Saturday 31 December 2011

Six Million Christmas Lights

It was New Year's Eve 2009 at Disney World.  Rob, Thomas, Jacqueline and I had just dined at Coronado Springs Hotel.  We were sitting at the bus stop, under the lamplight, listening to the crickets chirp.  It was magical:  I had never heard crickets on New Year's Eve before.  After several minutes, the bus made its way along the palm-tree lined boulevard, pulled up and we climbed aboard, heading to Hollywood Studios.  Outside the amusement park, a giant Christmas tree sat, covered with Merry Christmas signs in many different languages.  Inside the park, we headed to Residential Street on the Back Lot where we were treated to the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights.  Six million Christmas lights adorned the buildings.  Christmas music played on a loudspeaker and the lights danced in time with the music.  The display took our breath away.

Back in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1986, a little girl named Allison Brianne Osborne asked her father if he would make a light display in front of their home.  Her father, Jennings Osborne, complied by hanging up 1000 lights.  By 1993, the display had grown to 3 million lights, attracting not only locals but also tourists to the house.  News crews would often visit the house to film the lights.  Six neighbours filed lawsuits claiming the spectacle of lights caused traffic jams from sunset to midnight on the 35 days they were lit.  Mr. Osborne's response was to add another 3 million lights to his already brilliant display.  The Supreme Court shut the display down completely in 1995. 

But Mr. Osborne would not give up.  Disney World offered to display the lights at MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios).  With 20,000 man hours, 10 miles of rope, 30 miles of cord, 6 million lights and 800,000 watts of electricity, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights shined again in 1995.  Christmas visitors (mid-November to early January) are treated to the Christmas lights every year, thanks to the generosity of the Osborne Family.

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Friday 30 December 2011

Christmas Stamps

I came across some beautiful Christmas stamps today. 

Here is one from Hungary in 1943.

Here is the United States in 1963.

Here is the United Kingdom in 1983.

Here is Peru in 1997.

And here is Canada 2011.

Thursday 29 December 2011

White Christmas

"Snow!  It won't be long before we'll all be there with snow.
Snow!  I want to wash my hands and face in snow."

I'll never forget the first time my husband Rob watched the movie "White Christmas"; he would crack up everytime Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen broke into song.  Yes, the movie is corny, but it's the corniness that makes it so endearing:  the corny songs, the corny sets, the corny plots.  The opening scene takes place during Christmas of 1944 in battle-torn Europe when a building is about to fall on Bing Crosby's character, Bob Wallace, and Danny Kaye's character, Phil Davis, saves him at the last second.  Forever after, the former is beholden to the latter and he never lets him forget it. 

After the war, Wallace & Davis start a song and dance act and become famous on the radio and on Broadway.  They meet a female act in Florida, the sisters of an army buddy named Freckle-Faced Haynes, and listen to their floor show ("Sisters").  After an impromptu dance to "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" between Phil and Vera-Ellen's character, Judy, the sisters are charged with damaging their hotel room rug and make a hasty exit, with help from the men.

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Matchmaker Phil learns that the women are travelling to Vermont to do a stage show for Christmas and he talks his friend into going along.  Boarding the train, the foursome gets to know each other better in the dining car, as they cozy up in a booth and sing "Snow".  Arriving in Pine Tree, Vermont, the entertainers are surprised to see greenery everywhere:  it has not snowed for weeks.  At the inn, Phil and Bob discover that the owner is their old commanding general from the army.  General Waverly is sinking into debt after investing all of his money into an inn that has no customers due to the lack of snow.  Bob and Phil wrack their brains to find a way to bring patrons into the inn. 

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Meanwhile, Bob and Betty grow closer by the fire munching a midnight snack, singing "Count Your Blessings".  Nosy housekeeper Emma eavesdrops on a conversation between Bob and Ed Harrison, a variety show host, who suggests that they invite all of the soldiers formerly under General Waverly's command to the inn and film the evening, giving Bob and Phil free advertising for their act.  Emma fails to hear the rest of the conversation (Bob rejects the host's angle) and blabs to Judy who assumes Bob is just an opportunist. 

At a rehearsal party that night, Bob and Betty argue, prompting Phil and Judy to announce a phony engagement, hoping that the news will make Betty realize her baby sister is taken care of and now she is free to settle down.  The move backfires and Betty accepts a job offer in New York City.  Bob follows her there and sits in the audience listening to a black-velvet gowned Betty sing "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me".  Later, he reveals to her that Phil and Judy's engagement is phony. 

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In the meantime, Bob asks Ed Harrison to announce on his show that night that all of the soldiers formerly under General Waverly's command should go to the Vermont Inn on Christmas Eve as a show of support to the general and his failing business.  Phil fakes an injured ankle to prevent General Waverly from watching "The Ed Harrison Show" that evening.  Meanwhile, Betty realizes the real reason that Bob is getting Ed Harrison in on the act and races back to Pine Tree just in time for the show. 

Back at the ski lodge, columns of soldiers fall into line as they sing a rousing rendition of "The Old Man" for General Waverly, bringing a tear to his eye.  After the song, he gives them an inspection for old times' sake, criticizing them in one breath and then saying what a beautiful sight they are in the next breath.  The movie closes with snow falling outside the inn.  The two couples, dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Claus, declare their love for each other as they sing:  "May your days be merry and bright.  And may all your Christmases be white."

