Simple Life

Silent Nights

Holding infinity in the palms of our hands

By Jim Dodson

When I was a kid, Christmas Eve couldn’t get here fast enough, the night I eagerly awaited all year. Mine was a visceral excitement fueled in part by the happy torture of unopened gifts beneath a heavily tinseled fir tree, and the crazy notion that if and when I somehow dropped off to sleep, a jolly bearded housebreaker would enter our premises and leave behind fantastic things I’d coveted from the pages of America’s holiest book — the Sears Catalog.

My excitement was also fueled by the other mythic theme of that singular night — the enchantment of a candlelight church service that always ended with congregants passing a small flame hand-to-hand as everyone sang “Silent Night” before filing out into a cold and silent night.

The flickering candles, the mingling scents of burning wax and well-worn hymnals, the ancient readings from Isaiah and St. Luke of a savior babe born in a barnyard stable, the sight of whole families bundled into creaking pews with squirming kids and yawning grandpas, O Magnum Mysterium — somehow it blended together into a delicious stew of magic and wonder that I felt — nay, believed — in my very bones. To this day, it’s the only time I intentionally stay up past midnight, stepping outside with a wee nightcap of bourbon or aged port to savor what may be the truest of silent nights.

Biblical scholars have long debated (and most disputed) the commonly assigned date of the historical Jesus’ birth (neither Luke nor Matthew makes mention of it happening in winter), leaving believers to accept the early Roman Church’s artful grafting of the birth of Jesus Christ onto pagan Rome’s popular feast of Saturnalia, a major holiday that coincided with the winter solstice that was known for its feasting and gift-giving in celebration of the returning of the sun god, Sol Invictus. For what it’s worth, ancient Persians assigned that same day, December 25, to be the birthday of their own returning sun god, Mithra. While in the Hebrew Calendar, the celebration of Hanukkah — the “Festival of Lights” that memorializes the restoration of the Second Temple of Jerusalem following a revolt by the Maccabeans and the miracle of a menorah that burned for eight days — begins on the 25th day of Kislev, which happens to fall anywhere from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. Just to make things more interesting, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church accepts January 7 as the true birth date of Jesus Christ, the proper date of “Old Christmas.” Some leading Biblical scholars even maintain that the birthdate of Christ was in March, the start of spring.

Whatever else might be true, the Christmas-loving kid in me has never required a proof-of-authenticity label or even an official “start” date in order to believe in the transformative magic of the holiday season — whether it’s the lights of Hanukkah or lovely myth of Father Christmas or even lovelier myth of a virgin birth in a barn.

I embrace the true meaning of the word “myth,” by the way, an ancient word that has been stripped of its spiritual power by modern misuse, originally denoting a traditional story meant to convey an important message, often based on historical events, revealing an important belief, practice or phenomenon — all of which perfectly explains why we human seek the light in whatever form on the longest nights of the year.

Here’s my own favorite Christmas story.

During the years we lived on a wooded hill in Maine — deep in a forest of birch and hemlock that almost always had a dusting of snow by Christmas Eve — the Episcopal church we attended put special emphasis on its annual Christmas Eve pageant, an ambitious staging of the Nativity complete with angels, wise men and watchful shepherds guarding their flocks by night.

One year our prodigies, Maggie and Jack, snagged important roles as attending sheep, while my good friend and regular lunch pal, Colonel Robert Day, debuted as the archangel Gabriel. Colonel Bob was an ideal Gabriel, a lovely giant of a gent who’d lost two sons through tragedy and disease but somehow turned his unspeakable grief into counseling families grappling with their own personal tragedies.

In his former life, Bob had been one of the first to lead his unit of army engineers across the Rhine into Nazi Germany during the closing days of the Second World War and was on his way to lead a similar invasion into Japan when the Japanese capitulated. The rest of his military career was spent at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he served as admissions director for many years, laying the foundation for the admission of women to the Academy.

Someone kitted out Colonel Bob with a massive pair of papier mâché wings for the pageant, which he sported with the dignity of Laurence Olivier until one wing detached and conked one of the baby cows on the head, bowling over the poor little creature. For a moment, the glory of Jesus’ birth was upstaged by anxious gasps as the little cow was righted and Bossie’s head removed. Beneath was a laughing kid. The audience broke into spontaneous applause. The kid-cow beamed. “Now that’s a small miracle,” one of the sheep-moms whispered to me with relief. And onward we went to the big finale of gifts from the Magi.

That particular year, the Christmas Eve family service that followed was held at the Settlemeyer family’s barn in the hills west of town. The Settlemeyers had real sheep and cows and a horse or two that were undoubtedly amused by the dozens of shivering families that crowded into their freezing barn to light candles and hear about a savior being born on a Midnight Clear. It was my job, as it happened, to provide the musical accompaniment on my guitar, fingers stiff with cold. Fortunately Colonel Bob showed up with a flask of good Irish whiskey. As a live chorus of sheep bleated, I plucked out a respectable “First Noel” followed by “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” and “Silent Night” as candlelight passed from hand to hand, illuminating one face at a time.

Up to that moment, worth noting, it had been a snowless winter in Maine — always an anxious thing for the locals (and yours truly) who counted on decent snows to insulate their foundations and garden beds and provide a pristine landscape for their favorite wintertime activities.

But as we blew out candles and stepped out of the Settlemeyers’ barn, a second small miracle took place — or maybe just good theatrical timing by the universe.

“Look, everybody,” someone cried, “it’s snowing!”

Indeed it was — a curtain of beautiful silent snow falling like an answered prayer over the darkened landscape. During the short drive home, my ever-wise lamb of a daughter wondered if the sudden appearance of snow might really be a miracle.

