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Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

Amid the millions of twinkling lights decorating our Christmas trees and homes, only one light matters: the bright, clear light of the Star of Bethlehem.

Among the colorfully and carefully wrapped boxes and bags, only one gift matters: the gift of love embodied in the tiny baby born that holy night in Bethlehem.

When we give gifts to our family and friends, in some small way we duplicate the same love God gave us through the gift of his son.

But in these tough economic times, we can’t always buy the gifts we want to give. That’s okay. The gift of time, talent and our selves often mean a great deal more to others than a wrapped gift.

So join me on an imaginary journey to the world of Christmas movies where we can help some of our film friends. (How many films do you recognize? The answers are at the end).

(1) The first place I need to go is the post office to help Joe and the guys. Every year they get bags and bags of letters addressed to Santa Claus. Usually they just wait a couple of months and then burn them, but this year Joe got a call from his brother the lawyer. He wants all the letters delivered to General Sessions Court this afternoon.

(2) I also need to deliver dinner to our next-door neighbors. They really are a nice family, though when the old man is down in the basement cussing at the furnace, we can hear him in our living room. His wife is sweet and does a great job raising her two boys, even if she goes a little overboard with their winter clothes. Anyway, since our darling hounds got loose on Christmas morning, found their way into their kitchen and demolished their turkey, the least we can do is take them a meatloaf and a cherry pie.

(3) We should take some cookies down to George at the Savings & Loan. Earlier this year when my restaurant and bar wasn’t doing too good, he let me just pay the interest on my loan. We had worked so hard to move out of that old rental and into our own home, we were afraid George would foreclose. But he understood and saw us through the tough times until business picked back up. That’s certainly worth a plate of Momma’s best biscottis.

(4) I also need to talk to my business partner about how we treat our employees. When it was just the two of us, working long hours and scrimping on operating expenses (utilities, office supplies, etc.) made a lot of sense. But ever since we hired Bob, I’m reconsidering our “profits at all costs” business practices. As partners, we have more than enough money and a responsibility to help the less fortunate. We should give Bob a raise so he can buy a nice Christmas goose for his family. I will talk to Ebby this afternoon, after I see the doctor about this pain in my jaw.

(5) Despite the inconvenience of travelling on Christmas Eve, I think we need to drive up to Vermont for the reunion. Bob can be very persuasive when he puts his mind to it; I guess that’s what made him a good captain. I hear the roads should be clear since there’s not much snow. It will be great to see everyone from the battalion, especially the Old Man. Looks like we’re still following him, wherever he wants to go.

(6) As for our other neighbors, there are lots of things I can do: Luther needs help putting Frosty on his roof, even though it’s almost Christmas. (7) Clark needs help trimming that huge tree he cut down in the forest yesterday. I hope he checks it for squirrels. (8) I’m sure Buddy needs to borrow a couple of long extension cords so he can plug in all those lights. Does he really think his house will be seen from space?

(9) I wonder how my friend Walter is doing these days. Ever since he became the general manager of that publishing company, I haven’t seen him around the neighborhood much. I know his son Michael would like to spend more time with his dad. Perhaps I could edit that new children’s book so he can get home earlier and eat dinner with his family. Spending time with children, especially during Christmas, keeps you young. It puts back some of the Christmas joy you felt when you were a kid. More grown-ups should really enjoy the holidays – like that happy fellow downtown in the green jacket and yellow tights waving at everyone.

So as we continue to celebrate the Octave of Christmas, let’s keep the spirit of Christmas alive in all we do for our family, friends and those less fortunate.

Merry Christmas everyone!

CF
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First published in the December 25, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio

Christopher Fenoglio writes and dreams of a white Christmas from his home in beautiful Bellevue, TN

ANSWERS
(1) Miracle on 34th Street (2) A Christmas Story (3) It’s a Wonderful Life (4) A Christmas Carol (5) White Christmas (6) Christmas with the Kranks (7) National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (8) Deck the Halls (9) Elf

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A month ago on Black Friday, shoppers rose early to purchase special gifts for family and friends.

A week ago, procrastinators and other well-intentioned-husbands-who-can’t-make-up-our-own-minds rushed to find THE gift before it was too late.

A few days ago on Christmas Eve, children were nestled all snug in their beds while visions of Nintendo Wiis danced in their heads.

Today, all the gifts have been unwrapped; their boxes, bows and ribbons set on the curb for trash pickup. Some gifts have already been returned, refunded, broken and forgotten.

