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Our Christmas wish for you. December 25, 2013

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Every Christmas here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, your faithful bloggers—our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders (aka Poor Richard)—like to share our favorite Christmas prayer with our readers. It was written as a Christmas letter by Fra Giovanni in 1513. May you all find joy this wonderful time of the year!

Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present moment. Take Peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

Is there space for the Lord? December 24, 2013

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This Christmas season, let us ask ourselves, with Pope Francis, “Is there space for the Lord, or is there space only for parties, shopping and noise?” Even if you feel very far removed from God, or any concept of God, if you spend quiet time this holiday season, avoiding parties, shopping, and noise, you will find space for yourself, for something greater than consumerism and busyness. And we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac think you’ll be glad you did.

Christmas tree lighting. December 14, 2013

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Today, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood finally set up our Christmas tree. (We tend to take our time getting decorated, since we wait a good month or more after Christmas before taking our decorations down.) And thus begins one of our most cherished Christmas traditions: the lighting of the tree.

We confess, we’re not talking about some august ritual where we light candles on the tree or anything. We just plug in the tiny white Christmas lights and set our tree ablaze.

Doesn’t everybody do that, you might ask. What’s so special about it?

What makes it special to us is that we don’t decorate the tree for another week after we light it. Instead, we enjoy the beautiful simplicity of white lights against green foliage, perfect just as it is.

Of course, eventually we always succumb and hang our beloved ornaments and garlands on the tree, many hand-made, many antique, many with layers of memory because of the giver or maker or history. Our tree will become rich with color, meaning, and magic.

But always, we love the time spent with the simple lighted tree. For looking up through its starry branches, we can imagine a child seeing the starry night sky through a veil of branches, in a manger long ago…

Why Easter and Christmas matter. March 31, 2013

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Our friend Ben was horrified to read an ad in yesterday’s local paper proudly trumpeting services being held at a “traditional” Christian church that celebrated neither of those “pagan” holidays, Christmas or Easter. To dismiss the two greatest holidays of the Christian church and call yourself Christian is akin to ripping out the engines of cars and calling yourself a mechanic.

I can certainly understand churches that want to remove the commercial and frivolous trappings that have accreted on the two holidays over the years—Santa Claus, the focus on presents and baskets of candy, the Easter bunny. As fun as these are, they tend to reduce the significance of these holy days to the level of the leprechauns on St. Patrick’s Day and trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en.

But commercialism aside, there are essential reasons to celebrate Christmas and Easter, and some of their oldest symbols: the evergreen tree at Christmas, symbol of eternal life, the egg at Easter, symbolizing rebirth. If various churches choose to frown on the celebrations, the carols, the focus on food and good fellowship and partying that accompany these holidays, so be it. But to deny the holiness of the days themselves is to deny why Christianity is, to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

After all, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism to my knowledge all venerate Jesus as an enlightened prophet. Where they differ from Christians is in acknowledging Him as the Son of God. It sounds like this so-called “traditionilist church” in the paper is doing the same. Which is perfectly fine, but it isn’t Christian.

All of which ultimately led our friend Ben to a problem I have, and have always had, with genuinely traditional Christian interpretations of the significance of the life and events in the life of Jesus. Each year, we are given the season of Advent, of joyous anticipation, and Lent, of renunciation and sacrifice, to prepare for these great holy days of Christ’s birth and His death and resurrection. Anticipation builds, we are encouraged to explore and go deeper into our faith, and then, at last, the miracle happens: Jesus is born. Jesus is reborn from the dead.

To me, by far the greater miracle is that God Creator, who after all had the entire universe in His keeping, would so love the world that He would send His only-begotten Son to be born in this world in human guise and try to save it. To save us. To care about what happened to us. This is so unprecedented, so inconceivable, that it surely must be the greatest miracle of all. This is what Advent and Christmas celebrate.

That Jesus died for us and rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven to sit beside His Father is also a miracle. But to me, that God should have condescended to send His Son to begin with is the great miracle, the farthest reach. What a humbling thought!

This blessed Easter, let us rejoice and give thanks on both accounts: That Jesus was born, and that He went to the Cross for us. And if you want to go on an egg hunt or eat some Easter candy, that’s okay with our friend Ben!

