Holiday Thoughts

Why Christmas?

One of the great things about writing a Christmas book (or, more accurately, a Christmas short story), is that lots of people interview you about the holiday. Whether you observe Christmas, Hanukkah, or other traditions, the holiday season can be a wonderful time to celebrate with family. But people do it so differently. To find out about my traditions, interviewers have asked me lots of questions. Here are some of my favorites:

What are your ten favorite Christmas traditions?

1- We stay in pajamas all day on Christmas! It keeps us focused on enjoying the day at home together. On the rare occasion when we travel out to visit, we upgrade to sweats.

2- I keep a fire burning in the fireplace while my sweetheart works on a jigsaw puzzle. I love the smell and the popping noise of burning wood.

3- Every Christmas I set up my out-of-control, Dickens village lighted-houses mountain scene (with 200+ houses, operational waterfalls, a smoking chimney, clippy-cloppy horse hooves and children singing sound effects, swirling ice-skaters, mountain sledders, a flying Santa, a parade encircling the town church, and two whistling electric trains). It takes about 50 hours and every year I threaten to never do it again.

4- My sweetheart decorates the Christmas tree with ornaments from places we have visited together. Some of my favorites include nativity carvings from Germany and Israel and an awesome Chinese Santa from Hong Kong–painted on a large nut.

5- We march downstairs on Christmas morning in time to the rousing Mormon Tabernacle Choir rendition of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”

6- I get my wife a new game every Christmas that we play together that afternoon.

7 and 8- We have a Christmas eve tradition with our friends that inspired, in part, me to write FINDING BABY JESUS. First we eat Chinese takeout (7), then we do a talent show (8). Desperate to do something that wasn’t too embarrassing, I read a couple of versions of this short story to them.

9- We always eat yam and apple casserole for Christmas dinner.

10- I always make my wife a home-made gift (usually a woodworking or stained glass project). I love seeing her open it as the last present.

Wall-to-wall books

What are your ten favorite Christmas books?

That’s a little like asking who my ten favorite relatives are. I like lots more than ten! And the answer changes from time to time. But if I have to choose, my answer for today is:

1- A  Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens). Best Christmas book ever. Tiny Tim, Scrooge, and the Spirits of Christmas.

2- The Night Before Christmas (Clement Clarke Moore). Of course! Not even mice were stirring.

3- How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Dr. Seuss). From a modern genius of both word and illustration.

4- Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Robert L. May). For the kids. Old ones, too.

5- The Little Match Girl (Hans Christian Anderson). Look for the volume illustrated by Rachel Isadora.

6- Nutcracker (E.T.A. Hoffman). The story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s ballet.

7- The Polar Express (Chris Van Allsburg). Haunting words and illustrations. Modern classic.

8- Louisa May Alcott’s Christmas Treasury. Charming stories from the author of Little Women.

9- The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Barbara Robinson). A personal favorite and one of the inspirations for FINDING BABY JESUS. My wife and I loved this story, which although shorter than many, was always too long to read out loud in a single evening. I wrote FINDING to be read in a single sitting (even with most wiggly children).

10- The Christmas Box (Richard Paul Evans). A fairly recent feel-good story.

Home Maid Simple

What are your ten favorite Christmas songs?

It’s tough to get it down to ten, but here goes:

1- “O Holy Night” is one of my all time favorites. That’s why I featured it as the song sung by the carolers in FINDING BABY JESUS. If I don’t hear someone belt it out as a solo in church or on a Christmas special on TV every holiday season, I feel cheated. My favorite performance was by Nat King Cole.

2- “For Unto Us a Child is Born” from Handel’s Messiah. It’s Handel. With Isaiah. An inspirational artistic dream team.

3- Almost anything in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

4- “The First Noel.” I think that it was one of the first songs I sang with my family when I figured out how to make up a harmony part before I could read music. And I love the version sung by Bing Crosby. Old school Christmas at its best!

5- “Mele Kalikimaka.” Combines two of my two favorite things: Christmas and Hawaii.

6- Anything my niece Kate plays on the Harp.

7- “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot” recorded by Johnny Mathis. My sweetie thinks it is too sad and has requested I discontinue humming it at Christmas, but I find it beautiful and sad.

8- “Christmas in Killarney” performed by my main man Bing. Who doesn’t like an Irish jig at Christmas?

9- “O Come All Ye Faithful” sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We have a family tradition of starting Christmas day by marching downstairs to the hymn so we can open presents (lined up in birth order). It’s a tradition that started in my wife’s family when she was a little girl and her father sung in the choir.

10- “Santa baby.” Just to mix it up a little.

Wanted Readers

What are ten fun things to do for Christmas?

1- Build a snowman. If there isn’t any snow use marshmallows and toothpicks. When you’re done, admire your work while sipping a gourmet hot chocolate in a Christmas themed mug. Make sure to get whipped cream on your upper lip.

