Putting the Magic Back in Christmas

This past Sunday at church, we were asked a question: What does Christmas mean to you? And don’t hold back. What does it really mean?

After some thought, I said, “For me, Christmas had a mysterious quality to it, like I never knew what to expect. It’s sad because lately I’ve been missing that. Nowadays, Christmas means stress and figuring out whose house to go to and what to buy for who and stuff like that. I want to bring back the magic, and I don’t mean in a pagan way. I want to bring back that joy and delight that came when Christmas started coming.”

I remember when I lost that feeling, several years ago after I got married. I think I was walking around an outdoors mall, seeing the decorations and hearing the music, and not feeling much of anything. It saddened me, because I’ve always loved Christmas. I think I’ve felt that way for a long time since I’ve became an adult, but it was the first time I suddenly realized that the magic of Christmas was missing. That sense of wonder and awe, the feeling of ritual that comes in bringing out and decorating a Christmas tree, listening to Christmas music, that feeling on anticipation on Christmas Eve, of waking up at 4am and sneaking down with my sisters to see the Christmas tree still lit and the presents underneath. That type of wonder and mysteriousness and, well, magic.

Christmas was so much more fun when I was a kid. I didn’t think I would ever get that feeling back. Until Monday.

Ever see A Christmas Story? Who hasn’t? The movie’s pretty much a classic by now, or at least TBS wants it to be, showing it over and over and over and over on Christmas day. Geez hammer it into our brains already, why don’t you? But I’m getting off track. There’s the scene in the movie (and if I’m spoiling it for you, tough. It’s been out since the 80s and been shown on every channel–if you haven’t seen it, then you can’t be reading the blog because that mean you have absolutely no technology in your house) where the father asks Ralphie if he had a good Christmas. The kid hems and haws, then the father says, “Hey, what’s that over there? Looks like Santa left a present.” Ralphie goes over and pulls out the gift hiding behind the piano (or radiator…I can’t really remember). Of course, it’s the BB gun he’s been wanting throughout the entire movie. I always liked that part of the movie when Ralphie rips the paper off and his eyes get big as he realizes what it is. But this year, this Monday, I found myself paying more attention to the parents’ reaction.

Next time you see the movie, pay careful attention to the Mom and Dad. The father is nearly lost in his own wonder, excitement mirroring that of Ralphie’s as he watches his son pull open the gift. His hands even rises and mimics his son’s as he pours the BBs into the barrel. Meanwhile, the mother is watching them, her eyes moving from her son to her husband in surprise. For one brief moment, the father and the son is of one mind and one heart, and the mother can’t help but recognize it, albeit in a bewildered way.

I found myself thinking of that scene when we were opening gifts a little later. Daniel was sitting on his Daddy’s lap, and when he opened a gift, he immediately recognized it for what it was. “James!” he called out gleefully as he pulled out a train. (And yes, at two years old, my kid can recognize different trains from the Thomas the Train Engine series. Go figure.) The delight that crossed both his face, and my hubbie’s face as he realized that Daniel knew the gift, was, well…magical.

That got me to thinking about gift-giving in general. Christmas has always been about buying stuff. Buy! Buy! Buy! The stores tell us to buy stuff to make the people you love happy! Then buy more stuff. Buy! Buy! Buy! But that’s not what Christmas is about. It’s all about the giving. Giving something to someone to make them happy. And that doesn’t have to be exclusively gifts. It can be anything: from showing up at someone’s house you haven’t seen in a long time, to acknowledging a person’s hard work in front of them, to giving basic toiletries to needy families. It’s seeing that look of surprise, then joy that comes over their faces that personifies the magic of Christmas. That I-wasn’t-expecting-this-but-you-gave-it-to-me-anyway look. That same look on Ralphie’s face when he got the BB gun, and his father’s face as he watched his son’s delight.

I think God had that in mind when Jesus came down to earth. He gave the world a gift that no one deserved, that no one expected. Mary certainly didn’t have it in mind. I wish I saw her and Joseph’s faces when the shepherds appeared. I wish I saw the shepherds’ faces when all those angels appeared in the sky, then they rushed to Bethlehem to see if what the angels’ spoke of was true. I wish I saw the three wise men’s faces when they saw the star. His gift of redemption from sin certainly goes unappreciated today, but back then, the shepherd and wise men, and Mary and Joseph, realizing what the little baby meant, rejoiced. And God, seeing that, rejoiced as well, and He allowed the angels to fill the air with rejoicing.

That, my friends, is absolutely magical.