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Wednesday 28 December 2011

A Kitten for Christmas

On Christmas Eve, Jacqueline opened a card from Rob and me which read: "MERRY CHRISTMAS! HERE IS YOUR CHOICE: 1. A GERBIL 2. A KITTEN. PICK ONE, OKAY?" LOVE: MOMMY & DADDY." For years, Jacqueline had been asking for a cat or a dog and we had always said "No". Finally, this year she talked her Daddy into getting a gerbil for Christmas, or so she thought. When she read the question on the card, she answered, "kitten", although she was in complete shock. Later, when we travelled home in the van, it started to sink in: every sentence Jacqueline spoke was peppered with the word "kitten".

This morning, Operation Kitten commenced.  Winter arrived with a vengeance as yesterday's rain and wet snow turned to ice, crunching under our feet. Thomas and Jacqueline tugged at the doors of the van which were iced shut. Climbing into the driver's door, we snapped on our seatbelts and headed down the street, steam emitting from our exhaust.  Driving down Highway 99, we pulled into the laneway of the farm where Jacqueline's friend Joanna lives.  Making our way up the steep laneway, we parked and climbed out of the van, the cold air hitting our faces and forcing us awake.

We saw a solid tabby, a black and grey streaked cat and a calico cat on the porch as we knocked on the front door. Joanna's sister answered and said she was sledding. After tracking her down, we headed to the barn where we met a light tabby with white paws gingerly walked around the straw. Then a little black kitten named Midnight appeared: "She's so cute!" I exclaimed. It was the black kitten that immediately tugged at our heartstrings. Was it a male? Yes. No, upon further inspection, Joanna said it was a female. It didn't matter to me as long as it was healthy. I scooped up Midnight and talked to her in a gentle tone. Already accustomed to children, I handed her over to Thomas whom she took to immediately. Jacqueline petted her and she responded with a purr.

We invited Joanna to come home with us to play with Jacqueline and the four of us hopped into the van. Slowly we drove down the laneway with a special delivery seated on Thomas' lap. Back at home, Jacqueline's kitten got accustomed to her new surroundings. She sniffed the furniture and rubbed up against our dining room chairs. Jacqueline found a small squeegy ball for her to play with. While Jacqueline and Joanna played, Midnight curled up in a ball on the love seat in the living room, purring. Meanwhile, I took a trip to the store to buy a litter box, kitty litter and cat food.

After supper, I was just thinking of how smoothly we had executed Operation Kitten when Jacqueline discovered her kitten's calling card on my bed. I scooped her up and put her right in the litter box to start her "toilet training". One load of laundry and bleach treatment later, my bed was ready to sleep on again. Rob went to the gym and returned home two hours later with some mice toys for Midnight. And then to everyone's surprise, she went number one and number two in her litter box. Hallelujah! I think she is the perfect fit for our household. Welcome to the family, Midnight!

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Tuesday 27 December 2011

To Do List From God


I ran my life in search of worldly things;
My time and will were firmly in control.
I thought I had no need for what God brings;
I gave no heed to murmurs from my soul.

“You’re planning, doing all the time,” it said,
“But something else is missing deep inside.
Your mind is whirling, but your heart is dead,
So turn to God and let go of your pride.”

I did, and God said, “Here’s My plan for you:
Give your life to Me, and just let go.
Have faith and pray, and read the Bible through,
And you’ll have blessings more than you can know.”

So simple, yet it brings me perfect peace,
Living life for God the way I should.
Direction, purpose, fullness and release—
Life with God is very, very good
Joanna Fuchs
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Monday 26 December 2011

Wren's Day

Although Westerners know it as Boxing Day, in many countries December 26 is known as the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr ("Good King Wenceslas looked out/On the feast of Stephen...").  In Ireland, they even refer to it as Wren's Day, due to the legends associating the life of Jesus with the wren.  Groups of people called Wrenboys or Mummers would travel capture a live wren, tie it to a decorated pole, and then parade it from house to house, accompanied by a wren, singing, dancing and playing music.  At each stop, the mummers would ask for a donation to be used later for a dance in the town square.  Extra money was often donated to a charity.  The following is a popular rhyme the wrenboys would recite.
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give us a treat.
As I was going to Killenaule,
I met a wren upon the wall.
Up with me wattle and knocked him down,
And brought him in to Carrick Town.
Drooolin, Droolin, where's your nest?
Tis in the bush that I love best
In the tree, the holly tree,
Where all the boys do follow me.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren.
I followed the wren three miles or more,
Three miles or more three miles or more.
I followed the wren three miles or more,
At six o'clock in the morning.
I have a little box under me arm,
Under me arm under me arm.
I have a little box under me arm,
A penny or tuppence would do it no harm.
Mrs. Clancy's a very good woman,
a very good woman, a very good woman,
Mrs. Clancy's a very good woman,
She give us a penny to bury the wren.

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Sunday 25 December 2011

Memories of Christmas

Every Christmas, I think of my grandparents and the traditions we shared.  I think of a small bungalow on Lankin Boulevard in Toronto.  I think of a large green bowl with chips in it attached to a small green bowl with dip.  I think of a stacked plate of Christmas cookies, 13 kinds in total that Grandma had lovingly baked.  I think of a cozy rec room filled with family opening presents under a miniature tree.  I think of my Grandma ripping open her presents and my Granddad carefully opening his with a knife; Grandma was done in 2 minutes whereas Granddad took two hours.  I think of Grandma falling asleep in her Lazyboy chair while Granddad folded all of the wrapping paper.  I think of Granddad tinkling the ivories on the upright piano, his tenor voice accompanying the song.  I think of Grandma telling funny stories and of Granddad's hearty laugh echoing in the hallway.  Thanks, Grandma and Granddad for making my Christmases so magical.  Merry Christmas!!!

