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In the midst of a season that involves so much busyness, bustle and time immersed in crowds, I have a favourite Christmas tradition that soothes my introverted soul.
Every year about this time, I like to take a few minutes off – by myself – to gaze at a photograph in my son’s baby book. And I remember.
It’s a group shot. Seventeen people are dressed ridiculously in bathrobes or burlap, artificial beards covering their chins, towels concealing their hair, dollar store tinsel encircling their heads.
My husband Doug stands up front, draped in an orange tablecloth. I sit beside him, wrapped in a blue shawl.
We face the camera. But to a person, we look not at the photographer, but into a wooden manger on the floor in front of us. There is tenderness in every eye, an expression of wonder on each face.
My infant son lies in the manger on a bed of hay. Eight months old, he sleeps soundly. His face is peaceful, his blond hair shimmering. One small pudgy hand peeks out through swaddling blankets.
I remember the moment captured by the photograph as if it happened yesterday.
We had been asked to play the Holy Family in our church’s Christmas pageant. Mark was the youngest baby in the church at the time, and our choir director wanted a real infant in the performance. All Doug and I would have to do, he said, was walk from the back of the church to the front—in costume and carrying our son—then remain there for some narration and a few carols.
I remember hesitating. Mark was far from a newborn; in fact he was walking, running everywhere, and his high energy levels had earned him the nickname “Mark the Spark”. Did the director want to risk having a baby Jesus who stood, babbled or bounced on his mother’s lap throughout “Silent Night”?
But the director persisted. So we agreed.
Pageant day dawned, and stress descended. My normally cheerful son was teething and feverish and out of sorts; he fussed all day. By the time we donned our costumes at church I was tired and overwhelmed, and Mark—past due for a feeding—was howling in protest. With only minutes to go before our walk to “Bethlehem,” I found a quiet spot to nurse him, and breathed a desperate prayer. (I don’t remember what I prayed, but I imagine it went something like, “Help!!!”)
Mark fell asleep. It felt like my very own Christmas miracle. Cradling him close, I joined Doug just in time to walk down the aisle.
Mark slept on. But he was heavy. Afraid to shift him in case he should wake up, my arms ached. Song after song, reading after reading. I remember looking longingly at the empty manger; it seemed a shame to waste it. So just before the pageant’s end, I gingerly placed him there, and felt relief spread over me as his little body settled into the yielding hay.
Relaxing for the first time that day, I gazed at my son in the soft glow of the candlelit sanctuary. And as I relaxed, it occurred to me that the whole point of our family’s participation in the pageant was to illustrate this one central fact of human history: the Son of God became a baby too. I had been so consumed fretting over my own baby that day, I’d almost missed the lesson: the enormity of the real Christmas miracle.
Divinity became humanity. Willingly. Jesus left the side of his Father in heaven, and clothed himself in human flesh to become a helpless, needy, dependent human baby. A baby who teethed and toddled just like my son. Just like all of us. He did it because of his great love for us. He did it, as Tim Huff writes in Bent Hope, “to promise the hope of abundant life, before he sacrificed his own.”
It’s a wonderful story. I believe it to be true.
May we reveal its truth in the way we live. And in the way we love one another.
Have a very Merry Christmas.
This will be my last post for the season. I’ll be back when life returns to its normal routine in the New Year.
… who knows what Christmas is all about?” asks a wee little boy in this classic cartoon.
Thank you to my friend Belinda at Whatever He Says for reminding me of this lovely, poignant little bit of television history, that wraps up truth in such a simple package, it gives me goosebumps.
I remember my mom’s recipe collection. She had a little white tin box that held all her recipes, neatly written out by hand on separate cards. Mom was an excellent cook – and she loved to cook – so most of those cards were spotted, dog-eared and stained. But they were relatively organized. Indexed dividers separated the “Meats” from the “Salads” from the “Desserts” from the “Vegetables”.
My own collection is far less attractive. In fact, it’s a jumbled up, chaotic mess. Oh, I have a couple of binders in which I’ve attempted to attain some level of harmony over the years. A red binder filled with plastic sleeves holds dinner recipes; some handwritten, some typed, some torn hastily from newspapers or magazines. A white binder’s plastic sleeves display a similar assortment of recipes for breakfast and dessert.
But there’s one aspect in which my collection resembles my mother’s; mom had a habit of naming recipes after the people with whom the recipe originated.
I suppose there were various reasons for doing that: it helped to ensure you wouldn’t serve someone their own cooking if they came to your place, for one thing.
But it’s a habit I’ve continued. And the thing I love most about those little notations written at the top of each scrap or piece of paper that declares “Sandy’s Salsa Pork Chops”, “Jayne’s Apple Muffins”, “Dad’s Rice Pudding”, or “Joanna & Greg’s Pork Tenderloin with Sweet Potatoes”, is the way they cause me to remember the people behind the food as I’m cooking.