“Absolutely,” I assured her with the faith of a mustard seed, recalling Albert Einstein’s quote that there are two ways to live your life — as if there’s no such thing as miracles, or that everything is a miracle.

For the record, a third miracle occurred that silent night, one involving her proud papa and brilliant Scottish grandmother, Kate, a professed agnostic who cried once when I took her to Evensong at King’s College in Cambridge. I nicknamed her our “Queen Mum.” Together, we managed to put together a German dollhouse that looked more like a Rhine river castle and came in 4,000 pieces with a dozen pages of instructions in medieval German. In truth, I abandoned the quest around 2 a.m. leaving Mum to her third pot of tea, the rest of the Drambuie and a dying fire. I was certain the task was beyond us both.

In the morning, however, Maggie’s dollhouse looked worthy of a Fifth Avenue toy shop window.

“How’d you do that?” I discreetly quizzed the Queen Mum.

“The power of faith, James,” she came back with a prim smile. “And good Scottish tea.”

Sadly, I think the town fire marshal may have put the kibosh on any more Christmas candlelight services in a livestock barn, that old spoilsport. But I carry the sweetest memories of many such Silent Nights in my heart, that one above the rest.

Like Einstein, you see, I’ve come to believe everything is a small miracle — the oil that lighted lamps for eight days, a prince of peace born in a freezing stable, an angel with a broken wing who mended broken hearts, an agnostic’s tears and people of every race and creed who gather on the darkest night to celebrate the return of the light.

Besides, as Mother Theresa reportedly pointed out, nothing is small to God — only infinite. PS

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at

A Holiday Season of Suggestions

The New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons: A Semi-Serious A-To-Z Archive, by Bob Mankoff

This is a huge, literally, two volume, 1,600-page hardcover set with a beautiful red slipcover box — the ultimate collection for the witty irreverent person in your life. Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker for two decades, organizes nearly 3,000 cartoons from 1924 to the present into more than 250 categories of recurring themes and visual tropes, including banana peels, meeting St. Peter, being stranded on a desert island, snowmen, lion tamers, Adam and Eve, the Grim Reaper and, of course, dogs. The result is hilarious and Mankoff’s commentary throughout adds both depth and whimsy. The collection includes a foreword by New Yorker editor David Remnick.

Smithsonian: History of the World Map by Map

More than 140 detailed maps tell the story of pivotal episodes in world history, from the first human migrations out of Africa to the space race. Broad, sweeping introductions provide a chance to step back and look at entire periods, like World War II, or to explore overarching themes, like the Industrial Revolution. Custom regional and global maps chart how events traced patterns on land and ocean — patterns of exploration, discovery or conquest that created empires, colonies, or theaters of war.

Hip Hops: Poems about Beer, edited by Christoph Keller

From the ancient “Hymn to Ninkasi” (the Sumerian goddess of beer) to eighth century Chinese poet Li Bai’s “Bring in the Ale” to Robert Graves’ “Strong Beer,” the poems attest to humankind’s long attraction to the foamy and intoxicating product of malted grains. A surprising variety of poets have penned tributes to the brew; their tantalizing offerings include Robert Burns’ “John Barleycorn,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “Lines on Ale,” Frank O’Hara’s “Beer for Breakfast,” Sylvia Plath’s “The Beer Tastes Good,” Muriel Rukeyser’s “Beer and Bacon,” and Tom Waits’ “Warm Beer and Cold Women.” Whether pulling up to the celestial bar in Keats’ “Mermaid Tavern” or to the grittier, jazzier one in Carl Sandburg’s “Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio” (where “the cartoonists weep in their beer”), lovers of beer and poetry are sure to find something to celebrate in these tantalizing pages.

Money Diaries: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know about your Finances . . . and Everyone Else’s,
by Lindsey Stanberry

The most popular and beloved Refinery29 franchise, Money Diaries combines the very best of the work and money content their readers know and love — the fun voyeurism of all-new diaries combined with 52 weekly challenges and high-quality advice from some of the best female financial advisers around. Complete with worksheets, this is the go-to financial guide for millennial women.

The Hidden Life of Trees: The Illustrated Edition, by Peter Wohlleben

With compelling selections from the original book and stunning, large-format photographs of trees from around the world, this gorgeous volume distills the essence of Wohlleben’s message, showing trees in all their glory and diversity. Through rich language highlighting the interconnectedness of forest ecosystems, the book offers fascinating insights about the “wood wide web,” the difficult life lessons learned in tree school, the hard-working natural cleanup crews that recycle dying trees, and much more. Beautiful images provide the perfect complement to Wohlleben’s words, with striking close-ups of bark and seeds, panoramas of vast expanses of green, and a unique look at what is believed to be the oldest tree on the planet.

The Spy and The Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre

If anyone could be considered a Russian counterpart to the infamous British double agent Kim Philby, it was Oleg Gordievsky. The son of two KGB agents and the product of the best Soviet institutions, the savvy, sophisticated Gordievsky grew to see his nation’s communism as both criminal and philistine. He took his first posting for Russian intelligence in 1968 and eventually became the Soviet Union’s top man in London, but from 1973 on he was secretly working for MI6. For nearly a decade, as the Cold War reached its twilight, Gordievsky helped the West turn the tables on the KGB, exposing Russian spies and helping to foil countless intelligence plots. Desperate to keep the circle of trust close, MI6 never revealed Gordievsky’s name to its counterparts in the CIA, which in turn grew obsessed with figuring out the identity of Britain’s obviously top-level source. Their obsession ultimately doomed Gordievsky — the CIA officer assigned to identify him was none other than Aldrich Ames, the man who would become infamous for secretly spying for the Soviets. “The best true spy story I ever read,” says John Le Carré.

