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

A Shadow of Itself


This beautiful male pileated woodpecker was only concerned about one thing: breakfast. The early morning sun, low in the southeastern horizon, brightly highlighted North America’s biggest woodpecker just before the winter solstice of 2014. The angle allowed the bird’s shadow and that of the peanut butter suet feeder to be cast on the trunk of the old sugar maple in our backyard near Mt. Hope, Ohio. The pileated woodpeckers came to our feeders year-round, even bringing their young to our home in Ohio’s Amish country. Those birds would be in the top 10 things that I miss since we moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley two and a half years ago.

“A Shadow of Itself” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Reach out to those who can’t celebrate

As joyous and fun as the holidays are, not everyone can celebrate. All of the holiday hype merely adds fatigue and angst for those who have no family or who have lost loved ones this time of year.

Amid our own holiday celebrations, my wife and I have our moments of remembrances. My father died a few days before Christmas a decade ago. So did my father-in-law nine years earlier. A young adult friend, studying to be a doctor, succumbed to cancer, also at Christmastime.

I’m not writing this for sympathy. I’m sharing our story and asking for awareness. For us, the holidays bring mixed emotions. We can be joyously celebrating one moment, and suddenly out of nowhere, we are pricked with the painful reminder of those whom we loved but are now gone.

The sadness, the loss, the hurt all appear uninvited. What sets off the sensation is unpredictable. It could be a familiar fragrance, an innocent comment, or a peculiar sound. It could be nothing more than the thought of missing a father, mother, brother, sister, or friend.

In the cases of my father-in-law and my father, we were relieved when they finally could cross over to the other side. Dementia and cancer can be cruel, gut-wrenching deaths. Even if life’s end does come during the holidays, there is comfort in knowing their physical misery has finally ended.

It was especially so for my father. Dad loved Christmas. When he died 10 years ago, the Ohio winter weather was brutal. An extended cold snap and heavy snow guaranteed a white Christmas. Dad would have loved the brightly decorated church welcoming the holidays.

We said our goodbyes to Dad on December 26, which was a Saturday. We understood if folks couldn’t come. To our surprise, scores of people young and old braved the weather. We were glad they had taken time out of their own holiday plans to pay their respects and share their sympathies with our family at the visiting time and attending the service.

Every year, as we approach this most hallowed time, there are moments when I hear Dad’s voice as clear as if he were still with us. I think it’s a reminder of how childlike Dad embraced Christmastime his entire life. The thought brings a smile to my face every time. That’s the way our father would want to be remembered.

But for others, it can be different. When you lose a loved one no matter the age or situation, the loss can be a shock from which some never recover. If the death or traumatic accident happens during the holidays, the grief can even be more profound.

We must give both space and grace to those who grieve. They need their time alone to mourn, whether their personal loss was recent or decades ago.

However, we must also be inclusive of them, especially if they were left to live alone. That may mean including those who grieve in family gatherings, or it may mean visiting them on their own time and in their own surroundings. Whichever, they must not be forgotten.

The holiday season is meant to be a joyous time, one of celebration, good cheer, and gracious giving. We should always honor it that way.

We must remember, however, that not everyone can celebrate in that manner. Personal loss changes people. In our reveling, we must recognize and embrace their grieving.

Doing so may be the most appropriate gift that we give them.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Keeping Perspective


Perspective is an important element in photography. When I turned around to check on my fellow walkers, I snapped this shot. The side rails on the former railroad bridge provided an excellent example of perspective. Having my wife and friends in the shot also added the perspective of size. The perspective of depth is also demonstrated. The eye goes beyond the walkers far down the bicycle and walking trail.

The photo was taken on High Bridge, the centerpiece of High Bridge State Park, Farmville, Virginia.

“Keeping Perspective” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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