Christmas 2005 Newsletter

Thank you all so much for your support in 2005.  I wish for you a very Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!


The Christmas Cards

By: Rhonda Jones

Christmastime’s a’comin’!  Christmastime’s a’comin’!  Christmastime’s a’comin’!  And I know I’m a’goin’ home!

For some reason those words from the old Emmylou Harris song by the same name always pop into my head this time of year.  I wonder why?  It might be because I’m always waiting until the last possible second and then scurrying around like mad trying to take care of all the obligatory Christmas tasks.  The frantic phrasing in the song pretty much mirrors my frantic December scrambling.  You know, Christmas shopping, Christmas cooking and baking, Christmas parties, Christmas dinners, Christmas luncheons, Christmas volunteering, Christmas cards . . . ouch, that last one on the list strikes a nerve.  Me and Christmas cards have a history, and you might say I’ve developed a borderline phobia.  I’ll get into that later, but, first, let’s review the whole Christmas card tradition.

The custom of sending Christmas cards started in England during the Victorian era, between 1840-1900.  Earlier history has it that some adults had previously written Christmas letters.  I still see some folks carrying out this tradition today.  The problem, for me anyway, with Christmas letters was that I never could think of a whole letter full of interesting stuff to say about myself.  At least not so that anyone would want to read it.  But, back in the day, letters took time to write and created a daunting task for people wanting to share Christmas greetings with many others.  At least today we can type one letter on the word processor and print multiple copies!

In 1843, British businessman Sir Henry Cole, who was probably tired of writing all those letters, asked artist John Horsley to print some Christmas cards. One thousand cards were printed in black and white and then colored by hand.  (My goodness, that sounds almost as bad as handwriting letters!)  And then, despite all that effort, the cards, which depicted a happy family raising a toast, were criticized for promoting drunkenness.  Even back then, same as today, you can never please everybody, especially at Christmas!  Nevertheless, Richard Pease, a U.S. variety story owner, still brought the tradition to our country, when in 1851 he commissioned the first cards printed in the United States.  In 1862 London printers Charles Goodall & Sons began mass-producing Christmas cards saying "A Merry Christmas."  Later, they designed cards with various designs, including robins, holly, mangers, snowmen, and even Little Red Riding Hood.

When the Christmas card tradition took hold, I’m sure it relieved a lot of pressure from the letter writers.  If you didn’t want to do it, or couldn’t, you didn’t have to anymore.  Today we don’t even have to think of what to say.  If necessary, we can simply let someone else’s words printed in the card convey our good wishes to the recipients.  Of course, there are still those folks, who are one step below the Christmas letter people, who still feel compelled to write something inside each card.  My dear sister is one of those people.  More power to her, I always think, when I read one of her cards.  For one thing it’s always obvious that she’s carefully selected the best card to most accurately communicate her feelings, because she underlines several words and phrases in the card’s printed message.  Sometimes she even double-underlines!  Usually even that isn’t enough so, to be sure, she fills up almost every bit of white space with her own personal message.  She’s a marvel.  I sit there and stare at the card wondering, what more is there to say?  I agree with the sentiment in the card, but if I underline it, I’ll just feel like I’m copying her.  So, I usually don’t add much.  Of course, you have to realize, I do have a phobia.

It all started when I was about twelve years old, roughly the same age my nephew is now.  Just as I can see in him, that was an age at which I really became aware of many of the more adult aspects of life and especially our Christmas traditions.  One of those traditions had always been exchanging Christmas cards with friends and family.  It seemed like the “twelve days of Christmas” when the cards started arriving daily in the mail.  This must be a dreaded time of year for the Post Office and mail carriers.  But it was Christmas every day for me, when I opened the mailbox to find more cards.  Momma would always tape them with scotch tape to door facings in our livingroom, so anytime we wanted, we could look at them again.  We even saved cards from the year before and taped them back up as part of our Christmas decorations.  I’ll be honest with you, I have no idea why we did that or where that tradition originated.  I have noticed that my grandmother does pretty much the same thing, so maybe it was handed down from previous generations.  Some of you may still do it, but it seems a little silly to me now.  Nevertheless, I guess it did serve the purpose of reminding us there were people who cared about us.  At least, they cared enough to send a card.

I realize, although I fight diligently against it, at forty-three years of age I’m a lot more cynical than I was at twelve.  When I think back to how I felt at twelve . . . Christmas was the best time of the year.  We had special decorations in the house, special food, special get-togethers, special songs, special programs at church, special parades, special presents.  Christmas was just . . . special.  So you can imagine, I’m sure, how excited I was to start participating like a grownup.  I was almost beside myself one day when I walked into the kitchen and found a brand new box of Christmas cards on the table.