Some of them are people I haven’t seen in years. Some of them are people I see often. But each time I pull out a recipe with a friend’s name written at the top, I’m reminded of that person and what they mean to me now, or have meant to me in the past.
Last week I attended a festive potluck dinner and offered to take along a chicken dish. I knew right away what I would make: Patti’s Peach Chicken.
This is an easy, flavourful way to prepare chicken that makes a great impression. Topped with pecan halves, it looks and tastes extra-special so it’s an elegant addition to a festive buffet. I hadn’t made it in years, but as I went about my preparations, I thought of that other “Patti” who shared the recipe with me.
We were about the same age, and we worked together in a crazy TV newsroom in the early 80′s. Both of us went by “Patti” in those days. She was pretty, smart, had a great sense of style and spunk, and was always lots of fun. Married within a couple of months of each other, we shared many a conversation about planning our respective weddings, and adapting to married life.
One evening, Patti hosted some of the girls from the newsroom for dinner and she prepared this chicken dish. When I made it for the potluck party last week, I tripled the recipe and used breasts, thighs and drumsticks. (But because it calls for bone-in, skin-on chicken it’s more economical than some recipes. You could also buy a whole chicken and cut it up yourself.) Everyone seemed to enjoy the dish and several people asked me for the recipe, so I thought I’d share it here as well:
Patti’s Peach Chicken
4 bone-in, skin on chicken breasts
3/4 c. peach jam
1/4 c. chili sauce (I used Willi’s chili – but anything comparable will do)
2 T. soya sauce
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 t. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 t. black pepper
1/4 t. salt
1 clove garlic, minced
Preheat oven to 375. Combine all ingredients & pour over chicken in baking dish. Bake 30 – 40 min., basting as chicken cooks.
I love Mr. Bean! And this Christmas skit of his is one of my all time favourites. Enjoy!
One recent morning, while sharing a few quiet moments over coffee in the kitchen
My hubby: “You see – being married to a billion dollars is no guarantee of happiness.”
Me: ”Neither is being married to a Swedish bikini model.”
… from Statistics Canada as I go about my holiday preparations for another year:
- $28.7 billion – the amount Canadian shoppers spent in retail stores in December, 2006 (excluding the automotive sector)
- $1.9 billion – the value of sales at beer, wine and liquor stores in Canada in December, 2006
- $430.8 million - the value of toys, games and hobby supplies, including electronic games, purchased at large retailers in Canada in December, 2006
- $374 million – the amount of monthly sales of candy, confectionery and snack foods sales at large retailers in December, 2006
- $196 million – the value of Christmas decorations imported to Canada in 2006
- $65.0 million — The value of farm cash receipts for Christmas trees in Canada in 2008, up from $58.6 million in 2007
- $250 – the median donation given by those who donated in Canada in 2006. A quarter of taxfilers claimed charitable donations.
“We are what we repeatedly do.” – Aristotle
To celebrate our oldest daughter’s homecoming from university yesterday, I wanted to make something warm and rich and wonderful for dinner. But as I had to be at the office of a client all day, I knew that “that something” would have to come from my crockpot.
In the mood to try something a little different, I did a quick Internet search for pot roast, and came upon this recipe.
Food purists might balk at the pre-packaged ingredients. But on a busy day, that’s exactly what appealed to me. The recipe is simple – has only a couple of ingredients (all of which I had on hand), and I knew I could throw it together quickly and easily, always an important consideration at 6 a.m.
The only thing I did differently was this: we had some lovely Italian red wine (made by our lovely Italian neighbour) so I added some of that (I’m guessing about a half-cup) to the mixture, thinking it might help further tenderize the meat and enhance flavours. I set the crockpot on low and it did its thing while I was out all day.
When I got home, I took the recipe’s advice and roasted the vegetables separately. I cut up a large onion, scrubbed and cut (in one-inch chunks) half-a-dozen potatoes and a couple handfuls of baby carrots. Tossed everything together with some olive oil, coarse salt and Herbes de Provence, then spread the works on a tray and baked for about 40 minutes in a 400 degree oven.
Dinner was scrumptious! The roast literally fell apart, the vegetables demanded second helpings and the gravy was thick, rich, silky smooth and intensely satisfying.
Our hungry student’s reaction? At first mouthful, she closed her eyes and tilted her head back – ever so slightly. She didn’t chew. She didn’t move. I honestly wondered for the briefest moment if she might be praying.
When she opened her eyes and saw we were all staring at her, she laughed, “Just savouring every one of the flavours.”
Welcome home, honey.