We all mean well, especially when buying gifts for our children. But do our gifts have any lasting value?

Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote that he fears our children are being raised in a consumeristic culture that offers “false models of happiness.”

ultimate-gift-poster.gifPerhaps we can all learn valuable lessons from the film The Ultimate Gift, released this fall on DVD by FoxFaith Films. The film is an adaptation of the book with the same title, written by Jim Stovall.
 
Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller) is a spoiled rich kid, listlessly blowing through life and his huge trust fund. Despite all his comforts, he lives a bored, troubled life.

When his grandfather Red Stevens (James Garner) passes away, Jason thinks he’ll inherit a big check. Instead, he learns that Red has created a series of gifts for him. If Jason can persevere through all the gifts, he will get the ultimate gift at the end.

The Gift of Work
Without ever working a day in his life, Jason is transported to the middle of Texas where he has to work ten hour days digging and setting fence posts. Despite his slow start, he eventually learns the value of starting the day with a purpose, working hard and sticking with a project.

The Gift of Money
His credit cards, bank and cell phone accounts are all closed, leaving Jason homeless and destitute. Now that he no longer lives in luxury, he learns what money can and cannot do.

The Gift of Problems
Jason’s grandfather further explains to him in a video message that “Our lives should be lived, not by avoiding challenges, but by welcoming them as opportunities to strengthen us so we’ll be victorious in the future.” Despite being faced with some serious problems, Jason learns how to persevere and survive.

The Gift of Friends
Abandoned by his “friends” who only liked his money and parties, Jason is told he must have a “true friend” by the end of the month. He befriends Emily (Abigail Breslin), a young girl who visits the park often with her mother Alexia (Ali Hillis). Emily wholeheartedly shares her lunch and sticks up for her new friend. Jason finally learns the value of true friendship, without any attached strings or financial payoffs.

The Gift of Family
Jason is instructed to bring his extended family together for Thanksgiving. Despite their pampered lives, large houses and expensive cars, his aunts and uncles only complain that they didn’t get more of Red’s fortune. Jason actually learns more about being a family through his interactions with Emily and Alexia. Despite their hardships, a strong love exists between mother and daughter.

The Gift of Learning
Flown to Ecuador to help villagers, Jason rebinds books and drives the mobile library around town. The villagers are hungry to learn ideas far beyond their borders. Despite the hard work and poor conditions, Jason learns that his grandfather’s small gift of a library has affected so many lives. “Learning is a gift,” says Red in another video, “even if pain is your teacher.”

The Gift of Dreams
Jason never developed his own dreams, since his every need was met by his family’s riches. After he hits rock bottom, however, he realizes his life has no purpose. He focuses on Emily’s dreams, which are connected to her medical condition. Jason learns that even though he may not yet have his own dreams, he can certainly help others realize theirs.

The Gift of a Day
If you had one more day to spend on this earth, how would you spend it? How would our children spend it? When faced with that question, Emily wanted “to be with people I love, who love each other and they love me.” It was as close to a perfect day as could be.

The Gift of Gratitude
Through all his hardships, Jason learns that each moment, each day is precious. He begins to appreciate what his grandfather and others have done to give him all these gifts.

The Gift of Love
In the end, Jason realizes that he has received the ultimate gift – his grandfather’s love. Red cared so much for Jason that he set up a process through which Jason could live and learn all these gifts, each of which is so much more valuable than money or the latest and greatest toy.
 
This week we celebrated Christmas, remembering the ultimate gift that God our Father gave us – his only son. The love in this gift, not fully realized until Calvary, is bright enough to inspire us to greatness, yet also strong enough to wipe clean our sins. Unlike last week’s toys, when we are broken, we can be repaired. We are forgiven and not forgotten.
 
May we all learn from our Christmas gifts that “life is how you live it, not how you spend it.”

CF
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First published in the December 28, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio

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What sweeter music can we bring
than a carol, for to sing
the birth of our heavenly King?
– Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Emanuel - The Music of ChristmasThroughout the centuries, no single event has moved authors, poets and composers more to create beautiful music than the celebration of Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ.

Filled with the majesty and wonder of God becoming man, these songs permeate our culture and can be heard on the radio, in shopping malls and through our CD players.

Yet these carols really “come alive” when we sing them at church, at parties or during Christmas caroling around the neighborhood. St. Augustine once wrote “to sing is to pray twice,” so singing Christmas carols is a great way to prayerfully prepare for Christmas day.

