Let’s make the holidays as cheerful as we possibly can

I don’t know about you, but I am more than ready for the holidays. It’s been a long year with all that has happened, and we still have a month to go in 2020.

What a month it is, though. Holidays of all sorts fill December. For Christians, Advent marks the beginning of the Christmas season, the four Sundays before the big day on December 25.

For our Jewish friends, Hannukah runs from the evening of December 10 to the evening of the 18th. The winter solstice is December 21.

Orthodox Christians, Amish, and other faiths extend the season into the New Year with the celebration of Epiphany or Old Christmas on January 6. That’s the date fixed for when the three kings found the Christ child by following the bright star.

All of these special days revolve around the idea of light. That is most appropriate in these dark days, figuratively and literally.

Each celebration puts the onus on us. We need to be the light that brightens these bleak times. That is especially true given the resurging coronavirus. The tightened restrictions on group sizes will undoubtedly alter our traditional holiday gatherings. That’s as it should be to keep us all safe.

Consequently, we will all need to be on high alert for ways to brighten the holidays for others. We need to contemplate how to spread that cheer, directly and indirectly.

Packing school kids for children overseas sent through Mennonite Central Committee.

I see the holiday season as an opportunity to finish out this unimaginably horrific year on a better note. Amid the gloom and doom that permeates our daily lives, we each have chances to make this holiday season extra special. The secret is in our daily actions.

That’s true every day, of course. But during these next few weeks, we will likely have multiple occasions to overshadow the social angst and dark news with the shining light of kindness, generosity, and compassion.

To keep the cheerful holiday spirit alive throughout the season and into the New Year, we need to stay alert for every opportunity to spread goodness to others. We may not be able to counter all the dark news that swirls around us. We certainly should not add to it, however.

I’ve noticed that some people already have gotten into the spirit. They have their Christmas trees up and doors decorated with wreaths. Towns and cities have erected their holiday banners, lighting, and trees, too.

As a child, I always enjoyed the holiday lights. I suppose I have my father to thank for that outlook. Every Christmastime, he would load his progeny into the family car, and off we would go looking for decorated neighborhoods. Sometimes we would drive to other cities to see the holiday lights and department stores’ decorated display windows.

I’ve never lost that passion. My wife and I have continued our family tradition of displaying candles in our windows. It’s our way of sharing the bright holiday spirit. We intend to leave them up longer than usual this year. You just never know how such little things can positively affect others.

Our sharing the light with others doesn’t have to be extravagant or expensive. Send a card to someone you know but haven’t communicated with for a while. Drop your loose change in the red kettle. Secretly send someone a gift card from a local small business.

In what ways can you help brighten the holiday season and still keep yourself and those around you safe? How can you help others improve their life, even if it’s only a simple gesture?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Celebrate a different Thanksgiving differently

A bygone Thanksgiving morning in Ohio’s Amish country.

Thanksgiving season is upon us here in the U.S. The day won’t be the same as in years past, with the pandemic still raging. Nevertheless, we can, and we should celebrate.

I have always relished Thanksgiving. The food, the fellowship, the interplay of cross-generational conversation and gaming made the day special.

Growing up in blue-collar northeast Ohio, my four siblings and I had a boatload of first cousins with whom we communed on Thanksgiving Day. Our maternal grandmother graciously oversaw the gathering of her three daughters and their families.

A buffet of all the traditional Thanksgiving goodies filled the long dining room table at our Aunt Vivian and Uncle Kenny’s place, where we usually assembled. Other relatives occasionally joined us.

Besides gorging ourselves, we played football, hide and seek, and sang at the piano. By day’s end, both our stomachs and our souls were more than satisfied. Laughter and familial love will do that.

As the children matured to teens and then to adults, spouses joined in the festivities. Out of necessity, each family began meeting separately.

Thanksgiving Day resembled a progressive supper. It was one house for a noontime holiday spread and then dinner at the in-laws with an equivalent bounty.

Those traditions evolved even further when our children married or moved hours away. Thanksgiving became an extended holiday to accommodate as many attendees as possible. We would eat our way through Thursday to Sunday.

