DECEMBER 2019

I am afraid of the darkness outside. I close my curtains every night  and open them to the earliest light. These are the end and the beginning of my daily routines.

At home or away, sick or well, troubled or at peace, routines are comforting. They create spaces in time and place for delight in the joyful unexpected and for coping with its dreaded counterpart.

Breaking with routine on occasion is comforting too: a holiday, a vacation, a spontaneous moment of presence:  watching the cat chase a butterfly or listening to a toddler learn to use language to bring order to the chaos of new sensations.

On holy days like Christmas, alternate routines are dusted off and elevated to the status of rituals, and they temporarily take the place of mundane habits.

There are people who are not around every day. There is food that is not part of the daily fare, and we give thanks to whatever we believe in for sunlight and darkness and curtains to let them in or close them out, for health and the sickness that makes health a blessing, for peace and joy and the trouble and sadness that make them real, for daily routines and holiday rituals, for food and coffee, cats and dogs, butterflies, Christmas trees, toddlers, and words. 

THIS MONTH IN COFFEE TALK

New blogs will be posted throughout the month

Christmas Joy in Cigar Boxes: Recipe for a Christmas Memory (posted December 2, 2019)

December 12, Guadalupe Day (posted December 1, 2019)

Gallery of Nativity Displays (posted December 1, 2019)

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Why I Celebrate Christmas Anyway

I am aware that December 25 has much more to do with the Roman Saturnalia, the Winter Solstice, the birth of the Zoroastrian Deity Mithra, and other non-Christian rites than it does with the miraculous birth of Jesus, which Biblical scholars calculate likely happened during the harvest-time Feast of Booths, or maybe in spring at lambing time. The Gospels of Mark and John make no mention of the birth of Jesus, and there is no hint in the Canonical Scriptures that the disciples or the earliest Judaeo-Christians celebrated Jesus’s birthday. I’m fairly certain that Jesus never saw snow, evergreens, or mistletoe, never tasted gingerbread, eggnog, or peppermint candy, never mentioned red and green as His special colors. The Wise Men didn’t have glitter paper or wire ribbons, but their presentations of gold, frankincense, and myrrh surely were made in something more elegant than old socks, and there’s no denying that Christmas trees, candles, yule logs, holly and mistletoe are the legacy of our pagan ancestors.

The first Christ-Mass celebrations almost four centuries after the glorious event were so rooted in pre-Christian traditions that centuries later they were outlawed by our Puritan ancestors. Nowadays the veneer of Christianity added to pagan solstice rituals looks thin and shabby in the glare of globalized Mammonization and giant Christmas trees in giant shopping malls. I’m pretty sure that a lot of contemporary fa-la-la-ing has much more to do with bottom lines than with Nativity, and I abhor the new “holiday tradition” of Black Friday and the human sacrifices that the God Mammon has claimed since this new pagan holiday was dreamed up by twenty-first century Scrooges who see the profit potential in less humbug and more ho-ho-ho.

I know all this, but I can’t see that throwing out Christmas would make the world a better place or me a better person. If I had bad Christmas memories or no Christmas memories, I might, in a quest for piety, ignore the whole thing, but I have my Christmas memories, beautiful memories, woven into the fabric of my soul. No matter how hard I try, no matter how I want to get past the commercialism, I can’t throw Christmas out.

My imperfect but loving parents and grandparents told me elaborate lies about Santa Claus and reindeer. They suspended domestic order for a few days, allowed me to stay up much later and eat more treats than any child should, and, disguised as that Jolly Old Elf, gave me at least one thing every year that fulfilled my heart’s desire. A few years later I knew that Santa Claus meant my parents had sacrificed their own comfort at Christmases past to show their love and to bring some magic into my life. I loved helping create that magic for my baby sister and eventually for my own children.