The following historical vignettes provide insights into the composers and lyricists who penned these famous and most popular Christmas carols.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
The roots of this carol date back to the 800s and a series of Latin hymns sung during Advent Vespers. These Great Antiphons (meaning psalm or anthem) were published in 1710 and rediscovered by English minister John Mason Neale. He wove together parts of the antiphons to create this song, first published in 1851. His first draft of the song began with “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel,” but a later revision restored the tradition of these antiphons by starting the song with “O.”

Joy to the World
Music in church services throughout Great Britain during the 1700s usually took the form of singing the Old Testament psalms, until Isaac Watts came along. Dissatisfied with the quality of singing, he created new music with messages that reflected important passages of the New Testament. This classic song, which is often used as the closing hymn of a Christmas Mass, was Watt’s interpretation of verse 4 of Psalm 98, which says “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.” Watts considered what the reason would be for the earth to shout joyfully and rightfully concluded – the birth of our Lord.

Silent Night
The original German lyrics “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” were written by Father Josef Mohr in 1816. Tradition holds that two years later, faced with a rusty, broken organ (some say damaged by mice) on Christmas Eve, Father Mohr gave the lyrics to Austrian headmaster Franz Gruber and asked him to compose the melody on guitar. At first Gruber declined because the guitar was popularly used for drinking songs, but finally agreed and created a Christmas song loved throughout the world. “Silent Night” is said to be one of the songs both English and German soldiers sang together in the great Christmas truce of 1914 during World War I.

O Holy Night
Originally published in French with a title “Christian Midnight,” its lyrics were written in 1847 by Placide Clappeau, a French wine merchant. The tune was composed by Adolphe Charles Adam, a prolific French opera composer who was educated in his youth in music and piano. The carol was later translated into English by John Dwight, a Unitarian minister who published Dwight’s Journal of Music in 1852. His fondness for European music, especially compositions by Ludwig von Beethoven, was instrumental in the popularity of European classical music in America. It is thought that this was the first song broadcast over the radio.

We Three Kings
John H. Hopkins, Jr. wrote this hymn about the Magi for a Christmas pageant at New York City’s General Theological Seminary in 1857. Hopkins had graduated from the Episcopalian seminary and was the school’s first instructor of church music. The seminary, located in the wooded, undeveloped northern area of Manhattan, was founded in part through a land gift from Clement Clarke Moore. The son of New York’s Episcopal bishop, Moore’s income and fame were the result of a famous poem he wrote: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house…”

Angels We Have Heard on High
The French roots of this carol can be found in the 1700s in “Les Anges dans nos Campagnes,” which literally means “the angels in the countryside.” The French verses were coupled with a refrain taken from Luke 2:14 in the Latin version of the Bible: “Gloria, in excelsis Deo,” which means “Glory to God in the highest.” The carol was translated to English by Bishop James Chadwick and first published in his 1860 Holy Family Hymns. The traditional tune is attributed to Edward Shippen Barnes, an American organist who studied Yale University from 1910-11 and then briefly at Schola Cantorum in Paris.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in1864, the carol is best understood in the context of the Civil War. Sitting at his son’s bedside at their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Longfellow feared for his son Charley’s life. Only seventeen, Charley had jumped on a train and join the Union Army. He was wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia and arrived home December 8. Overcome with grief and despair on Christmas Day, 1863, Longfellow poured his feelings into the song. The bells he heard reminded him that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

What Child is This?
The words to this carol are taken from a longer poem written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. Born into a literary family, Dix’s father was a surgeon who also wrote a book about English poet Thomas Chatterton, after whom he named his son. William did not follow his father’s footsteps to medical school — instead he sold insurance and wrote poetry. The melody of this carol comes from the 16th century British melody “Greensleeves,” originally a ballad of a man pining for his lost love. The carol was published in 1871 in Christmas Carols, New and Old. Dix wrote many other hymns, most notably “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” and “As With Gladness, Men of Old.”

Away in a Manger
Also known as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn,” a popular belief in the early 1900s held that this carol was composed by Martin Luther, whose theological writings inspired the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. One published version of the song in 1887 stated that Luther composed it for his children, though it does not appear in his works or in German church history. The carol was more likely written by German Lutherans in Pennsylvania, appearing in the Little Children’s Book in 1885. Yet only the first two verses were published, with no attribution to an author. The author of the third verse (“Be near me, Lord Jesus”) is also unknown.

