Banner Birthday

I unfurled my American flag off the back deck of our house yesterday. It’s a prominent location for the Stars & Stripes, where people passing by on the adjacent street can’t miss it. Then again, we live in a quiet neighborhood so I’d be surprised if many took notice. I’d be even more surprised if they knew why I was flying the flag.  Perhaps you missed it too.  Yesterday was Flag Day.

To be brutally honest, I’m not sure why America has a Flag Day.  Oh sure, the history books tell us Flag Day commemorates the adoption of the U.S. flag, way back on June 14, 1777.  One could argue there’s no amount of honor and celebration large enough for our country’s heritage and freedom.  But Independence Day gets a whole lot more attention than Flag Day.  Ditto Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  At least those days are true “holidays” in the United States.

Flag Day was established in 1916, so what-do-ya-know that makes this year’s celebration the 100th anniversary.  I didn’t see any parades or fireworks to commemorate the centennial, did you?  Then again, I don’t think America fully embraces Flag Day.  If we adopted our flag in 1777, why did we need another 140 years to give it a “day”?  Flag Day isn’t even an official holiday in this country.  The President has the discretion to decide if it should be celebrated in a given year.  On that note, I don’t recall a proclamation from President Trump so maybe I should’ve kept my flag in the closet.

There’s further confusion about Flag Day.  Congress didn’t put the commemoration into “law” until 1949, thirty-three years after Woodrow Wilson established the day.  No states acknowledged Flag Day before 1937, when Pennsylvania became the first.  Other states – notably New York – decided it made better sense to put Flag Day on a weekend, as in the second weekend in June.  We can’t even agree on the date.

There’s history about Flag Day that precedes President Wilson, but it’s spotty.  The earliest reference is 1861, when a citizen of Hartford, CT suggested the idea and the city put together a celebration.  That didn’t take.  I885, Bernard Cigrand of Waubeka, WI began a prolonged push for a U.S. Flag Day.  After one local observance, he traveled around the country “promoting patriotism, respect for the flag, and the need for the annual observance”.  Thanks to Cigrand, Wilson established Flag Day thirty years later.  Cigrand is thus earned the title, “Father of Flag Day”.

Despite the facts, Flag Day still has me scratching my head.  The “National Flag Day Foundation” celebrates – like New York – on the second Sunday in June, yet the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore and the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia prefer June 14th (lending credence to “National Flag Week”).  Parades and festivities take place around the country, but the discretion seems to be with the states as much as the President.  Here in Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy and several other military bases, Flag Day came and went without so much as a whisper.

Fifty other countries have a Flag Day so there is some legitimacy to the concept.  But in many cases, those countries celebrate their independence as well.  That makes a lot more sense to me.  The flag is a connotation for liberty, so why not go with one holiday instead of two?

I admire the homes with the permanent flagpoles in the front yard, their owners pridefully raising the Stars & Stripes day in and day out.  But Flag Day must be “just another day” to these people.  Fittingly, americanflags.com describes Flag Day as “consistently overlooked yet universally beloved”.  I’d agree with the first part of that statement.

With all due respect, I’ll continue to unfurl the Stars & Stripes on Flag Day, no matter how many people notice.  If for no other reason, to echo the words of one of our most revered presidents:

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

 

Sourcing the Christmas Spirit

The holiday season often feels like a sprint to the finish.  From the moment the Thanksgiving table is cleared, my brain shifts to the list of “essential tasks” preceding Christmas Day.  In no particular order I know we will a) put up a tree, b) hang the lights,  c) decorate the house, d) write and mail greeting cards, e) send packages to distant family members, f) shop for the Christmas dinner, g) bake cookies, and of course, h) purchase gifts for the family.  We don’t always get everything done.  Some years – like this one in fact – no lights get hung.  Other years no cookies get baked.  There’s never enough time, the calendar mercilessly counts down the days, and just forget about intentions of healthy eating at any point in the process.

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Thankfully all of this Christmas prep includes a few heartwarming activities.  My family and I always seem to find time to drive around the neighborhood to see the lights.  We don’t trim the tree until the week before Christmas, choosing from more ornaments than we have branches.  We watch several of those cheesy Hallmark Channel movies, with the formula love stories and terrible acting and without-fail-happy-endings.  We keep egg nog in the frig and candy and cookies on the kitchen counters.  We tune our car radios to round-the clock holiday music stations.  We never miss Christmas Eve church.