Regardless of the settings and meeting arrangements, fond memories always resulted. That was true even if the mashed potatoes were lumpy or the dressing was too dry.

This year, those memories will have to flavor Thanksgiving Day whatever, however, and wherever we celebrate. The coronavirus will likely alter any large gatherings, even if they include all family members.

As the contagious pandemic continues to spread and spike, we all have to do our part to thwart its invisible advance. It never was going to evaporate, no matter who won the presidential election.

This Thanksgiving, we have to let go of our traditions, our expectations, and our American pride and do what is best for the common good of all. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises against any large-group inside gatherings.

The professional advice is that people not be in an enclosed space with the same people for more than 15-minutes. I’ve been known to be a fast eater, but not that fast.

For my wife and me, that means we will be hoping for a warm Thanksgiving Day to meet outside with our daughter, her husband, and our three grandchildren. We’ll connect as we are able with our son and his wife in New York.

This pandemic has been the paradigm shift of a lifetime for all of us. It’s been hard for us, independent-minded citizens, to accept governmental and medical leaders’ guidelines and restrictions.

Trying to provide accurate safety information about a new and dangerous virus can’t be easy. It is incumbent on all of us to follow the advice to help slow this COVID-19 until an effective vaccine arrives.

Nevertheless, virus or no virus, Thanksgiving Day will arrive, and we should express our great gratitude. How that occurs is an individual choice, of course.

I am grateful for the many blessings received over all these many years. If we can’t meet in person with our family like my nostalgic recollections, I will be disappointed. However, we can still express our appreciation virtually.

The principle of being thankful is the very foundation for Thanksgiving. Let us all keep that tradition alive as joyously and safely as possible.

The traditional Thanksgiving turkey.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Celebrating the universal work ethic

Old Order Mennonite farms dot the landscape in western Rockingham Co., Virginia.

Americans will enjoy yet another three-day weekend in the U.S. with Labor Day picnics and outdoor events of all kinds. However, this year’s activities likely will best be tempered with proper physical distancing and perhaps a dab of humility, given all the national chaos.

Labor Day became a national holiday when President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law in 1894. It designated the first Monday of September as a day to honor all those who work. Several states had done so previously after labor strikes and deadly battles between workers and authorities. The ugly details, unfortunately, compare equally to today’s ongoing strife in the U.S.

Growing up in a blue-collar town in northeast Ohio, Labor Day served two purposes for the young. It was yet another three-day holiday weekend, and it marked the end of summer. A half-century or more ago, summer vacation from school ran Memorial Day to Labor Day.

As a youngster, I don’t recall being curious about why there was a Labor Day. As an adult, I now know that it was a hard-fought effort on the part of laborers for fair pay, decent work hours, and safe conditions.

Amish children routinely help adults with chores, especially on farms.

Even in a pandemic, we can easily forget or ignore the efforts of others to make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable. In that regard, Labor Day might be the most under-appreciated U.S. holiday.

During the Industrial Revolution, machines created jobs, and people willingly and unwillingly filled them. Men, and too often children as young as six-years-old, worked long, grueling hours, sometimes half a day with no overtime pay.

The children, of course, were paid far less than the adults for the same amount of work time. Such treatment helped bring about our current child labor laws.

It only seems logical to have a holiday that celebrates work. A strong work ethic is valued in cultures worldwide. Too often, however, folks don’t see it that way. They imagine that they somehow have a grip on the virtue of work, while at the same time chastising others as lazy or preferring government handouts.

Harvesting coffee beans in Honduras is a family affair.
Multiple trips to Honduras helped me see through that divisive thinking. Hispanics like to work as well and as hard as any other culture. They also did so earning less than a dollar an hour for a day’s work in maquilas, or sweatshops, making brand name clothing for citizens of the western world to wear.

We are fortunate in this country to have had workers who banded together in the 19th and early 20th centuries to demand fair pay and safe working conditions. Today, however, say the word “union,” and it might be the end of a budding conversation.

