Another Year Coming to a Close

I’m hoping everyone had a fabulous Christmas! It’s the most wonderful time of the year, a time for family get-togethers, forgiveness and love. It’s a time of renewal, looking forward to a wonderful New Year.

Now that Christmas is behind us, there is the new year close at hand. 2017 held happy days, sad days and sometimes delightful opportunities beyond belief. Whatever your 2017 held, be thankful and know that 2018 holds promises we can embrace as we advance into the future.

I’ve not made New Year’s Resolutions in a couple of years, because I know I’ll remain on track for a couple of months – then it’s back to the same old same old.

Maintaining sanity is key, so I decide what I need to do, then make those goals habits. Hey, it works for me.

Why make goals? A new year means a new beginning, and new beginnings mean change. Change is a good thing, but not if you’re frustrated trying to reach goals that are too widespread. So aspire to make resolutions that are attainable, meaningful. When goals are realistic, they’re easier to follow. Whatever plan you have in mind, make it work for you.

So…again this year I’m simply going to do what works even if those undertakings need a tweak here and there. Who doesn’t need to tweak? I do, and have a feeling some of you do too.

Happy New Year, everyone! I wish you Love, Butterflies and Music.

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Happy New Year!

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SOLSTICE, SANTA & “SKAMMDEGISSFUGGAR.”

1082123877-1“Skammdegissfuggar” literally means: “Shadows of the short days.” It is an Icelandic word that, metaphorically means the darkness that can be cast into—or onto—the land as well as the Spirit in deep winter.

I learned this on Twitter from author, Robert MacFarlane, who makes wordsmithing and word-collecting a way of life. Pretty good life, I’m thinking, if you’re a lover of words, the images they evoke, and the stories they tell.

I’m discussing my title in reverse order to hopefully make a coherent whole of diverse, yet connected themes. I love this word, skammdegissfuggar, because it crafts an image of very real darkness and the implications of it for many of us this holiday season. Today is also the end of Hanukkah~Blessed & Happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate this tradition.Celebrating-Hanukkah-Frugally

Whatever tradition you celebrate, the encroaching darkness cannot be ignored, nor its impact on the collective psyche underestimated. Midwinter Eve~which is celebrated today~is that darkness incarnate. It is the time of Spirit. It is a time to contemplate those who have gone before and those who are no longer with us for whatever reason and to allow ourselves to miss them.

As our land is covered in darkness, so are our hearts for a period of time. I celebrate those who have gone before on the night of the Solstice~the longest night and shortest day~by setting an empty seat at the table. Stories are told of loved ones lost that brings them alive in our hearts. We do this at Thanksgiving as well. The Scots have a beautiful name for these souls~they are called, “flowers of the forest”, because they bloom now in the eternal forest of the collective heart.Flowers-In-The-Forest

The Solstice is celebrated the world over and, like the Equinoxes, are festival times for many. Maeshowe on Orkney is a Neolithic site that was built to illuminate the darkness with light at the Winter Solstice, which this year will be tomorrow. Here’s a link if you’d like to watch it.

Many Druids who celebrate the Winter Solstice, do so with sun rising the following morning. The bringing of light~also a Christian theme~happens with the growing daylight. Hope~Light~Life. All of that fits this YULETIDE for me and CHRISTMASTIME for many across the globe.tumblr_memmm10CIZ1rmiuiho1_500

SYblJTnWhich brings me to Santa. When I started this Blog, Norad’s Santa Tracker had the countdown to Santa at: 3 days, 9 hours, 33 minutes, and 36 seconds. Exactly. I, for one, can’t wait.

original-santa-claus-pre-cola-red-redesign-r-muirhead-artI believe in Santa. Always have. Even as a very young child, I knew Santa was real, even when I caught my dad dressing up like him. I built my own mythology that seemed internally consistent with every external inconsistency life seemed determined to throw at me. Didn’t matter. The logic held. Some things are right and true because they feel right and true. I believe in magic, and miracles, too, but that’s another Blog.

I must have been about three or four when I saw my dad dressing as Santa to hand out toys for the other children in our small town from his snowmobile pulled sleigh. He was one of many who assumed the role over the years. I told my dad I knew he was acting as Santa because Santa couldn’t be everywhere at the same time and he needed many helpers to reach those who needed him.