The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II, by Mary Jo McConahay

A flow of raw materials in the Southern Hemisphere — at a high cost in lives — was key to ensuring Allied victory, as were military bases supporting the North African campaign, the Battle of the Atlantic, the invasion of Sicily, and fending off attacks on the Panama Canal. As rival spy networks shadowed each other across the continent, the Allies secured loyalty through espionage and diplomacy ― including help from Hollywood and Mickey Mouse. Mexican pilots flew in the Philippines and 25,000 Brazilians breached the Gothic Line in Italy. The Tango War also describes the machinations behind the greatest mass flight of criminals of the 20th century, fascists with blood on their hands who escaped to the Americas. A true, shocking account that reads like a thriller.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

When poet and writer Joy Davidman began writing letters to C. S. Lewis, she was looking for spiritual answers, not love. Everything about Joy seemed ill-matched for an Oxford don and the beloved writer of Narnia, yet their minds bonded over their letters. Embarking on the adventure of her life, Joy, the woman Lewis called “my whole world,” traveled from New York to England and back, facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith and, against all odds, finding a love that even the threat of death couldn’t destroy.


The Broken Ornament, by Tony Di Terilizzi

Every family has a favorite holiday decorating story — the time the cat climbed the tree or Dad fell in the bushes hanging lights. The Broken Ornament stemmed from a DiTerlizzi family Christmas when his daughter broke a holiday ornament and learned the truth: When a beloved ornament is broken, a Christmas fairy is born. Sure to be a holiday classic, The Broken Ornament should be the first request on every Christmas list this year. Children and their families are invited to join New York Times best-selling and Caldecott Honor-winning author/illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi on Thursday, Dec. 6, at 4 p.m. for an ornament making workshop and Ugly Sweater Contest at The Country Bookshop. (Ages 3-10.)

Harold Loves His Woolly Hat, by Vern Klosky

Harold loves his woolly hat so much because he knows having it makes him special among all the bears. So when his hat is stolen, Harold pulls out all the stops to retrieve it . . . until he discovers someone else needs hit more than him. A sweet story of sharing, giving and letting go, Harold Loves his Woolly Hat is perfect for holiday giving. (Ages 3-6.)

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid, by Dylan Thuras, Rosemary Mosco and Joy Ang.

With its cataloging of the weirdest and wildest places on Earth, the original Atlas Obscura absolutely changed the way people travel. Now adventurous kids have a chance to get in on the fun. Arranged in categories to allow kids to dig deeply into the strange and wonderful, Atlas Obscura Explorers Guide will be the hottest thing for young readers this fall. (Ages 6-12.)

Dry, by Neil Schusterman

If the human body is 60 percent water, just what exactly is the rest? The remainder is determination and steadfastness and loyalty and the will to live. The remainder is hope. When the “tap out,” the complete drying up of all water sources, happens one California afternoon, the lives of five kids — a brother and sister, a survivalist, a genius loner and a rogue — are forever changed. Mesmerizing, fast-paced and terrifying in its realistic possibility Dry will awaken appreciation for functioning kitchen water spigots and awareness of global climate change for a long, long time. (Ages 14 and up.)  PS

Compiled by Kimberly Daniels Taws and Angie Tally.

Good Natured

Frankincense and Myrrh

Gifts of the Magi that keep on giving

By Karen Frye

Whatever your religion, you most likely know the story of the three Wise Men who followed the star to the manger in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born. Two of the precious gifts they brought with them were frankincense and myrrh. Thousands of years ago, these herbs were worth as much as silver and gold, and they’ve retained their value, medicinally and spiritually.

The popularity of aromatherapy and the great success stories using the oils and extracts are well known. Myrrh is extracted from the Mukul myrrh tree, which grows in dry climates in the Middle East. The myrrh gum is used in preparations for teeth, gums and skin conditions. In Ayurvedic medicine (native to India) the extract from the myrrh, “gugul,” is especially effective for lowering bad cholesterol and improving the function of the thyroid gland.

Frankincense oil is prepared using hardened gum resins from the Boswellia sacra, a tree native to India, Africa and the Middle East. One of the main components of frankincense oil is boswellia, an herb with major anti-inflammatory properties. Boswellia (as a supplement) has been around a very long time and, while it isn’t as well known for its anti-inflammatory power as turmeric, it’s certainly on the way.

Inflammation doesn’t just cause joint pain; it contributes to disease throughout the body, including cancer and heart disease. In the case of asthma, allergies, bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, boswellia helps reduce inflammation in the lungs. Inflammation damages our brain cells, and may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Taking boswellia may boost brain function, as well as reduce inflammation. In addition to quelling joint pain, there are benefits to the digestive tract, assisting in relief from irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, even rheumatoid arthritis.

Frankincense oil is a lovely fragrance that has been used throughout the ages in perfumes. Its warm, pungent, sweet notes bring about feelings of peace and balance, helping to ease anxiety. Cleopatra is thought to have used frankincense oil in her beauty regimen. The pure oil used topically has been found to improve skin conditions. Frankincense is one of the most effective oils for skin care with remarkable rejuvenating and healing properties.

These gifts given many, many years ago are now gifts for those who seek better health through the wonders of nature. May you have a wonderful holiday season filled with peace, love and laughter.  PS

Karen Frye is the owner and founder of Nature’s Own and teaches yoga at the Bikram Yoga Studio.

