Friday, December 8, 2017

The National Christmas Center, an Endangered Pennsylvania Gem

No offense to fans and practitioners, but in my husband’s opinion, the road to hell is a gauntlet lined with the wheeze and whine of bagpipes.  He might be alone in his view, and, in fact, I recently learned at the National Christmas Center that, for centuries, bagpipes were used by shepherds to soothe their flocks, and may have played a lullaby for the newborn Jesus.  For a short time longer, the Christmas Center invites visitors on an extraordinary journey into the season’s history, cultural impact, fun, and inspiration.

With my mother and sister, Rita, I drove past rolling fields, silos, farms, and Amish carriages to reach the National Christmas Center in Paradise, PA.  Like a geode, the plain exterior betrays nothing of the sparkle inside.  Nor does the foyer, or the glimpse of the gift shop.  Near the ticket counter, a life-sized mannequin in Victorian garb slouches against the wall.  While his hang dog expression reflects more the post-Christmas exhaustion of vendors and parents than the holiday’s magic, he is a charming hint of what awaits in the rooms ahead.

I was not the only one barely repressing the urge to clap my hands, jump up and down, and say “yippee!” like a child on Christmas morning while viewing this extraordinary collection of Christmas memorabilia, full-scale re-creations of iconic settings, and even a walk-in Woolworth’s.  The piped-in hymns and Christmas carols harmonized with the visitors’ chorus of “Wow! Beautiful,” “Oh my gosh, remember that?” or, “I had one of those!”  Exhibits range from kitschy to reverent, from familiar to novel, from historic to nostalgic, rekindling that wonderful childhood December immersion in commercial and mystical promises.

We walked galleries of cobbled streets winding through softly lighted “villages” and peered through multi-paned windows to learn about Christmas crafts, traditions, and beliefs from around the world. I stood eye-to-eye with stunning, remarkably life-like representations of Father Christmas. We were enchanted as any small child by the animatronic reindeer and elves in Santa’s workshop, and the detailed vignettes that embody the story of the woodland creatures of “Tudor Towne.”

Innumerable threads weave through each person’s sense of Christmas, and Jim Morrison, the founder and curator of the Christmas Center, seems to have thought of them all.  There are vintage decorations, china sets, advertising art, countless Santa interpretations, a vast collection of crèches, and a desk formerly owned by Clement Clark Moore, author of “The Night Before Christmas.”  A flickering newsreel of an aging Virginia O’Hanlon runs in a loop as she recalls the letter she wrote in 1897 as an eight-year-old with a faltering belief in Santa.  Spurred by her father’s confidence that, “If you see it in The [New York] Sun, it’s so,” she wrote to the paper, seeking truth.  Newsman Francis Pharcellus Church provided the paper’s reassuring, hopeful response, “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist…”

As Mom, Rita, and I neared the end of our tour, glass cases filled with crèches gave way to narrow alleys and the gray stucco walls of ancient Bethlehem.  We visitors became pilgrims joining shepherds, wise men, donkeys, sheep, and a camel to circle close and behold the Holy Family.  

Remember the goony be-speckled kid in the pink bunny pajama suit in “The Christmas Story”?  You’ll spot him at the museum.  Remember Patty Play Pal, pink and blue plastic piggy banks, and Ginny dolls?  They’re there too.  Remember velvety nights lying on your stomach under a Christmas tree studying a creche, surrounded by the glow of lights, and suffused with joyful anticipation? You’ll feel that at the Center. 

But not for long. 

Unless a patron miraculously steps forward, the National Christmas Center is closing in January… So make a plan to go; you do not want to miss it.        

Monday, November 6, 2017


I’m all about visuals, but during this Boston trip, sounds have led to adventure. So when Dave, Paul, and I heard the sonorous blatt of tuba and trombone as we headed home at the end of an evening playground romp, we changed course to investigate.

A jostling, foot-tapping, dancing crowd, drawn as we were, had gathered in yet another playground near Davis Square. Dave lifted Paul onto his shoulders and we inched in and angled for a better view.

The musicians were a motley group of older men with graying hair pulled back in ponytails.  Most wore black shirts, shorts and socks, and we bobbed and swayed along with them.  Heavy on horns and snare drums, they played a loose New Orleans jazz that flowed into a jerky Arabian accompaniment for the belly dancers.

