Holiday lights illuminate seasonal darkness

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

By Bruce Stambaugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

For birders, migration is like Christmas in springtime

Bay-breasted Warbler, migratiing birds, locating birds
Migrating warblers, like this Bay-breasted Warbler, are often easy to hear but hard to locate since they usually stay high in trees and are constantly on the move feeding. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

Like children dreaming of Old St. Nick on Christmas Eve, this is the time of year birders have yearned for, longed for, relished.

For hardcore birders, spring migration is a Christmas morning that spans several weeks from mid-March to mid-May. Avid birders are especially on the alert now to find the many species they seek, and some they couldn’t even imagine.

Rock Wren, rare birds, spring migration
Rock Wren. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
When a rarity shows up like the Rock Wren did last spring, it’s a birding bonanza. The Rock Wren became a rock star. For several days, the bird from America’s southwest was a magnet, attracting folks from far and wide to Holmes County.

Such birds are the exception. The spring migratory norm is to view birds that either return here to nest or to catch a glimpse of those that are just passing through. Depending on the weather, the transients might stay a day or two, or just make a short pit stop to rest and refuel.

The challenge is to be at the right place at the right time to see and hear the birds.

For me, I’m just as happy to note the return of my backyard birds. The Chimney Swifts rattled the fireplace doors as they swooped into our chimney the evening of April 18, the same date as last year.

How do I know? Like most birders, I keep a list of when I see a species for the first time each year. In the birding world, that’s known as the FOY, first of year. For instance, the Red-headed Woodpecker was a day later than last year, arriving April 21.

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Today’s birders use social networking sources to track the movement and appearance of the various species. That gives the flocks of birders a heads up on finding and photographing particular birds.

We are fortunate in Ohio to have one of the best locations in the country to observe and hear a wide variety of transitory and returning birds, especially warblers. This time of year both birds and birders pack Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.

A conservation group, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, located at the entrance to Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio, sponsors “America’s Biggest Week in Birding.” In fact, it’s going on right now.

These folks welcome thousands of birders, amateur to professional, in hosting this attractive annual festival. Magee Marsh, a state park, is billed as “the warbler capital of the world.” Having been there on many occasions, I can attest to that.

Birders from around the world converge on Magee Marsh just to watch the warblers and shorebirds come and go. It’s not unusual to observe 20 or more kinds of warblers in just a few hours. Magee Marsh and the surrounding acreage are protected habitat that ensures safe harbor for migrating and nesting birds of all sizes, colors and species.

My first visit to Magee Marsh years ago was indeed like Christmas. A few steps onto the wooden boardwalk and I spotted a variety of colorful warblers decked out in their impressive breeding plumage. The brightly colored little birds looked like Christmas tree ornaments perched on low-hanging tree branches.

Where I live here in Ohio’s Amish country, we don’t necessarily have to drive that far to enjoy the migrating birds. The Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area, the Holmes County Trail, The Wilderness Center, and the many ponds and lakes in our area provide excellent habitat for a variety of birds.

Or you can just step outside and watch and listen. You just might think it’s Christmas in springtime.

overlapping birds in spring migration
Winter and summer residents, like this White-crowned Sparrow, and male Rose-breasted Grosbeack, oftern overlap during spring migration. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Merry Christmas!

nativity display, nativity scene, quilting, wall hanging
Nativity display. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

Christmas is upon us. I thought this photo of a Nativity scene the best way to say Merry Christmas to my friends and followers of this blog. This shot of a quilted wall hanging, lighted candles and poinsettia plants is my Photo of the Week.

I wish each of you a Merry Christmas!.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Christmas: Where dreams and memories meet

Christmas morning, Christmas gifts
I found this black and white photo of Christmas morning 1956 at the Stambaughs. Apparently I wanted a guitar. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Growing up in Canton, Ohio after World War II, Christmas was the holiday of holidays for our family. Christmas related activities ran the gamut of the Advent season. My earthly father saw to that, and Mom chimed in, as if she had a choice.