The truth of the matter is that were it not for unions and strikers, we might not be enjoying an extra day off of work this weekend. Given our fast-paced, 24/7 online universe, many workers might rightly wonder, “what day off of work?”

Our grandson mowing our lawn.
I much appreciate the influence of my parents, grandparents, and their peers in modeling the importance of having a strong work ethic. It helped my siblings and me in gaining an education, training, and extended careers.

Energetic peers surrounded my wife and me for all of our adult lives in Ohio’s Amish country, where work ethic continues to be revered. It’s equally so in the Appalachian and Old Order Mennonite cultures in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where we now live.

This Labor Day, like every Labor Day, we will smile upon the generations of bold laborers who made it possible for us to work and play along life’s way.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Celebrating July 4th, then and now

A Fourth of July parade in Lakeside, Ohio.

As a youngster, I remember having mixed emotions about the Fourth of July. It had nothing to do with my patriotism, and everything to do with my youth.

I joyously anticipated the fireworks displays, wherever and however we got to see them. The reality, though, was that this red, white, and blue holiday marked the halfway point of the year. More importantly, it meant in my young mind that we were already halfway through the summer. Schools would be starting before we knew it.

When my four siblings and I were young, we would gather on a starry July 4th night on the edge of the hill a block west of our brick bungalow. We would anxiously look south and wait for the sparkling pyrotechnic patterns.

On rare occasions, we talked our father into driving closer to Meyers Lake Amusement Park, where the fireworks were ignited to explode over the lake. To avoid the parking lot traffic jam, Dad chose a side street that afforded a decent view of the aerial show.

The fireworks tradition continued into my adulthood when my wife and I started our family. From our home on County Road 201, we could see fireworks from various towns north, east, and southeast.

The summer of 1988 may have been the best time for fireworks for our family of four. Flying back from a vacation in California, we left Chicago’s O’Hare airport right at dark for the last leg of our trip. We looked down from on high as multiple fireworks displays erupted until we landed an hour later at Ohio’s Akron-Canton airport.

Nature’s fireworks over Holmes Co., Ohio are just as impressive.

Years later, friends built a beautiful home high on a hill overlooking Millersburg. They had the perfect view of the fireworks shot from the safety of the former county fairgrounds location. Our friends made it a grand occasion, inviting one and all. A plate of food to share was the price of admission.

I enjoyed the fellowship of friends, former students, and some people I had only just met. We oohed and awed together once the colorful and noisy celebration began.

That’s one tradition we left behind when we moved to the heart of Virginia’s lovely Shenandoah Valley. Our city launches its fireworks display from a local park. We have enjoyed the show with our grandchildren on more than one occasion. Not this year.

A local resort, Massanutten, also holds a festival that features fireworks. However, like many locations across the nation, that won’t happen this year because of the pandemic. Officials were wisely concerned about keeping physical distances, which is much harder to do with crowds of people.

Massanutten Mountain, Harrisonburg, VA.

Some localities canceled everything, while others like Massanutten, canceled the festival. The fireworks will fly as usual.

These are the times in which we live. We need to accept that we are in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century. The viral repercussions range far beyond silent, darkened skies on the Fourth of July.

Declaration of Independence, U.S. ConstitutionOur Founding Fathers created the most daring democratic republic experiment ever attempted. It’s entirely up to each of us to make sure our democracy endures for all peoples to exercise each of their first amendment rights.

Whether watching fireworks live or on TV, let those symbolic rockets red glares and bombs bursting in the air be a rededication to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Can the sparks ignite a new fire of freedom for all the nation’s people regardless of race, color, creed, or religion? Isn’t that the intent of the First Amendment?

Only then can freedom truly ring.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Keeping Memorial Day memorable during a pandemic


I am glad we have Memorial Day. Its intent is like no other U.S. public holiday.

There is no popping of champagne bottles, no chocolate bunnies, no fireworks, no unwrapping presents. Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was set to honor the Union soldiers lost in the Civil War.

Now, of course, Memorial Day has a much broader purpose. In 1968, Congress established the last Monday in May as Memorial Day to honor all who served. The legislation also created a three-day weekend for federal employees.

