Secret Giver of Gifts

Though I first posted this two years ago, I keep returning to it. Thought you might want to as well. Peace and joy be with you.

Snow quietly drifted earthward as baking scents wafted through the house and, Christmas lights sparkle from the living room. The spirit of the season has settled upon me at last. And today I was reminded of a time when our youngest asked, “Mom, are you Santa?”

s-barn

He’d held onto the belief for far longer than any of his classmates. And for that reason, I too, couldn’t let go. And so that day long ago, as we drove along I reminded him that though the shopping mall Santas were not real, we’d had several encounters that made believers out of all of us.

The first occurred over thirty years ago when I taught English in Franklin, New Hampshire. Across the hall from my classroom was a special education class. And fourteen-year-old Mikey, a student in that class, LOVED Santa.

Each year the bread deliveryman dressed in the famous red costume when he made his final delivery before Christmas break. To Mikey’s delight, he always stopped by his classroom. That particular year, a raging snowstorm developed. The bread man called the cafeteria to say that he would not be able to make the delivery. School was going to be dismissed after lunch, but we were all disappointed for Mikey’s sake.

And then  . . . as the lunch period drew to a close, Santa walked through the door and directly toward Mikey, who hooted with joy as he embraced the jolly old elf. As swiftly as he entered, Santa left. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-waiting-for-santa

And about nineteen years ago, as the boys sat at the kitchen counter eating breakfast on Christmas Eve morning, we spotted a man walking on the power lines across the field from our house. We all wondered who it was, but quickly dismissed the thought as he disappeared from our view, until . . . a few minutes later he reappeared. The second time, he stopped and looked in our direction. I grabbed the binoculars we kept on the counter for wildlife viewings. The man was short and plump. He wore a bright red jacket, had white hair and a short, white beard. The boys each took a turn with the binoculars. The man stood and stared in our direction for a couple of minutes, and then he continued walking in the direction from which he’d originally come. We never saw him again. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-tree-hole

Another incident occurred about seventeen years ago, when on Christmas Eve, our phone rang. The unrecognizable elderly male voice asked for our oldest son. When I inquired who was calling, he replied, “Santa.” He spoke briefly with both boys and mentioned things that they had done during the year. I chatted with him again before saying goodbye. We were all wide-eyed with amazement. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-cocoon

Once I reminded our youngest of those stories, he dropped the subject for the time being. I knew he’d ask again and I also knew that none of us wanted to give up the magic of anticipation for those special moments we know as Christmas morning, when the world is suddenly transformed.

I also knew it was time he heard another story–that of Saint Nicholas, the Secret Giver of Gifts. It goes like this . . .

s-snow-limbs

The nobleman looked to Heaven and cried, “Alas. Yesterday I was rich. Overnight I have lost my fortune. Now my three daughters cannot be married for I have no dowry to give. Nor can I support them.”

For during the Fourth Century, custom required the father of the bride to provide the groom with a dowry of money, land or any valuable possession. With no dowry to offer, the nobleman broke off his daughters’ engagements.

“Do not worry, Father. We will find a way,” comforted his oldest daughter.

s-bracken1

Then it happened. The next day, the eldest daughter discovered a bag of gold on the windowsill. She peered outside to see who had left the bag, but the street was vacant.

Looking toward Heaven, her father gave thanks. The gold served as her dowry and the eldest daughter married.

s-beech

A day later, another bag of gold mysteriously appeared on the sill. The second daughter married.

s-sweet-fern-1

Several days later, the father stepped around the corner of his house and spied a neighbor standing by an open window. In shocked silence, he watched the other man toss a familiar bag into the house. It landed in a stocking that the third daughter had hung by the chimney to dry.

The neighbor turned from the window and jumped when he saw the father.

“Thank you. I cannot thank you enough. I had no idea that the gold was from you,” said the father.

“Please, let this be our secret,” begged the neighbor. “Do not tell anyone where the bags came from.”

s-violet-toothed-fungi

The generous neighbor was said to be Bishop Nicholas, a young churchman of Myra in the Asia Minor, or what we call Turkey. Surrounded by wealth in his youth, Bishop Nicholas had matured into a faithful servant of God. He had dedicated his life to helping the poor and spreading Christianity. News of his good deeds circulated in spite of his attempt to be secretive. People named the bishop, “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

s-stockings

Following Bishop Nicholas’ death, he was made a saint because of his holiness, generosity and acts of kindness. Over the centuries, stockings were hung by chimneys on the Eve of December 6, the date he is known to have died, in hopes that they would be filled by “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

s-dove

According to legend, Saint Nicholas traveled between Heaven and Earth in a wagon pulled by a white steed on the Eve of December 6. On their doorsteps, children placed gifts of hay and carrots for the steed. Saint Nicholas, in return, left candy and cookies for all the good boys and girls.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas, called Sinterklaas by the Dutch, was so popular for his actions, that the people adopted him as their patron saint or spiritual guardian.