Belly dancers!  My heavens! Three women in garish, burgundy harem garb tapped finger cymbals and gyrated gleefully in unison.  Ample, naked, midriff flesh rippled, as trained, while two apparent acolytes followed the lead of their seasoned mentor, a middle-aged gypsy with flowing raven tresses.  They spun and gestured, their penciled eyebrows arched, scarlet lips upturned in come-hither smiles.

 “Wow, Paul!  What do you think?” 

What was the child to think?  And could he hear me over the tinny din and eager applause of the crowd? From his perch on Dave’s shoulders, he watched intently, his face impassive, his gaze unwavering as the women wiggled and tapped their cymbals.  

The music wound down, and the dancers shimmied to the side. In a quick, smooth transition, the Dead Music Capital Band took their place.  Yes, their faces were painted skull white, and yes, fake blood dripped from a hatchet in one musician’s head, but their extensive horn section and bass drums produced a powerful, swelling, fill-your-chest-with-joy volume of sound.

 We’d grasped that Halloween in the offing would explain the blood and skeletal affectations, but still….”What’s this all about?” I asked a woman near me.

“It’s the Honk!” she said. 

Oh, that explains it….

“The parade is tomorrow!  Starts at noon from Davis Square!”

Well! As we wheeled Paul home to dinner and bed, he stretched out and relaxed in his stroller, satisfied by the evening’s entertainment. We still had no idea what was going on, but sure as hell, we would be at Davis at noon!

At 12:00 on the dot the next day, the three of us joined thousands of other enthusiasts on the sidewalk on Mass Ave.  Paul was back at his station on Dave’s shoulders, his expression still inscrutable, which seemed about right given last night’s introduction.

By now, Dave and I had Googled the Honk and learned this was the 12th anniversary of the “Festival of Activist Street Bands.”  Last night, the message had not been the focus, but this morning, the full array of Boston’s diverse population and social consciousness was literally on parade.  Stilt-walkers, cyclists, floats, and bands marched or danced or wheeled on by, exuberantly proclaiming solidarity with groups and causes close to home (a faculty walk-out) and across the globe: climate change, clean energy, Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights, peace on Earth, Dreamers, and Freedom for Tibet.

Lady Liberty was well represented in green foam headdresses and large-scale statues, her promise of equality and welcome deeply meaningful for this city of immigrants, for this country of immigrants.  And my heart was lifted, in these troubling times of competing fears and worries, to see so many people out creatively declaring their commitment and concern.

While Paul remained transfixed more than overjoyed, we delighted in directing his attention to the startling mix of outrageous fantasy and the comfortably familiar portrayed in vibrant costumes, crepe, and papier mache.  “Look Sweetie!  What’s that?”


“Yes!  An elephant!”

 “And look! Butterflies!”


“Yay!  Whoa! Check it out, Paul!  A dragon!”


And so, in being with our grandson, led by our senses and open to opportunity, we happened upon the Honk with its belly dancers, bands, community … and dragons.



Sunday, October 22, 2017

Adventures Everywhere

As I rocked my grandson in my arms in the darkened room before settling him into his crib for the night, I whispered, “You had so many adventures today!”  Paul snuggled against my chest, waiting...  My son and his wife started this routine when Paul was an infant; after putting on his pajamas and reading a few cozy stories, they turn down the lights, and in soft voices, review his day.

“You saw the men fixing the sidewalk this morning, remember…?”

Dave had been taking a shower, and Paul and I had gone outside to retrieve the sponge Red Sox baseball bat Paul tossed over the balcony.  The bat was in the neighbors’ yard, under a small fir tree.  “Do you see the bat?  Can you get it?”

I opened the gate to the fence, he fetched the bat, and raised it proudly for me to see. 

Suddenly, the pounding of a jackhammer shattered the morning quiet.  “Wow!  What’s that?  Let’s go check it out!”  I said.

“Check it out!” replied Paul as we walked toward a sound from which most people would flee.

Paul is 22 months old and fast on his feet, so I have terrifying mental images of him smacking his head on the sidewalk or darting into the road.  So, “Take my finger, sweetie,” I said.  “Good boy.  Thank you,” and we headed toward the noise. 

While one might think curiosity about that thundering sound would override all else, there was much to inspect within the block and a half we covered.  

Paul stopped, pointed, and squatted on his haunches.  “Those are ants!”  I said.

“Ants!” said Paul, his voice gentle and intrigued.