A Civil War monument.
Consequently, Memorial Day morphed into a long weekend with picnics, barbeques, family gatherings, patriotic parades, and other assorted gatherings. Miniature American flags mark the graves of veterans.

Memorial Day always meant a lot to my parents. They made sure fresh flowers were placed or planted at the graves of close relatives. It was a time of solemn, respectful remembrances.

I embraced that lesson. After Dad died, I took it upon myself to carry on the family tradition of commemorating family graves with flowers. By then, most cemetery rules had changed to only allow artificial arrangements and wreaths at headstones, and only for so long.

I suppose real or plastic floral displays weren’t the point. The act of remembering was what mattered.

Since we no longer live in Ohio, that physical act of remembering has ended for me. Like most everything else in our current COVID-19 world, I’ll do a virtual visit through my photo library to pay my respects and refresh my memories.

The pandemic will definitely make this a different kind of Memorial Day for most. Many parks and playgrounds will rightly remain closed as a necessary precaution against the spread of this invisible virus.

There will be no baseball games to attend or watch, no picnics to enjoy the fellowship of family and friends. Concerts and parades have been canceled. Nevertheless, we can still carry on the intended spirit of the day.

I will sit on our patio and contemplate the good times of the past. I will especially remember those who are gone. I’ll recall memorable family stories that my parents told about relatives that I never met. Grandpa Frith died from accidental electrocution six months before I was born. A thoughtless prank in a steel factory killed a great uncle. Every family has similar sad stories.

In many places, our western society views Memorial Day as the end of the school year and the unofficial start of summer. Both of those may be true, but the classes of 2020 won’t have the pomp and circumstance of traditional commencement ceremonies or the celebration of graduation parties.

As much as we would like to be out and about for such events, my wife and I will continue to play it safe. We will continue to social distance and mostly stay at home for the duration.

Vacations, weddings, celebrations, and sports activities, to name a few, have all been canceled, delayed, or postponed due to the spread of the deadly virus. Many may happen virtually using today’s innovative technology.

For that, I am happy. However, many will mourn either a recent loss or a loved one who died long ago. I will grieve, too.

Memorial Day is for remembering and honoring. For those who survive this momentous universal event, however long it lasts, I hope they look back to this Memorial Day in awe. I hope, too, the day will etch a more meaningful, profound, and indelible mental mark.

Wasn’t that the primary point of Memorial Day? Isn’t it still?

Making memories.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Honoring a loving mother

mother and children
This photo of my our mother and my siblings and me was taken at Christmas 2011.

My brothers and sisters and I were fortunate. Our late mother was as loving and caring as we could have ever hoped.

Mom exhibited those endearing qualities for as long as I can remember until she died eight years ago. Even in her final months as Alzheimer’s took its toll on her memory, she remained pleasant. As her adult offspring, we embraced her goodness as often as we could.

As a gang of five youngsters, I’m sure we didn’t fully understand or appreciate just how kind our mother was. Still, each of us tried to express our love and affection for our kindly mother, especially at Mother’s Day.

As I recall, our elementary school teachers spurred us on with class projects that created gifts for our mothers. The fact that most of the teachers were mothers themselves likely influenced their desire to honor our mothers.
tulips, spring flowers
The art teacher helped with that cause, too. She had us make cards or draw flowers or paint a landscape for our mothers.

Ironically, my only male teacher in elementary school was perhaps the most resourceful. Mr. Bartley arranged for a local greenhouse to have a variety of violets for us to choose as Mother’s Day gifts. We walked from school to the nursery, picked our flower, and handed over the dollar bill that sealed the deal.

Our mother loved flowers, so I was most pleased with the teacher’s decision. It just so happened that the lovely plant that I had selected bloomed as a double-violet. Mom’s smile doubled, too, when she saw the frilly bloom.

Mom cultivated flower gardens around the exterior of our red-brick bungalow. She loved the bright tulips, the white, yellow, and blue irises, and the showy roses.

I loved them, too. One particular red tulip stood out to me, and I wanted to share it with my teacher. Mom took time out of her busy household chores to carefully dig up the flower and place it in a terracotta flower pot for my teacher.

