Friday, December 25, 2009

The First Christmas

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Light Shines

A Light Shines
by Debbie Roome

The emergency was over, my breathing easier as the doctor scribbled in my file. “I realise it’s Christmas Eve, Mrs. Fraser, but from what you’ve told me, I’d prefer you stay overnight.”

I’d guessed as much. My history of asthma was long and dramatic and to be honest, I would feel safer here until my breathing was back to normal. That’s not to say I was happy about it, though. “I asked You for a trouble-free Christmas,” I muttered to God. “This isn’t what I had in mind.”

“Are you alright with that, Gayle?” My husband looked weary with dark smudges under his eyes.

I squeezed his hand. “You go home, love. Tell the family I’m fine and I’ll be home in the morning.”

As the nurse helped me into a wheelchair, I continued my dialogue with God. Maybe I shouldn’t have dusted the cabin but it needed freshening up. I so wanted this Christmas to be special. My thoughts flitted to the faces of my grandchildren, white with shock, their mouths small circles of fear as I struggled for breath. I thought of my daughters and their husbands and how we’d planned to have a white Christmas up in the mountains.

“There’s no one else in the ward.” The nurse pulled my mind back to the present. “We’ve sent as many people home as possible.” She laid a hand on my shoulder. “And you’re sounding much better. I’m sure you’ll be released tomorrow.”

The ward had ivory walls, apricot floral curtains, and smelled of pine disinfectant. A Christmas tree stood in the corner, sprinkled with tinsel and shiny baubles. I waited for the nurse to disappear and then slid out of bed and padded over to the window. Outside, lacy sheets of snow drifted quietly and the road was dark and deserted. A street lamp cast a cone of golden light that looked like a heavenly Christmas tree. “I’m sorry for being grumpy, God. I suppose I brought this upon myself.”

It was as though a heavenly finger touched my lips. Are you willing to be used?

Used? In a country hospital late on Christmas Eve?

The nurse came in at 11 p.m. to check my breathing. I was still wheezing slightly but the tightness had improved. “Your chest sounds a lot easier,” she said, putting the stethoscope back on the trolley. “Would you mind if we put another patient in with you? We’re short-staffed with it being Christmas.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Alcohol poisoning. She’ll be coming up in a few minutes.”

I pictured a creased old alcoholic and as I opened my mouth to say I’d rather not, God spoke clearly into my heart. “I’d be glad to have her here.”

She arrived five minutes later, a slight creature with tousled black hair and pallid skin. She looked to be in her teens. The nurse half lifted her into bed and then hung a clear bag of fluid on an IV pole. A tube dangled like a silver rope, taped to the back of her hand.

When she was gone, there was a moment’s silence as we checked each other out. Then I pulled my thoughts together. “Hi, I’m Gayle.”

She tilted her head slightly. “Maxie.”

“Bad night, huh?”

“The worst.”

She lapsed into silence so I tried again. “Are you hoping to be out in the morning?”

“I don’t really care.” Her eyes were dark shadows, devoid of hope and life.

“It can’t be that bad.”

She twisted her face into a snarl. “You have no idea.”

What now, Lord? I’ve no idea what to say next.

I prayed quietly for a couple of minutes before speaking again. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

To my surprise, she didn’t snap back, but began to talk in halting sentences, disjointed threads sewing a picture of neglect, fear, and abuse. “I drank half a bottle of rum and three beers ... I didn’t want another Christmas with no gifts or celebrations ... they pumped my stomach which was so gross.”

Go sit by her. A whisper rustled across my soul. I slipped out of bed and pulled a chair up next to her.

“And how do you feel now?”

“Ashamed, lonely ... and my mom’s mad as a hornet. Says I wrecked her Christmas Eve.”

I reached out a hand for hers and cradled it between mine. Her skin was the colour of fat-free milk, and I could feel delicate bones as I squeezed gently. The touch seemed to release something in her and pain seeped from her eyes in slow trickles. “No one ever touches me like that,” she whispered. “Mom slaps me around and I’m forever fighting her boyfriends off. I wanted to die, that’s why I was drinking ... but there must be more to life?”

The question hung between us and I knew what God wanted me to do next. “Do you think you could walk to the window? I want to show you something.” I pulled two chairs over and fastened the curtains back before helping her out of bed. Like an old woman, she shuffled along while I pulled her IV stand. Then I dragged a blanket from my bed and draped it across both of us.

“What do you see out there?” I said taking her hand again, the connection a seam of hope.

“It’s dark. And it’s cold and snowing.”

“And what about the street lamp?”

“It’s shining in the darkness.”

I nodded. “That’s what Christmas is all about. The world was lost in darkness but God sent a great light. That light was baby Jesus who was born in a stable on Christmas Day. The Bible says that God sent him as a gift to us, to save us from our sins.”

Words of hope and healing flowed as God inspired and by midnight we were both weeping. “I want the darkness to go,” Maxie whispered. “I want God to change my life.”

We prayed together and as I said amen, bells pealed down the street, a joyous medley as the town welcomed Christmas Day.

I turned to look at Maxie and marvelled at the change in her face. The dull pits of pain were gone and her eyes sparkled with new life. “Merry Christmas,” I said, embracing her.

“And you too, Gayle.” A smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “I’ve already had my gift ... and to think I nearly gave up on life.”

We sat in contented silence as I thanked God in my heart. I’m sorry for being a grump, Lord. And thank you for tonight.

I realised a moment later that my chest was completely clear. No wheezes. No tightness, no crackles. I smiled up at the heavens. Maybe I did do the right thing by dusting the cabin.

Read the previous story, "The Birthday Tree" by Seema Bagai.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Birthday Tree

The Birthday Tree
by Seema Bagai

“Mommy, when will we get our Christmas tree?” Kerrie twirled around the kitchen as her mother prepared dinner. Gusts of warm, humid air blew in through the unscreened window. Pauline glimpsed the farmers returning from the rice paddies as the sun faded behind the palm tree-lined horizon.

“Sweetie, we can’t have one this year. Pine trees don’t grow in this part of India.”

Kerrie stopped mid-twirl and planted her fists on her hips. “But, we have to have a tree. We just have to. Where will we put the presents?”

“We’ll have one next year when we’re back home.”

Sensing a storm gathering across her daughter’s face, Pauline said, “How about you talk to your daddy when he comes home?”

Over dinner, Kerrie appealed to Russ for a Christmas tree. “Even a fake one. Please. It doesn’t feel like Christmas at all around here.”

While she cleared the table, Pauline observed her husband frown in concentration, as an idea flickered in his dark eyes.

* * *

On Christmas Eve, Pauline peeled potatoes while her mind wandered home to Ohio. She imagined driving through the snow-covered streets to the tree farm where Russ would cut the perfect pine for their living room. Then they would untangle lights and hang ornaments, the tree’s woodsy scent filling the room.

A thump jolted Pauline from her December daydream and she wandered into the front room to investigate. She found Russ and Kerrie standing beside a potted palm tree.

“Look, Mommy. We have a Christmas tree. Daddy said that where Jesus was born they had trees like this. I can’t wait to decorate it.” Kerrie’s face glowed with excitement. “First, I have to go tell Mala,” she called as she dashed outside to the neighbor’s house.

“It’s the one from the clinic verandah,” Russ said. “I explained that Kerrie wanted a tree for Christmas and they said I could borrow this one for a few days. None of them has seen a Christmas tree before.”

As her husband dragged the squat plant across the room, Pauline pined over the boxes of ornaments and lights sitting in their attic in Akron.

Kerrie returned and announced that the neighbors can’t wait to see a Christmas tree.

How will we decorate this thing? Pauline wondered. To buy some time, she ordered Kerrie to complete her chores. The clinic staff, and now the neighbors, was invited for a Christmas Eve meal. Now they would be expecting to see a decorated tree.

“Russ, I know your heart is in the right place. But, how can we decorate it? We don’t have ornaments or tinsel or anything.”

Russ leaned over and gave his wife a peck on the cheek. “You always had the best decorated home in the neighborhood. You’ll think of something.” He went into the kitchen singing, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”

The village had a general store crammed with everything from toothpaste to turmeric, so Pauline ambled over there, hoping to find inspiration tucked somewhere on an overstuffed shelf. She scanned the merchandise and found nothing resembling a Christmas ornament.

“What you need today?” the shopkeeper asked. “I help.”

Pauline sighed. “Gopal, it’s Christmas. Russ brought home a tree for us to decorate. But I see you don’t have anything like that.”

