 98:4-6 NRSV]

Overture Organ w Sam

Sam Hutchison at the Overture Center organ.

Saturday started with a magnificent Christmas Carol Sing at the Overture Center in Madison. By the time we arrived for the free sing-along (about 15 minutes early for the 11:00 a.m. event), the main floor was already filled and we were directed to the circle (lowest balcony), which was already filling up quickly. About a thousand people had gathered to sing Christmas carols under the direction of organist Sam Hutchison and the powerful Overture Center organ. What a sound we made – from the mighty organ leading us in “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to the gentle “Away in a Manger.” Hutchison introduced each carol with a brief explanation of its origin, and then directed us to sing with all our heart and soul.  Hutchison also played two organ solos. For the first one, “Chorale-Improvisation on In Dulci Jubilo,” he promised he would sound every one of the 4,000-plus pipes of the organ so that we could hear all the sounds possible from this amazing instrument. The Carol Sing ended with “The First Nowell.” Dozens of sopranos (including Mim standing next to me) sang the beautiful soaring descant on the refrain. What an inspiring way to end the morning!

After singing our hearts out, we went to a neighborhood bakery for lunch, and then home to rest up a little to be ready for more music. While at home, I practiced the music I would be playing for the Saturday evening worship service at Messiah. Then we turned around and went back to Madison for church.

Marian at organ-MessiahI played my favorite Advent prelude, an organ arrangement of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Mim sang “Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah” as the Advent candles were lit. As usual, Jeff delivered an inspiring homily, one that included the song, “I thank you, Lord, for each new day.” The service ended with a new favorite piano postlude, an arrangement of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” This is the time of year for great church music!

Caroling in Overture Center

Caroling with the Madison Symphony Chorus in the Lobby of Overture Hall.

After church we ate a quick supper at Culver’s and drove to the Overture Center again for the Madison Symphony Orchestra Christmas concert. But the real highlight of the whole weekend came before this concert began. The three-level Overture Hall Lobby served as an incredible space for another Christmas Carol Sing-along. The Madison Symphony Chorus lined the second-level railing to sing carols a capella with their director Beverly Taylor on the lower level, where concert-goers gathered to join in the singing. Our voices filled the three-level space with the most beautiful sound imaginable. I think it was a preview of the sounds we’ll hear in heaven when we sing with the angels.

For the concert, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Symphony Chorus were joined by the Madison Youth Choirs, the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, and two soloists – a soprano and a tenor. The music was as varied as could be – classical, black gospel, traditional Christmas, and contemporary holiday music. It was a fun concert. My favorite piece came just before the intermission – the “Hallelujah Chorus” with the symphony, all the choirs, and the audience making wonderful music together.

Madison Symphony Christmas Concert in Overture Hall

My view Saturday night from the top balcony in Overture Hall. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Symphony Choir, guest choirs, and a few extra heads in my line of vision.

But the music of the weekend wasn’t over yet. On Sunday afternoon, the Monona Senior Choir – a group of about 50 singers – performed a delightful Christmas concert in the community room of our church in Madison. This was one of those concerts where my mouth just froze into a smile because I was having so much fun listening to the music. The concert opened with an arrangement that blended “Joy to the World” with the “Hallelujah Chorus.” A few songs later, a good friend of mine, dressed in a red union suit, sang “Winter Underwear” to the tune of “Winter Wonderland.” The concert ended with two little girls, granddaughters of the director, signing “Silent Night” while the violinist played the melody. What a wonderful ending to my weekend of living inside a Christmas musical.

Monona Senior Choir cropped

Some of the members of the Monona Senior Choir, with director Jan Piddington – taking a break during their concert.

Music truly is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Advent and Christmas are special times to be reminded of this gift.

Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
[Isaiah 12:5-6 NRSV]

 

 

Top 10 Christmas Carols and my new favorite

1965 Singing Christmas Tree

1965 – The first Singing Christmas Tree in the Methodist Church in Cambridge. That’s me – the short one with glasses in the middle of the front row.

What are your favorites – your top 10 Christmas carols?

