For the Respite of Christmas

This story is familiar to many but bears repeating each Christmas, more so than ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Five months into WWI, on Christmas Eve 1914, the soldiers in the trenches of France declared an unofficial and spontaneous ceasefire after the German soldiers shared chocolate cake from home with the British soldiers, who responded in kind with tobacco and beer.  According to eye witness accounts, they joined together in singing Christmas carols, exchanging gifts, and playing a game of impromptu soccer between the trenches in “no man’s land”.   The high command was upset and tried to prevent this social exchange but to no avail.  The truce lasted for at least one day along parts of the front, and longer in others.

What strikes me about this story and how it resonates with us is how similar the beliefs and upbringing were for those European soldiers in WWI and how easily they could find common ground.   Would the soldiers on either side of gun sights find this commonality in the now-ended Iraq war or in Afghanistan?  Given the cultural and religious gulf that divides us, this is unlikely.

Still, there is inspiration in the sweet thought of “Stille Nacht” and “Silent Night” being sung by sons of different mothers, all children of the same Father in heaven,  only hours before and after trying to kill each other.  What sadness to think it took so many lost lives to resolve this war years later despite their similarities.

The song below written and sung by John McCutcheon, an American folksinger, was my first introduction to this bit of history and is just as touching today.  It can be found in various versions on YouTube but this is one I particularly like:

Christmas in the Trenches

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here,
I fought for King and country I love dear.

‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still
No Christmas song was sung,
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground,
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound,
Says I, “Now listen up, me boys!” each soldier strained to hear,
As one young German voice sang out so clear.

“He’s singing bloody well, you know!” my partner says to me,
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony,
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more,
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent,
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent,
The next they sang was “Stille Nacht.” “Tis ‘Silent Night’,” says I,
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.

“There’s someone coming toward us!” the front line sentry cried,
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side,
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright,
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s Land,
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand,
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well,
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ‘em hell.

We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home,
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own,
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more,
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart
That lived that wondrous night,
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”

‘Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were warmed
As songs of peace were sung,
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war,
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell,
Each Christmas come since World War I,
I’ve learned its lessons well,
That the ones who call the shots
Won’t be among the dead and lame,
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

For Grace in the Season to Be Grumbly

photo by Josh Scholten

written in 2003 on the solstice night

We are in our darkest of dark days today in our corner of the world–about 16 hours of darkness underwhelming our senses, restricting, confining and defining us in our little circles of artificial light that we depend on so mightily. Yesterday, we had a sudden power outage at home around 5 PM, and our bright, noisy, Christmas-tree-lit carol-playing house was suddenly plunged into pitch blackness and silence. Each family member groped around blindly, looking for elusive candles and flashlights in the dark, each running our toes and knees into things, and then found that each of us had to share a little circle of light to navigate. Dinner, which was almost ready in the oven, was eaten gratefully by candlelight, and became a sacrament of sorts as we huddled around our advent candles, now burning out of necessity, not just in a ceremony of anticipation.

The light this morning is just now finally coming up in the southeastern sky, blending the gray of the ubiquitous clouds with the mist over the fields and barns here on the farm and over the mountain peaks and waters of the bay in the distance. Even the golden Haflingers are gray in this light. It all melts together with the deep green of the forests and fields–a blended water-saturated palette struck by rays of piercing rosy light here and there, creating alpenglow on the distant mountain snow, and sporadic pools of brightness in our barnyard.

It is so tempting to be consumed and lost in these dark days, stumbling from one obligation to the next, one foot in front of the other, bumping and bruising ourselves and each other in our blindness. Lines are long at the stores, impatience runs high, people coughing and shivering with the spreading flu virus, others stricken by loneliness and desperation. So much grumbling in the dark.

I had a conversation with a remarkable young college student recovering at the hospital this week reminding me about the self-absorbance of grumbling. A week ago she was snowshoeing with two companions in the bright sun above the clouds at the foot of nearby Mt. Baker. A sudden avalanche buried all three–she remembers the roar and then the deathly quiet of being covered up, and the deep darkness that surrounded her. She was buried hunched over, with the weight of the snow above her too much to break through. She had a pocket of air beneath her and in this crouching kneeling position, she could only pray–not move, not shout, not anything else. Only God was with her in that small dark place. She believes that 45 minutes later, rescuers dug her out to safety from beneath that three feet of snow. In actuality, it was 24 hours later but she had been wrapped in the cocoon of her prayers, and miraculously, kept safe and warm enough to survive. Her hands and legs, blackish purple when she was pulled out of the snow, turned pink with the rewarming process at the hospital, and a day later, when I visited her, she glowed with a light that came only from within–it kept her alive.