My parents tried to dissuade me of this delusion when I was about nine. It didn’t take. By then my concept of Santa had matured a little, but the broad strokes were the same. The fact that they didn’t believe didn’t change my mind. I’m sorry to say my explanation didn’t change their minds either. There was a Santa, he just died. Not even Santa can live forever. Before he died, he picked a successor. That was the new Santa. Same as the old Santa.

That was the last conversation I had with my parents about the topic. I didn’t budge. Neither did they. Stubborn mix of Scottish and Norwegian and head-strong child they believed too sentimental and naïve. The world would teach me differently.

Well it has. It has taught me:

  1. That there is darkness during the holiday. It is our job to be the light for someone…just one someone. Do it. Read to someone who is lonely. Shovel an elderly neighbor’s drive. It doesn’t matter how small or how big the act, illuminate. It matters.
  2. Honor the rhythms of the Earth. Light and Dark in balance. Dark is a time of contemplation, storytelling, rest. Light is a time of action, a time for planting and cultivation and enjoying the environment.
  3. If you want to make something real and keep it alive, add it to your heart and act on it. Santa lives because all of us, collectively, make it so. We give. We celebrate the thoughtfulness of finding the right something to give and giving it. Choose to be a giver, small or extravagant, anonymously, or dressed like Santa. Giving matters.

Happy Yuletide, Merry Christmas, Happy Haunkkah and every Blessing to you and those you love no matter what your holiday tradition you celebrate. #SantaLives  and NORAD is keeping tabs on his progress!

 

Leigh

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My Favourite Ornament

raggedyOf all the ornaments on my Christmas tree, this little vintage 1970s Raggedy Ann and Andy pair is my favourite. The bodies are formed from some kind of foam, the faces are plastic, the clothes are fabric and the distinctive red hair is made of yarn. It’s not the most elegant ornament on the tree, nor is it in the best shape, but it’s my favourite because it fills me with warm memories of childhood Christmases.

When I was growing up, my family tradition was to slog out in the cold and snow to cut down a live tree from a tree farm. I remember the pleasant pine fragrance that filled the house, and the incredulous looks on the cats’ faces when we dragged the tree into the living room. Once my dad set up the tree in a stand, my sister and I would decorate it while listening to Christmas records by Roger Whittaker and Nana Mouskouri. Many of our ornaments were kitschy plastic things, and I particularly remember several Snoopy figures on skates, skis and a taboggan. Of course, Raggedy Ann and Andy were among them. There was something magical about this ritual that ushered in the Christmas season.

A few years ago, I noticed my parents weren’t using the old ratty ornaments anymore. I asked my mom if I could have them and she was happy to give them away. Many of them are falling apart or the plastic has degraded, but Raggedy Ann and Andy still look as cute and sweet as ever, and now cheerfully hang among the branches of my family’s tree.

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Christmas is coming…

Our Jesse Tree. Each symbol recalls a Bible story.

We are made for festival and ritual, we human beings. We inherit traditions. We adapt them to our needs. We make up our own. Putting out grass for the reindeer on Christmas Eve is an innovation one year and by the next it has grown in the imaginations of our children to become an indelible part of how we do Christmas at our house.

When I was a child, Father Christmas used to get a can of beer as well as a Christmas mince pie. My staunch and determined eldest daughter declared that he could not drink and drive; in our house, Father Christmas got milk. Each of my daughters has now taken that ritual and made it over for her own children.

I grew up in the Christian tradition. Our father, who had rejected the Anglican faith of his devout mother in favour of scornful agnosticism, did not interfere with our own mother’s quiet determination to take us to church on the great festivals, properly garbed as befitted such an occasion. Christmas to us was matching gloves and hat (a shirt and tie for the boys), the familiar carols joyfully sung, and a treat given at the end of the service.

I learned to love the rhythms of the liturgical year before I counted my years in double figures: Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Whitsunday and Harvest Festival. I love them yet, and when I became a Catholic in my late twenties, I enthusiastically adopted (and adapted) many new-to-me traditional practices that gave shape to the year.

2017 has been a hard year in our family for many reasons, and Christmas will be bitter-sweet. But I find myself buoyed with memories of delight and hope for 2018 as I sink into the familiar rituals of Advent.

