Thursday, December 24, 2009

Home for Christmas

“Home is where the heart is,” we hear often, and especially at Christmastime. In mind if not in journeying we turn toward home, the place where we knew love, security and peace in our lives. Indeed, “all hearts go home at Christmas” if we were fortunate enough to experience a home of solidarity and nurturing.

This Christmas, may we each remember home, and some of the foundational attributes learned there that have made you and I who and what we are today.

I learned the important lesson of sharing with others at home at Christmastime. My early childhood was spent in the throes of the Great Depression. My farm family was hit by this 1930’s blight on the American economy, but I do not remember that we suffered immensely from its impact. We had shelter, food, clothing and the basic needs that made us comfortable enough. But through that time, I learned that one toy from Santa on Christmas morning might be the extent of my gifts, and whatever that was, whether homemade doll with clothing to change her, a checkerboard and marbles, or a homemade “fox and geese” board, these were to be shared unselfishly with siblings and cousins as we played together. Indeed, many happy hours were spent around a winter fire enjoying simple games and story times.

This concept of sharing learned as a child grew with me into later life. At Christmas we are made very aware of places to share and people to assist. We hear the ring of the Salvation Army kettle keepers, smiling in their cold posts beside stores in the mall. Their “Merry Christmas” is a reminder to help many less fortunate than we. Maybe our donation is too small in comparison to the great needs. But with gifts from many, the extent of help can be multiplied. This could be said of helping in soup kitchens and with holiday meals for the unfortunate. Taking a name from the “Angel Tree” to fulfill Christmas wishes from those depending on social services and many who assist can make someone less fortunate happy on Christmas Day.

“Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” We can light a candle, figuratively, in the homes and in the lives of people and help them go home happier this Christmas by sharing through a generous heart.

Then Christmas reminds us of our reasons for giving. It was at Christmas that God “split time apart” (literally, into BC—Before Christ, and AD, Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord) and visited mankind with the greatest gift ever known, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16). Because God gave, we too can give with generous hearts to help others.

America is a composite of many cultures, many practices observed at Christmas. But even with the “political correctness” that would tear down our tried and true observances of this most holy season, I find it encouraging that people are finding a way to assert their allegiance to Christmas and its true meaning. From the many who came to our shores in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—yes, and even to the present day—we have the sense of “going home at Christmas.”

In our Southern colonies, settled by people from England, Ireland, Scotland and many other European countries, we have the traditions of making our homes festive and beautiful at the Christmas season. Evergreens are a silent symbol of everlasting life and giving is an active motivation from hearts of gratitude and love.

With the Moravian settlers, most from Germany, came the tradition of agape, the love feast, a time of traditional food, music, candles and gatherings to celebrate the Christ Child’s birth. These centered around going to church to celebrate the flame of love from white candles with red ribbon bands, representing purity, the Light of the World and the blood of Christ. After the candlelight service they go home or to the homes of friends to joyously partake of a bountiful meal.

And we can’t neglect the gift of music. From caroling groups moving from house to house to great massed choirs in cathedrals and churches to spontaneous singing wherever Christians are gathered, music is a gift to the world at Christmas. Stories behind the carols make the words even more meaningful as they fall gently on our ears at Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, I will be at church for the Candlelight Lord’s Supper, and as we light our candles, as many of my family members as can gather on one pew, surrounded by our friends and neighbors worshipping with us, we will be reminded that we have the light of our lives to share in a dark world. Wherever and however you celebrate Christmas this year, may you rejoice that the spirit of this holy season has found a home in your heart, lifted you to new heights and to genuine joy.

c 2009 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 24, 2009 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas, Family Solidarity, and Meeting a Challenge

We didn’t have firecrackers and fireworks popping off that Christmas. In fact, I doubt if we had ever had the spectacular fireworks that some people see and marvel at on certain holidays like the Fourth of July and Christmas.

But we did have fireworks of a frightening sort that year, and they did not come from detonation of firecrackers or sparklers.

This is how the true story goes as I remember it and as it was told to me.

