Looking East

Christmas comes differently to the country.

Twisted and threaded around and through twin pieces of rusted rebar that serve as mailbox supports, the plastic pine garland is older than several of the children who tumble from the school bus. Still, its shabbiness is apparent only to the mail carrier, or to the slippered woman trudging down the lane from her house, hoping against hope to find greetings in her box.  From the road, the garland appears perfect, full and fresh.  From a distance, even plastic communicates the determination and joy pulsing in the woman’s heart.  In this house, she thinks, we will celebrate. We will mark the season. We will share our joy with you, the passer-by.

Farther down the road,  a wreath made of vines adorns a gate propped against a fence. Its ribbon flutters in the wind, attracting attention, drawing the eye over the gate and into a pasture.  There’s a brush pile, and some uncleared mesquite. A few trees, pushed over and left to die, wait to be added to the pile.  No cattle roam, no stock tank or pond offers refreshment – not even a piece of rusted, broken-down machinery resists the despondent wind sighing across the field.

With no house in sight, the wreath seems misplaced until the eye travels on to the horizon and discovers a single, spreading oak hung with drops of red, silver and gold.  The ornaments are the size of basketballs, or even larger, to be seen at such a distance.  It must have required a team of youngsters to get them into the tree. Swinging in the breeze, beautiful in their simplicity and striking in their isolation, they whisper their poignant reminder – in this emptiness, in this fading light and behind this unworked land, there lies human presence.

At night, the country shines.  As darkness overcomes the fields and hedgerows, a star flickers into life atop a windmill, suggesting a tank and an unseen herd.  Curves of lighted icicles mark the end of a lane.  A fire flickers in the distance.  Where homes cling more closely to the frail netting of roadways, the shimmer of tree lights glints an ornament or two into existence.  Along driveways, occasional twinkling nets flung over bushes light a path for latecomers.

To eyes accustomed to the insistent glow of cities, their riotous color and overwhelming spectacle, country lights seem frail and faint. For city folk the singular star, the barely visible flicker of presence, seems impoverished and insignificant. Trained over the years to equate Christmas with lavish celebration, obsessive consumption and elegant gluttony, they find the modesty of a single star embarassing.

As Christmas becomes a season of extravagance, its most common complaints often sound suspiciously like boasting. There simply is too much to accomplish. There are too many obligations and far too many demands. Ironically, that same extravagance also transforms the holiday into the season of “not enough” – not enough money, not enough time or energy and increasingly little good will.  

Constrained by the limits of age, by economic loss or the demands of a complicated daily life, far too many hear the casual question “Are you ready for Christmas?” as an accusation, an occasion for discomfort, anxiety or guilt.   Have we sent enough cards? Strung enough lights? Purchased enough gifts?  Will there be time enough for the baking, the cleaning, the entertaining?  Will our efforts be approved by those around us, or will we, too, be judged impoverished and insignificant?

The Church always has had an answer for the extravagance and angst of our season – a nearly forgotten and oft-dismissed answer to be sure, but an answer nonetheless.  Beneath the roiling surface of our preparation lies a great truth – this is not the Christmas season. In Christian tradition, Christmas begins December 25, with the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity. Continuing through the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas”, it culminates in the Feast of the Epiphany, a remembrance of the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.

These December days, these days we love to fill with light and chatter and exhaustion, constitute the forgotten season of Advent. A modest season, shy and a bit uncomfortable with extravagance, its days are meant for emptying, for lying fallow, for waiting.  As we embrace the darkness in which stars still shine, shiver in a cold destined to be filled with the warmth of presence and acknowledge human limits in the face of unutterable and infinite longings, we find Advent – simple and unadorned, austere, barely more than ordinary – willing to grant one of the rarest of gifts – celebration on a human scale.

One of most beautiful tributes to the season of Advent and perhaps the most modest of all Christmas songs was written by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965).  Published as Carol of Advent in Part 3 of The Oxford Book of Carols (1928), People, Look East is set to BESANÇON, an ancient carol which first appeared in Christmas Carols New and Old, 1871, as the setting for Shepherds, Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep.

Farjeon, a native of London and a devout Catholic, is best remembered for her poem Morning Has Broken, often sung as a hymn and popularized by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam).  A prolific writer of children’s books and Hans Christian Andersen award-winner  for The Little Bookroom, her poetry is remarkably plain and yet perfectly suited for musical settings.

I’ve always been touched by one line in People, Look East.  “Make your house fair as you are able,” says Farjeon. If it lies within your means, trim the hearth with a candle or two. Set the table with your best dishes, and smooth out the best cloth you can find.  Dress a tree with pinecones, then twine a bit of garland around a fence or mailbox.  But don’t frustrate yourself trying to outdo the neighbors’ lighting. Don’t exhaust yourself in kitchen or malls. Above all, don’t try to fill a heart’s void with gifts or attempt to replicate a past that never was.

No, prepare your house as you are able, and then prepare your heart to celebrate as the world herself celebrates – guarding an empty nest, walking the fallow field, keeping watch under darkened skies for the star that flickers into life.  In the midst of the world’s extravagant preparations, take time to raise your eyes and look to the horizon, lest you miss the most modest of comings.