One of her friends died in that avalanche, never having a chance of survival because of how she was trapped and covered with the suffocating snow. The other friend struggled for the full 24 hours to free himself, bravely fighting the dark and the cold to reach the light, courageously finding help to try to rescue his friends.

At times we must fight with the dark–wrestle it and rale against it, being bruised and beaten up in the process, but so necessary to save ourselves and others from being consumed. At other times we must kneel in the darkness and wait– praying, hoping, knowing the light is to come, one way or the other. Grateful, grace-filled, not grumbling.

May the Light find you this week in your moments of darkness. Merry merry Christmas.

For a Light into the Past

The Christmas tree tradition is a special one for me, filled with childhood memories of picking out just the right tree sometime during the summer in our very own woods, watching to make sure it didn’t get too tall through the growing season, and then making the trek to cut it down exactly one week before Christmas.  The cutting of a tree one has watched grow over years is bittersweet, but no tree was ever loved as much as that tree for the two weeks it was festooned and draped with lights, garlands, ornaments and tinsel with gifts piled high beneath its branches.

One of my childhood decorating tasks included anchoring the string of bubble lights onto sturdy branches so the little clear glass candle lights stood upright.  Once their little bulb heated the liquid inside, a string of bubbles perpetually boiled up to the top.  The bubbles animated the tree and fed the eye already overwhelmed with so much light and color.  I remember sitting on the floor looking up at the tree for hours,  just drinking in the magic of the blinking, bubbling and sparkle of those special lights.  I was the official monitor of the strings of lights, inspecting them each day as the tree was illuminated to see if any bulbs had gone out, as the whole string would fail to light up.  It took detective work to find the culprit bulb and replace it.

One day our one string of bubble lights failed to light when plugged in. I had a spare bulb to add to the string as I tried to determine which bubble light no longer worked.  As I moved the bulbs from socket to socket, carefully handling the fragile glass columns of colored liquid, I lost my hold on one and it dropped to the linoleum floor.  The glass  fractured,  the red liquid bleeding out and quite unexpectedly started to cause the linoleum tile to melt, leaving a significant hole, exposing the plywood subflooring underneath.  My parents were quite concerned about such a toxic acid being inside the lights, wondering if I had been splashed, but my worry was that I had no other spare light bulb and a string of bubble lights that still didn’t light up.   I had a job to do.  The hole in the floor was a mere inconvenience to me but, of course, a big deal to my parents once they realized I hadn’t been harmed.  My father patched the floor with some spare linoleum he cut out from the floor inside a nearby closet.  That patch always looked fresher and a bit stark in the middle of a well-traveled spot, a constant reminder of my bubble light mishap.

The liquid inside modern bubble lights doesn’t melt through floors or skin.  The bulbs are still fragile to handle but the lovely bubbles are worth the extra care it takes to place them on the tree.   I find just the right branches for them, gazing into their amber bubbles and remembering the younger me so long ago, just as captivated now as I was then.  Some things really don’t ever change, although now my wrinkles are illuminated by bubbling lights that highlight my greying hair.

The tree and its lights may only be for a couple weeks each year, but the memories linger more than half a century, and I hope for a few decades more.  Someday, the bubble lights will be gently placed on a tree by an adult grandchild, who will tell the story of a great grandmother who melted a hole in the floor long long ago.

For the Best Lullaby of All

The best moment in the barn is in the evening just following the hay feeding, as the animals are settling down to some serious chewing. I linger in the center aisle, listening to the rhythmic sounds coming from each of 12 stalls. It is a most soothing contented cadence, first their lips picking up the grass, then the chew chew chew chew and a pause and it starts again. It’s even better in the dark, with the lights off.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to the eating sounds at night from the remote vantage point of my bedroom TV monitor system set up to watch my very pregnant mares before foaling. A peculiar lullaby of sorts, strange as that seems, but when all my farm animals are chewing and happy,  I am at peace.

It reminds me of those dark deep nights of feeding my own newborns, rocking back and forth with the rhythm of their sucking.  It is a moment of being completely present and peaceful, and knowing at that moment, nothing else matters–nothing else at all.  That must be a little bit how Mary felt cradling her newborn son in a barn so many years ago.  We know she “pondered these things in her heart”, knowing more, much more, was to come…

If I am very fortunate, each day I live has a rhythm that is reassuring and steady, like the sounds of hay chewing, or rocking a baby. I wake knowing where the next step will bring me, and live in each moment fully, without distraction by the worry of the unknown.

