Twelve days leading to Epiphany

Realizing that celebrating Christmas is something we get to do, not something we have to do, I try (within my human limitations) to approach it this way:
After September and October have come and gone with Labor Day and Halloween, respectively, I turn my attention to and enjoy Thanksgiving. Then for most of December, it is Advent, the time of preparation for Christmas, which arrives December 25.

The “preparation” doesn’t primarily mean shopping, putting up decoration, wrapping presents, etc., though it necessarily does include these tasks. I get more out of Christmas with some mental/spiritual preparation. I try to keep that in mind during the logistical preparations. Sometimes it helps to stop a minute, take a breath and refocus.

I think it’s also helpful to remember that Christmas will come whether or not we get all the decorations up in exactly the right places. At our house, we decorate modestly, about a week before Christmas. It’s enough to keep us mindful of the season, without overpowering the meaning. I guess what I’m saying is that the decorations are the means, not the end itself.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day can be quite busy for many of us. It’s mostly enjoyable, but still busy. I’ve grown to appreciate how much Christmas is enhanced for me by celebrating all 12 traditional days. No, we don’t give gifts everyday, though for families such as ours, there may be additional gift-opening sessions on subsequent days of Christmas after day 1, depending on individual schedules. It may not be the 25th, but it is no less a Christmas gathering.

A value of acknowledging all 12 days of Christmas, I’ve come to realize, is that there is more time — even some occasional down time — to stop and remember that it’s Christmas and think about all that truly means. It’s not just keeping the tree up until Epiphany because that is what tradition dictates. It’s walking past the tree and being reminded of — and feeling — the love and joy of Christmas at random times, after the hustle and bustle have subsided.

To the extent I can follow this plan — and I am not always successful — Christmas is less something I have to do and more something I enjoy in a meaningful way.

Teens stumble upon Christmas spirit

[Excerpted from “Let Nothing You Dismay” in Life Among the Letters: Selected Short Stories by John Becton. ]

By morning three to four more inches of snow had accumulated. There was some melting during the day and refreezing after sunset.

“No wheels tonight,” Bill told George over the phone. “But I’ve got to get out of here. My parents are driving me crazy.”

Each 16-year-old had his allotted share of teen angst.

“Mine too. Let’s go over to Barry’s. He won’t have to get permission to take his own car out.”

Barry had a different idea, however.

“I ain’t taking my baby out in this,” he said. “It was starting to get bad when I came in from work. Let’s just walk over to the bowling alley.” He pulled a heavy gray coat out of the hall closet and called out, “Mom, I’m going over to the bowling alley with George and Bill. We won’t be late.” There was a muffled reaction from upstairs. “No, we’re walking.”

Outside, Barry took in a deep breath, let it out with a satisfied “Ah!” and said, “Well, just a couple more days.” There was no response from his companions.

The bowling alley was over on the main highway, about a 10-minute walk from the Barry’s house. The highway came down a steep hill from the west, leveled at the bowling alley and then became a long, upward grade as it headed east toward downtown. Two cafes, a convenience store and a small office complex had replaced homes along that stretch. The city had recently lined the road with bright street lights.

“This will be like glass before long,” Bill said as he and his companions hurried across the highway and into the building.

“Man, it’s getting colder,” Barry said, stuffing his gloves and toboggan into the pockets of his coat. “Let’s get some coffee.”

Their three cups drained the pot. George took a sip and exclaimed, “Tastes as bad as it smells!”

“I wonder how many hours it’s been sitting there,” Bill wondered aloud. “Well, it least it’s warm.”

The local Top-40 station blared over the PA system. There was a lot of loud talking and laughing, as well as the continual sound of bowling balls crashing into pins.

“There are more people here than I expected,” George noted. He stuck a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and let it flap up and down as he talked. “Lot of locals. See those guys over there? They’re from Westfield High. That’s the problem with living on the edge of town — too close to the farm boys. Probably looking for trouble. They might find it.” He lit the cigarette. “I guess we might as well bowl a game or two.”