“People, Look East” sung by The Choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral ~ Click to play

People, Look East

People, look east, the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today
Love, the guest, is on the way.
Furrows, be glad, though earth is bare
One more seed is planted there.
Give up your strength the seed to nourish
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today
Love, the rose, is on the way.
Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today
Love, the bird, is on the way.
Stars, keep a watch when night is dim,
One more light the bowl shall brim.
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together,
People, look east and sing today
Love, the star, is on the way.
Angels, announce to man and beast
Him who cometh from the east.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

A note of explanation: some WordPress upgrades affected both my images and formatting when I originally posted this, so I pulled it to resolve the problems.  All seems well, now.  For another choral version of “People, Look East”, click here.
To leave a comment or respond, just click below. Thanks!

90 thoughts on “Looking East

  1. My mother always put our tree up late and kept it up until the Magi came–she had them off to the side and placed them closer to the manger everyday. I like Christmas in the country–it was simple and beautiful.

    1. Judy,

      Over the years, I became accustomed to putting up the tree (and other decorations) earlier because Mom enjoyed it so much. Our family tradition always was to take the tree down on New Year’s day, after the visiting from house to house was over.

      Christmas in the country is beautiful. I love the lighted stars on the windmills and barns – it’s always worth at least one nighttime drive between Christmas and New Year’s, just to enjoy it all.

      So nice to have you stop by. I’m sorry about your friend. I’ll be back to read that story again. Clearly, he was a special person.


  2. Lady you really have a way with words. You and one other lady who is immensely funny completely enthrall me with your ability to tell a story. There is much truth and wisdom here. I think it is one of your best ( but I have not read all of the stories yet).

    1. Yvonne,

      I’m really glad you enjoyed it. Funny thing, that “best” business. Some people respond to one thing, others to something else. Some posts that I think are really a little below par sometimes get praised to the skies, and ones that I love beyond all words get little response at all.

      I like that – it’s rather like the literary version of chocolate or vanilla! And there’s some mystery to it, too. I know that I can read a book one year and think it a waste of time. Five years later, I pick it up and think, “How could I have so misjudged this?” Fun stuff!


      1. “Some posts that I think are really a little below par sometimes get praised to the skies, and ones that I love beyond all words get little response at all.”

        I’ve occasionally had the same thing happen with my photographs. Perhaps, as you say, your own response will change in time, but I think the proper attitude is to keep on loving what you love, regardless, at least until something compelling, whether internal or external, leads you to see it differently.

        As for those two most popular flavors of ice cream: it’s no mystery that chocolate and vanilla both originated in central Mexico but are now enjoyed all over the world. Fun stuff for the historical palate.

        1. My gosh, Steve, I’ve never thought about the source of vanilla and chocolate, even though Mexican vanilla is all I use for baking and cooking, and mole sauce was one of the first things I learned when I made a move from Tex-Mex to more authentic Mexican cooking. Who needs maple-walnut-fudge or chunky monkey when you have vanilla and chocolate?

          As for the posts… There’s a good bit of angst in blogland about how to get readers, how to get freshly pressed, how to better do whatever we’re supposed to be doing with SEO and all of that. Somehow, I figured out early that my route was to write about what interested or intrigued me, do it as well as I could, and let the chips fall as they would.

          It’s an approach that’s served me well – and probably kept me from burnout. Very occasionally I’ve re-written one of my earliest entries and reposted it, but in those cases, the improvements only make me love it more. :)


  3. This post is breathtaking beautiful.
    I always love to travel country roads – especially on a cold dark night – you round a corner and there glowing are multicolored lights. It is magical. That second picture looks straight out of my childhood. (oh swinging those old wooden gates and latching them!)

    1. phil,

      It makes me happy that you like this one – you know those country nights and country roads as well as anyone. I’ve not done much holiday night driving in East Texas, but one of the best Christmas drives in Texas is across the coastal plain, down around Palacios, Blessing, Ganado, and all the farm-to-market roads there.The land is so flat that you can spot the windmills and such shining from miles away. It is magical.

      Gate etiquette: did Emily Post ever write about that? Probably not – her loss, don’t you think?


      1. Actually lived in Palacios for a while – I think every jelly fish/cabbage head in the world winters among the docks there…I guess you could call them stars in the water….but we dropped stuff in to see them bob up and down…a VERY small town with not much to do.
        Oh, there is gate etiquette in areas where gates cover cattle guards. Always loved to see a light aluminum gates – hated those barbed wire ones. UGH

        1. I used to visit friends who lived aboard in the Palacios marina. I’ve always thought a week at the Luther Hotel would be a wonderful thing, with a side trip to Blessing for lunch with the farmers and oil field guys. In another month, the sandhill cranes should be down around Danevang and Blessing – maybe a weekend would do!

    1. You’re welcome, Martha. I’ve loved Farjeon’s song for years. It’s one of the few I know that manages to combine the natural world with the season without turning sentimental or false. It’s a beautiful addition to a beautiful time of year.


    1. Tandi,

      I still remember how moved I was when I first heard it – sung a capella by an Episcopal woman who was teaching at a school up the road from the hospital where I worked in Liberia. Music can touch our souls anywhere, but in quiet and out-of-the-way places, I think it does so even more.

      Thanks so much for reading, and for the kindness of a comment. You’re welcome any time.


      1. I once worked in a small united church run hospital in north-ish Canada. Every morning folks would gather around the ancient organ and sing always the same hymn. The maintenance man and the X-ray tech in particular had wonderful voices. I am not religious, but I always felt the touch of God while singing. “Now that the daylight fills the sky, we lift our hearts to God on high, that he in all we do or say may keep us free from harm today”

        1. I found a version of your song on youtube.A man standing in a living room plays it on his violin, and then sings it a capella. His “performance” is so simple and straightforward it suits the words perfectly. Not only that, it has a good bit in common with Farjeon’s “Morning Has Broken” – seeking a blessing for a new day isn’t the worst thing humans can do.

