The Season for Candle Time

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This is the time of year where morning comes slowly and evening quickly.

I feel melancholy as I wake up far before the sun rises over the Atlantic ocean, just a few miles to the east of us. As much as I want to embrace these days and all they hold, I am a woman who loves light and sun. I love it when sunlight floods my living room and bright light and warmth comfort me beyond my bones to my soul. As soon as I rise, I go to the kitchen and turn on the lights of the newly decorated Christmas tree and light a single candle. Somehow these small acts are enough to comfort; enough to calm my anxious soul and bring light into life.

It was during days like this that we began our favorite Christmas tradition, something we call “Candle Time”. It began in Cairo with my sister-in-law, Carol. We had the joy of having them live just a few blocks from us during our second year in Cairo. During the Christmas season we found ourselves back and forth at each other’s homes a lot. Together we had five children – three belonged to us, two belonged to them. One evening as our children were winding down after dinner we started “Candle Time”.

We began by turning off every light in the flat. Clad in their onesie pajamas, their toddler fat still squeezable, they sat still in wonder as we lit a candle and began singing Christmas carols. Then we walked each of them off to bed and looked at each other in amazement. We had never had this calm a bedtime routine.

And so began a tradition. Beginning soon after Thanksgiving we started Candle Time. By candle light we sang Christmas carols, talked, and prayed. By candle light we ate frosted sugar cookies. By candle light we drank rich, hot cocoa. By candle light we then walked each child to their beds, kissed them good night to the sound of Silent Night.

It became a favorite part of our holiday season.

Candle time became a treasured tradition, a time of quiet and connection during what is often the busiest time of the year. As the kids grew, guitar music accompanied our candle time, initially clumsy with chords but soon playing confidently and leading our singing. At times our time became less sacred and funnier as we tried to harmonize, laughing at those who could never quite find the right note.

Sometimes I would beg to keep one hall light on but the kids would have none of it. It was all lights off except the Christmas tree lights, one candle lit, all of us together. There was no talk of presents. No mention of Santa Claus. Just singing carols and quietly closing the day.

We no longer have little kids and candle time has had to evolve with our family growing up and away. But every year, once the tree is decorated, we try to have candle time during the season with who ever happens to be home.

Because no matter how old we get, it helps to stop. It helps to turn out all the lights, light a single candle and, with the glow of the Christmas tree lights creating magic and joy, reflect on the season as we wait for the One who has already come.

Aunt Gracia and the White House Christmas Ornaments


Like so many others in the western world, we took down our tree this weekend. While there is much excitement and anticipation as we put it up, there is relief and refreshment as we take it down.

Trees that come into our homes fresh and green, begin to shed needles in abundance, branches hanging heavy like the arms of a tired, old lady. The ornaments no longer look beautiful, but sad and incongruous.

What was once beautiful was now tired and ready to go.

We took off the decorations and carefully wrapped them in crisp, tissue paper, placing them into a colorful Christmas container. Red, gold, and green glass balls were wrapped up as well, showing their colors through the transluscent paper.

The clay angels from our Cairo days, wooden Pakistani camels, small, knit stockings from Christmases gone by — all of that too was taken off shelves and packed up until next year.

And each year as we pack away Christmas I think about my Aunt Gracia and her gifts to us while she was still alive — White House Christmas ornaments.

Yearly the White House Historical Association, whose purpose is to “enhance the understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the White House”offers a Christmas ornament through their museum shop. The association designs the ornament and it is only available through this venue.

For years my Aunt Gracia, my father’s oldest sister, volunteered at the White House. Among other things she would address cards to people for their birthdays or special events (I know you thought that the president himself sent you those special cards but – no, that’s not so. It was my Aunt Gracia.) And often her gifts to her nieces and nephews, of which she had an abundance, were White House Christmas Ornaments.

Delicate and framed in 24 karat gold, the ornaments are beauties.

There is the 1988 ornament – Children of the White House featuring President Jackson’s children. There is 1989 – the Bicentennial of the Presidency. 1994 shows soldiers standing at attention and is called “The Imperial Christmas” while 1995 goes for a patriotic theme with the white house flanked by two American flags. 1996 shows us an eagle on the Presidential Seal and 1997 gives us a larger view of the White House grounds. Others include Dolly Madison with an oval frame surrounding her; Abraham Lincoln in his characteristic “thinking” pose; a 200th anniversary edition in 2000; and a family’s first carriage ride in 2001.

The themes are endless. With their gold filagree and unique designs, these ornaments are works of art, heirlooms to be passed down for generations. 

There are times when it feels strange to me that I am so drawn to these ornaments. As a third culture kid and adult I have divided loyalties between countries, and the White House has never held particular interest to me, despite the decisions made daily in the oval office that affect our world.

But these ornaments? They are special. They are moveable pieces. They tell a story of Aunt Gracia, aunt to many nieces and nephews. Gracia, who lost her father at the awful age of 13, she the oldest in a family of five. Gracia Mae who lived in the nation’s capital for years, who lived alone for many of those years, but died surrounded by family who loved her. The ornaments remind me of my brother and sister-in-law who rearranged their home so that Aunt Gracia could live with them during her last weeks of life. Aunt Gracia, who kept up with all of us, who had an 80th birthday party attended by 75 friends and family where my mom read the poem “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple!” Gracia who chose a perfect gift for her nieces and nephews each year – White House Christmas ornaments.

In more recent years we have occasionally received ornaments from other family members hoping to continue the tradition. 2007 “A President Marries in the White House”; 2008 “A Victorian Christmas Tree”;  2012 where William Taft rides in a green automobile. Each time it was special, a time to reminisce and remember Aunt Gracia, thankful for this beautiful tradition.

So the ornaments have become one of our moveable pieces, a visual reminder of a beloved Aunt, a tangible, moveable piece to pass on.

So we packed up Christmas, and all the square boxes of different colors that hold these ornaments, grateful for our moveable pieces. They will always be visual reminders of a beloved Aunt; tangible evidence of her life and her love.

The Importance of Moveable Pieces

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In a town in California, a small Serbian community gathers together on January 7th to celebrate Nativity — by shooting guns into the air. A short video taken from a news broadcast shows a community gathered, intent on keeping something from all that was lost, determined to keep traditions alive despite being a small diaspora. You hear the gun shots and laughter, see the pride on faces of community members — this is their time.

I have always been fascinated by communities of immigrants and how they make life work for them in new places. How they take pieces of their past and beautifully weave them into their present. I love the pride with which they share these traditions, set apart in a good way, confident in their collective identity though so much else is lost.

From shooting guns into the air on Nativity to making Lebkuchen on Christmas to curry dinners the day after Christmas, we take moveable pieces from those places we love and incorporate them into our new homes.

Where would we be without those moveable pieces? So much would be lost and moments of joy remembering what was would be absent.

Moveable pieces provide a thread of continuity through change. They offer tangible proof that what we had in the past was real and meaningful. Moveable pieces offer hope that our lives and hearts do not need to forget, rather they can remember with joy even as we move forward, resolute in our efforts to make a new life and new traditions.

Moveable pieces, though not made of brick or stone, are foundations that offer stability in the midst of change.

What are your moveable pieces? What things or traditions move with you, at the ready when you need them in your new home? 

Blogger’s note: I remember my mom telling me that in a life of movement, you need to pack things in your suitcase that can provide a sense of home wherever you are. I always packed a few framed pictures and candle sticks, so that the minute we arrived we would  have something tangible that said “We’re here. We can do this.” Moveable pieces.

Picture Credit: word art by Marilyn R. Gardner