My father had loaded up his family in our farm wagon, with our two trusty mules pulling our rig. We had feed for the animals for overnight, and, because the weather was very cold, we children were well-clad in warm wool clothing with blankets wrapped about us to ward off the cold. Old black flat irons had been warmed, wrapped in towels and placed at our feet in the wagon to add warmth as we journeyed four miles over the country road to Grandma’s house to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Mother and Daddy sat “up front” in the wagon on the bench especially made to be placed in the wagon for the driver and one passenger. We children rode behind them, in the bed of the wagon, softened by the hay for the mules, our blankets to keep us warm, and the meager presents we were able to take to Grandmother and others who would be at her house. The time of this trip was about 1936 and the Great Depression was still bringing economic hardships to everyone. We country people were fortunate. We had plenty to eat we had grown on the farm, and we had shelter and clothing, although the clothing was much-worn and hand-me-downs.

A sense of excitement swept over us, for, although we went to see Grandma fairly often, going at Christmastime was special. Some of my cousins my same age would be there from Atlanta and other away places. We would have a delightful time playing together. And, we’d been promised that if we had been good, Santa Claus would find us at Grandma’s house as well as at our own. So we had our special stockings to “hang by the chimney with care.”

Grandma’s house was built in 1850 by her father, so it was an old structure. It started out as a log cabin. The original cabin was somewhere beneath the added rooms and lumber that had seen the cabin grow from its former one-room and lean-to kitchen to three large rooms across the front, an ell added-on dining room and kitchen, two large porches, front and back, and an attic that held all sorts of mysteries and delights for curious children who played hide-and-seek there and found plenty of treasures to entertain us in old storage trunks. There were three fireplaces and chimneys in the house, one in Grandma’s front room, one in Uncle Hedden’s front room, and one in the kitchen. All fireplaces were burning large logs on that particularly cold Christmas Eve.

Arriving at Grandma’s house well before dark, we played outside some even in the cold before supper (that’s what we called the evening meal then.) Then Aunt Dora, my Uncle Hedden’s wife who, because Grandma was so elderly at this time, was the “lady of the house,” called us in to wash up and eat the steaming meat stew she had prepared for her large family and all the guests present for that Christmas Eve feast. With dark coming early, there was no more playing outside after supper. How we managed to settle down enough to go to bed that night, I’ll never quite know. Exhaustion probably had overtaken us. Because there were not enough beds, several of us children had the delight of sleeping on “pallets” made with our warm blankets on the floor in front of the fire. The sandman finally took over and we drifted off to sleep.

Then, sometime after falling asleep, we were roused with the excited shouts of “Fire! Fire! Get up! Get outside as quickly as possible!”

We instantaneously changed from sleeping to leaping, heading for the closest door to the outside, somehow remembering to take our blankets with us to guard us from the cold. The adults urged us children across the road and into the barn, where we watched from the barn hall with wide-eyed fright.

The adults formed a bucket brigade from the spring near the house and began a frantic movement of water to fight the fire. With a tall ladder propped against the roof, the water was lifted by climbers and poured on the blaze shooting from one chimney.

From our safety in the barn, we children could see that the fire was leaping from the chimney on the north side of the house, the one from the fireplace in “Grandma’s room.” The men and women worked swiftly, and soon the blaze was under control. Grandma’s house had been saved and everyone in it.

“What happened?” we children wanted to know as we left the barn and went back to the house that had seemed to be in such great danger but was saved from destruction. “The soot caught fire in the chimney,” someone explained to us. “We built up the fires too large and we had not properly cleaned out the chimneys,” someone else said.

Despite the midnight fire and the excitement, we finally got settled back into beds and on pallets. “Can Santa get down the sooty chimney?” some of us children asked. We were assured that yes; Santa might even be able to help brush out the congested chimney as he lowered himself through it to bring our gifts.

Whether it was in my sleep and dreams or whether I actually saw Santa descend, fill our stockings with candy, an apple, an orange, some nuts and one hand-made toy for each child, I learned a few great principles about the season. Love of parents and family is better than a warm blanket anytime. When an emergency arises, it takes level-headedness and doing what has to be done to meet the challenge. And, indeed, if a child is good, obeys his parents, and does his best, Santa will come on Christmas Eve despite the frightening fireworks in the chimney and the failed economic times.

c 2009 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 17, 2009 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"The Magic of Christmas" at Central State Hospital

The Powell Building named for third administrator of Central State Hospital, Dr. Thophilus O. Powell, commands a central position in the hospital complex. Here the stately columned building is decorated for Christmas.

Some of the mayors present on a special day in Middle Georgia may have driven through mountain mists to arrive at Central State Hospital by mid-day when the parade began forming for an annual event enjoyed not only by the clients and employees but by local citizens and visitors as well. This was my sixth year to be inspired by the event.

Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia held its annual “Mayor’s Christmas Parade” and an unbelievable musical presentation called “The Magic of Christmas” on December 1, 2009.

Called “Mayor’s Christmas Parade” because the mayors of towns and cities throughout Georgia are invited to attend and bring gifts their constituents have collected to be distributed to the patients at Christmas time. The annual event begun by First Lady of Georgia, Betty Vandiver, wife of Governor Ernest Vandiver, in 1958 has continued. Weeks in advance, social workers, music therapists, and staff gifted with preparing a program work with the patients to aid those able to participate in the musical production.

The auditorium is always well appointed with beautiful Christmas decorations. Although the day was cold for Middle Georgia and standing to see the parade was chilly, inside the large auditorium a warmth lifted the spirits and the chilled bodies.

Chief Executive Officer Marvin Bailey gave opening remarks summarizing the history of the institution. Approved in 1837 by the Georgia Legislature when the capital was Milledgeville, it took from then until 1842 for the four-story dormitory building to be open for clients. Then called the Georgia Lunatic Asylum, it at first admitted paupers with mental disabilities, but services were soon expanded to include any citizens who needed institutional care. Tomlinson Fort and William A. White were the legislators who introduced the bill to begin the institution. The first allocation was $20,000 for the four-story building which contained clients’ rooms, treatment rooms and a small area for office space. The hospital facilities grew on the 1,700 acres set aside for the institution. At one time in the 1960s, almost 13,000 clients occupied the various buildings of the massive complex. At that time, it was the largest mental hospital in the United States, and maybe even in the world. The first administrators were Dr. David M. Cooper (serving 1843-1846), followed by Dr. Thomas F. Green (1847-1879), and then Dr. Thophilus O. Powell (1879-1907), with the central building still standing that was named in his memory.

Mr. Bailey told us that current client population is slightly above 600. One reason for this low number, compared to the thousands that once occupied the dormitories, is new psychotropic and other treatment medications that can assist patients with mental disabilities. Then about two decades ago, it was deemed better to place those capable, with supervision, in group homes to live more like ordinary citizens. The group homes are not on the Central Georgia Complex. Also, the regional hospitals care for those with mental or other disabilities, thus decreasing Central State’s population.

First, we heard “Somewhere” from the movie “West Side Story” performed as a solo by Robb Weiss with Lisa Vaughn accompanying on piano.

Then the curtains opened to “The Magic of Christmas” setting, appropriate choreography and lighting to enhance the performances. Milledgeville ballet studios provided dancers, especially the children, who performed “Little St. Nick” and “Frosty the Snowman” interspersed with the musical and dance numbers by Central State clients and staff members. The costumes fitted each musical number and the backdrops were artistic, eye-catching and bright. “The Magic of Christmas” truly came to Central State December 1. Several numbers from “The Nutcracker” ballet were spectacular. In the middle of the program was a tribute to current service men and veterans with ties to any of the hospital staff. My daughter had not told me in advance, so I was surprised when a picture of her father, my husband, Rev. Grover Jones, appeared in his World War II navy uniform. There was a picture, too, of Cynthia’s husband, S/Sgt. Carlos Berenguer, retired from the Air National Guard, along with many others in the power-point and patriotic music interlude.

Tears always come to my eyes when the march of the wheel chair patients, each decked out in Christmas finery, followed by aides who roll the wheelchairs, come down the aisles and perform a wheel-chair dance in front of the stage. Even though the music was cheerful and peppy, “Mister Santa,” many in the audience smiled while wiping tears. This group appeared again in the finale when together with all the others made one great crowd of performers. We were inspired by the final number, “O Holy Night” performed by soloist Angela Ingram, a staff member with a magnificent voice.

A standing ovation and much applause filled the large auditorium. Then came brief remarks by selected mayors and Mrs. Nita Cagle, wife of Lt. Governor Casey Cagle. And what the clients will enjoy at Christmas, the gifts from towns throughout Georgia were presented, stacked in abundance before the large stage. The staff will give them to the clients and make them happy again by their gifts received on Christmas Eve.