Now that Daniel’s a little bit older and beginning to understand Christmas a bit (“Present!” he said all Christmas day), how do I, as a mother, impart that sense of wonder on him? Not just at Christmas, but throughout the year? It’s a bit of a challenge. My hubby and I will have to go against the materialistic world and its “Buy stuff! Buy stuff!” message. But I think that sense of wonder is coming back for me. I want to cultivate it, see things through my son’s eyes. I don’t mean live vicariously through him, but to share his sense of wonder and joy. To be of one heart and one mind. And I want him to learn that Christmas isn’t just about receiving. It’s also about giving. I don’t know how to teach him that, but I’m gonna try.

And I’m taking the word magical back. Too often, magical seems to imply pagan, evil, satanic rituals in Christian circles. But the word can also convey the sense of awe, joy, wonder and delight. I want to experience that in my Christian walk. How do you think people responded when Jesus walked on water, calmed storms, raised the dead, healed the sick? By yawning and sarcastic comments of “Yeah, we’ve seen that before.” No, they were awed! They were stunned! God wants us to be delighted by what he’s done and to crave more of His wonder, His awesomeness, His…well, magicalness!

Merry Christmas, y’all. Merry Christmas to every single one of you. Here’s to praying that God will instill that bit of magicalness in you all in 2007 and beyond.

And here is the scarf…

The scarf in question:

1st scarf

 

 

And the boy wearing it:

daniel in scarf

Knitting Bass-Ackwards

Back on November 30, I hit another goal besides the focusing on Willow for a month and winning NaNoWriMo. I also finished knitting my first scarf. I like to knit while I write. It helps me focus my thoughts when I get stuck. But I didn’t always like to knit.

When I lived in the city with my hubby, all my friends did it. A whole bunch of young women toting around needles and yarn whereever they went: to church, at our Bible study, during a rock performance at Schubas…they just loved to knit. I, on the other hand, didn’t want to do knitting. I was stubbornly set on doing cross-stitch. “Cross-stitching is a challenge,” I would say as I pull out my bag of tangled floss, my pattern all marked up, and the canvass itself, which would have been in its hoop for many years because I’ve been working on the same piece since I got married. Whereas my friends would knit in the dark, I had to have light, so it limited my time to do cross-stitch to doing it at home relaxing in front of the TV.

Unfortunately, when you do cross-stitch, you have to be very careful in counting your stitches or else you’ll lose your place and put stitches where you’re not supposed to. That’s what happened to me on this one piece. It’s still sitting in my closet, begging for me to finish it, but I daren’t touch it. It’s messed up so bad, I’m afraid to even look at it.

That’s when I realized that the bandwagon of knitting headed off in the distance without me and that I better take a flying leap to catch up. So I bought some needles and yarn, one of those pamphlets that taught you how to knit, and I took it to someone and asked, “Can you show me how to knit?” This person, however, was not a teacher.

“You’re doing it wrong!”
“It has to be tighter!”
“Ugh! Here…give me that. You loop it like this! This!”

I emerged from that experience with more scars than possible and decided never to take up knitting again. It looked too dangerous.

Fast forward to last year. My dear sister-in-law got me the book Stitch ‘N bitch for Christmas. “You should try it,” she said. “It’s easy.” I was dubious, at first, especially about the title, the fundamentalist Christian rearing its ugly head. But when I opened it up, I fell in love with all the patterns inside. Plus, they made knitting look so darn easy…maybe I should give knitting a second chance.

I started on a scarf on December 26, 2005. I finished it November 30, 2006. It’s a very pretty scarf, I have to say. I taught myself to knit and purl, so there’s some nice ribbing across it. Sure, it’s wider more than it’s longer. My original plan was to give it to my hubby, but when it barely enclosed his neck, I gave it to Daniel instead. It covers him quite nicely.

This is easy, I thought, and started to tackle the next project of knitting a handkerchief to wear on my head. It involved making a triangle using stitches called increases and decreases. The instructions said to put the needles into the front and back of the loop.

Wha……?

I had no clue what this meant. I studied the pictures. I positioned my needles. But I had no clue what I was doing. I needed help. But this time, I was smart. I went to a knitting shop and explained my problem. The shop owner was very nice–she took up some needles and yarn, did some funky flying maneuvers that made drop my jaw in awe, and handed them to me, several rows casted on in a blink of an eye. “Show me how you knit.” I did, and a smile crossed her face.

“Oh…I see what you’re doing. You’re knitting into the back of the loop.”

“Is that the wrong way?” I asked.

“Not necessarily. When people knit, the normal way is to knit in the front of the loop, like this.” She showed me carefully. “When you knit in the back, that’s called ‘twisting the stitch’. You don’t want to do this consistently, but it’s very useful in some patterns.”

