A Shoebox Full of Holiday Surprises

I saw a post the other day about an international program that sends shoeboxes of gifts to little children across the globe.lily2

Operation Christmas Child, started by Samaritan’s Purse, “a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world.”

The person who posted the information on Facebook is a good friend of mine through a little more research, found out the collection would take place next week, Nov. 14-21.

So, wanting to teach my grandchildren a lesson about helping others, I picked them up and we set out to buy a few toys for a little girl, who lived on the other side of the world.

I expected a barrage of questions such as, “Why do we have to buy presents for someone we don’t know?” or “Why can’t I have a present?”

Instead they asked questions about where it might go and who might receive it, and concentrated on picking out gifts that a little girl might like. We couldn’t send chocolate, or perfume, or nail polish (all the things Lily wanted), but she decided on a Barbie doll, a puzzle, some gum, colored pencils, and a notebook.

“She might like to have this, too,” she told me, holding up a little white bear.

“Do you really think she’d like something like that?” I asked, teasing her.

She laughed and handed me the little bear. “Yes, I think it’s something she could sleep with, so she doesn’t have bad dreams.”

We added a few notecards to the box, as well as Lily’s name and address, in case the little girl wanted to write her.

It will be interesting to see where the shoebox ends up. I just hope it brings as much joy to the little girl who receives it, as it did to the little girl who put it together.




A Christmas message

I received an email from my uncle today. His thoughts about Christmas were inspiring, to say the least.  His eloquent words touch me deeply , and since I have his blessing, I would like to share the letter with you:

“This is my 78th Christmas and the wonder and the joy and the mystery build every year, rather than fade. I feel exactly the same today as I did when I was a child of 7 or 10.  Four days before Christmas, all the nerves in my body are standing on end, singing ancient Christmas carols.  There are phantom people all over the house putting things together, wrapping presents, decorating, baking, and all the anticipation of a great feast is in the air.  The smells, the ring of happy children’s voices, the joy that permeates the atmosphere.  It is truly the season of the little child in all of us.  To see the anticipation and the awe in the face of a child coming down the staircase on Christmas morning is a pleasure that we can all take part in and thoroughly embrace.  At Christmas time everybody is a Christian even if they don’t believe and are not really aware of what they are celebrating.

Every time somebody gives another person a present, that giving is an expression of love.  Every time a person receives a present, that, too, is an act of love.  For the giver, all their time and energy trying to figure out what the most appropriate gift would be, going to the store or stores to find it, spending the money to purchase it, all that synergy is exerted for one tiny moment: to see the look on the loved one’s face when she/he opens the gift.  And for the receiver, the great part is the anticipation that someone who loves us, thinks enough of us to expend all that effort, puts such a high value on our person, yearns to see us happy, is just about to “pop the question”.  Because when we give a present, what we are really saying is, “I love you; will you love me?”  And the usual procedure when one receives a present is to return the favor.  Both she who gives and he who receives are taking part in the same divine act, both asking and answering the question, both at the same time: “Yes, I love you; and I know you love me.”

Yes, the stores do commercialize Christmas too much.  But then, that’s their purpose: to overcommercialize Christmas in order to make money.  And we all buy into that conspiracy by purchasing presents for the people we love.  But as far as I’m concerned, there is never more love among mankind than at Christmas time.  If we could just keep the spirit all year-long, this world would be a lot more peaceful.

I’ve always been a little puzzled by some who say that if you say “Happy Holiday” rather than “Merry Christmas” you are leaving Christ out of Christmas.  I have always understood that the word “holiday” is derived from “holy day”.  If you believe in celebrating Christmas, if you believe that giving gifts is a healthy, holy, and human activity, if you believe that gifts are fulfilling and uplifting and that giving them is beyond merely human, then you must believe in some part of the miracle of Christmas.  Why are so many people raised up by their own joy at this time of year?

We are celebrating the birthday of Jesus the son of Joseph and Mary, the Christ, the Messiah, who came into this world as a newborn in order to experience the whole of the human experience.  He grew up  in a family just as we all did.  That family was his school.  He worked as a carpenter for fifteen years, from age fifteen to thirty.  Then he became a preacher to spread the truth.  He was a bit too honest in telling the powers-that-be that they were frauds.  Rome made him pay a terrible price.  But his words and his actions are still alive and well and flourishing today.  And the heart and soul of that message is: Love God first and prove that you love God by loving your neighbor.  He became man out of love; he taught us the truth out of love; he died out of love for us; he rose out of love for us.  He is pure love; his word is pure love; his truth is pure love.  And that is why on his birthday, we all are enchanted by and enhanced by that same pure love that he is.  God bless you all.  May you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday.”

