Electric Christmas, 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago, I wrote, and published, “Electric Christmas” in Baltimore’s Child. It was my first sold piece as a freelance writer, and it kicked off a career in submitting my original work to share with the world.

Now, 20 years later, we are still taking rides during the holidays to look at your lights. But instead of my daughter in the back seat, it’s my grandson – Holland’s beautiful son. The years have passed quickly, but the traditions I wrote about 20 years ago continue on. Now he is the one sharing his “wow’s” from the back seat as we all marvel at the timeless beauty of Christmas and family traditions.

I thank each and every one of you for providing your light shows, your celebrations of reds, greens, and whites, for all of us to enjoy. You’ve proven, once again, that no pandemic, no tragedy, will ever stop the joyful and spiritual expressions of the holidays, a spirit borne deep within the true core of who we are as human beings.

And now, I share with you, the unedited, published essay, “Electric Christmas.”

Electric Christmas, by Rus VanWestervelt (2000, originally published in Baltimore’s Child)

It is the last Friday in November, just after our dinner of leftovers and well after sunset. We leave the house with food still on our plates, lights left on. We have little time left.

“Hurry,” I say to them. “Into the car! We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Did I remember the tapes? Oh no! Don’t tell me I forgot the tapes!” My wife double-checks our daughter’s booster seat belts, then double-pats her coat pocket with confidence.

“I have both of them, right here. Let’s go.”

Always a step ahead of me; thank goodness!

She slides into the seat next to Holland Grace’s booster, shuts the door tightly, and straps herself in. I turn over the motor and adjust the rearview mirror. My wife and I lock eyes.

“Ready?”

She nods, and Holland Grace confirms our status. “Let’s Go, Daddy!”

I ease out of the driveway, synchronously getting a tape in handoff from my wife and inserting it into the player. The leader tape seems interminable.

“Daddy? Time yet?”

Just then, the leader ends, and Bing Crosby’s silky voice stills the air.
I’m dreaming, of a White Christ-mas….”

A chorus of sighs fills the car, and we are on our way.

No, we’re not the Von Trapp Family Singers fleeing our homeland; we’re just a Baltimore family continuing our own holiday tradition, taking to the streets and looking for beautiful displays of lights and seasonal celebrations while our daughter “oohs” and “aahs” as we pass by your creations.

When I was just a bit older than Holland Grace, who is now four, I would come downstairs from my bedroom long before daybreak replaced the streetlights in Towson, and I would wake my sister¾six years my elder¾¾with a gentle nudge and a flashlight pointed in her eyes.

“Cindy, are you awake?”

“No,” she’d grumble. “I’m sound asleep. Now leave me alone before I kill you in my dream.”

“But it’s time for Christmas,” I’d whisper, nudging her again, then peeling up an exposed eyelid and shining in a beam of light in a desperate attempt to wake her.

“No,” she’d say. “It’s time to turn off the flashlight.”

“Then you’ll get up?”

“If it means you’ll stop blinding me.”

“Cindy, it’s Christmas!”

With that said, I’d run down the hall, plug in the tree lights, and kneel before the miracle.

Wow,” I’d whisper. This was the most magical of moments, sitting alone with that illuminated tree and the multicolored wrappings, enveloped in a darkness that sealed the spirit of Christmas all around me. I could not have felt warmer, fuller of that magic.

My memory was not strengthened by what was in those boxes wrapped in the multicolored paper. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name you more than three or four toys I received in all of those childhood Christmas mornings. What I do remember is that first smell of brewed coffee mingling with the scent of the pine cones on the tree; the rustling of wrapping paper  as Dad finished wrapping a few last gifts; Cindy and I touching each package, shaking them gently and deciding which  we’d open first and which seemed mysterious enough to open last; our dog Toby sniffing out his own stocking filled with puppy crackers. These memories of Christmas mornings  never seemed to change because this was our tradition. 

Years may pass, but traditions stand the test of time. One Christmas, my sister gave me a game called “Operation,” and we thought we were on the cutting edge of space-age technology. This year, I’d like to finally return the favor and give her a virtual surgery game that puts the scalpel in your hand and lets you know if you’ve removed the wrong organ and have sent the patient into V fib. Not that there’s anything wrong with this change in what’s under the tree. We were in as much awe with an electronic board game as we are now with a virtual computer game.  But let’s face it. Gifts break, small parts disappear, and the novelty loses its luster after the lights have been taken down and the tree has been tossed on the corner for recycling.