“But I’ve made an entire scarf that way!” I wailed.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it,” she said. “Knitting in the back loop makes the knitting tighter. Some people say it’s harder to get the needles in that way. But for plain things, like scarves, I wouldn’t worry about it. Part of knitting is having fun and doing lots of creative things with it. If it works for you, it works.”

So ain’t that something. All this time, I’ve been knitting bass-backwards. But you know what? So what. That scarf still looks good. No one knows that I’ve knitted it wrong. No one cares either, so why should I? Maybe I like knitting in the back loop. True, I’m knitting the correct way now, but frankly, it looks strange to my eyes. Oh well. Maybe I’ll make some more scarves knitting in the back loop. I’m a rebel that way.

And someday, maybe I’ll even take cross-stitch out of the closet, throw away the pattern, and stitch it my own damn way.

Christmas Product Placement #6: The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart

Well, it’s time to wrap up the Christmas Product Placement Week. Poor Aunt Billie-Joe Bob is sprawled out under the tree, wrapping paper and CDs and DVDs scattered all over her body. But I would be remiss if, in all the things I suggested, I don’t mention a book. So here. Plop this hefty read on her stomach, because it’s a thick one. But good. Oh so good. I’m talking about the book The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart. But be warned–if you want to read this book, you’ll have to do a bit of searching because it’s hard to find.

BOBBack in 80s, a guy named Barry Hughart wrote a book called Bridge of Birds. One could call it “A tale of China that never was”. It was a story about a fun loving boozer called Master Li who’s called to investigate a mysterious illness that’s taken place in a village. He is joined by an idiot, but powerful strong oaf who goes by the moniker Number Ten Ox. The tale takes them over an imaginary China where they have a run-in with ghosts, large amounts of ginseng, corrupt politicians and their ugly-but-strangely-compelling mistresses, and gods torn apart from each other. The best way to explain this books is 4 parts fairy tale, 3 parts mystery, 1 part treasure hunt, 1 part comedy, 1 part tragedy, with bits of children games, ghost story, horticulture, bawdy humor, poetic justice and a gigantic killer invisible hand thrown in measure.

I came across this book in the late ’80s when I first ventured to the North Side of Chicago (don’t tell my mom–I didn’t tell her we had a half-day in high school) and got it at a fantasy bookstore. I fell in love with the book, then promptly lost it (I know I gave it to someone, but for the life of me, no one will ‘fess up). Fast forward several years later, a couple of years after I got married. One day, I was surfing the web when I found an old bookstore that used to be in Evanston I used to frequent being sold to another business. Curious, I looked through their catalog and up popped Bridge of Birds, along with two other books Hughart wrote with the same two main characters: The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. The three books were collected in an omnibus called The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. Six months later, I managed to add this book to my collection, and I would call it my most favorite book ever.

I can’t do justice with this review. The books are hilarious and touching. Master Li is strange, bizarre, naughty, but he is also smart and wise for a dirty old man. Number Ten Ox is sweet in his stupidity, and you can’t help but root for him as he undergoes various and progressively-harder-to-pull-off tasks. The ending to the Bridge of Birds made me cry…and I believe at the halfway point of the omnibus, I felt miserable because I felt I was reading it too fast and almost done with it. I wanted to read every sentence, every word, because Hughart writes so beautifully, so poetically , it’s like listening to your Chinese grandmother telling a story, even if you’re not Chinese. His other two books in the omnibus are good too. In The Story of the Stone, Master Li & 10 Ox continue their adventures of solving cases by helping a prince trace the mayhem of his ancestor and the power of a mysterious stone. And in Eight Skilled Gentlemen, a bunch of elite eunuchs are being murdered for possession of odd, birdcage like contraptions, and it’s up to Master Li & 10 Ox to find out why before the world blows up…or something. Though it was funny, this is the weirdest story of the three.

Sadly, Hughart never wrote any more books, even though he won a 1985 World Fantasy Award for best novel that was shared with Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (ah, and there’s another book that I need to get for keeps. That was an awesome book). Although his three books were wonderful, there were problems he had with his publishers that caused him to walk away from writing altogether. It’s such a blasted shame, because I would have loved to see more adventures of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. The book is very hard to find in an actual bookstore, which means you’ll have to track it down online. I got mine at Dreamhavenbooks.com, but it looks like they don’t carry it anymore.

But no matter what you do, track down this book somehow. Order it from the library, find it in one of the third-market sellers at Amazon. Do a search on Google. Find this book. Then read it. And let me know if you do. You will be ready to embark on a wild, crazy, fun ride. For all of you reading it for the first time, I envy you. I really do.

