The Big Cheese

As I prepare for Christmas this year, I’ve realized that my children are now just old enough to begin creating Christmas memories that they’ll actually remember.  I think my earliest Christmas memory was of a cardboard Christmas tree, more like a Christmas cone with blue sparkles on it and holes punched in it.  When you plugged in the light underneath, the heat made it spin around.  It was mesmerizing and I remember thinking, “something very different is going on here. People are lighting up cardboard cones and dragging big trees into the house.” But  I caught on very fast once they started putting presents under that tree!  And over the years I found all sorts of things under those trees, a tricycle, a doll, a lot of socks.  But my favorite gift came when I was about sixteen.  I don’t know about you, but it was my mother who picked out and wrapped the presents for me and my sisters.  The card always said with love from Mommy and Daddy but my father was usually just as surprised as I was on Christmas morning to see what he had given me.

It got to be sort of a joke after awhile.  And when I became a teen-ager, I didn’t even expect that my mother, let alone my father, would have any clue what I wanted or was interested in.  Once, when I was fourteen, I had to go with my dad to a Christmas party where I didn’t know anybody and the closest person to my age was really old, like fifty.  After I had endured about half an hour of being told how much I’d grown, I wandered over to the buffet and pretended to be fascinated by the hors d’oeuvres.   In fact, I actually discovered some little pieces of cheese that tasted really, really good and I asked the hostess what it was.  And she said it was an imported cheese from Holland called Edam.  Well, I really liked that cheese.  Until then, I’d had no idea there was any other kind of cheese in the world besides cottage, cheddar, and Velveeta.  But I knew my chances of having any more very soon were pretty small, because imported cheeses were definitely not in our family’s budget.  And I figured with some typical teen-age resentment that this was just another example that I was doomed to a life of predictability and processed foods and parents who, of course, could never possibly understand  my teenage angst or the great, imported thoughts I was thinking on a daily basis. 

Christmas morning came, and I opened the sweater and the Avon skincare set and the subscription to the kid’s magazine that I had outgrown two years earlier.  And then I saw one more box under the tree.  And the tag read “To my not-so-little girl.  Merry Christmas.  Love, Daddy.”  It wasn’t very big and…it was…cold.  I opened it up.  It was a little wheel of Edam cheese.  I’ve  received a lot of Christmas presents since then.  And I’m pretty sure they all lasted longer than that cheese did.  But the memory of my dad’s wink and smile when I opened that package will last forever.  And I’ll never forget the lesson I learned that teen-age Christmas – a lesson about parents, about friends, and even about God.  You’re only as distant from someone you love as you decide to be. 

See you soon.

Carol Of Good King Wenceslas

What’s your favorite Christmas carol?  Silent Night?  Angels We Have Heard on High?  Joy to The World?  Those are probably the most popular and the ones we know the best.  But this wonderful little book, Come Let Us Adore Him, by Robert J. Morgan, has introduced me to some beautiful, lesser-known carols.  And it shares the stories behind them.  I was particularly surprised to read that there really HAD been a Good King Wenceslas and that he actually was GOOD!  All I ever knew were the first two lines – Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen where the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.  After that I would always sort of drift off with no clue what the rest of the lyrics were.  I’m apparently not alone, since I hardly EVER hear anyone call out that particular one when carolers are taking requests.

But according to Robert Morgan, King Wenceslas, born in Bohemia in the early 900’s, was a man worth remembering.  And if it weren’t for this carol, written in his honor  900 years later, few people outside of what is now the Czech Republic would know his name. A minister named John Mason Neale was inspired by stories of Wenceslas frequently venturing out into the cold to deliver food and wood to starving peasants. Neale wrote a poem that epitomized the kindness and concern that this King had for the poor.  The words of this carol, lyrics I had never heard before, not only describe the heart of a good man, but teach us a heart-warming lesson about humility.  Listen:

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen when the snow lay round about deep and crisp and even.  Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel, when a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.  “Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling.  Yonder peasant, who is he?  Where and what his dwelling?”  “Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”  “Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither.  You and I will see him dine when we bear them thither.”  Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together, through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.  “Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger, fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer.”  “Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly, You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”  In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted, heat was in the the very sod which the saint had printed.  Therefore, Christian fold, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, you who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.” 

