Category Archives: Christmas

A glimpse into the past, hope for the future

living history, old stone house, Granite Quarry NC

Living history.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I parked the van on the 21st Century side of the road and walked with my wife and our host couple across the two-lane highway back to 1766. The combination of the cold winter air and the smoke from several campfires immediately invigorated our senses and drew us in like kids to candy.

It was Christmas 18th Century style at the Old Stone House in the appropriately named village of Granite Quarry, North Carolina. The massive stones that formed the large, two-story house had been quarried a short distance away. A cast of volunteers decked out in period attire for their chosen character roles held me spellbound at every station.

The ladies at the beehive oven kept producing fresh-baked goodies for visitors to sample. The cornbread was pretty tasty. Members of the Mecklenburg Militia caroused around quietly spinning yarns that spanned generations. Still, they did their duty. To my knowledge, no one was arrested for pilfering sweet bread or inciting unrest.

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The militia’s cotton tents appeared flimsy and insufficient to keep out the cold for their camp over. Indeed, a spy told me they all intended to sleep in the comfort of the little log cabin outbuilding that housed a book sale for the event. Given the bite in the late afternoon air, I couldn’t blame them.

The old granite house stood proud and impressive, having been restored 50 years earlier. Its 22-inch walls kept the interior warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

We stepped into the living room to time-appropriate music as our guide rattled off detail after detail of what life was like three centuries ago. Though this house was large and elegant even by today’s standards, life was demanding. The family and their indentured servants and slaves always had plenty to do merely to ensure day-to-day survival.

The children in our group weren’t too impressed with the straw ticking that served as the mattress on the old rope bed. “Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite” took on a practical meaning to them. The guide demonstrated the sizeable wooden key for tightening the ropes that served as slats to hold the mattress. The herb tansy was interspersed with the straw to keep most of the bugs away. We all laughed when a stinkbug crawled out onto the ticking.

Upstairs was plain and noticeably cooler since the only heat came from the first-floor fireplaces. A slave squeezed into a wall space behind the massive kitchen fireplace to keep the fire going overnight.

Since the builder of the house had migrated south from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he modeled his home after the ones he knew. The spacious clapboard kitchen was attached to the main house, wherein that era the kitchen was a separate building at most southern homes.

Old Stone House, Granite Quarry NC

Will the door to the past help guide us into a better future?

The kitchen was the engine that ran the household. Here everything from cooking to spinning to laundry to bathing took place. Since the youngest in the family got the last bath using the same water as the others, you didn’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The guide mused how we still use sayings without knowing their real origin.

In warmer weather, bathing took place in the stream that ran through the deciduous woods behind the house. Likely there was no lingering in that outdoor bathing arrangement.

I marvel at this kind of living history. It allows us to stand in the present, glimpse the past, and long for a better life for all future generations everywhere.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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With the past in mind, decorating for the holidays took on a new look

holiday lights,

Our modest outdoor light display.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Decorating for the holidays is a given at our house. My wife and I have modestly festooned our places of residence ever since we were married.

Before that, we both grew up in homes that embraced the holidays with tinsel and trees, colorful lights and holiday wreaths, Christmas cookies and stockings hung with care. We carried over some of those traditions but also created new ones with our own family.

This year nothing changed, and yet, everything changed. We still decorated, just in a new location. Old traditions, long-held and revered, came to an end.

old ice skates, old wooden sleds

Holiday nostalgia.

We will miss our annual Christmas Eve morning gathering with dear friends and extended families for that meaningful and nutritious breakfast. Those warm memories are still held alive in our hearts.

With the move from Ohio to Virginia, we knew that preciousness would be left behind. We also anticipated new activities, new celebrations, and new gatherings with our daughter’s family and old friends who had relocated here, too. And one by one, those are happening.

With decent weather in late November, my energetic wife got a head start on the celebratory decorating inside and out. I had no choice but to join in. With a smaller house and fewer shrubs, our exterior lighting display lessened, too.

Just like all those years in Holmes County, Ohio, artificial greenery loaded with colored lights still got wound around the welcoming light pole that shines on the sidewalk and driveway.

