Miracle in a Dry Season    Dangerous Passage


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Christmas Wreath

The Advocate

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Favorite Christmas Traditions of
27 Top Authors

by C.J. Darlington

"I think it's an amazing thing that most of the world celebrates the Christmas story, that moment in history when God bundled up as a flesh and blood baby." --Jo Kadlecek

Everyone has them--those fun holiday traditions particular to you and your family. Some are silly, some are serious. Some were started when you were young, others were passed down from your parents or grandparents. But they all make Christmas special.

Here, in no particular order, are the traditions celebrated by 27 of your favorite authors!

Jerry B. JenkinsJerry B. Jenkins (Riven, Left Behind series): One of our family’s favorite things to do at Christmas is to set aside some funds for charitable contributions and let the kids decide to whom they should go. We started this when our three sons were little, and they were sworn to secrecy. How they loved dropping off envelopes of cash here and there after dark on Christmas Eve! They have kids of their own now, but the tradition continues. And if you’re wondering what triggered the idea, here’s the story…

RivenAfter Christmas many years ago, my two older brothers and I — all elementary school kids — played with our new toys until we were tired of them … three days or so. My mother brought an empty cardboard box into the dining room, sat us down, and told us of the kids at a local boys’ orphanage who each got a piece of fruit, a candy bar, a comb, and a cheap toy in a standard package.

“How about we give some of those guys a Christmas they won’t forget?” Mom said. “Let’s fill this box with toys that will make Christmas special. We’ll do what Jesus would do.”

One of my brothers had an idea. “With all my new stuff, I don’t need all my old stuff!”

He ran to get armloads of dingy, dilapidated toys, but when he returned, my mother’s look stopped him. “Is that what Jesus would do?”

He pursed his lips and shrugged. “You want us to give our new stuff?”

“It’s just a suggestion.”

“All of it?”

“I didn’t have in mind all of it. Just what you think.”

“I’ll give this car,” I said.

“If you don’t want that,” my brother said, “I’ll take it.”

“I’m not givin’ it to you; I’m givin’ it to the orphans.”

“I’m done with this bow and arrow set,” my other brother said.

“I’ll take that,” I chimed in.

“I’ll trade you these pens for that model.”

“No deal, but I’ll take the pens and the cap gun.”

We hardly noticed our mother leave the room. The box sat there, empty and glaring. We slipped away and played on the floor. But there was none of the usual laughing, arguing, roughhousing. Each played with his favorite toys with renewed vigor.

One by one we visited the kitchen. I found my mother at the table, her coat and hat and gloves on. Her face had that fighting tears look. No words were exchanged.

She wasn’t going to browbeat us into filling the box. Each of us returned to play quietly, as if in farewell to certain toys. And to selfishness.

A few minutes later, Mom came for the box. My eldest brother had put almost all his new toys in it. My next brother and I selected more carefully, but chose our best for the box.

My mother never reported on the reception of the orphans, and she was never asked.

Years of childhood remained, but childishness had been dealt a blow.

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Brandilyn Collins Brandilyn Collins (Dark Pursuit, Kanner Lake series): When I was a kid my Dark Pursuitfavorite Christmas tradition involved my father and his trombone. Every Christmas Eve I could hardly wait for Daddy to carry his trombone out to the porch into the cold December air. There he would play Christmas carols for about half an hour. The rich sounds of that trombone would carry far through the still evening. Neighbors would come out to their porches up and down the street. I could well imagine neighbors from the next street over doing the same, leaning their heads toward the melodic sound.

Daddy died four years ago at the age of 88. For the last few years of his life, stricken with Parkinson’s, he couldn’t play his trombone on Christmas Eve. Still, every December 24 night I picture him bundled up on the porch, playing his music to God. And to this day, in my mind I can hear the sound.

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Bill MyersBill Myers (The Voice, The Seeing): Christmas traditions? Pretty tough with a The Voicehouseful of teenage girls (unless you call keeping the boys away until after we’ve opened the presents a tradition). I do remember one tradition we had when the girls were younger. I snuck it into my novella, When the Last Leaf Falls. Here it is – the good, the bad, and the, well, you be the judge:

It had become obvious, even at the tender age of four, that my little girl had found her calling. And so began my life as a Dance Dad

Soon, everywhere I turned there were pink tights, black-and-white leotards, unbelievably expensive toe shoes, blistered feet, and the perpetual spinning and twirling as I tried to carry on a conversation with her.

Then there was the Nutcracker—year after year after year of . . . The Nutcracker. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the ballet, but how many performances can a man endure as his child moves up the ranks from playing gingerbread children, to mice, to party girls, to snowflakes, and on and on, and on some more. In fact, if it were not for portable cassette recorders, along with those little earbuds you can fit into your ear with nobody noticing, as well as books on tape, I doubt I could have made it.

Now, before you label me as totally insensitive, let me point out that the use of these devices not only enabled me to endure that particular ballet but to attend it with the same enthusiasm I had the first five or six times I’d seen it. The procedure was simple; lights go down, earbuds go in. When my daughter came on stage, I’d hit the pause button and give her my undivided attention. When she was through, I’d hit the play button and continue my listening pleasure. And since the auditorium was always dark, no one could possibly accuse me of being rude when their own little pride and joy twittered and frittered about the stage. On the contrary, I would continue to stare ahead and pretend to enjoy myself, which I actually was (more than they could imagine). A foolproof plan? I thought so. A win/win situation for all involved? It should have been.

Then came that fateful performance two years ago. That was the performance I had accidentally pulled the earbuds out of my recorder. Naturally I didn’t realize that was why I couldn’t hear the cassette, which would explain why I kept cranking up the volume louder and louder until eventually John Grisham’s latest legal thriller filled the entire auditorium . . . as a somewhat confused Sugar Plum Fairy spun herself into dizzy oblivion.