“An ordinary meal is an extraordinary coming together of life … The sharing of such meals is the most ordinary of human endeavours … and, at the same time, the most extraordinary. The most earthly … and the most heavenly. The most routine … and the most spiritual.” – Eugene H. Peterson
Got a minute-and-thirty-two seconds?
Then feast your eyes and ears on this:
I don’t love decorating for Christmas.
I know, I know. That makes me a bit of a Scrooge. But the whole process of hauling dozens of boxes down from the rafters in the garage, unpacking all of that stuff, trying to find places for everything, putting the empty boxes back in the garage and then repeating the exercise – in reverse – mere weeks later can make me tired just thinking about it.
But besides the sheer work involved, there’s another reason I’d rather do almost anything than “deck the halls”; when God was handing out talents, he neglected to give me the decorating one.
Oh, I appreciate the beautiful rooms and settings other people seem able to create so effortlessly. And I marvel at their ability to create them. But after trying, repeatedly, over the years to cultivate a look of elegance or style that always winds up more like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” than a Better Homes and Gardens one, I’ve resigned myself to the idea that I’ll never achieve the latter effect.
Still, decorating for the holidays is important to my family. So each year, I put on a brave face and some Christmas music, and psych myself up for a day of working with the myriad ornaments and bits of “Made in Singapore” or “Made in Taiwan” paraphernalia we’ve accumulated over the years, together with even more “Made in Pre-School, Elementary School or Sunday School” treasures. All in an attempt to create a festive atmosphere.
And somehow – though the designer look definitely eludes us – we do manage to surround ourselves with Christmas cheer. I realize it when looking at a favourite item conjures up a warm memory, or when we recall the stories that will long be told about some cherished ornament. And I know I am blessed.
Still, after spending all day decorating yesterday, it took sitting in church this morning to remind me of the reason for such preparations. The reminder rang loudly and clearly through the words of a Christmas carol.
“Let every heart prepare him room.”
As I sang it, it occurred to me that decorating is all part of the Advent tradition of preparing our homes. But the carol entreats every heart to “prepare him room,” not to “prepare him rooms.” More important than preparing our houses – is preparing our hearts – for the coming of our Saviour.
Suddenly I was struck by the irony: our Saviour was born in a stable. No Better Homes and Gardens surroundings awaited the infant Jesus. But a loving family did. A family who no doubt celebrated his arrival with joy, and loved Him deeply as he grew.
Hearts – if not a home – perfectly prepared.
I’ve just finished reading John Geiger’s The Third Man Factor: The Secret to Survival in Extreme Environments. It is a fascinating, compelling book, the kind that keeps you pondering its contents for days after it’s done. The book is exceedingly well researched, but more than that, Geiger’s an excellent writer; he is editorial board editor at The Globe and Mail.
The book “is a biography of an extraordinary idea,” according to the back cover, “That people at the very edge of death, often adventurers or explorers, experience a sense of an incorporeal being beside them who encourages them to make one final effort to survive.” Thanks to a T.S. Eliot poem called “The Waste Land,” which memorializes the experience, this being has come to be known as “The Third Man.”
The experience is far more common that one might suppose. Geiger details one riveting account after another of men and women who endured incredibly perilous circumstances – in extreme environments – and lived to tell about it. From the last person to escape from the South Tower of the World Trade Centre on 9/11, to Arctic explorers and deep-sea divers, the common thread in each story is that of an often unseen – but strongly felt – comforting presence that served to help the people in jeopardy escape their dire situations.
Who or what is this “incorporeal being?” Those who’ve experienced the presence differ in their interpretation. According to the book, some say it’s a guardian angel, some a long-dead loved one, others a hallucination.
Geiger also details medical experiments that were able to reproduce the sensation of the unseen presence in patients whose brains were stimulated with electrodes. He calls this apparent trigger in the brain, “the angel switch.”
Of course, if you subscribe to a purely – or even predominantly – materialistic worldview, being able to reproduce the sensation of The Third Man might indicate the experience is hallucinatory. Geiger suggests it’s an evolved coping mechanism.
But as someone who believes there is more to life than what we can see and experience in the physical realm, I came away from this book mulling over another possibility. Scientists tell us we’ve only tapped in to a small percentage of the brain’s potential. If there is a spiritual realm – one that occupies another dimension that we can’t normally perceive with our senses – isn’t it possible that those experiments (and indeed the life-threatening circumstances themselves) acted as a trigger that permitted the brain to discern something (or someone) that was, indeed, there?
Then I remembered some words, penned by the Apostle Paul 2,000 years ago. They are humbling words. And yet also remarkably comforting.
“Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”
- 1 Corinthians 13:12
I love this story!
I read it first in the National Post this morning, and I’ve been smiling ever since.
There’s something wonderful about the underdog coming out on top. And these guys are about to come out on the toppest of the top!