Traditions don’t break down or lose their parts or dull over time. That’s what makes them traditions, and they end up being the greatest gifts we can pass along to our children.

When I knelt down before that great, plastic, flame-retardant tree as a child on Christmas morning, I wasn’t thinking too consciously about what it all meant. I was too overwhelmed. Rather, I thought nothing but felt everything. It was in me, radiating as much inside as outside, an electric glow which would remain forever that, someday, I would share with my own family.

As adults, we all share these memories with the ones we love. We sit over a cup of coffee or we lie in bed a few minutes longer in the morning and ask what Christmas was like as a kid. He might say it was the memory of feeling a bit older with his dad when they would go to cut down a tree, always on the second Sunday in December. She might say it was trying to stay up all night with her older brother every Christmas Eve to hear Santa rustling through his sack downstairs and drinking the soured milk that had been sitting out for hours.

It’s that electric glow that we remember, a tradition that our parents and family either continued or created for us in childhood.

Wow….”

I adjust the mirror in the car to look at my daughter, eyes wide open, a finger touching the window as she points out another display to her mom. “Bee-Youtiful!” she says, a duet with Crosby, both of them crooning in the back seat.

So, this is our tradition. Every night following Thanksgiving, we take a drive to look at the lights that all of you string up around your trees, your houses, your lamp posts. We look at the brilliant displays of candy canes and holly bushes and snowmen, and then we’ll head down to Baltimore’s own 34th Street, where miracles and holiday spirits (not to mention electric bills) could never be greater.

And as each night’s route becomes longer and more fulfilling than the previous evening’s drive, we hear from the back seat of our car—over and over again—that unmistakably wondrous whisper of a child experiencing yet another magical discovery, the sound of a child beaming electric inside and out, the sound from which traditions are born.

Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Collection of Christmas Reflections

Sharing with all of my Baltimore Writer followers…

Thank you very much for your interest in Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Collection of Christmas Reflections, featuring “Gretchie’s Gifts,” my latest Christmas story in memory of my dear friend, Gretchen Trageser Smith.

This is a 121-page eBook (PDF format) that can be opened on any smartphone or tablet. It includes three short stories, a collection of essays, and a series of Christmas song reflections.

This is currently a FREE publication. I am asking for donations, however, and ALL proceeds received for this eBook between December 8 and December 18, 2016, will be donated to the PICU at Sinai Hospital to ensure that the children who will be spending their holidays (and beyond) in the Intensive Care Unit will have a little light during this time of year. Faith Smith, Gretchen’s sister, and I will personally deliver the donation to Sinai before Christmas.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy, click HERE.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in ePUB format, click HERE.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in MOBI format, click HERE.

To download your copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in the KINDLE store for just $0.99, click HERE.

If you would like to make a donation before or after you download this publication, please do so below ($5, $10, or $25). If you are interested in donating a different amount, please contact me directly at rus.vanwestervelt@gmail.com.

*** Please share this link with your family and friends. We want to do everything we can to brighten their Christmas. To learn more about the Children’s Hospital at Sinai, go HERE.

REMEMBER: ALL donations made between December 8 and December 18 go directly to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, MD.

To make a donation, please go HERE and scroll to the bottom of the page.

THANK YOU! I will keep everyone updated on how much we have collected for the PICU at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

as always…………………rvw

 

The Story Had To Be Told: On Writing The Christmas Rose

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday, I published my short story, The Christmas Rose. It’s been less than 24 hours since I shared it with my readers, and I wanted to answer a few questions about why I wrote it.

Q: The story is pretty long — almost 8,000 words. Most people aren’t reading pieces that take more than a few minutes to read. Why didn’t you cut it down to under 5,000 words?

A. It is one of the longer shorts that I’ve written. Most are around 3,000 words. I’ve been trained well by the competitions and requirements of the print journals where I submit most of my work. I knew this piece was going directly to the web and to an eBook format, so I worried less about the length.

There’s another reason, though. First and foremost, the story had to be told, and I couldn’t hold any part of it back to fit a generic reader’s tolerance for a sustained reading. In other words, it doesn’t fit into the criteria of a social media read (that’s one of the reasons why I created a PDF of the manuscript so readers could download it and read it at their leisure).

Q: Aren’t you afraid that it won’t get more widely distributed then? It seems like the length is a real roadblock to it taking off.

A: Then so be it. I know the formula of what makes things go “viral” in today’s fast-paced world. Maybe this is an “anti-viral” piece. I’ve stopped caring about that. I’m going to be 50 years old in a few months, and I have a lot of stories to share before I go. I’ve stopped worrying about what works in this immediate world. If my story is 50 words or 500,000 words long, then that’s what it is. I’ll let my present and future readers decide what they want to do with it.