Our wonderful parents modeled the joy of the season for us. We didn’t have much money, but that didn’t seem to derail any of their holiday plans or enthusiasm. Given my father’s meager income, I don’t know how they pulled off the Christmas they did for us year after year.

Like most families, we had our Yuletide traditions. Shopping was one of them, and extravagance was not on the list. Consequently, shopping took a back seat to preparing the home place inside and out for Christmas. Dad led the charge.

Christmas decoration, pine tree
This is the corner pine tree Dad decorated with lots of colorful lights every Christmas. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
We lived on a corner of a very busy intersection in our mixed blue and white-collar neighborhood. Dad had planted a pine tree right on the corner to provide some privacy and help block the noise.

At Christmas, Dad filled that tree with multiple strings of lights, the nightlight-sized bulbs so popular then that glowed in all the primary colors. As the tree grew, so did the string of lights. Year after year, Dad wanted those Christmas lights to shine for all who happened by.

Then there was the family Christmas tree. Dad would round up as many of his five children as possible, and off we would go, sometimes tromping through deep snow, to select just the right tree for our household.

The tree always went up in front of the large plate glass window in the living room. Again, Dad wanted the world to know that his family had the Christmas spirit.

On went the ropes of garland, the fascinating bubbling light bulbs, and strings of regular Christmas lights. On went the fragile decorative ornaments, including colorful antiques from previous generations, and the simplistic arts and crafts ones we had made at school.

Next came real candy canes that somehow seemed to have totally disappeared by Christmas morning. Finally, we slathered the tree’s tender limbs with tons of silvery tinsel. There wasn’t an empty space on the tree.

The plastic church that illuminated centered the wooden fireplace mantel. A pair of red candles affixed in Mom’s cherished cut glass candlesticks adorned the mantel’s ends.

baking Christmas cookies, Christmas
My wife continues the tradition of making Christmas cookies with our grandchildren. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Mom and her cherubs rolled, baked, iced and sprinkled sugar cookies in shapes of stars, Christmas trees, bells, and ornaments. Dad bought chocolates at the neighborhood candy shop.

My brothers, sisters and I were so excited we could hardly sleep the night before Christmas. All the while, Mom and Dad stayed up late assembling and wrapping gifts. We weren’t allowed up before six on Christmas morning. But younger brother Jim always started the countdown well before then.

Because of his hardscrabble childhood, Dad always wanted us kids to have the Christmas he never did. If Dad’s goal was to turn his dreams into a lifetime of memories for us, he more than succeeded. I think he wanted that for Mom and himself, too.

When Dad died five years ago just before Christmas, my brothers, sisters and I mourned his passing. We marveled, though, at the timing of Dad’s death, Christmas, his favorite time of year.

Christmas is for children. It brings out the youngster in all of us no matter what age we happen to be. That’s only appropriate, since the holiday started with the birth of a long-anticipated child.

May your Christmas dreams also be fulfilled, and may loving Christmas memories last a lifetime.

Christmas tree, Christmas, Christmas presents, Christmas decorations
Christmas at the Stambaughs. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Tis the season to remember the poor

snow scene, barn in snow
Christmas landscape. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I love to read to children.

As an elementary student, I feared being called on to read. I was in my glory when the instructions were to read silently. I had my immature reasons, most of which were cemented in fear of reading aloud, mispronouncing words and the ensuing public chastisement.

I got over it, but I still don’t like to read out loud in front of groups. There was an exception, however. When I became an elementary teacher, I enjoyed reading to my own students because they respectfully listened.

Often times I read right after the noon recess. Intermediate school children played hard. I wanted them to be ready for the afternoon lessons. I found reading timely, age-appropriate stories perfect for getting the students calmed and cooled down.

All they had to do was listen, even with their heads on their desks. Reading allowed me to refocus, too.

reading to children, reading
Reading to my granddaughter.
This time of year, I always read Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol.” I still read it to myself every year. It’s one of my Yuletide traditions.

The book is a classic with a timeless story of a changed heart and helping the poor. Set in 19th century London, Dickens beautifully played out the true meaning of Christmas through the tension he created between Ebenezer Scrooge and the other main characters in the book, mainly his nephew, Fred, and Scrooge’s desk clerk, Bob Cratchit.

