Remembering Christmases Past

It’s the gathering that counts.

Christmas morning in our Ohio home several years ago. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh.

Of all the holidays in the calendar year, Christmas is my favorite. I know I am not alone in that declaration.

I have many fond memories of Christmases past. The most memorable seem to be snippets of bigger pictures, but they are still meaningful after all these years.

Delivering Sunday’s newspaper as a teenager on a snowy Christmas Eve night is one of my favorite memories. I can still see the smiles and hear the well-wishes from many customers as I tromped through heavy, wet snow.

Christmas was my father’s favorite holiday. He was a big little kid when it came to Christmas. He and our dear mother worked hard to make each Christmas extra special on Dad’s meager salary.

Dad loved to get the last-minute shopping discounted deals. He spent part of Christmas Eve buying presents he thought were bargains. His offspring reaped the rewards early Christmas morn.

Christmas Day in the Stambaugh household was a joyous time. We woke our parents too early and tore open packages with abandon. The pile of ripped wrapping paper grew exponentially.

As my brothers and sisters and I grew, married, moved, and raised children of our own, our traditions changed, of course. However, Mom and Dad hosted us all as long as they could until the brood expanded beyond the limited capacity of their post-World War II bungalow.

My siblings who lived nearest our folks took turns hosting the annual Christmas dinner and gift exchanges. Of course, once our children grew to adults and married, those traditions changed again.

My wife’s family always opened their presents on Christmas Eve, usually after attending services at their church up the road from their farm. It was Christmas Eve with Neva’s family, Christmas Day with mine.

At my age, the calendar isn’t nearly as important as the opportunity to gather the family together whenever we can. Christmas just made it a most memorable delight.

Nostalgia only carries so much weight in celebrating the holidays. It’s the here, and now that counts. We celebrate with those we love today, creating similar meaningful memories for the younger generations.

We will cherish the season with those who can join us and connect remotely with those who can’t. It’s the best we can do in this season of holidays mixed with precautions necessitated by the pandemic.

With that, I wish you all Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

There is nothing better than snow on Christmas Day with the grandchildren.

A special note to followers of this blog.

Much of the content of this blog comes from newspaper columns that I have written for 23 years. This is my last column, but not the last blog post. I will continue to populate Roadkill Crossing with other musings and of course my photos.

As I near the three-quarters of a century mark in age, I have other writing projects that need my attention. I want to complete them while still having my wits and enough energy to put pen to paper.

I started a memoir of living among the Amish years ago. Completion of that book is long overdue. I have other stories swirling in my head, too. I want to set them to print before the Good Lord calls my name.

In that regard, I hope to share snippets of those with you here on Roadkill Crossing. So, please don’t give up on me!

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Joy in a Time of Sorrow

Yes, it is possible.

A tornado-damaged barn in Ohio’s Amish country.

Like most everyone else, I was shocked and saddened to hear of the death, injuries, and massive destruction left by the late-season outbreak of strong tornadoes that hit the country’s midsection like a gut punch recently.

Given this and other tragic global current events, how can we be joyous now? The answer is both easy and hard.

This family of tornadoes brought sorrow to innocent people. Survivors were thankful to be alive. Many people lost everything, and dozens died.

As I viewed the video of the immediate aftermath of the tornadoes, one clip particularly caught my attention. A first responder walked into a heavily-damaged nursing home where one person died from the tornado strike.

As the firefighter waded through inches of water in the dark, he passed several elderly nursing home residents sitting in their wheelchairs waiting for help. More than one of the residents thanked the firefighter for his assistance.

I was amazed. I figured those poor folks would be in shock and confused. Some probably were. But a few chose to express their thanks and joy for help despite their dire circumstances.

Not everyone can be joyous in this holiday season. Some feel alone. Some are homeless, cold, separated from family, while others mourn the loss of loved ones.

Our family knows those feelings all too well. My wife’s father died just before Christmas in 2001, and eight years later, I lost my father on December 21.

At Dad’s memorial service, I told those in attendance not to be sad for us. Dad loved Christmas and that there was no better time for him to pass on. He would have loved the festive decorations of the church.

During calling hours before the service, friends, family, and acquaintances shared their condolences and heartfelt stories of knowing our father. I remember one young man in particular.