Two candles lit for the second week of advent

Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas, so this year it was 3rd December. It is a time of preparation: prayer, charitable giving, self-denial — a little Lent. The priest wears purple, the colour of penance, and purple hangs in the church. We sing special hymns that belong to that time of waiting: O Come Divine Messiah, and O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

In our house, we put out the Advent candles on the 1st Sunday of Advent: one candle for each Sunday, and one for Christmas Day. We light them for our dinner meal: one candle for the first week of Advent, two for the second, three for the third, four for the fourth, and all five on Christmas Day. Three of the candles are purple; the one for the third Sunday of Advent is rose, the colour of joy, when our hope and delight can no longer be contained and overflows in the very first prayer of the mass, which begins with the Latin word Gaudete, which means ‘joy’.

We also put up the Jesse Tree on the first Sunday. Another old tradition we have made our own, the Jesse tree refers to Jesus, who was the promised tree that would branch forth from the root of Jesse, the father of King David of the Old Testament. (Yes, the one who fought Goliath.) Each day, we add a symbol to the tree and are reminded of the story behind it, from the star that recalls creation to the mother and child added on Christmas Day. The grandchildren and I collected or made the ornaments on our tree over many years, so each has a personal story as well as a Biblical one, and handling the ornaments I feel close to those who are far away.

The nativity set last year, on Christmas Eve

And the nativity set will go up this weekend. Just the stable at first, and the animals, with the other pieces in other parts of the house, slowly drawing nearer day by day, until by Christmas Eve the tableau awaits only the baby and the three wise men, who in my house arrive on the 26th instead of the traditional 6th January, because I can wait no longer.

On a more secular note, baking is another traditional activity I inherited from my mother: Christmas cake, gingerbread, Christmas sweet mince pies, shortbread. I usually have a couple of grandchildren to bake with, and they go home laden with treats, wrapped in cellophane to give as presents, along with crafts they’ve made and cherries and plums off our trees, which are laden at this point in the New Zealand summer.

Strawberries from the garden, ready to go in the berry salad with boysenberries, blackberries, cherries, raspberries, black and red currants, blueberries and cranberries

Christmas dinner changes year by year, but has always included a berry salad, since the day I first made it in Dunedin, when my children were all still at school. Christmas is in summer in New Zealand, so we may have a barbecued lamb roast, with luxurious salads and copious relishes and pickles and salads.

I started another tradition three years ago. This will be the fourth year in a row that I’ve published a book on or about the middle of December. The first was my first historical romance, Candle’s Christmas Chair, the story of a viscount who goes to commission an invalid’s chair to give the gift of mobility to his disabled mother, and stays to court the carriage maker’s daughter who designed the chair.

Candle is one of four novellas and two novelettes in this year’s book, If Mistletoe Could Tell Tales. It releases on Friday. The print book is already available and would make a great treat for a lover of historical romances and holiday stories. Pop by my website for the blurb and buy links.

The print book of If Mistletoe Could Tell Tales, open to show the lovely Christmas page divider. Two of the books alongside are included in the collection. And yes. Those are my toes.

May you and yours enjoy a very merry holiday time, whatever your season, traditions and beliefs. Best wishes from me and mine to you and yours for a prosperous and happy new year.

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Christmas Miracles

Do you believe in Christmas Miracles? In the month of December, they happen every day on the Hallmark Channel, but how about in real life? Your life? I’ve experienced two. The first one happened during the Christmas season following my mother’s death. I was fifteen.

On a cold and snowy night, I heard a kitten crying outside our front door. This seemed remarkable because we lived on a large piece of property and for any kitten, especially a  sick one, it would be a trek to the front porch. Plus, we had two dogs who lived outside. But despite the distance, the dogs, and his health, this poor, sick kitten found his way to our porch. His eyes were crusty and only partially open, his fur splotchy and missing in places, his legs weak and wobbly. I named him  Wenceslas in honor of the season. Nursing him back to health made a bleak and lonely Christmas bearable. He grew into a magnificent cat and lived for nearly 20 years. I wrote a short story about him. You can read it here: Magic Beneath the Huckleberries.

The second happened a few years ago.

They met at the university, ages 16 and 17. He was the top student in the engineering class her brother student taught and president of the ROTC. When he was 19 and she was 18, they told their parents they were going to marry and his mother fainted. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple.