“See how busy they are? They’re helping their friends take food to their home.  See the hole?  That’s their home.”

“That’s their home,” he said… or something close.

With his eyes, Paul followed the scurrying ants while shamelessly I indoctrinated him with the value of even the smallest lives, the importance of helping, the satisfaction of good work. 

Nearby, drifts of dried maple seeds had collected in the dirt at the base of a small sapling.  Yesterday, Dave demonstrated the fun of these “helicopters,” so Paul scooped up two handfuls and tossed them in the air. “Watah-fall!” he cried as they spun and tumbled. 

“Wheeeeee!” I whooped, as I tossed high another handful.

“Wheeee!”  Paul joined in, as seeds rained down around us.

Oh, being with our boy reminds me of the joys and wonder of this world.  The fascinating industry of ants.  The exhilaration of maple seeds swirling as they fall.  The allure of a jackhammer ratcheting against concrete.  Hm.  Yes.  That too.

Finger in small fist, we resumed our walk toward the deafening report.  “Big truck!”  Paul said with glee.

He was right!  A dump truck and a backhoe were waiting to haul away broken chunks of sidewalk.   “Look!  See that man?  He has a pickaxe.  Can you say ‘pickaxe’?  (Of course, he could!)  He’s breaking off pieces and putting them into the shovel.  Look at that big shovel on the backhoe!” 

“Shovel on the backhoe!” repeated Paul, or something close.

We sat on the stairs of a house across the street from the action and watched as I rattled off explanations and questions.  “What color is the dump truck?  That man’s shirt?  The backhoe?” 

I’d mistakenly told Paul that vehicle was a steam shovel, but not wishing to misinform my grandson, I asked one of the men and he corrected me; the good men of public works were tickled to have such curious, enthusiastic spectators. Periodically they waved or gestured toward what they were doing.  In parting, I yelled over the clamor of the engine to tell them they might have a young apprentice.  They called back, “Nah!  This work’s too hard.  Tell him to stay in school!”

Later that day, after lunch and Paul’s nap, Dave, Paul’s “Tato,” joined us for a trip to the grocery store.  As if the Universe had not been generous enough in providing this morning’s backhoe and dump truck, hook and ladder engine #9 was parked in the back of the lot.  “Look Paul!  What do you see?”  We whooped.

Pointing with a chubby, index finger, Paul hooted, “Big fire truck!”  Not just close this time, but clear as day.

Two firefighters manned the truck, both named Mike.    “Fist bump?” Mike #1 asked Paul.  Oh yeah.  Tiny fist met meaty fists as Mikes #1 and #2 greeted our boy.  “Want to sit in the truck?”  said Mike #1 as he jumped down from his post. 

“Whoa!  Look at you,” Dave and I crowed as Paul perched on the seat… too close to the edge I thought.  So I hovered, hands raised in case he lurched forward, while the two Mikes smiled their encouragement.

But there was shopping yet to be done, so Dave and I gushed our thanks, and we all waved bye-bye.  So many dear, burly men in Paul’s wake today, grinning at our little one and waving bye-bye!

For young parents, grocery shopping is one list among many, exhausting if it follows a day at work, an annoyance on the weekend when it takes up free time.  For us, Paul’s Tato and his LeaLea, it was anything Paul wanted it to be, as long as we wound up with the makings for dinner.  

Usually, I don’t take time to notice, much less marvel at the shapes and colors tucked in the shelves of Stop and Shop. But with Paul, I saw the beauty in mounds of shiny apples, ponderous pumpkins, and dimpled oranges.  We pointed, and Paul named them, as shoppers around us smiled and said, “Smart boy!”

We’d decided on tilapia for dinner, and wheeled over to the seafood counter, totally forgetting the surprise that waited there.  OMG! Lobsters! Could this day get any better?

Dave lifted Paul out of the cart so he could study closely those crusty creatures, their waving antennae, and spidery legs.  Paul noted the big ones and watched as some little ones took their naps.  I threw in a comment about playing nicely with friends as a bully of a lobster clambered over those napping babies.

Having never done this as parents – we were too busy!  We had things to do! – we set Paul free and followed him as he dashed down the aisles, weaving around displays and indulgent, smiling shoppers, stopping dead periodically when something caught his eye.  In the pet department, an elderly woman quizzed Paul on animal names, then looked at me and said, “Treasure these times!  It goes so fast…”

As if I don’t know!  We last saw Paul a month ago, and already he is taller and slimmer.  Already he has dropped some endearing words and gestures as his pronunciation improves and he mimics more accurately.  Already, he is more of a person, surer of what he wants… and what he doesn’t.  As I did with Tucker and Casey, I try to freeze our time with this little boy, much as I know it can’t be done.