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Saturday 24 December 2011

The Pipes of Peace

I Light A Candle To Our Love
In Love Our Problems Disappear
But All In All We Soon Discover
That One And One Is All We Long To Hear

All'round The World
Little Children Being Born To The World
Got To Give Them All We Can 'Til The War Is Won
Then Will The Work Be Done

Help Them To Learn (Help Them To Learn)
Songs Of Joy Instead Of Burn, Baby, Burn(Burn, Baby Burn)
Let Us Show Them How To Play The Pipes Of Peace
Play The Pipes Of Peace

(excerpt of the song "The Pipes of Peace")

Paul McCartney wrote "The Pipes of Peace" to commemorate the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914.  The British and the Germans had been engaged in World War I for several weeks.  However, on that night, on a 27 miles stretch of the trenches from Ypres to La Bassee Canal in Belgium, an estimated 100,000 troops laid down their guns.  Germans lit candles on mini Christmas trees.  Many Germans and British ventured into "No Man's Land" and exchanged gifts such as food, alcohol, tobacco, and souvenirs like buttons and hats.  Germans British and even some French soldiers sang Christmas carols, a favourite being Silent Night which was recognized by all three countries.  Certain troops even participated in pick-up games of football in No Man's Land.  For one night, they put their differences aside and observed the birthday of the Prince of Peace.  For some, the night extended until Boxing Day; for others, it lasted a full week; for still others, a few weeks.  Yes, the pipes of peace played on Christmas Eve 1914 on the battlefields of Belgium.

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Thursday 22 December 2011

Operation Christmas Child

Beside the Christmas tree in our church lobby were stacked dozens of red and green boxes that our members had filled with crayons, paper, toys, toothbrushes, calculators and other items for needy children.  The program is called "Operation Christmas Child" and is run by Samaritan's Purse, an organization started in 1970 and dedicated to helping those in need during wartime or when natural disasters strike.  Samaritan's Purse workers helped during the Kosovo, Rwanda and Iraq conflicts.  They also rebuilt houses after Hurricane Mitch, Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean Tsunami.  Originally started by Bob Pierce, Franklin Graham took over in 1979.  In 1993, Samaritan's Purse started Operation Christmas Child, collecting and delivering 82 million boxes to date in 130 countries worldwide.  Canada's goal this year is 750,000 boxes.  Most of the Ontario boxes go to Central and South America. 

The box is often the only gift that a child will get in an underdevelopped country.  The joy that appears on the child's face when she opens the box makes it all worthwhile.  “She was shy at first but then her face lights up as she starts taking things out and she realizes that everything in the box is just for her. It wasn’t stuff that she had to share with her family,” said Kathy Mizen, the Windsor regional director who had the opportunity to deliver a box to a 10 year old girl from Uruguay. 

Back in Brantford, Rob and I started filling a Christmas box for a boy when Thomas was a baby; then when Jacqueline arrived, we added one for a girl as well.  Now our kids fill the boxes and it is a great chance for them to think about children who have a lot less than them. 

Our church lobby is empty once again.  The red and green boxes are on their way south of the equator.  What a great way to bring joy to children at Christmas time!

As a footnote, singer Matthew West has written a great song called "Give this Christmas Away" and performed it with Amy Grant, all about Operation Christmas Child.  It is available on Veggietales' "The Story of St. Nicholas" or you can listen to it on YouTube.

Note:  As of 2014, Samaritan's Purse has given away over 100 million Christmas boxes.  Last year, Canadians donated 667,000 boxes.

Here is the link to Matthew West's song "Give This Christmas Away":

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Wednesday 21 December 2011

Camaraderie in the Kitchen at Christmas

Large vats of potatoes boiled on the stove, carved turkey kept warm in the Dutch oven, pats of butter sat ready to spread on the fresh rolls, containers of hot corn and green beans steamed up the kitchen, spicy stuffing took its place beside the turkey, juice swirled into the plastic pitchers, and freshly baked Christmas cookies and squares were neatly arranged on large platters.  A dozen parents rolled up their sleeves, donned their aprons, and set to work to prepare the annual Christmas dinner.  As we worked, we talked about the task at hand, but we also chatted away about our children, our marriages, and about how special Brantford Christian School is, as we watched our children frolick on the playground through the kitchen window. 

This is my third year helping with the Christmas dinner and I love it!  What do I love about it?  I love the amount of food that parents donate:  we always have leftover baked goods.  I love contributing to such an important event.  I love the camaraderie in the kitchen with the other parents.  And I love seeing the smiles on the students' faces when they come into the gym, beautifully decorated for Christmas, and when they pile their plates high with festive food.  I love to see the older kids holding the hands of their younger reading buddies.  I love to see the teachers sit side by side with the students as they eat.  I love to see the principal, a Bible open in his hand, reading the words from Luke.  I love to see the kids fold their hands to pray.  As a student, I never had a Christmas dinner.  As a teacher, I have never taught at a school with such a dinner.  So it is a real pleasure to be part of such an experience. 

When the students file out of the gym, their tummies full, we know our mission is accomplished.  We, the volunteers, sit down to eat our dinner.  In the kitchen, it's clean up time.  One by one we say goodbye.  As I leave the kitchen to pick up my kids at their classrooms, I wish everyone a "Merry Christmas!"  (Yes, you can still say that at our school.)  I am happy the day went well, but sad to see it end -- until next year.  Thank you, God, for Brantford Christian School and its staff!  Sending our children there is the best Christmas present any parent could get.

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Tuesday 20 December 2011

A Long Mane & A Watch Chain

"One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas."