We sometimes think of “lunatic” asylums (we don’t call them that any more) or mental hospitals being dismal places with no prospects of enjoyable times. This Christmas extravaganza is a wonderful event that brings “The Magic of Christmas” to many people—cheer enough to last the New Year through.

c 2009 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 10, 2009 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Christmas Traditions Reflect Our Heritage--The Christmas Tree

Here in the mountains of North Georgia our ancestors hail from many countries. Since we become a part of what we have known from previous generations, our Christmas traditions are a rich fabric of many customs practiced first in the Mother countries from whence our ancestors came and then established as rituals and observances throughout the years and in our present-day practices.

The Christmas tree is a beloved entity of our Yuletide decorations. Just how did we arrive at the tradition of having a tree in a prominent place in our home, adorned with decorations, glittering with lights, and underneath wrapped gifts galore for members of the household and others?

We can thank, first, our German ancestors for the Christmas tree custom. Then we will have to give our English forbears credit, too, for they borrowed the tradition from the Germans and added to it. These early immigrants to America celebrated Christmas with a tree as in the old country.

But we find that some of the meanings behind the Christmas tree are older, even, than our German and English practices. The ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews—long before the advent of Christmas—used the evergreen as a symbol of eternal life. Pagans in Europe, even in Germanic and Anglo-Saxon settlements, practiced tree worship. They used the branches of evergreen trees placed in strategic places in their barns and houses to ward off evil spirits. After their conversion to Christianity, they used their pagan customs of evergreen placement as part of their Christian observances.

The first date attached to a Christmas tree is 1510 in Riga, Latvia, which is now northern Germany. Several men wearing black hats set up a large evergreen tree in the square at Yule time, the winter solstice, the shortest day in the year. Although it was to commemorate the birth of the Lord Christ, it also was a tribute to their sun god, Mithras, whom they had worshipped before learning about Christ and His birth. They decorated the giant tree with artificial flowers. After observing Yule, or Christmas, they then set the tree on fire, and the burning signified that from Yule Day, the days would gradually grow longer.

Martin Luther (1483-1546), the leader of the Reformation, was out walking one night near Christmas. He saw some fir trees with the starlight reflected through their branches. It was a beautiful sight and reminded him of Christ and eternal life. He wanted to teach his children what he had experienced at seeing the tree, but words failed him. He went back to the trees, cut one and took it into his house. He placed candles on the branches. He taught lessons about Christ’s birth and His offer of eternal life through salvation, represented by the evergreen of the branches. Candles represented Christ as the Light of the World, and taught that Christians should go forth as shining lights in a dark world. Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, on June 13, 1525. Six children were born to them, four of whom lived to become adults. Perhaps the Christmas tree in Luther’s house was in the mid to late 1530s. Luther died in 1546 of a massive heart attack.

Another legend of the Christmas tree predates the one in Riga, Latvia and the Martin Luther family tree. Winifred of England, who was later called St. Boniface (c672-754), went as a missionary to the Druids of Germany in the eighth century. About the year 723, he came upon a group of Druids preparing to sacrifice their young Prince Asulf to the god Thor under an oak tree. He stopped them. When he began to cut down the “bloody tree,” to the Druids a sacred oak, a strong wind came and blew down the tree. In its place a green fir tree sprang up. Because Boniface was not killed in the act of intentionally cutting their sacred tree, the Druids listened to him and embraced Christianity. Boniface taught the Druids that the fir was a tree of peace and its green represented eternal life. From then forward the fir trees had a special designation as the tree of Christ the Lord.

Queen Victoria of England and her husband, German Prince Albert, were pictured standing around their decorated Christmas tree in 1846 with their children. With a popular queen embracing the custom of having a Christmas tree, many Englishers followed suit and began the annual practice of decorating a tree in their own homes.

In America, the Pennsylvania German settlements had community Christmas trees and celebrations as early as 1747. Decorations were of the “home made” variety. White homemade wafers were baked to represent the bread of the sacrament. Berries, flowers and homemade garlands added to the decorations. Before electric lights, candles were placed in fireproof holders to prevent conflagration. Seeing the tree as a beautiful part of Christmas, many settlers, regardless of the country of their origin, placed Christmas trees in their homes and in churches as our nation expanded. Now, beautiful Chrismon trees with decorations representative of biblical truths are often seen in churches.

As you decorate and enjoy your tree this Christmas, know that you join in a long tradition of customs that seek to bring meaning and joy to the season. And I hope you will call it Christmas tree—not holiday tree.

c 2009 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 3, 2009 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.