Category Archives: holidays

Celebrating the freedom to be kind

Fort McHenry, Baltimore MD

Fort McHenry.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Long ago, someone once tried to trick me with a skewed question. “Do the English celebrate the Fourth of July?” was the query.

My answer went something like this: “Well, the English have a July 4th like the rest of the world, but I doubt that they celebrate it.”

The Fourth of July is Independence Day in the United States. It’s a day of traditions: family gatherings, picnics with hot dogs and hamburgers, baseball games, and fireworks, although the latter is often spread out over a period of days depending on planned community events.

American flags are flown, and many decorate their houses with red, white, and blue buntings. Some communities hold parades with high school bands, fire trucks, decorated floats, and troupes of children riding patriotic adorned bicycles.

In typical American fashion, fireworks on the Fourth of July began in 1777 during the Revolutionary War with England. They weren’t the only flashes and booms in the sky then. Muskets and canons were also fired as ways to increase the commotion and hopefully boost the morale of the rebelling colonists.

A few years later during the War of 1812, Baltimore, Maryland had a life or death situation louder and fiercer than any fireworks. On September 13, 1814, the British Navy opened fire on Fort McHenry, the primary protective garrison of the city’s harbor. Much like today, Baltimore was an essential Atlantic coast port. Its defense was vital against the British, who had just burned the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

The fort withstood a horrific 27-hour bombardment by the British fleet. Francis Scott Key, a noted attorney, witnessed the attack from a ship in the harbor. When the smoke and mist cleared in the morning, Key saw the stars and stripes still flying from the fort, and was moved to write a poem about the battle. That poem became the lyrics for the “Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem.

My wife and I recently visited the fort with a friend. As I watched a replica of the original flag flap in the morning breeze, I thought about the importance of celebrating the Fourth of July. It’s much more vital than food, fun, and colorful pyrotechnic displays.

In these current, trying times, when everyone seems to be talking and fewer people listening, I recoiled at the unnecessary squabbles going on in families, private and public meetings, in the media and on social media. Much of it is not pretty, and too much of it is hurtful, divisive, and driven by fear, not fact.

A person I recently met gave this suggestion: Treat people kindly in the moment. It might be the only time you have with them. She was right.

This Fourth of July, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we began listening to one another without bias, without interruption, without labeling, without being dismissive or rude or worse? After all, we are one nation, made up of many peoples from many different origins, languages, races, religions, beliefs, and backgrounds. That is as the Founding Fathers envisioned in the words of the U.S. Constitution.

So let’s carry on with the usual Independence Day activities. As we join together with family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers, let’s begin again to converse with one another with civility, kindness, respect, and appreciation, whether we agree or disagree with what is said.

That’s how a community as small as a family and as large as a nation should behave in order to thrive. In accomplishing that, we really will have something to celebrate on the Fourth of July besides Independence Day.

grocery store sign

A sign for many cultures.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under architectural photography, column, history, holidays, human interest, news, photography, travel, writing

Give thanks for springtime

Amish farm, sheep, green fields

Springtime in Ohio’s Amish country.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Spring! It’s a word that rolls off our tongues with joy and passion. I give thanks for this vibrant, vernal season, especially after the long, cold winter too many of us had to endure.

This past winter surely tested our patience. But patient we must be. As much as we welcome springtime into our lives, she, too, can be fickle and bring mixed messages. Much like fall, springtime weather can embody all four seasons. Still, let’s give thanks for springtime.

I realize that in our North American society, Thanksgiving is reserved for the fall. Canadians annually celebrate their Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October. U.S. citizens wait until the fourth Thursday in November.

The Thanksgiving holidays acknowledge all that we have. The reflective focus is on the harvest, glad to have reaped the benefits of all the hard labor used to produce the yield. But we also need to be thankful for the spring. There are no apples without the blossoms and the pollinators.