Pleasures of Life

The Look

With a little help from my friends

By Beth MacDonald

You know those characters on the TV show Alien Nation? You know how, at first, you can’t quite put your finger on what’s missing, but then you realize they have no eyebrows? I, too, have several rather invisible features that throw off the aesthetics of a face. Since I have a fair complexion and very blonde hair, my eyebrows and eyelashes are imperceptible without a little AA, artificial assistance. When I apply even a light layer of makeup I often find myself narrating the process like a National Geographic documentary. “Here we see the one-eyed morning sloth searching for light hairs to shade in for others to see. The furrowed brow means the female of the species is frustrated, unable to locate any indigenous hairs.” If I don’t go through the process of trying to make these features evident to other humans, I am frequently mistaken for a 19th century influenza patient that won’t make it through the winter.

That’s just the beginning. My hair is unruly in its natural state, with so many irregular curls that it serves as a near-perfect hair hygrometer. Scientific tools aren’t required anywhere within my ZIP code since my head produces uncannily accurate relative humidity readings. I often try to soften the look by essentially destroying it with a straightening iron set on “nuclear power” mode. 

A friend invited me to one of those parties most of us have reluctantly supported where you are gathered for a demonstration of the best cookware, makeup, leggings, and home/car organization kits that will all simplify and improve your life and looks. This particular party was an amalgam of all of those salespeople selling their cutting-edge wares, turning my friend’s home into a virtual department store. I didn’t want to go because I already have four of most these items. I just wanted to sit at home in my buttery leggings, eating 5-minute fondue from my state of the art, personalized pot, while wearing the only vegan-organic-coconut-volcano-cherry-seaweed face mask on the market that would get rid of my wrinkles-lift my eyelids-plump my lips-strengthen my marriage, while I binge watch Netflix.

I tried to stick to the snack table, where I’m most comfortable, for long periods of time, but the makeup lady found me.  She must have taken one look at my sickly face and thought she should rescue me from “the ugly.” I relented and followed her to the other side of the living room/department store. I observed a moment of insanity, when I considered the necessity of a 137th finely woven pair of leggings.

I sat down in her chair as she read off an extensive list of makeover options ending with “natural bronze goddess.” I chose that one. Who doesn’t want that look? I’m pretty sure no one walks up for a makeover and says, “I’ll have the ‘pale haunted house clown face’ please.”

After an eternity (measured by increasing back pain in the uncomfortable chair, not actual real time) she was finished. She handed me a mirror to see my new, improved look. I tried to keep a straight face. I politely thanked her, hoping she couldn’t hear the horrified squeak in my voice. Blue eye shadow, bright pink cheeks, and red lipstick were not what I imagined a “natural bronzed goddess” looked like unless she was named Chuckie.

I made a mistake by going with a friend who drove, leaving me no easy escape option. I was waiting outside, hiding behind her car when she came out eons later, measured in beauty chair-time. On the way home she decided it would be a good idea to chain smoke with her windows shut. I opened my window to catch some fresh air approximately 15 seconds before a torrential downpour hit. I couldn’t close the window fast enough. I was in a lose-lose situation. Failure was not an option; it was a certainty.

At home, I realized I had forgotten my keys, and had to ring the doorbell. As I waited for my husband, Mason, to answer the door, I felt around my now sticky, wet face and knotted hair. Eau d’Ashtray was overpowering the Chanel No. 5 I had put on earlier. I looked like Dee Snider from Twisted Sister getting off his party bus. My husband opened the door and stared at me, wide-eyed.

“Sir, do you have a moment to hear my testimony of the greatest poet of our time, Alice Cooper?” I asked.  PS

Beth MacDonald is a Southern Pines suburban misadventurer that likes to make words up. She loves to travel with her family and read everything she can.


O, Tannen-Bird!

The feisty red-breasted nuthatch flocks to North Carolina’s evergreens in winter

By Susan Campbell

Every few years, certain species of birds show up in the South when their food supply to the north becomes scant. This winter seems to be one of those years for the red-breasted nuthatch. Weighing in at only a few ounces, these feisty songbirds travel in small groups, typically moving during the cooler months from Canada’s 1.5-billion-acre boreal forests into the northern coniferous forests of the United States. As long as they can find enough seeds to sustain them through the season, they may not travel very far. But this fall, the red-breasteds’ favorites, found in spruce and fir cones, are already hard to come by. Therefore, they have begun to move well southward in search of suitable alternatives and can now be found in forested areas across North Carolina.

Red-breasted nuthatches are easy to recognize with their white eyebrows and rusty colored undersides. Like all nuthatches, they have gray backs and short legs and tails, along with a distinctive pointed, upturned bill. It’s great fun watching these birds crawling forward, sideways or upside down in search of food. And they are experts at clinging on the tippy-tops of branches as they hunt for their next meal. Strong legs and sharp claws enable red-breasteds to navigate the challenging terrain of evergreens, and their specialized bills work well to pry out seeds that other birds cannot reach. They adeptly are able to ferret out seeds from the smaller cones of cedars, hemlocks and larches. Here in our area, the sizable cones of loblolly and longleaf are easy pickings for these ravenous little birds.

This species has a very distinct vocalization, like its cousins, the white-breasted and brown-headed nuthatches, which are common here in the Sandhills and Piedmont. Red-breasted nuthatches do not sing but rather call frequently. Listen for a horn-like “yank, yank” coming from the treetops. You are much more likely to hear this bird before you see it. But individuals may be mixed in with chickadees and titmice traveling through the area. Any location with abundant pines, such as Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve or the edge of Fort Bragg or the Sandhills Game Lands, is prime territory for these little birds from now through February. I am hoping that our winter banding activities will include capture of at least a few individuals in the next couple of months. We have only been fortunate enough to study a couple close-up one winter in 2012, which was the last big invasion of the species this far south.