Needless to say that was the last of my book on tape days. It was also the last time my daughter would let me get near the auditorium without first giving me a careful body search.

Thus ended one of my favorite Christmas traditions. Have a great Christmas everyone!

© Bill Myers

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James Scott BellJames Scott Bell (Try Darkness, The Whole Truth): Since the kids were little, Try Darknesswe've started Christmas right after the Thanksgiving meal by watching a Christmas movie. That still holds. Our list rotates, but here are our favorites, with some comments:

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Of course. This is a true classic, as you find new things to appreciate in it every time. Frank Capra was at the height of his directorial powers here, and everything from the shot selection to the acting of even the minor roles is superb. Jimmy Stewart deserved his second Oscar for this, but happened to be up against another all time great performance: Frederic March in The Best Years of Our Lives. A side note: Wonderful Life was not available for many years. In film school at UCSB, I was able to get Frank Capra himself invited up, with his own print of the film, and introduced him and the movie to a packed house on campus. I also got to drive Capra to and from his hotel, and talk movies. Oh man, talk about wonderful!

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951). Alastair Sim's portrayal of Scrooge has never been topped. His exultation on Christmas Day, when he realizes he's still alive and has another chance, is one of the great moments in any film.

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947). This movie is, quite simply, irresistible. From little Natalie Wood to the Oscar winning Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, the magic unfolds every time. I also appreciate the solid presence of John Payne, an under appreciated leading man. Payne went on to make some good, gritty films in the 50's (the best is Kansas City Confidential) and he's extremely good in this role. Avoid all remakes.

A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). Another under appreciated actor in this one, Darren McGavin. He's terrific as the dad in support of the wonderful turn by Peter Billingsley. Who will ever forget the dad's pride in his "major award!" and the look on his wife's face as he holds it up.

ERNEST SAVES CHRISTMAS (1988). Yes! I mean it! I will not apologize for being a fan of the commercials of Ernest P. Worrel (Jim Varney). And this little film is as good hearted as Ernest himself (except when he's playing jokes on the longsuffering Vern.)

ELF (2003). This is a new one for us, but looks to have legs. Will Ferrell is the perfect innocent at large in New York. Gotta love the snowball fight.

Where is WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) you might ask? Well, it's just not one of our faves, even with Der Bingle singing his signature tune.

That's okay. I don't like egg nog, either. And Christmas is a time for gathering family around and creating your own traditions, according to taste.

Which reminds us all of the central message of Christmas: Taste and see that the Lord is good, for he was born unto us.

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Roxanne HenkeRoxanne Henke (On A Someday, Learning to Fly): I hope it doesn't sound overly-On A Somedaypious to say that my favorite Christmas tradition is attending church on Christmas Eve. It really is.

I live in small-town North Dakota and our winters are right out of Hollywood Central Casting: cold and snowy. To some it might seem as if our been-doing-this-every-year-forever little kids' Christmas pageant is clichéd and old-fashioned, but to me it wouldn't be Christmas if my family wasn't sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, scrunched into an over-crowded pew. The little kids up front are whispering and giggling in their bathrobe/shepherd's garb. Mary and Joseph are elbowing each other as the tinsel-haloed angels wave to their parents in the back of the church.

How can such a chaotic scene envelop me with such an over-whelming sense of every-thing-is-going-to-be-all-right-in-the-world? The wonder of that miraculous birth (and the fact that Jesus is still working and everything really is going to by okay) never fails to touch me. Each and every year.

Christmas Blessings...from my house to yours!

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Sibella GiorelloSibella Giorello (The Rivers Run Dry, The Stones Cry Out):
We have an advent The Stones Cry Out tradition that involves 24 Christmas books. Every year I wrap the books (which change year to year) in late November and put them under the tree. Starting December 1, and continuing through December 24, my kids get to pick one book to unwrap and read each day. Not only are we celebrating advent, but we sit together and read. It's also a great way to see Christmas through other writer's perspectives.

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Marilynn GriffithMarilynn Griffith (Rhythms of Grace, Shades of Style series): My favorite ChristmasRhythms of Grace tradition is passing the lighted candle at our Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion service. It makes me think of my grandmother, Goldie B. Freeman, who passed the torch to all the women in our family. The daughter of a runaway slave, my grandmother was the first black woman to graduate from her high school in 1927. We always celebrated as a family on Christmas Eve and opened family gifts after sharing dinner. I can still remember her wise eyes over the warm glow of the lava lamp. Merry Christmas!

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D. Barkley BriggsD. Barkley Briggs (The Book of Names): I grew up in a committed Christian home with The Book of Namesparents that felt a conviction against celebrating Christmas. I didn't always understand their reasons, but I did come to appreciate the unique liberty which comes from not doing something everyone else expects, almost demands, that you do. All too often, Christmas is intimately associated with many negatives---anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, debt, self-centeredness, competitiveness. The holidays bring this huge, unspoken pressure. For practical and theological reasons, my parents didn't want to play that game. They had come to the Lord during the Jesus Movement of the 70's. Our family ethos was streamlined and simple. The commercialism, the Santa Claus "lie" and pagan history of the holiday felt like an invasion of their newly acquired spiritual innocence. In hindsight, I understand their motivations more. But my adult parents had a framework for their decision. I was just a kid. The seduction of toys was hard to resist. I used to dread the inevitable questions back at school: "So, what did you get?" Umm, uhhh....