Grandpa attended MIT, Cornell and received his masters degree from Stanford. For almost forty years he worked as a rocket scientist for Hughes Aircraft. All those smarts, all that education, and in the end he didn’t know the names of his seven children. Eventually, he forgot his wife.

It started small — confusion in the grocery store, misdealt cards, falling down. He fell down a lot. Repeatedly, he lost the dog. Sometimes he lost himself. He took to hiding in his office when company, even his children, came. He hid until he disappeared.

He died in the fall.

At the funeral the siblings shared lessons they’d learned from their dad, and I found it touching that the boys (analytical brainy types all) were more emotional than their sisters. Thirty of his grandchildren sang Love is Spoken Here. As I was sitting at the piano, I couldn’t see their faces, but I watched them come forward, tall, amazingly handsome and beautiful. Their song matched their beauty. Then the great grandchildren sang and I realized that even though we’d lost grandpa, we have a new crop of people to know and love. Grandpa has 149 posterity.

They buried Grandpa high on a hill in a cemetery in the Avenues of Salt Lake. After Uncle Richard’s dedicatory prayer the girls laid red roses and the boys placed red carnations on his casket. Our family stopped for ice-cream at the Hatch Family Chocolate Shop on our way back to the chapel. It seemed appropriate, because Grandpa ate ice-cream nearly every evening.

For years we shared the holidays with Grandpa and Grandma. Christmas afternoon, our family would pile into the van and drive up the San Bernardino Mountains. We’d pass the Cliffhanger restaurant and drive through Blue Jay Village. Aunts, uncles and cousins usually joined us and we’d party for days. Grandma supplied candy and food. Grandpa provided games and tucked little gold envelopes filled with money into the tree.

When the drive up and down the mountain became too difficult, Grandpa and Grandma sold their home in Lake Arrowhead and moved to Saint George. In the spring, when life became too difficult they moved to Salt Lake. In the summer, Grandpa moved to an assisted living facility.

Although it’s been a few months now, Grandma is slowly settling into her new home. She lives ten minutes away from two daughters and has a host of grandchildren nearby. A few days before Christmas, Grandma found a little gold envelope among Grandpa’s files. Without opening it, she tucked it into the Christmas tree and saved it for Christmas morning. She would spend the day with a daughter and her family, but the morning she would be alone, for the first time.

It must have been a very quiet Christmas morning for her, so different from the bustle of our holidays spent in Lake Arrowhead. The children and even the grandchildren are grown and gone, busy with their own lives. The candy, the games, the laughter – even Grandpa, gone. Except for the one gold envelope. She pulled it out, opened it, and found $100.

And felt Grandpa near.

How about you? Have you had a Christmas Miracle?  I consider every story idea a miracle, and I’m grateful for each and every one. Today, my novella Baby Blue Christmas is free! Get yours here!Baby Blue Christmas

But, if you want a real bargain, you can get it and eight other holiday stories in the latest Authors of Main Street Christmas box set.

004 websiteBUY IT NOW!

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Family Holiday Traditions

It is that time of year again…holidays with the family! Time for all the remembered foods. Time for all the remembered traditions. But…

Sometimes traditions have to change. People move away and it is harder to get together. Dinner that used to be at six o’clock has to move to brunch at noon or a late dinner at nine to accommodate work schedules. Opening presents has to happen on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning so that everyone can be there. Still…

The feelings. The happiness. The excitement remains the same. The family is together, hopefully, and the fun can commence.

My favorite part of Christmas is reminiscing of holidays past. Thinking of where you got a favorite ornament as you put it on the tree. Laughing about the Turkey Fiasco of ’87 as you are working in the kitchen. Baking cookies with mom’s recipe handed down from her grandmother. Sitting around the dinner table and talking about the shared memories of the past year.

My favorite memory: Every year my mom, my brother, and I would make Christmas cookies. Making cookies with kids is fun but messy. We made sugar cookies, butter cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and more.  My mom had numerous slips of paper from magazines and handwritten notes from relatives in her cookbook. Some years we tried new recipes and sometimes we just did the usual. Sometimes the new recipes worked and got added to the cookie making day. Sometimes they failed spectacularly and we laughed as we tried terrible tasting cookies and tossed them and moved on. Making cookies in our household was a day-long event. Meals were fitted in between putting cookies in, taking them out, and letting them cool.

