Go ahead and ring those bells!


Whenever I hear those old sleigh bells, I know it’s officially the holiday season.

It’s not hyperbole in describing those silver bells as old either. My wife’s grandfather used them on his horse-drawn sleigh. Their pleasing tinkle, tinkle, tinkle conjures up all that’s good and joyous about Christmastime. Visions of Rudolph and the rest of his reindeer team pulling jolly Old Saint Nick in his gift-laden sleigh danced in my head.

That enchanting tinkling sound returns every year as Neva gets the urge to decorate the house inside and out for the holidays. That usually happens on a whim, based on our busy schedules and the weather forecast. This year it was a few days before Thanksgiving.

The jingling of the bells is her unintentional announcement that the holiday display initiative has begun. Neva often completes the jolly decorating on her own, whether I’m home or not.

The sound of the bells, however, drew me away from a writing malaise to join in the fun. With the late November weather sunny and warmish, Neva already had the exterior decorating underway.

We had earlier agreed to simplify both the outdoor and indoor displays. Even then, our previous ones were modest by comparison.

Out came holiday quilted wall hangings, seasonal books, and Christmas candles. Up went the artificial holly wreaths and our late friend Helen’s ceramic Christmas tree upon her antique oak end table. The tree’s red lights stay continuously lit against its shiny green bows all tipped with white for snow.

With each completed display, the memories flowed. Barn wood-framed antique Christmas postcards hang near the front door, welcoming all for the holidays. My late father made the frame years ago.

No room goes untouched with Neva’s artistry. A rustic steel nativity scene adorns her grandmother’s china closet.

Dashes of snipped holly and boxwood grace the front porch and family room. A garland of shiny red beads and artificial greenery accompany the sleigh bells that surround the table lamp in the front window. It’s only appropriate that that string of bells take center stage.

Holiday candles and soap caddies gussied up the bathrooms. In the dining area, Christmas tree knickknacks serve as bookends to the candy dish, where red and white peppermint candies tempt me from atop the antique dry sink.

Salt and pepper shakers disguised as Mr. and Mrs. Snowman oversee the kitchen. Holly stenciled water glasses, festively decorated serving bowls, and platters all wait their turn in the cupboards to serve their cheerful purposes.

Neva already had completed most of this by the time the sleigh bells rang. I arrived in time to decorate the tall and skinny artificial Charlie Brown Christmas tree sequestered in the corner of the open spaced living area.

I enjoyed hanging an assortment of ornaments that represent nearly every year of our togetherness. Neva completed the adorning with thin, red-striped candy canes, also an annual tradition.

Next to the tree, strings of little white lights tactfully wind through stacked books resting on the wooden bench a friend had restored. Strings of green garland and white lights and Christmas tchotchke brightened both the back porch and the utility room.

I can’t overlook the subtle but most prominent and meaningful holiday symbol of all. By night, little battery-powered candles flicker from the windowsills. Their glow is small, but mighty, brightening the darkest December nights and the starriest.

That evening I took my tea in an oversized holiday mug. It’s hand-painted smiling snowman enjoyed every sip right along with me.

When it comes to Christmas, our welcome sign is out. My wife always makes sure of that.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Finding purpose during Advent

Advent is at hand. It is the season of anticipation as we draw an end to another tumultuous year on planet Earth.

I find that both ironic and a touch melancholy. As we approach the winter solstice, a celebratory light should brighten the darkness. Yet, for too many, the light is dim or nonexistent. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Our western world is aglow and abuzz with glitzy television commercials, flashing, and sometimes gaudy light displays in keeping the season. But of what honor is gaudiness when so many among us are sad, tired, distraught, hungry, homeless, and helpless?

Enter Advent. It is the antithesis of the holiday commercialization that pounds our senses in nearly every aspect that the marketing Mad Men conspire to throw at us. We lust for gold, frankincense, and myrrh 21st-century style.

Perhaps we need an epiphany before Epiphany to set the holidays aright. We seem to have turned the once admired axiom, “It’s better to give than to receive” on its head. We need to right the ship before we sink.

Though an exclusive Christian tradition, Advent is an inclusive, active, intentional, iconic time for all. Advent is as much an action as it is a prelude to Christmas. In truth, Advent’s meaning far preceded any contemporary applications.

More than a preparation for “God is with us,” some biblical scholars believe that Advent was 40 days of fasting leading up to Epiphany. That shines a new perspective on an ancient holy day.

