Gifts of time and love

One of several vintage family treasures Sheila sent me for Christmas, 2014

One of several vintage family treasures Sheila shared with me for Christmas, 2014

“Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.”
Peg Bracken

I love Christmas!  But it can be exhausting and stressful, particularly when invitations, intentions and demands are far greater than the time (and maybe also the money) to fulfill them. In recent years I have reminded myself to focus on the basic ingredients, and delight in what I’m able to do rather than longing for the extras I’d want to enjoy in an ideal holiday season.

One rule I follow at Christmas is to do nothing out of a sense of obligation, but simply for the sheer joy of it.  I prefer sending small gifts and cards so that nobody feels a need to reciprocate. What I don’t have time to finish doesn’t get done, and I don’t pressure myself to bake, decorate or entertain unless time and opportunity allow it.  Jeff’s illness has meant that many of our traditional festivities have been impossible in the past few years, but our holidays still have been filled with celebration and joy amid all the uncertainties and losses.

As I have savored various Christmas activities this year, from decorating the tree to wrapping presents to listening to Christmas music, I realize that most of what I know about these things, I learned from my Daddy.  I am filled with thankfulness to him for showing us how to celebrate the yuletide abundantly without spending a lot of money or going into debt.  He is so much a part of my memories of Christmas that it has been easier than it might have been to endure his physical absence this holiday. His spirit permeates everything about the season, so it’s almost as if he is still here with us.

I’m also grateful to so many of you whose presence I feel just as surely during this time.  The gifts of time and love you have sent me over the past three years have lightened my burdens and brightened my life.  My hope for each of you is that your December is filled with showers of blessings, shining brightly, warming your heart and home.



  1. Julia, I am so glad you feel your dad’s presence so clearly at this time. I know you have beautiful memories of him. You have been a wonderful gift to me this past year. I pray Jeff is better and that you and Matt are well. Love and Light. Cherie

    • Thank you Cherie. Your presence here, prayers and friendship mean so much. We seem short on good news lately, but I’m not giving up. Psalm 27:13! Sending big cyber hugs!

  2. Ann

    Thank you for another beautiful blog! Many of my memories of childhood Christmases feature traditions started by my father.

    • Ann, I’m happy to know that your father taught you how to celebrate Christmas! I wonder whether parents know how influential their actions are, especially with very young children watching. I used to watch Daddy wrap fancy gifts for Mama and think how I wanted to do that someday myself. Now I do! Hope you and your loved ones have a wonderful holiday season.

  3. Carolyn

    I have been a little behind with sending you a note. I enjoyed reading your blog today. We are all well and praying that you all are doing well. How is Jeff? I am still in therapy and saw the doctor last Monday. He was pleased with my progress. Tomorrow is our big 50, I told Terry that I would say yes again if he asked. This is a sad time of the year for us, my mom died the 22nd. and Terry’s brother died the 18th, our anniversary. That was tough! Any way we just remember the good memories. You all take care and hugs to all.

    • Carolyn, I can understand how those losses would forever color the holiday season for you. WOW, 50 years together!! CONGRATULATIONS– That’s quite a milestone. Hope you are able to celebrate in all the ways that will mean most to you. I’m glad your doctor is pleased with your progress. If he’s happy, I’m happy. 😀 Jeff is doing OK, although he’s getting very tired and his cough is really getting him down. We will be having Drew, Megan and Grady, and also Gloria (Jeff’s aunt who is really closer to our age) arriving next week to spend Christmas with us, so we are looking forward to that. Hope you, Terry and all the family have a great Christmas!

  4. Sheila

    Julia, so lovely to see the vintage piece (that belonged to Bill’s “Aunt Carolyn”) adorning your Christmas tree. Thank you for sharing! A gift that is is given with one’s time and love is truly from one’s heart, isn’t it? I read earlier that Mr. Carlyle was fond of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol so we will enjoy that even more this year. 💙 I hope all is well in your household, my friend! 🎄

    • Sheila, I have a photo of each of the four of them and I spent a long time trying to decide which one to use here. Maybe I should have made a collage! Each is so beautiful. I want to make a Christmas card for Jeff’s mother next year with a photo of one of them; she loves butterflies, as you may have guessed from the messages Larry used to leave. Now that Larry is gone, she never gets to read the blog anymore except very rarely. 😦 I know she has missed him so much this past year. BTW — speaking of Daddy and Dickens, I emailed you a link to the digital version (which I just got back from the processor) of a reel-to-reel tape recording of Daddy reading the ENTIRE Dickens novel for us. He created the tape since we never knew whether he would be called out to fly on Christmas. As we got older and his seniority increased, he was able to bid to have Christmas off. But the tape is still a treasured memory. Santa just delivered a package to my door and I can imagine what is inside — bet you can too! Grady will be overjoyed.