In 1905, New York City's population had reached over 4 million.  Although the metropolis had no Empire State Building, its skyline was starting to sprout skyscrapers like the Whitehall Building at 20 stories and the Singer Building at 40 stories.  Although New Yorkers still rode streetcars, they did have the option of riding on the brand new subway that had opened the year before.  Their mayor was George B. McClellan and their president, Theodore Roosevelt, one of their native sons. 

Another native son was William Sydney Porter, a writer who used to like to frequent Pete's Tavern in Manhattan's Flatiron District.  In 1905, sitting in one of the establishment's dimly-lit booths and watching patrons drink at the rosewood bar, Mr. Porter got out his pen and wrote a romance about a young couple living in a modest flat, struggling to make ends meet. 

The wife, Della, desperately wanted to buy her new husband a Christmas gift, but she had only $1.87 to her name.  Her most prized possession was her hair which cascaded down her back to just below her knees.  Often she and her husband would stroll down Broadway Street and admire the beautiful hair combs in a certain shop window.  Della decided to sell her hair and used the $20 she earned to purchase a platinum chain for her husband's watch.  Back at her flat she looked with consternation at herself in the mirror, worried that she resembled a "Coney Island chorus girl".

In the meantime, Della's husband, Jim visited the Broadway Street shop and purchased the beautiful combs his wife had admired so often, by selling his most prized possession, his grandfather's pocket watch.  He rushed home to their apartment to present his wife with the Christmas gift, only to find that she had sold her mane of hair.  Worried that her husband wouldn't love her anymore, her worries quickly melted away at his response:  "He enfolded his Della." 

Sitting in the booth at Pete's Tavern, William Sydney Porter penned his last line "And they are the magi" pointing out that it was the wisemen, or magi, who invented the art of gift-giving at Christmas when they brought presents for baby Jesus in the manger.  And like the wisemen, the young couple in his story selflessly sacrificed their greatest treasures.  The New York author titled his work "The Gift of the Magi" and he published it under the nom de plume O. Henry.  It first appeared in the New York Sunday World on December 10, 1905 and later was printed in an anthology of short stories by the author.

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Monday 19 December 2011

A Christmas Carol

"It was said of Scrooge that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be said of us, and all of us!"

It sold 6000 copies within the first three days in print, it has never been out of print and it has been adapted to the stage, film, and opera.  Charles Dickens' novella, A Christmas Carol, was first published on December 19, 1843 during a time when England was experiencing a nostalgia for Christmas after the Cromwell years when the holiday was banned.  In 1820, writer Washington Irving had written The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall.  In 1837, Thomas K. Hervey had penned The Book of Christmas.  Both books influenced the average Brit's view of Christmas.  In 1841, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert who would bring many of his native-German traditions to Britain including the Christmas tree and Christmas carols.  He also sent the first Christmas card. 

So England was ripe for A Christmas Carol which Dickens originally intended on publishing as a political pamphlet condemning English consumerism and capitalism.  The famous author's father had been thrown into Debtors' Prison when he was a lad, forcing him to quit school and go to work in a factory.  Furthermore, he visited a Cornish tin mine and the Field Lane Ragged School, appalled by the conditions at both locations.  Making his passionate plea, Charles Dickens poured out his story within the space of six weeks.  Many historians maintain that his story of the Cratchit's, based loosely on his own family, changed the way that the English would celebrate Christmas:  what used to be a sacred festival reserved for the confines of the church became a family festival also celebrated at home.  What was once neglected and even ignored, became the most popular celebration of the year.  It was heartwarming to see a family as poor as the Cratchit's praising God and celebrating Christ's birthday. 

Charles Dickens reserved the best line of his novella for last:  "And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless us, Every One!"

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Sunday 18 December 2011

Christmas Bells

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Christmas Bells

HEARD the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this poem on Christmas Day in 1864 while listening to the church bells in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He had just lost his wife Frances three years earlier when her dress caught on fire and she suffered severe burns.  A month before his son Charles had signed up for the Union Army without his father's blessing only to return home gravely injured.  Although the poem is filled with negative war images ("cannons thundered in the South"), it is also filled with positive, powerful words:  "God is not dead, Nor doth He sleep:  The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail".  Originally a professor, Longfellow retired in 1854 to write fulltime and was known for such works as "Paul Revere's Ride", "The Song of Hiawatha", and "Evangeline".  In 1872, "Christmas Bells" was put to music by English organist John Baptiste Calkin, referred to as "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" and has been recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Johnny Cash among others.  The United States Post Office issued a stamp in Longfellow's honour in 1940. 

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Saturday 17 December 2011

Chocolate Softies for Santa

72 Smarties or M&Ms (colours red, green & yellow)

½ cup butter or margarine, softened

1 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

2 (1 oz.) squares of unsweetened chocolate, melted

1/3 cup sour milk

1 tsp vanilla

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Cut candies into quarters with a sharp knife.  Mix next six ingredients well. Stir in next 4 ingredients.  Drop by teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet, allowing two inches between cookies.  Flatten cookies slightly with wet hand.  Place two pieces of each colour of candy on each cookie, pushing into batter slightly.  Bake in 400 F oven for about 8 to 20 minutes.  When pressed slightly with finger it should not leave a dent.  Remove cookies from cookie sheet.  Cool.  Makes four dozen cookies.

(Company's Coming Publishing Ltd.)

Friday 16 December 2011

Cranberries, Garlands & Tin Cans

On December 24, 1931, with America immersed in a recession, a group of Rockefeller Center construction workers spread some Christmas cheer:  they erected a 20-foot-balsam fir tree, and decorated it with cranberry strings, paper garlands and tin cans.