And yet, as strange as it seemed at the time---voluntarily absent from the third grade Christmas play, not having any "cool gift" stories, not having the twinkling lights strung on the porch---much of my parents' desire for simplicity has transferred to my adult experience. Even more sobering, I strongly doubt it would have transferred if I had been just one more kid with a toy celebrating the commercial Frankenstein monster we know as Christmas. As a result, most of my exposure to the ritual pleasures of the holiday has come later in life, with a mix of awkwardness and enthusiasm.

I don't have a tree chopping story, or rosy-cheeked family carols up and down the cul-de-sac, or dad reading aloud Luke chapter two. Yet, as a husband and father, as a storyteller, Christmas has become precious to me just the same. I feel like I've found a comfortable place, between the asceticism of my parent's view, and the wider notions of how Christmas should be celebrated, at least according to the world and, yes, even the church. As a grown man with my own children, I can immerse myself, guilt free. It's truly a thrilling time of year! I also find myself pausing, doing a gut-check. What is the real cost of the gifts we give?

My Christmas "happy place" is the simple, still unfolding satisfaction of seeing the greenery and lights wrap around the banister, of putting on old CDs of Russ Taff crooning, or Michael W. Smith, or David Lanz, with his stark, simple piano interpretations of the Christmas canon. I am drawn to the warmth and sentiment, and to the thrill of emulating my Heavenly Father, who gives gifts to His children. But in all of this, I don't try to make Christmas more than it is (or should be). Nor do I avoid letting it unwrap, like a gift, inside my heart. I still carry some of my parents' suspicions about the price tag of the holiday, beyond the dollars. Their emphasis on simplicity, in broad terms, has become my own.

I've tried (and am still trying) to go a step further. In a wonderfully, subversive way, Christmas is the ultimate time to get it right, to "unplug" from the hooplah, to pass on the rather radical notion of restraint, rather than extravagence; of connection above content; of low-key rather than high energy. Of others more than yourself.

Is there something to celebrate? Absolutely. Emmanuel, God-With-Us. Astounding! But how we choose to celebrate might say something about whether we really get it or not. The season should prompt reflection. How much of the birth of the Christ child have we actually internalized? God came to us in a stable---no, not on December 25, and no, not with three Wise Men waiting in the wings, and no, not without crying, as the hymn foolishly claims. He came in squalor, a King's son, with nothing to gain and everything to lose. He came in poverty. Why are we so focused on money? He came in hardship. Why are we so focused on comfort? He came to the powerless and the outcast. Why are we so focused on status and influence?

He came. To us.

I chuckle at all the battlecry to "Put Christ back into Christmas." On one level, surrounded by secularism, I support the sentiment. It has the right heart, and a pseudo-spiritual ring of truth. Yet, ironically, the slogan is built on a host of falsehoods. Far better, in my view, is to see the holiday for what it is and isn't, and thereby use it to put Christ back into life, and place our lives back into Christ. That's a harder task, to be sure, but once you start to unplug, it turns into joy. I'm a work in progress, here, but I know this: in this mindless, materialsitic age, drunk with consumption, only something as radical as the story of God...in Christ...in you, with the apron strings of the world freshly cut, has the ability to truly give peace on earth. At the time, I didn't realize, now I do: that is the Christmas gift my parents' gave me. And for that, I am thankful.

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Robin Jones GunnRobin Jones Gunn (Engaging Father Christmas, On A Whim): My favorite Engaging Father ChristmasChristmas tradition as a child was going to the candlelight service at church and sitting next to my grandma. She had a special winter coat that was red and had fur around the collar. I loved sitting next to her in that sacred place of candlelit wonder. I would slip my little hand into her smooth, cool hand and get nice and close so I could nestle my cheek into that pillow of luxurious, silver-gray fur. When it came time to stand with our lit candles in hand and sing "Silent Night" my grandma always sang in her native German. Her voice warbled when she hit the high notes and I believed, really truly believed, that she was one of the Christmas angels who sang to the shepherds so long ago.

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Melody Carlson Melody Carlson (Let Them Eat Fruitcake, All I Have to Give): Although I enjoy Let Them Eat Fruitcakemost of the typical trappings and trimmings associated with Christmas, I have learned a few things about traditions over the last thirty-plus years of marriage, children and now a granddaughter. Despite the pleasure I find in decorating, cooking, gifting . . . I have learned to keep it simple. This not only makes my family happier, but it keeps me sane. I have also learned that (for our family) “traditions” are best when they’re not written in stone, and that even the greatest holiday expectations can easily flop. In other words, I’ve learned (and am still learning) to be flexible. That’s because our family (like most) is constantly changing—and life doesn’t always go in a smooth straight line. As a result, the only real tradition I’ve been able to cling to over the years is that people come first. Sure, traditions like a perfectly roasted turkey, a beautifully trimmed tree, and carefully chosen gifts are delightful—but how do they reflect the original Christmas? Jesus was born into hardship and deprivation so that we could become part of God’s family. It seems the best and most lasting Christmas tradition is family and relationship and gathering together—enjoying love, peace and joy as we celebrate the One who originally brought us these precious gifts.

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Jo KadlecekJo Kadlecek (A Minute Before Friday, A Quarter After Tuesday): I think it's an A Minute Before Fridayamazing thing that most of the world celebrates the Christmas story, that moment in history when God bundled up as a flesh and blood baby. The story, of course, is true and has been at the heart of countless life stories ever since. It also affirms the power of story, and the reality that God loves story, which is why we humans do as well.

That said, each year for Christmas I love encountering three stories in particular: Luke's account of the Christ Child's birth helps me imagine the smells and tensions and sounds of that first Christmas, reminding me not only of the physical gifts I too often take for granted (like beds and rooms) but of the Almighty mercies which cover me daily. A second favorite story, read aloud by my husband, is a portion of Dicken's A Christmas Carol, which reminds that "Mankind is my business" and conversion is possible for anyone! The third takes me straight to Bedford Falls, a story whose title alone nudges me forward in the midst of challenging times: It's a Wonderful Life. And it's wonder-full stories that make Christmas new but richly familiar year after year.