  4. I’ve always loved Cat Stevens beautiful song “Morning Has Broken”, but had no idea it was a poem written by someone called Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965). Her name sounds familiar -perhaps I know some of her childrens books – must go and check.

    I’ve never heard “People, Look East” – Lovely words. It’s a good idea to post this early in December in the hope that people can take the advice to heart ie
    “Make your house fair as you are able,”

    1. rosie,

      Setting poetry to music is an art all its own. Interestingly, while Cat Stevens popularized the song, neither the lyrics nor the music are his. There’s a bit of history of the tune, “Bunessan”, here .

      One of the things I most enjoy about that line you quoted is that it clearly uses “fair” in the old sense of “pleasing to the eye or mind…fresh, or charming”. I recently recalled one of the fairest trees I’ve seen. It was decorated with pine cones, ball moss, sweet gum balls and so on. A few birds perched in its branches, and it was topped with a straw angel. I’d put it up against any tree in the world.


    1. It’s a season for song, Julie. I’m glad you could hear it all the way “down under”. I’m glad to share this wonderful carol with you, even though some of the imagery doesn’t quite fit your season!


    1. Omar,

      As I noted to Julie, above, some of the song’s imagery isn’t a perfect fit with your natural world. But the spirit plays well everywhere, and the wisdom about ways to celebrate the season holds true.

      I’ll receive a good “amen” with gratitude, every time!


  5. You’ve touched my heart this Advent. This is a challenging year for me with serious health issues. This beautifully written blog post eases my angst about getting ready, and re-focuses me on the simplicity of Christmas. You’ve reminded me of what the season is really all about and called back memories and scenes from my growing-up years in the country.

    In Eastern Canada, the country scenes are different, perhaps more snow but the concepts of simplicity and deep meaning are the same. I always love to read what you write but am particularly cheered and made thoughtful and peaceful by reading this particular blog post. Thank you for sharing your enormous gifts of writing, of song and poetry within the images and words.

    1. Carol,

      Circumstances certainly do change our approach to celebrations, sometimes radically. As my mother aged, one of her greatest frustrations was not being able to do all the things that had “made Christmas” in the past. No longer able to go out and shop, even less able to bake a tsunami’s worth of cookies, finding her arthritis preventing her from making the yearly needlepoint ornaments – it was difficult.

      We learned some new ways. I wasn’t going to sit around needlepointing, but I could bake. I found a friend to take her shopping in small, local stores – and gave the friend some hints on what I might like as a gift. Instead of going out to the lighting extravaganzas, we took a night or two to drive around decorated neighborhoods. In short, we simplified, and the season became a blessing again.

      Your appreciation for the post touches me. The thought that you were cheered by it is especially nice. That’s rather a modest emotion, perfectly suited a holiday that finds a fair house perfectly acceptable.


  6. Oh oh oh, I’m speechless after listening to the song. Well, almost.

    Christmas was my father’s favorite holiday. He made it special all our lives. Even after I married and bore my first child, he continued to make it special for my children, until his death, and their best memories of Christmas are of those spent with my parents. Your line about not trying to replicate a past that never was made me think. I’ve always tried to replicate those feelings we shared with my parents at their home all those years, but I’ve just never been able to do it. I know the special-ness was there and not a figment of my emotions, as my now-adult children long for those special feelings of Christmas, too. I wonder, though, how one does that when the essence of those times emanated from the hearts and souls of loved ones long gone?

    Maybe I should concentrate on the present and making new special memories for my family rather than focusing on what I can’t replicate or recapture, even though it truly was.

    1. Wendy,

      You’ve drawn a great distinction. I’ve had a friend or two whose growing-up years were miserable. In their families, holidays were a horror, and they never could come to terms with that. Not having the same delightful memories as other people, they built their celebrations around false memories – trying to duplicate what other people take for granted – replicating a past that never was.

      Other people, ilke you and I, are in a different situation. When I bring out the pair of angels that my grandmother put on her table every Christmas, or bake a certain cookie, or hang the little aluminum bells on the tree, I’m not creating as much as remembering. Each memory still shines, even though the circumstances of life are so drastically changed.

      I think part of the answer is tradition – and new traditions can be started as those for whom the old traditions were meaningful begin to disappear from our lives. For all my years at home, we had oyster stew every single Christmas eve, because – well, we just did. After my dad died, the oyster stew slowly slipped away. Now, I don’t even think of it. On the other hand, I make his rum punch every year – and smile when I do.

      When Mom moved down here, we began watching “A Christmas Story” on TNT every year. We’d keep that marathon on all day long, even if no one was watching. And when Mom was gone and I had tossed the tv, what did I do? I went out and bought a DVD so I can watch it whenever I want during the holiday season. It’s tradition now – and a memory that makes me happy.

      I do think simplicity’s the key, and doing things together. Every family will work it out in their own way – there’s no sure set of rules. But it can be done – I know that!


  7. Linda, a less sensitive person might blame it on the pregnancy hormones, but as for me? It was the straight power and clarity of your words in this post that brought tears to my eyes. And the song! Such a good reminder to slow down, look for the singular star, a simple tree decked perhaps in only frost, and be thankful for warmth and family and our lives, these beautiful beautiful gifts.