In 1929, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had acquired 22 acres of land in Manhattan between 5th and 6th Avenues which he began to develop (it would eventually include 19 buildings).  The Empire State building had opened the same year.  Radio City Music Hall, also at Rockefeller Center, would open a year later on December 27, 1932.  That year, there would be no Christmas tree.  However, in 1933, New Yorkers began the tradition of a yearly Christmas tree with an official tree lighting ceremony.

The tree, always a Norway Spruce, hailed from several states including New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, Vermont, and even one province, Ontario (the year of Canada's Centennial).  The tree's height could be as low as 70 feet or as high as 100 feet, as was the case in 1999.  Even during World War II, with shortages, New Yorkers still enjoyed a Christmas tree; however, there were no lights in 1944 due to the imposed blackout.  Although the first tree had primitive decorations, in the 1950's, New Yorkers saw 10 foot aluminum icicles dangle precariously from the tree.  By the 1970's, they started recycling the Norway spruces, in the form of mulch.  Later, they donated the trees to the Boy Scouts and Habitat for Humanity.  By the 1980's, 18,000 lights decorated the Christmas tree. 

Today, 30,000 lights and 5 miles of wiring help to light up the Norway Spruce.  The brilliant star which adorns the top weighs 550 pounds and spans 9.5 feet.  It's been 80 years since New Yorkers first gazed at a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.  The construction workers have been replaced by businessmen with briefcases walking to their offices and tourists with tuques gliding across the skating rink.  Merry Christmas, New York!

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Thursday 15 December 2011

The Bells of St. Mary's

"The Bell's of St. Mary's" premiered in December of 1945 and starred Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley and Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict, two teachers trying to save their run-down parochial school from the wrecking ball.  Father O'Malley is new to the school and believes in liberal theories of teaching; Sister Benedict, on the other hand, has been instructing at the school for years and believes in firm discipline. One early scene involves the priest introducing himself to the sisters and as he speaks, he's puzzled at why everyone is laughing; a kitten has jumped into his hat sitting on the piano behind him. 

Another funny scene involves Sister Benedict, in her habit, training student Eddie in the art of "pugilism", after he was tripped by the school bully.  Father Benedict helps a weaker student named Patsy with her essay, and after some prodding, discovers that her mother and father are estranged; the priest relocates Patsy's dad and brings the couple back together again.

The cutest scene of "The Bells of St. Mary's" occurs at Christmas time.  The Grade 1 class prepares a pageant in which they sing Happy Birthday to baby Jesus, played by the younger sibling of one of the students.  Rather than remaining in the manger, "toddler" Jesus keeps jumping out. 

In the meantime, their neighbour, Mr. Bogardus, has built an office building next door and dreams of St. Mary's being torn down so he can build a parking lot.  However, Sister Benedict has been praying that Mr. Bogardus will donate the building to the parish to use as their new school.  The crotchety businessman goes to the doctor who diagnoses him with a bad heart.  What is the prescription?  Give with your heart and it will be full (and healthy). 

"The Bells of St. Mary's" received eight Academy Award nominations and became a staple in American cinematography.

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Wednesday 14 December 2011

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

There is a Grinch in town:  he is stealing from our signs and from our windows, from our cards and from our packages, from our televisions and radios and computers.  I have seen him on a ladder taking down letters.  I have seen him in windows taking down words.  I have seen him stealing right from our very mouths.  What is he stealing?  He is stealing a word, a word that is over two thousand years old, but a word that is no longer politically correct to say.  He is slowly but surely taking the word right out of our vocabulary.  If it is up to him there will be no trace of this word in a few years.  He would even like to erase it from our dictionaries.

So I am starting a campaign to take back this word.  Let us advertise on our signs and in our windows, on our cards and packages, on our televisions and radios and computers.  Let us post it on our blogs and on our Facebook pages and on Twitter.  Let us greet our neighbours in the streets with it.  Let us shout it from the rooftops.  On December 25, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, hence the term, Christmas.  Yes, CHRISTmas.  Let's hear it:  CHRISTMAS!  MERRY CHRISTMAS!  MERRY CHRISTMAS!  MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

So Grinch, take your wrinkled green face and your bony green fingers and go back to your cave!  We are taking our precious word back -- one sign at a time.  And we will never let it go! 

Image courtesy

Tuesday 13 December 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

Premiering in December of 1946 in theatres and starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, "It's a Wonderful Life" received five Academy Award nominations and later became a staple on American television each Christmas season.  Sleepy Bedford Falls resident, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is a struggling businessman whose savings and loans company is about to go bankrupt, leading George to contemplate jumping off a bridge.  However, an angel sent from heaven named Clarence intervenes, showing George what life would really be like if he had never been born. 

Director Frank Capra flashes back to George's childhood:  how he was in a sledding accident and almost drown, how he was mistreated by his employer at the local drugstore, and how he dreamed about travelling the globe.  In the meantime, though, he met his future wife, Mary, played by Donna Reed, at a dance where they lindyhopped until their feet were sore.  As they meandered home that evening, they stopped at an abandonned house, threw a rock at the window, and made a wish. 

Sadly, George's father ,who ran a savings and loans business, succumbed to a stroke in the next scene.  Though grief-stricken, George finds joy when he marries his sweetheart Mary, fulfilling the wish she had made in front of the abandonned house.  On a rainy night, the newlyweds are about to depart for their honeymoon in Europe, when the savings and loans employees beg him to take over his late father's business.  Begrudgingly, he agrees and foregoes his honeymoon.

Although he starts off slowly, and despite his immoral nemesis Mr. Potter, George is able to build his business back up using honest methods.  In the meantime, Mr. and Mrs. Bailey purchase the decrepit house that they once strolled past on that fateful evening, discovering its hidden charms.    They start a family which eventually totals four children.  As the business heads south, the once charming house becomes a liability:  every time George walks up the staircase, he shakes his head in disgust at the knob which comes lose from the bannister post.  The once adorable children become an annoyance:  his daughter's piano playing grates on his last nerve.