Red-breasted nuthatches readily do come to bird feeders. They are attracted to oil-rich sunflower seed above all else. They will, however, also take advantage of suet especially if it contains peanut butter (as mine always does). You may find them attempting to monopolize your feeding station and bullying other birds — even larger birds such as cardinals. Defending food sources is a big part of daily life for these small guys and gals who year round live much of their lives on the edge. Regardless, I am looking forward to a few of these winter visitors finding my offerings this winter.  Their colorful appearance and feisty behavior always make me smile.  PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at

Our Christmas Sing

Our Christmas Sing

A tradition that measures the years

By Margaret Maron     Illustrations by Laurel Holden

John thought it was probably the Christmas of 1978.

Scott said, “No, I think it was earlier.”

“Maybe 1976?” asked Celeste.

Carlette thought that sounded about right.

After hearing them puzzle over when it all began, I finally went through some of my old journals and found this entry: “First time all five Honeycutts here for dinner since the summer. By candlelight, firelight, and tree lights, we sang carols till midnight.”

It was December 23, 1977.

As farm girls growing up amid the tobacco fields of Johnston County, Sue Honeycutt and I had sung in our church choir. I can carry a tune as long as it is pitched no higher than B♭, but Sue’s voice soared like an angel’s. 

After school and marriage, we were separated first by an ocean and then hundreds of land miles, yet we kept in touch; and once my husband and I moved down to the family farm where I grew up, the friendship became even stronger.

There were eight of us that first Christmas: Sue and her husband, Carl, had two nearly-grown daughters and a teenage son; my husband and I had a 13-year-old boy. That evening together had been so much fun that we did it again the following December.

Do something twice in the South and it immediately becomes a tradition. The first three or four years, our ritual was to sing every seasonal song we could remember, from “Silent Night” to “Silver Bells” to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” followed by a sit-down dinner, and ending in an exchange of gifts. We eventually scrapped the gift exchange — boring and too time-consuming. Instead, everyone is now encouraged to perform a party piece.

This might be a dramatic scene from a school play, an original comic skit with hand puppets, an operatic aria by a granddaughter who has inherited Sue’s voice, or a Christmas poem. (I have to be restrained from reading A.A. Milne’s “King John’s Christmas” every year.) Early on, our sons made us laugh with their take on the classic “Who’s On First?” routine. This past year, Sue’s 6-year-old great-granddaughter donned a blue shawl and shyly mimed “Mary, Did You Know?” When her father was that age, he came with a stash of Christmas riddles: “What do snowmen eat for breakfast? Frosted Flakes, of course.”

Getting measured soon became another part of the tradition. One end of our kitchen wall is thick with dated lines that mark the years. Off come the shoes and everyone who’s still growing stands up straight, heels against the baseboard. A granddaughter will proudly announce that she’s grown two full inches since last year, while her cousin is delighted to see that he’s almost as tall as his uncle was when that uncle was 10 years old. Sue and Carl’s newest great-grandchild went on the wall this past Christmas. She was only six weeks old and her daddy had to straighten out her little frog legs to get an approximate measure.

For several years, as people began to put on coats and hats and look for their car keys, the evening would wind down with a child’s whisper, “Is it time to get silly yet?” I would nod and slip her a handful of clothespins, which she quickly shared with equally mischievous cousins. Looking like innocent angels, they maneuvered among their elders, surreptitiously clipping a clothespin on the back of an uncle’s shirt, a grandparent’s sleeve, the hem of an aunt’s skirt. Soon everyone would be laughing and slapping their clothes to find the clothespin, which they immediately transferred to someone else’s scarf or hat. More than one clothespin went home on the coattail of an unsuspecting victim.

There are 26 of us now and our sit-down dinner has devolved into little plates of finger foods. The meal still ends with coffee and a Yule log elaborately decorated with meringue mushrooms, but I’ve passed the recipe on to our older granddaughter.

Some songs are dropped as new ones are added, but we’ll never drop “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Everyone joins in on all the words except for the “gift” itself, which becomes a solo or duet, depending on how many people are here. Early on, Carl croaked out “two turtledoves” in a distinctly tone-deaf baritone, which so cracked us up that he was awarded permanent possession of the second day. With her beautiful voice, Sue was a natural for “five golden rings.” The rest of us split up the remaining days in no particular order, although my husband is rather fond of “three French hens.”

Carl left us last year and his pitch-perfect son inherited those two turtledoves. It breaks our hearts to know that this year someone else will have to sing Sue’s five golden rings. It will be a bittersweet continuation and more than one pair of eyes will glisten in the candlelight.

But laughter has always been a huge part of our tradition, too. As the first generation of grandchildren matured, their slapstick silliness faded away, but two of Sue and Carl’s great-grandchildren are now 10 and 7.

I think it’s time to slip them some clothespins.  PS

A native Tar Heel, Margaret Maron has written more than 30 novels and dozens of short stories. She was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2016.


Holiday Fantasies

Get on board or get out of the way

By Susan S. Kelly

My mother was having a Christmas cull one year and asked if I wanted the toilet lid cover. As one does.