    Happy holidays to you!

    1. Emily,

      As someone I’ve come to appreciate might say, there’s nothing like being “home” home for the holidays, especially when home is filled with the warmth of caring and the quiet simplicities of life.

      When I was a child, I was told that if I looked at just the right time on Christmas eve, I would see the star of Bethlehem. Every year I scanned the skies before Christmas eve to be sure I knew where everything was – so I could recognize something new. One year, I saw the star. It was brilliant, and unmistakable. Maybe this year you’ll see it, too.


  8. All your photos could be Christmas cards. They capture simple, lovely, peaceful scenes.

    “Above all, don’t try to fill a heart’s void with gifts or attempt to replicate a past that never was.” Just the thought of doing that is not peaceful. Thank you for the reminder and identifying so astutely where our holiday labors and focus must be.

    1. Georgette,

      I miss the days of Christmas cards, just a bit. People now say, “Oh, they’re a waste of paper”, but we never wasted them. We read and re-read them, we hung them up, we used them for grade school and Sunday school art projects, and sometimes we sent them back and forth to one another over the years. It’s such fun now to read all the messages on the same card – they helped to preserve memories of treasured relationships.

      The same was true for package decorations. I still have some white plastic holly – liberally sprinkled with glitter – that originally showed up on a package to my mom in the 1950s. We never threw those things away, until they started getting too raggedy to use.

      Maybe that’s one of the keys. We didn’t have to “replicate a past that never was” because the past was right there with us, living in our decorations, cards, cookies, meals. As Faulkner so rightly said (and as I love to repeat), “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

      Happy Advent!


  9. The gate says it all for me…It reminds me of the two Christmases I spent in the country. One in South Texas the following one in the piney woods of East Texas.

    That photo evokes both years. Though, often as not, in South Texas the wreath was a roll of rusted “bob wire” with a worn out pair of boots nailed to the post with some creosote bush limbs hanging out. Thanks for making me remember, Linda.

    1. Gary,

      I’ve seen wreaths like that! I’ve never seen the added boots, though – well, except in those silly faux frontier stores where even the barbed wire is shiny. The note about creosote bush was interesting, too. It looks like it thrives a little farther west and south than I’ve usually lingered.

      Today, the word “creosote” evokes only one thing – the old creosote plant, which leads directly to those old tire swing days. Remember Buffett’s lyrics? “I remember the smell of the creosote plant, when we had to eat on Easter with my crazy old uncle and aunt…”! My great-aunt Fannie had one in her backyard east of Baton Rouge, and my goodness – we thought it was Christmas when we got there and were turned loose to roam!

      Happy memories!


    1. Al,

      Did I laugh? Of course I did. This is such a rich story, for so many reasons. It has a slight flavor of the “virtue rewarded” stories familiar to those of us who’ve been wandering the planet a little longer than the Angry Birds crowd.

      There’s only one thing. I suspect Ms. Fitzgibbons would be surprised by the depth of the good sisters’ cultural knowledge.

      Now, I’m laughing again.


  10. Such a beautiful post, Linda! You make me feel better about stringing lights in my little, leafless persimmon tree. That and a tin Noel sign by the front door is it for Christmas around here. The tin sign is actually quite elegant even though the concept doesn’t sound as much, because each letter is carved into the metal and set into a painted wooden frame. We’ve had it almost as long as we have been married, so there is the sentimental factor too. ;) ~Lynda

    1. Lynda,

      What? You mean you don’t have a color-coordinated, house-wide, theme-inspired decorating scheme like this? Right. Me, neither.

      I’ve never understood the impulse toward Christmas “decorating schemes”. I knew a woman a couple of years ago who dumped red and green in favor of mauve and silver. It was beautiful, no question about that. But her house might as well have been a stage set. She didn’t put any of the ornaments her children had made over the years on her tree because they “didn’t fit”. Well, to each their own.

      Besides, I like the thought that even a little, leafless tree can sparkle and shine. The nice thing about that kind of decorating is that, once the lights have been taken off, the tree’s still there, not tossed into the trash. Every time you look at the tree during the year, you remember when it got dressed up for Christmas. ;)


      1. We haven’t had a tree in over 25 years. (Long story. I will share it soon.) The ironic thing is, I actually went out to buy one this year and couldn’t go through with it. I ended up buying a new shrub for in front of the porch. It looks beautiful with its red baubled garland strung amongst the branches. I’m with you on color themes too, and also I think it’s ridiculous to have a tree in every room including the bathroom! :D BUT, to each their own.

        1. Well, and if we really want to criticize over-the-top Christmas celebrations, we always could mention those silly people who hang Christmas stockings for their pets. I just can’t imagine anyone who would do that.

          Actually, Dixie Rose still thinks that Santa Cat brings the stocking as well as the gifts. She’s such a little innocent. ;)

          1. Ahahahahaaa, when we were first married, and had our FIRST pet, a kitty of course, we did that! Haven’t done it since. ;)

            Your last statement about Dixie Rose leaves me with visions of stocking terrorizing and the horror of little flying presents with teethmarks…

  11. I’m afraid I find the Christmas hoopla so extreme these days that what I try my utmost to do is avoid it altogether. We do no decorating and play no holiday music. I collect small presents over the year to avoid shopping once the shops are full of ersatz Christmas, which sadly comes earlier and earlier each year, or so it seems. I can’t any longer tolerate the terrible music that comes out of store speakers this time of year (though I haven’t yet succumbed to earplugs when I must make a foray–that’s a bit too eccentric, but I’m tempted).