“Decorations? Is it birthday?” Gopal called out something in Telegu to a boy in the loft above him. Before Pauline could correct the shopkeeper, the boy threw down several small packages which Gopal caught. He thrust them at Pauline who examined the contents and smiled.

“I think this might work. Thank you.” She counted out some rupees and handed them to Gopal.
“Who birthday it is?”

Pauline started to correct him, but changed her mind and smiled. “It’s Jesus’ birthday.”

“Who Jesus? I not know of anyone here with that name.”

“Come to our house tonight. Bring your family. We will tell you about Jesus.”

Back at home, Pauline showed Russ and Kerrie the packages she bought.

“Mommy, where are the ornaments and that long sparkly stuff?”

“Well, this is all they had at the shop. Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, so I figured we could decorate the tree with these streamers and balloons.”

With a squeal of delight, Kerrie tore open one of the bags. She and Russ blew up the multicolored balloons, while Pauline unrolled a spool of crepe paper and wound the red strips around the palm tree. She tied a long piece into a bow and taped it to the plant’s pot. The family sang as they set the balloons on the broad leaves and tucked them between the branches.

In the evening, their guests poured into the house and marveled at the transformed tree. Gopal arrived with his wife and children. He clutched a string of marigolds and scanned the room.
“Where Jesus?” He held up the garland. “I give for birthday.”

Russ chuckled. “He’s not here. Let me explain.”

Everyone sat on the floor in front of the tree. Russ told the guests about the first Christmas as one of the clinic nurses translated the story into Telegu. He then explained that the Christmas tree was a symbol to remind everyone of Jesus’ birth.

Gopal stood up. “I put on tree for Jesus.” He held out the garland.

“Sure,” Russ said and gestured to the tree. Gopal draped the circle of orange flowers around the tree.

The guests drifted into the kitchen, while Kerrie lingered to admire the family’s unusually decorated tree. “Happy birthday, Jesus,” she whispered.

Read the previous story, "Highly Favored" by Jo Huddleston.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Highly Favored

Highly Favored

by Jo Huddleston

Mary walked a short distance from the back of her family’s house toward a stand of trees. She stopped and stood in the shade of a sycamore fig tree, reflecting on her obscure village in the hills of Galilee. Mary was content to help her family all she could around their lowly home, but she always wondered about other people in distant places.

She plucked a pear-shaped fig from the sycamore tree and sat, leaning back against the tree trunk. A light breeze fanned across her face as she bit into the sweet fruit. Mary savored it slight fragrance and gave in to her daydreaming. Like many young girls, she longed for things and places she’d never seen.

Nothing exciting ever happens here in Nazareth. We live in such a sleepy village. I’m sure it’s not this dull in Jerusalem or Bethlehem.

In her gentle meditation, Mary’s imagination drifted to all the things she wanted to do, things she would never get to do. But she knew her life would never change. She would become the wife of Joseph, a common carpenter, and remain in Nazareth the reset of her days.

Lulled into her dreary reverie, Mary could never have suspected just how wrong she was. She didn’t know God intended her life for something greater than the world had ever known.

Suddenly an angel named Gabriel stood before Mary.

“Mary, God has sent me to you. He favors you above all others. The Lord is with you.”

Mary glanced all around, believing that Gabriel spoke to someone else. Why is he greeting me such a way? She was troubled at Gabriel’s words and wondered why he said these flattering words to her.

“You surely aren’t speaking to me, are you?”

“Mary don’t be afraid. God has chosen you for a special honor. You will have a son and you are to name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father God, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end.”

She looked around her again, then back at Gabriel. “Jewish mothers through the ages have longed for this honor, to be the one to bear the Messiah. Why has God given me this privilege?”

“God favors you above all others. You will give birth to the Son of God.”

“But how will this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “You will be under the influence of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Even your relative Elizabeth is going to have a baby in her old age. You know she was said to be barren and now she is in her sixth month. Nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary’s heart thrilled at this angelic message that God chose her to impart and mold the human nature of His Son.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary said to Gabriel. “May it happen as you have said. I will let the Word of God guide my desires.”

* * *

“Joseph, Elizabeth is having a baby!”

“That can’t be true. She’s old and barren. How could this happen?”

“It’s a blessing from God in her old age.”

“It would have to be so, because it’s a miracle,” Joseph said.

“Joseph, speaking of miracles, I have something to tell you.”

Joseph gave Mary his devoted attention.

“Joseph, an angel visited me and spoke a message from God to me.”

A slight smile crept across Joseph’s face.

“What?” Mary said. “What are you smiling about?”

“Did this angel give you a message about a baby?”

“Yes . . .”

“Mary, an angel came to me also. I know you’re with child. And I know the child is sent from God.”

“And we’re to name Him Jesus?” Mary said.

“Yes, Jesus! Mary, you are highly favored to be the mother of the Messiah,” He took her hands in his.

“You can still marry me, then?”

“Yes, we will not question the Word of God. This, too, is a divine act from the Lord. We will be a part of the miraculous birth of the promised Savior!”

* * *

Months later, Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem to register for the ordered census of the entire Roman Empire. The crowds, who came to the city for the same reason, filled all the places to stay overnight. Finally, Joseph found an innkeeper who allowed them to stay in his stable. Joseph situated Mary in their humble quarters just in time, for that night she delivered her baby boy.

On the hillsides outside of Bethlehem, a host of angels heralded the birth of Jesus to shepherds. The shepherds came to where the angel said Jesus and His earthly parents would be found. Knowing a Savior had been born, they could do nothing less than tell such good news to everyone they met.

Mary marveled at this holy child from God. I am the mother of the Divine King of the Ages. She watched and listened as the word of her child’s birth spread among the people. Mary treasured up all these happenings and pondered them in her heart. I will forever be entwined with the One Who is the hope of the world; the promises Messiah, Jesus, forever the infinite heart of Christmas.

Read the previous story, "The True Twelve Days of Christmas" by Kathy Ide.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

The True Twelve Days of Christmas


A Secret Christian Message Hidden in Secular Lyrics


Kathy Ide

I love Christmas carols. Of course my favorites are the ones that joyfully extol the birth of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But I have to admit, even the tunes about snow and presents and jingling bells touch my spirit too. Christmas carols are all full of love, joy, peace, happiness, and hope. For me, these songs are a vital part of what makes Christmas “the most wonderful time of the year.”

But then there’s that one oddball carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Oh, it has a catchy tune, like all good songs. But those silly lyrics! Why sing about hordes of off-the-wall gifts some rich lover bestows on the object of his affection? What is he trying to prove anyway? That he can outgive, by far, any lover on the face of this or any other planet? Give me a break!

Then one Christmas I came across a blurb in my church newsletter about the origins of this nonsensical song. That spurred me on to do some research, and it turns out there’s a lot more to this crazy carol than I’d ever imagined.

It seems there really are twelve days of Christmas—the days between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6), which is when the three wise men supposedly arrived on the scene. The Feast of Epiphany began in the second century. By the sixth century, the traditional “twelve days of Christmas” had become a way of celebrating the turning of the year. Exchanging small, inexpensive gifts on each of the twelve days was a favorite holiday tradition among families of the time.

From 1558 to 1829, Catholics in England were prohibited by law to practice their faith either in public or private. It was actually illegal to be Catholic until the British Parliament emancipated the Catholics in 1829. To be caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could result in your being hanged or beheaded; that is, if you were lucky enough not to be tortured in one of several cruel ways.

Due to this intense persecution, Catholics were afraid even to hum the beloved religious songs of the season. Can you imagine Christmas without carols? So “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written full of code words with hidden meanings that Catholics could sing without the heretics knowing they were praising the Lord. It also served as a way to help young Catholics learn their “catechism,” the basic tenets of their faith.

Since the lyrics sounded like rhyming nonsense, young Catholics could sing them without fear of imprisonment. The authorities did not know it was a religious song. And the catechism to which it referred was general enough that it could even be claimed to be Protestant, if you were caught singing it.

The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor after all, but to the giver of all good and perfect gifts, God Himself.

God the Father “gave to me,” first and foremost, “a partridge in a pear tree,” representing Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son. Interestingly, a mother partridge will sometimes pretend she is injured to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much as Christ gave His life on the cross for us, His children.