Not only did she grow flowers, but she also painted them, too. When my sister Claudia brought home a fragrant, bulging bouquet of lavender lilacs, Mom was moved.

She placed them in a pitcher and was so enamored by them that she also painted a stunning oil still-life that perfectly preserved that marvelous gift. Fittingly, my sister still has the painting that she inspired, “Claudia’s Bouquet.”

Mom did her best to feed her hungry flock on Dad’s meager salary. Supper was always ready by the time he arrived home from work. Her Sunday noon meals were the highlight of her culinary skills.

Besides being an artist and homemaker, Mom enjoyed sports, too. If my brothers weren’t available, Mom would take time away from her household chores and play pitch and catch with me. She threw straight and hard, too.

You can imagine with our brood that our mother’s patience could easily wear thin at times. She was never mean or harsh with her discipline, which I think made us kids feel even more guilty for whatever offense we had committed.

I’m glad there is a day designated to honor and remember mothers everywhere. I realize that not everyone had a happy and loving relationship with their mother. It’s all too easy to take a mother’s love for granted or to think that all mothers are as devoted as mine was. I wish they were.

I am glad that Marian Frith Stambaugh was a caring, loving person. And I am incredibly happy that kindness and creativity are her motherly legacies.

Rural road by Marian Stambaugh

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

The shortest month packs a punch

reading, reading to grandkids
Even in Leap Year, February is still 2020’s shortest month. That doesn’t deter it from packing a lot into its 29-day effort.

The mini month has so many designated days that I’ve had to pick and choose which ones to highlight. I apologize in advance if I fail to mention your favorite.

February 1 is Read Aloud Day. I highly support this idea, especially if you happen to have young grandchildren.

I’m pretty confident that day will be overshadowed by the events of February 2, however. February 2 just wouldn’t be complete without the human-induced appearance of Punxsutawney Phil on Ground Hog Day.

The good citizens of the little Pennsylvania town know how marketing works. The organizers get more than their 15 minutes of fame out of the annual silliness of speculating on winter’s dallying.

This year, however, Super Bowl LIV will give old Phil a run for his money since it’s on the same day. Phil will have to be exceptionally creative to grandstand the pregame football ballyhoo hoopla.

I’m not sure if there is a connection or not, but February 3 is the first primary election of the 2020 presidential campaign. Iowans take to their caucuses to express their personal preferences. The next day is World Cancer Day, an international effort to save lives and raise awareness.

I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t mention that February 5 is the annual National Weatherperson Day. It’s designed to recognize all of the professionals who forecast the weather in this crazy climate era in which we find ourselves.

Friday, February 7 is National Wear Red Day. You would think this should be a week later. However, this day is dedicated to raising awareness about heart disease, indeed a worthy reason to don the supportive color.

Sunday, February 9, marks three different occasions. Tu Bishvat is the Jewish New Year for trees and marks the day to set aside tithes for the poor. For movie buffs, it’s also Academy Awards night and conveniently National Pizza Day.

February 13 is International Friends Day and National Cheddar Day. That sounds like an opportunity to invite your friends over for toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.

No reminder is needed for February 14, Valentine’s Day. But just in case, consider this your cue to order the candy and flowers and make those dinner reservations.


Of course, Monday, February 17, is Presidents Day, the day to honor our first president George Washington. His birthday was actually February 22, while Abe Lincoln’s was February 12. Once again, the madmen of marketing persuaded Congress to squish the two birthdays together into one countrywide sale event on everything from mowers to mattresses.

February 18 is National Drink Wine Day. We need a day for that?

February 20 hosts two designations: National Love Your Pet Day and World Day of Social Justice. Both are worthy causes.

International Mother Language Day is Friday, February 21. It rightly promotes linguistic and cultural diversity, along with quality education, unity, and international understanding.

It’s no coincidence that Mardi Gras falls on February 25, also known as Fat Tuesday. The day also recognizes Strove or Pancake Day, which honors the world’s oldest widespread food.