    I do think that, whether in city or out here in my semi-rural landscape, it’s hard to dodge the Christmas trappings, but I agree with you it can be done. For me, it means looking away and staying away from the holiday altogether and, while in the country, walking in that fallow field or, when in the City, spending time in the Asian wing at the Met, and visiting with other non-observing (often Jewish, but not entirely) friends.

    1. Susan,

      The wonderful irony is that many, many Christians find all this Christmas hoopla equally offensive. The insistent marketing, the use of traditional carols as advertising jingles, the utterly crazy repetition of the mantra that “if you really love (whoever) you’ll buy them (whatever)” is just wrong. As I heard someone say recently, “Wouldn’t it be nice if they could just focus on Hannukah for a while?”

      I suppose that’s one reason I find the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day so lovely. The decorations remain, many of the traditional entertainments like “The Nutcracker” still are available, and yet the frenzy is over. While the rest of the world moves on, there are twelve days of Christmas to enjoy, and even a few feast days that usually get no pub whatsoever.

      It’s really such a shame, what’s happened to the season. I grew up in a family where it was assumed everyone would be invited to share our celebrations, but it was considered very bad form to beat people over the head with them.

      As for the music – well, yes. I’m willing to confess my inordinate fondness for “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”, but walking into a store and hearing Run DMC rapping about Christmas in Hollis just doesn’t do it. I suppose that’s one more indication I’m entering Old Fogeyhood.

      Wishing you some peace and quiet!


  12. You are such a wonderful storyteller as well as poetess … I prefer to leave our tree up until the Little Epiphany! I love turning out the room lights and enjoying the tree lights … when we take the tree down … it seems so lonely and dark! Wishing you a wonderful beginning of the holiday season!

    1. becca,

      There’s only one thing better than enjoying Christmas tree lights in the dark. It’s taking out my contact lenses and enjoying the lights. It’s the one time of year when the blurriness of poor vision can be used to good effect!

      It does seem dark after the tree’s gone, doesn’t it? I have a set of wire trees I keep out until about February. With some crystal votives next to them, the copper droplets at the end of their branches shine, and they help with the transition.

      Thank you so much for the kind words and good wishes. And by the way – you’ll never believe what I found yesterday. There’s a whole stand of Spanish-moss draped trees not more than a couple of miles from my house in a little nature preserve I’ve not explored since its development. It’s a Sunday tree!


      1. Ahhh, Linda, did you take a photo — you could post a Sunday Tree too!! :D What a delightful find!!! NONE of that in Central TX … I enjoyed my visions of them when I was home for Thanksgiving. Have a great Sunday!!

        (BTW, I TOTALLY understand about the lights without contacts … glad I am not the only one!! LOL)

  13. There is a small pine tree out in front of our house where it is easily visible from the highway. Every Christmas season for twenty years now we have strung lights on it to provide a little friendly sight for night travelers on the highway. The tree has grown over the years and it is more difficult to string up the lights, but we are still able to do it. I hope it brings a little comfort and cheer.

    1. montucky,

      Isn’t that part of the beauty of it all? Behind every lighted tree, there’s someone who made the effort to string the lights – not to impress anyone, but smply to shine a little light into the darkness.

      In their little house in their very small town, my grandparents put electric candles in every window. My grandmother said, “The tree is for us. The candles are for them.” What she meant, of course, is that the candles were for the passers-by who couldn’t get more than a glimpse of the tree. Putting up those candles – like stringing lights on your tree – was a way to remember all those traveling through the darkness. Lovely gestures, both.


  14. This is a remarkably beautiful post. I love the way you describe the distinction between the season of Christmas and the season of Advent. You write wonderfully and have blessed me greatly on this beautiful morning, the first day of Advent and therefore the first day of another year.

    1. Bill,

      Making distinctions isn’t something we’re much given to these days, but sometimes it can be helpful – as a reminder, if nothing else.

      I’m glad you found beauty here. I’d like to think that you did because I was able, if only partially and with much hesitation, to follow the good Mr. Berry’s advice.

      Accept what comes from silence.
      Make the best you can of it.
      Of the little words that come
      out of the silence, like prayers
      prayed back to the one who prays,
      make a poem that does not disturb
      the silence from which it came.”


      1. That, from one of my absolute favorite poems.
        And we’ve just returned from church, where “People, Look East” was our closing carol.

    1. Maria,

      You don’t have to say more. It’s enough for me that you stopped by and thought it beautiful.

      In fact, we were cross-posting, and I just left another little bit of beauty on your blog – Eric Whitacre’s setting of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. It captures so much, so well.


  15. I had such a lovely time reading while listening to the choir. Your descriptions of the country are so poignant and beautiful.

    For our tree we cut a holly, it makes it quite painful to decorate! but seeing it’s glossy leaves shining under the twinkly lights makes me so happy. I love to get the box of decorations out every year – each one has a little story and I’m even fond of the ugly or tasteless ones which have entered our lives somehow, either by our hand or a friend or a family member.

    I didn’t realise about Morning has Broken either, it’s one of my favourites. Last year we had a village choir and sang Cornish carols…in Cornish!! It was actually really fun and we had the phonetic spellings under the words to help.

    1. thinkingcowgirl,

      My first thought was how useful a holly tree could be for keeping kitties at bay. I’ve never seen a decorated holly, but can imagine how beautiful those lights would be.