This piece of church bazaar finery was my first claim as a child when the box of decorations came out every Christmas: a forest green, glitter-glued felt oval adorned with a ho-ho-hoing Santa face of pink, white and red felt with sequin eyes, a tufted cotton beard, and a clever drawstring to tighten the cover just so around the commode lid. I thought it was divine. I have it still, the outlined shapes of eyebrows becoming visible as it disintegrates, revealing the crafts-by-numbers kit it originally was. In the attic, Santa’s slowly getting de-flocked and de-felted somewhere under the Advent wreath candles that became a waxy purple unicandle during the 100-degree days of August.

The good news about Christmas, besides the obvious Good News, is that tastemakers and arbiters of Tacky are banished, or at the very least, muffled. That’s the bad news as well. Everyone is permitted his or her holiday indulgences and eccentricities. Last year my neighbor had an egg-shaped wreath on her door, and I have no idea whether it was accidental or intentional.

Flannery O’Connor famously said of William Faulkner, “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” This sentiment applies to Christmas as well. Either get with it, or get mowed over by it. But we can agree on this sentiment: Without women, there would be no Christmas as we know it. Females are out there in the trenches, responsible for every holiday fantasy promulgated in mags and ads — caroling, cookies, gingerbread houses, the works. “I see more of the Salvation Army ringers than I do my husband,” a friend once remarked to me. Another friend drew the line in the sand, er, carpet. “I shopped, wrapped, mailed, decorated, planned, cooked, cleaned and organized,” she told her husband and two sons. “You guys have to take down the tree.” They took down the tree all right. They took it down at Easter. Another friend buys herself an additional piece of her Christmas china every time her ex-husband mentions his new wife’s name in her presence.  I suspect she’s on finger bowls by now.

As for that gingerbread house fantasy, here’s what I have to say about doing that with your children: Go for the pre-fab kits. I actually made gingerbread from scratch, spread it thinly on parchment-paper-lined baking trays, then cut it into wall shapes. Like many activities, it was cuter in the planning than the execution, never mind unappreciated. I’m still digging peppermint candy slivers out of the kitchen heating vents. Instead, keep an illustrated Hansel and Gretel book, complete with candy-covered fantasy gingerbread house, on the coffee table along with ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. Point out what really happens to bad little boys and girls, not getting switches in stockings.

I don’t understand the Fairness Doctrine of today, when couples routinely alternate Christmas between families. I get Christmas Eve, you get Christmas morning, they get Christmas Day dinner . . . logistics alone are on a par with the Normandy invasion, not to mention the emotions, prompting my next-door neighbor to wryly refer to the comings, goings and schedules as “the prisoner exchange.” To counter this trend, I had a third child after two boys — fully aware that the baby would likely be another boy — just to increase the odds that someone, someone, would come home to me at Christmas. Still, the in-laws have a powerful draw, in part because my sister-in-law concocts eggnog with five kinds of liquor, which she totes around during the holidays in a wheeled cooler. I don’t mean that the cooler holds containers of eggnog. I mean that the cooler actually holds the eggnog itself, sloshing around. Open the lid, and enticing clumps of a substance I’m afraid to ask about — Ice cream? Whipped cream? Egg whites? Butter? — float whitely on the surface. Five kinds of liquor soften, not to mention blur, the blow of absent family. And it was my mother-in-law who taught me the value of smilax at Christmas. I wrap the supple stems all through my (so-called) chandelier, and suspend papier-mâché angels from that green and leafy heaven. Ivy will not do that for you. I’ve also nurtured two smilax shrubs for years, for no other reason than to use their bright berries at Christmas, and have concluded I have two males or gender-neutral plants. Whatever their sexual preferences, they aren’t producing and I’m still using fake red berries.

Still, if I haven’t been able to fulfill every Christmas fantasy, I’ve managed to produce a few of the Christmas food fantasies out there. Clove-studded oranges: Check. Apples dipped in egg whites, then coated with granulated sugar so they appear to glisten: Check. On my friend Ginny’s birthdays, her mother would hand her some cash and say, “Run uptown and buy yourself a bathing suit for your birthday.” It’s not surprising, then, that Ginny’s ongoing fantasy for her own daughter was that she’d dash downstairs on Christmas morning, see wall-to-wall presents, and fall over in a dead faint at Santa’s largesse. If this is your fantasy, point your compass toward the North Pole of IKEA. Last I checked, a cloth tepee that covers 10 square feet of living room space was $5.99. Same for the fabric playhouse you drape over a card table. Never mind their two-hour shelf life; they come in desert browns and beiges, and jungle browns and greens. Because nothing says Christmas like camo.  PS

Susan Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and proud grandmother.

Sporting Life

The Champion Holiday

Memories that stretch across the seasons

By Tom Bryant

The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree is the
presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.
— Burton Hills

As a youngster, holidays played a huge part in my life. It seemed, in those early pre-teen years, I was always in a dither, wanting to move time forward to celebrate one special occasion or another. The biggy, of course, was summer, when we were paroled from the forced halls of learning to days of fun: swimming and fishing at the beach; camping with the Scouts on Mr. Troutman’s farm; bicycling across the wilds of Pinebluff with my loyal companion, a curly coated retriever I named Smut. The lazy days seemed to stretch on forever. It was a wonderful time, until on the horizon I saw approaching interminably, like a major storm, autumn and back to school.

But with fall and the days of regimentation in classrooms where new subjects expanded our knowledge came dove season and another good reason to be in the woods. It was a wonderful time; and as a result of my being a year older, my parents extended my borders of responsibility to let me venture into the wilds and hunt from Aberdeen to Pinebluff. It worked something like this: I would catch the bus to school, and Dad, who was the superintendent at the ice plant in Aberdeen, would carry my shotgun and Smut to work with him. After school, I would hike the couple of miles to the plant located on the railroad tracks just south of Aberdeen, do my homework in his office, grab my shotgun, whistle up Smut, who was napping under the car, and hunt the tracks back to Pinebluff. I would get home just about dark and clean what game I had harvested, which could be anything from squirrels to doves to rabbits. Mother would put the day’s catch in the freezer, and later we would have a wild game feast to rival Davy Crockett’s, or so I thought at the time.