But the reality is: life’s rhythms are often out of sync, the cadence is jarring, the sounds are discordant, and sometimes I’m the one being chewed on, so pain replaces peacefulness. Maybe that is why those moments in the barn~~that sanctuary~~are so treasured. They bring me home to that doubting center of myself that needs reminding that pain is fleeting,  and peace, however elusive, is forever. I always know where to find it for a few minutes at the end of every day, in a pastoral symphony of sorts.

Someday my hope for heaven will be angel choruses of glorious praise, augmenting a hay-chewing lullaby.

So simple yet so grand.

For the Comfort of the Trough

(Originally written in 2004)
If I recall correctly, the first catalog with holiday theme items arrived in our mailbox in late July. The “BEST CHRISTMAS ISSUE EVER!” magazines hit the racks in September. Then, with the chill in the air in October and Halloween past, the stores put out the Santa decorations and red and white candy, instead of the orange and black candy of the previous 6 weeks. I have been inundated with commercial “Christmas” for months now and finally, it is will soon arrive, after considerable fanfare and folderol. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted, beat to a “best ever holiday” pulp.

All of this has little to do with the original gift given that first Christmas night, lying small and helpless in a barn feed trough. I know a fair amount about feed troughs, having daily encounters with them in our barn, and there is no fanfare there and no grandiosity. Just basic sustenance– every day needs fulfilled in the most simple and plain way. Our wooden troughs are so old, they have been filled with fodder thousands of times over the decades. The wood has been worn smooth and shiny from years of being sanded by cows’ rough tongues, and over the last two decades, our horses’ smoother tongues, as they lick up every last morsel, extracting every bit of flavor and nourishment from what has been offered there. No matter how tired, how hungry, there is comfort offered at those troughs. The horses know it, anticipate it, depend on it, thrive because of it.

The shepherds in the hills that night were starving too. They had so little, yet became the first invited to the feast at the trough. They must have been overwhelmed, having never known such plenty before. Overcome with the immensity of what was laid before them, they certainly could not contain themselves, and told everyone they could about what they had seen.

His mother listened to the excitement of the visiting shepherds and that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. Whenever I’m getting caught up in the frenetic overblown commercialism of modern Christmas, I go out to the barn and look at our rough hewn feed troughs and think about what courage it took to entrust an infant to such a bed. She knew in her heart, indeed she had been told, that her son was to feed the hungry souls of human kind and He became fodder Himself.

Now I am at the trough, starving, sometimes stamping in impatience, often anxious and weary, at times hopeless and helpless. He was placed there for good reason: a treasure to be shared plain and simple, nurture without end for all.

Who needs Christmas cookies, pumpkin pies and the candy canes to fill the empty spot deep inside?

Just kneel at the manger.

For Freedom from Fear

The Angels and the Shepherds by James Tissot

(written originally in 2003)

We’ve had a very blustery week of chilly snowy weather, with strong winds from the north, blowing branches off trees and anything not tied down. Our horses were out in their winter paddocks yesterday, as usual, and due to the fullness of the day’s activities, we didn’t get out to do chores until after dark to bring them in one by one.

The wind definitely changes everything once it is dark out, for us and for the horses. The familiar walk along the dark path from the paddocks to the barn, past several buildings, suddenly becomes spooky and more epic adventure than evening stroll. The wind whistles between the buildings, so everything sounds different than usual, and the blowing branches and goodness knows what else can appear threatening and menacing.

The horses’ eyes are big and bright with white as we walk in, and they jig and trot, glancing this way and that, clearly unnerved by the familiar becoming unfamiliar. They are uneasy and frightened, breathing hard and fast, and the younger ones are frankly terrified when a branch blows across their path, coming out of nowhere in the dark, and disappearing just as quickly. I talk to the horses as we walk, reassuring them, telling them there is no reason to be afraid, that there is nothing out here that will eat them or chase them, and they cock their ears back and forth, listening to me, then back to listening for that unknown “thing” out there that just might be ready to get them. If they had their ‘druthers, they’d be racing for the safety of the barn at full tilt, but that is not acceptable behavior, so they cope with being asked to stay close and walk alongside me.

Once in the barn, with muzzles into the feeders and eating their evening meal, their eyes soften again, and they relax, settling, knowing that they are safe and cared for and protected. A roll in the fresh shavings, a good shake and a huge snort of relief, and all is well. I can be easily unnerved too by the familiar suddenly becoming unfamiliar. I like to think I cope well with the unexpected, but it isn’t always the case, so I often need plenty of reassurance, and a steady voice beside me so I don’t get catastrophic in my fear.