“I’m ready.”

“Me, too.”

After Barry picked up a spare, Bill sent his ball down the right side of the lane. He leaned back to his left while watching the ball slip off into the gutter. “Damn thing wouldn’t hook,” he said as he turned around.

George gazed up from the scorer’s table and off to the side. Barry looked at George and then off in the opposite direction. Bill knew what this meant: “We didn’t see it. So it didn’t happen.” He pressed the pick-up button and rolled an official score of 9 for the first frame.

During the seventh frame, they saw the four Westfield students leaving. One looked back, smiled and waved.

By the time Bill, George and Barry had finished bowling, cars heading into town were beginning to slip and slide coming down the hill toward the bowling alley. Even though there was less traffic, crossing the highway would be more of an adventure than before.

“We may never get across,” Barry observed.

Bill motioned toward the now-icy grade that led to downtown. “Look at that.”

Three large trucks were stuck at various spots. One had slid over into the outbound lanes.

“This is getting to be one big mess,” George said. Then he grinned. “Well, we can stand here and watch cars pile up.”

As the boys continued to wait for a chance to cross the highway, a white Chevrolet Bel Aire came across the hill from the west, followed by a red Plymouth Fury. When the cars hit the ice, they slid sideways, bounced off each other obliquely, spun around and collided again.

A third car managed to get around them, but a maroon MG came across the top of the hill too fast and crashed into the Fury. A fifth car clipped the back of the MG and slid off the road. The next one stopped at the top of the hill. Drivers and passengers all got out, apparently uninjured. They began pushing the cars to the side of the road. Even though there were more than enough people, Bill said, “We’d better help.”

“Yeah,” Barry replied. “It’s a good thing we’re here.”

“You two take care of things here,” George said. “I’m gonna stop traffic from coming over the hill.” He trudged up and beyond the top of the hill. He diverted two cars onto a secondary road and stopped a Trailways bus.

“You’ll never get into town this way,” he told the driver. “It’s solid ice on the other side and there are three tractor-trailers blocking the highway on the other hill.”

“You think we can get through these side streets?” the driver asked.

“Yeah. The city buses go that way.”

“What about the conditions?”

“They’ve got snow, but not ice.”

As soon as the wrecked vehicles were out of the way, the car at the top of the hill inched down toward the bowling alley and turned onto the road by the office complex.

George rerouted two more cars, but another refused to stop for his signal. The driver looked straight ahead and kept the wheels spinning steadily toward the top of the hill.

“Son of a bitch!” George yelled, jumping to the side. From the top of the hill, he watched the offending vehicle approach the wrecked cars. The brake lights came on. The car slid into a telephone pole on the left.

“Serves you right,” George muttered. His traffic shift apparently over, he moved on down the hill to examine all the damage. A police car arrived about that time. Before the officer sorted everything out, he got to witness three more fender benders.

“I’ve had about enough of this,” Bill told Barry. “We’ve seen about a dozen cars pile up. It’s getting boring now.”

“Yeah, let’s go. Hey, George, let’s get out of here.”

They cut through the 7-ll parking lot to Mimosa Drive.

“Could you believe the way that Chevy and Fury smacked each other?” George chuckled.

“Man, it was something,” Barry said. He let out a small laugh. “That S-O-B that tried to run over you wrapped around that pole pretty good, didn’t he?”

They didn’t dwell on the subject for long because talking made their teeth hurt. Two blocks down Mimosa, they turned on to Spring Hill Road, which would take them into their neighborhood, just across Parkview Road.

“Man, I’m cold,” Barry said. The other two just nodded. George put his gloved hands into his coat pockets. Bill folded his arms across his chest.

The residential streets had the old, incandescent street lights at three- or four-block intervals. The one at the intersection of Mimosa and Spring Hill was not working. All the houses they passed were dark or dimly lit. There was no traffic. The powdery snow cushioned their footsteps. It was so quiet, it was either serene or deafening, depending on your state of mind.