My Christmas memories are a mosaic of sights, sounds, and smells: decorating a tree that made a plain little house look pretty and smell wonderful for a few weeks; helping make and deliver Mama’s holiday candy boxes to friends and neighbors; driving around town to see twinkling colored lights everywhere and other people’s Christmas trees shining through windows; gathering with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, to eat until we could eat no more. Christmas is a lump in my throat when I hear “Silent Night” or “White Christmas” and when my grown-up son sings “O Holy Night” at church. Christmas is wide-eyed wonder on my children’s and grandchildren’s faces as rituals of my childhood are re-enacted.

Christmas is gathering on the coldest, darkest nights of the year to banish the dark and the cold and the primitive fear that the sun might not return by lighting candles and Christmas trees and fireplace logs. Christmas is giving and receiving gifts to affirm the love that makes the darkness bearable.

I don’t always think about God in the middle of Christmas busy-ness, but when I do, I am moved with gratitude for all the awesomeness around me: Messiah, life, light, family, friends, food, fun, and the beautiful fear and wonder in all of that.

There was more of magic than of faith in our family Christmas rituals, but my folks lived the love preached by the One whose miraculous birth we did our best to celebrate.

The Christmas Eve Flower

I have never been much of a holiday decorator, but in Guadalajara, Mexico, I had some help from nature. Every year, about December 15, a nondescript bush of bare sticks in my back yard would bloom with bright red flowers and keep its glowing appearance until the end of the holiday season.

The beautiful red flower, known in Mexico as the Flor de Nochebuena (Flower of Christmas Eve) has been a cherished symbol of the Nativity in Mexico since the time of the Spanish Conquest.

A popular legend tells of a poor little girl who was on her way to the village Church for Christmas Eve Mass.

As she shuffled along the path weeping, a beautiful person in a halo of light appeared to her. “Why are you crying?” the person asked.

“Because my family is very poor, and I don’t have a gift to take to Baby Jesus,” the little girl said.

The beautiful person, who was really an angel, pointed to some ugly sticks by the side of the road. “Pick up those sticks and take them to the Baby Jesus,” the angel said.

“How can I take something so plain and ugly to Jesus?” the little girl asked.

“Just pick them up and you will see,” said the angel.

The little girl picked them up, but nothing happened, and she continued along the road to the Church, puzzled by this strange event. When she got to the Church, she walked up to the Nativity Scene and put the sticks down beside the manger where the doll that represented Baby Jesus was lying.

As she laid them down, beautiful red flowers bloomed all over them. Those were the first Christmas Eve Flowers. 

Joel Roberts Poinsett introduced Euphorbia pulcherrima to the United States in the 1820s. Poinsett, a soldier, diplomat, and botanist, who served as special envoy to Mexico from 1822-23, saw them when he was visiting Taxco, south of Mexico City. He sent some samples back to his home in South Carolina, and people called them Poinsettias.

The brightly-colored parts of the plant are actually leaves. which may be bright red, pink, yellow, or white. The flower is the unobtrusive green or yellow center.

It has been a Christmas symbol in Mexico since the time of the earliest Christian converts. Since its introduction in the United States in the mid-1800s, it has become a beloved part of Christmas celebrations in the United States too.

The Birth of Jesus, King James Version

This late 19th-Century stained glass at Cologne Cathedral shows the Adoration of Wise Men and Shepherds.

The King James Version of the Bible has always been for me written in the language of God. Thee, thou, thy, thine, goeth, cometh, and maketh seem more fitting for talking about holy matters than you, your, yours, come, and make, and even though I have somewhat modernized the language in which I address the Deity, archaic words still feel more appropriate for divine communication. In the secular world, things simply happen, but in holy realms they come to pass.

In his 2005 work, God’s Secretaries, Adam Nicols reconstructs the editorial process of the King James Version. Passages were read aloud over and over until the committee of scholars were satisfied with both content and cadence. It is no wonder that the poetic quality of the KJV is superior to other English versions.