More than twenty-five Christmases celebrated with my immediate family leads me to this conclusion: the spirit of Christmas is not born from the “prep list” I talked about above, nor even from the heartwarming activities I know will take place year after year.  Rather, the provenance of the spirit is moments that become memories, and memories that last far longer than the Christmas season itself.

I have a favorite Christmas memory from my childhood.  A neighborhood near where we lived staged an annual decorating contest between its several streets.  Not only were the houses fully adorned with lights and ornaments, but the streets themselves had Christmas themes, so decorating was consistent from sidewalk to sidewalk.  I remember one street decorated primarily with candy canes, another with bells, and still another with angels.  They even changed the street names for the season (i.e. “Candy Cane Lane”).  You always knew which street won the competition by the huge blue ribbon hanging from the first lamppost.  After touring every last street of this neighborhood, my brothers and I spent several hours at a nearby mall, purchasing gifts with the precious-few dollars we’d saved as kids.  Finally we’d join up with my parents for a late-night dinner out.  This memory of an evening of family fun stands the test of time – more than forty years ago by my estimate – and always brings a smile to my face.  This memory seems uniquely mine, as if dozens of other families didn’t tour those decorated streets or shop at that busy mall.

I have an equally favorite Christmas memory from recent years.  To slow down the events of Christmas morning, my wife and I created a trivia contest for our kids.  They stand at the top of the staircase outside their bedrooms and we start the questions.  Correct answers earn them a step down the staircase (closer to the gifts). Incorrect answers cost them a step backwards.  The trivia delayed the inevitable, but the first to reach the bottom stair won the privilege of opening the first gift.  It’s a tradition we’ve carried on for years, and a memory that will stay with me long after children stand at the top of our stairs on Christmas morning.

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Let’s not kid ourselves.  The Christmas season will always be hectic as long as there are gifts to buy and greeting cards to write and family members to visit.  But there will also be moments – some planned and some not.  And memories – some fleeting and some longer-lasting.  It is those memories that without fail bring you comfort, joy, and Christmas spirit.

De-lightful December

The Broadmoor Hotel, the five-star luxury resort here in Colorado Springs, boasts a Christmas season display including over a million twinkly white lights. The weekend after Thanksgiving crowds gather on the grounds to witness the illumination, which starts with a countdown and ends with the flip of a big switch.  Instantly the Broadmoor is delivered into the Christmas season. It’s a spectacular sight and a tradition that’s been carried on for thirty years.  I can’t imagine how long it takes to put it all together.

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Christmas lights are one of my favorite expressions of the season. I marvel at the time and energy some of my neighbors invest to produce a display that – like the one above – can probably be seen from the space shuttle.  Surely you have a similar house where you live (or a hotel) where the lights and the decorating borders on the ridiculous.  Or maybe you just tune in to “The Great Christmas Light Fight” (Mondays on ABC), where “decorating to the extreme” can win you a cash prize and the coveted Light Fight trophy.

We have a house in our neighborhood covered in nothing but purple lights.  It’s actually quite appealing but I question the choice of color.  Most people still use strands of multi-colored lights of course – more LED than incandescent these days.  Sometimes you see animals or trains or colorful scenes.  Those always remind me of Lite-Brite, a toy I had as a kid.  Lite-Brite was a simple light box fronted by color-by-letter templates.  You plugged colored plastic pegs into the template and when you were done, you turned off the lights and switched on the box to display a glowing, colorful picture.  My more artistic friends would forego the templates and make their own creations in the dark.

I see Christmas lights everywhere this time of year; not just on houses.  Traffic signals blink red and green.  Ditto airport runway demarcations.  And how about those overhead lights your drive-thru bank uses to indicate which lanes are open or closed?

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn the first Christmas “lights” were candles, glued with melted wax to tree branches in the wealthier homes of late-nineteenth-century Germany.  Electric strands came along several years later (Great Britain claims their invention); originally referred to as “fairy lights”.  Finally, several cities – San Diego, New York City, and Appleton, Wisconsin among them – claim to have originated the outdoor Christmas light display, which only seem to get bigger and more elaborate by the year.