2- Call somebody you love. Especially if you haven’t talked with them for a long time.

3- Do something to remember somebody who is gone (e.g., write them a letter in your journal, plant something in their honor, or write down your favorite funny story about them and hang it in the tree).

4- Light candles and read a Christmas-themed short story with an uplifting message. Maybe something like, I dunno, FINDING BABY JESUS?

5- Try to carve out an hour and do something this year that you always say you want to do on Christmas but never did before.

6- Listen to Christmas songs while you do your errands. Sing along.

7- Stay in your PJs all day on Christmas (like we do) and insist that everyone who visits you does the same thing. (It will cut down Christmas visits to only the most important ones. It also provides lots of blackmail material that may come in handy later on.)

8- Get a honey-baked ham (or our personal favorite, the honey-baked turkey breast slathered with whole cranberry sauce) so you don’t have to spend the whole day in the kitchen on Christmas. Use holiday themed paper plates that make you smile. Alternatively, if time in the kitchen is your joy, make something amazing for your family. Use the best china. If you like yams, check out a recipe for a yam and apple casserole. My sweetie does one that I think about all year long.

9- Do something really nice for somebody else. See number 8 about the casserole, for example. Honey, are you reading this?

10- Write down the things you are most thankful for. Count your blessings. Focus on what you have instead of what you don’t. Don’t buy into the whole commercialism thing (unless that’s what makes you happy because you own some amazing little Christmas boutique or Indie bookstore).

Coffee, Books and Me

What are the top ten places to visit for Christmas?

1- Israel. If you like Christmas and want more of a personal connection to the history and inspiration behind the holiday, nothing beats places like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the Garden Tomb. Buy some hot bread from the street vendors. And get a nativity ornament for your Christmas tree. That way you’ll have a memory of your trip every holiday.

2- Egypt. Fits with the historical theme, but the pyramids along the Nile are breathtaking, too.

3- New Zealand. Has nothing to do with Christmas, other than that it is, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful place on the planet (especially around the Milford Sound) and would therefore make the most AWESOME Christmas present ever (if you happen to be really, really rich).

4- Hawaii. Specifically Maui on the Kaanapali side. Honestly, everybody should have one Christmas in their lifetime in Maui. Primo bucket list material. No, of course there is no snow. But there wasn’t any in Bethlehem, either. And who doesn’t enjoy a luau in December?

5- Germany. Want another bucket list suggestion? Oberammergau has the longest continuously running passion play in the world. The town started it in the middle ages in gratitude for a miraculous salvation from the worst of the Black Death. It only happens every ten years, but it is totally worth it. Nothing like seeing the life of Jesus acted out by hundreds of townspeople, complete with sheep, donkeys, and camels. Check out amazing Christmas decorations and Black Forest cuckoo clocks at the Kathe Wohlfahrt store, too. And for a really special treat, walk through the wood carving stores near the theatre. Best place in the world to get a hand carved nativity scene.

6- Switzerland. Want snow for Christmas? Want awesome scenery? Want to dress up in sweaters with metal clasps, and cuddle with your sweetie in a rented chalet in front of a fire? Then go to the Alps. Grandma Baumgartner in my story FINDING BABY JESUS hails from near the Matterhorn. Grandpa does his best to preserve some of her Swiss Christmas traditions after she dies.

7- Want a small town Christmas? Try the location of my story, Midway, Utah. Midway has a charming interfaith Creche display, great restaurants like the Blue Boar Inn, and it’s less than 30 minutes from two world-class ski resorts: Deer Valley and Park City.

8- Norway. The fjords are my vote for second most beautiful sight in the world. And if you go in December, you have the whole winter wonderland thing working for you, too.

9- South Africa. If you decide against a New Zealand trip for the most awesome Christmas gift ever, and you just can’t adjust to the idea of no winter sun in Norway, you won’t go wrong with a trip to the game preserves in or around Kruger Park. My sweetie and I went one winter for a business trip and loved the warmth of the people as much as the weather. And you’ll never forget sleeping in a hut with the sounds of lions roaring outside.

10- Home. Bing Crosby was right. There’s no place like home for the holidays. Consider gathering everybody around on Christmas Eve and reading FINDING. It only takes about ten to fifteen minutes and there’s a discussion guide at the back that will help you all talk together about your favorite holiday traditions afterwards.

The Bunny Reviews

What are your ten favorite home-made holiday gifts to give (or get)?

1- Scrapbooks. Reenie does this for me nearly every year. (Because I beg for them! Honest. On my knees.) I love her scrapbooks not only for her photographic and display artistry, but for the visual memories of our life together over the year. Priceless.