      • Sheila

        Julia, thank you for the email that includes this very special gift for me. I truly treasure it so much! Merry Christmas. 🎄

        • You’re welcome, Sheila! It was nice to have somebody to share it with. Hope all the Vann Clan are enjoying the season!

    • Hey Sheila, I totally forgot to tell you– my (very lonely) Mama called the other day, so excited to tell me that the flowering plant y’all sent her has FRESH blooms on it! She was very excited about that and wanted me to tell you.

      • Sheila

        Julia, I’m so glad the flower is blooming again and can bring your Mama such pleasure. Please let her know that I think of her there at her kitchen often. Love to all, Sheila

        • Thank you Sheila, she will appreciate that. She’s tough and a survivor, but I can tell she is having a hard time. When I asked her whether I should repeat a certain tradition that I used to give her and Daddy, or whether it would make her sad, she said “If I stopped doing everything that made me feel sad now, I wouldn’t be doing anything. We can’t look at it like that.” So true! I will pass your kind words along to her.

  5. MaryAnn

    Your words are a GIFT to us! “Gifts of time and love” are my greatest treasures from family & friends! Merry Christmas to “my” Dentons!
    Much love to you!

    • Thank YOU, Mary Ann! I will never forget the very special gift of time and love you gave me when we first arrived at Fairfield and I tried to get the Magi Project going. I hadn’t been able to generate much interest in it at our former location, but once I connected with you, the rest was history!!! Somewhere I have some of those photos of us and our 80-something festively wrapped boxes, and I hope to post it here eventually. For that reason and many more, you are among those who are always in my heart at Christmas! Love and thanks to you, along with wishes for a wonderful Christmas to you and all your clan!

      • MaryAnn

        Each year when it’s time to pack Magi boxes; I tell my story of meeting a beautiful lady who was/is as EXCITED as I was/am about the Magi Project. The year you & I hosted it was our best year!!! It feels like yesterday, sitting at Mother’s during ladies’ devo, enjoying sharing God’s Word; when (in my mind’s eye) you jumped off the couch because I mentioned Magi Project. We have been tied to each other’s heart ever since. God blessed me with you: Julia!!!
        Add to the mix how much Matt & I love each other; WOW! Fills my heart with joy & gratitude!

        • Mary Ann, are you sure I didn’t jump off the couch when you said there were goodies in the kitchen? 😀 I just loved your historic home in Suisun. But even more I appreciated how welcome you always made us feel, especially Matt!

  6. raynard

    Julia, as we get ready to go to NYC tomorrow for my uncle’s funeral, this week hasn’t been a good week. I heard about massive layoffs and corporate layoffs but not on a grand scale as I seen this week. Just today” Dow/Dupont layed off a whole building full of people maybe over 500.. My spirit has been struggling with this. Then it came to me about being more compassionate and sensitive just just like Jesus without” waiting on Oprah or Dr Phil to ” show me the way and how”.. Now more than ever ” without waiting for a pastor’s sermon or ” the latest catch phrase to ” love thy neighbor . It might be on your job , the grocery store , post office or even ( cough cough Walmart.. ( Now if my wife Mary gets our Christmas stuff out of storage( maybe I could watch as she ” puts up our Charlie Brown Christmas tree.. Be blessed..

    • Hi Raynard, thanks for checking in here; I was wondering how you and your ladies were doing (not to mention the furry friends). I’m so sorry for your loss, and for the terrible news about so many losing their jobs, which seems especially cruel to find out at this time of year. I too am struggling this year, not with faith, but with knowing for myself what to do; how to handle so much sorrow in so many places; how to treat each person with compassion no matter how much it would seem on the outside that they have it all together. Today was a case in point for us. We learned first hand about some of the personal struggles of one of Jeff’s doctors, and it touched me deeply to realize that we sometimes forget how nearly each and every person we encounter is facing some sort of burden or crisis or challenge. The take away lesson for me is that we all need each other, and never more so than during the hard times. If there can be a silver lining to all the bad news in the world, I hope it will be a renewed determination to help each other and refuse to give in to anger, hatred, despair or disbelief. I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes from one of my 3 favorite authors of all time, Charles Dickens:
      “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Joy to the world — and especially to you, Mary and Ms. Ella!