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Liz Curtis HiggsLiz Curtis Higgs (Bad Girls of the Bible, Thorn In My Heart): Growing up in anThorn In My Heart historic small town in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I looked forward each year to celebrating Christmas Eve with my family in our beautiful, old church. The many hymns, some sung in German, were accompanied by an orchestra and a majestic pipe organ. Beeswax candles were distributed near the end of the service, as we prepared to stand for the final chorus of "Sing Hallelujah, Praise the Lord," holding our twinkling candles aloft. Even now, I get teary remembering the awe and wonder of it all. As the youngest of six, my candle never stretched as high as those of my brothers and sisters, but my heart soared nonetheless. We blew out our candles, pulled on our coats, and ventured out into the dark, cold night, often to find snow swirling through the air. Home was only blocks away, where hot chocolate and homemade cookies were waiting. Oh, such sweet memories!

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Jenny B. JonesJenny B. Jones (The Big Picture, In Between): Our only tradition really was to eat aThe Big Picture big breakfast with my entire family (cousins, aunt, etc) Christmas morning. We couldn't open presents until the adults were totally through with their meal--including a round or two of coffee, a drink you apparently must slurp as slowly as possible. I would watch their every sip, whining in sixty-second intervals about the injustice of it all. Then finally . . . finally when the coffee was gone, we tore into the gifts.

Now that I'm an adult, I see the perverse thrill of strategically stretching out the meal so the kids have to wait a small eternity. I have everything I need, so presents don't really thrill me anymore. Watching the new generation of little kids squirm and whine in agony is all the gift I require. Oh, that and family togetherness.

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Robin Shope Robin Shope (The Christmas Edition, The Valentine Edition): My favorite The Christmas EditionChristmas tradition is picking out Christmas ornaments. It’s a way of marking the years and remembering the past. I started with my two children when they were babies, so at that time I picked for them. However, when they were about two years old they were able to select their own special ornament. As they got older they told me the significance of that year’s ornament. My personal favorites that I choose are hand blown German ornaments made out of mercury glass. These days I look for vintage ornaments from the 40s and 50s because they catch the lights of the Christmas tree so well and add that special touch. My children usually went for the pretty Hallmark ornaments. Kimberly liked the ornaments that rotated. Matthew liked the Snowbabies. We have a very eclectic tree. Now Kimberly has her own home and tree so last year I took all her ornaments to her. Half her tree is filled. Now she can continue with the tradition and change it to suit her. I like passing my traditions to my children and watching as they tweak them to make it their own.

After Christmas, we take down our stockings. But before we put them away, everyone writes 3 ‘wishes’ for the new year and tucks them down into the toes of their stockings. The following year we read our last year’s wishes, before hanging them up. Its fun to see if any came true or if we have changed our minds about what we wished for last year.

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Amy Wallace Amy Wallace (Healing Promises, Ransomed Dreams): Wow, there are so many! Healing PromisesAdvent calendars and wreaths, baking cookies and dancing to Christmas music… I really could go on for a very long time. But if I have to pick one, it’d be a tradition that began long before I was born.

Every year my mom bought an ornament for each of the kids that had a story to go along with it. Sometimes the ornaments reflected a special occurrence during the year or a place we visited. This was so special to my mom that I was twenty-one before she was willing to relinquish my ornaments. Ever since then I’ve collected a new ornament each year. Now my kids think it’s funny to have ornaments older than they are on the tree. But they love this tradition too.

We’ve commemorated the year they prayed to receive Jesus with an adorable teddy bear holding a book that says Tell Me the Story of Jesus. There are ballet slippers for recital years and even a knitting S’mores ornament for my oldest who’s a major knitter and another one for the year she wrote her first book. My youngest, ever the princess, has a shoe carousel ornament she picked out herself and a princess crown ornament with her smiling princess picture. And not to be left out is our middle daughter who loves sparkly sand dollar ornaments—this year’s sand dollar from our trip to DC has an American flag and firework sparkles.

Our tree may not be the theme tree with elegant ornaments and ribbons that I sometimes dream about. It’s far more precious. It tells the story of our lives. And our eclectic, ornament-filled tree provides a beautiful place to sit and remember and dream about what next year will hold.

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Ann GabhartAnn Gabhart (The Outsider, Summer of Joy): Christmas Eve when Christmas isThe Outsider shimmering on the brink, ready to spill over with its joy is my favorite time at Christmas. When I was a child, we went to my aunt’s house on Christmas Eve for dinner before opening the presents stacked under the cedar tree she’d brought in from the field to decorate. Every year she fixed the same traditional foods – turkey and dressing, fruitcake and punch. Maybe because I loved the punch so much or maybe because I was the baby of the family and she spoiled me, the making of the punch became my Christmas Eve privilege. Whatever the reason, as soon as I was old enough to stir and pour, I got to make the punch in the big cut-glass bowl with matching glass cups that hung down from the edge of the bowl on plastic hooks in between Christmases. Her punch recipe was basic – a can of frozen orange juice, a can of pineapple juice and a can of grapefruit juice. A few spoons of sugar softened the bite of the grapefruit juice. Then right before we sat down to eat, I added Ginger Ale and spooned in big globs of orange sherbet. After the meal, everybody else drank the punch with their fruitcake, but I preferred cornsticks warm from the oven with mine.

