Friday, December 14, 2012

A Dickens of a Christmas

A Dickens of a Christmas

     At a gathering my mother met the great-grandson of Charles Dickens. Cedric Dickens is his name. He was selling his book, Christmas with Dickens. My mother bought a copy for me and Cedric Dickens autographed it. Isn’t this neat? That was ten years ago or so. 

Faux mistletoe is in the middle jar.
     The book is a framework of ideas on how to create A Christmas Carol evening. Cedric Dickens and his cousin edited the Carol to 28 minutes of reading aloud. The host or hostess acts as the master of ceremonies. Recipes are provided in the book for a banquet.

     Filling the house with greenery is suggested. Period clothing and period music are optional. Between the courses selections of the Carol are read (with feeling, it is emphasized). Later come parlor games and punch. Although never as elaborate, I have adapted some of the ideas within our family and over the years we have extended the hand of hospitality to friends and neighbors.   

     Traditions were formed by degrees. Several Christmases stand out. Looking at our little tree this year, I recall the simplest Christmas of all. It was in 1986.

     In 1986 we spent Christmas in London, England. Joining the volunteer efforts of a Christian literature mission Dean and I had come for the year with two suitcases each – and our two daughters - then age 2 and 4. We were prepared to live simply. But how appreciative we were when we were able to move from a tiny third-floor flat into a semi-detached house. We thoroughly enjoyed its back garden.
The glass and plastic ornaments, most from the 1960s, remind me of my childhood.

     Along the edges of the narrow, fenced-in lawn, were plants that took turns blooming through the months. The largest was an overgrown holly. I trimmed a branch, brought it indoors, propped it up on a table, and decorated it with popcorn and paper chains. I cut a star out of cardboard, covered it with (you guessed it) silver foil. The star balanced on the top of our crooked little “tree.” Secretly, I thought it drab. But in the eyes of my children it was fine and dandy – and so – for their sake - I thought it fine and dandy, too.

     A month prior a fellow American had handed me a bag of puzzles, plastic toys and picture books that her children had long outgrown. She was, “just now getting around to cleaning out their closets and would your girls like them?” I thanked her and hid the things away to be wrapped for Christmas.

     I remember my girls sitting cross-legged in the middle of the carpet listening to a cassette. They played it again and again. Sometimes I sat with them. Other times I took advantage of the moment to start supper. At the sound of the beep the eldest knew to turn the pages of the accompanying book. With heads together they gazed at the pictures of Joseph and Mary and the lowly stable. They were quite taken up with the Christmas story – even if the incarnation – one of the most marvelous and important doctrines of the Christian faith – was something they would grow to understand better, later – and yet it is too wonderful to comprehend this side of heaven, really. I can still hum the melody of the sweet song that came at the beginning and end of story. I wonder what ever happened to that cassette – narrated beautifully in the King’s English.  

I like sewing pinwheels. Sophia's homemade teddy wears his holiday bowtie.

     One Saturday in December Dad took us to the missionary closet. We could choose what we wished from what had been donated. After an hour of rummaging, trying on things in a curtained corner - elbowroom only and no mirror - we each settled upon a piece of clothing. I’ll never forget the beautiful wool skirt that fit me perfectly – except that I was in denial of it being rather snug at the waist. It was moth eaten in an inconspicuous spot and easily mended. This soft, black skirt, with its ruffle along the hem, had a nice drape. Add a white blouse with a red ornament on its collar, and it looked smart for Christmas Eve service. Wool provided necessary warmth for sitting in the chilly pews of the ancient stone church – Christ Church Bromely.

Relaxing with a needle at Christmastime

     With our new used things and a couple tiny treats for the girl’s stockings, (literary their socks) Christmas Day arrived with smiles all around. After dinner (a meal that Dad relished) we put on our coats and took a walk around the block. The brick houses sat close to the sidewalk and I couldn’t help notice, through the windows of the front parlors, people sitting in chairs arranged in a circle. I found it odd that they were wearing brightly colored paper hats. I learned later that they were waiting for parlor games to start.

