There’s light, and then there’s enlightenment

You know how it is when you’re sitting in a darkened room basking in the glow of your Christmas tree… and you let your eyes get all squinty so the tree lights will blur into magical glimmers? Everything else disappears except those tiny bits of illumination.

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I love the abundance of lights at Christmas time. They always make me think of the message repeated at our church every Sunday morning when a child lights the Christ Candle and proclaims, “Jesus said, ‘I am the Light of the world.’”* At the candlelight service late on Christmas Eve there were many candles burning in addition to lights on the tree, and the soft glow was soul-warming.

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But light isn’t just something to look at, it’s something to live by — it reveals, illuminates, enlightens. It helps bring things into focus, helps keep us from stumbling. Walking in the light is an intentional action.

It’s true in life and it’s true in writing. (Of course this last post of the year has to have a writing application!)

A recent tweet from my daughter Shari Green (@sharigreen) announced, “Ooh, look! A light at the end of the Revision Tunnel!” Like me, she’s been working to polish a writing project and it’s beginning to look like we may both finish by year end. It hasn’t happened by itself, by waiting for inspiration to provide a way, but by deliberately sitting down and wrestling with words. Our efforts may have started in darkness, but by working consistently we’ve made progress towards the light… and we’re almost there. I love it when I suddenly realize I’m on a roll!

As 2013 draws to a close, a lot of people will be making New Year’s Resolutions. Not me. I gave up that discouraging practice a long time ago. I adopt key words for the year. As I squint at our tree in these final days of Christmas time, I think mine for 2014 will be:

Light (as in, following it)

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If you’re in need of further end-of-the-year encouragement, here are links to a few of my previous posts:

2010
(Resolutions and the journey of life and writing)

2011
(Making the most of your December writing time)

2012
(What will this New Year mean for your writing?)

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* Again Jesus spoke to them, saying,
“I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness,
but will have the light of life.”

John 8:12

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LIGHT OF THE WORLD  (Chris Tomlin) – a music video

Light of the World
You stepped down into darkness
Opened my eyes, let me see
Beauty that made this heart adore you
Hope of a life spent with you

(chorus)
Here I am to worship
Here I am to bow down
Here I am to say that you’re my God
You’re altogether lovely
altogether worthy
altogether wonderful to me

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“… if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light,
we have fellowship with one another,
and the blood of Jesus His Son
cleanses us from all sin.”

1 John 1:7

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Still Saturday: A Weekend Blessing

Thanks to Ann Voskamp for pointing me to this moving song of personal offering by Paul Baloche. I’m passing it along as a Still Saturday  blessing this Christmastime weekend…

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Linking with Sandra Heska King for Still Saturday

StillSaturday

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Christmas Week

I’m taking a bit of a blogging hiatus during Christmas week. I’ll monitor any new comments on last Friday’s post, of course, and draw a winner for the copy of Jody Hedlund’s book, REBELLIOUS HEART, after the deadline of 11:59 p.m. Christmas Eve.  The winner’s name will be announced here on Friday.

In the meantime I wish you and yours every blessing. Have a joyous, wonder-filled Christmas!

Red Twig Willow in the Snow

Red Twig Willow in the Snow

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UPDATE

In case you missed it on Friday’s post,
the winner of the draw is

DARLENE FOSTER

Congratulations, Darlene!

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Christmas preparations, secular and sacred

Our family has a dual heritage when it comes to Christmas preparations. There’s a combination of the sacred and the secular because my hubby and I came from those two backgrounds. Christmas was always a special time when we were children, but for different reasons, and celebrated in different ways.

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When Advent begins, along with the nativity figures, our decorations come out, lights are strung and a tree goes up. Christian friends might wonder how we can put energy into all the secular preparations and still focus enough on the anticipation of such a holy season, but somehow we do.

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Last night, for the umpteenth time, we watched the movie, “Miracle on 34th Street“.  “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” will probably be next, along with “It’s a Wonderful Life“, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and assorted other television specials. Years ago we watched these with our children. Now we’re on our own and we still watch them.

Soon I’ll turn my attention to a bit of baking. Not a lot, since there aren’t many of us to eat it, but we need a few of the annual goodies, like Shortbread, Melting Moments and Peanut Butter Snowballs. We’ll also be caroling to shut-ins, finding delight in the children’s Sunday School Pageant, singing a Cantata with our choir, and of course attending all the special Christmas worship services.

There’s a little magic and a lot of mystery associated with Christmas, and we experience both, in ways that are meaningful to us. I doubt that God minds our strange muddle of traditions. We still meet Him at the manger.

What are some of the meaningful traditions you’ll experience again this Christmas? In your writing, have you allowed your characters to establish traditions?

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It’s just a Nativity set, isn’t it?