My aunt’s been gone these many years, but we still have orange sherbet punch spiked with fizzy cola on Christmas Eve. Some of the younger generation have plopped in the orange sherbet on occasion, but no one has wanted to take the spoon out of my hand. And so I continue each year to stir the juices together in the same punch bowl of old while the talk and laughter of my mother, my sisters and our husbands, our children and grandchildren circle around me like a hug. Then as I sip the orange sweetness out of the sparkling glass cup, the loving memory of those who are no longer there to gather with us fills my heart. A tear of past sadness mixed with the present joy. Family sharing Christmas – that is surely the tradition that matters most to me.

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Melanie Wells Melanie Wells (My Soul to Keep, When the Day of Evil Comes): December is the My Soul to Keepbusiest month of a session musician’s year. From the time I was 13 or 14, I spent December playing paid Christmas gigs, along with my parents and brother. After a full day of work or school, evenings were a whirlwind of every-man-for-himself supper, grabbing your instrument (or in my dad’s case, a baton or a gig bag full of drumsticks), and goosing it out the door to make it to a rehearsal, the four of us often going in different directions. For performances, add the step of changing into formal black – my dad and brother in tuxes and my mom and I in long black dresses - and then heading out into the cold to play in yet another Christmas program at yet another church with uncomfortable chairs. Sometimes three or four in a day. This was our family Christmas routine.

By the end of the month, we were bitter. I admit it. One more verse of Deck the Halls and you wanted to snatch someone bald. Don’t even get me started on Handel’s Messiah. Sacrilege, I know.

After the First Baptist gig – always the last of the season – it was supper at my grandmother’s house, presents around her unbelievably tacky Christmas tree, and then we were off to a friend’s house, who threw the same party every Christmas Eve for 20 years.

Fudge was involved. Lots of fudge. And lots of alcohol, though not for me. To this day, I associate the smell of good bourbon with Christmas Eve. And, of course, everyone at the party had played at least one gig that day, so we all had our instruments with us. Eventually, the instruments would come out and we’d all play and sing – riotous, irreverent fun. Home at 2 a.m. Leave Santa a bottle of Scotch (I never knew about the cookies and carrots until I went to college. I thought we were normal). And up late Christmas morning for presents and a day at home with my dad’s chili, Fritos, a half-dozen or so drop-by musician friends, and NO obligations. Heaven.

My fiddle’s under the bed now, the party gone, and most of our friends scattered to other cities and other gigs. My grandmother is in heaven eating fried chicken with Elvis. And of course, Christmas for me now is about Jesus. But those were good days. Days I wouldn’t give back for all the tasteful, spice-scented, candle-lit, holly-trimmed Chistmases in the world.

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Jennifer Erin ValentJennifer Erin Valent (Fireflies in December): In my family, we've always openedFireflies in December one gift on Christmas Eve. It was sort of the appetizer to Christmas morning. When I was growing up, my Christmas Eve gift was usually some new pajamas or some other bedtime gift. One of my favorites was a memory book my mother had filled out about her life. I spent that Christmas Eve in bed reading about my mother's past, present, and what she hoped for in the future. We still celebrate our Christmas Eve in the same fashion, and it's a peaceful way to ease into the busyness of Christmas morning.

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Susan MeissnerSusan Meissner (The Shape of Mercy, Blue Heart Blessed):
The last few yearsThe Shape of Mercy my family - which includes my husband of 28 years and our four young adult children - has decided to push aside the traditional ham and turkey to embrace instead an Italian-only menu. We adore Italian food, the Italian flag is red and green (so Christmasy!) and with four Giada De Laurentiis cookbooks at the ready, it will be years before I run into repeats. The first year we did this we had chicken cacciatore (the capers look like little green Christmas ornaments!) garlic smashed potatoes, bruschetta and panettone bread pudding. Another year we had fiery angel hair pasta with chili-infused olive oil and wicked hot chocolate mousse for dessert. For awhile there our Christmas dinner was rather predictable. Unremarkable. Not anymore! Christmas should be anything but boring. We love this new tradition. Buon Natale!

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Patti Lacy Patti Lacy (An Irishwoman’s Tale):
When snowflakes glitter the gray Midwest An Irishwoman's Talewinter air, my husband creaks his way to the basement, digs through bins and moving boxes, and extracts a precious Lacy keepsake.

Decades ago, my two children would shove and push and argue over who could carry the wooden crate upstairs. But now that rocking horses and dolls and balls and trains have vacated the blue and pink bedrooms, it’s often just my husband and me who pull off tape and dig through straw, old newspaper, and packing material.

The stable comes out first and is carefully placed on the living room table. Sometimes bells ring or guitars strum from the nearby DVD player, but more likely a somber, silent house ushers in the unwrapping sacred symbol of the Prince of Peace.

More rustles and rattles of paper bring Mary and Joseph to the stage, and the parents of the Holy One find their place on the stable’s wooden floor. Sometimes my husband and I discuss our decision to purchase this imported manger set during those years when there was never enough money. It is one of the good financial decisions we have made.

Soon proud camels and bejeweled wise men join the humble gathering. Shepherds find their way to the stable as well, along with a few of their flock. We dig deeper in the box to find angels, which are hung on nails my husband hammered into the manger loft. Long ago, we concluded that our angels needed to fly, or at least give the appearance of doing so.

We try to save the most important figure for last, and it is not hard, because this smallest, best wrapped figure often gets mixed up with the wads of old newspaper, the hunks of bubble packing. Mixed up with the stuff of the world, as so often happens to Jesus and His special season.

By now my heart is humming with worry and anticipation. Did we lose Him last year? Somehow toss Him out in the packing process? Have we not done that to Him innumerable times over the past three hundred and sixty five days?

Careful searching reveals a lumpy package. Careful searching always does lead back to the Christ Child, doesn’t it?