John Meis
Naperville, Ill.

Every year, I contemplate the meaning of Christmas. I begin the season with a heart full of love and end up exhausted and wondering how I got sucked into all the melodrama and commercialization the holidays often bring. But opening this email this morning, my heart was once again filled with the true meaning of Christmas. Like John wrote, “If we could just keep the spirit all year long, this world would be a lot more peaceful.”

I truly believe it’s possible. And I know it begins with me.




Fulfilling a promise

I took my 25-year-old daughter’s American Girl doll, Samantha, to the post office last week to mail it the doll hospital. I told the

Lori's Doll Before

Lori’s Doll Before

woman behind the counter what was in the package and we spent the next few minutes talking about how much our daughters loved the dolls.

The conversation reminded me of the story behind doll, which I still find to be close to my heart. I am finally able to fulfill a promise I made to my daughter almost 15 years ago.

It was close to Christmas and Lori told me she wanted Samantha, an American Girl doll. But being a single mom, money was scarce, especially at Christmas. I told her I couldn’t afford it, and “maybe we would get it next year.”

Instead of getting upset, she made up her mind that she was going to save up her own money and buy it herself.

She told me that she didn’t want any presents for Christmas. She just wanted money. I had already set a limit for the kids at $50,  which wouldn’t buy much today, but 15 years ago, it made for a pretty decent Christmas.

Lori's Doll After

Lori’s Doll After

At the last minute, being the softy I am, not only did I give her the cash, but bought a small gift for her to open so she wouldn’t feel left out.

Lori also received money from her dad and grandparents and soon had $80, enough to buy the doll.

The day the doll arrived was a big event. We all ooed and ahhed over the pretty Victorian-era doll and Lori set it up on her shelf to admire.  She wanted to keep it nice, for her own daughter, she said, but very once in a while, she took it down to brush its pretty long hair.

Then it happened.

Lori came to me in tears, the doll in one hand, handfuls of long, brown hair in the other. Her sobs broke my heart as I looked at the long strands of hair clutched in Lori’s hand.  Her 4-year-old brother had acquired scissors somehow (because of course, they were forbidden) and cut the pretty doll’s hair without remorse. 

I promised Lori we’d get it fixed somehow. But despite the promises, she was inconsolable for days, and it was all I could do to protect her little brother from her impending revenge.

I think she knew it wouldn’t happen, that I couldn’t really afford to get the doll fixed. And so doll went into storage, where it remained for many years.

A few months ago, I saw an ad for American Girl and asked Lori about the doll.

“Oh, it’s still in a box somewhere…I still can’t believe he cut her hair,” she said of her  21-year-old brother.

The grudge she held was apparent, even now.

“How about if I get it fixed for Lily’s birthday?”  Her daughter, Lily, had a birthday approaching, four days before Christmas.”It would be a great gift,” I told her.

Her face lit up with a smile, but then it faded.

“If you want to,” she said, and I got the feeling she had her doubts that I would.

But I did, a promise fulfilled. I only wish I had done it sooner.

My daughter  impresses me. Since she was a little girl, she has always done what she says she is going to do.

Time and again she has amazed me with her efforts. She graduated college, bought a house, and has a great job, among other things. She is an inspiration to me and everyone whose lives she touches.

And while I try to be a good example for my children, it is my daughter who has taught me a thing or two about how important it is to keep a promise…even after 15 years.

Christmas is…

When I was in elementary school we had Christmas parties. There was always one or



two kids in my class who were Jewish and of course, didn’t celebrate Christmas. Instead of learning about the Jewish religion (or any other faith), we simply side-stepped the issue and enjoyed our cookies and punch.

Back then, we had gift exchanges, went caroling down the halls, and played games for the entire afternoon before our two-week winter break.

Today, school children don’t have Christmas parties–they have holiday parties instead. School officials are very careful not to bring religion into any type of school activity and there is no mention of what Christmas really means or why it’s celebrated.

There’s no portrayal of Jesus being born in a manger in the school pageant, or songs of little drummer boys in the winter program.

But despite the lack of religious teachings in public schools, most kids know the story of Mary and Joseph, and how they traveled to Bethlehem and found that there was no room at the inn. They know the tale of the shepherds in the fields who were visited by the angels and told of a king that was born in a manger, and how the three wise men came from afar just to see the babe in swaddling clothes.

