A Christmas I’ll never forget

If my brother had not lost his harmonica, we might have missed the whole thing.

It was Christmas Eve, 1968, and I was 11. My oldest brother, a Bob Dylan aficionado, had picked up a harmonica at college that fall and was learning to play.  My family, Episcopalians, headed out to midnight Mass that evening and my brother had brought along this harmonica, though none of us knew it. This was always my favorite church service:  its lateness combined with majesty and sense of mystery, was the culmination of the entire year. Afterwards, we left the church and headed for home to enjoy a family celebration: opening gifts from under the tree, while we enjoyed cookies and hot coffee.

Except that when we got home, my brother declared that his harmonica was missing; the car was searched as was the house. He was sure he had taken it—and he and my other brother quickly drove back to the church to see if they could find it. We would have to wait another half hour or more to start our celebration.

I sat down with my parents and sister to wait for them. We switched on the TV—and became transfixed. The astronauts of Apollo 8 were at that moment orbiting the moon, the first humans to ever do so and were broadcasting live. They sent back a message to the entire planet, readings from the first 10 verses of the Bible, the book of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…”

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They had been the first humans to observe what became known as “earthrise” as they orbited the moon and that vision gave the book of Genesis a whole new meaning.

That Christmas Even broadcast was, until its time the most-watched in history.  1968 had been a difficult year: the war raged in Vietnam; we had political assassinations and political unrest at home, student demonstrations and race riots; the Soviets had crushed the uprising in Czechoslovakia known as the “Prague Spring.” At that moment, on Christmas Eve, much of our planet was watching—and we were seeing ourselves anew. It was one of those moments in which we could sense we were part of a greater unity, a greater purpose that might overcome all our difficulties. The astronauts concluded their scripture reading with a greeting, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.” That moment for me, an 11 year old, was more than magical: it was transcendent.

Christmas is a time when we celebrate incarnation, of God becoming flesh. We celebrate the Transcendent One becoming Immanent—close to us, within our sphere, literally our earthly sphere. And at the end of that difficult year of 1968, I think we were all able to see, if we were watching, our planet, the sphere on which we cling to life, as perhaps God can see it, small, beautiful, rich, a place worth coming to. For me, it gave a whole new meaning to Christmas.

And I might not have experienced that moment it if my brother had not lost his harmonica.

May you know, celebrate and worship the transcendent God, who became flesh for us all. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

And, oh yes, the harmonica was found—in a snowbank.

~Russ EanesEanesRuss

 

The Things of Christmas

Right now my kitchen counter is full of cookbooks, menus, and lists as my family gets ready to host a variety of guests over Christmas and New Year’s. So today I’m sharing with you six things that I’m making, doing, or learning anew this Advent season.

1.       Advent reading, singing, and candle lighting: Each night during Advent we have a tradition of lighting one candle on this homemade Advent tree, reading a page from an Advent book that my husband grew up with (although as we read we modify the old King James language in the book), and singing a verse from an Advent or Christmas song from Hymnal: A Worship Book. With a 2½-year-old daughter, we’re mostly singing a verse of “Silent Night” or “Away in a Manger.” AdventTree

2.       Granola: I am in love with the Sweet and Salty Granola in the Mennonite Girls Can Cook Celebrations book (page 148). That is the most well-worn page in the book. I used to use an Alton Brown recipe, but frankly Marg Bartel’s is so much better. I mix up the nuts and seeds depending on what I have on hand, and once it’s cool I add dried fruit before storing. I’ve made batches of this for my daughters’ day care teachers this year. Here’s the recipe, and the beautiful photo from the book.

Sweet and Salty Granola
Serves 12

3 cups / 750 ml rolled oats
⅔ cup / 150 ml almonds, coarsely chopped
⅔ cup / 150 ml cashews, coarsely chopped
⅔ cup / 150 ml pumpkin seeds
¾ cup / 175 ml coconut, unsweetened and shredded
½ cup / 125 ml brown sugar
¼ cup / 60 ml grapeseed oil (I use vegetable oil)
¼ cup / 60 ml maple syrup
¾ teaspoon / 3 ml sea salt

Preheat oven to 250° F / 125° C.
Mix first 6 ingredients in a large bowl.
Mix grapeseed oil, maple syrup, and sea salt together.
Carefully pour the liquid over the oats mixture, stirring gently with a wooden spoon.
Spread granola in a 10 x 15-inch / 25 x 38-cm greased baking pan.
Bake for 75 minutes. Do not stir.
Allow the granola to cool and store it in an airtight container.

Granola

3.       Gingery butternut squash soup: One of my all-time favorite soups, and it’s from Simply in Season. It was one of the first foods I fed my oldest daughter, and she continues to love it. With guests all week next week, I made a triple recipe and froze most of it. If you’re in a pinch for time, I’ve also substituted apple sauce for the chopped apples and pureed squash for the fresh butternut squash. Fresh ginger is the key, though. To make it even creamier, add a potato to the mix.

Gingery Butternut Squash Soup
Serves 4

2 onions (chopped)
2 tablespoons fresh ginger (peeled and minced)

In a large soup pot sauté in 1 tablespoon of oil until onion is translucent.

2 apples (peeled, seeded and chopped)
1 butternut squash (peeled, seeded, and cut into cubes; may use 2 cups / 500 ml cooked winter squash)
4 cups / l L chicken or vegetable broth

Add to pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until squash and apples are tender. Purée until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley (optional) and serve.

buttgingersoup3

Photo from thelocalcook.com. She too liked this recipe!

