The other night I was with friends who were sharing memories of earlier Christmases. Carolyn commented that she had recently found a box of homemade ornaments dating back to the early days of her marriage. They were walnuts painted silver, filled with clay with a ribbon in the middle for hanging. She got one out, fixed it up and put it on her tree this year for memories sake.
I explained that at the first Christmas of our marriage, JoAnne and I did not have money for ornaments so we made all of ours to put on our rather sparse field-cut tree. We made geometric cardboard ornaments and covered them with foil wrapping paper. One was a cube, one was a tall 3D triangle, and the prize one was a dodecahedron. Don't ask me how I made it. But anyway, one by one they became shabby with use and were discarded, all but one - the dodecahedron. Year after year I would hang it back on the tree in memory of our first Christmas. It is still there, tucked in the back were people can't see that its paper is faded and coming loose after all these years.
A project remembered
Another set of ornaments on our tree remind us of a fund-raising project we participated in. I don't even remember the details. JoAnne and I were overseas in the military at the time at a Navy base. We were helping raise some funds by selling Christmas ornaments to other military families. The catch was that the ornaments came as a flat unpainted wooden sheet. The ornaments had to be carefully punched out of the sheet, the rough edges sanded off, and then painted attractively. We purchased one of the sets that we painted and have treasured it ever since. When we see them on our tree they remind us of a rewarding and unique chapter in our lives and the people we knew in that time frame.
Let hobbies help with Christmas
Another way the we have home-made ornaments for our tree is because of JoAnne's needlepoint hobby. She has always loved needlework, though she does not get to do as much of it as she would like. These three ornaments were pieces she chose for needle point projects. They incorporated a welcome new challenge because of the little beads involved. But the end result was very practical; more exquisite tree ornaments.
Beautiful crafts from friends
Another category of homemade ornaments on our tree are the beautiful hand-crafted ornaments we have received as gifts from friends. These have multiple advantages over department store theme packages that have to be re-purchased every year. For one, they bring back memories of the friend who made them. A friend named Elaine in our first church made this beautiful beaded bell. When we see it on the tree we can remember to pray for her as she is now going through a difficult time. A new friend of our family named Deb that we have just had the joy of meeting in the past couple years here at Copper Hill Church gave us the amazing 3-D crocheted angel figure. It is so perfect, I could not believe it was hand-made. In this way, our tree becomes a tapestry of friendship and memories. To me, this is so much more meaningful than the stock theme tree décor one can purchase in a plastic case at a big box store. Celebrating friendships and memories enriches the Christmas season so much. Its another reason I love homemade ornaments on the tree.
A gift from the conductor
One very special homemade ornament on our tree was given to JoAnne by the conductor of the hand-bell choir at Community Wesleyan in Kirkville, NY. As pastor, I encouraged ministry leaders to thank members of their ministry team for their hard work. It is an excellent leadership practice. Well, Richard Filmer, director of the handbell choir of which JoAnne was member for several years went above and beyond and used his skill as a woodworker to saw out this exquisite triple bell for each choir member as their thank you gift. It was difficult to make as it involved sawing in one direction; then holding the pieces together while turning the piece 90 degrees and sawing the pattern again. Somehow the woodworking excellence that it took to make it speaks to me of the musical excellence that Richard always tried to bring out of the bell choir. So this piece is special.
Each year I try to get in one post about my Christmas village and railroad. Here it is using Sway. Click on the article to see the pictures. You can expand the picture to full screen. Then in the lower right corner are arrow buttons to click to advance the Sway through the pictures and text parts.
This morning’s message spoke of the dream of peace that began with the angel announcement to the shepherds on that first Christmas night. Often in our warring world, that ideal seems so far away. But it is up to us to put it into action anyway. Here is a comment by famed Catholic writer Henri Nouwen on the same subject.
Henri Nouwen speaks to our time…
The marvelous vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature, calls for its realization in our day-to-day lives. Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true.
We must remind one another constantly of the vision. Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are. Instead of making us escape real life, this beautiful vision gets us involved.
One of my hobbies is model trains, specifically, O-gauge trains running around my Christmas tree. Yes we had a Lionel train which we three Jones brothers shared when I was a boy. But what really started me back in this hobby was the gift of a Lionel train much like the one we had which I received from Bill Quick while I was serving as Pastor at Kirkville Community Wesleyan Church. I promptly ran it around the tree the next Christmas and I’ve been running trains every Christmas since on increasingly more complex set-ups.
The first evolution
One big evolution happened when I moved the trainsets upstairs to the remodeled living room at Kirkville. I was already running two trains. I decided to build a second layer and started collecting ceramic buildings, little figures and antique car models. I had two long bridges too. Then I started inviting children from church over to see the trains. I let them run them too. Of course, they would wreck them occasionally, but I have only had to make major repairs on two cars in all the many years that I have been doing this.