Years later, in 1613, Dutch people sailed to the New World where they settled New Amsterdam, or today’s New York City. They brought the celebration of their beloved patron with them to America.

s-snow-tree

To the ears of English colonists living in America, Sinterklaas must have sounded like Santa Claus. Over time, he delivered more than the traditional cookies and candy for stockings. All presents placed under a tree were believed to be brought by him.

s-stonewall

Santa Claus’ busy schedule required he travel the world in a short amount of time. Consequently, as recorded in Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer replaced the wagon and steed.

Since Saint Nicholas was known for his devout Christianity, the celebration of his death was eventually combined with the anniversary of Christ’s birth. December 24th or Christmas Eve, began to represent the Saint’s visit to Earth.

s-heart

Traditionally, gifts are exchanged to honor the Christ Child as the three Wise Men had honored Him in Bethlehem with frankincense, gold and myrrh.

s-santa-hat

One thing, however, has not changed. The gifts delivered by Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, or whomever your tradition dictates, have always and will continue to symbolize the love people bare for one another.

Though they are now young adults, my continued hope for my sons is that they will realize the magic of Christmas comes from the heart and that we all have a wee bit of Santa in us. Yes, Patrick, Santa is real.

May you continue to embrace the mystery and discover wonder wherever you look. And may you find joy in being the Secret Giver of Gifts.

When You Go

My goal was simple. Walk the blue trail at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Chip Stockford Reserve and add a few more decorations to the Christmas Tree. 

If you recall, two weeks ago the Fairs, Farms, and Fun Homeschool 4-H Group decorated a tree(s) as part of the Maine Christmas Tree Scavenger Hunt.

Their biodegradable ornaments were mighty tasty, smeared in peanut butter and bird seed much to the good licking of birds, squirrels, and deer. 

Since the first decorating party, we led a fun walk where participants adopted a scavenger hunt attitude and examined all evergreens along the way until they spotted the special tree(s). And then, because we’d packed more peanut butter and bird seed, and some of the youth had gathered pinecones on the way, we spent time creating new ornaments. That was on Saturday. By Monday, those had also disappeared. 

 As has been the case in the past, only the hearts cut from fallen birch bark remained. 

Taking a tip from our neighbors at Western Foothills Land Trust, which is also participating in the Maine Christmas Tree Hunt, I added orange and apple slices to the tree(s) and a few higher branches. 

I hope you’ll challenge yourself and your family and friends to go on the hunt.

I also hope that some of the ornaments will still be there. But if not, know that the mammals and birds are dining in style. 

In fact, their style reflected in scat I found included more than the offerings we’d supplied. On this rock, it looked like the local staghorn sumac had provided some nourishment. 

That wasn’t the only scat in the area. It took me a moment to realize what I was seeing atop the snow. The scat of larger birds also decorated the trail and I wondered what predators might be about. 

So here’s the thing–when you go in search of the tree (or on any walk in the woods) take some time and look for scat. And while you’re at it, see what else might draw your eye in. 

Maybe you’ll spy an empty sawfly cocoon. 

Or one that will protect the larvae as it pupates within over the winter months. 

When you go, look for the unusual among the usual. I found this pine tree snag that struck me as most intriguing. How tall had it grown before its life tumbled down? 

No matter. What did matter was that its whorled limbs still reached outward in star-like fashion. 

And inward as well. 

Above, its kin stood tall. 

When you go, make time to enjoy the scenic view opened this past summer by staff and volunteers. 


When you go, look for interesting sights like this one, where one pine embraced another. 

Pines typically self prune, but these two chose to keep their lower branches and snuggle together for the rest of their lives. 

So close did they grow that the “arms” of the tree to the left had grafted to the tree to the right so that their hug included shared energy. 

When you go, look for the other old pines along the stone wall–those that grew up when the landscape was more open and their structures could stretch out more than up. 

And below them, notice the squirrel middens. I wasn’t sure there would be many middens this year since it wasn’t a mast production year and few cones had formed.

When you go, let your imagination see the discarded pine cone scales and cobs as toppings on a bowl of ice cream. 

When you go, look for the amber nuggets of pine sap hardened on old bark. 