My younger sister, two first-cousins, and I had always stayed with our grandpa, while our parents and grandmother worked.  Then, when I was in the sixth grade, my grandpa died very young—a victim of heart disease and emphysema.  That Christmas we didn’t have grandpa to stay with when we were out of school for Christmas break.  But I was considered a mature twelve-year-old, and Daddy was home some of the time since he worked swing-shift, so my sister and I stayed home alone the rest of the time.  It was on one of those alone days that I discovered the new, unaddressed Christmas cards.

I was ecstatic.  Always looking for something to do to occupy my time waiting for Momma and Daddy to get home from work, I decided to get the cards ready to mail.  I knew who to send them to.  It was the same people who sent us cards every year.  It was people from church, neighbors from down the road, family members, folks who had become a part of my life a well as my parent’s.  I could handle this job.  Besides, if I wasn’t sure of exactly who should receive a card from our family, all I had to do was look back through the old stash of cards hanging from the door frame!

Did I mention that I have a Christmas card phobia?  I’m getting to that part.

I opened the Christmas card box, admired the cards my mom had selected, and counted how many were in the box.  Then I made a list of everyone who should get one, making sure there were enough.  I addressed all the envelopes, oftentimes having to look them up in the phone book to be sure; but almost everyone lived on “Route 1, Greeneville, Tennessee 37743.”  After that I began to work on the inside of the cards.  I’d seen how everyone else signed the cards they sent to us.  If the message printed in the card didn’t come right out and say it, they might write “Merry Christmas” before they signed their names.  Sometimes they would just write the first names of everyone in the family, adults and children too.  Sometimes they wrote something more formal, like “The Henry Family” or “The Sauceman’s.”  I looked them all over and thought about it for a moment and decided that we were a pretty down-to-earth and straightforward family.  The card already said “Merry Christmas,” so I simply added, “Love, Bill, Dinah, Rhonda and Rita.”

It may not sound like that much work, but it was an all day job.  I had to write slowly to be sure I used good penmanship (I never received good grades for that in school), and I didn’t want to mess up an envelope or card and then have to run short and leave someone out.  It was painstaking work.  So when I finally finished right before time for Daddy to get home and admired the neat stack of cards ready to go in the mail the next day, I was pretty proud of myself.  I figured Momma and Daddy would be pretty proud of me too.

You see, now that’s what I get for thinking.  My sister and I are just alike, in that regard.  We envision how things are going to go and imagine how wonderful everything is going to turn out, and then the actual outcome always, always falls short of our vivid imagination.  It’s a Jones’ sister curse.

My Daddy took one look at the cards and the look of disgust and displeasure on his face was obvious.

“You wrote Love inside the cards?” he complained.

“Yes?” I replied, still not understanding what the problem was.

“Did you write that in all of them?” his disgust was becoming a lot more noticeable.

“Yes.” I replied sheepishly, still not sure why that was wrong, but certain now that it must have been.

“Well, you might as well throw them out,” he grunted. “We can’t send out a bunch of cards that say Love.” He snarled the word like it was the silliest thing he’d ever heard.

“Why, Daddy?” My earlier giddiness was quickly turning into nausea.

Grown people don’t sign a card like that!  That’s for people who are sending a card to a girlfriend or boyfriend or husband or wife.  You don’t just send anybody a card and sign it with Love!” he chastised me.

These weren’t just anybody, I thought.  I’ve known these people all my life.  I see them at least once every week, sometimes more.  And we’ve been exchanging Christmas cards every year for as long as I can remember.  We even exchange Christmas presents with some of them.  They aren’t just anybody.  I was really confused, but I didn’t dare say any of that out loud.  I was too hurt and humiliated, watching the cards I’d worked so hard on being thrown in the garbage can.  I just wanted to disappear, and I hoped I never had to hear about this horrible thing I’d done ever again.

That was the year there were no Christmas cards sent out from the Jones house.  We had always sent out Christmas cards, but not this year.  And it was all my fault.  Even though no one outside our family knew it, I was still embarrassed whenever I ran into them in the community.  It was a terrible burden for a twelve-year-old to carry.  I had ruined Christmas.  None of those families received confirmation that we wished them a Merry Christmas.  I felt really bad about that.  And that’s not even the worst of it.

We never, ever sent Christmas cards out from our house ever again.  I not only killed the tradition for that one year.  I killed it forever in our family.  At least, that's what I believed.  The first year—the year I messed them up—we still received our usual number of cards.  But each year after that the number got smaller and smaller.  Finally it dwindled down to almost nothing, and it didn’t take long before Momma stopped hanging the cards on the door frames and threw out all the old cards.  Just call me The Grinch.  I stole Christmas.