Q: How long were you working on this story?

A: Not terribly long at all. The basic premise came to me about 3 weeks ago that “believing” in something, like Christmas or Santa Claus, is not just for kids. We have a responsibility to continue our efforts to believe in our power to change the world — whether that is the “world” in our local town or community, or an entire nation or nations.

In the middle of writing the piece, we took a trip down to 34th Street to look at the lights in Hamden in Baltimore City. We never made it because a flash mob shut the streets down as they sung “Silent Night.” I thought that was the greatest thing to happen. Shut everything down with music. Stop driving by the world and take a few minutes to celebrate the beauty with friends and strangers alike. Wonderful stuff.

Here’s the video that was released from that special night:

After I wrote the first draft, I knew there was very little I wanted to revise. It’s a Christmas story, all right, but it’s so much more about what we can do for others. Our nation is in a stressful place right now. We can focus on the pain, or we can focus on acts of kindness for all that can begin a genuine and long-lasting healing.

Q: Is any of it real?

A: None of it and all of it. Luther’s Village is a micro version of historic Lutherville; Hunter’s Valley is Hunt Valley. Emily Starling is an extension of the kind elders I knew in my neighborhood in Loch Raven and Towson who gave so selflessly to others.

Q: What about the Christmas Rose?

A: The Christmas rose itself (Helleborus niger) is not very “rose-traditional” looking. And, more importantly, it is poisonous. I loved the story behind the flower, but using this exact plant for my story just wouldn’t work. The hybridization of flowers happens all the time; it is not unrealistic to believe that Emily was able to create a hybrid that would be safe and offer a nice fragrance.

I think planting and giving flowers is the greatest gift we can give to others, both for now and for the future. I’ve always enjoyed the stories about the hope flowers bring. It doesn’t take much to bring a little color and hope to others, does it?

Q: How can I read “The Christmas Rose”?

A: You can read it online HERE.

You can also download the eBook (PDF) to enjoy on your phone or tablet: Christmas Rose Story.

Thanks, readers, for reading and, possibly, sharing my story of The Christmas Rose with others. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

as always………………………….rvw

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The Christmas Rose

“The Christmas Rose”

By Rus VanWestervelt, December 2014

 

If you would prefer to download ‘The Christmas Story” as a PDF file, you may do so HERE.

 

Dedicated to Patrick and Sandra, whose sons Ryan and Danny, respectively, passed away far too early in their young lives. May their spirits, and their love, live on forever in the hearts of all who loved them – and you.

 

Snow rose

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Dear Alice and Anna:

It is very early Christmas morning. You are both still asleep, and I have just returned from what was (I am fairly certain) my final journey to and from the Big Hill. The two white roses that will go in your stockings are next to me, along with two gifts wrapped in white paper adorned with small, hand-painted roses. They are beautiful, as always.

Tonight, though, they have even greater meaning. Last Christmas, for the first time, you asked me about those white roses and the gifts wrapped in the pretty white paper. Do you remember? I smiled, and I told you to simply enjoy their beauty and that, someday, I would tell you the full story when you are ready. At that time, I thought that I had plenty of time to wait for you to get a little older.

I was wrong.

I don’t think you are old enough yet to understand any of this, and I certainly don’t think I could just sit down and tell you (I am sure that my tears would get in the way far too much, and it would take away from the beautiful story of the Christmas rose and its legacy that is bigger than any of us). So, I think I’m going to do my best here on these blank pages and write it all down for you. It’s time that I do this now anyway. I can’t trust my memory for too much longer. Things seem to be progressing pretty fast now and, well –

No. I think I’ll just stick with the story behind the beautiful Christmas roses. Like I said already, none of this is about me, anyway.

This town has changed very little since I was your age. Old Emily’s Estate on the Big Hill (at least that’s what we used to call it when we were kids) is as beautiful as ever, and although our house is part of a newer development here in Luther’s Village, the rest of the town has remained true to its good, traditional feel. Your great-grandparents (that would be my Grams and Pop Pop) were the original owners of what is now our home, and your bedroom was the very same room I stayed in when we would come to visit them every Easter and Christmas.

The view from your window is the same, too. I could see Old Emily’s Estate lit up at night, just like you can now. Funny how that name has held up, even long after she passed away. Those single white candles in each window mean a lot more to me now than they did then. Believe me. One day, they will seem even more beautiful to you, too, as you will see them from a very different perspective.