Well, the miracle of the warm footsteps left by the King for the page to follow is a wonderful image for us all.  A King humbles himself, carrying wood on his back, making the long journey to the top of a hill to save the weak and the lost.   Those are certainly footsteps worth following.  And have you noticed, blessings always seem to await those who make that sort of journey.  May you find warm footsteps to follow this Christmas and may the carols you hear warm your heart this season as well.  See you soon.

The ones we miss at Christmas by Martha Williamson

The Ones We Miss At Christmas

The ones we miss at Christmas by Martha WilliamsonBy this time in my life, Christmas has moved from completely magical to a little bittersweet.  Putting aside for just a moment, the true joy of the season, the message of God’s love and his promise-fulfilling gift of a Messiah, the actual Christmas season can be a hard time when you are missing the very ones you used to share this magical time with.  I love sharing Christmas traditions with my husband and children, lighting the advent candles, playing our favorite Christmas albums, decorating the tree, and wrapping presents by a cozy fire.  But these were all the things I learned to do as a child myself with parents who are no longer here. 

For every Christmas carol I sing, I have a Christmas memory to go with it. My mom waltzing to Winter Wonderland, my dad leading carolers through hospital corridors on Christmas Eve singing “Silent Night.”   I see them in the forest of Christmas Trees as we walk through the lot, searching for the perfect Noble Fir. I  see them sitting at a dining room table covered with Christmas cards, Mama addressing and Daddy stuffing, sealing, and putting on the stamps. 

Every once in a while, I’ll find myself tearing up, and then I’ll stop myself and say, “This is Christmas, Martha.  You can’t cry at Christmas. This is a time to remember that all the blessings we have been given and that when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we also celebrate all that he came to bring, including the promise that we will all be together again someday with those we love and have gone before.  But let’s face it, someday isn’t now.  And right now, it hurts, doesn’t it?

Today I am thinking about all those folks who are separated this Christmas from the people they love, either by death or war, by prison or estrangement, or separated simply by miles. The ones who are afraid that if the feelings are allowed out of our hearts, we might just fall apart all together.  But maybe it’s not a bad idea to go ahead, and cry.  To go away somewhere and allow ourselves to feel the pain, let our hearts break a little, and get it all out. When we keep trying to keep the painful things that Christmas can make us feel all locked up INSIDE our hearts, then it works the other way, too:  none of the joy that’s waiting for us can get in from the other side.

So, think about it. Make room in your heart for hope and change and peace. Have yourself a good cry if you need too. And then have yourself a merry little Christmas. 

Martha Williamson wished everyone Peace on Earth

Peace on Earth

Martha Williamson wished everyone Peace on EarthAs usual, a lot will be said this Christmas season about peace on earth.  There will be a lot of discussion on news channels and talk shows and websites about peace and what it means and how to achieve it. And I’m afraid, there will always be those cynics who will use the absence of peace on earth to support their point that God doesn’t exist, and that religion is self-deluding and even dangerous .  

I always find it so interesting that the ones who point and laugh get such pleasure out of mocking and deriding those who celebrate and believe in the message of Christmas.  But  hardly ever see believers mocking them.  I usually just see sadness. How sad it is to see hate and anger where love and peace could be.  There have always been wars and tragedy and never a real peace on this earth.  But for Christians everywhere the birth of one child gives every soul the chance to bring peace to his or her heart.  No words can say it better than the verses from this Christmas carol that are hardly ever sung anymore. They were written by a man struggling to deal with another war at another time.  A man just as real as us, just as saddened by hatred, and just as convinced that the true and lasting peace to be found cannot be laughed or talked or reasoned away.

I heard the bells on Christmas day, their old familiar carols play and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, goodwill to men.  And in despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.  Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead nor doth he sleep.  The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.   May the peace of God that passes all understanding be with you now at this Christmas season and always.


Oh Holy Night - A story about a very special Christmas Carol

Oh Holy Night – Part 2

Oh Holy Night - A story about a very special Christmas CarolWhen I was sixteen, I was finally allowed to spend Christmas Eve the way I had always wanted to.  With my parents.  You see, every year on Christmas Eve, I stayed home with a babysitter while my parents were out doing something that I will always be proud of. 

For thirty years, long before I was born and long after I had moved away, my parents were part of a very unique choir – a choir that sang only one night a year.  It was called the Frank Farmer Octet and it consisted of local Denver soloists who gave up their Christmas Eve each year to carol in the halls of all the Denver hospitals. 