Most children know that Christmas is more than just Santa Claus and presents. They  may not understand where all the traditions come from, but I’m sure they’re aware that  people are naturally kinder, more generous, and more caring at Christmas-time.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all do that? To not question the magic of Christmas, but just enjoy it?

If we could figure out how to keep that Christmas spirit alive all year-long, we would all be a little happier, a little more at peace.

Favorite Christmas movies a reflection of how we perceive the holiday

Have you ever wondered why we like the idea of a kid stuck home alone for the holidays, or are entertained by the notion that a man gets a second chance at life on Christmas Eve?headshot

We all have our favorites. Every year growing up I watched all the holiday favorites; Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, A Christmas Carol, Rudolph, Frosty, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Santa Claus is coming to Town.

And, of course, as I grew older and had children of my own, other favorites became a tradition at our house; National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, One Magic Christmas, Home Alone, and The Santa Clause.

But there is one movie that will always be my favorite.

It’s a movie that I wrote about in a blog last year about this time, but it’s one that deserves to be mentioned again because it’s one that changed my idea about the holidays.

It’s a Wonderful Life,” for those who don’t know, is about a man who was given a chance to see what life would be like without him. In the end, George Bailey was able to see that it wasn’t how successful a person was, that “no man is a failure who has friends,” and realized what was most important in his life; his friends and family.

The reason I like this movie so much is because the first time I saw it, (though it was made in 1946) I was alone on Christmas Eve. The kids were at their dad’s for the holidays and I admit that I was feeling a little sorry for myself that I was alone.

But watching that movie made my imagination wander and I thought about what life would be like without me and how much my own life was intertwined with those I love.

Since then, I have spent my life focusing on what I can do for others and how I can make their lives just a little happier; not just at Christmas, but all year-long.

It’s funny to think a simple movie has the power to change someone’s life, but I imagine it has also happened to others.

What’s your favorite holiday movie? Is there one that has made you stop and think about your own life or how you perceive the holidays?

I have complied a list of my favorite top 10 movies. I have already given away the number one movie, but there are others that I find special and worth mentioning.

  • Scrooge-This is my favorite version of the Christmas Carol. It was made in 1951 and stars Alastair Sim.
  • Miracle on 34th Street– There have been many versions of this movie made, but none can compare to the black and white classic featuring little Natalie Wood.
  • Home Alone-A classic Christmas tale of one boy who finds himself alone when his family forgets him when they go to Paris on vacation.
  • Scrooged-Bill Murray portrays a Scrooge-like man who is determined to put on a live telecast on Christmas Eve, to the dismay of all those involved.
  • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation-The Griswold family celebrates Christmas in this hilarious movie, complete with Cousin Eddie.
  • The Santa Clause-Tim Allen is suddenly in charge of delivering Christmas gifts to the entire world, only he doesn’t particularly want the job.
  • Elf-Will Ferrell is hilarious as a man who is adopted by elves and sets out one day to find his dad in New York. Classic Will Ferrell humor.
  • One Magic Christmas-Mary Steenburgen is wonderful as a woman who forgets what Christmas is all about in this Christmas tale. It still makes me cry.
  • A Christmas Story-Ralphie wants a BB gun for Christmas and spends the days before Christmas trying to convince his parents, his teacher, and Santa why he should have one.
  • And of course, It’s a Wonderful Life-George Bailey thinks everyone would be better off without him, and it’s up to Clarence the angel to set him straight.


Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men

I am a firm believer in trying to get along with others. After all, it’s one of the Ten Commandments of Kindergarten.

Illustration By Cynthia Petersen

We are taught to share, to forgive, to say, “I’m sorry” and “Excuse me” at a very young age. So what happens between the innocent age of childhood and our maturation into adulthood?

Many people keep that instinctive good nature, but others look at it as a sign of weakness. Maybe they were told growing up that they needed to be aggressive to get anywhere in life. Or perhaps they like the feeling of power intimidation gives them. It could be that they were treated poorly as a child and are taking their aggression out on others.

Whatever the reason, some people just don’t know how to be nice. I’ve heard it said many times that bullies just don’t like themselves and so they take it out on others. Though it’s believable, it still doesn’t take away from the fact that they hurt others with their unkind words and actions.

I love Christmas. The goodness of people just seems to ooze out of every pore. People actually look for good deeds to do and their smiles come  a little less forced than they do the rest of the year. The good vibes seem to resonate throughout the world and people just seem to be happier.