Thanksgiving opened another whole avenue of excitement. This holiday brought with it quail season, and to add to that special event, the opening of deer season. Now, to be truthful, I didn’t hunt deer in my confined areas around Moore County. I never saw a deer or any sign that a whitetail was about. But down on my granddad’s farm in South Carolina, they were plentiful and hunted, and I was part of that great adventure.

The family would always celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter at the home place. On Thanksgiving, as soon as I was out of school for the holiday, Dad would take me down to the farm, and for a couple of days I would follow my grandfather around like a yearling puppy, asking interminable questions with the main one being, “Can I hunt this year on my own deer stand?”

Typically, my grandfather’s hunt club of about 10 or 15 members would hunt a different farm every week; and in the past, I could only accompany Granddad as a spectator. Finally, one special Thanksgiving, I was allowed to have my own deer stand, and on that day, I considered myself almost grown. I didn’t shoot a deer that season but I saw one, and it is still etched in my memory like a spectacular painting and has just grown more beautiful over the years.

Thanksgiving was a wonderful holiday, but the champion of all holidays and the one I started thinking about when the first frost whitened the broom straw fields of Pinebluff and the “bible” of toys, the Sears Roebuck catalog, arrived in the mail, was Christmas.

It was a magical occasion. What I remember most about that amazing time was the smell of newly cut cedar, wood fires, freshly baked cakes and turkeys in the oven. The excitement and anticipation of the wonderful days ahead were almost more than I could stand.

I was champion of the roost during that time and roamed far and wide in my quest for just the right Christmas greenery, which included holly with bunches of red berries and mistletoe that had to be shot down with my shotgun from the highest trees. This was quite a feat for me in those days when I would buy shotgun shells from Burney Hardware for a nickel apiece. I didn’t waste ammunition very often.

There was no one who loved Christmas more than Mom and Dad. I found out later that they would begin early in the fall to locate just the right presents for Santa to bring my sisters, brother and me. There would always be something thrilling under the tree, a shiny bicycle, a shotgun, new hunting boots or a duck hunting mackinaw. One year, the year I was working on my Boy Scout photography merit badge, Santa brought me a Kodak box camera and all the fixings to develop my own film. I made, developed and printed photos that year and still have one in our collection.

On Christmas Day, after seeing all the loot that Santa had brought, we loaded the car and headed south to the farm to celebrate with my grandparents and all the numerous uncles, aunts and cousins. A magnificent feast was prepared with roasted venison, turkey, ducks, hams and barbecue. There were all kinds of vegetables and casseroles and sweet and baked potatoes. The sideboard seemed to creak under its heavy load of pies and cakes and puddings and the most important, Grandmother’s fruitcake.

After dinner, the entire family moved to the living room, where a giant Christmas tree filled the corner, its top nearly touching the 16-foot ceiling. Presents were piled high, and particular cousins were assigned the task of passing them around. It seemed to take forever for all the presents to be opened and all the oohs and aahs to be shared before we could get back on the road to home. I mean, after all, I had a brand new bike I had to check out, and time was wasting. We needed to hurry.

Those pre-TV days were simpler, and we made the most of them. It seemed I lived outdoors more than in, and when I wasn’t creating my own adventures, I was reading about others in books such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and another one of his classics, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And truth be known, those fellows really didn’t have a leg up, as far as I was concerned. Their only advantage was they had the Mississippi River in their neighborhood. And me?  I had Manly Wade Wellman’s book, Haunts of Drowning Creek, and Drowning Creek was my big river.

Yessir, I had a grand time as a youngster, especially at Christmas.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.


The simplicity of winter has a deep moral.
The return of Nature, after such a career of splendor and prodigality, to habits so simple and austere, is not lost either upon the head or the heart. It is the philosopher coming back from the banquet and the wine to a cup of water and a crust of bread.

– John Burroughs, The Snow-Walkers, 1866

It’s been a while since you’ve come to visit, and when you see her, you gasp.

She looks different. And not just the kind of different one looks from the passing of an ordinary spring, summer and fall.

She has stories.

In the sweeping meadow, the weeping cherry is the axis about which all of life revolves. It’s always been this way, at least for as long as you have known her. Which is why you’re so shaken to discover the woodpecker drillings along her trunk and branches.

Signs of decay.

As you sit beneath her trunk, comforted by her silhouette in purple twilight, three, four, five white-tailed deer slip through the longleaf veil in the distance. Either they do not see you, or they recognize you as one of their own.

Six deer.


You watch them graze in the meadow — just feet away now — and as the last doe brushes past, you exhale a silent prayer.

Grace is here.

You place your hands on the weeping cherry’s trunk, honoring this perfect moment, this bare-branched season, the vibrancy among decay. 

It’s time to go home now. It won’t be the same. But there are stories to share. And grace.

Spirit of the Deer

As a child, Christmas Eves were spent at my grandparents’ house, where all the cousins hoped to be the first to spot the shiny pickle ornament Papa had hidden in the tree. After evening Mass, then dinner, where soft butter rolls, pumpkin bars and scalloped potatoes were first to vanish from the spread, gifts were exchanged. Whoever found the pickle got theirs first.

And then, the hour drive home.