The King James stories of Nativity recited or read aloud, along with Christmas trees, Santa Claus, stockings and candy canes make up my tapestry of Christmas Memories, woven mostly during my first ten years of life.

Matthew tells of wise men from the East, Herod’s murderous rage in pursuit of the infant King of the Jews, and time spent by the young family with their miraculous child in Egypt. There are no shepherds in Matthew’s account. Luke recounts the shepherds’ visit and gives a great deal of attention to the conception and birth a few months earlier of the Christ Child’s cousin John. Matthew’s angels appear only in Joseph’s dreams, but Luke’s angels are not only talkative, they also sing. Luke does not mention the star or the wise men from the East. The Gospels of Mark and John are silent on the matter of Jesus’s birth.

Matthew 1:26-56; 2:1-20 KJV

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.”

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”

Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, “In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.”

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:

And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”

But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.”

And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

A 4th Century sarcophagus shows depicts Magi bringing gifts to the Christ Child.


Luke 1:26-56, 2:1-40 KJV

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

And the angel came in unto her, and said, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said unto her, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

Then said Mary unto the angel, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”

And the angel answered and said unto her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

And the angel departed from her. And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.

And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.”

And Mary said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.”

And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Christmas Joy in Cigar Boxes

Recipe for a Christmas Memory

Candy is childhood, the best and bright moments you wish could have lasted forever.

Dylan Lauren 

Mama ushered in the holiday seasons by recruiting anyone whose hands were not otherwise occupied to shell pecans. The pecans were used liberally in the Thanksgiving dressing, cranberry salad, and pecan pies, but the biggest and prettiest ones were set aside for Mama’s Christmas specialties: divinity, marshmallow cream fudge, and date loaf. She would fuss and sweat in the kitchen for days, sometimes discarding whole batches that didn’t meet her high holiday standards.  These imperfect batches were happily devoured by less-demanding family members like me.

Perfect specimens, which were off limits to family, were saran-wrapped and artfully arranged in beautifully decorated cigar boxes, along with a few store-bought peppermint sticks and pieces of ribbon candy. These were hand-delivered to special people: neighbors, teachers, employers, merchants, the pastor, and the church secretary.

I never cared much for divinity, a mysterious tricky mix of egg whites and sugar, although I would eat most anything that contained obscene amounts of sugar, as long as shredded coconut was not involved. The recipe for marshmallow cream fudge was printed on every jar of the sticky stuff that was its star ingredient.

When I got married, I imagined coming home for many Christmases to learn from Mama the arts of candy-making and Christmas joy-box preparation, but she survived only one Christmas after my marriage, and the recipes, which she seldom used because she knew them by heart, were lost in a jumbled box of papers under her bed that she had intended to put in order someday when she had time. After Mama died, I pestered relatives and friends for the mysterious date loaf candy recipe. Several volunteered their versions, but none were a match for Mama’s. Cookbook and magazine recipes for just about anything called for ingredients like cardamom or capsicum that I’d never heard of and that were not easily available at the local A & P. Mama’s recipes were made from simple ingredients that we had at home all the time. She called them “staples.” Sugar. Butter. Flour. Vanilla. And the things she made from them were delicious.

Date loaf, however, was a Christmas joy beyond belief: sugar, butter, milk, vanilla, dates, and pecans combined, cooked, wrapped in a damp dishtowel overnight, and transformed into a small taste heaven. But I didn’t find the recipe in the box under the bed, and nobody else had the recipe.

I searched the internet for years with no success. Until today. Someone posted her great-grandma’s recipe, and it is THE ONE.

HELEN RUTH RICE LESH’S (AND SOMEONE ELSE’S GREAT-GRANDMA’S) FAVORITE DATE LOAF RECIPE

Stir together in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until a small amount dropped into cold water forms a hard ball. Do not stir after it begins to boil.

  • 2 cups of white sugar
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1/4 cup of butter

Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in

  • 1 cup of chopped dates
  • 1 cup of chopped pecans
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla.