I apologize for the sermonette. I hope that with these few words, others will also catch Advent’s meaning of watchfulness, alertness, love, peace, and service.

There is no room in the inn during Advent for greed, power, position, wealth, riches, avarice, and hate. Contemplation, meditation, prayer, thoughtfulness, charity, humility, and assistance to those in desperate need purposely fulfill the Advent message and meaning.

So what’s my point? Back in our former home, Holmes Co., Ohio, Share-A-Christmas was always an excellent first start on the eve of this holiday season. The annual community goodwill effort of providing for the needy set the stage for even more opportunity to personally be kind and generous.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the wealthiest country in the world can do a world of good more for those among us who are truly low in spirit. Slow down. Take time to notice who they are and where they are. Opportunities abound all around.

Once aware, be bold, and take the next step. Do so in some personal way that satisfies an immediate need for others. It’s really not that difficult.

When it comes to charity and generosity, spontaneity seasons the gifts. Practicality wraps them, makes them intimate.

Here are a few starter suggestions: Visit the sick. Send a note or card to those in nursing homes. Honor the widows and widowers with nothing more than your listening ears. Meet people where they are.

Though too humble to say so, my good wife set a perfect example for us last Christmastime. As we drove our vehicle toward a red light in downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia, on a cold and blustery night, we noticed a homeless woman holding a cardboard sign on the corner sidewalk.

I offered a bottle of water that I usually carry for such an occasion. When Neva saw that the young woman had no gloves, she instantly reacted. Without hesitation, my wife peeled off her own gloves, and I handed them to the woman.

Advent presented itself, and Neva responded. How can we likewise let our light shine in today’s darkness?


© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

News you may have missed in 2018

By Bruce Stambaugh

It’s been another strange year on Planet Earth. So much craziness filled the headlines that some serious faux pas got overshadowed. Never fear. I kept track for you.

Jan. 12 – A British butcher who got locked in a walk-in freezer used a frozen sausage to batter his way out at his store in Totnes, England.

Jan. 16 – Eyelashes froze when the temperature reached 88.6 degrees below zero in Russia’s remote region of Yakutia.

Feb. 9 – An Alliance, Ohio kindergarten student took a loaded handgun to school for show and tell, but had the gun confiscated by his school bus driver when the boy showed the weapon to the only other student on the bus.

Feb. 23 – A third-grade student fired a police officer’s revolver by reaching into the hostler and pulling the trigger during a safety demonstration at a Maplewood, Minnesota elementary school.

Feb. 27 – Entrepreneur.com reported that the three fastest growing franchises in the U.S. were Dunkin Donuts, 7-Eleven, and Planet Fitness.

March 13 – A study by Bar-Llan University showed that the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors was transferred to their children and grandchildren.

March 14 – A Seaside, California gun safety teacher’s weapon accidentally fired in class, injuring a student.

March 23 – Orange snow fell on much of Europe due to the combination of sandstorm winds mixing with moisture in snowstorms.

April 5 – A report that studied the Sahara Desert from 1920 to 2013 revealed that the desert, defined by areas that receive four inches of rain or less annually, had expanded by 10 percent in that timeframe.

April 9 – Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois became the first sitting U.S. Senator to give birth while in office.

April 13 – A photographer in Madeira Beach, Florida captured a shot of an osprey in flight carrying a shark that was eating a fish.

May 2 – A new report indicated that Americans ages 18 to 22 were far more likely than senior citizens to report being lonely and being in ill health.

May 3 – According to federal research released, the rate of people infected by ticks and mosquitoes has tripled in the last 13 years.

May 9 – A new study by researchers at MIT indicated that fasting could dramatically boost stem cells to regenerate.

May 15 – A Gaylord, Michigan couple opened the hood of their car to discover a squirrel had stuffed 50 pounds of pinecones in their engine compartment.

June 7 – A study showed that seven out of 10 Americans were experiencing news fatigue.

June 25 – A kangaroo bounded onto a Canberra, Australia soccer field, interrupting the play between two professional women’s soccer teams for 32 minutes.

July 3 – Mark Hough of Altadena, California found a black bear bobbing in his backyard hot tub and that the bear had finished off the margarita Hough had left behind.

July 10 – Costa Rica became the first country to ban fossil fuels.

July 21 – After receiving a ticket for speeding, an Iowa woman sped away from police who clocked her at 142 m.p.h. and gave her another citation.