Although sources vary somewhat on the specifics, the other symbols in the song represent the following gifts from God:

2 Turtle Doves The Old and New Testaments

3 French Hens Faith, hope, and love, the three gifts of the Spirit
(1 Corinthians 13)

4 Calling Birds The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)

5 Golden Rings The first five books of the Old Testament, also called the Pentateuch or the Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)

6 Geese a-laying The six days of creation (Genesis 1–2)

7 Swans a-swimming The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:8–11; Romans 12; Ephesians 14; 1 Peter 4:10–11)

8 Maids a-milking The eight beatitudes (Matthew 5:1–12)

9 Ladies Dancing The nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23)

10 Lords a-leaping The ten commandments (Exodus 20:1–17)

11 Pipers Piping The eleven faithful disciples

12 Drummers Drumming The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed

So it turns out I was right about this song all along. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a carol about a lover who can outgive any other, by far. For who of us can outgive God? And what Christmas gifts could possibly surpass those He has given to His “true love,” the church of believers, as we celebrate the birth of His Son, Jesus Christ?

Read the previous story, "Miracle of the Nativity" by Tracy Ruckman.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Invitation for You!

Today, I'm posting a story after I offer an invitation to each of you. Tonight, Thursday, December 17, at 9 p.m. Eastern/8 p.m. Central time, The Knight Agency will host an online Christmas party and chat, and you are invited!

They'll be giving away a DOZEN door prizes, and with Cecil Murphey, Marley Gibson, several Knight Agency representatives, and several of the contributors of Christmas Miracles, it's sure to be a fun time! So please join us! The chat will include a time when you can ask questions, so have one or two ready when it's time. (And writers - one of the door prizes is a critique of your first chapter by one of the agents of The Knight Agency, and I'd LOVE for it to be one of our Pixels, so let us know if you win! How exciting!)

Just visit this Web site, choose a user name and password, and login. You may want to visit a few hours early, just so you'll see how it works before the crowd arrives, and login a few minutes early to settle in. Be sure to say hello - I look forward to seeing you there!

Taken from: Christmas Miracles (pages 13-17)
Copyright © 2009 by Cecil Murphey and Marley Gibson
Published by St. Martin’s Press
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010

Used by permission

Miracle of the Nativity
(Tracy Ruckman)

December that year appeared bleak. As a newly single parent of two small boys, I worked two jobs to pay our bills. At times, it seemed I earned just enough salary to pay the babysitter, with nothing left over for the basics.

Then it got worse.

In the first week of December, the owners of the store where I worked fulltime decided to focus their energies on their parent store in another town, and planned to close ours within a few days. The same week I received my notice, I had a disagreement with the editor of the paper where I worked my second job. He wanted me to report a false story. When I refused, he forced me to resign.

In one week's time, I lost two jobs—both just before Christmas.

I spent most of my time seeking other jobs, and tried to keep life as normal as possible for the children. The dreary weather matched my mood, and I struggled to stay upbeat for my kids. Their world—my world—depended on me, and I seemed to be failing miserably.

On December 12, I came home from one of my final days at work to find a black trash bag hanging on my front door. I shifted the baby to one arm, and with the other, cautiously lifted the bag from the handle. "Stay back," I yelled at my older son. I had no idea what was inside.

I put the baby down and carefully peeked inside. I laughed at my silliness. Inside was a tiny, gaily wrapped package. We pushed through the door, and I settled the boys on the sofa. "Okay, just sit there and we'll see what this is." I pulled out a package about the size of my hand. A note taped to the box read: OPEN NOW.

I tore off the ribbon and paper and opened the box.

When I revealed the gift hidden in layers of tissue paper, Zach laughed, Jonathan said, "Mooooo," and I stared.

A cow? A ceramic cow? What did that mean?

There was no note explaining the ceramic cow.

Later that evening, I called some of my friends and asked if they had given us the cow. No one confessed, but they thought the whole story was rather amusing.

We put the cow on the table and went to bed.

The next morning, there was another trash bag hanging on our door. This time, the note said DAY 2–OPEN NOW. It was a donkey.

An excited Zach rushed to the door the third morning, ready to add to the barnyard collection. Nothing was there, but later that evening his monitoring of the door paid off because we unwrapped a sheep.

The next morning, a shepherd boy arrived and that's when I figured out what was going on. "Twelve days of Christmas," I said aloud.

That was exactly right. Each day, for the twelve days before Christmas, we received one piece of a beautiful nativity set and it included a stable. The anticipation of each day's arrival seemed to perk us up a bit, and it caused my own focus on the season, and on our lives, to change.

On Christmas Eve, baby Jesus arrived, and our crèche was complete.

Our special gift that year was a turning point for all of us, and we knew God was with us. We enjoyed that nativity for many years.

I found work—one job that paid better than the two previous positions.

But that's not the end of the story.

Seven years later, the boys and I moved to another state to get a fresh start. We faced other trials, too. My father and my grandmother had both been diagnosed with cancer, and their deaths were imminent. "Only months, possibly weeks away," the doctors told us. We moved into my grandmother's house. She gave us her house and moved into my father's house where my sister, who lived next door, could care for them both. Once again, we began to rebuild our lives.

When Thanksgiving arrived that year, I thought of the hardships we had gone through. If we hadn't had my grandmother's house to move into, we would have become homeless. I seemed to creep through the activities of each day. Our circumstances brought to mind that other Christmas years before. We no longer had our nativity set. We couldn't afford to hire a trailer to move everything, so that was one of the items we left. At Christmas I realized how deeply I missed it.

My godly grandmother died on December 2. I felt her loss to the depth of my being. But I knew she was in heaven, and God carried us through the pain and the tears, and comforted our hearts.
A week after her funeral, I climbed into the attic, looking for possible Christmas decorations. I didn't really feel like putting out anything, but the boys were still young, and it was important for us to honor Jesus' birthday, regardless of our circumstances.

The attic was small, hardly big enough to stand in. It looked as if no one had been up there for years. But there were several boxes, so I explored each one.

When I opened the last dusty one, tucked in a far corner, and saw what appeared to be Christmas things, I closed it and hauled it back down the steps. I set the box on the sofa in front of me and reopened it.

As I unpacked the first piece, tears filled my eyes. I pulled out the objects one by one. By the time the box was empty, I sobbed uncontrollably.

In my hands were all the pieces of a nativity set—identical to the one I'd left behind. I pulled out the familiar cow, the donkey, the sheep and shepherd boy, and the precious baby Jesus. Even the stable was the same.

God was with us. That may sound strange, but the comfort of that crèche made me aware of the love of God for my family and me.

Two days after Christmas, my dad died. That was even harder than the death of my grandmother.

Friends and family have asked us how we got through that difficult time. I have only one answer: God was with us.

Now, twelve years since that Christmas, and nineteen since we first received the nativity, I still don't know the identity of the giver. But God used that gift to give us something more—he made his presence known to us, both with the first nativity set and then again with my grandmother's.

That simple crèche made Christmas a reality—twice. Both times I was able to turn my focus away from my life and remember the message of Christmas. Jesus had come into the world and had nothing, not even a bed on which to sleep. By comparison, I had so much.

My treasured nativity scene is an annual Christmas reminder of the meaning of the season. God is with us.

P.S. I also had another reason for posting this particular story today, and I appreciate being able to do so - it's my late dad's birthday. Happy Birthday, Pop!
Read the previous story, "SETI" by Phee Paradise.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009


By Phee Paradise

I was going to take Christmas Eve off work to bake a pie for Mom’s dinner that night, but Mike scheduled a mandatory staff meeting. He did it, of course, just because he could. He likes to annoy his staff. I bought ice cream instead and tried not to be grumpy. Deandre was annoyed too, but she had a different theory about why he scheduled it. When he sent the e-mail, she slammed her mug down on her desk.

“Coward! He’s just afraid people will think he’s not tolerant if he lets Christians have a holiday. After all, we’re so privileged.”

I was already at my desk on the 24th, when she came into the reception area where our desks were, carrying a plate of frosted sugar cookies. Cinnamon candies dotted the green frosting so perfectly they would make Martha Stewart proud. She put them on her desk, looked around, and pulled a roll of silver garland out of her purse.

“Merry Christmas, Marje. Sure looks festive in here. Can you tell it’s Christmas Eve?”

She pointed at the four ghastly holiday posters taped to the back wall, then stuck her finger into her open mouth and made a gagging sound. Amy designed them to be inclusive. At our university, Christmas was just another festival of light, like Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Yule, and every office wanted a set of our posters. The Christmas one had a candle on it, as if that had anything to do with Jesus’ birth.

Deandre unrolled the garland and draped it around the edge of her desk, taping it in place.