A homemade ornament resting on my new plaid skirt. I need to get better at sewing corners.

     Parlor games on Christmas Day became a tradition much later in our lives. With all the years we spent reading A Christmas Carol, listening to it on audio, and watching it on films, it eventually caught on. Perhaps you play them, too.

"There was first a game of blindman’s buff." A Christmas Carol

     It was our Yolanda who initiated Charades, which I explained in a post last year, “Name That Hymn” is one that I started and it stuck. It is a way to give closer attention to lyrics – some of the most precious in all of Christendom. It is fun to include lines from  contemporary songs, too.

     After the main course is cleared the game is played. One by one, each person seated around the table, unfolds his slip of paper and reads it aloud. He then guesses the hymn title. Although my family is pretty good at answers, lines from a third verse can be a challenge. The guesser is permitted to choose one person to assist. A sudden remark blurted out from across the table of  “Ohh, I know,” identifies a willing assistant.
    But Mom urges, “Give him a minute first, please.”

"There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor." A Christmas Carol.

     I typed out some examples. A hostess will enjoy choosing her own lines.

Christmas morning muffins - orange cranberry

1) A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. 
2) Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care, And fit us for heaven, to live with Thee there.
3) Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.
4) Where meek souls will receive Him still, The dear Christ enters in.
5) On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me (what is it?).
6) Where the treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.

     The hostess keeps the corresponding answers handy.

1) O Holy Night
2) Away in the Manger
3) O Come all Ye Faithful
4) O Little Town of Bethlehem
5) six geese a laying
6) White Christmas

I've been meaning to decorate with pineapple on the fireplace mantel for some years. The apples are editble, too.


     My children aren’t little any longer. “Time has stolen them from me” – as one Victorian poem sentimentally refers. While children are with us we work to give them a foundation of pleasant memories – especially because the details of this world are not all fine and dandy. 

     Mom and Dad share the memories. The children grew up and grew into making a memorable Christmas for others. They’ve learned that the advent season is less about material gifts. It is the giving of oneself in various ways and celebrating the joy and true meaning of Christmas.

“. . . apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Crachit family drew round the hearth . . . “ A Christmas Carol

In Fellowship assembled here
We thank thee Lord for food and cheer
And through our Saviour, thy dear Son,
We pray “God bless us everyone.”

Prayer [for the table] discovered by Alan S. Watts, President of the Dickens Fellowship, during research for his book, Dickens at Gad’s Hill. 


  Peace and Good Will,
     Karen Andreola

Friday, November 30, 2012

I Need You

I Need You

     Helen is wearing her new shawl. I had to put on a thinking-cap (a knitted one of course) while it took me some days to formulate a pattern with size 0 needles. Knitting for Helen is the most frivolous thing I’ve done in a long time. 

     As this china doll was a housewarming gift from my sister-in-law I telephoned her with news of my frivolity. I thought she’d be pleased with the attention I was giving Helen.

antique china doll with knitted shawl

     At first she didn’t like the sound of it. “Don’t dress and redress her,” was my sister-in-law’s authoritative remark. “She’s wearing her original muslin gown, remember? It’s fragile and more than 100 years old.” This came from a serious antique doll collector who knows her stuff, so I took heed.

     “Yes, I’ll be careful,” I said contritely. I won’t handle her too much.” 

     She laughed when her stern warning was over, glad after-all that I was enjoying the company of a fanciful member of the family – even if Helen, regrettably, must be admired mostly from behind glass.  

tiny wool shawl with lace edge

Seal Morning
     The craving to knit the shawl came after watching a favorite film (again.)  (My men folk found other things to do that evening.) In an early scene of “Seal Morning” Aunt Miriam is wearing a delicate swallow tale edged lace shawl.

Molly's Lace
I chose "Molly's Lace" from Nicky Epstein's book "Knitting on the Edge." 