July 27 – A pawn shop in Somerville, Massachusetts bought a stolen violin for $50 and discovered from police that its real value was $250,000.

August 1 – A State of the Climate report indicated that 2017 was the third warmest on record globally after 2016 and 2015.

August 5 – Right-handed reliever Oliver Drake became the first Major League Baseball player to pitch for five different teams in the same season.

August 10 – A new scientific study reported that insect-eating birds consume about 400 million tons of insects each year.

September 10- The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center reported that 600 million birds are killed annually in the U.S. by flying into buildings, most often at night when they are lured by illuminated office windows.

September 14 – New census data reported that Social Security, food stamps, and other government programs kept 44 million Americans out of poverty last year.

September 25 – A record 1,260 dogs attended the baseball game between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox during Chicago’s promotional Dogs’ Night Out event.

September 26 – The United Nations Refugee Agency reported that an unprecedented 68.5 million people globally have been forced from their homes.

October 15 – A report by the University of Missouri indicated that honeybees stopped flying during the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017.

October 31 – The journal Nature published a report that showed over the past quarter-century the Earth’s oceans have retained 60 percent more heat than previously believed.

November 6 – The World Health Organization listed depression as the leading cause of disability in the world, with the U.S. leading the way with 13 percent of its population on anti-depressants.

November 9 – The Center for Disease Control reported that smoking rates in the U.S. at an all-time low, with 14 percent of adults who smoke cigarettes.

November 25 – A Bank of America ATM machine in Houston, Texas dispensed $100 bill instead of $10, and the bank allowed customers to keep the extra money.

December 8 – A 29-year-old Summerville, South Carolina man was arrested for arson after he allegedly burned several of his neighbors’ outdoor Christmas displays.

December 12 – The CDC listed fentanyl as the deadliest drug in the U.S., causing 18,000 deaths from overdoes in 2016.

December 14 – Snopes.com reported that the busiest day of the year for Chinese restaurants in the U.S. is Christmas Day.

Here’s hoping 2019 is a better year for our planet and all its inhabitants.

Happy New Year!

Let’s let the sun set on 2018.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

A Christmas Poem: Do Not Fear

Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg VA.

“We live in fearsome times.” My father told me that when we uselessly practiced nuclear bomb drills by hiding under our school desks, when with trepidation I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of our black and white when JFK called the Russians’ bluff on Cuba, then when Dallas happened, and assassins shot Martin and Bobby, and cities burned, and a president resigned, and revolts occurred, and we always seemed to side with the bad guy, when we chided dictators for gassing people only to bomb the survivors in their mourning.

“We live in fearsome times.” My grandfather told me that when he silently remembered his own gassing in the war to end all wars and died at the age that I am now coughing and coughing and coughing because there were no records that he was poisoned 100 years ago on the western front.

“We live in fearsome times,” I tell my grandchildren in failed efforts to shield them from the constant volleys of lies and accusations and nonsense spewing forth into their innocent world by powerful people who lost their decency, compassion, and empathy long, long ago.

“Have no fear,” I reassure them to ears deafened by headsets and screen time. Still, I think they get it all, the nonsense, the truth-telling, and the untruth-telling. That is my hope in this season of hope. On this darkest day of the year, the winter solstice, there is enough oil now to keep the candles burning. But we have to keep pressing on like those Hanukkah days of old. We must pour new wine into new wineskins, not old. We don’t want to waste the wine by bursting.

We live in fearsome times. We must be patient in the season of waiting. We must choose clarity over certainty, though certainty it is that we too often choose, only to be disappointed, and blame circumstances and others for our wrong choices. Those in the Old and those in the New reported the same. Therefore, in this season of light, hope, peace, patience is the rule as “we live by faith, not by sight.”

Love Advent banner, Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg VAWe live in fearsome times. This is the season of anticipation, joy, love, forgiveness, wonder, when blended, a recipe not to fear. We look for the brightest star to lead us forth, but stars are in heaven, not on earth. Behold the heavenly host is near. Do not fear.

We live in fearsome times. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, not on our terms, but Yours and Yours alone. Our fragility and our insecurity overcome our logic, excite our emotions precisely opposite of what the good tidings proclaim, why the angels yet rejoice. They know the true Ruler is the Lamb, not the lion.

We live in fearsome times. Humans always have, always will simply because we are human, unable or unwilling to listen, to hear, to comprehend the goodness, the freedom, the surety bestowed on us to bestow on others, especially during these dark days.