Artificial evergreen wreaths adorned with burgundy and purple ribbons hang from each window. Below them, battery-powered candles offer soft reminders of the reason for the season. Strings of white lights brighten the porch and a unique old bench we recently purchased at an antique store.

Strings of cheery white lights twinkle from our little concolor fir tree we planted in honor of a dear friend, who died much too soon. Our “Jenny tree” shines brightly, just like our late friend did with everyone she met.

Christmas decorations, holiday decorations

Ready for the holidays.

Inside, we splurged and purchased a new artificial tree and hung trinkets and ornaments that hold personal memories. The same angel as previous years hovers at the top of the tree, blessing all who enter. Neva received it years ago as a gift from one of her students.

My creative wife has a magical touch in making the mundane shine with holiday cheer. A grapevine wreath wrapped with strings of little white lights bedecks the top of an old oak ironing board that Helen Youngs, our Holmes County grandmother, gave us.

The stockings hang from door pulls on the bookshelf instead of the old barn beam mantel on the brick fireplace in our former Ohio home. I’m sure Santa will find them just as quickly.

We do miss that fireplace. Its radiant heat and sweet-smelling goodness just seemed to say Happy Holidays each time I fired it up. Now, we take extra effort to share similar warmth in the season’s greetings we offer others however and wherever we can. After all, the Christmastime fire must always burn from within to ensure its joy is seen and felt by all.

Christmas decorations

Lighting up the ironing board.

The chances for a white Christmas in Virginia aren’t the best. I recall many an Ohio Christmas where that was also true. We joyously celebrated anyhow, and we will do so again this year.

At the darkest time of year, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas all are celebrated with lights. That is most appropriate.

All is well here in the lovely Shenandoah Valley. May the season’s joyous light bless you and yours whatever your holiday situation may be.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Light on the Shortest Day

Christmas lights, memorial tree

Light on the Shortest Day.

The winter solstice, the day with the least amount of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere, arrives at 11:28 a.m. Eastern Standard Time today. Historians note that ancient peoples celebrated this day with festivals of light in recognition that from this day forward daylight slowly but inevitably increases until we reach the summer solstice in six months. They further portend Christianity affixed Christmas to coincide with these secular celebrations. Regardless, Christmas has been on December 25 for ages, though it’s doubtful that is the actual date of Jesus’ birth.

Nevertheless, the holidays are filled with images of lights. Houses are decorated in honor of the season. Businesses, too, join lighting up the dark December nights. Entire towns and cities hold holiday lighting festivities and light up their downtowns with seasonal decorations and glowing lights.

Our family has joyfully joined in that tradition for 46 years. This year, in our new location in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we planted a little fir tree in the backyard. We call it our “Jenny tree” in honor of a friend who died much too soon at age 47. Jenny was a light to the world, to everyone she met, her family, the children with whom she shared at the school where she worked, and of course her coworkers.

Accordingly, I decided to fill our little Jenny tree with white lights. They burn night and day throughout the holiday season as a reminder of the light Jenny so lovingly shared in life.

But for me, today is more than the winter solstice. It marks eight years since my father died. He loved Christmas. Furthermore, my wife’s father died 16 years ago on December 22. And Jenny’s brother, Steve, died of cancer 27 years ago also on December 22. Our little Jenny tree shines its radiance for all of these good folks that we loved and miss so much.

“Light on the Shortest Day” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Inspired by the paradox of Christmas

stockings hung by fireplace

Ready for Christmas.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Make no mistake. The celebration of Christmas is a paradox. It always has been, and likely always will be.

I sensed that conundrum even as a child. Amid all of the glitz and glamor, the singing and shopping, all was not right with the world. Even in my limited adolescent life encounters, I saw extravagance and excess rub shoulders with poverty and despair.

As a young person, I had trouble reconciling such diametrically opposed situations. That didn’t prevent me from tearing into my presents, emptying my bulging stocking hanging by the fireplace, or enjoying the scrumptious meal our devoted mother had fixed.

We celebrated the season of sharing at elementary school, too. Before the classroom party, we often made simple decorations that I later volunteered to deliver to a local nursing home.