     Seal Morning” takes place in the 1930s on a seacoast of England. Rowena is orphaned when her parents die in a car accident. She is sent to live with Aunt Miriam. They meet for the first time – awkwardly. The cottage is tiny. Aunt Miriam’s income is slight. She works at painting china at her kitchen table, while at the same table Rowena works through her lifeless schoolbooks. The cottage is some distance from the nearest town by pony cart, but Miriam is comfortable living independent of friendship and welcomes the isolation. She prefers the company of animals to people.

     The seal pup Rowena rescues brings a bright spot into the dull days of Miriam and Rowena. Although we enjoy seeing the beautiful round-eyed seal I think the story really is about Miriam. She is a plain woman that has some pretty feminine ways about her in spite of how carefully she guards her emotions. Not naturally affectionate she softens up a little and grows in her love for Rowena, eventually confiding in Rowena a piece of her past. A fiancé broke the engagement. Miriam plans never to be so deeply hurt again.

     While walking along the sandy beach and through the lonely marshes, Rowena meets a biologist who is there to study a species of geese. She invites him back to the cottage. The biologist, Bernard, has gentlemanly manners. He and Miriam find that they share common interests. Their love of nature brings their souls together into a quiet (but very guarded) communion.

The family room where we watch films

      I couldn’t help but notice Miriam’s domesticity. With meager means she keeps her primitive cottage neat and tidy. Her hands are busy serving with punctuality and care. Linen conceals the rough table at mealtimes. For tea, little cakes are baked. While balancing a pie on one hand she trims the crust effortlessly with the other. Either the actress had practiced insanely much off-camera to make it appear natural, or pies are second nature to her. 

patchwork pillow cover for Christmas
Christmastime Pillow Cover - I like to make triangles. 

     Will Miriam decide that it is okay to need people? Some women resist giving into the soft side of their feminine natures – especially women today. Although they have remarkable gifts, talents and strengths, rather than lean on a man, they stubbornly rely on their own resources and resist giving into their soft side. None of us, however, is meant to live autonomously.  

The pillow cover is enveloped and tied on the back.

A Little Boy Lost
     Another favorite film of mine is “A Little Boy Lost” with Bing Crosby. If you like hearing his velvet voice singing “White Christmas” this time of year as much as I do, you will also enjoy the few songs in this film. But more so you will be absorbed in the story – that is - once you get passed the flashbacks that take up a good portion of the first scenes. They provide important foreshadowing.

     This is another story about relationships, lingering hurt, and about admitting to oneself, “I need you.” When I feel like a good cry I watch this touching film. It is an instant play on line.

British Evacuees
     Mr. Wainwright is an American radio journalist living in France who meets a French woman, Lisa. They marry. Soon WWII breaks out and Mr. Wainwright becomes a war correspondent. Just after Lisa gives birth Mr. Wainwright is sent on assignment to Dunkirk. Enemy invasion keeps the couple apart. While he works in England Mr. Wainwright learns that Lisa is killed. The baby – now a little boy - is lost in the shuffle - like so many children during wartime.

     Carrying the dull-ache of his sorrow around with him for years, he fools himself that he doesn’t need anyone – not even his true friend, whom he resents for acting as his conscience. Will Mr. Wainwright love, and trust again? Will he find his son when he travels to an orphanage in France or will he give up the search when he meets with discouragement?  

The Story of Holly & Ivy
     The Story of Holly & Ivy by Rumer Godden is a tale that melts my heart at Christmastime. It is a beautiful book and a beautiful story. You may already know I am fond of Barbara Cooney’s nostalgic, folk-art illustrations. Although this children’s story is a bit fanciful to be realistic fiction this is precisely what makes it so endearing for those of us who believe in miracles.

     Ivy is a little orphan girl with a keen imagination and a longing for a doll of her own for Christmas. She also wishes to live in a quaint town in a family of her own. Holly is the doll in the red dress displayed in the shop window wishing for a little girl to play with her (not to be admired behind glass like my Helen). Childless Mrs. Jones, the policeman’s wife, wishes her Christmas gift could be a little girl. Reading how all these wishes come true may bring a tear to your eye. 