Christmas Product Placement #5: They Might Be Giants “Here Come the ABCs” and “No!”

Have I overloaded your senses yet? There’s been a lot of stuff thrown your way this week at the Cafe. Poor Aunt Billie-Joe Bob must be trembling under all the gifts you got her. But what about her children? Haven’t you thought about her children? Dear God, won’t someone think of her children?! All eight of them?!?!?!?!

I got just the thing to turn those snot-nosed, whiny brats into quiet cherubic mice. Get a copy of They Might Be Giants “Here Come the ABCs” and “No!”. Open up iTunes or Winamp or whatever music program you got. Transfer the CDs to .mp3s. Put the players on repeat. Start the music and walk away.

I’m very, very picky when it comes to children’s music. If I’m going to be stuck in a room making sure that my kid’s paint-smeared hands stay on the paper we’re drawing on and not on the walls, then I better not be listening to some candy-pop drivel that’s been ‘kiddified’ with edited lyrics. And I can only listen so much to high, slightly off-pitch voices singing, “Ring around the Rosie” or “Twinkle, twinkle little star…” before I start stabbing the off button on my CD player. That’s why I highly recommend They Might Be Giants. It’s music both you and your kid will enjoy.

TMBG ABCThey Might Be Giants have been around for quite a while. I remember first hearing a tape of “Flood” when I was a freshman in college. It was one of the things that got me hooked on rock…the underground kind (although I believe “Flood” was more of a mainstream release. Someone tell me if I’m wrong. The two main frontmen: John Linnell and John Flansburgh are considered geeks in the rock world. The music lyrics are weird but fun, though they can get downright strange sometimes. They also have the tendency to run pretty short (most songs being around the minute to minute and a half mark) which made them perfect candidates to switch over to children’s music without skipping a beat. In fact, one could say that it’s adult music for kids.

“Here Come the ABCs” have 23 original songs on the alphabet (though the alphabet song does worm its way into the song “Who Put the Alphabet in Alphabetical Order). Sometimes they focus on one letter. “Flying V” discusses both the poetic formation of flying geese and a certain brand of guitar. Other songs are just plain fun. Can you name countries using every letter of the alphabet? They did with “Alphabet of Nations”. There are even a couple of bonus songs, including the theme song they do for “Higgley-Town Heros”, and a hidden track that I take great delight in: “I never go to work”.

“Here Come the ABCs” is Daniel’s favorite CD, but his absolute, most favorite song that gets him screaming in glee, is the title song off their other kids album, “No!” Do I even need to explain why?

NoNo is no.
No is always no.
If they say no, they mean a thousand times no.

No plus no equals no.
All nos lead to no, no, no.

Finger pointing, eyebrows low.
Mouth in the shape of a letter ‘O’.
“Pardon me?” No!
“Excuse me?” No!
“Can I stay? Can I play?” No! No! No!

If I had fun writing typing that in, imagine a two year old squealing at the top of his lungs whenever this song is played.

Do your kids a favor. Don’t settle for crappy kids’ music they advertise on those commercials. Get them real music. Real music that not only they will love, but that you will love to. That way, you won’t mind if your kids beg you to play it over again for the 328th time. You may even find yourself sneaking it off to listen to it on your own. It’s that much fun.

Christmas Product Placement #4: Full Metal Alchemist

Yesterday, we looked at Futurama. To continue the thread that cartoons are not just for kids anymore, you really ought to take a look at anime. Anime is getting pretty hot in this country, especially among the teenage set. Borders and Barnes and Nobles have a whole section devoted entirely to Japanese comics (In fact, I notice that it takes up more shelves than American comics). It’s especially popular among teenage girls, for Japanese comics isn’t about just robots and swords–it can be also romantic and silly, and well, girly. I don’t think you can find much of that in American Comics (though a title immediately comes to my mind–Strangers in Paradise).

So many Christian parents are clueless of what their kids are watching. They either view anime as harmless or satanic. I’ve wanted to provide some type of that resource here at that cafe. I am considering starting up a new blog that focuses exclusively on anime reviews. What do you all think?

edandalIf I’m to a review an anime, it’s got to, got to, got to start off with Full Metal Alchemist. This is the best anime series, ever, and that’s taking into consideration that when I saw the first episode, I thought it was a satanic, violent story and refused to watch anymore episodes. It wasn’t until I caught another episode by accident that I got fully hooked in.