What's the source of his distress?  Uncle Billy has lost $8000 of the company's money.  George runs to Martini's bar where he hits rock bottom and then cries out to God for help.  When the struggling businessman meets the angel, he then realizes that he is not poor, but rich.  He runs home to his family on Christmas Eve, his wife waiting for him with open arms.  They sing together under the Christmas tree.  The community bands together to raise funds to replace the missing money.  It's a wonderful life!

Photo courtesy

Monday 12 December 2011

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa is an oil painting on poplar painted by Leonardo Da Vinci between 1503 and 1519.  The woman in the painting, Lisa del Gioconda, was the wife of a silk merchant in Florence, Italy, known for her demure smile.  The Mona Lisa did not achieve its famous status until the mid-18th Century.  It has had many homes over the last 500 years including the Chateau Fontainebleau, the Palace of Versailles and Napoleon's bedroom and the Louvre Museum.  On August 21, 1911, the valued object d'art was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian nationalist named Vincenzo Peruggia who posed as a janitor, aided by a group of accomplices.  However, it was recovered in Signor Peruggia's hotel room on this day in 1913 and returned to its rightful place in the French museum.  The art thief served a 14-month jail term for the robbery. During World War II, the painting narrowly escaped the Nazis, being moved from hiding place to hiding place.  Today, the Mona Lisa remains in the Louvre under bulletproof glass, the most famous painting in the world.

Photo courtesy

Sunday 11 December 2011

Through Frosty Fields

Through frosty fields let's take a ride.
On a sleek sleigh we'll slip and slide.
On this beautiful winter day,
Let's now hitch up the horse and sleigh,
To view the landscape far and wide.

I see the hoof prints side by side
There's a squirrel with nuts to hide.
Sparrows sing softly on the way
Through frosty fields.

Just sit back and enjoy the ride;
Let's have nature be our tour guide.
Each tree's been painted silver-gray;
The roofs have cotton tops today.
Let's take a ride; we'll coast and glide
Through frosty fields.

Linda Jonasson
July 25, 2006.

Photo courtesy

Saturday 10 December 2011

Chocolate Lime Pie

Here is a recipe my Mom used to make every year for the Couples Club Christmas dinner at our church.


20-30 thin chocolate wafers

3 tbsp butter (melted)

1 lime jelly powder

1/2 c. boiling water

1/4 c. lemon juice

1/4 c. sugar

1 lemon (grated rind)

1 large tin evaporated milk

1 tsp green colouring

Butter a 10" pie plate.  Line sides with a ring of chocolate wafers, crush remaining chocolate wafers to fine crumbs and mix with melted butter.  Press crumb mixture on bottom of pie plate to form shell.  Dissolve lime jelly powder in boiling water, add sugar, lemon rind and juice.  Whip the evaporated milk, after thoroughly chilling in refrigerator and fold into jelly mixture.  Pour over chocolate wafer crust and sprinkle with grated chocolate or decorate with coloured cake trimmings.  Chill in refrigerator overnight.

Photo courtesy

Friday 9 December 2011

Famous Thomases Quiz

1.  Was Tom Cruise really "Born on the 4th of July"?

a.  yes
b.  no
c.  undecided

2.  Thomas Edison may take credit for the following three inventions:

a.  radio, rocket, robot
b.  telephone, television, telegraph machine
c.  lightbulb, phonograph, incandescent lightbulb

3.  Thomas Longboat won which of the following sporting events;

a.  Stanley Cup
b.  Boston Marathon
c.  World Cup

4.  Thomas Wolfe was:

a.  an American novelist
b.  a British general
c.  a French composer

5.  Thomas Ryan invented which sport?

a.  5 pin bowling
b.  basketball
c.  baseball

6.  Tom Thomson, an unofficial member of the Group of Seven, painted the following signature piece:

a.  Jack Pine
b.  Mona Lisa
c.  American Gothic

7.  President Thomas Jefferson's private home was called:

a.  Fairlane
b.  Mount Vernon
c.  Monticello

8.  Who played a "Bosom buddy" before making a "Splash" on the big screen?

a.  Tom Hanks
b.  Tom Selleck
c.  Tom Cruise

9.  Who was famous for his moustache, Detroit Tigers' cap and red Ferrari?

a.  Tom Selleck
b.  Tom Connors
c.  Tom Hanks

10.  Who founded a travel agency in Great Britain in 1841 to carry temperance supporters from city to city via the railroad?

a.  Thomas Jackson
b.  Thomas Cook
c.  Thomas Aquinas

Today is Thomas Jonasson's 13th birthday.  Ever since he celebrated his first birthday, I have compiled a set of questions called "Thomas Jeopardy" and handed it out to guests at his party.  I figured that I would continue the tradition online this year.  I will post the answers tomorrow.  Good luck!


Wednesday 7 December 2011

Mortimer's Christmas Manger

A mouse named Mortimer is looking for a place to live in a family's home.  He discovers a little wooden house beside the Christmas tree, but it is already occupied.  One by one he lugs the statue people out of the house, including a baby statue, and then he takes his place in the manger and falls fast asleep in the warm hay.  The next evening, he finds the statues have resumed their places inside the house and he repeats his ritual.  On Christmas Eve, he discovers big people gathered around the tree.  A big man begins telling a story:  "A long time ago in a little town called Bethlehem..."  Mortimer hears about Mary and Joseph; he hears about baby Jesus being born in a stable.  He realizes that the baby isn't just any statue, but the baby Jesus.  With a tear rolling down his cheek, Mortimer lugs the statues back to their rightful places.  Lastly, he gently places baby Jesus back in the manger.  Then he says a prayer:  "Jesus you were born to save the world.  Perhaps you could find me a home?"  Instantly, the mouse noticed another house, this one made of gingerbread, and he set up house once again, thanking Jesus for making room for him.