Maybe now you can see why I have a Christmas card phobia.  I’ve tried to overcome it my entire adult life.  First thing I did, after I was working and had a home of my own, I ran out and bought a box of Christmas cards.  Somehow, I was going to rectify my old wrongs.  I sat there and stared at the inside of that card for several minutes trying to decide what to write.  It seemed too puny to just sign my name.  If I wasn’t going to go to any more trouble than that, why bother sending the card at all?  But what could I write?  You can bet your Christmas booties I wasn’t going to write “Love, Rhonda”!  I finally settled on “Happy Holidays”, which seemed safe enough and sounded like it encompassed both Christmas and New Year’s.  I tried to think of everyone, and before long they were reciprocating with their own Christmas cards to me.  Sometimes . . . you’re not going to believe this . . . someone would write “Love” inside their card to me!  And on those rare occasions, I would automatically think how odd that was for them to do that.  I was well-programmed.

That’s what we do, you know.  We program ourselves, our children, everyone within our circle of influence.  We’re programmed to believe certain things and not question them.  Now, after all these years, I’ve started questioning . . . not the least of which being my Christmas card programming.

What’s wrong with saying “Love” or “I Love you” to someone who’s a part of your life in one way or another?  What’s wrong with saying it to anyone, for that matter?  I’m sure there are those out there (who probably received the same programming I did) who think it’s foolish or maybe even weird.  It almost seems to be a common phenomenon in our culture to avoid the whole concept of love.  We say someone “wears their heart on their sleeve,” and we don’t mean it as a compliment.  We use that phrase to imply these people are too sensitive, too emotional.  Heaven forbid that they would actually be a crier to boot!  We consider it a weakness, and more often than not, what you hear is, “they need to stop wearing their heart on their sleeve!”  We seem to spend an awful lot of time in our society trying to beat that natural, God-given emotion out of people.  (Does that mean we think God made a mistake, when he endowed us with the ability to love?)

I thought about this when I saw the movie, Pay It Forward.  Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment were fabulous in the screen adaptation of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s book released in 2000 under the same name.  In this movie, an enigmatic seventh-grade teacher, played by Kevin Spacey, challenges his students to put into action an idea that could change the world.  Young Trevor McKinney, played by Osment, comes up with a plan to do good deeds for three people.  Then by way of payment, each must do good turns for three other people.  These nine people also must pay it forward and so on, ad infinitum.  If successful, the resulting network of do-gooders ought to comprise the entire world.  And, yes, in case you’re wondering, I cried almost all the way through the movie.  But apparently I wasn’t the only one moved by it.  As a result of the overwhelming impact of the book and movie, there is actually now a Pay It Forward Foundation with a real live network of members, a newsletter and all.

You want to know something I’ve figured out?  All it is is love.  Plain and simple.  Why do something good for someone?  Because I love them.  That’s why.  And the ripple effect from me loving and helping you, just like in the movie, is multiplied exponentially when you in turn pass it on to others.  Just think how different this whole world might be, if we would only start loving instead of hating . . . and fighting.

Therein lies a very important point.  When I say we need to “start loving,” you see that love is not a noun.  It’s a verb.  It’s not a thing.  It’s an action.  Just as in Pay It Forward, it has power when we do it.  In order to love, we have to do something.  Speaking, touching, acting (body language) . . . that’s how we love.

One of my favorite writings on the subject of love comes from I Corinthians 13:1-8 in the Bible.  Here is that text from the New International Version:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient.  Love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.

A few years ago someone sent me this “Christmas version” of that scripture, modified by an unknown author.  I really like it too:

First Corinthians 13 Christmas Version

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I'm just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I'm just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties, and sing in the choir's cantata, but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.

Love stops the cooking to hug the child.

Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the husband.

Love is kind, though harried and tired.

Love doesn't envy another's home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn't yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.

Love doesn't give only to those who are able to give in return, but rejoices in giving to those who can't.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust.

But giving the gift of love will endure.

Both versions of this description of love are compelling.  What’s even more interesting to me is that the King James Version of the Bible doesn’t use the word “love” in that passage of First Corinthians.  Instead, it uses the word “charity.”  When I think of charity, I definitely don’t think of something that I simply feel.  I think of doing something . . . showing charity . . . acting upon the charity—the love—I have in my heart for others.  So, for me, I’ve come to this conclusion.  Love is not what I feel.  When someone shows me love, I may feel happy or safe or special.  Love, on the other hand, love is what I do.  It’s good to write it in a card to someone.  But I think it’s much better, and probably more believable, when I display it.

Could that have been the lesson about the Christmas cards?  Do you think, when my dad chastised me for writing Love in all those cards, he was actually trying to teach me that it’s better to show it than it is to write it in a card?  Well, I can only hope that was his intent.  It just took me a few decades to finally understand.