“However motherhood [or fatherhood] comes to you, it’s a miracle.” Valerie Harper – adoptive parent

Part of the Family
     Although the book, Part of the Family is meant to be an encouragement to foster and adopted children the book quite unexpectedly brought healing to my heart.

     Some remarkable people in the Bible were separated from their biological families. God used their foster care and adoptive families for His purposes. In these short chapters children will read the story of Moses, Joseph, Samuel, Esther, Daniel, the Israelite maid in Naaman’s household, Jesus (who had a stepfather) and others, in a new light.

      Losses in our lives can make us feel gloomy, forgotten, unimportant, but God can use losses for blessing. Trusting in His sovereignty we can rise above the seeming injustice in this fallen world with trust and gratitude. It is clear to me that author Merle Burkholder (who has cared for foster children) has compassion for young people struggling with this sensitive topic.

A light snow fell the day I decorated the parlor windowsill.

      I believe Part of the Family will comfort adults, too, with lingering hurt, adults - though not fostered or adopted - were perhaps raised with an unaffectionate stepparent or absentee parent that they need to forgive - or were brought up in an unbelieving household. All Christians, young and old, can take joy that they’ve been adopted into God’s family.     

“’Well, now, I’d rather have you than a dozen boys, Anne,’ said Mathew patting her hand. ‘Just mind you that – rather than a dozen boys.’”  From Anne of Green Gables
china doll with hand knit shawl

     A few Sundays back, in church service, I curiously found these words in the Prayer of Confession. “Dear Heavenly Father, forgive us for living as orphans . . .”
(Romans 8:16)

     With courage and humility we can say, “I need you.” In loving God, serving, trusting, needing Him - and one another - there resides our source of joy.

     Blessings at Christmastime

     Comments are welcome,

     Karen Andreola

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Autumn Optimism

Autumn Optimism

     Crawling out of its hiding place into the sunshine a woolly bear posed itself on a pot of thyme just outside the kitchen door of the Lady-of-the-House. It came and went in early autumn, sunbathing regularly at this same spot. The Lady-of-the-House started thinking of it as her pet of the patio. She only disturbed it once to cradle it in her hand and watch it curl up into a ball of bristles. 

     Then she came into the house and opened to page 82 in Lessons at Blackberry Inn to refresh herself with the folklore of the Isabella Tiger moth. In its caterpillar stage it is said to have the ability to predict the weather.

     “As we walked I shared some New England folklore. . . . It is believed that the severity of winter can be predicted by the amount of black on the caterpillar. “If you see more black than brown on the woolly bear,” I told my children, “it will be a stormy winter. If the woolly bear is mostly brown, we can expect a mild winter.”

     A few weeks after observing her “mostly brown” optimistic caterpillar, the enormously expansive storm Sandy approached the east coast. The Lady-of-the-House was busy preparing and serving. She started by baking a big batch of molasses muffins and then kept her kitchen simmering and her washing machine spinning.

     For days all her thoughts were passing thoughts. Full of care she urgently focused on doing the “next thing.” At bedtime she found that she could concentrate on not one paragraph of her novel. She closed the book.

     The storm hit in the night. In nervous wakefulness she heard the wind roar in the trees and the rain pelt at the window glass. But in the morning little damage was found in the neighborhood. How very thankful she was. Calm was restored. But she couldn’t help thinking, “There might be something to the woolly bear’s ability to predict winter weather but when it comes to autumn it is far from the mark,” she nearly said out loud. 

     During the storm rigmarole, the Lady-of-the-House appreciated the autumn decorations out of the corner of her eye. And does so now.   

     What a funny crooked handle this brass candle pan has. It seems to have been made in haste or by an amateur. It is an antique find of the Man-of-the-House. He thinks it unpretentiously reflects the everyday wears of the everyday man at a time when electricity was unavailable for lighting hallways.

     Resting inside its pan is a tiny autumn ornament - a squirrel minutely cross-stitched on linen, a gift reflecting friendship afar.