Perhaps you’re like my family.  Other than the tree itself we’re lucky if we string one hundred (let alone one million) lights on the outside of our house.  I like to decorate a tree or two in the yard instead, but the house itself stands in the shadows.  Perhaps it’s because I fell off a ladder one year reaching across the top of the garages. Perhaps it’s because I prefer the look of the “candle in the window” (so much easier to put up!)

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Less is more in my opinion.  One of my favorite decorated houses in our neighborhood combines a simple outline of white lights on the house with a few colored trees in the yard.  That works for me.  Even a single white light will do as long as it’s bright enough.  So goes the Methodist hymn There’s A Song In The Air: “Ay! the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing…”  Referring of course, to the star of Bethlehem.  The one true and luminous Christmas light.

The Best Branch on the Tree

Gracie lay quietly – perfectly still for what seemed like forever. Her snow hat tickled her auburn hair. Her dress – with the oversized snowflake front and center – felt worn and wrinkled, though she couldn’t be sure with her surroundings so dark. Something sharp was poking her in the back.  Above her, below her, to the right and to the left, Gracie sensed the color and glitter and shine of nearby objects.  She could not move to see them but Gracie knew they were there. After all, when you’re a Christmas tree ornament you know what it’s like to spend almost a year in a cardboard box.

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Without warning a door opened.  Gracie held her breath, as this basement closet was home to more than just Christmas things.  But then she heard happy voices and boxes being shuffled about.  There was a quick trill of sleigh bells followed by the friendly clack-clack of Christmas light bundles.  Then there was a jolt – a bit of an earthquake really! – and the sensation of being lifted and moved.  Yet it wasn’t until Gracie sensed she was going up the stairs that she knew for sure.  Yes, yes – it was time!  December was here again!  Gracie smiled (though she always smiled no matter how she felt).  In all her excitement she tried to push back the qualms; those uneasy feelings that entered her mind every year at this moment.  Would she make it to the best branch on the Christmas tree?  Would she make it to the tree at all?

Other ornaments came to life slowly around her, yawning and stretching (those that could move, closer to the top of the box).  There was the excited chatter of anticipation.  Who would be chosen first?  Who would face the fireplace with its brightly decorated garlands and stockings?  Who would hang from the lowest branches, where you could almost reach out and touch the presents?  And which lucky ones would journey to the highest branches, standing guard just below the Christmas angel?  “Oh, hurry, please hurry,” thought Gracie. “Let us out into the light!”

Suddenly all of the movement stopped and the box top was removed.  Bright light filtered all the way down to the bottom where Gracie lay impatiently.  As the ornaments above her were removed, Gracie’s thoughts still tormented her.  Was the tree big enough?  Did it have good, solid branches?  Did they still love her enough to include her?

At long last Gracie saw hands reaching down and removing the ornaments closest to her.  Away went the Star of David.  Away went the little wooden rocking horse.  Away went the gingerbread man with his one eye missing.  Finally the whole box was upended, and Gracie and the remaining ornaments came tumbling out into a messy pile on the table.  “This is awkward,” she giggled, sprawling almost upside down.  It would take some untangling if she hoped to get noticed.

To the sound of Christmas carols and laughter, Gracie watched from the table as one after another of the ornaments were carried to the tree and placed carefully on the branches.  She had only just arrived, yet the tree was already looking complete!

“Oh no”, she worried, “I’m a little girl but I’m pretty big for an ornament.  Will there be any branches left to hold me?”

Then Gracie heard the words she dreaded most. “Okay children,” someone said, “I think that’s enough for this year.  Let’s stand back and have a look.”  And sure enough, the children danced in front of the tree, so happy and clapping.  The tree was complete and with the best of the ornaments.  Gracie felt a tear form on her cheek.  She spied Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Dorothy hanging together halfway up the tree; the perfect view of Christmas everything.  Her Wizard of Oz friends made it to the best branch on the tree this year.

Gracie felt so sad.  She wished she’d never even seen the tree.  Why hadn’t they noticed her this year?  Christmas could be so cruel!  She watched helplessly as leftover ornaments were placed one by one back into the box.  But just as she was scooped up along with a tangle of older ornaments, a wee voice cried out from somewhere below the table, “No, Momma, no!  Snow Angel needs a place on the tree, doesn’t she?”