The youngster came with his grandparents to express both his gratitude and sorrow. The young man remembered our father because Dad had shown him his arrowhead collection. That lasting impression exemplified our father’s love for life and learning.

How could we be sad at that? We couldn’t be, of course.

We loved our quirky, gregarious father, and we loved that others had opportunities to experience our father’s wide range of interests and joy for life. The fact that so many took time out of their holiday celebrations and ventured out in the snow and cold to be with us spoke volumes.

Joy on Christmas morning.

Another recollection of joy experienced at a stressful time was at the first fire I responded to as a volunteer firefighter in Ohio’s Amish country. A chimney fire had spread into the attic of a century-old Amish farmhouse. At the end of a 30-foot ladder, I sprayed water onto the fire through a small attic window.

With the flames under control, I looked down to the front yard, and I couldn’t believe the unfolding scene. Scores of people, primarily Amish, rushed in and out of the house, hauling out precious family heirlooms, furniture, dishes, and other items.

Several ladies and teenage girls already had washed some of the family’s clothes and hung them on the laundry line. Talk about expressing joy in the face of despair.

That is the way life is, isn’t it? When we are down and out for whatever reason, joy reaches in and touches our heart and soul and gives us hope.

We can choose to be joyful even in the face of death and terror. At every opportunity, be the joy.

An Amish farmstead in December.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Festive Calla Lilies

My wife and I and another couple toured a greenhouse in the Shenandoah Valley for their Christmas Open House. I was expecting Christmas wreaths and lots of poinsettias. They had those, but these festive calla lilies dressed in their many holiday colors really caught my eye.

I thought you might enjoy them, too.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

What Does Advent Require?

It is more than preparation.

Advent candles and tapestry.

We are halfway through the season of Advent already. Advent in the Christian tradition occurs the four Sundays before December 25. That is the day earmarked as the birth of Jesus.

Advent is generally understood to be an annual time of preparing and waiting for Christmas, the personal recognition of the birth of Christ. For many, Advent is a sacred, significant time.

For others, Advent is just another word in the Christmas vocabulary. It’s familiar to us, but do we genuinely consider its implications in our hustle and bustle before the big day? Perhaps a better question is this: Do we even know what Advent means?

A concise, accurate answer to that question would be to recite the four universally accepted Advent themes: Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love, most often celebrated in that order on Advent Sundays.

An Advent banner at church.

I remember as a youngster having an advent calendar in our home. My two brothers and two sisters and I would take turns opening the little doors to reveal the contents hidden behind each tiny flap.

Each day of Advent revealed a colorful illustration, scripture, or word to ponder, or perhaps a suggested act of service to others.

I just remember the pent-up anticipation of what lay hidden behind each door. It was a successful subliminal modeling method for the Christmas waiting.

To be clear, no one would have described our family as devout. We were “religious” only because we celebrated Christ’s birth and attended the local Methodist church regularly.

But as youngsters, we naturally got caught up in all the secular holiday hubbub. Later in my life, I was introduced to knowing and respecting that other religions had solemn and festive holidays.

Consequently, the older I have gotten, the more I sense a spiritual link between the lights of Christmas and those of Hanukkah. It is a significant element of our Judeo-Christian history for this septuagenarian.

That understanding creates a deeper meaning to Advent, one too often ignored. While we wait for Christmas, Advent also calls us to reflect on what has transpired in the course of history, personally and collectively.

Human history is full of cruelty by one race, tribe, or religion to others who look, live or believe differently. The Trail of Tears comes to mind.

White settlers of our nation literally and brutally pushed out Native Americans from their homelands, where they had lived for generations. Those indigenous peoples not only lost their land, but many also lost their lives in the agonizing march west.

A similar but lesser-known atrocity occurred in Illinois and Wisconsin in 1832. The bloody Black Hawk War opened land to white settlers who replaced the Sauk, Fox, and other native nations.

Nor can we ignore the unethical enslavement of an entire race of people for economic purposes. That indictment, unfortunately, applies far beyond our southern states, where slavery was a way of life.

Perhaps you can add personal examples to this lurid list. Sadly, such horrific atrocities continue today around the globe. We only need to look at the headlines for confirmation.