Hospitals don’t like to keep people there over the holidays, and only the very sick are there on Christmas Eve.  Year after year, my parents were part of a beautiful and beloved Denver tradition that brought comfort to hundreds of the sick and dying and their families.   I begged my parents to let me become one of those singers.  Finally, at sixteen, they allowed me to become an alto in the group.  And that night I realized why they had wanted me to wait so long before joining them.  This was not a Christmas party.  It was a Christmas mission and you never knew from year to year how it would end. 

That year, we donned our choir robes and turned on the flickering electric votive candles and followed my father up one hall and down the other, driving in the snow across town from one hospital to the next, until we found ourselves at the last one.  One that the snow almost prevented us from reaching.  As we walked down the second floor, a nurse ran out to us from the ICU and called us in.  She gathered us around the bed of a man who was obviously in his last hours.  His wife leaned over and whispered something to him.  With great effort, he gave her a slight nod.  “Do you know Oh, Holy Night?  It’s his favorite” she said.  My father turned to my mother and gave her a look that said “can you do this?”  She nodded and began to sing in her beautiful, clear soprano with the rest of us humming harmony underneath. 

I’ll always remember how the tempo she picked was somehow in time with the hollow beats of the heart machine.  Beep.  Beep.  Oh, Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining….beep. Beep.  The longer she sang, the more the tears ran down the man’s face and the harder his wife squeezed his hand as one after another of us just couldn’t sing anymore. But mother kept going.  Fall on your knees.  Beep  Beep. Oh hear the angel voices.  Beeeeeeeeeeep.  And he gasped and he was gone.  And through her tears, his wife smiled at my mother.  And my mother nodded and kept singing.  Oh, night divine!  Oh, night!  Holy night.  And it was.  A holy, holy night.   May the miracle of God’s love and his free gift of eternal life and peace be yours this year and always.  Merry Christmas.  


Oh Holy Night Part 1 - Christmas Carols

Oh Holy Night – Part 1

Oh Holy Night Part 1 - Christmas CarolsFor over thirty years, my father directed a tiny little choir of professional singers who only sang together one night a year.  It consisted of eight local Denver soloists who walked up and down the halls of Denver hospitals on Christmas Eve and sang Christmas carols to the patients who were too sick to go home for the holidays.

The tradition was started by a man named Frank Farmer.  Frank had been one of the lost and frightened soldiers recovering in a military hospital at the end of world war two. The story goes he was just about ready to give up one Christmas Eve until a small group of volunteers began caroling through the halls and Frank heard the old familiar carols of his childhood for the first time in a long, long while.

That night, Frank promised God that if he ever got out of that hospital, he would start his own little choir of carolers and return to others the blessing of hope that he was given that Christmas.  

How often have we found ourselves in trouble, in a jam, or in pain, and promised God that if he would only do this, we will do that!  Well, first of all, I don’t believe God makes deals with us.  God is a god of mercy, not bargains.  I don’t think there’s anything we could trade with Him to receive his grace.  That trade has already been made for us by Jesus Christ.  Not to mention, I think God knows us well enough to understand that most of the time, even when we make bargains like that, once the storm has passed, very few of us remember to keep our side of the bargain.

Frank Farmer was one man who never forgot his commitment to pass on the gift that he was given.  He returned to Denver and founded the Frank Farmer Octet and for almost forty years, the halls of Denver hospital were filled with the sounds of caroling on Christmas Eve.  My father became the director of that group when I was a little girl.  My mother and sisters later sang in that choir.  And it was my dream to sing in it, too, one day.  And the night I became a member of the Frank Farmer Octet was the Christmas Eve I’ll never forget.  But I’ll save that story…for next time.


The Altar at the Manger

IMG_0017Every Christmas growing up, my family and I would make a little altar on Christmas Eve and hold a short midnight service together before going to bed.  The altar was really just a red tablecloth over the coffee table with some candles, some evergreen boughs, and a Bible.  We’d sing carols and take turns reading the Christmas story from Luke.  After so many years observing this tradition, we could recite our parts by memory. And there were in that region, shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night.  She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn.  And there were with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace and goodwill to men.”  To which my mother would usually add “and to the rest of us girls, too.”

