Monthly Archives: December 2016

Peace in Bethlehem

I snapped this photo as we came into Bethlehem during our 2012 visit to Israel. While opinions vary on that original warm welcome of the Holy Family, there being no room at the inn and all, I find the appeal compelling and hope you will as well.

May we each do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God so that our own actions will help establish Peace on Earth and Good Will toward Men.

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Caroling, Caroling, Here We Go

Caroling at Christmas is a dying tradition, but one I dearly love, and one in which I intend to participate as long as I’m able.  At some point every December during the holiday seasons of my childhood in Walnut Ridge, my mother would announce that our family was going to see Mr. and Mrs. Wharton, a former English professor at Williams Baptist College and his wife.  Neither my older brother Jay nor I appreciated the interruption; we wanted to keep playing with our Hot Wheels and Barbie dolls. We griped and pouted while my mother assembled a fruit basket. She would gently scold, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

We piled into our red and white Chevrolet Biscayne and drove to the Wharton’s house. They were a retired couple, overjoyed to hear two mischievous children singing “Away in a Manger” out of tune on their doorstep.

Though Jay and I initially complained about going, we would beg to stay at the Wharton’s when it was time to leave. The couple never offered us any toy or snack as compensation during those visits, but we were always glad we had come. Caroling has that effect.

I still love to brighten the night of a shut-in or to encourage a new widow facing her first Christmas alone. For years, as social planner for my Sunday class, I organized a caroling party (that class is probably breathing a sigh of relief that I promoted). We’d go caroling then enjoy a steaming bowl of thick vegetable stew. We balanced this hearty, nutritious meal with an array of fudge, divinity, and baklava.

One year we drove to the home of a widowed church member, Melva Melton, who owned a bulging beagle, “CP,” short for Cutie Pie. After we belted out a few sincere, straggling strains of “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Deck the Halls,” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (which is much too high for caroling), we closed with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Our audience of one (not counting her pet) invited us inside. The noisy dog strained against the leash his mistress had casually draped over the fireplace insert knob. He sounded like he needed a breathing treatment.

CP barked so vehemently that as we entered, several of the carolers backed against the door facing, a few feet beyond the length of his tether. His mistress unclasped the leash and we braced for an attack. To our surprise, he whirled around the room, ecstatic.  We learned CP is very social. When Mrs. Melton bragged that he could play the piano, everyone agreed we’d all have to see that to believe it. She offered us sugar cookies on our trek through the kitchen into the living room.

We tried not to dribble crumbs on the carpet while we waited for CP’s performance. He paused three feet behind the piano bench, took a flying leap I would have bet big money against his making, and landed solidly on the bench. He then trounced around the keyboard with his front paws, making a joyful noise.  My husband Jeff offered the dog a corn-kernel-sized crumb of cookie and the dog suddenly choked. Everyone stared and held their breath. Many were afraid he would throw up on the carpet; I feared he would spontaneously combust.

I deftly turned Mrs. Melton, in raptures at her Christmas company, toward her china painting display in special shelving, exaggerating my interest in the hopes that she would not witness the explosion of that stuffed dog. I pumped her with questions: “So how do you paint a rose?” Somehow CP managed to overcome his hacking fit. We trooped back into the den, relieved. Caroling can be traumatic.

As we prepared to leave, Mrs. Melton grew teary-eyed, claiming that in part because of our caroling, this Christmas was the best ever. CP nonchalantly slipped out the patio door while she was talking. She didn’t seem worried, so we didn’t either, since all pets have to go out from time to time. When someone mentioned that the pup had escaped, she grew alarmed and cried, “No, no! He can’t get out. He runs off.”

The chase was on.