I’m grateful for springtime even though some years, like this year, she takes her good old time making her presence known. Still, I say, let’s all express our thanks for spring’s debut.

Spring’s arrival creates a variety of reasons to rejoice often based on where you live and what activities ensue. Much action has an agricultural bent. Suburbanites will gas up their lawn mowers for the first of many rounds around the yard. City dwellers will pot tomatoes, peppers, and petunias to baby on their balconies.

More ambitious gardeners with sufficient plots of land will plant their seeds and seedlings, always keeping a wary eye on any frosty forecast. Flowerbeds will be mulched, windows washed, and if time allows, neighborly visits will resume right where they left off last fall.

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Songbirds fill the twilight with concertos. Dormant lawns, long browned from winter’s sting, green up from an overnight shower. Azaleas, daffodils, dogwoods, redbuds, and forsythia brighten the awakening landscape. Shouts of children riding bicycles or skateboards echo through neighborhoods regardless of setting.

For all of this, I am thankful. Why not? It is the season of renewal, and after the winter that wouldn’t end we all need a breath of fresh air, we all need to inhale those sweet fragrances, we all need to enjoy each moment as the bees, birds, and butterflies reappear.

No matter how long spring takes to settle in to fit our particular comfort level, we should be most thankful that the season of hope and renewal is upon us. In keeping with that regeneration, it’s good to express our thanks to others each and every opportunity we can. Share your joy with others the way a mother robin cares for its young. Spouse, plumber, daughter, son, grandkids, stranger, receptionist, parents, waitress, checkout person, or whomever you meet will do.

Life is in a constant state of change. Spring is that reminder to us to embrace not just the new season, but life itself. The message of the purple crocuses is to put away your fears. Spring is here. Life is good.

Without the season of renewal, there can be no harvest. At this sacred time of year, let our thankfulness replicate our gratitude for life itself, the life we have lived, are living, and the experiences yet to come.

I’m thankful for spring’s freshness, its vibrancy, virility, brightness, and renewed blessings. Life’s eternal cycle of renewal has returned once again. Let’s rejoice and be glad in it!

blooming crocuses

Rejoicing in the sun.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birds, column, holidays, human interest, nature photography, photography, rural life, weather, writing

Good Friday Church

Good Friday, Amish, Amish church

Good Friday Church.

My wife and I had the privilege of living among the largest Amish population in the world for most of our adult lives in Holmes Co., Ohio. Scenes like this one were common. The Amish take their religious holidays seriously. Good Friday is one of the most solemn for them. They gather for church, often holding communion that would include foot-washing.

Amish churches are divided by districts and size. Since the Amish meet in homes or barns for their church services, the congregational size is usually kept at a manageable size for the hosting families. That is, each church group is about 100 to 120 people, including children.

Since the Amish rely on horse and buggy for their chief means of transportation, the distance to church is also an important consideration in forming each church district. As the buggies arrive at the home where the church is being held, Amish men will park the buggies, unhitch the horses, and put them in a pasture or barn depending on the weather. The service usually begins at 9 and lasts until 11:30 with a light lunch that follows.

“Good Friday Church” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under Amish, history, holidays, human interest, news, Ohio, Ohio's Amish country, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

bullfrog, St. Patrick's Day

Kiss me. I’m green!

I’ve never been one to engage in the all-out celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. However, since March 17 is upon us, I thought I would dedicate my Photo of the Week to highlight that universal holiday.

I took this shot of what I believe to be a bullfrog sunning itself in a wildlife reserve section of a park in Albany, Oregon last August. It was the photo with the most green in it that I could find in my files. In keeping with the tradition of the day, the frog was likely singing, “Kiss me. I’m green.”

“Happy St. Patrick’s Day!” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under holidays, human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, travel

Patriotic Repurposing

WV farm, antique tractor, American Flag

Patriotic Repurposing.

I spotted this scene while traveling along a West Virginia highway. I had to stop to get the photo. I loved all the textures, the various shades of red, and the lines in this shot. The farmer’s patriotism showed through by painting his version of the American flag on an old wooden pallet.