Karma Wilson's picture book Mortimer's Christmas Manger is so simple and yet so beautiful.  Jane Chapman's drawings are rich.  What a great find!

Photo courtesy

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Ashpan Annie

Twenty-three month old Annie Liggins was sleeping in her Halifax home on the morning of December 6, 1917. All of a sudden, her mother and brother rushed to the window after hearing an explosion coming from Halifax Harbour and saw thick black smoke rising into the air.  An ear-popping blast shook the house, shattering the windows and sending the mother and brother flying, killing them instantly.  Baby Annie was thrown as well; then all went silent.

Down at the harbour, two ships, the Norwegian Imo and the French Mont Blanc, had collided, the latter carrying explosives intended for the battlefield in Europe.  The Mont Blanc's crew, aware of the impending danger, managed to abandon ship and reach safety on the far shore at Dartmouth.  However, many Haligonians stayed at the harbour, watching in fascination as the ship burned, not knowing what was about to happen.  Within minutes, the ship exploded, sending a 5 kilometre high mushroom cloud into the atmosphere, the explosion having the impact of 3 kilotons (the Hiroshima bomb had 15 kilotons).  The force of the blast and the subsequent tsunami shattered windows, flattened buildings, snapped trees and ground vessels.  The explosion was heard as far away as Truro; crockery rattled in Charlottetown, P.E.I. over 200 kilometres away. 

Railway dispatcher, Vince Coleman knew of the impending danger and was about to leave his post at the station when he remembered the incoming train from Saint John, New Brunswick.  He desperately sent out an S.O.S. to the train:  "Stop train.  Munitions shiop on fire.  Approaching Pier 6.  Goodbye."  At the last minute he received acknowledgement of the message from the engineer and then the blast hit, killing him instantly.  The hero saved 300 lives that day; furthermore, the train was able to serve later as a hospital train for the injured.

The statistics quoted in the newspaper were staggering:  9000 injured (including hundreds blinded), 2000 dead, 6000 homeless, 25,000 living in inadequate housing.  More Nova Scotians were killed in the explosion than on the battlefields of Europe.  Halifax's north end, accounting for a third of the city, was completely obliterated. 

Fires spread quickly as a result of the blast.  Inmates at Rockhead Prison took advantage of the devastation, escaping on foot.   Makeshift hospitals were set up to treat the wounded.  To add insult to injury, a blizzard dropped 16 inches of snow the following day on the crippled city. 

Rescue efforts were underway quickly, the Army playing a big role in the process.  Twenty-six hours after the blast, Sargeant Davies and Private Henneberry were still wandering up and down Campbell Road (later Barrington Street) searching through the rubble for victims of the disaster, when they heard a baby crying.  They found a little girl, injured but very much alive, in the ashpan of a stove, its iron frame having protected her from flying debris and its ashes having kept her warm during the post-blast blizzard. 

Private Henneberry believed her to be his missing daughter, Olive, and he took her to the hospital to be bandaged up.  However, while in the hospital, the injured girl saw her grandma walk by and called out to her.  The grandma positively identified her as Annie Liggins.  With her mother and brother dead, and her father fighting in Europe, Annie was taken in by her grandma.  The media nicknamed her Ashpan Annie as she was found in an ashpan.  Sadly Olive Henneberry, like many victims of the blast, was never found.

Annie Liggins married and became Annie Welsh and lived to the ripe old age of 95, passing away in July of 2010.  She is survived by a daughter, 4 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren.  The Halifax Explosion remains the largest accidental man made disaster ever to take place.

Photo courtesy

Monday 5 December 2011

One Splendid Tree

Hattie frowned. It would take a whole lot of magic to turn that droopy old plant into a Christmas tree.
"Please, Hattie?" Junior pleaded. Hattie glanced at her brother. His face was filled with hope.
She studied the plant, trying to imagine what it would look like dressed up in Christmas finery. Her frown faded as she began to catch Junior's excitement. Didn't Daddy always say that Christmas is a time when magical things happen? Decorating the plant was just the kind of thing he would do. It would almost be like having him home.
"Junior, let's do it!" she cried.
(One Splendid Tree, Marilyn Helmer, 2007.)

Un Noel Malgre Tout is a picture book written by Marilyn Helmer and illustrated by Dianne Helman that I discovered a few years ago and read to my French Immersion class.  I loved it so much that I looked for the original English version, One Splendid Tree, for my own children to read.  The book, set in a big Canadian city (I suspect Montreal) during World War II, centres on sister Hetty and brother Junior who used to live in a cute white and green house in the country, but have now moved to a small apartment in the city.  Their father is fighting on the battlefield in Europe and their mother has been forced to take a factory job in town.  With very little money, their family cannot afford a Christmas tree this year.  However, Junior finds an abandonned plant and decides that he will transform it into a Christmas tree.  The brother and sister set to work making homemade decorations and soon get other tenants involved in the process, even the crabby old lady in Apartment 3C, Mrs. Dixon.  Just before Christmas, they receive a package from their father -- it's a Christmas ornament for their tree.  Their father is there in spirit even though he is not there in body.  I like the French title of the story, "A Christmas Despite Everything", because it describes exactly what happens in the story.