I’m not sure how much cheer the painted plaster ornaments or the looping strands of colorful paper chains gave the residents lying helpless in those hospital beds. The scene certainly left an indelible imprint on my young mind and soul.

rural church

Old church.

I took seriously the Christmas message of a different kind of king ruling my life. Growing up in the shadows of World War II and in the daily doings of the Cold War, I felt the chill of unsettled political consequences. I didn’t pretend to understand them.

I just knew my heart, mind, and soul were open to something better, more meaningful, more fulfilling to not only me but also those I encountered. The Christmas story awakened in me as it did the shepherds eons ago.

As I grew and more fully understood that precious bit of history mixed with lore, wonder, and interpretation, I more clearly saw the point of Christmas. Life is full of contradictions, uncertainty, disappointment, hypocrisy, and greed. My duty was to counter the bad with the good wherever and whenever I could.

That belief guided my life. It stirred my career in education. It thrust me into community service via fire and rescue and as an elected official. I enjoyed helping people, and still do. I receive great pleasure in assisting others in need.

I’m no saint, however. I know I made mistakes. I am human. But I did what I could, working with those around me to get things done, mostly for the benefit of others.

So here I am nearly seven decades on this earth, still applying, still pondering that Christmas story of long ago. In so doing, I loathe that others are denied the privileges that I enjoy simply because of their beliefs, their skin color, their economic status, and their dire situation only because of where they live.

Citizens in Aleppo, Syria, Frakes, Kentucky, and Millersburg, Ohio know what I mean. Folks everywhere are hurting, and all the Christmas hoopla doesn’t always heal their hurts. The avalanche of carols, merriment, and partying might even inflame those problems.

The holidays can depress people more than they already are. They miss loved ones who passed on too close to Christmas. I can identify with that, too, having lost family and friends during the holidays.

Christmas display

Christmas joy.

Christmas is a time to ponder. It is an eternal gift that is unwrapped daily. A genuine gift of Christmas celebrates while serving, gives while receiving. It corrects injustices.

If you know a person who is down-and-out for whatever reasons, send them a card. Call them. Visit them. Feel their pain. Hear their cries.

Those are but a few reasonable opportunities to explain and experience this paradoxical holiday we call Christmas.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

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Season of Lights

Advent candles

Advent candles.

In the Northern Hemisphere, we have entered the time of our shortest days, our darkest time of year. We also approach two important religious holidays that happen to occur simultaneously this year. The Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, begins on Saturday. The Christian celebration of Christmas is Sunday, with many activities taking place on Christmas Eve or Saturday.

The Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations each revolve around lights. Hanukkah has its menorah, Christmas its star of Bethlehem. Hanukkah celebrations run through New Year’s Day. Some Christians follow the 12 days of Christmas to January 6, also known as Old Christmas or Three Kings Day.

In both instances, the light shines brightly in December’s darkness. “Season of Lights” is my Photo of the Week.

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

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Giving a gift that really matters

country road

Rural road.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’m about to tell you the best possible Christmas story I could imagine. None of the usual animated characters play a part. No Grinch or Santa, no reindeer or elves, no extravagance or selfishness are involved.

The main characters are two ordinary, observant, wise, and caring women. I think that’s what makes this narrative so meaningful and beautiful. As soon as my wife told me this true story, I knew I had to share it with you. It’s that good. I hope you agree.

I don’t personally know nor have I met the women in this story. Maybe you have. I’m not even aware of their names. We’ll call them Alice and Betty.

Alice and Betty had never met before until recently. They had, however, seen each other daily on their way to work.

Alice lives in the Wooster, Ohio area and works in Millersburg, 16 miles to the south. Betty resides in Millersburg and works near Wooster. These two women travel the same county road to and from their jobs and apparently work similar hours.

Each day Alice and Betty passed one another driving in the opposite directions on their way to work. As they did so, they both began to notice the other. Alice and Betty likely passed near the same location since they kept comparable time schedules.

Amish children, Amish cart

Along the way.