When you go, if the apple slices remain on the tree(s), notice the star shape of the core. 

When you go, look for all of these . . . or better yet, make your own really cool discoveries. 

I do hope you’ll go to the Chip Stockford Reserve or any of the three other sights in western Maine where trees are decorated. But . . . if you can’t go here, go somewhere. And when you go . . . have fun! 

Amazing Race–Our Style: episode eleven

The second to last episode of the Amazing Race–Our Style was upon us and we hoped it wouldn’t be the final one for us. 

Today’s clue was a bit different than most. It gave us four specific locations–and much to our delight, all were within 20 minutes of home! How could we be so fortunate? 

We were also given a time frame and a few other instructions. We were to arrive at our first destination at 10:30am. From that starting time, we had until 5pm to finish our tasks and send four photos to a certain website. The sooner we completed all of the tasks, except for sending the photos, the better our chances of hanging in for the final episode. The pressure was on. 

One of the biggest challenges was that the photos we needed to send were selfies. We aren’t selfie fans, unless you count photos of our footwear! 

Our overall mission today: to locate the four trees that had been decorated by homeschooled children and/or local land trusts. Since there were four teams left and four different properties, we were each given a different location in which to begin. 

Our starting point on this very foggy morning was Western Foothill Land Trust’s Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway, Maine. As instructed, we arrived at 10:30 and made sure to stay on the snowshoe trails only, for there is also a network of groomed ski trails. The trail was long and sometimes wet, while other times icy, but we didn’t notice too much as our eyes were focused on the trees. Of course, we were occasionally distracted, such as when a downy woodpecker flew into sight. 

My guy was certain he knew where the tree would be located, but . . . it wasn’t, at least as far as we could tell in the fog. 

We did spy a spider web embellished with beads of water and I remembered a story based on a legend about a poor family who had no decorations for their Christmas tree. As the tale goes, while the children slept, spiders spun webs of silver around the tree’s branches. The next morning, the family awoke to a Christmas tree sparkling with silver webs. Today’s webs were such and though we hadn’t found the decorated tree I was already richer for the experience of looking.

And then . . . my guy walked right by it. I was surprised I didn’t, for we both expected a different evergreen species to be adorned. 

Most of the ornaments were meant to feed the critters and we saw deer tracks in the snow. 

Among the mix was a tree cookie with a wood-burned sketch–perhaps of Roberts Farm? 

While my guy picked up fallen treats to rehang on the tree, I practiced my selfie skills. I was feeling confident that we could pull this off. 

And when I told him that we’d have to send the photos to mainechristmastreehunt.com, he was eager to pose–and I was shocked. We tried to make sure that the tree was visible in the background. 

We checked off that tree, hopped into the truck and headed to Lovell. 

OK, so we knew when the clue arrived that we had a bit of an advantage for we’d been invited to join the Fairs, Farms, and Fun 4-H Group that decorated the tree at the Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Chip Stockford Reserve on Ladies Delight Road in Lovell a few weeks ago, and I’d just co-led a walk on the trail this past Saturday where other adults had fun looking for it. And redecorating it.

Oh well. Other teams had had different advantages during different episodes, so it was our turn. 

But, the most curious thing–when we arrived . . . there were no tracks made by any of the other teams. Team Purple was supposed to begin at this point. Had she gotten lost? 

Because we knew right where to go, our journey was quick and we easily relocated the tree on the one mile loop with a spur. And . . . discovered that the birds and deer had once again dined on the bird seed ornaments. 

When it comes time to remove the decorations after Chrismas, the task will be super easy. 

Thankfully, the subtle birch bark hearts continued to add a festive note. 

And so we posed. 

We did discover a new clue at the kiosk on our way in–we were to find something in the woods that represented our team. We found an H for Team Hazy. 

Within the clue package, we were also told to take time to eat–at a place locals frequent. We chose Quinn’s Jockey Cap Country Store in Fryeburg and somehow managed to resist the sweet treats while we ordered sandwiches. 

And then it was on to the Mountain Division Trail on Route 113 in Fryeburg to look for Upper Saco Valley Land Trust’s Andrews Preserve. There are no signs or trails at that preserve, but our adventure on Saturday had included a visit there. That’s why I couldn’t believe that this was the intended challenge for today’s episode, but all had been decided almost a year ago and it just worked out that I knew where we needed to go today. That being said, I let my guy lead. 

He had a bit of help as one or two others had been that way–leaving their tracks in the snow. 

And . . . he did a super job, quickly spying the tree. What I love about this scavenger hunt is that each tree has a different theme and flavor. The USVLT tree was decorated by a teen and her mom, and the teen didn’t want the animals to eat all the ornaments. Understood. 