We place Jesus in his manger and center Him in the stable. As all the figures are turned to adore Him, our hearts cry out in thanks, in brokenness, in joy that despite the worries of this world, despite the fears of what the next year will bring, “Unto us a Child is born. And He shall be—He /is /the Savior of the World.”

Christmas Bells

Mike DellossoMike Dellosso (The Hunted, Scream): Every year, on the Saturday after The HuntedThanksgiving, we do "Christmas Decorating Day" with the kids. In the morning, we pile into the minivan (that glorious all-purpose vehicle I promised myself I would never own but now find . . . well, glorious), drive to a local tree farm, hike into the hinterland (well, up a hill), find the perfect tree we all agree on, and put my lumberjack skills to the test.

Back at the homestead, we put some of our favorite Christmas CD's in the player, secure the tree in it's stand in our living room, and Momma strings the lights. After digging the ornaments and decorations out of the attic, all five of us go to task beautifying the tree with glass balls, snowflakes, Sunday school crafts, and even a pickle.

By the time the tree is properly dressed it's usually around dinner time. We order dinner to go, this year it was chicken cheese steaks and pizza, and spend the evening eating and watching a Christmas movie (this year it was A Christmas Story--"You'll shoot your eye out, kid").

It's a day of decorating and Christmas memories, and I wouldn't give it up for all the figgy pudding in the world.

Christmas Bells

Stan TolerStan Toler (Rethink Your Life):
When my sons were very young, I started takingRethink Your Life them to visit shut-ins on Christmas Eve. We would always take peanut brittle, a red poinsettia and a gift.

Once we were in the car, I would carefully explain to them that they would be giving and not receiving gifts at the homes we visited. I felt it was important for them to be involved in compassionate concerns and to discover the joy of giving to those less fortunate.When we were ready to depart, we always sang “Joy to the World” and offered a Christmas blessing. The boys sang at the top of their lungs even if they forgot a few words to the song. The people always enjoyed their singing.Through this tradition my sons have discovered that it is more blessed to give than to receive. It is now my goal to pass this important family tradition to my first grandson.

Christmas Bells

Donita K. PaulDonita K. Paul (Dragonkeeper Chronicles):
When my children were young, we got Dragonlightout all our Santa Claus decorations the day after Thanksgiving. I homeschooled, so we made Santa art, studied the traditions in many different countries. Back then we made trips to the library, but now you can research online. I told them that they could grow up to be someone’s Santa if they learned how to give with a cheerful heart and not to expect a reward for giving. On December the fifth, we hung stockings, and in the morning they were filled in honor of St Nicholas Day, Dec. the sixth. For that whole day, the children couldn’t get me to say that Santa was make-believe, although we had discussed the real St. Nicholas and what parents did in each country. The next day we put every bit of the Santa trappings away and got out our “Baby Jesus” decorations. From then on we celebrated Christ’s birth. Took down the tree on new year’s day, and then had Epiphany on January 6th, which is the remembrance of the arrival of the wise men. We had a lot of fun. And my children never resented that we didn’t do the Santa thing on Christmas Eve. I think they felt sorry for the kids who had to wait.

Christmas Bells

Tina Ann Forkner Tina Ann Forkner (Ruby Among Us):
I still remember hanging ornaments on the tree Ruby Among Uswhen I was a child. As my mom would remove each ornament carefully from its wrapping, place a hook on it, and hand it to me and my siblings, she would tell us its story.

“This one,” she would say, “was my mother’s. She gave it to me when your daddy and I first got married.”

One of my favorite ornaments was a small white teddy bear with a red vest. “This one,” she would say, with a sentimental smile, “is one I gave to you when you were a baby. See?”

I still have that ornament today and my lovely daughter and sweet stepsons like to take turns hanging it on the tree as I tell them the story of how it came to be nestled in our family’s Christmas ornament box.

Since we are what people call a blended family, our Christmas ornaments have become a way to share memories together with each passing year. We turn on Christmas carols, open up the boxes and hang our ornaments on the branches one by one.

“This one,” I like to say, very aware that I sound like my own mom as the children hang on my next words, “is an ornament your daddy and I bought when we all first became a family.”

Christmas Bells

Lauraine SnellingLauraine Snelling (Red River Series, One Perfect Day):
I’m beginning to One Perfect Day understand that one can have traditions for Christmas that change with the years. When the children are small presents and Santa and the Christmas program are front and center. One tradition, that of making Christmas presents for family and sometimes friends, grew with them. We have ornaments for the tree made through the years, decorations that are showing their age but still precious. I have four folded paper stars that I made when I was in Brownies and dipped in wax with glitter added. They come to me from my mother’s boxes of tree ornaments. Such memories. There are the clothespin painted soldiers Brian made one year and angels of a half circle, sprayed bronze with a cotton ball for the head. For several high school years the boys made wreaths from fir branches and sold them, while sending ones to relatives too. Ah, those were lovely and smelled so good. Those were indeed the making years.

Baking: each of us had special cookies we liked the best, including the Norwegian fattigman, sandbakles, and krumkaka. Brian always did rice crispy cookies, Marie a no bake chocolate oatmeal and Kevin liked to eat the sandbakles, buttery dough baked in fluted tins, but not form them. That was mine and Marie’s job. It takes nimble fingers and plenty of patience. I made Julekaka, Christmas bread filled with candied fruits, for neighbors and friends, and especially school teachers who loved having our children in their classes for the goodies at least.

When we went to Grandma’s for Christmas, she served the traditional Norwegian lutefisk and lefse along with meatballs and gravy. Grandma loved Christmas, the tree, the decorations in her house, so many made by her sisters and sisters-in-law. She and I cried together through the service, tears for the beauty that cannot be described with mere words.

Ah, the memories.