Crude black grease pencil numbers mark the underside of the painted clay manger bearing the Baby Jesus.  They say 79 cents. That was its price back in the mid-1970s when it was purchased in the now non-existent Woodward’s Department Story along with the other figures joining the Babe in our family’s first crèche.

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Budget constraints governed the choice then, but long after we could have afforded to replace them with better quality, we didn’t. We grew accustomed to them – each year carefully unwrapping the familiar figures and setting them into the shelter made by my hubby from a handful of leftover cedar shakes.

I didn’t particularly care for the look of them but after so many years there was a certain loyalty at stake. I admired other nativity sets – one particular ‘other’ – but couldn’t justify buying a second set when the original had nothing wrong with it.

Forty-some years later my wonderful hubby decided the time had come to indulge my dream, and last year for Christmas he bought me the Willow Tree Nativity set.

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Just as in home decorating, clothing styles or vehicle choices, people’s tastes will differ here. We are attracted to things for many reasons. I love the simplicity of the figures in this set… the hand sculpted look and the emotions they evoke, as I visualize that Bethlehem scene over two thousand years ago.

In art there are many different interpretations of the manger scene. There are some… um, unique ones, too, as discovered by youth pastor Mark Oestreicher who has now expanded his collection from last year’s twenty-seven to this year’s impressive forty-two of what he calls “the worst nativity sets”.

Our old set doesn’t qualify for his collection. It’s old fashioned, but typical. We still have it, although we didn’t unpack it this year. I’m not sure what we’ll do with it since it has earned its place as one of our many Christmas treasures and I can’t quite give it up.

Christmas is all about the arrival of Jesus the Christ into our messy world. However simple or elaborate, nativity sets are not meant to take their place in our homes as just another Christmas decoration. While we shouldn’t need miniature figures to remind us of the Love-made-incarnate that came to us that night long ago, they do give us something to focus on when we tend to slide past his birthday celebration into mere social activities.

Come to think of it, it couldn’t hurt to have a set in every room of our house. Maybe I should go unpack the other one.

Is a nativity set part of your family’s Christmas traditions?

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I’m taking a blogging break for the next couple weeks. I’ll still be around and will turn up online periodically, but in addition to my writing I want to take extra time to focus on family activities and the significance of the Christmas season.  In the meantime, consider this quote from Max Lucado:

 “Off to one side sits a group of shepherds. They sit silently on the floor, perhaps perplexed, perhaps in awe, no doubt in amazement. Their night watch had been interrupted by an explosion of light from heaven and a symphony of angels. God goes to those who have time to hear him — and so on this cloudless night he went to simple shepherds.” *

May he come to you this Christmas.

(* Max Lucado in “The Arrival” from Christmas Stories for the Heart)

 

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What about Christmas details in our writing?

Pine? Fir? Spruce? If you erect a tree in your home this month, does it matter to you which species you select and whether it’s thick and cultured or naturally grown? Or is the big decision maybe between real and… blech… artificial? (Sorry, but I have a bias!)

Lodgepole pine tree

Lodgepole pine tree

I realize there are people living in some cultures, locations, or situations where evergreen trees are not included in the celebration, but our home is not one of them. While “O Tannenbaum” isn’t among my favourite carols, I never feel quite ready for Christmas until our tree is in place. Believe me, the fragrance of fresh cut greenery in the house is better than any scented candle!

Those of us who advocate for a “real” tree often have very strong opinions about what constitutes the ideal one. Many of the trees I grew up with were Lodgepole pines because that’s the variety commonly found in the area of our Cariboo property. Their long branches can be a little ‘gawky’ at times, but I like them, even if I’ve occasionally referred to one of ours as a ‘Charlie Brown’ tree.

Identifying the species or subspecies doesn’t matter a whole lot to me, as long as I like its looks, but if I were writing about the Christmas tree gracing my protagonist’s living room, I’d be in trouble with that attitude. For readers living in pine country, the description might elicit a particular mental image, so it had better be accurate. It’s not enough to mention the existence of a generic Christmas tree, either; details are important. And if there are cones being saved for a craft project, they’d better be typical of the species.

Lodgepole pine cone

Lodgepole pine cone

Have you ever been reading a novel and come to a grinding halt at some inconsistency – some detail you know is not correct? John Grisham* may be tired of hearing from readers about his incorrect reference to the Inuit living in Newfoundland and a woman “born in an igloo” there, but it’s a lesson for all writers. Remember, if you send your characters out into the woods to cut down a long-needled Ponderosa (or bull pine) Christmas tree, the story needs to take place in an area where they grow in the wild.

Ponderosa pine

Ponderosa pine

Does your Christmas decorating include a tree? What’s your idea of a perfect one? Do you use specific details like these to enrich your writing?

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*The Testament (John Grisham)

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Will Christmas cards become obsolete?

WooHoo!!! I’m done! Yes, I’m smirking. Every year about this time I begin to panic as I face the inevitable postal deadline for mailing out Christmas cards. It’s not like the middle of December doesn’t always arrive in the middle of December. It’s just that the date always sneaks up on me.