Take Joy. December 17, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Each Christmas season, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac like to post a prayer that, for us, epitomizes Christmas and our Christmas wishes for all our readers. It was written in 1513 by a Franciscan monk, Fra Giovanni. We hope that each of you, whatever your faith, takes joy in it as we do.

Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not, but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present moment. Take Peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

This can’t be December. December 5, 2012

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were recently down in Nashville visiting family. The weather was beautiful: sunny and 70 degrees. Tee-shirt weather; it was all we could do not to sneak out and go for long walks along the tree-lined streets.

OFB and Silence grew up in Nashville and spent many a December there, so we can say with certainty that this is very unusual weather. It may not have snowed every Christmas while we lived there, but it was cold, and we often had white Christmases. Nobody was walking around in tee-shirts and bare legs; coats and mittens were standard December outerwear.

Here in scenic PA, we had snow in November and have had our woodstove chugging away. So we experienced a bit of culture shock (or perhaps “climate shock” would be more like it) down in Nashville. We’d pass a row of leafless trees and OFB would say, “Those poor trees! I wonder what killed them?” Silence would see a Christmas tree strapped to the top of a car, or a retail clerk in a Santa hat, and assume she was losing her mind. (Comment suppressed on that. Ow! Just kidding, Silence!)

Our experience makes us think of all the parts of the world where it’s consistently warm to hot at Christmas, and of Jimmy Buffett’s song “Christmas in the Caribbean.” We’re not generally fans of snow—shoveling, slipping and sliding, falling, breaking branches, skidding cars, ugh—but we do like a white Christmas. Our ideal would be a nice snowfall on Christmas Eve, a white Christmas through New Year’s, and no more snow until the following Christmas Eve. (Our dogs strongly disagree; both our dear departed Molly and our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, love and loved to race around making snow rings.) 

We’ll stay in PA this Christmas, thanks. How about you? Are you a white Christmas person or a Caribbean Christmas person?

‘Tis the season to be tempted. November 11, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. Our Tasmanian blogging friend Fran (http://theroadtoserendipity.wordpress.com/) reminded me that conspicuous consumption had become the order of the day aound the holidays, and that it behooved us to try to celebrate in a manner befitting the meaning of the season. I hate it that now, the day after Hallowe’en, it’s become the norm for stores to put out the Christmas stuff and completely override Harvest Home and its major festival Thanksgiving, with its dual themes of abundance and gratitude.

But there’s one aspect of the hype and hoopla that I love: The gorgeous gift catalogs our friend Ben and I receive every year around this time. I love to see the food and cooking equipment, the jewelry, the ornaments, the household items (from homespun to sumptuous), the crafts, the museum catalogs with their exquisite cards, the plants and garden supplies, the cookbooks, the travel books—pretty much everything. And of course, I want all this luscious stuff for myself.

Need I say, the holiday season is expensive enough without spending additional money on yourself. So how can you let yourself enjoy the endless temptations of the season without succumbing to them? With catalogs, it’s easy, since it’s not as easy to actually shop as it is in a store or online. I’ve developed a two-step process that allows me to indulge myself while keeping my credit card safely in my purse.

I find catalogs to be perfect bedtime reading: They appeal to the senses while demanding nothing from the mind. This allows me to relax with a tempting catalog and savor every photo and description while keeping my mind from revving (if I start thinking immediately before bed, I often don’t sleep for hours). Then, in the morning, I put the catalog away. And promptly forget about it. I’ve had my fun, indulged in my fantasies, and protected my feeble checking account. Try it, I think you’ll like it!

               ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

What do you really want for Christmas? December 18, 2011

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been discussing this topic over the past week, for several reasons. First, we have little money to spare this Christmas, and most of it has gone to gifts for others. We want to make sure the gifts we buy each other with what little is left are things we really want. Silence has narrowed her choices to an amber bracelet or new fish and plants for our aquarium plus a bottle of Campari. Our friend Ben admits that all I really want for Christmas this year is a bottle of tawny port and a wonderful Christmas dinner. I hope I can keep Silence from going overboard!

