Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Friday, December 29, 2017

Ornaments I Love, Part 4

“This is just wrong,” I mumbled as I stepped out of the store’s festive holiday glitter and into the lukewarm humidity of East Texas in mid-December. The Chipmunks chirped We Wish You a Merry Christmas over loudspeakers in the parking lot where teenagers in yellow rain slickers sold evergreen trees. Small bunches of live mistletoe could be purchased for a quarter apiece, and I decided to splurge. It grows wild in the south, a parasitic plant clinging high atop trees some entrepreneurial soul had mustered enough courage to climb. 

It was 1980 and my first Christmas away from home in Manitoba where Christmas sounds, looks, and feels like it’s supposed to: the sharp crunch of snow underfoot, little kids bundled into snowsuits like overstuffed teddy bears, and wisps of white frost clinging to mustaches. Hubby was in university and we were expecting our first baby. With money tight, we’d agreed a trip home was not feasible. We would create our own holiday memories instead. We found a little artificial tree for three dollars at a garage sale and decorated it with one small strand of multicolored lights and a set of tiny wooden ornaments. Painted red and gold, the set included bells, Santas, skaters, rocking horses, angels, toy trains, and my favorite: a wee nativity scene. Made in China, the characters’ painted-on faces were Asian in appearance, reminding us of the universal nature of the holiday and how it didn’t really matter where we celebrated.

But as Christmas day approached, I grew melancholy. Thoughts turned to my siblings gathering at home, the coats piling up on Grandma’s bed, the homemade cabbage rolls and perogies being consumed, and the wild pandemonium of nieces and nephews tearing into their gifts. I pictured them enjoying it all while we sat in our dreary apartment with our Charlie Brown tree, exchanging practical gifts like socks and pencils. Though longing to set up a nursery, my nesting instinct was trumped by our empty bank account. I yearned for a little snow. Surely all of this was rationale for a pity party, and I zealously indulged.

Then, as Hubby read aloud the familiar words from Luke 2, I looked at my round tummy and thought of our coming child. I felt him move and I identified with Mary. She, too, found herself far from the familiar faces of home. The climate in Mary’s homeland of Israel was far more comparable to Texas than what felt like “proper Christmas weather” to me. The stable where she gave birth was anything but cozy and inviting. Not only did Mary have no nursery to decorate, she barely had a roof over her head! Yet her humble obedience resulted in the greatest gift ever given—the birth of Messiah. I’d been making it all about my own traditions and memories. Perhaps it was time to focus on the one whose arrival we celebrated, wherever we found ourselves and whatever the circumstances.

Each year, when I pull out those tiny wooden ornaments, I’m reminded of that lonely, long-ago Christmas and of the lessons learned. I recall how little we had, but how rich we were.

Let every heart prepare him room.

Photo by G. Loewen Photography

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Ornaments I Love, Part 3 - Ugliest Little Stocking

As a stay-at-home mom of two preschoolers, I eagerly anticipated a morning out each week where women were free to connect, learn together, and relax while their children were lovingly cared for. It was a program at my church cleverly called LIFT (“Ladies in Fellowship Together”) and it probably saved my sanity in those early years of parenting. The program continues today in a little different format and name (MOPS – “Mothers of Preschoolers”), but still acknowledges the deep need for this kind of break for busy young parents.

The kids enjoyed going to LIFT, and they loved the volunteers who cared for them so well. Naturally, we young moms appreciated them too! Most weeks, the kids came home with a little craft they’d made. One year as Christmas neared, the volunteers helped the kids make tiny Christmas stockings from green felt with their names in gold glitter. Could anything be more beautiful?

By the time our third child, Reuben, came along, our family had invented a strange little game with those stockings. The game became a tradition. The kids hid their little stockings somewhere in the branches of the Christmas tree. Then, while they were asleep or otherwise occupied, their dad and I hunted for those stockings, tucked a mini candy cane into each one, and hid them in a different branch for the kids to find on Christmas morning. No one ever talked about it. Somehow it just evolved, and remaining silent was part of the fun.

Photo by G. Loewen Photography
There was only one problem. Reuben didn’t have one of those little stockings. He didn’t mind, because he was still too little to care. But his sister cared. Mindy took it upon herself to make her baby brother his own little stocking. She cut one of her own well-used, every-day socks down to size and glued gold garland around the top. Now Reuben could participate, too. It may have been the saddest looking little stocking ever, but it was made with love. I felt touched by Mindy’s compassion. Like most siblings, our kids fought and drove each other crazy through their years under our roof, and I guess that’s what makes this memory so precious.

The game grew increasingly challenging every year as the kids became more clever at hiding the stockings. Nobody even liked candy canes much anymore, but tradition is tradition and it continued through their teens.

One by one, the kids grew up and left. The little stockings eventually went with their owners to their new homes. But somehow, Reuben’s funny little misfit stocking is still at our house. And every time I see it, I smile. My heart is warmed by the memory of a silly family Christmas tradition and of the priceless love of a (mostly) devoted sister.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Ornaments I Love, Part 2 - The Pageant Bears

Long-time residents of Portage la Prairie remember the energetic Christmas banquets put on by Portage (now Prairie) Alliance Church through the 1990’s and into the 2000’s. At its peak, our banquet ran for eight nights over two weekends, just to accommodate all the guests who lined up outside our doors early on an October Saturday to purchase tickets. Contrary to popular assumption, the event was never a fundraiser, but a labour of love by dozens of volunteers over hundreds of hours and months of rehearsals. The banquets became known for magnificent music and drama, marvelous meals, and delightful decorating throughout the building. For many guests, the ambience of Christmas sights, smells, and sounds provided their kickoff of the season.

Although usually involved on some level, I’d never had to lead the whole production. Until 2003. Previous leadership had moved away, and it fell on my shoulders to steer the team in gifting our community with another creative Christmas experience. We chose a 1950’s theme called Christmas at Velma’s DinerIt turned out to be our biggest undertaking and probably the most fun one yet.

I was scared stupid.

One of the smartest things we did, though, was recruit prayer partners. We asked members of our congregation to “adopt” one person who would be serving all the nights of the banquet—musicians, actors, technicians, etc. They agreed to pray for that person every day for a month leading up to and throughout the banquet nights, and find ways to encourage them. Each “adoptee” knew they had someone to call if they needed prayer for their health or anything else.

I hit the jackpot when my friend Susan Beauchamp adopted me as her prayer partner. I knew she would faithfully talk to God about me. What I didn’t know was:
a) how challenging the event would become;
b) that during that busy season, my husband would take a fall on the ice while working hundreds of miles from home and fracture a bone, putting him off work for a month and increasing the stress to a whole new level; or
c) that Susan would bring me a gift each week leading up to the banquets. By the end of the stint, I had collected a set of four adorable “Christmas Pageant Bears.” How appropriate!

Photo courtesy of G.Loewen Photography

Lined up together, the little bears were reminiscent of children presenting the Christmas story on stage. Each day when I saw them, they reminded me someone was praying specifically for me and for each of my teammates. 

Eventually, PAC’s Christmas banquets ran their course and we moved on to other ways of blessing our community. But I still delight in unwrapping my pageant bears every December and displaying them—a wonderful reminder of the power of prayer, of God’s sustaining grace through a stressful time, and of the loving care of a sweet friend.