Gracie held her breath.  Was she really a Snow Angel?

There was a long pause; nothing but silence really.  Momma looked down at the ornaments in her hands, thinking.  And then she smiled.  With a little bit of untangling Gracie was lifted from the pile.  She was placed carefully in a little girl’s hands, who promptly marched to the tree and searched in vain for an open branch.  Seeing none, she slid around to the back of the tree, facing the windows and the snow-covered fields outside.  “Here is where she belongs, Momma,” the little girl said proudly.  “Snow Angel will be the first ornament to know when Christmas comes!”

And so, there would be a Christmas for Gracie after all.  She smiled as she glanced at the branch above her and kept watch through the windows (though Gracie always smiled no matter how she felt).  Thanks to the little girl, Gracie made it to the tree this year.  Come to think of it, she also made it to the best branch of all.

quintessential

This time of year – Halloween in particular – sparks memories of a more innocent time.  In the trick-or-treat years of my day, costumes were homemade from whatever scraps of clothing, cardboard, or construction paper could be found lying around the house. Pumpkins became Jack O’ Lanterns using a dark pencil and a sharp kitchen blade – no “carving kits” to speak of – easy faces and single candles, lit and placed on the front porch to greet the neighborhood each night.  Halloween treats were simple and seasonal (Wax Lips!  Candy Cigarettes!) collected and piled high in bright orange plastic pumpkins.  “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” was thirty minutes of can’t-miss television.

If I’m to put one Halloween memory at the top of my list however, no recollection touches my soul quite like my mom’s “pumpkin cookies”.  These colorful characters go straight to my heart every year I bake up another batch.  Behind those happy/sad/laughing/angry faces are my quintessential childhood memories.

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Look closely at the photo. Mom’s pumpkin cookies are a fairly simple treat – no family secret here. Find a good rolled ginger cookie recipe (the kind that banks on molasses, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves); roll and shape the cookies like pumpkins; bake to the consistency of gingerbread; frost to a bright orange; and devise the faces with candy corn, M&M’s, and fruit smiles.  Be sure to let them dry before you protect them with a little plastic wrap.  A recipe that claims a yield of sixty will get you about two dozen if you make them the right size.  These cookies are B-I-G.

Mom’s pumpkin cookies tug at my heartstrings for two reasons.  First, mom let my brothers and I do the decorating from a very young age.  We would sit at the dining table – our makeshift bakery – with bowls of candy and row upon row of cookies just waiting for their faces.  Not all of the candy made it onto the cookies.  This was a child’s dream.

Second and more significantly, we handed out Mom’s pumpkin cookies from a big bowl at the front door on Halloween night.  That’s right; instead of Smarties or Abba-Zaba’s or Sugar Babies, we sent dozens of homemade, orange-frosted, funny-faced cookies out into the neighborhood.  Does it get any more innocent than that?

In the early 1970’s, after a rash of highly-publicized incidents involving tampered Halloween candy, a lot of the fun went out of the holiday.  Trick-or-treat candy quickly became the mass-produced, store-bought, plastic-wrapped variety you can buy anytime, anywhere.  Parents took to driving their kids from door to door instead of letting them navigate the streets alone.  “Safe” trick-or-treating was born in churches and shopping malls.

And Mom’s pumpkin cookies started landing in the trash can at the end of our driveway.

Perhaps that explains why forty years later I still bake up a batch.  Perhaps it’s my annual salute to the innocence of Halloween.  Or better, perhaps it’s my mom as I remember her all those years ago, urging me to open the bakery yet again.  Cookies are waiting for their faces.

M&M’s are easy to find, while candy corn requires a bit of a search.  But fruit smiles are becoming the real challenge.  Cracker Barrel stopped selling them a few years ago, no doubt for lack of sales.  But a local candy manufacturer still makes them, so every October I visit their shop and buy my lot.  This year, the older woman behind the counter asked me what I was going to do with four dozen fruit smiles.  So I dipped into my quintessential memories and told her about Mom’s pumpkin cookies.  And just for a moment she paused and closed her eyes, perhaps once again a little girl dressed in costume, running and laughing through darkened streets in search of that next Halloween treat.