But there will always be the Scrooges of the world, who look at do-gooders as a threat to their existence. These people don’t know how to be nice and try to find a way to ruin everyone’s good time. But they are small in number. Especially at Christmas.

I’m a little sad that Christmas will soon be over and everyone will go back to their normal hectic lives. The good deeds done over the holidays will be forgotten in a flurry of anticipation for the next holiday.

But what if they weren’t? Can you imagine how nice the world would be if we could all just take a little time out of our lives to help others all year-long? People would be nicer, happier, more joyful. They would smile more, spread cheer throughout the world, and count their blessings tenfold.

What if it were Christmas every day? I’m not talking about presents, because that isn’t what brings the most joy. But the kind words, the noble gestures, and the love of our neighbor, because they are what Christmas is all about.

It may take some effort to get this world-wide campaign going, but I really think we have a chance at bringing Peace to Earth and Goodwill toward our fellow men and women. But for now, let us rejoice in the fact that it is Christmas, the most wonderful time of year.

Merry Christmas to all! (And to all a good night!)

Pausing, for a moment-Week 28

Christmas will be here in less than a week. The gifts are bought and wrapped. The baking is done and delivered. Now I can relax.

My Creation--Probably why I got a B in Graphic Arts

For a moment.

Soon I will begin again, but for this moment, I can relax.

Every year I worry about Christmas. Will I get everything done? Did I forget anything? Will everything go as I planned?

And every year, I don’t get everything done, I forget something, and things don’t go as I planned.

This year, I didn’t worry. I prioritized, managed my time, checked things twice, and got everything done. Plus, I graduated with 5 As and a B.

I am impressed. Not because I received good grades, but because I am becoming an organized, efficient, time manager. (The grades were a nice ending, though.)

I have accomplished something that I have attempted to do practically my whole life; how to be an organized person in an unorganized life. My hard work has paid off.

So, now I can enjoy Christmas, the way it was meant to be enjoyed, surrounded by family, with peace in my heart, and with no worries.

And now I can proceed with my life, and my newspaper, with a lighter load and a more organized spirit.

The Hiawatha Advocate

Paying tribute to the Ghost of Christmas Past

I had some great Christmases through the years. Though some of them didn’t always turn out the way I would have liked, they were all great. But then again, when you’re a kid, they’re all great just because it’s Christmas.

Santa Claus arrived in a fire truck Dec. 6 in Hiawatha-a little early, but no one seemed to care. (Photo by Cynthia Petersen)

My first memory of Santa Claus was when I was 4 or 5. My big brother told me all about how Santa Claus would come down our chimney when we were asleep and bring us all kinds of presents…if we were good. I spent that whole month before Christmas so worried that I wasn’t being good enough. But my fears subsided when I awoke Christmas morning with lots of presents to open from Santa.

We would always be reminded later that morning that the real meaning of Christmas did not lie in how many presents we received, but in why we celebrate the day at all; the birth of Christ. The story of the nativity kept me in awe, as we sang hymns and watched the story being played out by members of our church. As a 5-year-old, I had a hard time trying to figure out how the two symbols fit together. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that the two symbols represent love in its highest form; unselfish acts of giving.

As I grew and reality stole my belief in Santa Claus, I tried to keep the feeling of wonderment I felt as a child. The excitement of Santa Claus may be gone, but it has been replaced by a more sincere and realistic view of why we celebrate Christmas. The feeling I get when someone I love opens a gift I know they appreciate, is the only gift I could ever ask for.

Some of the highlights of my Christmases Past include hearing jingle bells and looking out the window just in time to see Santa Claus (really our neighbor Mr. Ward) walking up a snow-packed street, shouting, “Merry Christmas!”

Another wonderful memory include my dad reading, The Night Before Christmas,” to us as we gathered around him in the living room on Christmas Eve, hanging our socks up on the mantel for Santa Claus to fill.

I remember sneaking up to my mom and dad’s closet with my brother and finding the gifts they had bought us, not wanting to believe that they were Santa all along.

Some of my favorite things at Christmas are:

The TV Shows:

The Music:

The Commercials:

I love Christmas. Not for the presents, or the parties, or the awesome sales, but because people are just nicer this time of year. People decorate their homes and pay their respects to the real reason for the season, Jesus Christ.

Because that’s what it’s really all about, Christ, and all that he represents.

It really is a wonderful life

As I watched my favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I thought back to times when I’ve wondered what life would be like if had never been born.