Children in CT love it too
When I moved to Connecticut, God blessed us with a large parsonage living room and my set got even bigger. In the gallery you can see the first two steps in building the multilayer setup. I found my first Dept. 56 buildings (the Cadillac of ceramic Christmas buildings) on a yard sale in our own neighborhood. Again, I invited children from church to come and run the trains. They have so much fun and it is a joy to work with them. This set has only one bridge but it has more room for vignettes. In the gallery are pictures of Shannon and Sam playing with the trains. The Mandirola boys, Schantz family and the Griffin’s also stopped by to check it out but I didn’t have my camera going.
Sam went for hands on
My grandson, Sam, was much more interested in the train set this year too. But he had his own way of investigating it. He wanted to get right in it and touch things. I learned from the preschool teachers that this is a preschooler’s tactile way of learning so I tried to facilitate it as much as possible. It was great fun.
New this year
This year I purchased my first engine specifically decorated for Christmas, a Lionel Santa Flyer. I also added a city block of stores that I made from Ameri-town parts. I started it years ago but this year a change in configuration of the upper track made room for it for the first time. In addition, I purchased new track for the inner lower loop. Last year that loop was hardly operable. This year is was a star. The fastest engine did not derail on it even though it was the tighter loop. It was Lionel Fast Track. If it holds up to the wear and tear of being assembled and disassembled for a couple years I will be a fan for sure. Also new this year, and something I have been watching for, was a ceramic building train station. At last I have a train station for the upper level too.
My Grandson Sam is a hands-on guy. He was not very interested in running the trains, though he did that briefly once or twice. He liked the whistle on the train a little better, which is the main reason he might run a train at all. But the main thing he wanted to do this year was pick things up and look at them. So I tried hard to remember the story about the father whose wife kept complaining that he and the boys were destroying the lawn with their sports. The father had replied, “Right now we’re raising boys, not lawn.” So I let Sammie right into the middle of the trainset so he could touch some things. Of course, I had to supervise so he didn’t try to pick up things that were glued down or wired in. But he found plenty of things to touch.
His favorite spot was the left side access alley. I can barely fit in there as it is made just as a place to access electrical switches, position village items and retrieve derailed cars. But Sam found it a great corner, just a boy’s size with lots to touch. He loved the tunnel which he could reach from there. He took one car from the train and pushed it back into the dark. There was a little grade and it would roll back out. He liked the imitation pine trees too. It was pure joy having him visit, a highlight of the season.
Our outdoor manger scene is an integral part of our family Christmas celebration. JoAnne and I originally made it while pastoring at our first church in Bentley Creek PA. Our church was having a live nativity that year. The animals were staying in the little shed/stable we had constructed on the lawn in front of the church and parsonage for a couple days as there were two live performances separated by a few days. I was the caretaker. JoAnne and I thought it would be a shame to have the animals there with no representation of the Christmas story, the reason for the celebration. So we made the manger scene to place in the stable with the animals when the actors were not present. One corner of one of the figures still shows the marks where I set it a little too close to the donkey and he reached around and chewed on it.
JoAnne found the figures she used for models in a coloring book we had purchased for Keely. She used projection to transfer the forms to the 4 by 8 exterior plywood sheets that I had purchased. Then I cut them out with a jigsaw and we painted them. I then devised a simple stand system that holds them upright securely but can be dismantled easily with a screwdriver, hopefully an electric one. The current manger is not the original one.
Since then, every year that they were not being used for their original purpose, we have put them up in our front lawn for our Christmas display. In Kirkville, we almost never actually put the baby in the manger as there was so often much snow you wouldn’t have been able to tell if the baby was under it all anyway. Now they are with us at our third parish and still helping us to spread the news of Jesus’ coming; God’s greatest gift to us all.
It happened in the middle of the children’s program at church — the moment that crystalized the essence of the Christmas sermons I have been preparing. Little Parker, who is barely tall enough to see over the edge of the altar table, stopped in front of the table and peered into the middle of the white ceramic manger set. There was wonder written all over his face in that instant. I was blessed in that moment with an inspiring insight. Even if I don’t get any more this season, this one will make this Christmas memorable. It distilled what I have been trying to say in my sermon series too. I, and probably many of my readers like me, need to recover that sense of wonder at what God has done at Christmas. Just as Parker in a child’s way was filling with awe at the beauty of the manger scene the children had just put in place as a part of the children’s program; so I need to think about the Christmas story and reflect on the life of Jesus enough to be filled with wonder once again at who Jesus is, how he humbled himself to be born in Bethlehem, what a wonderful life he lived, and how he died and rose again for me. I need a refill of awe and wonder. Then there will not be a danger that I am just going through the motions of Christmas; I will be truly able to worship at the manger this year.
Thank you to Nancy Collins for capturing the moment with her camera too.
Here is a very thoughtful and personally touching devotion for everyone facing Christmas in different or difficult circumstances this year. It comes from the insightful mind of Shirley Mullen, President of Houghton College. I think you’ll be blessed as you read it.