But now the children are grown, middle aged in fact, and what are our new traditions? Christmas letters and cards are one of my favorites. I love hearing from friends and family near and far. The Christmas Eve service for another. Although I prefer the midnight one, our congregation has an early evening celebration. The music, the wonder, the candles and tree, the hugs and greetings are still there. “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and the lighting of the hand held candles so the light passes down the aisles and reminds me that He is the light and He never changes. Come, let us worship. Let us sing praises, sing carols that have been sung for so many years, hear the words, live in the promise that Christ is the light of the world and He is coming back for his children. Oh, come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord. May each of us receive all the joy and blessings of Christmas, 2008.

Christmas Bells

Nicole BaartNicole Baart (Summer Snow, After the Leaves Fall):
My husband and I celebrated Summer Snow our ten-year anniversary this year, and in the span of one short decade I am astounded by how varied and transitory our traditions have been. Since our first year of dating, Christmas has usually involved some form of travel--to Vancouver, British Columbia when we lived in Iowa, and back to Iowa when we made our home in BC. Twice we’ve spent Christmas Day in an airport. And rarely do our holiday parties and get-togethers fall on December 25. None of it seemed to matter much to me.

However, now that we have children of our own (two boys, ages 5 and 2), traditions have taken on an entirely different meaning. Suddenly I long for some stability in the season, something to look forward to with the anticipation of a beloved memory that I know in some small way will repeat itself. I wouldn’t necessarily call these tidbits traditions yet, but they are on their way to becoming staples in the Baart home. A few things we look forward to every Christmas are: cutting down the family Christmas tree, making peanut-butter blossom cookies, drinking cocoa by candlelight, and (when the boys are in bed) enjoying a fine bottle of wine by the tree as we recap the year gone by.

But my favorite, and most recent, holiday tradition is singing Christmas carols with my boys. I just tucked them in bed with a refrain of “Away in a Manger,” grinning all the while as my littlest one blessed us all with his very enthusiastic actions. Then as I bent to give them one last goodnight kiss, my oldest said, “Mom, I love Jesus.” He’s said it before, but for some reason with the snow falling softly outside and the holiday just around the corner, I felt like I was hearing him say those words for the very first time. Not only did he melt my heart, he thrust everything back into perspective the way that only a child can do. Forget the presents, the twinkling lights, the sugar cookies… I hope the innocence of his heartfelt declaration is something we are able to rekindle year after year after year.

Christmas Bells

Don BrownDon Brown (Black Sea Affair, Treason):
Christmas in the Carolinas is before the Black Sea Affairfirst snow of the year, or long after it, depending on how you count the calendar.

Other than in the Appalachian Mountains, most of North Carolina gets the white stuff maybe twice a year, if we’re lucky, and that’s usually between mid January and mid March.

So the concept of a “White Christmas,” is reserved for our beloved brethren in the “Great White North,” in places like Ann Arbor, where my dear friends like Sue Brower of Zondervan live, or the beautiful city of Newport RI, where I was twice stationed when I was a naval officer and once got three feet of snow at Thanksgiving!

But that doesn’t mean that a wintry bite isn’t in the air in the Tar Heel State at the Yule Tide Season.

After all, the words, “in Dixieland where I was born, way down on a frosty morn….” were not just written for no reason. Anybody else get choked up just thinking about those words?

Back to Christmas.

And so it is against a chilly wintry backdrop, with grey skies and the smell of burning leaves still in the air that my happiest Christmas memories lie, growing up in my small hometown of Plymouth, North Carolina, about sixty miles by flight of the crow from the spot where Wilbur Wright gave birth to the world’s first flight at Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks.

My hometown of 3500 people in a county of 13000 was remote from urban life. It still is. Tobacco farms just to our west and the large paper mill on the Roanoke River at the town’s edge, which harvested loblolly pine trees growing in the sapling forests all about, were the twin lifelines of the local economy.

One of my grandfathers was a tobacco farmer, and the other was a millworker. And I was so lucky to have two sets of grandparents within ten miles of one another.

For my two younger sisters and I, all this meant that we got to celebrate Christmas three times in a twenty-four period! Talk about luck in rural America!

The ritual started like this. First, on Christmas Eve, we would all have dinner and then gather around the tree at My Granddaddy Hardison’s small, shingle-covered white house in Plymouth, where we would open presents that had been sitting there, under the tree, wrapped for at least two weeks.

Talk about a fortnight of torture for a ten year old kid, wondering if that big red box was really that “Battlewagon” toy ship that I had spied in the” A&P” grocery store and pointed out to my granddaddy up above the fruit counter!
Turned out, it was the battlewagon, BB 55, complete with five spring-loaded stopper guns positioned in the place of the sixteen inch cannons on a real battleship. Worked great for “firing” at my sisters, who were ages eight and six at the time! Hah! I suppose that this and many other toy ships I used to play started my interest in the Navy years later.

The moral of the story …. You parents be wary about the toys you buy for your boys! You never know what you might create!

Then after opening presents at Granddaddy Hardison’s, just before midnight, it was off to a candlelight service at the First Christian Church, which included singing carols, then a sermonette, then hearing Nyal Watson nearly break the stained-glass windows when she hit the phrase “Oh niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight, diviiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine!!!!”…. you know, from Oh Holy Night.

Boy would she hold that phrase about five minutes, it seemed, way up on a double high C, or whatever the note was! My ears are still ringing after all these years just thinking about it! Wow could Nyal get on up there!
Nyal (pronounced like the river where Moses once floated) was the choir director and the star of Plymouth, in that she had once sung at Carnegie Hall in New York before returning to Plymouth to work at the drug store, which was owned and run by her daddy Nyal “Doc” Womble, a Plymouth legend in his own right. “Nyal” was named after her daddy, and I suppose that name Nyal can work either for a boy or a girl. Anyway, everybody in Plymouth was, and still is a “Nyal Watson” fan. She did Plymouth proud!