Go, Tell it on the Mountain
While most of our beloved Christmas carols came from England and Europe, this one was penned in Tennessee. Born in Nashville and the son of a church choir director, John Wesley Work, Jr. often sang in his father’s choirs. In the late 1890s, Work received bachelor and masters degrees from Nashville’s Fisk University and was hired by the university to teach Greek and Latin.

In addition to his studies, he developed a fondness for Negro spirituals, a type of song sung by black workers on American plantations. Many of these spirituals were passed down orally through the generations, and were eventually written down and published. One of the last songs to be published was this one, for which Work created two new verses in 1907.

However, author Robert Morgan recounts in his book Then Sings My Soul, Book 2 that the Fisk Jubilee Singers had been singing one version of the song since 1879. Work made it a Christmas tradition to lead students around the campus before sunrise on Christmas Day to sing the joyous phrase “Go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”

With so many wonderful songs to sing this season, it’s easy to agree with the composer of another favorite hymn: “How Can I Keep From Singing?” May these beloved Christmas carols bring joy and happiness to you and your families as we celebrate the birth of our Lord.

CF
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Originally published in the December 6, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© Christopher Fenoglio

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Celebrating the holidays with friends and family can be a time of great joy – and sadness.

The house looks the same as last year – same tree, lights and decorations – but it feels different.

Before long I remember why – Dad is not around anymore.

Christmas without a loved one can be a bittersweet time, full of happy memories and quiet moments of sadness. Just when you think you can’t cry any more, another batch of tears show up during a favorite Christmas film or song.

I suppose I could stop watching movies or football games that remind me of Dad, but then I would be denying myself the things that I really enjoy. Perhaps it’s best to remember the many blessings from Dad that enriched my life. With those happier memories in mind, it is easier to live forward without regret or sadness.

The residents of Huntington, West Virginia must have felt this same way as they struggled to live forward after the entire football team of Marshall University, along with university staff and 25 prominent citizens, perished in a plane crash November 14, 1970. The story of how the school, the students and the entire town struggled with this tragedy is depicted in the new film We Are Marshall.

It’s the same struggle that the town of Evansville, Indiana faced when 29 people, including the 14-member University of Evansville basketball team, perished in a plane crash December 13, 1977. My wife Linda was a student at U of E when it happened.

“I remember the silence, the somber atmosphere around campus after we heard the news,” Linda said recently. “We all shared a common grief. It was such a small campus that you knew all the faces. After the crash, we really missed their faces. For the rest of the season, as each weekend rolled around, we were reminded again and again that year – there’d be no basketball.”

In the film We Are Marshall, university president Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) was faced with the decision of either suspending the football program or keeping it going. Many in the town wanted football to stop because they couldn’t bear to be reminded of those who perished – sons, boyfriends, husbands, mothers, fathers, neighbors and friends.

But the students rallied together and convinced the administration to continue the program. Football was important to the students, to the town. It helped define who they were.

To get things started, the president was charged with the difficult duty of finding a head coach. Fortunately, he found the right man in Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), the former football coach at the College of Wooster in Ohio.

Since Lengyel was an “outsider,” he could be compassionate and also detached, respectful of the community’s shared grief but not be hampered by it. Since he wasn’t previously connected to the team, he had the freedom to start the rebuilding process.

MarshallIn an emotional scene in the film, Coach Lengyel meets the team at the cemetery before the team’s first home game. He reminds the players that while they will always remember the individuals who are gone, it’s time to end the grieving and honor their memories by playing the game.

“When you take that field today, you’ve got to lay your heart on the line,” says Lengyel. “And if you do that, we can not lose. The plane crash is our past. We can’t forget that. This is where we have come from. This is how we got here. This is who we are today. We are…Marshall.”

“Life happens,” states Matthew McConaughey in the film’s production notes. “The choice then becomes how you deal with it, how you heal and move on. Everyone does it differently but the important thing is to take that first step.

“You may not be sure where your foot’s going to land, but you still have to take that step. That’s why this is such a powerful story; there is pain and loss, but then, just to get back onto that field, just to put your shoes on in the morning and go back to school or work is a way to start healing.”

So as we celebrate this Christmas season, as we strive to live each new day despite our loss, we pause to remember Dick, Roman, Norbert, Mary, Scott, Whitney, Jim, Stephanie, Megan, Mollie, Lloyd, Joe, Jimbo, Charles and Lucille, Peter, Duel, Nancy and all our dearly departed family and friends.