At the intersection of Spring Hill and Parkview, a white compact car sat silently facing east on Parkview, its right side in the shallow ditch. The boys walked up to the driver’s window.

Behind the wheel was a woman in her late 20s. There were two small children in the back seat. All three occupants looked frightened. The doors were locked.

“Need a push?” George called out.

The woman rolled the window down only a couple of inches. “Oh, yes, thank you. That would be so great, if you could.”

The boys had little trouble getting the car back onto the road. They jogged along behind as it crept around a curve. When the wheels began spinning on the incline by the park, they started pushing again. After a long block, the road leveled.

The car proceeded several yards without their help, then stopped. They walked around to the side. The woman rolled the window more than halfway down. She looked relieved.

“Oh, thank you so much. I think I can make it from here.”

“How far you going?” George asked.

“Malvern Woods.”

“Just a couple of miles and no real hills. Yeah, you should be OK,” Bill said.

She opened her pocket book and reached in. “What do I owe you?”

Each boy stepped back. “Nothing,” Bill said.

“Well, I want to give you something for your trouble.”

“Oh, it was no trouble, really,” George insisted. He started making zig-zagged lines in the snow with the toe of his right boot.

“You were so nice to stop and help. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you fellows hadn’t come along. And you look like you’re really cold. You could be home with your families in your warm houses.”

“No, we’re OK. Just fine,” Barry said. “We’re just glad to help.”

“You just don’t know how much I appreciate it.” She took three one-dollar bills from her pocket book and held them out the window. “Please take this.”

“It really isn’t necessary,” Barry protested. Bill and George shook their heads in agreement.

“I insist.”

The boys didn’t budge.

“Well, here. It’s yours. Merry Christmas.” She threw the bills down in the snow and drove off.

They stood staring at the money.

“I wish she hadn’t done that,” Bill said.

“Me, too,” Barry agreed. “You boys keep it.”

“Nah,” George said. “I don’t want it. You do something with it. Or you, Bill. Put some gas in your Dad’s car.”

Bill just watched snow starting to fall on their reward. Then he looked in the direction the woman had driven away. Then at the tracks the car had made while they were pushing it.

“Boys, this money is just going to get wet,” Barry said. He picked up one of the dollar bills and shook the snow off of it. George and Bill reluctantly did the same.

“I still wish she hadn’t done this,” Bill said.

“Yeah,” George said. “I feel like we owe her.”

Five days of beach sunrises

This blog post is a little different from my usual. I just wanted to share five days of recent beach sunrises. My wife and I spend a week each year on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, in Kill Devil Hills, close to the site of the Wright Brothers first airplane flights. A highlight for me is greeting each day’s sunrise.

Here’s Monday, October 28, 2019:

Tuesday, October 29:

I get up an hour or more before sunrise. Daylight has already begun. I think of this time as the “pre-show,” as various colors come and go in the sky. Sometimes I find myself getting impatient to see the sun appear. But it’s pretty easy to remind myself to enjoy what’s going on at the moment. It’s effective practice in living in the present. Anyway, the sunrise is all the more dramatic after the build-up.

Wednesday, October 30:

Once the sunrise starts, it happens rather quickly. When there’s a layer of clouds on the horizon, it can happen a little past the appointed time. As long as it is not completely overcast, there is a sunrise. The clouds help give the day its distinct look.

Thursday, October 31:

Friday, November 1:

I’m glad I went

It was a milestone celebration at a church a plane ride away from my home. It’s an outstanding church, and I was part of it a long time ago. The church has long been known for its active involvement in social justice. Sunday morning is big, but it’s a seven-days-a-week church. It contributed to my theological education for two years.

Part of my role was on-the-job training in campus ministry at an adjacent prestigious university. More visible to the congregation was my guitar playing regularly in “folk worship” and occasional other times. One Sunday a month, the Sunday worship service was one I helped plan. Two other musicians — a pianist and an upright bass player — and I led it. I also participated in myriad meetings, retreats and anti-war protests. I think I was a brash enough young adult to speak my mind in most gatherings. Shortly before I completed my degree and moved away from the area, I preached there one Sunday morning. My “License to Preach and Administer the Sacraments” was granted by that congregation.