And so, for this Christmas video, I thought about reading some of the old, familiar words that we hear every year at Christmas.  They are comforting and encouraging and remind us that extraordinary things can happen in the most ordinary times.  One minute you’re just sitting there, doing your job on a night like any other, and the next minute, God takes you by surprise and tells you that everything is about to change.  That you have new work to do, that you must stand and leave the hillside and walk to a new place, a humble place, and kneel at an altar of wood and straw and worship something smaller and incomprehensibly greater than yourself. It must have been tremendously humbling, walking down that hill, knowing that the miracle you’ve just experienced is nothing to what you are about to see.  I imagine the shepherds looking at each other, thinking “Me? In the presence of a king?  Look at me!” And making futile efforts to prepare themselves to approach this little manger with no gift but their own adoration.

And that image brought a completely different scripture to mind:

It’s from the book of Mark:  If you are offering your gift on the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

What a powerful, uncomfortable, amazing thing to hear.  Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled. But what does it mean to seek peace with God if we’re not willing to seek peace with anyone else?  It’s like mixing today’s banquet with last night’s leftovers. I don’t think that those words appear in Scripture to make us uncomfortable.  I think they are there to make us free.  To come to the altar with a heart that has emptied itself of hate or resentment is to come ready to be filled with something new and beautiful.

I made a list of relationships in my life that need some degree of reconciliation.  It’s not a long list, but it matters.  The burden of it lingers everytime I come to the altar.  I have asked God too many times to change those situations without asking Him to change ME.  Without being willing to humble myself, see the dirt on my own robes, so to speak, and be the first to seek a loving solution.  This year, before Christmas is over, I want to do what I can – whether by a phone call or a letter or in person – to apologize – or to forgive  – and be ready to approach the Christmas manger with a gift that only I can give – just a little more peace on earth, a lot more goodwill, and more glory than ever to God in the highest.  And if you want to join me there, God bless you.  You will be in my prayers, as always.  Merry Christmas.

Love, Martha

Post Script

This Christmas Martha Williamson made a list of relationships in need of reconciliation – either to forgive – or to apologize – so she can approach the Christmas altar with a heart emptied of hate or resentment and ready to be filled with peace, love and goodwill.

Martha Williamson asks: Will you be home for Christmas?

Will You Be Home For Christmas?

Martha Williamson asks: Will you be home for Christmas?One of our family’s favorite movies are actually TWO movies, Father of the Bride One and Two starring Steve Martin.  There’s a scene in the second film that never fails to choke me up – Steve Martin is playing one last game of one-on-one in the backyard with his all grown-up and married daughter before he hands over the keys to the family home to its new owner.  Every time he looks at his twenty-five year old daughter tossing the basketball, he sees the child she was.  The toddler, the ten year old, the teen-ager in braces.  It is a beautifully heartbreaking way to show us how many memories he is leaving behind in this house and how much his daughter will always be his little girl, no matter how old she gets. 

I thought of that scene the other day when I heard a friend of mine bemoan the fact that her family was getting together again for Christmas  and that every time they spend a holiday together, they all treat her as if she’s still a kid.  Doesn’t it seem that as much as we may love hearing the song “I’ll be Home For Christmas,” sometime actually BEING home for Christmas can be far less than harmonious? 

It’s not always easy spending a week or so with the people who know you best and somehow at the same time know you least.  Christmas at home with the family can be wonderful or awful or both.  So often it’s the time that secrets get told and surprises get announced and old frustrations get vented, not to mention the pressures of travel, too much food and not enough sleep on the pull out couch or the blow-up mattress. 

In one relative’s house, I know I’m expected to help with the dishes.  In another, I’m not supposed to touch anything in the kitchen.  Ever. Actually, that rule may have been created after I left the carrots in her pressure cooker too long one year. Boom. Now, I know that whenever we get together, my sisters will always have something to say about my hair or my clothes that will make me crazy and feel like I’m still the baby of the family.  And I know that by the end of the night we three will be singing three part harmony to every Christmas carol we know and feeling like we should be getting together and doing this more often!

So, whether you’re coming home from college or taking the family to grandmother’s house or if you’re the only single person at your sister and brother-in-laws condo, here are a few thoughts to prepare you for a family Christmas.  Genuinely pray for a good time before you go.  And expect to have one. 

Remember, it really isn’t the gift that counts. It’s being there. And I’ve found that a handwritten note and a photo from the old days that brings back a happy memory or two is worth a dozen “store-bought” presents. “What can I do to help?” is a great question to ask every couple of hours.  Looking at old family photos will remind you that we were ALL kids once and still being seen as a youngster isn’t always such a bad thing.  And, when all else fails, see if anyone is up for a game of Scrabble.  Or maybe a little one-on-one. 

And Merry Christmas!