I marveled at how well the students paid attention. After I finished reading for 10 or 15 minutes, the students always begged me to read on. Most wanted to hear what happened next. Some, of course, just wanted a further delay in doing the afternoon lessons.

I read and continue to read “A Christmas Carol” because it is incredible literature, very well written, and a commentary on the societal situations at the time. I also enjoy the spirit that the book imbibes. It clearly reflects the true meaning of Christmas.

reading, reading to grandkids
Reading to grandkids. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
In the opening scene, the stage is set. Two men enter Dickens’ accounting office to ask for a monetary donation to help the poor. Scrooge asks them if the poor houses and the workhouses have disappeared, knowing they have not.

Scrooge shoos the men out, and in the process lets in his happy-go-lucky nephew, Fred. He promptly invites Scrooge to a Christmas party, to which Scrooge imparts his legendary “Bah Humbug” retort. Fred leaves, disappointed but not discouraged.

Dickens’ classic still rings true today. As technologically advanced as we are today, as quickly as we can communicate with others, as good as we have it in our North American society, the poor are still among us.

I am thankful for all of the organizations, churches, businesses and individuals that give freely of their time and money to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the less fortunate at Christmastime.

These kind and generous acts exemplify the Christmas spirit in action, much the way Dickens’ fabled tale does. Because I have read the story so many times, I know what’s coming. But because the story is so well written, still apropos, I keep reading “A Christmas Carol.” Its message to help the poor is intended to reach far beyond the holiday season.

If you haven’t ever read “A Christmas Carol,” I won’t spoil it for you. Read it. Your Christmas will be brighter for it, and maybe, just maybe, someone else’s life will be richer because you did.

food delivery, helping the poor
Helping the poor anytime of year any way possible is always appreciated. © Bruce Stambau gh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Patience is a virtue, especially at Christmastime

family, Christmas, family holiday gathering
The night before Christmas. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Patience is a virtue, especially at Christmastime.

Some people, however, just can’t wait for Christmas. I’m not talking about the giddy children anxiously anticipating what might lie beneath the festooned tree on Christmas morning.

Holiday commercials, promotions, and displays showered themselves upon us well before Halloween. Decorations and pre-holiday sale items sprouted in retail stores before autumn leaves had reached their peak.

Every year, the onslaught of Black Friday opens the floodgate to the Christmas shopping season. Besides profit, I wondered what the rush was all about. If there is a war on Christmas, surely this is it. The commercialization of a blessed, annual holiday demeans the true meaning of the season.

For me, Christmas is about waiting, not rushing. Life passes by in a flash the way it is. Why accelerate it all the more, especially at such a celebrative occasion? Let’s treasure this special time of year.

Christmas tree, Bruce Stambaugh
Christmas tree. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Christmas is about expectation. My childhood memories are filled with fondness for the days leading up to Christmas. Whether real or imagined, a certain inexplicable stir was in the air filling us with excited glee.

At school, crayon-colored paper ornaments, stars, wreaths, and candy canes replaced the finger painted turkeys on the classroom windows. We drew names for the gift exchange, one-dollar limit.

Children began combing through Sears catalogs to assist them in making their Christmas lists. Santa got them in plenty of time.

Those days between Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed to just linger. Despite the hustle and bustle of the season, it was as if time ticked in slow motion.

The excitement and anticipation of the holidays built with each passing day. Christmas was the mountaintop, and we started climbing the slope one step at a time only after Thanksgiving.

nativity scene, Christmas, hope
Nativity. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Our father enjoyed the holiday season as much or more than his five offspring. On a frigid night, Dad loaded us up in the family sedan to welcome Santa’s arrival at the end of the annual Christmas parade in the downtown blue-collar Ohio city where we lived.

We visited city centers in Akron, Canton and Cleveland more to window shop than Christmas shop. Customer friendly department stores with familiar names like Higbee’s, Polsky’s, and Kobacker’s all decorated their display windows with exquisite Christmas scenes.