4.       Portzelky or Portzel: A traditional New Year’s cookie in my husband’s family. Really it’s a fried ball of sweet dough with raisins. What more could one ask for! There’s a recipe in Mennonite Girls Can Cook (page 176), but since I’m gluten- and dairy-free I’ll be modifying it quite a bit. But the photo alone should tempt you!

Portzel

5.       Cinnamon rolls (or cinnamon buns, if you prefer): I think just about every cookbook that has been authored by a Mennonite has a version of these. My mom always makes them using the Foundation Sweet Dough recipe from this old cookbook. My copy once belonged to my Grandma Gingerich.

OldCookbook6.       It’s no big deal! My 2½ year old does NOT want her picture taken right now. At Thanksgiving we started using the phrase “It’s no big deal,” spoken in a fake heavy Italian accent, to get her to cooperate. While we haven’t made much progress on cooperating for pictures, we have incorporated the phrase into everyday happenings. The soup gets burned? It’s no big deal! The cookies came out flat? It’s no big deal! We aren’t going to have snow for Christmas? It’s no big deal! (All of these have happened to me this season.)

Every family has their own disaster stories around Christmas. I love these stories because they make us all the more human. Author Melodie Davis shares this one in her book, Whatever Happened to Dinner:

My youngest daughter was about nine when she got in the mood one day for one of her favorite cookies, which we call Snowball Cookies, a rich-shortbread cookie I usually make at Christmas. So Doreen decided to make them herself. I had to leave the house while she was stirring them up. You guessed it; we had one of those cooking disasters that happen frequently when a child is learning something new. Instead of a teaspoon of water, she put in a cup. Instead of a stiff dough, she had runny batter.

In this season of preparing for the Christ-child to be born anew, it’s always good to remember that it’s really no big deal if the preparations don’t get finished, if the gifts aren’t all wrapped. The true gift of this season is the way that God envelops us in a story and calls us to become new.

May we all abandon our expectations and answer God’s call this season with joy.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Amy Gingerich

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The Dove Visits Our House Each Year

December at the Eby house means watching Dove Tales. While we watch this DVD at other times of year, it gets played most often in December. Ever since we bought Dove Tales, the day we decorate the Christmas tree always includes the retelling of the Christmas story, compliments of the Peanuts gang and Ted Swartz, Lee Eshleman and Ingrid DeSanctis. (That’s high praise, considering my kids were seven-years-old and ten-years-old when we first bought the DVD.)

We’ve watched Dove Tales so often that we chime in on certain lines such as:

  • “Joseph, if you cannot deal with this pregnancy, how are you going to handle the really tough things?” – Mary (Ingrid)
  • “I also happen to be Joseph’s first cousin twice removed  . . . once against my will.” – photographer at Joseph and Mary’s wedding (Lee)
  • Where did you get that donkey?!” – Mary
  • “You can be sore. You can be afraid. But you can’t be sore afraid.” – shepherd (Ted)

Sample the magic here:

My favorite scene is where the very pregnant Mary tells Joseph three things he can do to keep their marriage together. (I won’t spoil it by saying more.) My favorite line happens in the scene where Joseph and Mary meet after several months apart. Joseph shares that he still loves her, but no response. He asks, “Can you help me out here, Mary?” Mary pauses then replies, “I’m pondering.” My kids, who grew up with the New International Version of the Bible, and not the King James Version, will never think that line is as funny as I do.

Elizabeth, who is now thirteen years old, had a hard time picking one favorite scene or line. “I always liked the more physical scenes like Zachariah and Elizabeth communicating through pantomime and Gabriel and Joseph fighting in Joseph’s dream. For the first couple of years, I was confused by Gabriel’s line at the end of that scene when he says ‘Marry her.’ I kept thinking he was saying, “Mary her.’ Now when that part comes, it makes me smile, just because I get it now.

I also asked sixteen-year-old Nathanael why he still enjoys watching Dove Tales. “I like the way the actors become the characters they are portraying. They are very expressive in how they speak and act. Each character is unique and recognizable. It’s fun that Nigel is in it as the innkeeper because I like him in other sketches. Best of all, it’s clean humor about stuff that really matters—not just punch lines.”

My husband, Rick, added, “It’s a fresh but authentic take on the Christmas story and about people with real human frailties. We tend to forget that the characters in Bible stories didn’t know what was going to happen or if things would work out. Dove Tales is a great reminder of this.”

That’s the beauty of Dove Tales. So many layers and each one enjoyable. There are the pratfalls and the chance to make animal sounds that even the youngest child can enjoy. There are the familiar scenarios where we laugh when we recognize ourselves or people we know well. There are the odd, quirky characters who are simply fun to watch.

Dove Tales is also about relationships. The husband, who wants to say the right things to his wife but can’t seem to manage it, and the wife who loves him anyway. The brother and sister shepherds who are content with whatever comes their way, from foot rot to a message from angels. Gabriel and “the lesser cherubim” who are simply excited to be part of the God story, even when their plan doesn’t go as planned.

And most of all, Dove Tales is about how our God—who wanted so much to have a closer relationship with us—chose the surprising solution of sending a small baby to a humble couple to raise. This is a story that will definitely go “forever on.”

DovetaleRachel Nussbaum Eby
Managing editor of Shine: Living in God’s Light

If you don’t have your own copy, you may want to think about making it a gift for the whole family. You can also learn more about the current Ted & Company Theaterworks here.

For Ted’s memoir check out Laughter is Sacred Space.