I’ll get to that soon enough, though.

Old Emily was legendary to us while she was still alive. She died about a week before we arrived that Christmas when I turned 17. For years, all of the kids had believed the tales that had been spread about her. Emily Starling, lone inhabitant to the mansion that rested on the highest point here in Luther’s Village, was a wealthy, lonely old woman. For 364 days every year, those big iron gates that separated us from the winding driveway to her home stayed shut—locked tight for so long that we believed they would rust themselves shut forever. But on that one day, December 24, she would open those black, rusty gates and allow a select few to enter on foot.

On that night before each Christmas, a handful of town elders would make the mile-long pilgrimage up the winding driveway to her house. As kids, we would watch them from a distance as we made snowmen along the wooded ridge (when we were fortunate enough to have snow on the ground). Each elder brought a single wrapped gift (they were all quite small) and homemade, aged spirits (your great grandparents would always take their own Quarant Quatre). Once, I saw them return just after midnight, and their arms were filled with so much more.

We never knew exactly what they took up, and we definitely never knew what they brought back. All we could ever see were single white flowers peeking out of the bags they brought down. My Pop Pop was an elder, and he would make the trek every year, though we never spoke of it. Nobody did. That’s just how it was.

The rumors among us kids were wild. Some swore that the elders brought offerings, like sacrifices, to Old Emily. (I’m not going to go into too much detail about that here, though. You girls are just too young to hear about that.) Others believed that she was older than the town itself, and that she would never die. Every Christmas Eve, she would receive something from the elders that made her live another year.

I’m sure that, in time, you will be able to imagine what that was. But like I said before, I’m not going to be the one to talk to you about any of that.

In that year when I was 17 and Old Emily had finally passed on, everything was different here at Grams and Pop Pop’s house. They were sad, for sure, and very reflective, as if they had lost one of their own relatives. They both hugged me more than they had ever done before (and since, for that matter, until the year when they died themselves long before you were born).

My parents and I had arrived on the 23rd of December that year, like always. When we pulled into the driveway, many from the town were walking back from the graveyard. They had just laid Emily Starling to rest, and there sure were a lot of quiet people milling about the streets. It looked more like the third week in a hard Winter’s January than just a few days before Christmas. Their sadness was just too heavy, I guess. They wore their grief like a heavy wool blanket, unable to shake the bitter chill of the winter air.

When my Grams and Pop Pop returned to the house, they both did their best to put on a smile for us. Your grandparents hugged them as I stood awkwardly by. Soon enough, we were all ushered into the house, and a sense of routine seemed to return. At least for a few moments.

Just after the sun had set and the fire in the living room had brought some warm comfort to me, your Great Grams called me into the kitchen. She was a round, fastidious woman who was always happy about the food she was cooking, and she was preparing a feast that smelled just delicious.

“Andrew,” she said, “I decided that this year, on the occasion of you turning 17, I would make you two of those pecan pies you love so much.” And she held up two fingers crippled with arthritis, and danced them in the air like crooked sticks.

I gave her the gentlest of hugs (she seemed so fragile then – but compared to who she had become the year she died, I guess she was okay back in the day).

“Thank you, Grams,” I offered, but the smile she offered turned to concern very quickly.

“There has been a lot of change around here this year with Miss Emily passing on,” she said. “But you’ve changed a little too since we saw you in March. You are growing up too quickly, Andrew, and I can tell that you are itching to get out of high school and move on to bigger things.”

Grams could always get right to the point with me. I liked that.

“I am ready. You’re right,” I replied. “I just don’t know what that means. Where we live in Solomon’s is beautiful, but I’ve never felt any real affinity for the place since we moved down there. Something’s missing.”

“Most people feel that way at your age. Don’t fight it,” she smiled. “But don’t let it consume you, either.”

I hugged her again, and I could feel her fragile fingers wrapped around me, fighting for just another second before finally letting go. When she did, she held me at her thin arms’ length and looked directly into my eyes.

The hazel hue in her own eyes captured colors that I never even knew existed.

“There’s something else, Andrew, about this Christmas Eve that we haven’t shared with you yet,” she said. “Pop Pop and your father will explain everything to you – what they can, at least.”

And here is where everything changed for me.

“It looks like you have been invited to join them tomorrow night up to the Big Hill.”

Immediately, I could hear the fears, the resistance, formulating in my mind.