Those stores are no more. A lot has changed since then.

Amid all of today’s commercials, online ads, daily deluges of discounts on everything from candles to Cadillac’s, it’s easy to get caught up in the race to Christmas. Doesn’t all of that actually run counter to the Advent season itself?

Historically, Christmas was all about hope, waiting, and watching. When the actual event occurred, only a few people recognized what had happened. Even then, most didn’t seem to fully comprehend.

Shepherds and kings from afar were struck with glorious awe at the event we now call Christmas. Others never even noticed

advent candles, Christmas decorations
Advent candles. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
because of their preconceived notions. As that story has been retold year after year, generation after generation, the characters involved in that first Christmas became the icons of how we now celebrate the season, Santa not included of course.

Christmas is a couple of weeks away. Will we rush our way to it, or will we wait and watch, and anticipate all the precious joys the day and the season have to offer?

Maybe it’s just my age. But I’m going to do my best to savor this season one day at a time. How about you?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Writing the dreaded annual Christmas letter, then and now

By Bruce Stambaugh

My wife and I gave up sending Christmas cards en masse several years ago. To keep up with the times, we transitioned into doing an annual Christmas letter instead.

We thought a personal synopsis more appropriate to keep friends apprized of what was happening in our family, and those of our adult children. Plus we saved the expense of the store-bought cards.

marianstambaughbybrucestambaugh
The late Marian Stambaugh.
With electronic communication now socially acceptable, most of our letters are sent via email to the chagrin of the U.S. Postal Service. Whenever I begin our annual letter, nostalgia appears like Marley’s ghost. Advent days long-passed flash before me.

I have fond memories of the Christmas cards our family received from friends and relatives, some near, some far. After she had opened the cards and read them, our kind mother would allow us kids to tape them to the inside of the wooden front door of the home where I grew up in suburban Canton, Ohio.

Some years Mom would cover the door with colorful paper wrapping, creating a festive background to the many season’s greetings we had posted. Mom taught us to apply the various sized and beautifully illustrated cards in an attractive, creative pattern.
Both hand-written and typed letters of greetings from friends and relatives who lived hundreds, even thousands of miles away were tucked into some of the cards. It was the way to communicate back then.

I think Mom had a higher purpose for the festooned door beyond being a welcoming holiday decoration. For our modest middle-class family, the patchwork of cards served as a symbol of how rich we really were, not in monetary wealth, but in valued, enduring relationships.

adventcandlesbybrucestambaugh
Advent candles.
Typical of many post-World War II families, Dad worked, first a blue-collar job, then a white-collar one. Mom efficiently ran the household on Dad’s meager income, and nurtured her five energetic darlings.

Our family sent out a host of our own Christmas cards. Our ever-thrifty mother would purchase the greeting cards during the post-Christmas sales of the previous year.

Mom addressed the envelopes with her easy, flowing handwriting while some of us kids helped seal and stamp the cards. I sweet-talked my younger siblings into licking that horrible tasting glue on the back of the postage stamps. I hope they’ve forgotten that.

That was a long time ago. Technology and progress, always a subjective word, have changed our lives forever.

Each year I enjoy authoring the one-page summary of the year’s top family happenings, though a couple of years ago I forgot to mention our 40th wedding anniversary. My wife is the letter’s chief editor, so all was forgiven.

I try to make the annual accounting as lighthearted and informative as possible. In recent years, when the aged bodies of parents, aunts and uncles have breathed their last, the letters tended to be more subdued.

I used to simply sit down and write the highlights from memory. Afterwards, I would double-check the calendar that chronicled

christmaswreathbybrucestambaugh
Christmas wreath.
all of our appointments, meetings, anniversaries, birthdays, vacations and other notable events.

Given my previous major omission, I now scour the calendar before I begin to write. Only instead of the daily ledger with scenic pictures, I click on my laptop’s calendar icon to scroll through the year month by month.

It’s time to write our family’s annual letter. It might make people laugh. It might make them cry. But I sincerely doubt it will end up on anyone’s front door.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013