I made a list of mine. It was hard to stop at ten, but I did it. Then I went on the Internet to see if I could find a list of the most popular Christmas carols. Chris Wilson compiled a list of favorites for the TIME NewsFeed. His basis for identifying the favorites was the number of times the carol has been commercially recorded since 1978. (The article was dated December 18, 2013.) Here’s the list, along with the number of times the carol has been recorded:

  1. Silent Night (733)
  2. Joy to the World (391)
  3. O Holy Night (374)
  4. What Child Is This? (329)
  5. Away in a Manger (300)
  6. O Come, All Ye Faithful (296)
  7. Ave Maria (270)
  8. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (236)
  9. The First Noel (234)
  10. Angels We Have Heard on High (220)
Aunt Edith at the piano.

Aunt Edith at the piano.

The list is very similar to my own list – only a few differences. I included “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” and “There’s a Song in the Air.” (This last one is on my list because I can still hear my late Aunt Edith singing it. I’ve always loved that song, especially the way she sang it with her beautiful, clear, high soprano voice.)

Last week, at the women’s worship service in the county jail, we had a Christmas Carol sing. The chaplain provided a fairly extensive song sheet, and invited the inmates to choose the songs to sing. The first carol requested was “Silent Night.” The chaplain said we would save that for the last song to sing at the end of the service. The next song requested was “Joy to the World.” Then, “O Holy Night.” We sang most of the songs on the “Top 10” list, plus several others. It was so much fun to sing all those old Christmas carols together!

Mim directing the family Christmas program on Christmas Eve.

Mim directing the family Christmas program on Christmas Eve.

What’s so special about singing Christmas carols? I think many of us have a shared childhood experience of singing these songs with friends and family, at home, school and church. We also associate these songs with all the excitement of Christmas, including school programs and church pageants. Many of the songs have words that tell the story of the birth of Jesus. Some of the images are quite vivid – like

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head;
the stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

Other songs are just fun to sing – like the “Glo—–ri-a” in “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

One of my new favorite Christmas Carols is “Before the Marvel of This Night.” The image is so fresh and exciting. The setting of the song is the angels in heaven getting ready to go to earth to sing to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. They are as excited as can be about what they are getting ready to do. Here are the words:

Before the Marvel of this night,
adoring, fold your wings and bow,
then tear the sky apart with light
and with your news the world endow.
Proclaim the birth of Christ and peace,
that fear and death and sorrow cease:
Sing peace, sing peace, sing gift of peace,
sing peace, sing gift of peace!

Awake the sleeping world with song,
this is the day the Lord has made.
assemble here, celestial throng,
in royal splendor come arrayed.
Give earth a glimpse of heav’nly bliss,
a teasing taste of what they miss:
sing bliss, sing bliss, sing endless bliss,
sing bliss, sing endless bliss!

The love that we have always known,
our constant joy and endless light,
now to the loveless world be shown,
now break upon its deathly night.
Into one song compress the love
that rules our universe above:
sing love, sing love, sing God is love,
sing love, sing God is love!

© 1981 Jaroslav J. Vajda

It’s Christmas Eve today. Can’t you just imagine what it was like for the angels getting ready to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds? Don’t you wish you were there? Over the centuries since then, composers have written plenty of angel carols that describe the angels brightening the sky and singing “Glo——ri-a” but this is the first carol I’ve heard that captures the excitement the angels felt.

Hope you feel some of that excitement today as you sing or listen to your favorite Christmas carols.

Merry Christmas!

"Awake the sleeping world with song"

“Awake the sleeping world with song”

A Christmas Letter from Abbey

Abbey-Marian

This morning as I was sitting at my desk Abbey came over to me and sat down. “Mom,” she said. “I have a favor to ask.”

“What’s that?” I responded.

“Will you help me write a Christmas letter to send to all my friends? I don’t have fingers like you have, and it’s really hard for me to type.”

“I guess I can help you, Abbey, but why do you want to write a Christmas letter?”

Edith and Abbey sharing a special moment together on the couch.

Edith and Abbey sharing a special moment together on the couch a few years ago.

“I want to keep in touch with my friends. I have some really good friends that I don’t see very often any more, and I want to let them know I still think about them, that I miss them, and that I’m thankful that they have been part of my life. You know, sometimes we see people all the time, and we become really close. And then, something changes, and we don’t see them very much any more. Remember when Edith used to live with us? Margaret and Don and Holly, Cammi and Lizzy came to see us a lot during those four years. When Mary lived with us, we saw a lot of Laura and Steve and some other wonderful relatives. I really want to keep in touch with all these friends and many more. Sending them a Christmas letter is a good way to do it – that is if you will help me.”