Full Metal Alchemist tells the story of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse, set in an alternate universe where alchemy is a high science and religion is looked upon with scorn. Due to a mishap in trying to bring back their mother from death, younger brother Al loses his body. Ed puts Al’s soul in a suit of armor, losing his own arm and leg in the process. The series (about 51 episodes) focuses on their search to find the Philosopher Stone and return Al to his own body.

There are so many themes in this anime I love, but I think the theme I like most is watching Ed and Al grow as characters. Ed starts off a smart mouth brat who thinks he knows all there is about alchemy, but as the series continues, he realizes that he’s only human, that he makes mistakes, and that alchemy is not the end-all, be-all power that there is. Al has his share of dark moments too, from trying to keep Ed out of trouble to wondering if he ever was a human boy, and not just a collection of memories.

Izumithmovie26The series have many moments that lightened the mood–one of my favorite episodes involves their alchemist teacher, Izumi Curtis, who has got to be the most baaaaadaaaaass housewife ever. Any woman who can read a book, duck and still beat you up is badass in my book. (And sorry if I use that term, but really, there’s no other way explain her. And just look at those locs. An anime character with actual locs! Look at them! Aren’t they beyootiful!)

What also impressed me about the series is the vocal talent. There are very few anime that has a talented English cast as well as Japanese, but in America, Ed is voiced by Vic Mignogna, a talented voice actor who’s a Christian, and Al is voiced by Aaron Dismuke, who is one of the few child anime voice actors out there. Most anime, when they do voices for kids, either have women or characters talking in high, squeaky voices. However, when Funimation redid the voices, they had the guts to bring in an actual boy, and with some of the emotions Al go through, all you can do is drop your mouth and go “Wowww…”

The Japanese comic for Full Metal Alchemist, I understand, is still going on, but the anime itself is over. So far, one movie has been released. I don’t know if there will be another one, but after watching it, I would assume that another one will be in the works. Again, I have to say. This is not for children. There are some violent images (though thankfully, they’re few and far between). If you want to be very safe, you can watch the series on Cartoon Network, where I believe there are some edits done. I would say it’s suitable for older teens, mayyyyybe down to age fourteen or so. But if you are an adult, I do challenge you to get this series. It’s fun to watch, have a deeply moving storyline, and it kicks butt.

Wait. I’m talking about Full Metal Alchemist here. It kicks ass.

Christmas Product Placement #3: Futurama

All right, we got some music for Aunt Billie-Joe Bob, more than she care to listen to, but that’s beside the point. Now it’s time to numb her visual cortex as well as her audible senses, so you wander over to the nearest Big Box store and into their DVD section.

I have to confess. I really haven’t been into TV all that much, what with taking writing seriously and having a little boy who only want to watch Thomas and all. So as far as network programming, I really can’t assist you this time. I think the only things I watch live nowadays is Mythbusters and Star Trek, and that’s stuff my hubby watches. I tried to get into Lost and Grey’s Anatomy, but by now, they’re deep into their, what, third? fourth seasons? I’ll have to get the DVDs from Blockbuster just to catch up, and really, when will I have time to do that?

But I can advise a little something, if you’re willing to get it. Head over into the cartoon section, and pick up the series Futurama.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. futuramaWhy on earth will I want to get Aunt Billie-Joe Bob a cartoon? Here’s why, bucko. Cartoons aren’t just for kids any more. Hasn’t been that way since Simpsons blazed onto the TV screen in 1989. Futurama is by the same creator of that series.

Yeah, but this plays on Adult Swim Cartoon Network every night. I mean every night. Why bother to get the DVDs when I can turn on the TV at 9:30pm Central Time? Why not get them? Why are boxed sets so popular? I don’t know. Not only you can see the episodes sans those annoying commercials (and if you watch Adult Swim, you know what I mean), but you also get a bunch of nifty extras, like deleted scenes, commentary, and translations of the squiggly alien language that pops up from time to time in the show.

But it’s more than that. Futurama is a great series that’s fun to watch and put your brain on ice, but there are times when it can be thoughtful too. My favorite episodes are the ones that show the deeper side of the characters. Fry, when he’s not being a moron, do have an occasional regret of losing his family, and as he falls in love with Leela, he does his best to ensure her happiness, even though he knows his is only a unrequited love. Bender, boozing, vain, potty-mouth, occasionally shows that there’s a softer side to him (though he’ll probably rob you while you’re going ‘Awwwww….’)

The series ran for five seasons before calling it quits. However, 13 new episodes are now being produced to run on Comedy Central in 2008. Personally, I’m satisfied where the show ended, not on a final note, but on a nice hopeful note that had possibilities. It will be interesting to see what these new episodes will be like. Until then, get the DVDs. Or continue watching them on Adult Swim. Either way, you’ll have lots of fun.