2- Poems. A non-holiday tradition we have is that I leave her a pillownote (so-called because of where I tuck them in secret) whenever I go out of town. That happens a lot. As a result, once in a long while I gather the poems and assemble them into a book to present as a Christmas gift. Yikes! That reminds me that this particular gift is long overdue. I just counted and there are 203 scraps of paper with a poem on them that she has sandwiched into the last book I made eons ago.

3- Food. I crave my sweetie’s yam and apple casserole. And her applecrisp. And there’s this one strawberry jello thingy that has lemon pudding in it. WOW. Oh, and just about anything with whipped cream.

4- Pens. I started making writing pens several years ago after Reenie bought me a lathe. My favorite type of pen to make (the experts, BTW, say “turn” instead of “make”) is a cigar style pen out of cocobolo or burled walnut.

5- Stained glass windows. I think the windows are her favorite Christmas gift, although she will neither confirm nor deny this. She always says: “I love everything you make for me!” I’ve done some smaller ones of flowers (I like irises in blue tones). I also did a big one of Mt. Hood near our home in Portland that ended up being a gift multiple times. I took the window apart and reworked the design until I liked it. I do that with my books, too. I’ve been rewriting FINDING BABY JESUS for the last three Christmas seasons.

6- Time. I love it when she gives me something for us to do together. One year she gave us golf lessons. Another year–and I really loved this–she gave us fly fishing lessons in the Provo river in Midway, Utah. We have a cabin there. (Midway is where I decided to locate the FINDING story.)

7- Furniture. Honestly, on the years when I do this I usually only have part of the present completed and hidden under a quilt with a promise to finish it before the next Christmas. But I’ve made a TV cabinet, head board, coffee table, jewelry case and some other stuff I can’t think of right now. In fact our whole making a present tradition started on our first Christmas together because of furniture. We were poor graduate students with a $15.00 Christmas budget. After we got a tree, there was only enough money left for an angel eraser and some Smarties candies. My Mom saved the holiday by helping me refinish an old family drop leaf table to give to my bride to use for our kitchen.

8- One special apron. The first gift my wife ever made me. It’s blue with my name on it. It’s pretty worn, but I’m keeping it forever.

9- A game. Part of our tradition is to get a game every Christmas that we play before the end of the day. Technically, we buy it instead of making it, but we make the time to play it. That’s the fun part, right?

10- My favorite gift is love. There is something so warm and wonderful about just being with my sweetheart on Christmas. I set up her card table and watch her work on a new jigsaw puzzle each year. It’s nice seeing her in front of the fire, doing something she really enjoys. Makes me feel good to think about it all year long.

Books and Needlepoint

What do you think is the true meaning of Christmas?

Several years ago, my brother and his then eight-year-old son Collin came to stay with us in Portland for the holidays. My brother and sister-in-law had divorced and it was a difficult time. We hoped that a wonderful Christmas for Collin would bring him some much deserved joy. We had planned to get him some nice presents, to make him some great meals, and to enjoy some pleasant holiday traditions together. But after Christmas when we asked Collin how he wanted to spend one of our last days together, he surprised us by saying, “Feed the homeless.”

We scuttled our remaining holiday plan, made some sandwiches, went to a second-hand store to buy gloves and scarves, and drove downtown to find some people we could help. We spent the morning passing out our gifts. The last gentleman we found was rummaging through a dumpster. Collin gave him food and then started back to the car. Suddenly Collin stopped and asked his dad something. My brother nodded and Collin turned and ran after the homeless man. When Collin reached the man he pulled all of the Christmas money he had in pocket and gave it away. Collin smiled broadly and he nearly cartwheeled back to the car. To me he seemed happier than when he was opening his presents on Christmas day.

I think I learned much about the true meaning of Christmas that day. I learned about what gives (and doesn’t give) true holiday joy. And I learned it from an eight-year-old boy. I don’t remember what I got for Christmas that year. I’ll bet Collin doesn’t either. But I sure remember what Collin gave away.

Mommy Reads Too Much

What if the holidays are a difficult time?

There is something special about the holiday season, and whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or other holiday traditions, it’s a wonderful time to gather the family together and celebrate the things that make us appreciate each other. It is also, however, a difficult time for many. Especially for those who have had rich traditions of family togetherness who are now isolated from them, or who have lost those they love. When I wrote FINDING BABY JESUS, a short story about a boy who recovers a long-lost carving that everyone assumed had been lost when his grandmother died, I remembered the first holiday season I spent as a 14-year-old boy without my Grandpa. He was hospitalized for falling off a roof and died soon after a problem in surgery. I had been very close to my Grandpa, and that year I didn’t feel like celebrating without him. It must have been even worse for my younger brothers and sisters.

Perhaps this season, if we are blessed with a happy celebration full of love and family, we might find a way to share a little bit of it with those who are burdened by loss or loneliness. Isn’t giving what the season is all about? My little book has a discussion guide with questions that can prompt a family activity to help others who are less fortunate.

Books Are Sanity