Another reason we’ve been talking about the concept of Christmas gifts is because of my sister and a good friend of Silence’s. Here at Hawk’s Haven, we never open Christmas presents until Christmas day. Blasphemy! We love to let the anticipation build up. (This of course would not apply to live gifts like fish and plants.) But my sister apparently operates under no such restraints. We received an outraged voice mail last week to the effect that one of our nearest and dearest had sent her two nickel-plated bracelets for Christmas. She added that she hoped we fared better.

Meanwhile, Silence’s friend made it more than clear that her choice of Christmas presents would be to not be bothered by us this Christmastide (we’d offered to drop by with their gifts, which we’d collected carefully all year, at their convenience, or to drop them off at their work, or to mail them, though that would have resulted in financial hardship). Silence was devastated to think that anyone would view the most-beloved holiday, not to mention a visit from old and good friends, as an intolerable burden, and our friend Ben, seeing her distress, was apoplectic.

But all of this certainly made us think about the concept of gifts and what they mean and should mean. OFB has an aunt who, for the past few years, has gifted Heifer International in our names as a Christmas gift. Heifer International is an organization that provides livestock (from chickens to cows) to the poorest of the poor worldwide to assist them to become self-sufficient. In our present financial state, we’d be so grateful for a bag of nuts, a box of oranges, or a few dollars for ourselves. Yet what my aunt is giving is the chance for a family to change its entire life, surely the greatest gift one person could give another. We’re so pleased and proud that she is doing this in our name, when we’re not able to do it ourselves.

We (perhaps I should say, Silence) devote a great deal of thought year-round to choosing the perfect gifts for everyone on our list. This year, Silence has added beautiful homemade scarves to the list for people she knows would appreciate and wear them. (I’m hoping that would include me.) But, knowing us, you won’t be surprised to learn that “perfect” doesn’t equate to “trendy” or “expensive.” Nobody’s getting an iPad or Rolex this year (or any year) from us. We comb through antiques stores, flea markets, farmers’ markets, and online sites like Amazon to find the most wonderful gifts. We also patronize local shops and crafts shows for one-of-a-kind treasures. And, yes, we do make our own.

But returning to the topic of this post, we think that it’s always awkward to receive gifts you don’t really want, especially from people you know can’t really afford to give them to you. If you’re not close enough to someone to know what they really want or need, maybe you shouldn’t give them anything but heartfelt good wishes.

We keep reading that giving gifts sets up the expectation that you’ll get gifts in return, which we feel is not just wrong but awful. We give gifts because we love to surprise and delight our friends and family, not because we want something from them. The greatest gift anybody could give us is happiness and delight in the gift we’ve given, not in a feeling of obligation. And if we receive a gift we simply can’t use, we know many thrift stores and secondhand shops that would love it. It makes us joyful to think we’ve brightened the holidays of someone we’ll never meet.

So, please, this holiday season, give some thought to what you’d actually want for Christmas or Hanukkah. Talk it over with your family, and see what they’d really want. Keep your financial constraints in mind. Consider what sorts of gifts you could make this year (fudge, brownies, cookies); you’d be surprised how much everyone appreciates the effort of a yummy homemade gift. Don’t feel bad about enlightening a friend or relative who suggests that they or their family would really like an expensive, out-of-budget gift. And if someone, like Silence’s friend, tells you that the best gift you could give them is to simply stay away, give them the benefit of compassion, not rage. Love them anyway, for that is, ultimately, the greatest gift of all.

A Christmas card from Mother Teresa. December 17, 2011

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“It is Christmas every time you let God love others through you.”

                         —Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta  

Mother Teresa is one of our friend Ben’s favorite saints (and yes, I know that she hasn’t been officially canonized yet, but still). So I was thrilled when Silence Dogood returned from a local crafts show with a packet of handmade Christmas cards bearing the beautiful quote with which I began this post.

Silence had bought the cards not only because they reflected Mother Teresa’s deep compassion and profound understanding of God and man, and not just for the wonderful Pennsylvania Dutch fraktur illustration that surrounded the quote, but because the artist had put this message inside each card: “May you celebrate Christmas often in the New Year.”

What a wonderful way to keep the joy of this blessed season alive in our hearts throughout the year! May we, and you, celebrate Christmas often—the Mother Teresa way—in the year to come.