Sometimes, as a president so wisely implied years ago, our own fear becomes the thing we fear the most. And it need not be.This type of fear in the face of the unexpected happened years and years ago, to people who were society’s cast-offs, relegated to tending flocks as they had no other skill of value. They were the forgotten and the least of men. Yet what they saw and heard that Christmas night put them first, allowed them access that no one else had. Within the familiarity of their fields and flocks came this most unexpected and frightening experience, terrifying in its sheer “other worldliness”, and blinding in its grandeur. They must have been flattened with fear and terror.

And so the reassurance came: “Be not afraid”.

In the same way we whisper to our frightened horses and hold them close to us, so these shepherds were picked up, dusted off and sent on their way to the safety and familiar security of a barn, to see with their own eyes what they could not imagine. A baby born in so primitive a place, yet celebrated from the heavens. The least becomes first, and the first becomes the least.

Sometimes, in these dark times, our terror is for good reason, and we need to know where to seek our reassurance. It is there for us and always has been, walking beside us, speaking to us from a manger bed, feeding us when we are hungry and tending to us when we need it.

Merry Christmas and do not be afraid.

November Gratitude–the doorway between two worlds

“I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.”  Annie Dillard

Some doors in our lives remain forever closed and locked.  No key, no admittance, no way in, no way out.   There is clarity in a locked door and no choices to be made.  When there is a choice, that is when I tend to run away scared.

The locked door is both invitation and opportunity when the key is handed to me.   I am forced into making a choice.  Do I lose the key and stay put where things are familiar?  Do I  knock and politely wait for the door to be answered?   Do I simply watch for the moment it happens to open, take a peek and decide whether or not to enter?  Or do I boldly put the key in and walk through?

The invitation is as plain as the key resting in my trembling hand.

For unto us a child is born, a son is given.  The door has been opened.

For a New Wardrobe

Madonna and Sleeping Christ Child by Giuseppe Crespi

On this Twelfth Night of Christmas, when the manifestation of God With Us is celebrated as Epiphany, we have need of a change of clothes, to put on something new, to remember that winter has only begun.

“Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”  Colossians 3:12

For the Blessing of Coming Home for the Holidays

Christmas Homecoming by Norman Rockwell

Many of our favorite Christmas carols are all about coming home for the holidays, reliving family traditions, and reinvigorating the rituals that tie together generations over the years.

I’ll be home for Christmas,  you can count on me, I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, here we are as in olden days,  there’s no place like home for the holidays, all I really want for Christmas is a family…

It may be as simple as a certain jello recipe that always shows up at the Christmas dinner table, or a movie that is a particular favorite for everyone to watch together, or a story book that is read before bedtime.  The predictability is the glue that holds a family together, connecting everyone even when separated over months and miles.  It is reassuring and for children, it becomes as readily anticipated (and expected) as the gift giving.

For our family, it is 25 years of a particular egg, bacon, cheese, milk and bread breakfast casserole that is put together on Christmas Eve and then baked early on Christmas day.  It is a Christmas Eve Candlelight Service singing “Silent Night”.  It is watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” together,  and it is singing grace in harmony at the dinner table.   It’s word games and truly bad puns.  I can go on and on.  It is about shared history, identity, and values.

I know there are plenty of families where what is predictable is argument, abuse and unhappiness.   Too often it is fueled by alcohol, or numbed by marijuana smoke.  With the trend toward cohabiting and single parenthood,  a majority of children grow up in homes with so much transition because of changing dynamics and household members, there is less glue to hold those families together.   Some families do survive despite the fractures.  I see this uncertainty in many of the college students I work with who do not have a clear cut “home” to return to during their winter break and must divide time visiting several “homes”.

I am grateful our children still can choose to come home for the holidays.  I am thankful we maintain connections that make our home a place they want to come to.  I’m glad we still have the glue that keeps us together through the years.

I’m sure my children would tell me that as long as I don’t forget the Christmas breakfast casserole recipe, they’ll keep coming home.  Just in case, here it is so I can look it up when I’m too old to simply throw it together any longer:

Christmas Morning Casserole
put together Christmas eve and baked Christmas morning)


One loaf of french bread–cut into cubes and place in greased 10×12″ rectangular baking dish

In a large bowl combine:
12 eggs

4 cups milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard powder

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

dash black pepper

Pour egg/milk mixture over bread cubes

On top of the bread/egg/milk place:
2 cups grated cheddar cheese

2 cups sliced mushrooms

1 cup diced tomatoes

1 lb. fried bacon, crumbled

sprinkle with dried parsley

(other ingredients to consider: we sometimes cut up varied colors of fresh sweet peppers to put on top, or you can substitute sausage for the bacon, or go totally meatless)

Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight. Bake at 325 degrees for at least two hours (time may vary a bit), making sure the center is done. Serves 10-12