Ash Wednesday is February 26. For Christians, it marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent in preparation for Easter.

The shortest month is stuffed with a variety of celebrations, some fanciful, others sedate. Given that, February serves as a metaphor for life. It makes each day count. So should we.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Christmas Morning in Amish Country


This is one of my favorite Christmas morning shots. It’s also very personal and sentimental. After 37 years in the same house, December 25, 2016 was our last Christmas here before we moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to be near the grandkids.

This photo shows our granddog, a Sproodle (English Springer Spaniel/Poodle mix), watching a horse-drawn Amish buggy trotting by the house. It was a familiar scene for us all those years. The clop, clop, clop of the horses’ hooves on the payment of the busy road on which we lived soothed our souls. We miss that a lot.

I suppose, in part, that is why I chose this peaceful Christmas morning photo to share. I took it in the calm of the blessed morning before the grandkids awoke one last time at our Holmes Co., Ohio, home.

“Christmas Morning in Amish Country” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Putting mystery back in the holidays of miracles and light


December’s mainstay holidays are cloaked in mystery and miracles. Darkness to light summarizes the current holiday season theme regardless of which ones you observe.

Hanukkah, Christmas, and even the winter solstice share those common qualities. They each come with their own history, a bit of mystery, and a requisite for reverence. The three even overlap in time, traditions, and symbols.

Hanukkah and Christmas each have deep, overlapping religious roots, while the winter solstice has pagan origins. All three, however, connect winter’s darkness with some concept of light. In fact, the triumvirate celebrates light in authentic, yet distinctive practices.

Besides illuminating light in the year’s darkest time, this triune of holidays has another commonality. The celebration of all three can last for days in keeping their specific purposes.

The winter solstice occurs when the sun reaches its farthest southward point for the year. That is precisely 9:19 p.m. EST on December 21. In Universal Time, the winter solstice is December 22 at 4:49 a.m.

The winter solstice marks the latest dawn and the earliest sunset. It is the longest night and shortest day for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course, it’s just the opposite for those south of the equator.

History and archeology show us that earth’s early peoples recognized this critical point in whatever way they marked time. They understood that the sun’s path could be predicted on a regular route across the sky.

Archeological wonders like England’s Stonehenge and Peru’s Machu Picchu stand as evidence of this. Indigenous peoples in America’s southwest also marked the end of darkness in similar light-filled ceremonies.

Historians are still unraveling the mysteries of these cultural rituals. Fire and light were essential symbols in most of these ancient celebrations. I marvel at how those two entities connect to Hanukkah and Christmas.

This year Hanukkah is celebrated by the Jewish faith from December 22 to 30. Hanukkah is the commemoration of a historic miracle involving light.

The Jewish holiday arose after the temple in Jerusalem was recaptured from cruel ruler Antiochus. Wanting to rededicate the holy temple, the Judah victors found only enough olive oil to burn sacred candles for one night. Mysteriously, the menorah candle burned for eight consecutive nights, establishing the miracle of Hanukkah.

Christmas, of course, is December 25, most likely assigned that date to coincide with the winter solstice and Hanukkah celebrations, according to some historians. They reasoned that if the shepherds were guarding the grazing sheep, the season would have been one other than winter.

Regardless, Christmastime is a celebration of another kind of light. It, too, is rooted in a miracle, that of Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus, meaning, “God with us.”

Christians begin the Yuletide season with the Advent preparation four weeks ahead of Christmas Day. Some sects of Christianity then extend the celebration to January 6 or Epiphany or Old Christmas, which the Amish humbly celebrate.

For me, in this blend of holidays, the light brings anticipation of better things to come: lighter, longer days, a hope for a better, sunnier new year, the joy of personal peace by walking with the light, and the love of all Creation.

The vibrant spirits of the season, miracle and mystery, gently weave the interconnected holiday celebrations together with the threads of hope, joy, peace, and love. Will we allow ourselves to be wrapped lovingly in this warm garment more radiant than the brightest star?

I pray that the mystery of miracle envelops you and yours in joy and light this holiday season.

Winter solstice sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019