We live in fearsome times. What will we do? How can we go on? Awareness is enough.

“In the beginning was the word… The serpent was more crafty than any other… Everyone who thirsts… Sing aloud, O daughter Zion… Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah… In the sixth month… In those days a decree went out… In that region there were shepherds… And the Word became flesh… Fear not…” Hallelujah.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

A Dickens Christmas doll display

Last June, my wife and I visited some friends in eastern Pennsylvania. Our excellent hosts Mary and Hubert had to show us the sights. I found one venue a particular joy. It was a company that hand-manufactures dolls, Byers Choice. Among doll enthusiasts, they are a household name. I had never heard of them.

What piqued my interest was their Charles Dickens Christmas display that featured various scenes from his classic novella “A Christmas Carol.” Of course, Byers Choice used hundreds of their dolls as characters in each scene. Because I love that story, I was hooked. I took several photos, which I am sharing with you here as a holiday edition of my Photo of the Week. In honor of the season and Dickens, this post will be the gallery of the week.

I hope you enjoy the photos as much as I enjoyed shooting them.

The first gallery is presented as a tiled mosaic. Please click on the photos to enlarge them.

The second gallery is a traditional slideshow.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Byers Choice, Chalfont PA
Byers Choice showroom.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

Holiday lights illuminate seasonal darkness

holiday lights
Our modest Christmas display under a waxing crescent moon.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I always found it ironic that we celebrate the season of light and hope at the very darkest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand why.

We are in the midst of the season of hope and light. The eight-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah has just concluded. Advent, the Christian pronouncement of the coming Messiah, ends on Christmas Day.

Menorah candles (Getty Image).
It is no coincidence that holiday lights shine the brightest during the season’s darkest hours. Isn’t that the purpose of Hanukkah and Christmas? The Menorah has nine candles while the Advent arrangement has five.

Aligned by tradition and calendar, the two holidays usher in the season of hope and peace through miracles and light. They are intricately and purposefully interwoven.

The darkness challenges us to survive and thrive. To that aim, we ponder, wonder, and imagine all that is both good and wrong with our immediate world as well as the world beyond our personal life space.

During the darkest time of year, the seasonal contrasts are stark. Too many earthly citizens are in despair. They search for the basics of life: food, shelter, water, and safety. Many face loneliness, financial hardships, family disputes, or significant health issues. These are indeed dark times for them.

Dissimilarly, flashy TV and online commercials urge us to delight others via elaborate gift giving. They tout that the holidays aren’t complete without a new car or pickup sitting in the driveway or a glittery diamond necklace dangling around your sweetheart’s neck.

Wouldn’t it be more fitting in this season of hope to bestow blessings on those in need of life’s essentials? Such generous acts would undoubtedly help brighten the dark season of life if only for a few.

Advent candles.
Advent candles on Christmas Day.
The festive seasonal lights shine far beyond the reach of the Menorah and Advent candles. Hope means more than the sparkling, flashing, flickering lights of Christmas, more than the glittery cards and lavishly wrapped gifts beneath a festive tree.

The music of the season should spark a spirit within us to reach far beyond our circle of family and friends with whom we gather to celebrate. Perhaps like me, multiple year-end appeals for funds from bona fide charities that help the poor, the orphaned, the hungry, and the homeless have besieged you.

It is easy to be numbed by the sheer volume of needs. It doesn’t have to be. It would be both prudent and appropriate for those of us who share the Judeo/Christian experience and heritage to shine that warming light to others in whatever way we can. That would both help brighten their potentially dim holidays and create a real sense of personal satisfaction.

Christmas tree
Christmas tree.
As people of faith, shouldn’t we be the light that those in need seek? In the spirit of the season, that is something to ponder and do.

The luminaries of Hanukkah and Christmas remind and challenge those of each faith to reflect on the past and the foundations of their shared customs. The lights also illuminate those in our midst who are hurting and downtrodden.

If each one of us would reach out to help at least one person, one family, or donate to one charity, the holidays would be a little brighter for them and us. Doing so would be reason enough to light yet one more holiday candle.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

Chimneys

Dayton VA, architectural photography,
Chimneys

For a small town, the buildings in downtown Dayton, Virginia have a lot of chimneys. Santa may have to work overtime in this rural village in the Shenandoah Valley.

“Chimneys” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018