Soon they began to wave to each other as they passed. It became something to look forward to on the routine drive to work.

Their waving became more and more vigorous as time went on. The women looked for one another, partly as a source of reassurance like a sailor seeks a lighthouse. Their mutual waves became bright beacons of familiarity.

One recent morning, Betty noticed that Alice had pulled off the road. Thinking she might need assistance, Betty turned around.

Alice was shocked when her waving buddy pulled in. That’s when the story gets surreal.

Alice couldn’t believe what had just happened. She told Betty it had to be a miracle, and then handed Betty a coffee mug filled with chocolates.

Alice had only stopped to flag down her unknown friend to give her the gift. In the process, she didn’t see that Betty had already gone by. Alice explained to Betty that she struggled at times with enjoying her job.

Amish farmstead

Amish farmstead.

Alice said Betty’s welcomed wave instilled a positive start to each day. Imagine that. Something as simple and easy as a friendly wave made her day, and gave her strength to see the day through even though Alice knew it might be tough.

Betty was stunned. She had no idea her energetic wave had such an affirming influence on this stranger, who in reality was no longer a stranger.

The two women exchanged names and numbers. I have a hunch they’ll be staying in touch with one another more than their friendly waves.

It’s hard to comprehend that such an uncomplicated gesture as a wave from a person you had never met could make such a significant impact on your life. But it did for Alice.

Wonderment and risk-taking flavor this Christmas story. Both women made themselves vulnerable for the benefit of the other.

Isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Isn’t that the purpose of Christmas? Those who believe in the Christmas story are charged with creating joy, not just for self, or for those we know and love, but for all.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Merry Christmas

Advent candles.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

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In the season’s darkness, let your light shine

early snow

What’s wrong with this picture?

By Bruce Stambaugh

Residents of northeast Ohio have now tasted both the Thanksgiving Day turkey and the season’s first snow. The holidays are indeed upon us.

As we prepare to head into the year’s final month, holiday lights twinkle inside and outside homes and businesses alike. Even without radiating any substantial heat, they warm hearts nevertheless.

Most holidays in December focus their celebration around the theme of light just as the daylight diminishes. The days are in fact the shortest of the year.

Advent candles

Advent candles.

I’ve always found it more than a bit ironic that in the darkest part of the year, our secular and religious holidays glow with light. In fact, these important days gather together as if they were competing for our attention as the calendar year draws to an end.

Given the state of the world today, these celebrations of light are just what the doctor ordered. Earth’s inhabitants need as much light at they can get.

It’s only fitting that the major celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, and the winter solstice all squeeze together in late December. It’s like a hidden magnet pulling them into the light itself. I don’t mean to be too jocular about these simultaneous celebrations. Just the opposite is true.

Christians consider Advent, the weeks leading up to and just after Christmas Day, as holy, sacred, magical. My Jewish friends rightly believe the same about Hanukkah.

Those who celebrate the winter solstice as Yule have a practical reason for making merry. From that point forward, daylight increases little by little each day.

It’s all very human of us to acknowledge the importance of light in our lives just when we have the least of it. Doing so gives us hope in the midst of darkness.

Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish festival also known as the Festival of Lights. One candle is lighted each day on the nine-candle menorah. Hanukkah means rededication and annually commemorates the Jewish struggle for religious freedom.

Chrismtas drama

Star over Bethlehem.

Christmas also is a commemoration. Lights of many kinds fill its traditions. The star in the east that hovered over Bethlehem, birthplace of the Christ child, is reflected on Christmas cards, and in displays, plays, poems, stories, and musicals.

Candle lighting services, often held on Christmas Eve, symbolize the birth of Jesus, the Christians’ declaration of the true light of life. In fact, four churches in Millersburg, Ohio will hold a Candlelight Walk on the evening of December 9 to help usher in the season.

My energetic wife had the electric candles glowing in our windows even before Thanksgiving this year. Illuminating each window with candles is a tradition we’ve had for our 45 years together.

In fact, one Christmas long ago our young daughter wouldn’t let us take down the candle in her bedroom window. When I shared in church about Carrie’s insistence, our late friend and resident poet Lorie Gooding wrote a poem about it. To my knowledge, this is the first publication of that poem.