I would not have believed that stubby chub could move so much like a rocket. He had to have some greyhound genes somewhere in his pedigree; he was two houses down and flying. I decided to loop around, which worked. He came right up to me, wheezing away, his whole back end wagging with joy. I had no idea how to pick him up, but I at least kept him in a holding pattern.  Luckily another class member scooped him into his arms and returned CP to his much relieved owner. While climbing into our cars, we discussed how awful it would have been, right after she basked in the joy of her “best Christmas ever,” if Mrs. Melton’s treasured pet had been hit by a car, or experienced a totally probable heart attack. We laughed about CP for quite some time.

One of the main reasons I want to continue caroling is the hope that some Christmas when I’m enfeebled and shut in after dark, a familiar melody will pierce a still and starry night: “Sleep in heavenly peace.” I acknowledge my selfish motivations. However, the pleasure I anticipate as the recipient cannot match the joy I have received through the years on the singing end of a caroling spree. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.

Illustration by Joan Coffey.

A Change in Plans


Time for some posts about the holidays! With the city parade Thursday night, I present a memory of another Christmas parade. photo by Dero Sandford

A Change in Plans

Take our busy schedules and multiply them by ten: that’s December. In 2002, I raced to pick up the kids the afternoon of El Dorado’s Christmas Parade, a major extravaganza. RVs and vans were already parked along the main thoroughfare, North West Avenue, and traffic lanes were swollen and slow, like Friday afternoons before Memorial Day.

My appointment book was a riot of scribbles. I had forgotten to order citrus for our church staff in October, and was pressed to take care of it now so that the gift baskets would arrive before Christmas. Our outdoor decorations consisted of two half-lit garlands drooping from the left side of the house, stopping at a large ladder. The Cuthbertson Christmas dishes we use from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day had not been unpacked. I had not made plans for my bake day, nor had I even thought about which snapshot to copy for our Christmas card photo. Our oldest son Justin needed a tuxedo for the Winter Ball. I was behind in the Christmas department, not to mention the daily life department.

I had to get the family packed to fly to Topeka, Kansas, the following day to see my niece Caroline perform as Clara in the Nutcracker. I had not rented a car, was not sure the boys’ dress pants were clean, and hoped they’d informed their teachers about leaving early the next day. I did not have a decent pair of black nylons, needed to pick up Jeff’s suit at the cleaners and could not recall exactly where I’d placed the airline tickets for safekeeping. I needed to find someone to feed our dog, Rex, and I hoped the car would have at least half a tank of gas.

I would have to empty our car of all our junk: CDs, a book borrowed and not yet returned, an atrocious mass of plastic bags to recycle, guitar—another story in itself— outgrown roller blades I intended to give away, as well as three shirts and two pair of swim trunks belonging to our sons’ buddies. Prescriptions, bills to be mailed (though I was out of stamps), an overdue RSVP for a wedding whose date (and main characters) I could not recall; I had to wade through my list of errands.

The main reason I was so behind, however, was that our family was building a new home. I had a complete other set of files for this project. Jeff needed the insulation quote. The contractor needed the height of my tile to make the sub floor even with my hardwood. The carpenters needed the window schedule. The heating and air man needed a deposit. The brick masons needed the fireplace dimensions. The roofers needed a check and the plumber needed my attention. They all needed it NOW.

Therefore my spirits were not much heightened by the rendition of “Sleigh Ride” bounding off the walls of my car. The whip cracking in the music seemed to be laid across my back. That evening basketball games and karate lessons had been cancelled due to the Christmas parade. I could not imagine taking time for something so frivolous, but when the boys hopped into the car, they both chattered enthusiastically about their elaborate plans to meet friends at different locations along the parade route. More time in traffic. I seethed.

“You have to have your homework completed and your bags packed. And I mean your toothbrush. And dark socks and a belt. And don’t forget your dress shoes this time.”

To each demand they nodded earnestly, sure Mom, which gave me no confidence that anything would be completed before or even after the parade.