Many times I found myself home alone on Christmas Eve watching holiday movies, feeling sad that my children couldn’t be with me. But this particular movie was a comfort to me, and watching it every year has become my very own holiday tradition.


Jimmy Stewart, who plays George Bailey in the movie, became like an old friend to me. And though I knew the story by heart, I cried when the villain, Mr. Potter, was on the brink of ruining George and his reputation, and bit my fingernails as Clarence the Angel gave George the gift of insight and gratefulness, by showing him how different the world would be without him.

I could have felt sorry for myself all those lonely Christmas Eves, but I didn’t. The movie made me see how blessed I am, how much I have contributed to the world, and how the world is different because my parents saw fit to see me into this world, who relied on their parents, and so on.

My wonderful children and grandchildren are here because I was born.  I’m so glad that some angel didn’t listen when I recklessly announced that I wished I had never been born. Maybe at one point in my life I needed to know what it was that I contributed to this world, but because of this movie, I can imagine it, and that’s enough for me.

It makes me see that we all have touched someone else’s life in some way. I wonder how many people have stopped to think about that. Our lives intertwine, relying on each other to make our lives richer, just by being here.

The movie, directed by Frank Capra, was not meant to be a Christmas movie originally, and was actually a flop at the box office. But its message of hope, faith, and love of friends and family has made it a timeless classic.

We should be grateful for our sometimes-crazy, chaotic, mix-up lives, because, as Clarence shows George, it could always be worse.

My favorite part of the movie was the ending, when, gathered around his family and friends, George realizes how truly loved he is. His brother, Harry, whom he saved from drowning when he was a little boy, held a glass up to toast George, saying, “To my brother, George, the richest man in town.”

George picks up a copy of the book, “Tom Sawyer,” that someone left behind, and reads the inscription inside the front cover: “No man is a failure who has friends,” which is signed by Clarence. (And of course, the famous line from Zu-Zu, who exclaims, “Look Daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”)

Throughout the entire movie, the audience is shown what a great friend George has been to everyone, and never realized how many lives he actually touched. When everyone came forward to help him during his time of need, he saw that love, magnified.

We should all be so lucky, to see what the world would be like without us. But as I said before, all we really need to do is imagine it from time to time, and realize how wonderful life really is.

The hecticfuncrazybeautifulhumbug side of Christmas

I am a huge fan of Christmas.  I love the music. I love the food. I love the lights. I think I just love the idea of Christmas.  People are nicer.  They are more generous.  And aside from a few Scrooges, people are just better during the holiday season.  If only they could stay that way all year-long.

For some, Christmas is a game, one in which they level up each year.  Others go into survival mode, trying to drown out the never-ending drone of “The Little Drummer Boy,” the insane traffic jams, or figuring out how to make their money outlast the season. There are those who love the challenge that the season brings, and every year finds new ways to drive themselves (and everyone around them) crazy.

But most of us would like to enjoy the season more.  Every year we are faced with retailers who start the rush earlier, enticing youngsters to start bugging their parents for presents, tree displays being put up before Halloween, and the pressure all around. If we could just slow down long enough to remember why we are celebrating, maybe we could carry that message all year long.

Instead, we zip through the holidays more worried about getting the perfect present, making the best food, and having the best parties than taking time to enjoy the beautiful lights, the wonderful music and the delicious fattening food.  We are so busy doing, we forget the best part of the holiday season, to relax and enjoy.

Too often, January 2 comes and everyone thinks that they need to revert back to their busy schedules, where they don’t have the time to be caring, kind and generous.  Maybe they think that they have done their duty for the year and everyone will excuse them because they are so busy. Maybe. 

We’re human, and it’s a given that we can’t always be nice, but what if we could?  Imagine a world where it was like Christmas all year around.  Would we take it for granted?  Or would the world be a better place because of it?  Maybe we need the Scrooges in our lives to show us the kind of people we don’t want to be.  Maybe that’s why we have the Christmas season, to show us what is possible. 

Jesus really is the reason for the season. He represents Hope, Faith and Love.

Without his message, we are doomed.  But if we focus on why we celebrate Christmas, we have a chance to make the world a better place.  If we could just remember that after the Christmas trees are no longer lit, the goodies are all eaten and the presents have been unwrapped, maybe we could remember how good it felt to be generous, caring and kind.

I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite Christmas movies, “The Santa Clause.”

“Seeing isn’t believing; Believing is seeing.” Believe.  Another reason for the season.