Carrie’s Candle

I have a candle. It is mine.
I like to watch my candle shine.
It was a light for Christmas cheer.
But I’m going to keep it all the year.
Then when the darkness comes at night,
I’m going to watch my little light.
My good daddy and my pretty mother
Smile at my candle. So does my baby brother.
The light is for everyone to see.
But the little candle belongs to me.

Lorie Gooding

My wish for all of you this holiday season is that the light shines brightly in your lives wherever you may be.

sunrise, Amish farm

Morning light.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

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Christmas in the Mountains

Christmas tree farm, West Virginia

Christmas in the mountains.

I pass by this scene on every trip between Holmes Co., Ohio and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Due to schedules or weather, I never had a chance to photograph the beauty of this Christmas tree farm in the mountains of northern West Virginia. But my latest trip proved the perfect opportunity. I wasn’t disappointed. The early morning sun highlighted the various greens and browns of early September, and the rows of evergreens added a geometric touch to the natural beauty.

“Christmas in the Mountains” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

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Merry Christmas!

2015-12-20 12.08.48

All the Advent candles are lit. Only the Christmas candle remains to be lighted.

Merry Christmas everyone!

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

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Being vigilant reaches far beyond Christmas

nativity display, nativity scene, quilting, wall hanging

Nativity display. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Vigilance is one of the main themes of the annual Christmas story. It shines as bright as the star of Bethlehem far beyond that ancient event.

For Christians around the world, the season of waiting for the Christ child, Advent, is nearly over. It is a glorious time of hopeful expectation that is renewed each year as winter approaches.

I have always found it a mystery and an appropriate model that the first folks to see the long awaited Christ light were generous foreigners and lowly shepherds, not saintly religious leaders or puffy politicians. The kingly entourage from the East persisted in their long travels to find the meaning of the glowing light in the night sky.

nativity scene, Christmas, hope

Nativity. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

A heavenly host appeared to the shepherds, not exactly the highest class of citizens even in today’s social mores. Even as a child, I wondered why other folks never noticed what the wise men and the herders plainly saw.

Old and New Testament scriptures alike urge worshipers of God to be on their guard, to be alert, to watch for the light. Asked when that would be, even the adult Messiah said no one would know. The key was to be ready.

As a child, the holiday season meant a lot to me. First came Thanksgiving, the family gathering, and fun and amazing food. Next was my birthday, which always falls three weeks before Christmas.

Just as I knew then, I know now that Christmas is upon us. As a child, those were exciting days of expectation going from unwrapping my birthday present to the anticipation of opening too many gifts beneath the Christmas tree.

Now all those years later, the joy and excitement of Christmas remain, but hopefully for more mature reasons. As a grandfather and mostly retiree, I try to savor and share the mere moments of each day. It’s why I write. It’s why I photograph. It’s why I live.

Amish buggy, Christmas presents

Heading to Christmas.

As I have aged, I realize just how gracious life has been to me through all the experiences I have had. Best of all, most of those blessed moments have been with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and sometimes even strangers who happen to love the same joys in life as me.

To me, the idea of Christmas is to use our senses to absorb, inhale, appreciate, touch, smile, share, and reflect the goodness given to us. Our gift to the world is simple. We are to use each and every opportunity to make the world a better, brighter place, one thought, one kindness, one word, and one person at a time.

From my perspective of living nearly seven decades, there is no higher calling than to make someone’s day, to help where help is unexpected, to give even when it’s your last dollar, to smile though you are hurting.

The first Christmas likely wasn’t December 25. Those poor sheep and their tenders would have been mighty cold. No matter. I like that we flow so smoothly from Thanksgiving to Christmas and on into a New Year in one holiday season.

My goals in life are simple. I try to awake every morning with a keen sense of the unknown. I cherish comfortable rest at night from a day well spent in service to others. Each day we renew the process all over again until our last breath.

Best of all, we know not the hour or the day or the season. We only know to live vigilantly.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Christmas, anticipation, expectation

Christmas anticipation. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

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