The next couple of hours were a study in triage. The nursery delivered the pine straw I’d ordered three weeks earlier and had forgotten about. Rex was sick on the kitchen floor. I realized the car had only an eighth of a tank of gas. I scorched a pot of macaroni and cheese. The answering machine screened my phone calls. I slopped lumpy banana nut batter into a pan (this breakfast bread a feeble attempt at a hospitality gift for my sister’s family), shoved it in the oven, and set the timer for an hour.

The boys planned to meet their friends about dark. They sat sheepishly in the car while I barked orders and complaints at them, the excitement about the parade granting them an extra measure of tolerance for their mom who was about to snap. Or maybe they knew Santa was watching.

I dropped them off with the usual ineffective warning about watching for and coming to ME after the parade, the “Don’t make me come find you” drivel that they always ignore. I glared at pedestrians ambling along. They were acting like they were having a good time. What was wrong with them?

I swerved up a side street to avoid traffic. Parade revelers honked, waved, and rolled down windows toward others walking toward North West. I drummed my thumbs on the steering wheel and raced the engine. At this rate, it would take me twenty minutes both to get home and return, leaving a total of thirty minutes to accomplish anything at home.

I drove like Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro in the traffic light scene in the original Meet the Parents, gunning the engine then slamming on the brakes. When “Silent Night” began playing on the CD, I jammed the Seek button to find a peppier carol. I swerved around an old Buick idling while a decrepit grandmother helped another decrepit grandmother get out. I tried another side road, only to find two cars blocking the street while they passed a camera between them. I very badly wanted to honk, just blast those idiots out of my way. I determined if they hadn’t moved in two minutes I was going to let them have it. They moved. I tailgated, turned sharply onto another smaller side street to get clear of parade traffic. But here I encountered a gang of pedestrians, children darting around the adults, taking up the entire road.

I regretted not turning off the oven before leaving home. I eased up to the crowd, which, instead of dispersing, laughed at my impatience and continued to saunter. One teenager veered toward my window and said, “Peace,” flashing the two-finger universal peace sign.

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. I had another universal hand signal for him, but held back. At the next intersection, I veered into one more side road. The streetlights were farther apart, and one was not working at all. The houses here featured crumbling or non-existent driveways, cars on blocks in the yards, and busted couches on splintering porches. I slowed and began to really look around.

Then I saw it. Tucked behind a modest house in need of a coat of paint was a tottering garage apartment. Someone had tried to keep the yard tidy. No rusting, bent lawn chairs, no half of a swing set, and a porch light beaconed like a source of hope and comfort. A huge old Plymouth, the kind with enormous fins and a wide back end, was parked in the garage. The rail for the stairs leading to the apartment was freshly painted.

A strand of icicle Christmas lights was festooned along the narrow porch, and someone had spelled out the word JOY in red and green garland below the rail. I braked and stared. The place could not have been more than three rooms, but was obviously cared for with loving attention.


I was ashamed of myself. If the inhabitants of this house, who might never have ridden on an airplane, owned Christmas dishes, had pine straw delivered or bought foodstuffs for their church staff, could find joy in their existence, then I should do a little better myself. I needed to shed the burden and enjoy the moment. After all, we were celebrating a very important birthday. I calmly drove home, removed the deep brown banana bread from the oven, put Rex on a leash, and left for the parade, stopping for gas along the way.

I parked several blocks away from North West Avenue, in between the boys’ meeting places, and Rex and I strolled down to join the crowd. Though I recognized nobody, friendly people welcomed me with a smile. A large University band roared by. Giddy children more than once ran into me or stepped on my toes. I laughed with them.

When the parade ended, I returned to the car and switched on “Silent Night.” I watched all the cars get ahead of me in traffic while I waited for my boys. When they arrived, shivering from the cold as well as expecting a blast of icy mothertongue, I said, “Brrr. Want to get a cup of hot chocolate before we go home?”

They looked at each other. “Wow,” one said. “It really is Christmas.”

This story was published in several newspapers, and in book form in Have Yourself a Hamster Little Christmas. illustration by Joan Coffey