They created a pipecleaner garland and added glittery bulbs. It’s a bright spot in the middle of a thickly wooded site. 

And so we posed again. 

Our final destination was to Lake Environmental Association’s Pinehaven Trail at the Maine Lake Science Center on Willet Road in Bridgton. This is a place we know well for it’s practically in our backyard, but we didn’t know which tree would be decorated. And so we began our hunt, pausing briefly to remember the fun we’d had on the low elements challenge course that dots the trail. We’d actually completed that challenge one rainy day and were thankful (and surprised) we didn’t have to attempt it in the snow. 

Suddenly, the decorated tree jumped out with its brightly colored garland and we rejoiced for we’d found all four trees. And still had plenty of time. 

The laminated garland featured words related to LEA’s mission and activities. And so did the tree cookies, much to our liking. 

And so we posed for one final time. We still aren’t great in the selfie department, but it would have to do. 

Our next task before sending off the selfie photos to the website, was to create a scavenger hunt for others. You already know the four properties and their locations. Plus for each organization, I’ve included a link to their websites. 

Your task, should you choose to complete it while you look for the decorated trees, is to also locate these finds. 

#1: Phoebe nest protected from the weather.

#2: Shiny chrome in the forest

#3: Home for flying salamanders

#4: Wet wetland

#5: Fairy castle with many spires and towers

And finally, #6: Snowshoe snowflake! 

The numbers: 

4 trees: √

4 selfies: √

Photo to represent our team: √

Scavenger hunt for others: √

Total time to complete race: 5 hours

We finished this leg of the Amazing Race–Our Style by 3:30pm, uploaded the selfies, sent them to Maine Christmas Tree Hunt, and found out that we took first place today! Yippee. (We were sad to learn that Team Purple made some wrong turns and got delayed.)

One more leg to go in January. Who will be the winners of the Amazing Race–Our Style? Stay tuned. 

Secret Giver of Gifts

Snow quietly drifted earthward as baking scents wafted through the house and Christmas lights sparkled from the living room. The spirit of the season has settled upon me at last. And today I was reminded of a time when our youngest asked, “Mom, are you Santa?”

s-barn

He’d held onto the belief for far longer than any of his classmates. And for that reason, I too, couldn’t let go. And so that day long ago, as we drove along I reminded him that though the shopping mall Santas were not real, we’d had several encounters that made believers out of all of us.

The first occurred over thirty years ago when I taught English in Franklin, New Hampshire. Across the hall from my classroom was a special education class. And fourteen-year-old Mikey, a student in that class, LOVED Santa.

Each year the bread deliveryman dressed in the famous red costume when he made his final delivery before Christmas break. To Mikey’s delight, he always stopped by his classroom. That particular year, a raging snowstorm developed. The bread man called the cafeteria to say that he would not be able to make the delivery. School was going to be dismissed after lunch, but we were all disappointed for Mikey’s sake.

And then  . . . as the lunch period drew to a close, Santa walked through the door and directly toward Mikey, who hooted with joy as he embraced the jolly old elf. As swiftly as he entered, Santa left. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-waiting-for-santa

And about nineteen years ago, as the boys sat at the kitchen counter eating breakfast on Christmas Eve morning, we spotted a man walking on the power lines across the field from our house. We all wondered who it was, but quickly dismissed the thought as he disappeared from our view, until . . . a few minutes later he reappeared. The second time, he stopped and looked in our direction. I grabbed the binoculars we kept on the counter for wildlife viewings. The man was short and plump. He wore a bright red jacket, had white hair and a short, white beard. The boys each took a turn with the binoculars. The man stood and stared in our direction for a couple of minutes, and then he continued walking in the direction from which he’d originally come. We never saw him again. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-tree-hole

Another incident occurred about seventeen years ago, when on Christmas Eve, our phone rang. The unrecognizable elderly male voice asked for our oldest son. When I inquired who was calling, he replied, “Santa.” He spoke briefly with both boys and mentioned things that they had done during the year. I chatted with him again before saying goodbye. We were all wide-eyed with amazement. I have no doubt that that was Santa.

s-cocoon

Once I reminded our youngest of those stories, he dropped the subject for the time being. I knew he’d ask again and I also knew that none of us wanted to give up the magic of anticipation for those special moments we know as Christmas morning, when the world is suddenly transformed.