  7. Megan

    What a beautiful butterfly!! Can’t wait to see it in person!

    • Megan, I just set the box of butterflies aside to bring to York County (the adorned the Alexandria tree last year since we spend the holidays here, as you recall). Speaking of last year’s holidays, a package arrived today that I will let Grady help open, since he loved it so much last year (see my comment to Sheila). WOW, only one week until Christmas Eve!

      • Megan

        I’m so glad you linked to the video! I had so much fun watching Grady at Christmas one year ago! Wow — his talking is much improved! But his desire to do things “all by himself” is exactly the same. He doesn’t want you to hand in the cookie, he wants to get his own! It will be fun to do a comparison this year.

        • Yes, the past year has zoomed by and Grady has been through several different ages and stages since then. We’ll try the cookie test on him. There are two different flavors this year, so we can let him make the choice which to eat first. Better not choose FOR him! 😀 I remember Drew telling me when Grady was very young, how he (Grady) would get his feelings hurt if anyone tried to do anything FOR him, even things that seem way too hard. One of my favorite snapshot memories of the past year is watching how confidently he would take out and use the stepladder to get to the counter or sink in the kitchen (and seeing him “wash dishes”). Very matter-of-fact for such a little guy. We can’t wait to see him! Any time we are cross or grumpy, all Jeff and I have to do is watch Grady videos or tell Grady stories, and it turns things around!

  8. Good morning, Julia!
    This year, my son and I decided that the best gifts are activities (especially together) and since I am also currently unemployed, I’m making most (non-activity) gifts this year, mostly jewelry from sea-shells, as I’ve extended my stay with my parents (giving gifts of time and simple home repairs).
    My son’s need for new car tires will be tricky. Very difficult to make out of sea-shells! 😉
    Seriously, I’m enjoying the simplicity of this Christmas, and saw “A Christmas Carol” with my parents last night. We’re planning to attend a sing-along Messiah on Sunday!
    Love to you, and praying for the gift of time to relax and enjoy!

    • You really made me smile thinking of tires made out of sea shells. That could happen only in a tacky tourist gift shop! And they’d be miniature tires, at that. I think activities are fabulous gifts, as are simple home repairs. And of course, since I love sea shells so much, I totally approve of your Christmas gift plans.

      As much as we love the Messiah, we have never been to a sing-along since Jeff and Drew both dislike singing. We did sing some of the songs in high school choir and I still remember them. And of course, we have occasionally had the great joy of singing the Hallelujah Chorus in church, in congregational singing. That song is my all-time favorite piece of music. I’ve not been listening to Christmas music as much in recent years, but I think I’ll break out the Handel for our Christmas Eve dinner. I used to have it as background music for the parties we used to give at this time of year. Sing extra loudly for me on “For Unto Us a Child is Born.” I just love that one! Sending you lots of love too, and wishes for holiday joy to you and your family.

  9. Julia, Merry Christmas! I enjoy butterflies…so beautiful.
    Blessings to you and family. ❤

    • Thank you Merry, and MERRY Christmas to you and your family too! Jeff’s Mama loves butterflies. Come to think of it, so do I. And my Mama used to collect butterfly pins and wear them on her shoulder. I’m so happy to have the ones Sheila sent for our tree.

  10. blseibel

    Thank you for your good wishes to us. Same back at you – showers of blessings, shining brightly, warming your heart and home. Also thank you for thoughts on the best gifts, of time and love. With my financial situations being creative at Christmas and gift giving is crucial. Time and love, great thought.
    Merry Chrstmas to all.