 

‘Tis the season… December 7, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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…to be exhausted, and exhilarated. Silence Dogood here. Today, I decorated our living room for Christmas. It took me five hours, and that’s without so much as a five-minute break. And mind you, our friend Ben had already set up the tree and hung the wreath over the mantel. Not to mention hauling 12 Xerox boxes of ornaments down from the attic. And setting up our German schwiboggen, a delightful wooden winter scene illuminated by tiny white lights.

What could have taken five hours, you’re asking? Well, first I had to decorate the fireplace. Of course the stockings—our vintage stockings and stockings for our three cats and black German shepherd, Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special—had to be hung by the chimney with care. But then I created a display that completely covered the mantel, followed by one that covered the base of the fireplace, our wood holder, and our fireplace tool stand. (Poor Santa! I’ll know he’s arrived—that, or one of the cats has jumped up on the mantel—by a cascade of crashing ornaments, and a subsequent supply of switches and ashes in all our stockings.) I just hope we don’t have another power failure and actually have to light a fire in the woodstove!

Then it was on to the tree. I like to create layers of ornaments, so that people (including us) feel that they could look at it forever and still not see everything. It’s pure magic to see all the ornaments in the flicker of tiny white lights. We have inherited, been gifted with, and bought new and vintage ornaments over the years—thus the 12 boxes—and every one has meaning for us. But let me just say that unearthing them all, while enchanting, is not for the faint of heart. And then of course I have to decide exactly where to place each one for best effect.

Finally, the tree was done, every ornament in place. It stands beside the fireplace, and the effect of the scene, with white lights ablaze on the wreath and tree, is all that I could hope. But the real scene-stealer this year is on the other side of the fireplace, and it’s all thanks to our friend Ben.

A few years ago, I’d bought a Christmas church from a place that sells vintage ornaments. I have no idea if it dates from the ’40s or ’50s, but it’s about a foot tall, covered with white “stucco” and glitter to sparkle like snow, and has a nightlight-like bulb inside to shine through the “stained-glass” windows.

I also don’t know what people originally did with these, but I bought a rectangle of white cotton batting, also dusted with glitter, and set the church on the batting under the tree to create a tableau. It came with a white picket fence (metal, of course, not plastic) for the front yard, and I’d bought a number of vintage bottle-brush trees, including two with ornaments to flank the church’s front door, to add some landscaping.

Unfortunately, last year, the box containing the church failed to materialize—we always misplace a few boxes every year, and sadly, this one is no exception—and by this morning, OFB had forgotten all about the church. But he was enchanted by it. He insisted that we give it a more prominent location so it didn’t have to compete with all the presents for attention. As it happens, we have a wooden chest on the other side of the fireplace, and he suggested that I set it up on top of the chest.

I did, and it looked nice, but given its sudden prominence, I felt that it could use  more color. Then I had what a friend’s mother immortally referred to as a rush of brains to the head.

Last year, OFB and I had been fortunate enough to find a black German shepherd Christmas ornament. Naturally, we think it looks just like Shiloh, sitting with a pink tongue hanging happily out, and adorned with a cheerful red-and-green Christmas scarf. And this year, I’d found a red sleigh ornament in a bag of vintage ornaments from Goodwill. The scale of both was perfect for the church scene. I set the sleigh near the church door and put the Shiloh ornament in the sleigh. 

Since the Shiloh ornament is dark, it tends to get lost on the tree, but now it’s front and center where we can enjoy it every time we pass by. And enjoy it we will! I can’t wait until OFB gets home and can see for himself.

Fortunately, we’ve already decorated the front of the house. Now it’s “just” a question of wrapping presents and setting them under the tree—another three hours at least—and decorating our kitchen table (we don’t have a dining room). Wrapping presents is not my favorite chore, but it does have one advantage: You’ll realize immediately if you’ve shortchanged or, gasp, forgotten someone, and mercifully, there’s still plenty of time to do something about it.

I still have one more scarf to knit, and Christmas treats to buy and make, and of course, packages to mail and Christmas cards to write. But right now, I’m relaxing in the glow of the tree and wreath, listening to Christmas music while heavenly balsam incense burns in the background, bringing the fragrance of Christmas to the whole house. Everything is perfect. Everything is magic. Everything is Christmas. It doesn’t get better than this.

               ‘Til next time,

                            Silence

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