“Want some?” She offered me the roll of garland. “Mike can schedule a mandatory meeting, but he can’t stop us from celebrating. I don’t care if Jews and Pagans have to work on their holidays, it stinks that we have to work today. Wish I had some lights.”

“No you don’t. You’d be contributing to Amy’s misconception that Christmas is a festival of light.”

“That’s right. Wish I had a nativity scene. Wouldn’t that make her mad?”

I took the garland and she helped me drape my desk too. A long piece hung off the back, so I cut it off. Deandre dragged a chair to the wall and stood on it.

“Hand me the extra garland and the tape. I’m going to frame the Christmas poster with it.”

I grinned and ripped off pieces of tape for her. When she was done, she turned and saw the random colors scooting across my computer screen.

“That’s a strange screen saver. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“It’s SETI. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. You can let them use your PC to process radio waves that their telescope picks up from outer space.”

Deandre laughed. “You’re kidding. You’re looking for aliens? And you, a good Christian.”

“Hey, if there are aliens out there, God made them too. I just think it’s interesting.”

“Is it appropriate to use university property for personal interests?” Deandre gave me her best Amy frown.

“Amy put it on there. She has it at home and on her computer here.”

“Well, that’s appropriate. She’s an alien, herself.”

She looked at the clock and picked up her cookies. I grabbed a notebook and pen. On the way to the conference room, we picked up some napkins from the empty break room. A barely-touched fruitcake sat on the table next to a stack of paper plates.

“I see no one’s eating Carol’s cake,” Deandre laughed. “It was awful.”

When we went into the conference room, Deandre called out, “Merry Christmas,” and put the plate in the middle of the conference table. Most of the staff was already there, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee from travel mugs. Danny, who is Jewish, reached across Jeannette and grabbed two cookies.

“I love Christmas cookies,” he said.

Amy glared at the plate, and then at Deandre and me. “That’s pretty insensitive. Not everybody celebrates Christmas, you know.”

“Is that why no one’s eating my fruitcake?” Carol whined.

Deandre made a face, but Mike came in, and everyone turned to watch him settle into his chair at the head of the table. He put a folder down and beamed at us.

“It’s so nice to see you all this morning. Thank you for coming.”

“As if we had a choice,” Deandre whispered.

As usual, he didn’t have an agenda, so he asked if anyone had anything to discuss.

“We need to do some serious diversity training,” Amy jumped in, looking at Deandre and me.

“Some people on the staff are very insensitive to religious and ethnic differences.”

Danny reached across Jeannette again and grabbed two more cookies. Jeannette pushed the plate farther away, out of his reach. Amy frowned and turned back to Mike.

“We could ask one of the professors in the Social Justice program to teach the workshop.”

“Don’t you like fruitcake?” Carol asked Danny. “It’s a Christmas food too.”

He shook his head and bit a Christmas tree in half.

Amy opened her mouth, but Mike spoke first.

“That’s an interesting idea, Amy. I’ll think about it.”

I relaxed, knowing that, since it wasn’t his idea, we wouldn’t have to suffer through a social justice version of diversity training. I doodled on my notebook while Mike talked about his favorite subject – thinking outside the box. My page filled up with boxes and swirls before he was done. I was bored, but there wasn’t really anything else to do for the rest of the day. He made it clear that the main office had to stay open until five. Deandre and I were the lowly support staff who worked in the reception office so that meant we had to stay, even though there were no students around for us to help.

When he let us go, I decided to clean my desk. While I pulled out drawers and re-organized post-it notes and paper clips, Deandre stacked folders of student files on her desk and started pulling forms out of them. All afternoon, staff trickled by our desks on their way out. Amy glared at the garland when she went by, but didn’t say anything. Deandre glared back at her.

“It’s her fault we’re stuck here today, and she gets to leave early? She needs a workshop on classism.”

But as soon as Amy walked out the door, Deandre pulled a CD player from within her desk and popped in some Christmas carols. “…echo back their joyous strains, glooooria” she sang on her way to the filing cabinet behind me.

Suddenly she stopped singing and pointed at my computer. “Is that supposed to be happening?”
I looked up and gasped. The screensaver had disappeared and white words were popping up on a black screen, one letter at a time.

“Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

Deandre hit the back of my head. “Very funny. You got me. I almost believed you about the aliens.”

But I wasn’t paying attention to her. I grabbed my Bible from the bottom drawer of my desk and flipped to the second chapter of Luke. It wasn’t the same version, but the words were close enough. I could have sung them, but instead, I shook my mouse and hit the escape key on my keyboard. Nothing happened. Something had taken over my computer.

It couldn’t be, could it? SETI. Radio waves. They hadn’t picked up an alien transmission. They had picked up angelic ones from two thousand years ago. I turned in my chair and looked at Deandre.

“Do you know what’s happening? The song the angels sang to the shepherds must have travelled out to the moon or something and bounced back and the SETI scope just picked it up.”

I looked back at the screen in amazement. “This proves the Christmas story.”

While I gawked at the screen, Deandre started laughing. “I still think it’s a joke, but if you’re right, you know who else is seeing this? Amy. Her precious computer is being insensitive.”

I stared at the screen again, trying to grasp what was happening. “Wait. It’s not funny. Look, she doesn’t believe in God but she loves computers. God’s using technology to tell her about Jesus.”

I slowly shook my head in awe at what He would do, even for someone who hated Him.

“Merry Christmas, Amy.”

Read the previous story, "Diana's Dinner Dilemma," by Seema Bagai.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Diana's Dinner Dilemma

Diana’s Dinner Dilemma

by Seema Bagai

“It’s your turn this year, Diana,” Vanessa announces.

I take a sip of after-dinner coffee and stare blankly at my sister-in-law, wondering what Marshall family tradition I’d be dragged into this time. “My turn?” I sputter.

“The Christmas Eve dinner, of course. Since you and Logan are going to be in town this year, I figured you could host it. You’re always raving about your grandmother’s recipes.” I feel my temperature rise and I know it isn’t because I am sitting with my back to the fireplace.

“Sure,” I reply with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. “We would be happy to have all of you over.” Why can’t we go to Mom’s again this year? I know Logan and I agreed to alternate holidays between our families. Going is one thing, but hosting is something else entirely.

In the flurry of shopping, decorating, and baking, not to mention work and choir practice, I procrastinate on setting the menu for the big meal. The Sunday before Christmas, I pull out the recipe box Gram had made and given to me as a wedding present. I’m sure she included all the Christmas recipes in here.

I settle down at the kitchen table with some freshly-baked gingersnaps and a steaming mug of cocoa to peruse the recipe box. Memories of Christmas dinners with Gram and Grampa make my mouth water.

Roast turkey with savory stuffing. That would be a perfect main dish. I can picture the bird being presented on the platter Aunt Becky gave us. Wait. Vanessa is a vegetarian. Or is she vegan? What’s the difference anyway? Clicking open the web browser on my laptop, I find something called tofurkey. I print out the information and move on to the side dishes.

Since the fake turkey comes with stuffing, I don’t need to make any extra. Oh, but Logan’s father is gluten intolerant. He can’t have the bread stuffing. I’ll make wild rice instead. There’s a coupon in the paper for a box of instant rice.

Garlic seasoned mashed potatoes. Mashing them was always my job. But, they are also made with milk. Logan’s brother, Liam, is lactose intolerant. I’ll just serve plain boiled potatoes. Guess that means no egg nog for him, either. Better pick up a bottle of apple cider.

A tossed salad should be safe. I’ll be sure to have some fat free dressing on the side for Logan’s mother who is always reading labels and counting calories. What else? Green bean casserole with crispy onions. I scan the recipe card and realize it’s made with cream of mushroom soup. Logan has a mushroom aversion. He won’t even touch the other food if there is a mushroom somewhere on the table. I’ll just serve steamed green beans.

Dessert. The cookies are already baked. Hang on. Liam’s wife is a diabetic. There are sugar free cookies at the store. I’ll make sure to have some. Of course, we have to have Gram’s prize-winning pecan pie. No, better not. Vanessa’s husband, Neil, has a life-threatening nut allergy. Fruit? That should be safe. But what fruit is fresh in December? Apples I guess.

I study the menu before making a grocery list:

  • Tofurkey
  • Rice
  • Boiled potatoes
  • Green beans
  • Tossed salad
  • Cider
  • Apple slices

As much as I’m trying, I can’t picture all these dishes arranged on the dinner table. It does not look at all like the festive Christmas dinner I pictured. It looks like something they would serve in a hospital. But, if I serve them the dinner Gram used to make, the one I really want to have, one or more of my guests will end up spending Christmas in the hospital. Won’t that give Vanessa something to talk about?