In honor of Presidents Day (Feb. 19), which combines Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (Feb. 12) and George Washington’s birthday (Feb. 22), “Patriotic Repurposing” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under architectural photography, history, holidays, human interest, news, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, travel

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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Filed under Christmas, Christmas deocrations, column, family, holiday decorations, holidays, human interest, Ohio, photography, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, writing

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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Filed under Christmas, Christmas deocrations, family, friends, holiday decorations, holidays, human interest, Photo of the Week, photography, Shenandoah Valley, writing

Holidays and friends are a natural combination

Shenandoah sunrise, Harrisonburg VA

Sunrise over Harrisonburg, VA.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I read an article recently about the importance of having friends. The timing couldn’t have been better.

It was one of those bright and beautiful mornings when I should have been exceedingly happy. American Robins welcomed the frosty day with glorious and varied song, a rare occurrence this late in the year. Having done their duty, they continued their exuberance by mobbing the heated birdbath in the backyard and guzzling the refreshing water, perhaps to soothe their rusty voices.

As often happens in our too busy lives, I forgot this welcome distraction all too quickly. We had early morning business in town. Sign here. Sign there, and we were off to a favorite coffee shop that also happens to offer gluten-free scones. But there was a first world problem. I couldn’t find a parking spot, and I didn’t want to do the drive-thru.

holiday food tray, holiday gatherings

A tray of simple foods beautifully decorated by my creative wife.

I had hoped to enjoy quality time with my wife, sip a mocha and nibble at a tasty treat. Because reality didn’t meet my expectations, I punted and drove home. I know. It was silly of me. Typical man.

Back home I found the article in an email I receive daily. The thrust of the story forced me to immediately readjust my stubborn attitude. The piece presented nothing new or earth shattering but redeemed me with just plain common sense.

In a nutshell, here’s what the writer said about friends. We need them, and they need us. He wasn’t talking social media friends either. As human beings, we need real, live, face-to-face friendships.

Numbers aren’t the point. Connectivity is. The keys, the writer suggested, were having friends who are dependable, enjoyable, and easy to talk to. It was that simple and yet that hard.

That kind of intimacy can only happen with so many people. The suggestion was to gather together a few friends who share that trio of characteristics. When it comes to friendships, quality should always outweigh quantity. The writer said the group should meet regularly to help bolster the relational bonds.

Now in our busy, bustling 21st-century lives that effort takes time and planning. It also requires commitment. That’s the dependable part.

holiday gatherings, friends

Our small group before we ate a simple holiday meal.

If you aren’t already a part of such a friendship circle, the holidays provide excellent opportunities to start. Food is a necessary common denominator in sharing with friends. It’s the equalizer, the icebreaker, and the unifier of people. Food transcends all human hesitations.

Once the group is created, it’s important to set a regular time and place to meet. Each party or couple should be responsible for some aspect of the meal. It doesn’t have to be a feast. A simple dinner will suffice.

In living in the same locale for nearly 50 years, Neva and I had all of that. We knew what we were giving up when we decided to move to the Shenandoah Valley to be near our grandchildren.

We hoped it wouldn’t be long before we would be gathering with new friends, and that’s precisely what has happened. We’ve joined a like-minded set of former Ohioans who have also resettled in the area. We meet once a month, and food and inspiring conversation are always given elements of our evenings.

Find the folks you enjoy, who are dependable, and who are affable. Begin with a holiday party. It just might be the start of a routine that will fill your life with unexpected joy, just like robins suddenly singing on a chilly December morning.

robins, birdbath

Gathering around water hole.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under birds, column, food photography, friends, holiday decorations, holidays, human interest, photography, writing

This birthday is a big one and I’ll enjoy it just like all the others

birthday, birthday cake

A previous birthday with the grandkids.