But not this year. With the help of my hubby, our little stack has been written, sealed, stamped and is ready to drop into the postbox today… before the middle of the month. How’s that for efficiency? (I don’t want an answer from those of you who amazingly mailed yours off on December 1st.)

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I like this annual tradition. I don’t like to be rushed with the selecting, composing and remembering as I write.

I know there are people who have given up on Christmas cards, finding them a chore, or preferring to save the cost of purchase and postage and avoid writer’s cramp in favour of sending an e-mailed greeting, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I send the occasional Hallmark e-card myself. However, on the receiving end, unless I print out those messages, I can’t sit down with a coffee at my convenience and enjoy browsing through the cards multiple times, admiring the different designs and re-reading the messages from family members and friends old and new. I’m one of those oddities who savours Christmas newsletters, loves to catch up on the year’s happenings and study photos of everyone’s grandchildren.

Communication has seen a major overhaul in the past couple decades. I treasure Skype and iChat visits with my family, and adore the e-mailed digital photos taken one minute and delivered to my inbox the next. Instant text messages by the hundreds have replaced many conversations, reducing personal interaction, and yet I see how convenient they are.

I wouldn’t want our current technology to disappear, but neither would I like ‘the old ways’ to be discarded. Like print books and eBooks, I think there is justification for both methods to complement each other – times when each can meet a personal need.

When I mail these envelopes later today it will be with the hope that each recipient will share the same pleasure from the greeting that I get out of writing it – the same pleasure that I do when theirs arrives here. It is a cherished tradition, this age-old form of communicating our good will at Christmas.

(Did you notice that communication has ‘commune’ as its root?)

Do you think writers might enjoy this form of communication more than non-writers? Do you still send out traditional Christmas cards? Do you think they will eventually become obsolete?

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The new and the old

Our decorating is pretty well done. There’s a pot I want to fill with evergreens, but it can wait another day or two. Today I decided it was time to make a start on Christmas baking. Other than the fruitcakes traditionally made and stashed away in early November, there are only a few stale chocolate chip cookies in the house.

Out came the old familiar recipes. Peanut butter snowballs? Mmm, love them! I could eat them like candy. Oh, but they require chilling and rolling into balls; then there’s icing to make, dipping, more rolling in cocoanut. No, not today. Shortbread? My hubby loves shortbread but his favourite is the old Scottish style, kneaded until the dough cracks, pressed into a pan and chilled, followed by long, slow baking. Did I say kneading? Not the way my wrists are today, thank you.

Ah, perhaps the newer alternative — whipped shortbread. Apparently more serious bakers than I am have known about this recipe for years, but I was first introduced to it a few years ago when my son made a batch. Just put the five ingredients together and let the mixer do all the work. Drop spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet and pop them into the oven. That’s my kind of recipe. Newer isn’t always better, but, besides the ease of making, I like the tender, melt-in-your-mouth goodness of these buttery morsels. And if it means the difference between shortbread or no shortbread, my hubby is enthusiastic about them, too.

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With a mug of tea in one hand and a shortbread cookie in the other, I sat down to admire the decorated tree. There are a few new ornaments on it this year — I can never resist anything to do with snowflakes — but it’s the beloved old ones that always draw my gaze first.

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There are a couple that have been on every tree since I was born (I mentioned one of them in this post last year), and there are a handful that once adorned my parents’, my inlaws’ and my grandparents’ trees. This fragile bird  is one of those treasures. It’s special not so much because it’s old, although it is — possibly a hundred years old — but because of its history. It has witnessed generations of our family from its perch on various branches. Gatherings with family and friends, laughter, meals shared, gifts opened… “if it could talk, what stories might it tell?”

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Many homes have heritage items — if not ornaments displayed on a tree, then perhaps other things on a shelf or in a cabinet. I don’t think of ours as valuable from a monetary perspective, but they’re significant family heirlooms. When I wrap them up for another season of storage, there are slips of paper noting their origins that go in with them because it occurred to me one year that if nobody else knows about them, their history will end with my husband and me.

The main character in my last novel is eccentric enough to keep an album with photos and an explanation about everything she values. I call her eccentric because she has no children or close relatives to peruse her albums or care about her possessions after she’s gone! But this little quirk tells the reader something about her personality. As long as they aren’t overdone quirks and idiosyncrasies can be useful in defining our characters.

My expanding waistline is going to define me if I don’t stop munching on these cookies!

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What methods do you use to make your characters memorable? Are family heirlooms of significance in any of your stories? Do you have any special Christmas treasures? Oh, and what’s your favourite Christmas cookie?

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“In every conceivable manner,
the family is a link to our past, a bridge to our future”

Alex Haley

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“In each family a story is playing itself out,
and each family’s story embodies its hope and despair.”

Auguste Napier

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