      I love the decorations, too. The baubles for the tree do tell the story of our lives, don’t they? I especially love my little aluminum bells that hung on our trees decades ago, and the angel at the top. She has frizzy hair, awkwardly jointed arms and a little star-wand. Every time I look at her I smile.

      I was intrigued by your mention of the Cornish carols. I found a Cornish village caroling group on youtube, and that led to this wonderful site about Cornish traditions. I happened to click on the “Christmas bush” link, and found your holly tree there. That seems to be a tradition, too.

      While looking at the map of your territory, I noted Truro. One of my friends was a Truro – I’ll have to call her and ask if she knows where her ancestors came from!


      1. I like the sound of your angel, somehow the imperfect ones are the best! We have a knitted ‘snow baby’ which sits in pride of place, rather lumpen and incongruous but always reminds me of a particular time.

        I had heard about the holly being a cornish tradition and I’m quite glad to see that it was an old celtic tradition before the advent of christianity – appeals to my inner celt and pagan soul! Thanks for the link. We actually started the holly thing because B used to be a tree surgeon and he’d always be cutting stuff around christmas time, back in the city it was usually a conifer of some description but the hollies are plentiful down here – and prettier I think.

        I had a little listen around Youtube too, there’s quite a few good ones, including a male voice choir singing outside an old mine. This one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_4gm59ziOw is the St. Day Carol sung in cornish, a classic cornish carol, we did this one last year. Seasons Greetings!

        I wonder if your friend is descended from tin miners? Once, the miners here were sought after for their knowledge and Cornish tin miners went all over the globe. The city of Truro is the county capital, it has a cathedral, but we’re not talking big here! Redruth is not far away which was a big mining area.

        1. I’m not sure about Jane’s ancestors, but one of my uncles was Welsh. His parents came to this country and moved to south-central Iowa, where coal mining was an important business. There was enough of a Welsh presence in those communities that we grew up knowing about pasties! My dad’s father was injured in a mine accident, but he never allowed any of his sons to go into the mines. It was the custom that when a father died or was injured, the eldest son would take his place. My dad always was grateful his dad was wise enough and strong enough to break with tradition.

          Carol St. Day is beautiful, both the video and music! Thank you!

          1. Ah, the welsh valleys! There was/is a big tradition for male voice choirs in Wales too – it’s a mining thing. I think your dad had a lucky escape!

            Interestingly my surname, Walsh, was said to be the name given to those who came from Wales to Ireland…the ‘welsh’. It’s a very common Irish name so if it’s the case there was a lot of migration!

  16. After reading the first part of your post I thought of Loop 360, also known as Capital of Texas Highway, which cuts a large arc through the hills on the western side of Austin, with the highway’s northern end forming the boundary of a far side of my neighborhood. A tradition has sprung up in recent years of people decorating some of the Ashe juniper trees (commonly called cedars) for Christmas. You can see several photographs of that at


    1. Steve,

      What fun! I was especially taken with the umbrella and the soft drink cans with their bows. Anyone can throw up some garland, but that took some effort. I do wonder about that umbrella. Maybe it’s part of the effort to keep Austin weird. ;)

      There’s a single decorated tree that lives out in the middle of Oklahoma, along the Indian Nation Turnpike. It has garland and glitter and an assortment of “things” hanging on it. I’ve wondered for 3-4 years now why it’s there year-round, but finally decided it was someone’s variation on keeping the lights up on the house all year.

      For another story of roadside decorations, you might enjoy Gerard Van Der Leun’s story, “The Creche by the Side of the Road”. The road, in this case, is the Grapevine outside LA.


    1. Allen,

      Indeed, she did. It’s just slightly amazing to me that so many people love a hymn I didn’t hear until midlife. I’m glad I found it, and glad for sites like Pandora that expose me to so much other music I’ve never heard. Music is one of the best gifts of the season.


  17. When I first saw the title of your post above a photograph that was clearly related to Christmas, the etymologist in me was immediately reminded that the English word Easter is closely related to the word east. Easter comes from Ēostre, the name of the Anglo-Saxon (and more generally Germanic) goddess association with the dawn, which of course appears in the east.

    1. While I’ve always associated “the east” more with the wise men (and now with this carol), that’s quite an interesting association. It’s rather a neat way of pulling together two major festivals – even though I discovered some Wiccans who are a bit miffed that the Christians keep trying to appropriate Easter for themselves!

  18. I feel I may already have commented on this post. Perhaps I have written similar words as comments to other blogger’s frantic tales of how much decorating they’ve done, how many presents they have bought and how much food there will be.

    Advent is for Germans the most mystical and magical time of the year and Christmas doesn’t start until the 25th December. Holy Night is just that, the holiest night of the year, a night for contemplation.

    We, my husband and I, will not be noisy, drunk, stuffed with food, or knee-deep in wrapping paper. Many will pity us but there will be a few who envy us.

    This post is beautifully written, a small masterpiece. You ought to spread the word, yours and Farjeon’s far and wide; perhaps the message would fall on fertile ground with an unwilling reveller here and there.

    1. friko,

      I do remember us exchanging a few words last year on the wonder of Advent. I think it was on your blog, but can’t be sure without looking. In any event, it makes no difference. It’s a new year, a new season, and there are new celebrations to come. There have been losses and gains, moments of weakness and regaining of strength, but always there is the beauty that surrounds us – the land, the friends, the traditions.