After Oh Holy Night, “we would then close the service by singing “Joy to the World,” as the midnight bells wrung in Christmas day. At this point, we kids knew that we were getting close!

And of course we kids were anxious to get home, so we rushed to the church parking lot to pile in the back of the 1966 white Impala that we had, because according to the “official party line,” the sooner we “went to sleep,” the sooner Santa would come.

Christmas mornings always seemed to be cold and sunny in Plymouth, and we three kids were up running around before anyone else, as we explored Santa’s doings from the previous evening. The “milk and cookies” for Santa that we had carefully left were always gone, which immediately enhanced the magic of the moment even before we tore into our presents.

I suppose, in a way, it was under the Christmas tree one Christmas morn that I learned the art of cross examination, which in a way was sort of the birth of what would later become my legal avocation. It started with my mother.

“Mom, did Santa Clause really bring all this?”

“ Of course, Don Mitchell!” She called me, and still calls me Don Mitchell.

“And we got all that stuff from Grandmamma and Granddaddy Hardison last night?”

“ Yes,” she said.

“ And we’re going to get presents from Grandmamma and Granddaddy Brown this afternoon?”

“ Yes,” she said. “If you’re good.”

“ Well I just thought of something,” I mused, fiddling with my chin at this point. “Granddaddy Hardison and Granddaddy Brown and Santa Clause gave us something for Christmas. Why didn’t you and Daddy give us anything?”

“ Uh … uh…

“ I don’t understand,” I pressed. “Don’t you love us?”

“ Uh… uh…” She looked over at my daddy, who was offering no help, but only grinning. “Well,” she stammered, “well we had to pay Santa Clause.”

“ Pay Santa Clause? That doesn’t make sense. I thought Santa Clause brought stuff for free if you were good.”

“Go get your daddy to help you with your electric train.”

“ Oh, ok…” That answer did not compute. But the electric train diverted my train of thought!

After Santa Clause did his thing, whether he was “paid” or not, on Christmas afternoon, we always trekked down to my Granddaddy Brown’s house in Jamesville, a small tobacco town eight miles down Highway 64, and even smaller than Plymouth. Can you say 500 residents? That was and still is Jamesville.

Here are the names of Jamesville that are still within my soul. Cousin “Pinkie” Manning, a tobacco famer just down the road in the “Farm Life” Community. Cousin Eva Gray Askew. Woodrow Wells, the longtime tenant farmer on my granddaddy’s farm and his sweet wife Dorothy. Cousin “Duck,” a sweet lady who was my grandmamma’s first cousin and who was cousin “Pinkie’s” sister. That’s right, a girl named “Duck!”

Then there was ole “Skillet” Long, who, donned in his “Red Camel” blue overalls, would simply drive by my granddaddy’s house in his pickup twice a day, even on Christmas day, and throw a wave at my Granddaddy, who was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch smoking a cheap cigar. Isn’t it oxymoronic, in retrospect, that overalls called “Red” Camel would actually be blue in color? Anyway, Skillet’s wave would be reciprocated through a cloud of white cigar smoke. I have to stop this litany now before I get choked up. I feel it coming.

Oh, I forgot, Cousin “Junie” Peele, a lawyer down Williamston way who could sell ice to an Eskimo, and who later became “Judge” Peele! Like Nyal had been the “Star” of Plymouth, Cousin Junie had been the star of Williamston and Jamesville, in part because he had married the gorgeous, “Miss Lucia,” who, rumor had it, had once been “Miss Georgia,” and who at the time had her own TV show on Channel 7 over in “Little Washington,” a town about thirty miles away.

Cousin Junie’s brother, Cousin “Billy Bob,” another lawyer from over Williamston way, was just about as good at the art of southern persuasion as Junie himself. The Lord is my witness. I’m not lying about these names!

Oh, I forgot to mention that my granddaddy Brown, in addition to being a tobacco famer, also was a rural mail carrier. He used to carry the mail to the “Perry Boys,” Jim and Gaylord, who used to throw ball in the front yard of their Daddy Evan Perry’s farm, before they went to the big leagues, where Gaylord went on to win the Cy Young in both leagues.

Jamesville boys, they were, though they sometimes claim the county seat of Williamston as their hometown, because Jamesville’s so small nobody ever heard of it. I became a baseball fan, and was delighted when my granddaddy took me to actually meet Gaylord in person one day after he retired. I later found out that Gaylord’s sister Carolyn lived in my neighborhood in Plymouth! Had to pinch myself. I still pull for the Padres even after all these years, where I later lived in San Diego and because that’s where Gaylord won the National League Cy Young. For me, it was the perfect baseball storm. Forever a frustrated Pads fan!

Back to Christmas.

I loved Jamesville then and still love it now. There, on Christmas afternoon, I’d get with all my cousins who had come down from the “big city” of Raleigh … do I sound like Andy Griffith yet? …. Which was 110 miles to the west. There were ten of us cousins in all, all relatively close in age, and we had a blast. And that afternoon, in a sea of colorful wrapping paper as we all opened packages, we went back for third and fourth helpings of Grandmamma Brown’s pecan pie. My cousin Walt always seemed to be able to eat one more piece than I could eat, which bugged me a little bit, because I was six months older and slightly bigger at the time.


Time changed it all.




Loved ones scattered to the wind.

But time cannot change golden memories of family. And for me, the memory of Christmas as a boy is the memory of a family together. And that will never change.

The memories still live. Christmas endures. Hope abounds, and the Savior who started it all shall never die!

Christmas Bells

C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.