By Bruce Stambaugh

When I was a youngster, I never liked having a birthday in December. From my perspective, my day always seemed to get caught up in the hubbub of the holidays. I suspect that was just my juvenile selfishness surfacing.

Fortunately, I eventually got over that attitude. Unlike others I know I thoroughly enjoy birthdays. If they get hidden in the holiday hoopla, so be it. I’m still determined to embrace each and every one. That wasn’t always my attitude even far beyond youthful facetiousness.

I remember when I turned 30. It wasn’t pretty. I got depressed. I couldn’t believe I was that old. I look back at that experience and chuckle. I’ve learned a lot since then. I’d trade that day for this one in a heartbeat if I could.

Christmas tree

The tree went up right in time for my birthday.

After that, birthdays became more or less routine celebrations unless someone pulled a surprise on me like some teachers did once. They thought it would be cute to post a larger than life sign in the front yard of the school announcing the principal’s 39th birthday. I played along and tried to be as good-natured about Jack Benny’s perpetual birthdate as I could.

Based on the comments of others older than me, it was turning 50 that I really dreaded. As it turned out, the watershed date proved a dud. I had already lost most of my hair by then anyhow.

It was turning 60 that really got me. It was as if a switch had been flipped and my body suddenly screamed at me to slow down, take a rest. My knees ached. What muscles I still had disappeared just like my hair had long before that. It was my body’s way of saying I really wasn’t 39.

There was one ironic quality about hitting the big 6 0. It bothered my son more than me. He had turned 30 seven months earlier. Nathan rightly recognized that he was exactly half my age and that would never happen again. That thought alone agonized him and energized me.

Now that I’m about to turn 70, I recognize and accept that I’m heading down the homestretch. I look back on my life with smiles aplenty. I’ve enjoyed this long ride and have many wonderful folks to thank for getting me to this point.

My wife leads that pack. Behind her are my son and daughter, their significant others, our three grandkids, my siblings, and a host of other family, friends, and coworkers. I’d be remiss to forget my late parents and in-laws. Regardless of our achievements, none of us passes through life alone.

birthday celebrations

Celebrating birthdays on a recent visit to Ohio.

As I look back, of course, I also recognize a few of my imperfections and mistakes. Others are better suited to identify those faults. Thank goodness that heartfelt apologies can create lasting lifetime friendships.

I’ve tried to learn from my errors. Now that I’m 70, I want to keep that learning process moving so that my old brain remains sharp and curious for as long as possible.

I recall much that has happened in my seven decades of walking this marvelous planet of ours. Both personal and universal, joyous and calamitous events have filled those years.

Birthdays are hallmarks of individual lives no matter the age or when they occur. I’m just grateful to be 70. That said I’ll aim to redouble my daily efforts to serve as wisely and productively as I can. At my age, that’s all that can be expected.

70th birthday, rosy sunset

Hoping for a rosy road ahead.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Happy Thanksgiving!

driftwood tree, Little Talbot Island State Park FL

Standing strong.


A straggly driftwood tree on a lonely beach might seem like a strange symbol with which to say “Happy Thanksgiving.” From my perspective, it’s just right. The stalwart tree, battered by wind and sea, still stands. To me, it serves as a reminder of all those in the world today who have so little, who daily strive to just find food, water, and shelter. Likely, we don’t have to really look too far to find folks who lack at least one of those most precious life necessities.

It struck me that the tree dramatically overshadows the person walking the beach looking for seashells and sharks teeth. Of course, this is due to distance. That perspective, however, serves to highlight just how small we are in relationship to all of the world’s human problems.

My point on this Thanksgiving Day in the United States is for all of us to be extra thankful for all that we have. It’s too easy to take for granted the gathering of friends and family around a bountiful table of your favorite Thanksgiving offerings. As we partake in the meal, let us remember in prayer and in decisive action those who have so little.

“Standing Strong” is my Photo of the Week.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under family, friends, holidays, human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, writing