I can’t serve this meal. Nothing on this menu says “Christmas dinner” to me. Well, except for the cookies. There has to be a better option.

After a few clicks on the computer, I have an idea. Grabbing the phone, I dial a number.

“Good afternoon, Bayside Inn,” said the voice on the other end.

“I’d like to make reservations for eight people for Christmas Eve dinner.”

Read the previous story, "The Christmas Story" by Suzanne Williams.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

The Christmas Story

The Christmas Story

A true story by Suzanne Williams

As we piled in the car, I turned my head and gazed upward into the night sky. The air was cool and unconsciously I pulled my favorite blue sweater tighter around me. I felt my mother's hand pat me on the shoulder, encouraging me to stop my star gazing and pay attention to the task at hand. Daddy had his head in the trunk where I could hear the Christmas packages landing with a thump and a brief rustle of paper.

Half the fun of Christmas, I was thinking, is that it goes on and on. Tonight was Christmas Eve and like so many other Christmas Eve's we were headed just down the drive to visit my father's parents, my grandparents. Tonight the festivities began. Tomorrow morning my brother and I would open the gifts my parents had bought us, and tomorrow night there'd be fun with my other grandparents and the rest of my mother's family.

Now seated, I turned my head again and pressed my face to the window glass, allowing my gaze to cross the overgrown farm fields. The glass felt cold on my forehead. With my active seven-year-old mind, for a moment I pictured the field as it was in the summertime. I saw the field covered in long rows of healthy fruits and vegetables, and I pictured my grandfather there, plowing the soil on his rusty red tractor, or walking about watering and fertilizing. I smiled as I thought of the familiar scene.

My reverie was interrupted when I heard the car engine roar and felt the wheels begin to turn. They crunched across the packed dirt of the driveway as we made the trek to Pop-Pop and Granny's house.

Our house sat on one end of a winding dirt road. To one side was the field and on the other stood a thick stand of live oaks, which we called "the woods". Pop-Pop and Granny lived at the other end of the driveway in a small wood-frame house set in the midst of a grove of citrus trees.

Their house was already crowded with relatives when we arrived. The youngest of a crowd of cousins, my brother and I slipped in the door, letting it slam behind us. Compared to the darkness of the night, the house was bright and cheerful. I smiled as the familiar faces began the wave of expected greetings. "My how you've grown!" "What grade are you in?" and "How's school?"

Gazing around the room I could see that every square inch of space was filled. The dining room table and chairs dominated the space, and the walls were covered with shelves, placards, and family photographs. I heard my mother enter. In her hands she carried a casserole she had prepared earlier that day. My dad came in behind her with his arms full of colorfully wrapped gifts. The wave of greetings began again and the room filled with happy chatter.

Christmas Eves were always like this and I thought it was the best thing. In my young thinking, every family everywhere did something similar. They gathered together during the holidays, swapped stories, gave gifts, and ate too much food.

Speaking of food, I was hungry. The table was already laden with dishes. Along with baked ham, I saw chicken and dumplings and macaroni and cheese. There were bowls of Pop-Pop's homegrown vegetables: green beans, collard greens, and black-eyed peas. There was the ever present tray of sliced tomatoes. Another table held a multitide of desserts: cookies, brownies, and coconut cake. I was especially fond of Granny's pound cake all slathered in sliced sugared strawberries and whipped cream.

As if on cue, my grandfather entered from the living room just beyond. In his booming voice, he declared it time to eat and lumbered over to his favorite chair. The room fell quiet as he prayed, thanking God for family, for togetherness, and for the health of all in the past year. Afterward, everyone rushed over, filled their plates, and drifted off to other rooms to find a seat.

When the meal ended, everyone seemed content to just smile and digest the feast. Looking straight ahead, I thought Granny with her fluffy white hair and flowery printed dress looked so pretty and Pop-Pop so distinguished in his plaid flannel shirt and black trousers. I could hear a few last minute bits of conversation and laughter from the other portion of the house.

The atmosphere changed when Pop-Pop rose from the table. Suddenly, everyone knew it was time for the presents. The floor of the house shook as many feet traveled in the same direction. The already small living room became even smaller as people searched for a spot to stand or sit.

Being young, it was easy for me to slip in and find a square to sit in the floor. While everyone settled in around me, I gazed at the Christmas tree with its shiny lights and wondered which package beneath was my own. I didn't really expect anything grand. After all, Granny and Pop-Pop had so many people to buy for. But every child looks forward to whatever is beneath all those ribbons and bows.

My anticipation would have to wait a little longer, however, because I could see Pop-Pop was reaching for his Bible. Resting deep in his brown leather chair, he cleared his throat and said it was time for the Christmas story. A deep silence descended in the room, and elbow-to-elbow we all listened to those familiar words from the book of Luke.

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed ..."

If I stop here and fast forward, from the age of seven, to twelve, fifteen, and then twenty-three, this Christmas Eve scene repeated itself many times. Oh, the people in it grew older; my cousins married and had children, and their children married. I myself married and had a child, but always the little house and the hearts of the family managed to fit everyone in. Each person was sure to receive a gift, no matter how small it was, and everyone came glad to see everyone else.

For me, Pop-Pop's telling of the Christmas story was pivotal to the entire evening. I enjoyed opening the presents, and I loved the food. But everyone who attended knew none of it mattered until the story had been told.

The scene changed forever when my grandfather died. He was the first grandparent in my life to pass away. We cried for him and yet rejoiced, knowing his place was in heaven, knowing he was happy, and healthy and free. That Christmas, the family gathered again at the little house. There was time to eat and share, to laugh at the antics of the children, to catch up on all the family news. But when the moment came, and everyone gathered in the living room, I stood there with tears in my eyes.

The room was still the same. The old piano still sat in the corner covered in photos and Christmas cards. The huge wooden casement TV still took up the center. Even the couch and coffee table remained the same. And it was still crowded. The kids, as they always had, sat in the floor, and I, now an adult, instead stood in the doorway. But this year Pop-Pop's brown leather chair was empty. I couldn't help but think that now none of the children would know the story.

Then someone, just who I can't recall, reached over and picked up his old Bible, and one of the children opened it and began to read. There before me were new faces and old ones, familiar people and a story I had heard all my life. But that year, though the voice was that of a child, what I heard instead was Pop-Pop reading, just like he always had.

"And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger... "

I miss my grandfather still. In my head I can see him working the fields. When I see any antique tractors, like his 1952 Allis Chalmers, I think of him. No vegetables anywhere are ever as good as his were. Yet at Christmas time, when I miss him the most, I can always hear his voice reading the Christmas story. And it never fails to transport me to a place where I know what it all means, where there is love and joy, and where things make sense. The Christmas story for me is the greatest story ever told.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pre-Order Sale for A Pixel-Perfect Christmas 2009

We're excited to announce that A Pixel-Perfect Christmas 2009 is now available for pre-order. This beautiful softcover book includes an eclectic collection of stories from readers and writers of the Pix-N-Pens blog.

For one week, December 10-17, you can order the book at the special pre-order price of $10, plus shipping. After the 17th, the price will be $11.97. Due to the timing, I can't guarantee Christmas delivery, but I'll do everything I can to get the books to you as quickly as I can.

To order, please send me an e-mail. Be sure to tell me how many copies you wish to purchase, your shipping address, and if you want your order shipped 1st class, Priority Mail, or Express Mail, and I'll let you know the total cost. Payments will be accepted through Paypal only.
I'm confident you'll love these unique stories - they're a treasure!

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

How to Mix a Merry Christmas

How to Mix a Merry Christmas
by Keith Brown

One day while Jimmy Jenkins was waiting at the mall.

He made a list for Santa Claus, one hundred toys in all.

A bike, a train, and a video game were just a few, you see.

Everything a child could want beneath the Christmas tree.

When old Saint Nick placed little Jimmy gently on his knee.

He read the list of all the gifts to bring on Christmas Eve.

But there was something wrong with a list so long, and Santa made it clear.

There are many more important things this special time of year.

He said, "Christmastime is more than just the candy canes and toys.

It's the time we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

With so many blessings we receive we should not make a fuss.

So listen now and I'll tell you how to Mix a Merry Christmas."

"Take a dash of holiday spirit and a pinch of frosty snow.

Then you mix it all together with a jolly Ho-Ho-Ho.