In the darkened nursery that night, with Paul snoozy in his striped pajamas, snuggled close to my chest, I whispered, “and you sat in a fire truck.  Do you remember the two Mikes?  And you went to the grocery store, and watched the lobsters play with their friends.”



Sunday, October 8, 2017

That is who we are, isn't it?

“So, you were on the stage when the shooting started? Can you describe for us what happened?” 

As he listened to the news anchor’s question, the young man’s gaze was averted.   He was seeing something else, something off-camera, something that left him pale and haunted.  In his blue flannel shirt and jeans, this kid had just spent the evening at a country western festival… and been sprayed with gunshots from a window on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Hotel.  The silence seemed long… painful… between the anchor’s question and the boy’s ability to find his voice.  He glanced into the camera and quickly away.

“I was with my sister,” he began, and immediately, I worried about his sister. “We heard this popping noise.  Pop, pop, pop.  At first we thought it was, like, firecrackers or something, you know? But then, this guy next to us was shot…” The boy angled his head and placed a finger where his neck met his jaw, “here.  In the head.”

He went on, his voice flat, his gaze still fixed elsewhere, back in time.  “The shooting stopped, then started again.  There were three volleys.  Each time, my sister threw her body over mine and told me she loved me.”

With tears running down my face, I imagined being there.  Out on a glorious night, enjoying the music and festivity, and then, the fatal shift wrought by that popping sound. Those desperately whispered, possibly last, loving words as Dave leapt to cover me, or as I leapt to protect my children. The futility of flesh as a shield when hatred has access to an automatic weapon. 

Who would continue to allow that access after the deaths of 20 first graders and six of their teachers in Sandy Hook?  Who would allow that after the deaths of theater-goers watching a movie in Aurora?  Who would allow that after the deaths of young people dancing at a club in Orlando?  Who would continue to do nothing as guns in the hands of the mentally ill or hate-consumed continue to kill Americans gathered peacefully together?

Statistics vary depending on the source and definition of a mass shooting. Gun Violence Archive counts 1500 mass shootings since Sandy Hook.  These include incidents where four or more people were shot, not necessarily killed, and not including the shooter.  So if three people were shot and killed, they’d not be counted in that statistic.  In terms of individual gun deaths, the average is 12,000 homicides a year.  If suicide by gun is included, the number skyrockets, as if 12,000 weren’t skyrocket enough.        

So, how is Congress responding to these tragedies? What steps are they taking to keep guns out of the wrong hands?  Oh, wait.  No. Their response, no doubt prodded by the NRA and gun manufacturers, is to pursue ways to make it easier.  In Connecticut, we are blessed by Senators Murphy and Blumenthal, and Representative Jim Himes who are seeking to close loopholes in existing legislation. But a few months ago, enough members of Congress voted “aye” to pass a law that allows those with mental illness easier access to guns.  Not only that, there are bills currently under consideration to legalize silencers and give concealed-carry permits validity even in states that don’t allow them.

WHAT? Why is the agony and outrage most Americans feel not reflected in the votes and actions of Congress?

“The second amendment demands we protect gun ownership!” might be the response.  But it’s lunacy or willful ignorance to think the founding fathers envisioned automatic weapons, or would wish to protect the right to spray death on innocent citizens with a weapon designed to kill many in a short time.

Over the past year, my husband and I saw Zac Brown in concert at Citifield and James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt at Fenway Park.  The stands were packed to capacity at both venues, with roughly 35,000 eager fans in attendance at each.  Despite the happy crowds and great vibe, it crossed my mind, just a quiet flitter, that a shooter with an automatic weapon could do a lot of damage if that were the goal.

Instead, people danced, just as the concert-goers in Las Vegas did.  Everyone smiled, and some linked arms, as 35,000 people sang along with James Taylor to “You’ve got a Friend.”

That is who we are, isn’t it?

In the names of those dead by gun violence, and to prevent adding the names of our loved ones to that list, I pray that Congress, those entrusted with the well-being of the nation and its people, will be moved by these deaths to enact common sense gun control and start, at the very least, with re-instating the ban on semi-automatic weapons.