    • I realize it’s easy to say this looking back, but our “lean years” were such a blessing to us. We learned how to have fun on little to no money, how to eat healthily and avoid expensive junk, how to manage and budget, how to conserve resources, and how to NOT care about things like expensive cars, fancy clothes, or other status symbols that ultimately can make life miserable. I think living frugally becomes a very rewarding life for people of any means, whether high or low income. I hope your current circumstances bear the same fruits in your life, and may you soon be free from any financial worries. And enjoy your creativity! Creative gifts are the very best kind, I think. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  11. Connie Reed

    Julia, what a great blog! You have a great outlook and perspective on Christmas and giving. So many Christmases in the the past were not enjoyed by myself or anyone else around me, because of all the the pressures to do this and do that! The older I become the more I realize like yourself ~ to do what I can and enjoy what I have! Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    • Thank you Connie, I’m so happy you are here! There are so many special opportunities at the holiday season that we find it hard to say “no” and often over-extend ourselves despite our best intentions. As we’ve gotten older, even before Jeff got sick, we got to the point where sheer exhaustion– especially in my case– helped us to set limits more appropriately. When the kids were young I would end up getting sick with a bad cold or flu every Christmas season. During our years in northern CA, that seemed to end. It could have had something to do with our neighbor’s year-round lemon trees that gave us freshly squeezed lemonade all through November and December (lots of natural vitamin C!) but I like to think it’s partly that I got smart about not overdoing it.

      BTW somewhere I still have a treasured black-and-white photo of us as young girls, at the Rickard’s Christmas party. I used to love dressing up for that! Many happy memories. Merry Christmas to you and your family too!

  12. Rene

    I just got off the phone with my Chicago sister, who will be coming out for Christmas this year. I have a busy few days ahead of me, getting ready, so this reminded me to take a deep breath (or ten) and put love into it rather than fear (of not being ready). Being so close to San Bernardino & having a funeral to attend today (not connected) makes me realize that we need more love in the world, not more tense holidays. I wish you joy, hot chocolate, beautiful sounds, and good reads this week and those to come!

    • Wow, Rene, I love your wish list for me in that last sentence — I could not have come up with anything better if I was sitting on Santa’s lap making my own wishes known. I’m sorry to learn you have a funeral to attend — there seem to be so many deaths at this time of year, and the timing seems to make grief even more difficult. But you are on the right track to remind yourself not to be afraid of being unready. I love the dazzling magazine spreads that come out at this time of year, especially Martha Stewart, Southern Living, Family Circle, and Woman’s Day…not to mention Taste of Home, which has surely sabotaged more diets than Krispy Kreme has! But sometimes I think these perfect pictures create unreal expectations in our minds. When I think back on my happiest memories, I realize they have nothing to do with the externals, and everything to do with the love. I’m sending those same joyous wishes to you too — hope your holiday is full of happiness for all, and may 2016 be filled with blessings for you and yours.

  13. Julia,
    A valuable post for Christmas. Ah, common sense. We come to understand, as you have ably eluded to in your post, that the most precious gift we can leave to our children and grandchildren can’t be wrapped in a box. It is tradition.

    • I agree! I love hearing about all the various family holiday traditions. Each season is different but over the passage of time, the traditions give us a secure feeling of having some aspects of past years that remain, even if they change as all things inevitably do. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas in “the quiet corner” of Connecticut. We are having record high temperatures here. It was actually hot and muggy when I was out tonight, so the thought of a New England Christmas is appealing right now. I like warm weather, but hot and muggy just doesn’t seem like the right atmosphere for Yuletide season.

      • It’s a warm Christmas here, also. Near 70 degrees today. Cooler weather expected next week. The warm weather is not too unwelcomed. Our snow plowing bill last year was plus $1K.A Blessed Christmas to you all.

        • WOW, when it’s 70 in New England for Christmas, you know the weather is really out of whack. But perhaps it does mean you will have a light year for the plows. I’m hoping the same thing for the DC area. In southeastern Virginia (where we are right now) it’s hardly ever snowy, but we do get some heavy snowfalls once in awhile; twice or three times at most in the 11 years we have been here. I simply MUST email you a photo of a unique Christmas gift that Drew (our older son) gave to me this year. I know you will appreciate it. 😀 Hope you have the chance to enjoy some outings before the weather turns colder again.

          • We’re getting a wintry mix tonight. winter’s here! looking forward to seeing the photo of that unique gift. Do you have my email address?

            • Well, I guess the warmth couldn’t last forever. There is an email address for each person that comes through with comments for anyone who posts them, though it does not show up online, only in the admin page. Is that the one I should use for the photo? (the metrocast one?)