Me? To the Big Hill? Why? And why is anybody going up there at all? She’s dead now, right? –Gosh, that sounds so cold. I didn’t mean it like that. But if she’s not there anymore, why does anybody need to go back up there?

“Your grandfather will explain most of it to you, along with your father. The rest of it, though? Good luck, Andrew. I don’t think they even know what to expect.”

That night, stuffed with pecan pie and Grams’ classic steamers made with pure vanilla, I sat on the edge of my bed and looked out of my window, staring at Emily’s home atop Big Hill. The single white lights were in each window, as they had always been, but every window on every floor had now been draped shut. No additional light. No movement. Nothing.

The house itself looked as if it had been in mourning for Emily’s passing, if not dead itself.

There’s nothing more we can do, Luther. The house – all of it – is no more. I am so sorry. We did our best. . . .

Of course I didn’t believe any of it. I knew that somebody had to be in that house, someone who probably had a lot to do with whatever was going to happen tomorrow night.

How much will I be allowed to know? I wondered.

I tucked myself under the covers, and as I drifted off to sleep, I was sure that a single curtain in one of Emily’s windows had been pushed aside, and a woman dressed in white watched over me as I dreamed of the next night’s journey: a Christmas Eve tradition of secrecy that I was about to join on the hallowed grounds of Emily Starling’s estate. Continue reading

Christmas Is For Children, But They Give Us These Three Greatest Gifts

rvw octsnow2We hear and see it everywhere — from the non-stop Christmas music being played on radio stations to the holiday movies that we love to watch in the comfort of our own homes: Christmas is for kids.

I remember those early mornings, waking up before sunrise to see what magically appeared under the tree overnight. I would kneel in front of that magnificent plastic tree, with big colorful lights covering my world with greens and reds and blues. When my sister finally awoke and joined me, we shared those last few moments together in total bliss, waiting for our parents to join us.

These are the memories we make as kids. Magic, merriment, and family all rolled up in a bundle of wrapping paper and colorful light.

As we get older, though, the gifts we receive change. Where our greatest delight once came from the biggest box under the tree, our greatest gifts today come from the lessons of our own children. Here’s what mine have taught me.

Live The Life You Were Meant To Live

Before young children experience fear, guilt, or hurt, they cannot stop being who they are at such young ages. They demonstrate a forthright determination to fulfill a life lived as genuinely as we can only imagine as adults. For my own children, this meant gymnastics, equitation, baseball, and creative expression. It’s bigger than that, though; it’s about tapping in to the core of who you are and just doing it, living it, simply because it is what is inside of you. For me, it is writing, photography, and music. These are my oxygen. My kids remind me every day that I should never sacrifice the air that I breathe, for any reason. This is their first gift to us.

Love Everyone, EverywhereLegacy 5

A child’s compassion brings us to tears every single time, simply because it is pure; it is the nectar of our being. We see and feel our own love and innocence in their acts, and we even ask ourselves, at times, when did we become so jaded as adults? As I drive around town doing some last-minute shopping, the strangers around me shoot glares of anger, even threats of don’t-you-dares and get-out-of-my-ways. We complain that the holidays stress us out, but really — we are the generators of that stress. It’s not the stores, it’s not the pressure to buy! buy! buy!; it is simply our choice to abandon the basic principles of love because we feel that it is necessary to fulfill everyone else’s expectations. I don’t see our young children running around all stressed out during the holidays. I see them running around all excited, filled with love and magic and hope. Imagine shopping with a heart filled with those three wonderful things: love, magic, hope. This is their second gift to us.

Get Peace, Give Peace

As I walk through the stores and see frustrated moms and dads with their children, I don’t focus on the anger of the adults. I look at the children and see and hear what they are feeling, thinking, wishing, and dreaming: Peace. They don’t want their moms and dads angry, or frustrated, or stressed out. They want peace. They want the loud words to stop, the endless chain of No’s to finally find their end. They just want us to abandon our frustration, our anger, and receive their peace that they feel, enjoy the joy, and share in the magic. They don’t understand why we cannot see it or feel it. We can, if we only choose to. This is their third gift to us.

When our children were very young, and we would take them for Christmas drives to look at all of the pretty lights that you put up around your houses, we could not savor enough the oohs and aahs that would come from the back seat as they saw and felt and appreciated the magic of Christmas. We need to hear that again and carry it with us, not just in this holiday season, but always. We need to live our lives, love everyone, and participate in peace. These were never dreams of our children; they were their realities, just as they were once our realities as well.

Life. Love. Peace. Once and always within us.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Rus

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