But one thing was a guarantee each year. My mom would wear black pants. And by the time we were finished they would be covered with flour handprints. And every year she would swear to remember not to wear them next year. As I spend another Christmas missing my mom, I would give anything to be baking cookies and laughing at her flour-printed black pants.

What is your favorite holiday tradition?


Jill James, romance writer and lover of cookies!

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Peace on Earth and Spread Good Will

December is for giving. What most people don’t realize is that most writers give back all the time. Being this is the season for giving, I thought I’d share with you.

I give back. I run writers’ groups every Tuesday. I do classes on writing at the local libraries. Usually twice a year, and I try to help local and online friends realize their dreams as authors.

Anyone in this business will help. But be prepared. Most of us are busy. Don’t expect an answer that evening or the next day. Especially if you want us to read something! Most of the answers can be found in Kindle Direct Publishing or what we call K. D. P. Don’t understand that technical stuff? Check their FAQ. There are also some great online groups where you can ask questions. Learn what you are doing! Don’t expect us to spoon-feed you. You’re an adult.

Yes, many of us entered this indie publishing as it was just starting. We didn’t have anyone to hold our hands. We made mistakes. Kindle made mistakes. But we kept making changes as they did and we’ve all learned. I can remember my panic as I uploaded my first book. I sat and looked at the button that said publish for probably five minutes until I had the guts to click on it. It honestly felt like an hour.

Know something about what you are doing before you do it! Do not expect to put your book up and have it sell a gazillion copies right from the get-go. You’ll hear about books that want viral. That didn’t happen overnight. They did a few things before they posted that book online. I’ve known people who have put a book online and then they will ask me when will it start selling. Have they done anything to make it sell? Have they spent money advertising it? Do they belong to any groups online? The answer is sad. No, they haven’t. They expected that it would just take off. They want that $100,000 a year income from it. Don’t we all?

The other thing I hear is: I want to write and publish my memoirs. My first question is why? What has happened to you that is so compelling? It’s always the same story. There are dozens of those stories out there. How many books have you read with that theme? What will make your story stand out? They don’t know.

May I offer a suggestion? Write it. Get it out of your system. Let your children know that you have this manuscript that you’ve written about your crappy life with a dysfunctional family. Maybe one day those children might read it.

On the other hand, those who do have lives worth writing about seem to ignore it. Case in point, a local woman has been a missionary in the Middle East and in places further east almost her entire life. Her story of that time is amazing. She’ll read her old journal entries during our writer meetings and you can hear a pin drop. I’ve been trying to tell her that those journals of her time there are worth putting into a book. She ignores me and wants to write devotional stuff. What’s truly fascinating in those journals is her hopes and dreams for her own children growing up in third world countries and her beautiful descriptions of places untouched by civilization. Living without running water and carrying the water they needed from a stream that wasn’t even close to the shack where they lived. The political stuff that she has lived to tell about. OMG! The people who have awaken them in the middle of the night and made them leave with only what they could carry, and then later that morning discovering that the country was overthrown in a bloody carnage. Trying to get to civilization because her babies were due or trying to get home to the States because a family member was dying. That’s what glues us to her readings. It’s the human aspect of her life while under duress. We can lead the horse to water but we can’t make the creature drink. Maybe someday her grandchildren will pull those journals into a book, not the whole journal but lifting the best tidbits from them.

December is beyond all the gift giving and Christmas lights. It’s about giving more than that. Have you given of yourself? Tried to lift someone up or helped in way way? December has just begun, there’s plenty of time to do that. There’s also time to plan for next year. Can you share a bit of yourself? Give some time to help those who are just breaking into your career or maybe studying for your career. Are you an engineer? Can you give an afternoon to your local library to entice children especially those little females that they too can be engineers? STEM is serious there are less than 12%  of the engineers are female, and the engineering schools don’t have females even applying for those classes. It has dwindled to virtually no female attendance.  Call your local Girl Scout office and say hey, I can do this!

Give that little gift of yourself. There’s some little talent inside that you can share and as a result the world will be different because of what you’ve done. Time is your greatest gift.

Merry Christmas…..Happy Hanukkah

No matter what you celebrate, stay safe this season and spread a little good cheer!

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