I think back over the names I wrote on those Christmas card envelopes, thirty-one years ago, and I can still see each and every face.  And I realize something when I think about those good friends and family.  I really did love them.  I wrote it in the card, because I really did mean it.  I still do.  Some of them are gone now, and I’ll never again have the opportunity to send them a Christmas card with “Love, Rhonda” written in it.  So I sure hope they knew it.  I hope I did show them in some other way than those Christmas cards that were never mailed.  I truly hope I made it clear to them how much I loved them, and how happy I was to have them in my life.

Today, I am so blessed.  I have so many wonderful people in my life, with new acquaintances joining the circle everyday, who routinely show me love.  I’ve hardly ever received a Christmas card from any of them.  But I still know they love me.  They’ve shown me in so many other ways.  I hope they all know I love them too. 

I probably won’t send out Christmas cards this year.  I could never send enough to cover everyone, and I couldn’t bear to leave anyone out.  So I hope I’ve shown it.  I hope I’ve displayed it in many of my words and deeds.  And, if somehow along the way I’ve failed to do that, then I graciously and humbly display it here now.  To everyone reading this with whom I’ve worked, played, served, and prayed—you know who you are—and to all the countless, nameless faces who’ve passed my way this past year, and to all of you who have joined the circle of folks reading my newsletters . . . I love you.  I really do.

I sign this Christmas card happily,

                   Merry Christmas!

                   Love, Rhonda



The Truth About Santa

Author Unknown

I remember my first Christmas party with Grandma. I was just a kid. I remember tearing across town on my bike to visit her on the day my big sister dropped the bomb: "There is no Santa Claus," she jeered. "Even dummies know that!"

My grandma was not the gushy kind, never had been. I fled to her that day because I knew she would be straight with me. I knew Grandma always told the truth, and I knew that the truth always went down a whole lot easier when swallowed with one of her world-famous cinnamon buns.

Grandma was home, and the buns were still warm. Between bites, I told her everything. She was ready for me.

"No Santa Claus!" she snorted. "Ridiculous! Don't believe it. That rumor has been going around for years, and it makes me mad, plain mad. Now, put on your coat, and let's go."

"Go? Go where, Grandma?" I asked. I hadn't even finished my second cinnamon bun.

"Where" turned out to be Kerby's General Store, the one store in town that had a little bit of just about everything. As we walked through its doors, Grandma handed me ten dollars. That was a bundle in those days.

"Take this money and buy something for someone who needs it. I'll wait for you in the car." Then she turned and walked out of Kerby's.

I was only eight years old. I'd often gone shopping with my mother, but never had I shopped for anything all by myself. The store seemed big and crowded, full of people scrambling to finish their Christmas shopping.

For a few moments I just stood there, confused, clutching that ten-dollar bill, wondering what to buy, and who on earth to buy it for.  I thought of everybody I knew: my family, my friends, my neighbors, the kids at school, and the people who went to my church. I was just about thought out, when I suddenly thought of Bobbie Decker. He was a kid with bad breath and messy hair, and he sat right behind me in Mrs. Pollock's grade-two class.

Bobbie Decker didn't have a coat. I knew that because he never went out for recess during the winter. His mother always wrote a note, telling the teacher that he had a cough, but we kids knew that Bobbie Decker didn't have a cough, and he didn't have a coat.

I fingered the ten-dollar bill with growing excitement. I would buy Bobbie Decker a coat. I settled on a red corduroy one that had a hood to it. It looked real warm, and he would like that.

"Is this a Christmas present for someone?" the lady behind the counter asked kindly, as I laid my ten dollars down.

"Yes," I replied shyly. "It's ... for Bobbie." The nice lady smiled at me. I didn't get any change, but she put the coat in a bag and wished me a Merry Christmas.

That evening, Grandma helped me wrap the coat in Christmas paper and ribbons, and write, "To Bobbie, From Santa Claus" on it -- Grandma said that Santa always insisted on secrecy. Then she drove me over to Bobbie Decker's house, explaining as we went that I was now and forever officially one of Santa's helpers.

Grandma parked down the street from Bobbie's house, and she and I crept noiselessly and hid in the bushes by his front walk. Then Grandma gave me a nudge. "All right, Santa Claus," she whispered, "get going."

I took a deep breath, dashed for his front door, threw the present down on his step, pounded his doorbell and flew back to the safety of the bushes with Grandma. Together we waited breathlessly in the darkness for the front door to open. Finally it did, and there stood Bobbie.

Forty years haven't dimmed the thrill of those moments spent shivering, beside my grandma, in Bobbie Decker's bushes. That night, I realized that those awful rumors about Santa Claus were just what Grandma said they were: ridiculous.

Santa was alive and well, and we were on his team.

We celebrate the spirit of giving at Christmas,

in commemoration of the gift of His son, Jesus,

given to us by God many years ago.

Jesus is the reason for the season!