      There are things I cherish about my childhood Advents, particularly the snow and the sheer fun of getting ready for Christmas. But these quieter celebrations of adulthood have a good bit to offer – not least of which is a sense of being grounded in the same mystery we celebrate.

      Your word – contemplative – is exactly right. And always there is the music, that doesn’t compete with the silence at all, but seems to complete it.


  19. I loved the descriptions of effort and beauty in the beginning of this post, but I really loved this line: “As Christmas becomes a season of extravagance, its most common complaints often sound suspiciously like boasting.”

    My once charming Midwestern town, which had three generations of cattlemen on my father’s side, is now a booming metropolis of superficiality and materialsim. We are ‘graced’ with a magazine called the Naperville Glancer which is a pile of ridiculous ads, who-has-more-than-her-neighbor, and other useless information.

    I find, as a teacher, that the presents which mean the very most are simply a card. A note which says this is what you’ve done for me, or my child, is all I need. In fact, it’s preferrable to stuff. Clutter. Extravagance which is uncalled for when one stops to consider the Christ Child born in a manger.

    1. Bellezza,

      I snooped just enough to know that we have one of those magazines, too. It’s not on my reading list for a variety of reasons. Turn-about’s fair play, though. I suspect I’m not part of their targeted audience.

      I must say, those slick magazines remind me of the slick people who increasingly seem intent on forcing even farther apart segments of society. You see more closely than I do the ways in which families and communities are being torn apart. I know you struggle with it, and worry about your children.

      On the other hand, all of us have our ways to make a difference, and we’re going to have to depend on one another to cope with the problems out there on the horizon. Graciousness, attentiveness, honesty and a willingness to listen – all are so important, and certainly more important than the clutter.


  20. We sing People Look East – I love it! I missed the first Sunday of Advent, yesterday – I think it was food poisoning, or perhaps a VERY short-lived stomach bug. I was sad because I had duties to do at church, but I found a replacement.

    Our Christmas is not as lavish as it used to be, when my mother was alive. And although I miss her, I don’t miss the responsibility of making her Christmas as fabulous as she always made mine.

    I need to dig out an advent meditation for the season!

    1. The Bug,

      Sorry to hear you weren’t feeling well, but I’m awfully glad it wasn’t something like a full-blown flu. I read just today that the CDC is expecting a bad flu season. It’s hard to know how much is hype, but it is time to ensure there’s orange juice in the fridge and your pain relief of choice in the cabinet!

      There are so many people here saying that they sing or know “People Look East”. It’s occurred to me there may be “fashions” in hymnody, or that youtube and such may have helped to turn a less-known carol a well-known carol. In the process of looking for something else last night, I discovered a Loma Communion song we sang in the middle of the Liberian bush on youtube. I stayed at the home of the translator at one point – just amazing.

      I was walking through a grocery the other day and noticed they’ve received a shipment of truly gorgeous poinsettias. I thought, “My. I need to get one of those for Mom before they’re all gone.” Funny how we can “forget” reality so quickly. But I understand the pleasure of being able to enjoy the season in a different, slightly less “responsible” way. Enjoy it all!


  21. Every year the National Ranching Heritage Center has a Christmas celebration with costumed docents and “old timey” Christmas on the ranch, with the tumbleweed Christmas trees and the colored paper ornaments, and the cowboys carving figurines to make a little nativity or an animal to give to a child. I relate to that so much more than I relate to all the lights and frantic decorations everywhere and the “showcase” homes etc., etc., My mom has decorated her house but I doubt I’ll decorate.

    My favorite carol is “Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emmanuel” I especially like it sung a capella, in plainsong style, as it was originally written. Heard in a big stone “wool church” the effect can be spine tingling.

    1. WOL,

      Along with the tumbleweed trees and paper chains, there are those crocheted snowflakes that “some” people make – another bit of lovely traditional decoration. (Did you get them done?) I have three pineapple doilies made by my grandmother that look very much like stars when laid on a table – it’s time to bring them out, and put them in their accustomed place beneath a set of candles.

      In the comments up above, alcyone mentioned that the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, topped the charts with their “Advent at Ephesus” CD, beating out Fifty Shades of Grey, among others. All I can think is, “You go, girls!”

      It’s a lovely coincidence that “Oh, Come Emmanuel” is on the promotional video, starting at about 1:30. It’s not the big stone church, but it’s a capella and the style you like – enjoy!


  22. Beautiful words and images giving rise for soul food for thoughts. Now I have “Morning Has Broken” looping through my mind. It has been a while since I’ve seen a lighted star atop a windmill or silo. Enjoyed this writing, Linda!

    1. Anna,

      I’m surprised you haven’t seen a windmill or silo star recently. They’re relatively common down here, but I suppose traditions and customs do vary from one part of the country to another. When I think about it, I don’t remember it being all that common when I was growing up in Iowa, although gate decorations were everywhere, and one famous barn had garland draped around it every year. Now, I have no idea what the garland could have been made of – it had to be big to be seen from the road!

      “Morning Has Broken” is a wonderful song. I hope you’re capturing some beautiful morning light these days!


  23. Advent is my favorite liturgical season. I think it has something to do with the expectation in the air. it makes me more attentive. I wish to linger and savor the days rather than rush through them. The season reminds me that “it is right, a good and joyful thing” to wait in the not-yet days leading up to Christmas.