Dianne Eastman makes beautiful photocollages to illustrate the book.  It is an added touch that the photograph of the soldier on top of the old radio on the front over is her father, who served in the RCAF during World War II.  The pictures alone make the book a worthwhile purchase.  The story is both educational and touching -- another great Canadian historical picture book!

Sunday 4 December 2011

A Proper Pea-Souper

Drivers were blinded, planes were grounded, trains were halted, operas were cancelled, pedestrians suffocated and cattle were asphyxiated in London, England in 1952.  What was the cause?  Smog.  Temperatures were particularly low in November and early December and snow had already fallen.  Londoners were burning coal at an alarming rate.  Electric trams had recently been replaced by diesel buses, adding to the pollution.  Finally, an anticyclone was hovering over the area, forcing the air down and leaving very little wind to circulate.  East Enders suffered from a higher incidence of bronchitis and pneumonia due to the proliference of factories and the proximity of the dwellings.  Residents on the Isle of Dogs, which is surrounded by the River Thames, could not even see their feet during the Pea-Souper which lasted from December 4 to 9.  Florists and funeral directors flourished as the death rate soared to 4000.  It is estimated that another 8000 died in the two months that followed, with some saying that the smog did not completely disperse until March of 1953.  As a result of the Great Smog, the British government passed the Clean Air Act of 1956, eliminating the widespread use of coal furnaces and replacing them with central heating.

Photo courtesy


Saturday 3 December 2011

Tigger on the Tree

When Thomas was born, his Aunt Ingrid gave him a little Tigger with a red tuque for our Christmas tree.  That particular ornament has been moved more times than any other.  When Thomas was a toddler he would often take it off the tree, and Rob would put it back on.  Then he grew old enough to leave the ornaments alone, but his little sister took over the job.  Every chance she got, she would pull Tigger off the tree, and Rob would hang him back up.  It became a ritual each December.  Now Tigger has fingerprints on him, his nose is gray rather than yellow and his string is held together with Scotch tape.  Although Tigger does not get moved as much as he used to, just this morning, Jacqueline took the orange tiger off the tree to play with him.  I know the day will come when Tigger no longer gets taken off the tree.  But I hope our children will always experience that childlike excitement at Christmas time even when they are all grown up.  For now, Tigger hangs on the tree -- but not for long.

Photo courtesy

Friday 2 December 2011

Falling Bombs, Blackouts & Bicycles

Under the falling bombs during blackouts, Britain's young women bicycled to local dance halls where they waltzed to the strains of the violins with their Canadian partners, men in uniform who had arrived in the opening months of the Second World War.  They fell in love in places like Aldershot, England which would be dubbed "Little Canada" as tens of thousands of Canadian servicemen rolled into town to train for battle. 

The first marriage between a British woman and Canadian serviceman took place only 43 days after the Canadians set foot on British soil in December of 1939.  Thousands more would follow suit.  British War Brides clubs formed, offering lessons in Canadian culture and giving members the Canadian Cookbook for British Wives.  In total, 45,000 British war brides and 21,000 children would immigrate to Canada during and immediately after World War II.  Although the overwhelming majority of the war brides were British (93%), Canada also welcomed 3,000 European War Brides including Dutch, Belgian, French, Italian, German and Danish women who arrived on the Queen Mary, Aquitania, Mauretania and other ships at Pier 21 in Halifax. 

They left the land of their birth to come to a country with different laws, a different climate, and in some cases, a different language.  The immigrants boarded war bride trains to cross the country in what the media dubbed "Operation Daddy" or "The Diaper Special".  They were struck by the vastness of the country and pleased to see items available here that were unavailable back home like bananas, butter and white bread, but dismayed to see that rural Canadians still used wood stoves and outhouses.

Although a small minority of war brides were so homesick they returned to Europe, the majority put down permanent roots here and were granted citizenship by the Canadian governement.  In 1946-1947, war brides accounted for more than half of the Canadian immigrants.  Today, it is estimated that 1 in 30 Canadians is a descendant of a war bride.  "Operation Daddy" was a resounding success.  And it all started in the dance halls of Aldershot over 70 years ago. 

Photo courtesy

Here is a poem I found on a War Bride website (

Southampton harbour in the Spring
On a sunny April day
The shouts of stevedores pulling ropes
And a liner huge and grey
Some anxious soldiers march and pace
The busy, noisy dock
A sweeping seagull screams farewell -
the echo seems to mock
The liner shifts her great hulk;
sirens sound
A shrill salute to this great ship
on her last voyage bound
Six hundred war brides crowd on deck
to watch the fading shore
The wartime years - "blood sweat and tears"
go deep in memory’s core
White capped water, smoking stacks
the land now ribbon thin
When can we hope to see again
Our country and our kin.

(Author Unknown)

Photo courtesy

Note: Cartoonist Ben Wicks has written a detailed account of the British War Bride experience in his book Promise You'll Take Care of My Daughter.

Thursday 1 December 2011

On Rosa's Ride

On Rosa’s ride to work and back

Down Cleveland Ave in fifty-five.

White bus driver Blake gave her flack,

But Rosa Parks would not move back.

Sewing suits from nine until five,

She did what she could to survive.

As more whites boarded, four blacks stalled.

Blake warned:  “Move back or I won’t drive!”

At six o’clock, Blake placed the call.

Police came and she took the fall.

Her only crime was being black.

She had paid her fare, after all.

Rosa’s bus ride launched the attack

On racist laws that hurt each black.

White bus driver Blake gave her flack,

But Rosa Parks would not move back.

Linda Jonasson
(August 28, 2008.)

Photo of Montgomery, Alabama bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan courtesy

Photo of Rosa Parks on Dec. 1, 1955 courtesy