We take comfort knowing that they are enjoying an everlasting holiday in the company of angels and the love of our saving Lord.

They are where we came from. They are how we got here. They are who we are today.

For knowing them, for loving them, for them loving us, we are…blessed.

CF
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First published in the December 29, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio

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As the song goes, this is truly “the most wonderful time of the year.”

We decorate our houses with brightly colored lights and beautiful greenery. Christmas albums are pulled off the shelf, filling our homes, cars and offices with the sounds of the season.

Families get together for Christmas parties to share holiday spirits, cookies, fruit cakes and good cheer. Companies briefly put aside the bottom line to hold office parties where employees can bond beyond the project lists and whiteboards.

Shoppers invade the malls and stores, looking for that special gift for that special someone. The stores pack their shelves with new products and flood the market with newspaper inserts, coupons and incentives.

Television and radio ads interrupt our Christmas songs with daily specials, falling prices, the latest and greatest television or computer or telephone or music player…

Aaaarrrgggh! Stop! Enough already!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a closet Ebenezer itching to come out with a proclamation of “Bah, humbug.” I love Advent and the preparation for Christmas Day. But all this exposure to the media, marketing and merchandising of Christmas can be so overwhelming that we can forget the true meaning of the season.

To escape the constant barrage of Christmas commercialism, I try to create some time and space that is uniquely mine. No interruptions, no advertisements, very little noise to interrupt my thoughts and prayers.

Sometimes I turn the radio off in the car when I drive home from work, letting the quiet calm my spirit so that the day’s work can be tucked away and dealt with tomorrow.Christmas art

Sometimes in the dark of the night, I take a walk down my street, looking at the stars. For a short time, it all melts away – family issues, friends, work, the media, the bills and holiday details. All that remains is me, standing on a big rock in space, looking for my God.

After a few moments alone, I hear him, already inside me. Into the quiet of my soul he speaks the truth about Christmas. My children, I love you so much that I will send you my son, who will live among you and show you the way to everlasting life.

This holy act of giving, from our Father to his children, is the true meaning of Christmas.

It is a truth that we should try to recreate in our own celebrations of Christmas. It’s not the gift that counts; it’s not even the thought that counts as much. It’s the act of giving that counts the most.

It’s the giving of our time, our money and our thoughtful gifts to family, friends and strangers that spread the spirit of Christmas throughout our community.

To inspire us during this season of giving, here are a couple of stories and films that convey this theme. Get away from the hustle and bustle to enjoy these classics.

White Christmas – In the closing scene of this film, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) give Major General Thomas Waverly (Dean Jagger) a Christmas to remember when they reunite their entire battalion at Waverly’s Vermont ski resort. Despite the expense of moving their show to the remote location and the inconvenience of traveling during the holidays, the former soldiers tell their former general how much they love him. They will always “follow the old man wherever he wants to go.”

The Gift of the Magi – This classic Christmas story describes the dear love between a young husband and wife. Della has beautiful long hair, so Jim wants to give her a pair of tortoise shell combs with jeweled rims. Jim carries an heirloom pocket watch that once belonged to his grandfather, so Della wants to give him a fob chain so that he can attach the watch to his vest.

Yet times are hard for the couple and money is tight. Della only has one dollar and eighty-seven cents to spend, so she sells her hair to get money for Jim’s gift. When he comes home that Christmas Eve and sees her short hair, she comforts him by saying “it will grow back.” She gives him the fob chain for his watch. Yet his watch is gone, sold to get money to buy her combs. They each sacrificed their prize possession to give a meaningful gift to each other.

The Giving Tree – “Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.” In this book by Shel Silverstein, the little boy plays around the tree all during his youth, which makes the tree very happy. As a teenager he needs money, so the tree gives him apples to sell. As a young man he needs a home, so the tree gives him her branches. As a middle-aged man he needs a boat, so the tree gives him her trunk. After each gift, the boy leaves the tree behind, which makes the tree sad.

Finally, as an old man, the boy returns to the tree, now just a stump. The boy only needs a quiet place to sit, which the tree is all too happy to give. Oh, to be such a tree, giving so unselfishly every day of our lives.

This is truly “the most wonderful time of the year” when we can share God’s love by giving to those around us.

May you and your family have a blessed and peaceful Christmas.
CF
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First published in the December 1, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio

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