    1. Janell,

      Your use of the phrase “not-yet days” reminds me of one of my favorite mysteries – how anticipation can become a unique form of possessing. You popped an esoteric word into consciousness, too – prolepsis. It’s a good one for fiction writers, theologians and maybe even folks eyeing those presents under the tree. The simplest dictionary definition is “the representation of a future act as if presently existing”.

      That’s what Advent is – “now” and “not yet” bound up together with a big, fat bow, the future as a present, just waiting for us. ;)


  24. Oh, what a lovely Advent post, Linda! We had a little hymn sing at my house the other night and one woman shared how she wanted to find a quiet contemplative Christmas service to attend. Her church likes to have a big production with dancing and loud celebration. Several others chimed in that they, too, were desiring quieter more thoughtful Advent and celebration this year. The piece you shared is lovely — thanks, too, for the lyrics. My favorite line: Love, the guest, is on the way. What do we do when our Love is come? We prepare and decorate, but mostly we want to be with our Love.

    1. nikkipolani,

      I’m smiling because I recently was invited to one of those productions, and politely declined. I don’t feel the need to journey to Christmas Town, “a place where every day is Christmas Day”, even if it does include original songs, dance, aerial feats, colorful costumes, and a drumline. But that’s just me.

      Simply “being” is the heart of the season, in so many ways. You’ve reminded me of the wonderful final scenes of the movie “A Christmas Story”. After all of the exciting and traumatic events leading up to Christmas, the story ends with Ralphie’s mom and dad in the living room, looking at the lighted tree in the dark and watching the snow fall. Although I never saw my own parents do that, somehow I know they did. That kind of “being” is a gift that never fades.


  25. You’ve captured, in words, a real piece of Americana in this piece of prose. Wonderful writing as always, of course. I grew up in a poor family, and although we did not have a lot, we always looked forward to Christmas. Interestingly, my parents would skip a mortgage payment to be sure us kids had a nice Christmas. And sometimes that caught up with us late on when the fuel ran out or the electricity was turned off.

    Yes, Christmas in rural areas is different, although not devoid of commercialism, it still has in its roots-well-the idea of Christmas. In honor of Christ, love and peace.

    I only wish the world were really like that.

    1. Wild_Bill,

      I know now that my parents sacrificed for the sake of my pleasure, too – and yet, looking at the photos from those days, I know that they took great pleasure in doing so.

      It was a different time, for sure. My folks kept a “Christmas Club” account at the bank, and when I was about five years old, Dad took me to the bank with him. I opened my own account, and every week I went down to the bank with him and added my nickel or dime – whatever it was – to the account. Because I wasn’t tall enough to transact business, Dad would lift me up and let me sit on the counter while my passbook was stamped. ;)

      The world still can be like that – we just need to keep our eyes open, and make an effort to shape the world we live in. By choosing where I go, what I listen to and what I do during the season, I enjoy it fully as much as I did as a child, albeit somewhat differently.

      I know there’s a whole lot of commercial chaos out there, but it’s pretty peaceful in my world. I suspect it is in yours, too.


  26. lovely lovely post. I too feel that Christmas has become something that really has no meaning. I love the poem and the meaning behind all of this. thank you for the reminder Linda and good cheer

    1. CheyAnne,

      Well, I suspect that a good number of us – maybe most of us – have become a little weary of people fighting over whether children can attend performances of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and whether it’s a Christmas tree or a holiday tree. I love the season and what it represents, and enjoy all of the expressions of faith that are celebrated at this time of year. Sometimes, I feel like saying, “Would you people just RELAX?!”

      Glad you like the poem. It has some of the same simplicity and beauty as much of your art. I hope the season brings you as much joy as you’ve brought to others with your vision!


  27. Glad you wrote about Advent. As you know, and it may be surprising to you, I don’t cling on to traditions much… despite my family heritage or the faith to which I adhere. But I value Advent, for it draws me back to the essence of the Season.

    Recently, from a tweet (oh the benefits of cyber intelligence), I learned of this free Advent meditations from John Piper, ‘Good News of Great Joy’. I downloaded it and have been reading its daily offering in preparation for the Big Day. Dec. 25 is not holier than other days, I feel, but it’s a good reminder of our human condition and the Hope prepared for us long ago. Here’s the link to the free download.

    1. Arti,

      I’ve not heard of John Piper. His site certainly was worth exploring, and the meditations are lovely. I just wrote a bit about routine in my new posting, and it seems to me that many of the Advent “traditions” – meditations, calendars, the lighting of the candles on the wreath and so on – are steadying, as they bring back a little routine in to our lives.

      I agree with you that Christmas day isn’t “holier” than any other day, but for me it functions very much like a “hinge” between Advent and Epiphany. We look back, and we look forward. I’ve always liked the British Boxing Day, and some of the feast days that come along immdiately after Christmas in some traditions. They keep us moving, and certainly help avoid the “post-Christmas depression” that afflicts some who think the season’s for nothing more than getting and spending. You certainly can lay waste a whole number of days that way!

      Thanks again for the link. Enjoy the rest of the season. (Oh! and just for you, I have a bit of humor I’ll be posting that will make up for Miss Dixie bringing along her kitty carols again!)


    1. Andrew,

      It’s like a tug-of-war. The merchants work themselves into a lather trying to get us to buy, and we dig in our heels, trying to be reasonable. And around and around we go….

      The season has riches for everyone – art, music, traditional celebrations. A calming word’s not a bad thing. There’s a lot to enjoy, if we just allow ourselves to do so!


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