     Also on the family room windowsill sits her newest pincushion. A circular sprig of faux autumn berries surrounds it. This gift to her was sewn from the wool fabric of a cast-off skirt purchased at a charity shop. Deft fingers turned it magically into a pumpkin. The leaves are to hold the needles so they won’t get lost inside the pincushion. Has this ever happened to you? 

     Potpourri lends its spiced autumn fragrance to the air. “Mmm, it smells good in here,” says the son of the Lady-of-the-House when he enters the room where his mother sits writing you on her laptop. She points to her bowl. He nods. She smiles.

     The Lady-of-the-House has a friend who is frugal in the most creative ways – ways that enable her to provide frugal niceties as well as frugal necessities for her family. The potpourri is a nicety from this friend who used resources close at hand, such as dried sage and bay leaves from the garden, orange peel, and spice balls made with cinnamon dough studded with cloves. How fun. 

     This hand-quilted square was pieced with naturally dyed cotton. It is a souvenir of a living history museum. A paper pinned to the back reads that that the brown came from acorns, the orange from madder, and the tan from tea. I think Blackberry Inn’s Dora would be charmed by its primitive handiwork.

     An antique wooden kneading bowl brightens the low shelf of the kitchen’s farm table with a faux harvest.

  Speaking of kneading, with evacuees staying over during the storm, the Lady-of-the-House prepared some comfort food. 

     She rolled out whole-wheat bread dough for cinnamon buns. 

     Conscientiously, she halves the quantity of brown sugar and butter listed lavishly in most recipes - using coconut oil in place of some of the butter. 

     Less “sticky” than most, they are still very much of a treat for the Man-of-the-House. 


     But one doesn’t need an approaching storm to make them.

     Thanks for stopping by,
     Karen Andreola


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Farmer Boys and Pioneer Girls (books for children)

Farmer Boys and Pioneer Girls
(books for children)

     Dean and I visited the Hans Herr House and Museum on Shnitz Day. Built in 1719 it is the oldest house in Lancaster and the oldest Mennonite meetinghouse still standing in America. The parking lot was over-full. Cars parked on the grass. I enjoyed the couple of hours we meandered. We meandered with interest from demonstration to demonstration and then sat down to hear and watch some blue grass players.

      In addition to feeling a little odd being without the company of offspring, I was taken aback (I could almost say “spooked”) when I overheard a mother ask her semi-circle of girls, “Where’s Nigel?” Not only is Nigel an uncommon name in these parts but it is also the exact phrase that once passed my lips to my girls about their little brother . . . often.

    These photographs were taken on Shnitz Day. My favorites are the girl hanging the washing and the red woven bedspread.
     Later, when we returned, stories of settlers came to mind – which gave me the idea to share them with you. Scroll along stopping at whatever catches your fancy. Our Nigel helped me add links for you. 

     When my children were young I chose this time of year to read aloud Ox-cart Man by Donald Hall. It ended up becoming an autumn family tradition. I find it a simple, somewhat poetic picture of early American rural life.

     Maybe it is the girl with her embroidery hoop in hand that endears me to its pages.

     This year I noticed something new about Ox-cart Man

Do you see (back a couple photos) how the book's cover depicts a blue oxcart? I had always assumed that the bright blue made eye-catching cover-art. That’s all. Seeing the blue covered wagon, however, at Hans Herr seemed too much of a coincidence. Lancaster, Pennsylvania is were the Conestoga wagon originates. Museums strive for accuracy –even with colors. Therefore, Barbara Cooney’s cover-art blue is likely to be accurate, too.

     Traveling in a Conestoga wagon is probably how Ann’s family left Gettysburg to settle further west in The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz. The pioneer girl you see pictured on the cover is Ann, the author’s great-great-grandmother. 

     Ann told the story to her children and children’s children. You’ll find out why her story is repeatable when you read to the end. Don’t peek. The book is short enough so you should be less tempted to leaf ahead. 

     The Cabin Faced West would brighten the study of American History (third grade reading level). 

     As a read-aloud it is marvelous for end-of-the-day de-stressing.