Give a great big hug to the one's you love. Sing songs of joy and glee.

That's how to Mix a Merry Christmas, it's a Yuletide recipe!"

"But Santa," little Jimmy said. "These toys are not for me.

They're for all the other boys and girls you might not get to see.

I know that you're so busy, Santa, with all you have to do.

I'd like to see these friends of mine have a Merry Christmas too."

"The bike is for my best friend Tommy, the train is for his brother Bill.

The video game is for Sarah James and her little sister Jill.

And for all the other kids I know who could use a special treat.

Please Santa, if you make it so this Christmas can't be beat."

Then Santa raised the little man and hugged with all his might.

A tear rolled down his rosy cheek that glowed like colored lights.

"Dear Little Jimmy," Santa said, "It warms my heart to see -

Someone who cares as much as you of others and their needs."

"I'm so very glad we met today for I have learned so much.

And I think now you have taught me how to Mix a Merry Christmas!"

"Take a dash of holiday spirit and a pinch of frosty snow.

Then you mix it all together with a jolly Ho-Ho-Ho.

Give a great big hug to the one's you love. Sing songs of joy and glee.

That's how to Mix a Merry Christmas, it's a Yuletide recipe!"

Read our previous story, Fuzzy Marbles, by Anita Howard.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Contest Clarification

I just wanted to clarify a few things about our Christmas stories contest.

The stories being posted here on the blog are the "semi-finalists," and have been given a "score" on their manuscripts (Pix-N-Pens staff stories are excluded from the contest.) They are being posted in random order, not by order of their score.

On January 4th, we will post a list of finalists from these stories, and let the readers vote at that point. The votes will count for half the total score for that story, for the cash prizes. We will award 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners with cash prizes.

The Reader's Favorite (which may or may not also be one of the cash prize winners) will be chosen by reader votes only, and will win a huge box of books.

Comments left on the stories during the month of December do not count as votes, but comments are very welcome, to encourage and support the writers. And your comments may help influence voters in January!

Winners will be announced on January 18th.

In addition to the prizes and posting here, all stories being posted this month will be included in A Pixel-Perfect Christmas 2009. Details on this special giftbook will be available soon, so keep watching to get your copy.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Fuzzy Marbles

We hope you'll enjoy this fiction piece submitted by Anita Howard. We'll publish fiction on Monday and Wednesday and true stories on Fridays.

Fuzzy Marbles

by Anita Howard

I never wanted to hurt Jack. The scissors may as well have been gouging out my own insides. I’d always harbored a soft spot for him, though he wasn’t the finest I’d seen.

Then again, maybe that’s the reason I loved him. Maybe that’s why it ached all the more when the old woman made me rip his seams wide open.

Momma had bought me the teddy bear when I was five. She’d just finished her shift at the Harbor View Church’s garage sale. Having rescued me from the childcare section, she steered us through the card-table displays. Upon seeing Jack, I begged—so desperate in my pleas that Momma finally surrendered.

Jack’s fur hadn’t the charm of breakfast toast. A fuzzy orange hide swaddled his plump body. He looked like a pumpkin with hair. And his eyes weren’t glazed like chocolate drops. In fact, in the place of eyes were two pits surrounded by black stains, as if he were a jack-o-lantern with smoke lining the socket edges.

Momma paid three nickels for the toy, dusted off the satin bronze and black striped vest that seemed so out of place, then handed Jack to me, wondering aloud how I could ever want something so ugly.

But I did want him. I loved him with all the unbiased passion of a five-year-old. Each time I nuzzled the mustard-vanilla scent of his fur, I heard a rolling deep within his chest, as if a hundred glass hearts purred mutual affection.

Over the next four years, Jack became my dearest friend. When I caught my finger in Ned Templeton’s teeth, it was Jack that walloped the bully across his head. When my grandma-ma tripped over a flower pot and broke her hip, it was Jack that comforted me and Momma at the hospital. And when Daddy left town with his secretary, it was Jack that sat on my pillow, keeping my daddy’s reading spot warm, in case he ever decided to come home.

On my ninth birthday, my playmate Emily from next door moved away. I cried, but Momma assured me that we would still be stuck together. The true glue of friendship was in the memories left behind.

Emily’s house, a Cape Cod with butter-rum trim, took only a month to sell. The buyers were fellow members of Harbor View Church, a middle-aged couple by the name of Annesley. On a biting October afternoon, Momma and I helped them move in as the sky spit down iced rain, leaving welts the size of chigger bites on our skin.

Inside the house, the grown-ups piled feather quilts on a bed in the back room, lined the bay window with chiffon curtains, and spread rugs along the wooden floor. They hung pictures of black and white, all the more fascinating for their lack of color. And lastly, they placed a large fishbowl next to the bed filled with a kaleidoscope of gumdrops.

I munched on chocolate cookies and heard morsels of conversation between bites. Mr. Annesley’s mother, Nanna Annesley, had lost her memories. They wanted her room stocked with her favorite things, because she would be locked within for her own safety, having a tendency to wander.

That night at home, snuggled beneath my quilt with Jack, I wondered if maybe the reason Nanna Annesley liked to wander was to look for those sticky memories she had lost. I fell asleep, listening to the roll of Jack’s many hearts beneath my ear.

When Nanna Annesley arrived, we toted crochet threads and cooking magazines – items Mr. Annesley had mentioned were favorite pastimes in his mother’s earlier years. I wanted to bring Jack along, but Momma needed extra hands to carry the gifts, so the bear stayed behind.

Nanna Annesley sat unmoving in the rocker with the fishbowl of gumdrops nestled in her lap. Her crumpled face was like a doll’s: too vacant to be fully alive, but too thoughtful to be discounted as a mere fixture. I stayed with her while Momma and Mrs. Annesley made coffee in the kitchen.

When I tried to talk, Nanna responded by stuffing a handful of gumdrops in her mouth and smacking until a rainbow drizzled down her chin.

Deciding to read to her, I picked up a magazine. “It says here,” I managed in my most mature nine-year-old diction, “that the proper drink to serve with grilled salmon is a heavily-oaked chardonnay.” I wrinkled my nose, wondering what tree bark had to do with wine.

Nanna hunched in her rocker. A stump, a pillow, an empty, slobbery shell.

Undaunted, I read on, finding an exotic recipe for almond-deviled eggs. When I read where the yolk and almond mixture were to be stuffed into the hollowed out egg-whites, Nanna Annesley’s eyes came alive.

She rocked her chair so fiercely, the gumdrops fell from the bowl and rolled beneath the bed … some stopping to rest on the rugs. As I knelt down to pick up the candy, the old woman leaned close.

“Fuzzy marbles,” she said. Then she sat straight again, leaving me frozen in the wake of her sugary scented breath.

In the following weeks, I visited Nanna Annesley daily, though never thought to bring Jack along. We kept busy enough without him. Whether crocheting, sipping hot tea spiked with gumdrops, or watching the weather change through the bay window—the only two words Nanna ever said were, “Fuzzy marbles.” I finally realized that having lost her marbles, she could think of nothing but finding them again.

December brought holly and tinsel, and a world masked beneath a gloss of ice and retail promises. Seeking the perfect present for Nanna, I jumped directly in front of her son one day, causing him to drop a shovel heavy with snow.

“Does Nanna Annesley like toys?” I asked.

He grinned. “Grown-up toys are different, Lambie. Her playthings are the magazines, the candy, and the rainbow threads she crochets with.”

This didn’t satisfy me. I began to suspect that maybe this was the reason the old woman never seemed happy. “Has she ever had any real toys?”

“Ah.” From his wallet, Mr. Annesley fished a black and white picture. Sitting on a stack of wood, a little girl with bright eyes clutched a teddy bear, so similar to Jack it could have been his twin brother, though much newer and lacking the satiny-striped vest.

“Is that Nanna?” I asked.

Mr. Annesley grinned. “Seventy years ago. She named the bear Fuzzy. Came from a line of popular toys called Stuffies. Had deep pockets in their chests. Kid’s could hide things and stitch the bears closed, so as never to lose their heart’s dearest treasure.”

A strange, prickly feeling crept into my own chest. “What color was the bear … do you know?”

“Sure do. Nanna gave him to me as a boy. He was orange. I was rough with him, though. I gouged out the eyes, then burned the sockets with a magnifying glass.” He grinned again and pulled his toboggan lower over red-tipped ears. “Even tried to get to the treasure. But Nanna caught me. She stitched that bear back up, sewed on a vest, and hid him away in the attic.”