“Watch for deer,” Papa would say before we left.

We always saw them, frozen in the headlights on the roadside.

Three, four, five . . . six deer, seven.

I counted until drifting off to sleep.

Many ancient cultures believe that when an animal crosses your path, its spirit has a special “medicine” for you. The deer is a messenger of gentleness and serenity.

If you happen to see one in the thicket of holiday hustle and bustle, even if it’s the one you recall snacking on your hosta and pansies last spring, consider the ways you can bring more grace and kindness to yourself and the world.

Comet and Cupid

According to National Geographic’s Top 8 Must-See Sky Events for 2018, the comet eloquently named 46P/Wirtanen will travel past the luminous Pleiades and Hyades star clusters as it makes its closest approach to the Earth on Sunday, December 16 — the comet’s brightest-ever predicted passage.

Whether or not you catch the celestial show, don’t miss the chance to celebrate the “rebirth of the Sun” on Friday, December 21 — the day before the full cold moon. Call it winter solstice, Yule or midwinter, the longest night of the year is a time for gathering . . . and ritual.

In Japan, it’s tradition to take a dip in the yuzu tub, a hot bath filled with floating yellow yuzu fruit, to ward off the common cold.

Not a bad way to welcome winter.

Or around a fire with dearest friends, sharing stories and cider beneath the near-full moon.

In the Garden this Month

Rake fallen leaves for compost.

Plant hardy annuals (snapdragon, petunia, viola).

Take root cuttings from cold-sensitive perennials and plant them indoors.

Order fruit trees and grape vines for late-winter planting.

Dream up, then plan for your spring garden. 


Mistletoe Tree

A tradition of transition

By Claudia Watson

Strapped high up in a tupelo gum tree that was obviously more native than I was, the tree-trimmer set his pruning saw against a limb and said, “So, how’d ya get here?”

“Well, it’s the tree you’re in,” I said.

He looked down through the limbs. “This tree?”

“Yep,” I said.  “That’s why I take good care of it.”

My husband, Roger, and I were tidying up the house he was selling in Fayetteville —  his home for nearly 30 years with the Special Forces — and he suggested we take a ride to Southern Pines for my birthday lunch and to look at some property.   

I jumped at the chance for a day trip but wasn’t interested in settling any place other than Virginia. For the better part of 25 years, I’d been building a life and business there. But as we traveled the back roads from Fort Bragg to Southern Pines, the desolate beauty spellbound me. Just as we arrived in Southern Pines, a CSX train blasted its horn and crawled down the center of town. As we waited for our lunch, fluffy snowflakes began to fall.

“So, it snows in North Carolina?” I teased. Roger’s eyes flashed over the rim of his glass of sweet tea. He detested the winters and the traffic in northern Virginia. Afterward, we walked down Broad Street enjoying the sound of new fallen snow, as soft as the train whistle was loud. That’s when I saw an old, dented red pickup truck with a cardboard sign leaned against its fender and the hand-scrawled words, “Mistletoe $5.”

I thought the sign was a scam. Mistletoe comes in little white boxes tied with a red ribbon. It’s in the produce section in the grocery stores in northern Virginia during the holidays. 

“What is this?” I asked the owner of the truck as I eyed the clumps of greenery that looked more like the remains of a lousy pruning job.

The man shifted his eyes to my husband.

“It’s mistletoe,” he said.

“No way,” I challenged. “Where are the berries?”

He looked me up and down, reassuring himself that I was not from the South, pulled out a clump and showed me the waxy berries.

“Where’s it from?” I asked.

“Treetops,” the mistletoe man said.

“What do you mean, treetops?” I asked.

“We shoot it out.”

“Huh?” I groaned.

“With a shotgun,” he said, whirling away from me and raising his eyes and hands to the sky.

I looked at Roger, the North Carolinian, holding back laughter. He handed the man a five, and we walked away with a clump of mistletoe and headed back to Fayetteville.

Weeks later, Roger asked me to go back to look at the property he’d been researching while on work trips from Virginia to Fort Bragg. Over dinner, he eased a map toward me. Three lots were circled, accompanied by cryptic notes I took to be some sort of indecipherable Special Forces code.

He insisted we go back to Pinehurst. The drive down I-95 was unbearable as I sat glumly in the truck while he told me about the pros — no cons, of course — of each lot and of his home state.

We looked at all three sites. At the last one, he sprinted to the back edge of the property line and waved his arms, pointing to the golf course view, and then where the sun would rise. He pointed out the abundance of dogwoods, the old-growth longleaf pine, the sassafras, native blueberry plants, inkberry and the red-tailed hawks in the sky. I was not impressed.

While he used red string to plot out a home site, I dug in my heels under the shade of a nearby tree. It was one of the few that looked like a real tree to me.

I thought, “How did this happen?” I don’t want this. I want our home in Virginia. I looked up through the canopy of the tree. Then, I saw it, not in the top of the tree, but jutting out from the trunk only inches from my head. I saw the glossy dark green leaves and the palest berries.

If the ancient Druids thought it possessed mystical powers, warded off evil spirits and brought good luck to the household, it was good enough for me.

We moved to Pinehurst a year later, built our home, and for 14 holiday seasons, I clipped a sprig of real mistletoe for our doorway from that tree.

“You know,” my tree-trimmer said, picking up his saw, “it’s interesting you saved this tree being it’s so close to your house. It’s a tupelo gum, a native tree. Most folks rip ’em out.”

Instead, its roots grew deeper.  PS

Claudia Watson is a Pinehurst resident and a longtime contributor to PineStraw and The Pilot.