I also knew it was time he heard another story–that of Saint Nicholas, the Secret Giver of Gifts. It goes like this . . .

s-snow-limbs

The nobleman looked to Heaven and cried, “Alas. Yesterday I was rich. Overnight I have lost my fortune. Now my three daughters cannot be married for I have no dowry to give. Nor can I support them.”

For during the Fourth Century, custom required the father of the bride to provide the groom with a dowry of money, land or any valuable possession. With no dowry to offer, the nobleman broke off his daughters’ engagements.

“Do not worry, Father. We will find a way,” comforted his oldest daughter.

s-bracken1

Then it happened. The next day, the eldest daughter discovered a bag of gold on the windowsill. She peered outside to see who had left the bag, but the street was vacant.

Looking toward Heaven, her father gave thanks. The gold served as her dowry and the eldest daughter married.

s-beech

A day later, another bag of gold mysteriously appeared on the sill. The second daughter married.

s-sweet-fern-1

Several days later, the father stepped around the corner of his house and spied a neighbor standing by an open window. In shocked silence, he watched the other man toss a familiar bag into the house. It landed in a stocking that the third daughter had hung by the chimney to dry.

The neighbor turned from the window and jumped when he saw the father.

“Thank you. I cannot thank you enough. I had no idea that the gold was from you,” said the father.

“Please, let this be our secret,” begged the neighbor. “Do not tell anyone where the bags came from.”

s-violet-toothed-fungi

The generous neighbor was said to be Bishop Nicholas, a young churchman of Myra in the Asia Minor, or what we call Turkey. Surrounded by wealth in his youth, Bishop Nicholas had matured into a faithful servant of God. He had dedicated his life to helping the poor and spreading Christianity. News of his good deeds circulated in spite of his attempt to be secretive. People named the bishop, “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

s-stockings

Following Bishop Nicholas’ death, he was made a saint because of his holiness, generosity and acts of kindness. Over the centuries, stockings were hung by chimneys on the Eve of December 6, the date he is known to have died, in hopes that they would be filled by “The Secret Giver of Gifts.”

s-dove

According to legend, Saint Nicholas traveled between Heaven and Earth in a wagon pulled by a white steed on the Eve of December 6. On their doorsteps, children placed gifts of hay and carrots for the steed. Saint Nicholas, in return, left candy and cookies for all the good boys and girls.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas, called Sinterklaas by the Dutch, was so popular for his actions, that the people adopted him as their patron saint or spiritual guardian.

Years later, in 1613, Dutch people sailed to the New World where they settled New Amsterdam, or today’s New York City. They brought the celebration of their beloved patron with them to America.

s-snow-tree

To the ears of English colonists living in America, Sinterklaas must have sounded like Santa Claus. Over time, he delivered more than the traditional cookies and candy for stockings. All presents placed under a tree were believed to be brought by him.

s-stonewall

Santa Claus’ busy schedule required he travel the world in a short amount of time. Consequently, as recorded in Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer replaced the wagon and steed.

Since Saint Nicholas was known for his devout Christianity, the celebration of his death was eventually combined with the anniversary of Christ’s birth. December 24th or Christmas Eve, began to represent the Saint’s visit to Earth.

s-heart

Traditionally, gifts are exchanged to honor the Christ Child as the three Wise Men had honored Him in Bethlehem with frankincense, gold and myrrh.

s-santa-hat

One thing, however, has not changed. The gifts delivered by Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, or whomever your tradition dictates, have always and will continue to symbolize the love people bare for one another.

Though they are now young adults, my continued hope for my sons is that they will realize the magic of Christmas comes from the heart and that we all have a wee bit of Santa in us. Yes, Patrick, Santa is real.

May you continue to embrace the mystery and discover wonder wherever you look. And may you find joy in being the Secret Giver of Gifts.

 

 

 

 

Amid the Hustle and Bustle

By mid morning, I was done making or purchasing gifts. Some wrapped, others await. And baking still to be done.

So, amid the hustle and bustle, I did what I do best–headed out the back door.

house & barn 1

Fog enveloped the day and added to the mystery of the season. Across the field, our house disappeared into the covering.

foggy trail

I followed the trail for a bit before slipping into the woods, where a quiet hush surrounded me.

drop 4

Droplets

droplet 1

of water

drop 2

suspended

pine droplets

beneath

meadowsweet droplets

offered

witch hazel droplet

whispers

grass droplets

of anticipation.

reindeer 1

Returning to the field I noticed movement.

deer 2

Reindeer watching.

creche

Home again, we’re completing the wrapping as the aroma of Christmas treats fill the air. It won’t be long now. We’ll put the hustle and bustle behind us and celebrate the coming.