Mr. Annesley picked up his shovel and scratched the top of his covered head. “Funny thing. We lost that bear four years ago. Think he fell into a box meant for the church garage sale.”

As my neighbor returned to his work, I took the long way home, feet winding endless trails in the snow.

That night, I slept one last time with Jack. On Christmas Eve morning, I christened his orange fur with tears, memorized the song of his rolling hearts, and wrapped him in crinkly tissue paper.

Nanna’s reaction to the gift didn’t disappoint. Never had a crinkled face looked lovelier. Never had a toothless smile looked more seamless. Holding out a trembling hand, she offered her crochet scissors. Without a word, I unbuttoned the vest, and with an aching heart, snipped open Jack’s chest to reveal a box of marbles.

As I handed them to her, Nanna looked up and whispered, “Thank you.” And I basked in the gumdrop afterglow of her breath.

The night after Christmas, Nanna Annesley died. At her funeral, her son gave thanks that on Christmas Eve, his mother spoke in great length of her past, as if she’d never lost those memories to begin with. There was one story in particular he shared, of how his parents first met as children—arguing over a game of marbles.

I wiped my cheeks and hugged my special Christmas gift even tighter, tracing the new stitches along the bear’s middle. Then I looked at the casket and shook Jack, slightly reminiscent of the rolling I would never again hear within his chest.

But I knew it couldn’t be helped. My dearest treasure wouldn’t roll … wouldn’t even crackle. Because gumdrops had the tendency to stick together, just like friends.


Read the previous story: "Where the Lovelight Gleams" by Kristine Lowder.

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Where the Lovelight Gleams"

Today, we begin posting stories submitted for our Christmas contest. True stories will be posted on Fridays, fiction will be posted on Mondays and Wednesdays. I was thrilled at the quality of submissions this year - and hope all our Pixels will show support for the authors selected. I'll post details about our book, A Pixel-Perfect Christmas 2009, next week.

Today, we welcome Kristine Lowder, with her touching, true story.

“Where the Lovelight Gleams”
by Kristine Lowder

I paused and winced. The velvet voice of Johnny Mathis pierced the frosty night air:

I'll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me . . .

Did Johnny know he was singing to a homeless person? Newcomers to a new state in search of work and a more family-friendly locale, Christmas 2002 found us over 1,000 miles away from close family and good friends--unemployed, flat broke, and without our own home.

Two cross-country moves in three months wiped out our bank account and wreaked havoc with job search efforts. Invited to move in with relatives in another state, we gingerly resettled in a shared housing arrangement until we could get on our feet and get our own place. Promising leads didn’t pan out. Unexpected plant closures and lay-offs made jobs scarce to nonexistent.

With Christmas just around the corner money was tight; bills piled high, and hope a snickering stranger. My four sons eagerly anticipated the holiday, but I dreaded the approach of December. There may have been “snow and mistletoe,” but “presents on the tree”?

Not a chance.

Sniffling, I mumbled to the Lord of Christmas, “What about Christmas? We can do without, but what about our kids? If anything or anyone is going to light up Christmas this year, it’s all up to You.”

My oldest son hid his disappointment behind a painful grimace as I explained, “Dad and I can’t buy anything for Christmas this year. There’s no money” I sighed, trying to gently lower his 11 year-old expectations. I don’t know who was more frustrated or dejected--Daniel or me.

Sniffles and wet eyes erupted from Nathan, then-age 10, as he grappled with the grim reality of too much month at the end of the money--even at Christmas. Sammy, age 7, blinked back tears as Josiah, age three, was perhaps too young to fully understand.

It was more than I could bear. I comforted my boys as best I could, then dashed outside and poured out my heart to the King of Christmas.

“Lord Jesus, You’ve always provided for our needs. I know that Christmas gifts aren’t exactly a `need,’ but I’m not asking for myself. Could You please, please find some way to supply Christmas for my boys? You’re all we have.”

The doorbell rang on December 21. Decked out in red Santa caps, seasonal sweaters and jingle bells, four elderly ladies stood on the porch, wreathed in smiles.

“Kristine?” a silver-haired grandma type inquired. I nodded tentatively, not recognizing anyone.

“We’re from TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly)” Pat began, indicating her grinning companions. “JoAnne is one of our members. She played her guitar at your church last week. She met you in the kitchen and heard your story. We planned on adopting just one family this Christmas, but our members gave so generously that we had enough gifts for two families. We didn’t know who else to choose until JoAnne mentioned you,” Pat explained, amethyst eyes twinkling. “We brought over a few things for you and your family. Hope you don’t mind.”

I opened the door, speechless.

“A few things” turned out to be enough gift-wrapped presents to outfit the entire Third Army. Ditto the new clothes, Wal-Mart gift cards, school supplies, and winter gear. Not to mention enough groceries to feed a small country--or four growing boys. The TOPS ladies also brought four felt stockings bulging with age-appropriate gifts and fresh fruit for each boy.

Peals of delight rang in Christmas morning. “Can we fix it? Yes we can!” Josiah pranced around the house with his new Bob the Builder toys. Daniel dashed outside to dribble his new basketball. Nathan tossed his new football to Sammy, who was deeply engrossed in his latest Lite Brite magnum opus. Amid the joyous hubbub, the last stanza of the Mathis classic swelled:

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams . . .

Knee-deep in Christmas wrapping paper, ribbon, tinsel, gifts and food, I sank to my knees in wordless thanks. I may have been home "If only in my dreams,” but God’s “lovelight” gleamed beacon-bright through the kindness and generosity of total strangers.

I now know that “The Homeless" occupy a special place in the heart of the King of Christmas. Homeless once Himself, the light of His fathomless, faithful love may blaze especially bright for those whose only home and hope are in Him.

Read Wednesday's story, "Thank You, Amen" by Elizabeth M. Harbuck with Marley Gibson.

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Another Winner and Another Contest!

We held a contest all through the month of November to give away a copy of Christmas Miracles. The winner of our November contest is:

Deborah Bolack

Congratulations, Deborah! We'll get your book out to you soon!

Pixels, we'll do the same thing again during December! Any one leaving a comment on any post during the month will receive an entry for a chance to win a copy of Christmas Miracles AND A Pixel-Perfect Christmas 2009 (I'll provide details about this book next week.) So just leave a comment on at least one other post (besides this one) for your chance to win!

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Update and "Thank You, Amen"

First, an update. Our Christmas contest stories will begin posting tomorrow, Friday. We'll publish true stories on Fridays, and fiction on Mondays and Wednesdays, all throughout the month. You're in for a treat - the quality of the writing this year was superb, and the competition was stiff.

Today, we'll share another precious story from Christmas Miracles. This book will make an EXCELLENT Christmas gift for your friends, family, coworkers, doorman, postal carrier, beautician, Sunday School teacher, child's teacher, neighbor, and babysitter, so be sure to order your copies soon.

Taken from: Christmas Miracles (pages 130-134)
Copyright © 2009 by Cecil Murphey and Marley Gibson
Published by St. Martin’s Press
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Used by permission

"Thank You, Amen"
(Elizabeth M. Harbuck with Marley Gibson)

"Exploitive dermatitis," the doctor said. That was the best diagnosis my husband, Joe, received for his unexplained skin disease.

One night he went to bed and felt quite normal; the next morning he awoke with something broken out all over his body. It looked like a mix between measles, chicken pox, and psoriasis. The strange eruption covered every part of his body from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. As bad as that was, he itched constantly. He scratched himself so much that he had to wear gloves because the ends of his fingers had split open.

We took Joe to the clinic every week, hoping and praying each time that they could explain his skin disease. They tried every available medication on him. Nothing worked.

All through his ordeal, Joe never missed a day of work, and he didn't complain. "It came quickly overnight and it will go away just as quickly," he said several times.

I hoped he was right. I called it Job's disease. In the Bible it says that Job was struck "with terrible boils from head to foot" (Job 2:7.)

We learned about two other men in our area with a similar disease. We wished we hadn't. One committed suicide and they admitted the other to what they called an asylum in those days.

On September 23, 1970, my parents visited to welcome home my medical doctor brother, David, and his wife. David had completed his tour of army duty in Germany.

After an enjoyable evening together Joe stood up. "I'm not feeling well." He excused himself and went down the hallway to our bedroom.

"Liz! Liz!" he screamed not long after that.

I ran toward him. "I'm coming—"

"Get David and come quickly!"

David and I rushed to the master bedroom. David examined Joe quietly and efficiently. "I'm sorry to tell you, but you're having a heart attack."