Dampen a piece of cheesecloth or a gauze dishtowel, lay it flat, and pour the candy mixture into the center. Roll the cloth around the candy to form a log. Refrigerate 8 hours. Remove the cloth, and the candy is ready to be sliced and packaged (or devoured). 

Mama would put the rolled up cloths on the outside window sill because the weather was cold and refrigerator space was always at a premium post-Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas.

Happy Holidays!

December 12, Guadalupe Day

The Virgin of Guadalupe is arguably the most popular religious and cultural icon in Mexico and throughout Latin America.  The dark-skinned Virgin is known as Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas. Many children, boys and girls are given the name Guadalupe (Lupe, Lupita), sometimes in combination with names of the Holy Parents, as in María Guadalupe or José Guadalupe. December 12 is a special day for everyone who is named Guadalupe, and especially for the lady whose name they share.

On December 12, 1531, Juan Diego was lost in thought as he walked across a hill near the Tepeyac Desert on the outskirts of  Tenochtitlán. He was astonished to see a beautiful young woman walking toward him. She was wearing a beautiful garment, and she seemed to appear from nowhere.

There is no record of the words the young woman said, but Juan Diego, a recent convert to Christianity, understood that she wanted him to build a chapel on that spot. Juan Diego ran to the bishop to tell him what he had seen and heard on Tepeyac Hill. The bishop was less than enthusiastic. "If this is true," he said, "bring me a sign that this is a holy vision."

Juan Diego, a bit downcast, returned to the hill, hoping that the young woman would show up again. He didn't have to wait long. There she was.

"I need a sign to show the bishop," he said.

"Pick up those roses," said the young woman. "Take them to the bishop."

("Roses?") thought Juan Diego. ("Roses don't grow here, and especially not in this cold.") But when he looked down, he saw a rose bush in full bloom.

Juan Diego was wearing a tilma, a blanket-like outer garment made of cactus cloth, so he used it as an apron to collect the roses. The beautiful dark-skinned heavenly lady arranged them with her own hands. 
He hurried back to the bishop, holding the flowers closely in his garment. When he reached the church, he released the garment to allow the miraculous roses to fall to the ground. An image of the young woman had been imprinted on the cloth.

The image, they say, is the same one that hangs today, almost five hundred years later, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill, one of the world’s most visited shrines. The chapel was built on the site of a temple to Aztec mother-goddess Tonantzin, which had been destroyed by the Spanish in 1521. Indigenous converts came to worship there, but they continued to call the Virgin Mary Tonantzin.

Although many people are devoted to the story of her miraculous appearance, The Virgin of Guadalupe has been controversial among religious historians, including a number of noted Catholic scholars. There is no mention of the image in Church historical records until 1556. At that time, Francisco Bustamante, head of the Franciscans who had custody of the Tepeyac chapel, attributed the painting to native artist Marcos Cipac de Aquino. Bustamente argued before the Viceroy that Archbishop Alonso de Montufar, a Dominican, was promoting superstitious regard for the painting. Montufar countered that he was simply promoting devotion to the Virgin Mother, whose image was conveyed in that painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Montufar and the Dominicans prevailed.  The Franciscans were relieved of custody of the shrine, the church was enlarged, and the image was mounted and displayed in enhanced surroundings. 

In 1883, noted historian and biographer Joaquín García Icazbalceta, after an extensive investigation of documents for Bishop Labastida, stated his conclusion that Juan Diego, who first appeared in the historical record in a written story in 1649, never existed.

Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II beatified Juan Diego in 1990, but in a 1996 interview with the Catholic magazine Ixthus, Guillermo Schulenburg, abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe, said that Juan Diego was “a symbol, not a reality.”

Schulenburg, who was 83 years old at the time, was forced to resign. In 2002, Juan Diego was declared Saint Juan Diego Cuahutlatoatzin.

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