I enjoyed the recent celebration. It was good to be back in the building. The liturgy and other activities were appropriate and meaningful. As the history of the church was recounted, a good chunk of it was presented by some of the very people with whom I have a history. They covered a lot of that shared history.


At this point, the cynical reader might expect the insertion of a “But.” Not here, though. It’s more of a “That said. . . .”


I went with hope but not delusion. There were several people still in the church that I remembered from my time there. It would’ve been great if many/most (all??) had greeted me like a long-lost friend. Yet I had visited a couple of years ago, and only two of those remembered me. One was someone with whom I had been close. The other was someone I knew, though not as well as a couple of people who seemed to have no recollection of me. I expected it would be the same this time, while holding out hope that the occasion and my being there for much of the day would jog some more memories.


It was as expected. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. The same two seemed to be the only ones who remembered me, though when I spoke to others, I made a point of saying when I had been there.


Countless times, I’ve heard someone say about some service opportunity in which they’ve participated, “I got more from them than they got from me.” I guess I always realized this to be true about my time at this church. I just wish the score hadn’t been so lopsided.


I knew going in that I was at most a blip on the screen in the long history of a church filled with dynamic individuals. I had just thought — wished rather — that the blip were less imperceptible. It wouldn’t be honest not to admit to feeling some disappointment, yet I wasn’t blindsided.


Still, it was good to be in a place with a lot of great memories. To see faces still recognizable despite the years, even if mine wasn’t recognizable to them. To recount the illustrious history of the congregation and to see that the characteristics that drew me to them are still at work today.


I enjoyed the personal memories that flashed through my mind. I was able to share a couple of these verbally with one person or another. Yet feeling more like a welcomed guest than a returning family member, I found I was taking in the festivities primarily from a third-person point of view. I know and appreciate that for many there it was first-person.


To resort to an overused cliche, it was the hand I was dealt. So I played it. I was just glad to be in the game. It was a learning and a growing experience.

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Note of possible interest: This is the church to which I referred in “Wearing Your ‘Sunday Best’” when I said, “I was a young adult, in a church where people wore anything from jeans to suits or dressy dresses, when I realized that one of the negative things about Sunday morning in the past had been the hassle of getting dressed up.” For this recent occasion, I was the most dressed up I have ever been in that church building — dress pants, button down shirt and sports jacket, along with my black sneakers and, of course, no tie.

Happy New Year

Each year during December, some well-meaning people tack on “and Happy Hanukkah” when they say “Merry Christmas.” It’s as if they feel a need to give equal time to their Jewish acquaintances. We hear this a good bit in our Judeo-Christian family, but I also see it other places, such as social media.

But the way to give equal time is to wish Jewish friends “Happy New Year” now.

Rosh Hashanah — Jewish New Year — begins at sundown today, Sept. 29, 2019, thus beginning year 5780.

For those of us who are Christian, Rosh Hashanah most closely corresponds to Christmas. The Church Year begins with Advent, which prefaces Christmas. But more significantly, there are two High Holidays in each religion. The Most Holy Day in Judaism is Yom Kippur; in Christianity it is Easter. Rosh Hashanah and Christmas are close seconds in importance.

There are Jewish festivals that occur near the times of Christmas and Easter, but — even though Easter has a historic link to Passover — Christmas and Easter are comparable to Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, respectively, rather than Hanukkah and Passover.

Comparing Holy Days with festivals is like comparing apples to oranges. Comparing Holy Days to each other is like grapes to grapes, or ambrosia to ambrosia.

Autumnal musings on the first day of fall

Sept. 22, 2019: My calendar notes that “Autumn begins” today. I always heard it called “fall,” though I’ve known as far back as I can remember that “autumn” was another name for it.