Abbey Snowman and Tree 2“Okay, Abbey. I’ll help you. How should we do this?”

“I’ll dictate, and you type. You can be my secretary, Mom.”

“Okay. Dictate away…”

Dear Friends,

It’s here! Time to get ready for Christmas! On Thanksgiving I spent the morning going through my mom’s address book, thinking about each one of my friends, and thanking God for bringing each dog, person, and even cat friend into my life. On Friday, I jumped into the Christmas Spirit along with everyone else.I didn’t go out shopping, but I studied my favorite catalogs over and over again – the World Vision and Heifer International catalogs. I’d love to pick out ducks and chicks and rabbits and goats and even cows to give to people who need them, and buy these gifts in the names of each of my friends. But unfortunately, I’m mostly dreaming about it. My allowance doesn’t add up fast enough to be as generous as I’d like.

Christmas music is filling the house, and I love it. When my moms aren’t singing and playing the piano, the seasonal music channel on TV is on to be sure we don’t forget that Christmas is coming. Our Christmas tree isn’t up yet, but I heard my moms talking about when to decorate. AND they also talked about baking cookies! I can hardly wait for those smells to begin!

Abbey Profile 2As I look back over last year to bring you all up to date on my life, I think my biggest news is that my moms got married. That may not seem like a big deal to most of you, but to me, and to them, it’s important. Some of the other dogs in the neighborhood make fun of me for not having a real family. I know that’s not true. My family is just as real as their family, and it always has been. Now I can prove it. I can show my moms’ marriage certificate to the other dogs. I know it’s all about love, but it’s nice to have proof that our family is just as legal as theirs.

The other big news is that I am finally starting to look like an older dog. My hair is graying, and getting thinner, and I stumble sometimes when I walk. If I had only two legs, like some of you, I’d probably use a cane, but with four legs I do pretty well. Whenever I lay down, I move slowly so I don’t jar my hips too much. It hurts to get old, no matter what your species. But the good part of aging is making good use of all the wisdom I’ve learned from my life experiences. I try to act humbly, but I know I’m the wisest dog in the neighborhood.

Some of my wisdom comes from music, and thinking about the words of some beautiful songs. My mom got another new hymnal this year, and I discovered this song in it. I just love the images. It’s such a comforting song. That’s why I want to share it with you. It’s my Christmas present to you (along with perhaps a couple ducks given in your name to World Vision.) Merry Christmas!

IF I FLY AS BIRDS AT DAWNING

If I fly as birds at dawning, travel to the farthest sea,
You are there, my God, my Refuge, there to hold me lovingly.
In my time of desolation help me feel Your presence near.
Send a light amid the darkness, bringing hope to calm my fear.

In my mother’s womb You formed me, piece by piece with tender care.
Secretly You placed within me words of life for me to share.
God, Your thoughts for me are boundless, more than I can ever know.
They will comfort me forever. What a debt to You I owe!

Keep me faithful, full of wonder, as my days on earth unroll.
Walk beside me, and protect me from those who would wound my soul.
Search me, test my inmost being, Root out all my selfish ways.
Lead me on to life eternal. I will praise you all my days.

Words by Edith Sinclair Downing. ©2009 Wayne Leupold Editions, Inc.

Merry Christmas and Lots of Love and Joy!

Abbey

P.S.  On a somewhat lighter note, one of my God-given responsibilities as a canine is to be a guardian of comfort and joy. With that in mind, I also want to share another hymn. This is from my own hymnal, HOLIDAY HOUNDS by Laurie Loughlin, © 1996.

Thanks, Mom!

Thanks, Mom!

DOG, REST YE MERRY, GENTLE ONE

Dog, rest ye merry, gentle one,
And when you wake, we’ll play.
Then you can jump on all the guests
Who come for Christmas Day,
And save us all from feeling sad
If our thoughts go astray,
Oooh, guardian of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
Oooh, guardian of comfort and joy.

(Tune: “ God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”)