     Who traveled from east to west with apple seeds and tree seedlings? Johnny Appleseed. His name is John Chapman (1774-1845). He was born in Massachusetts. And although tall-tales may have sprung up about him, he is a real person with resilience and resolve who did steadfast acts of pioneering.

     The puny apples picked off the ancient apple trees at Hans Herr for Shnitz Day look just like the apples that grew on our old trees in Appleton, Maine (and those in Lessons at Blackberry Inn). From our spotted and dimpled apples my girls decided to make applesauce.

     The best use of a bumper crop of little apples is cider making. Mashing apples into juice for cider results in mounds of apple cores. Inside the cores are seeds.  Johnny Appleseed could have the seeds for free. This sparked the idea to start an apple seedling business from them. He traveled on foot from farm to farm helping families plant orchards on their homesteads. 

     The Sower Series is a set of biographies that does not skim over a person’s relationship with Christ. Because I have read several titles from this series and found them excellent, I can safely say that Johnny Appleseed by D. Collins is worth looking into for ages 10-14, although I haven’t read this particular title. 
     I've read Who Was Johnny Appleseed? by Joan Holub and found it pleasant and informative. Its simple text and cheery line drawings make it suitable for an average third grade reading level. 

     At Hans Herr one demonstrator made an apple pie and baked it in a brick oven. That same week Yolanda told me that she tried a new technique with “Grandma Opal’s Apple Pie” from 

     Fill a pie shell with chunks of raw apple. 
     Cover with lattice. 
     While a pot of caramel (butter and brown sugar) on the stovetop is still hot, pour it through the lattice and bake. 

     Yolanda was happy at how her pie turned out and I’m sure her husband was, too.  

     Three features make A Pioneer Sampler by Barbara Breenwood an inviting history resource.

     1.  It has a story to it.

     2.  It is chockfull of drawings. 

     3.  It offers instructions for “hands-on” projects.  

The Robertson family (fictional) is never in want of something to do. They start the year with maple sugaring. Fields are cleared, potatoes are planted, cows start giving milk, and bees start making honey. Sheep are sheared, wool is spun, and cloth is woven.

Summertime visits from nearby Indians, the cobbler, the peddler, and the itinerant preacher, make the Robertson’s life more interesting as do the girls’ trips to the general store and post office. Mr. Robertson and his sons fish and hunt. Most impressively they build a two-story timber frame house.

By autumn the family moves out of their log cabin and into their new house. They make ready for winter with a corn husking social, by threshing wheat, drying apples, preserving meat, making candles, and splitting firewood.

The year ends with Christmas traditions, bread baking and a shadow puppet show. One project is a punched tin sconce made from pie plates. You might choose cheese making, cloth dyeing, candle dipping, stenciling, or the threading together of a jumping-jack puppet. 

A Pioneer Sampler would be a good accompaniment to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy - a peek into the childhood of her husband, Almanzo Wilder. Almanzo is nine years old at the beginning of the story – the youngest in the family. Their days in New York State were full of multi-skilled chores from sunrise to sunset - similar to the seasonal chores listed above. It’s been decades since I read Farmer Boy aloud but I can still picture its episodes as if I had watched a film. And how could I forget the parlor wallpaper incident? 

On page 136 of A Charlotte Mason Companion I mention Farmer Boy as a useful book for ushering in a narration. My quiet child found it difficult to narrate from Little House - On the Banks of Plum Creek. Frankly there is not much happening in this book. I put it aside and replaced it with Farmer Boy. It did a better job of “feeding” her imagination.

     My word “feeding” has a double meaning because anyone who has read this book aloud can attest that the book is mouth-watering. All those delicious meals made from scratch and cooked on a wood-burning stove, minutes after the fruits and vegetables were picked from the garden, put a giggle in us both as my daughter narrated. Our stomachs growled. Eventually I scheduled this to be our last lesson of the morning so we could make lunch directly afterwards. Isn’t it nice how home education allows a family to be flexible?

Happy Reading

A favorite pioneer girl of my daughter's is Caddie Woodlawn. My review of the book it is on this post. 

Comments are Welcome,
Karen Andreola