As my world expanded to include more people from more places, I sometimes got the feeling that “autumn” was considered more sophisticated. I can’t prove that. It was, as I said, just a feeling. But maybe somewhat justified. Because a little research tells me that “autumn” — these days — is the British preference, while “fall” is more associated with North America. (Type in “fall vs. autumn” on an internet search engine and you’ll find a ton of references.)

Further research told me that “fall” is the older term, originating in England before American English itself originated in the colonies. “Autumn” entered the English language via the French automne. It’s apparently been around as long as “fall,” but didn’t gain a lot of traction until later. So it’s “autumn” in the UK, but originally it was “fall.”

We have “fall semester” with “fall sports,” yet here in a town in which both are significant, I once lived on Autumn Lane. The “fall equinox” is also called (by more sophisticated people?) “autumnal equinox.”

In their 1964 hit “A Summer Song,” Chad and Jeremy sang:

They say that all good things must end some day.
Autumn leaves must fall.


They couldn’t have said “fall leaves,” because that doesn’t scan. Even if it did, “Fall leaves must fall” is awkward. Anyway, they are British. The phrase, nonetheless, hints at why the season was originally called “fall,” since that’s what leaves do at this time of year.

Each season has something to offer, but fall edges out spring as my favorite season. This is partly because the new school year begins, bringing its new possibilities — long ago for me, then for my children, now for my grandchildren. Also, the heat of summer begins to subside and it’s more pleasant to be outside.

But more so, though the leaves die, fall and decay, I see this as a time of rebirth, the beginning of nature’s annual renewal. The first step toward the burst of life and color we’ll see in the spring.

Happy autumn.


As one who cares about language usage

This was the offending meme, the one that was one-too-many for one of my Facebook friends.

In my early years on Facebook, I not only posted grammar-themed memes, I also crafted occasional comments of my own on the subject. My primary reason was to vent about what I saw not only on Facebook, but just about everywhere, including newspapers. I guess I also held out some hope that somebody or another would be willing to learn — or be reminded. If not, I did know there were some individuals who cared as much as I about correct use of our language. I was confident they would enjoy the posts.

I still see errors that to me are analogous to fingernails on a chalk board. But I stopped commenting some six years ago. That’s when I posted the meme above, which I thought was concise and useful. Someone who was at that time my FB friend somehow took it personally, even though I never, ever aimed any comments at an individual.

The reaction included: “I feel like we are back in HS again and you are the grammar patrol. Bet you are wearing that little belt and have red pencils in your pocket protector just waiting to make a big circle around all mistakes.” Yet I never — ever — corrected anyone on Facebook.

As I explained then, I majored in English, did a lot of writing and editing in my professional career, and have a touch of OCD. Also, I think there are good reasons for us to try to follow rules of grammar and usage. The primary reason is to keep English speakers speaking a common language so that we understand each other.

Most people don’t get angry at people who advocate for proper grammar, but many seem to find us amusing or eccentric. Yet why should trying to speak and write correctly be considered abnormal? Why isn’t it the other way around?

Why ascribe names such as “grammar patrol” or “police” or “nerd” — or worse?
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Another N word

Though World War II ended two years before I was born, people my age grew up in its shadow. “Nazi” was not a word one used flippantly. It was not something you called anyone other than historical figures who were, in fact, Nazis. You certainly didn’t give a friend that tag.

Now some, ignoring or ignorant of history, find it amusing to append it to the word “grammar.”

(On the “Seinfeld” episode about the “Soup Nazi,” the character Kramer never calls him that. A couple of years ago, we took the Real Kramer tour in NYC. The first stop was at The Soup Man — the real shop on which the episode was based — for a cup of the best soup in the world. Kenny Kramer — the real person on whom the character was based — never referred to the business’s founder as a “Nazi.” But I digress.)
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Back to the high school reference, I was not a member of any “grammar patrol.” I hadn’t worn a patrol belt since elementary school and then my duties concerned behavior, not grammar. I had no pocket protector, nor did I carry a red pencil.

I was a student, learning from my mistakes. I appreciate my teachers’ having corrected them.