The oft-overlooked reflective aspect of Advent requires each of us to acknowledge and confess these wrong-doings. Doing so is part of the necessary preparation for the celebration of Christmas.

So, Advent, like life itself, has a dark side. We must allow the season’s light to infiltrate the darkness that is all around us. Preparation, anticipation, and repentance are the main ingredients of Advent.

The principles of Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love help guide us through these dark times into the light. That is what Advent is all about.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Advent Abstract

I took this shot last week about 20 miles from our home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. I was surprised that the photo turned out. I loved the vivid holiday colors that created an abstract look.

Can you guess where this shot was taken? There are clues if you look closely.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Why I Celebrate December

There are many reasons.

An Amish farmstead in December. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh

December has always given me plenty of reasons to embrace the 12th month despite its sometimes wicked weather.

Though not the most important, I’ll confess that the first reason is personal, perhaps even selfish. My birthday is in December. It’s always precisely three weeks before Christmas, which I believe has propelled me through to the holidays over my many years.

Like it or not, the holidays of December take center stage. Marketing gurus ensure we get their messages.

I always look forward to the four Sundays of Advent. Our lives would be a lot more pleasant if we carried the message of peace, hope, joy, and love far beyond the holidays.

A byproduct of those cherished qualities is joyous holiday music. Some of it, of course, has been absconded by the Scrooges of the world. Their tunes can be a bit corny. That aside, the musical sounds of Christmas somehow still warm the coldest day.

I also love the various stories and films created around the holiday season. Charles Dickens’ novelette “A Christmas Carol” tops my annual December reading list. When I taught elementary school, I read it every year to the delight of my students before Christmas break.

I’ll also admit that I’m a sucker for the movie “Home Alone.” In a somewhat ridiculous manner, the classic film brings home the joy and spirit of the season. Even though I have seen it multiple times, I still laugh as the left-behind youngster gets the best of the buffooning burglars.

Even though the holiday decorating seems to happen earlier each year, I still enjoy seeing the many displays of holiday cheer. It catapults me back to the 1960s when our hyperactive father piled his obedient children into the family sedan after dark. We would drive miles and miles, finding a wide variety of holiday light displays.

Of course, Dad had to join in the illuminating competition. He decorated the big pine on the corner of our suburban lot with hundreds of multi-colored lights. He kept at it for years and years, constantly adding to the glowing ostentation.

Those were the days when sending Christmas cards was in vogue. Hallmark loved our dear mother. She addressed and signed the cards in her lovely cursive while her children licked the glue of the stamps and the envelopes to seal them. It’s a wonder we’re still alive.

I always enjoyed a white Christmas. A fluffy layer of snow made it seem warmer than the actual air temperature. We would dust off our sleds and slicken the blades with paraffin to ensure good sledding.

Off we would head to a nearby hill or a local park where others had built snow-packed ramps. One teeth-shattering jump was enough for me.

Of course, we loved when it snowed well before December 25. But snow on Christmas just made that day all the more special.

The holidays always seemed to make December go too fast. In reality, it was and still is all of the activities we pack into preparing for the holidays.

Still, December awakens all of our senses. The fragrant pine wreaths, the ringing of the Salvation Army bells, the twinkling of the light displays, the yummy Christmas cookies, and especially the hugs of appreciative grandchildren fill my spirit to overflowing.

Lastly, it’s humankind’s general geniality that stitches December’s colorful quilt together. I still believe that even amid today’s global health and humanitarian crises.

I hope I am right. Only time and our intentional daily interactions with others can determine that answer. If that happens, that’s the only birthday gift I’ll need.

Advent candles. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Burnt Orange

Bathed by the setting sun.

One basic principle in photography is to “look the other way.” In other words, when everyone else is looking at the obvious photo opp, look around. You just might find something even more enjoyable.

That’s precisely what happened on a recent outing to photograph another glorious sunset. Before the sun disappeared behind the Allegheny Mountains that mark the Virginia/West Virginia boundary line, I turned to look east to find this lovely scene.

The sharply slanting rays of photography’s golden hour bathed the already russet leaves of the stand of oaks around this home. This photo is the way I shot it, with no tweaking needed.

Whether alone or in a crowd, it always pays for a photographer to look the other way.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

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