We arranged for relatives to stay with our three children and rushed Joe to the hospital. At the emergency room, David identified himself as a medical doctor. "My brother-in-law has had a myocardial infarction."

The nurses hurried into action and sent for the cardiologist. They put Joe on a gurney and moved him into the intensive care unit. In 1970, in New England where we lived, they didn't know as much about heart attack patients as they do today. Back then, they normally gave them injections of morphine and watched them closely.

Joe spent several days in the hospital. He was weak. It exhausted him just to have one of us wheel him down the hallway for a shower by the orderly.

Feelings of sadness and fear swept over me. As much as I tried not to, I wondered what I would do without Joe. He was only forty-three years old. As much as I could, I tried to focus on gratitude to God that he was still alive.

There was one bright spot in that terrible ordeal. As Joe had predicted, his skin condition cleared up. Doctors later said the stress had built up inside his body and caused the skin condition. His heart attack was the "breaking point" and released everything inside of him.

After about a week, Joe came home. He slowly began to recuperate. Three months later, on December 9, 1970, Joe suffered another massive coronary—on the fifteenth birthday of our daughter, Jennifer. After an examination at the hospital, the doctor came out to the waiting room.

The gravity of his face warned me of the message.

"I'm sorry, but your husband is gravely ill—"

"How ill?"

"He won't make it through the night." As my tears erupted he said softly, "Go home and prepare your children."

I left the hospital. I wasn't emotionally ready to face our three children. I wanted to wait until my two older children, Jeff and Jennifer, were out of school. I'm not sure why, but I stopped and bought an artificial Christmas tree, the kind that comes inside a box.

I picked up Jeff and Jennifer and drove them home, and Jeff immediately assembled the tree and Jennifer started to decorate. While I waited for four-year-old Marley to come home from the neighbors, I went into the bedroom and called a few friends at church. I told them about Joe and asked them to pray.

When I heard Marley's voice, I returned to the children. I took a deep breath and prayed silently for guidance before I said, "Kids, sit down. Your dad's back in the hospital."

Marley, hands on her hips, stared defiantly at me, and asked, "What's wrong with my daddy?"

I knelt in front of her so that we were on the same eye level. "The doctors say that Daddy might go home to be with Jesus tonight." I bit my lip so that I wouldn't cry. I had tried to pray, but I didn't know how. I didn't even know if I should pray for Joe's recovery. That wasn’t the kind of praying we did in our church. We prayed for God’s will to be done. Of course I wanted him well, but was it right to ask God to intervene?

Just then, Marley clasped her hands together and looked toward the ceiling. "Dear God, please make my daddy well. Thank you, amen." She turned around and picked up one of her toys.

Even in my pain, I smiled. I had struggled with how to pray. Our little daughter certainly taught me about prayer that night. She went directly to her source: She made her petition to God; she thanked him before he answered; and she rested positively after her request.

Moved by her simple expression of faith, I relaxed. I couldn't explain it, but Marley's simple prayer changed my attitude. I knew God had heard her. I sat down at the piano and started to play and sing hymns. Between them, I paused to say, "Thank you, God."

Word about Joe spread rapidly through our church group, and several people came to the house to stand vigil with me that night. Their kindness touched me and I told them so. I went back to the piano to play and sing praises to God.

"She's still in shock," I overheard one friend say. Another thought I was in denial about Joe's impending death. It was neither. I told them that God had heard my daughter's prayer.

Joe didn't die that night. The next morning, he was extremely weak, but still alive.

The children and I were allowed to spend Christmas Day with him in his hospital room. We brought a miniature Christmas tree and gifts for him. We were grateful to have Christmas time together.

I had great peace. It came from such a simple thing as a prayer from a child who didn't know enough about his medical condition to understand that her daddy was supposed to die. Marley had enough faith to believe in a God who cared enough to listen to her prayer. A simple prayer, and just as sweetly and simply, she had said, "Thank you, amen."

Joe lived and is still alive today, four decades later. I don't understand what happened and I don't try to explain it. This much I know: A child prayed with utter faith that God would hear her and let her father live and God answered.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Miracle in the Storm

While we're still sorting out the contest entries, I decided to share some of the stories from Christmas Miracles with you. With permission, of course. I know you'll enjoy them as much as I have! Thanks, St. Martin's!

Taken from: Christmas Miracles (pages 4-7)
Copyright © 2009 by Cecil Murphey and Marley Gibson
Published by St. Martin’s Press
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Used by permission

Miracle in the Storm
(Elizabeth M. Harbuck with Marley Gibson)

Christmas 1967 might have been a delightful but ordinary time except for one thing. Mother and Daddy drove from Alabama to Massachusetts to spend the Christmas holiday with us. They traveled in their new four-door Thunderbird, which was the prettiest car they had ever owned. Before they made the long trip north, Daddy had it serviced at the local garage.

We had a wonderful time together and did all the seasonal things. We attended Christmas Eve service at church, wrapped and later unwrapped presents, talked, joked, baked, and argued about whether this year's dressing in the turkey was as good as last year's.

The beautiful white Christmas was perfect for New England. Then the day came for my parents to leave. The snow had piled high on the ground and the weather reports predicted more. I was a little worried and asked them to stay.

Daddy wasn't concerned. "I've driven in heavy snow many times," he reminded us. He also pointed out that they would drive on the then-new interstate highways. "Besides, I have a new car and it's in top condition. I don't expect any problems getting home."

They considered stopping at a motel until the storm blew over, but decided to drive through to Alabama. Somewhere in Connecticut, a blinding snowstorm caught them. Daddy had about a five-foot visibility. He slowed the car to a crawl. They hadn't seen any other vehicles for a long time and no snowplows had come through.

Just then, his right-rear tire blew. The car jolted and thudded as the rim of the wheel took the weight. He pulled the car to the side of the road. The visibility hadn't improved and snow pelted the car. He was weak and feverish. Neither he nor Mother had any idea where they were except somewhere in Connecticut. That happened long before the day of cell phones.

Daddy had a choice: He could wait until someone came along to help—and neither of them had any idea when that would happen—or he could get out in the blizzard and change it himself.

"Sit tight," he told Mother. "I'll change it as quickly as I can."

"Let me help—"

"One of us out in the storm is enough. No sense in your getting sick. Stay inside, pray, and keep warm."

Mother was upset over the flat tire. She also felt concerned about his safety. They had heard terrible stories of people being robbed on the highway. After Daddy got out of the car, she folded her hands together, closed her eyes, and prayed, "Dear God, please help us."

No sooner had Daddy opened the trunk to take out the jack than two young men appeared.

Surprised, Daddy looked up. He had no idea where they came from and didn't see another car. His immediate reaction was, Oh, they're going to rob us. Maybe kill us.

"Hello there!" one of them called in a cheery voice.

"Sir, we'll be glad to change the tire for you."

"Thank you, but—"

"Please, get back in the car, sir," the second man said. "It's freezing out here. We'll change the tire."

Afraid to argue with them, Daddy nodded and turned back. He got inside the car.

"You haven't changed the tire already?" Mother said.

He shook his head and took her hand. She couldn't see what was going on, so Daddy explained about the two men.

"Do you think it's safe?" she asked.

"I don't know," he said. "But they don't seem bad. Besides, we don't have a choice, do we?"

Mother continued to pray.

The two men changed the tire quickly and put the jack and the flat inside the trunk. After they finished, one of them tapped on the window. Daddy lowered the window.

"It's all done, sir." He waved and they started to walk away.

"Wait! Let me pay you something."

It took a few seconds for Daddy to roll up the window and get out of the car. He looked around and couldn't see the two men.

Puzzled, he walked to the back of the car. The new tire was on but they were gone. He looked around. He couldn't see evidence that a truck or car had stopped. He turned in the direction the two men had gone.

He saw no footprints except his own.

When he got back inside the car, he explained the strange situation to my mother.

"God answered my prayer," she said. "He sent two angels."

"Do you think they were angels? Really?"

"Christmas angels," she said. "Sent by God to help us, and they left when their job was done. In the Bible, isn't that how angels did things?"

More than forty years have passed since that Christmas and my parents have told the story many, many times. Most people believe it; a few remain skeptical.

"It doesn't matter whether you believe," my mother would answer. "We know that we had a true Christmas miracle in Connecticut when two angels watched over us by changing our flat tire in the middle of a snow storm."
Visit Marley Gibson's Web site.
Visit Cecil Murphey's Web site.

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