  14. Michael

    What a beautiful piece. Is it hand made- must be? My grandma had these oil lights on the tree that looked like miniature lava lamps and they would bubble. I know they were outlawed many years ago. It is a wonder we survived the 60’s.
    Garison Keilor had a nice bit about the extravagance of Christmas for those who grew up during the depression. It was the one day where no one held out and the fatted pig was offered up. Others though wanted to fold up the the Xmas paper for reuse- usually the dad’s.

    • Michael, we were just talking about those bubbling red lava-lamp Christmas lights. We never had any, but Jeff remembers seeing them. Our friends with whom we shared Christmas Eve for all five years we lived in NorCal still used those lights on their tree. They were quite mesmerizing to watch, especially as it grew late and we had eaten enough to make us sleepy. 🙂 I haven’t heard that particular piece from Keillor but I should look for it online. I would identify with both the extravagance and the wrapping paper re-use — in fact, I still save the larger pieces of nice foil wrap if there are sections that will nicely wrap a small gift. I see recycling and re-use as a fun challenge, and don’t think of it as a hardship.

  15. Michael

    Psalm 27 is a personal favorite.

    • I especially like verse 13, because it affirms that mercy and grace are here and now, as well as in the hereafter.

  16. Mike Bertoglio

    70 in Atlanta and the grass is starting to grow a bit. My son may be mowing a little early this year. But supposed to be cooler the end the week.
    Here is Seattle the sun is peeking out, but it is cold at 39 degrees.

    • 70 in Atlanta! Drew, Megan and Grady were here in the low-80-degree temps we had the week of Christmas, and it sounds like they just returned to similar weather. I wonder if they will squeak by without another disastrous ice storm this year. It’s been gloomy here, but not as cold as in Seattle. A light jacket outdoors was plenty today.

  17. Michael

    80″s? I thought you lived in Virginia beach area not Florida. Cold and very clear here. 31 degrees right now and I just located the winter hexagon- Sirius- Aldebaran- Rigel- Procyon-Pollux -Capella. Sky has not been this clear for many weeks and they say we might see the Northern Lights- which I have only seen one time on a star hunt in Eastern Washington.

    • Michael, the weather fairies have gotten your adjustment info and have lowered the temps here to the 30’s, much more appropriate for winter in Virginia. We actually live (part time) just across the water from Virginia Beach. When the bridge traffic isn’t bad, it’s about a 45 minute drive. Our York county home is near the southern end of that long, long, narrow county.

      WOW, what a great chance, to see the Northern Lights! I’ve never seen them in real life, only on video (a friend from Alaska sent me a lovely DVD about them). I hope you are able to catch them this year.

  18. Michael

    Going to Atlanta on Feb -5th. Hope to make it out to botanical garden. Did I mention we have a chick-fill-a now in Seattle.? Big hit and is causing many traffic problems locally. Not sure if they still close on Sunday as we live in one of the least, “religious states.”
    Which reminds me what did you make of recent statement that in 2015 Christianity had a tough year- in U.S. and the world, and that now only 6 of ten Americans say we live in a Christian nation.
    They are planning three more chick-fill-a restaurants here. This is now Norah’s favorite restaurant.

    • Michael, it’s my understanding that Truett Cathey provided for an ironclad corporate rule that no Chick-Fil-A would ever be open on Sunday. I hope his family will carry on that tradition even if there is some legal loophole. For Christians the value of staying closed on Sunday is obvious, but it also provides benefits for anyone, to have one day per week when NO work is done. I have heard that employees love the practice of staying closed on Sunday, even if they don’t go to church. One problem with our society is that we never seem to know when to say “enough is enough.” Cathey defied all established “corporate wisdom” (an oxymoron?) by closing on Sundays, since that was the biggest day of the week for restaurants in the days when he opened the Dwarf House not too far from where I grew up. I think he was blessed as a result of having the TRUE wisdom to see past the almighty dollar to embrace other values along with corporate gain.

      The statistic about us not being a Christian nation is hardly surprising, given the influx of immigrants with various religions, and the widespread abandonment of any sort of faith in many people, particularly the younger ones among us. While it’s a sad statistic in some ways, history teaches that these things tend to go in cycles, and I think we have long seen the effects of our nation abandoning traditional moral standards; corporate dishonesty is probably at a higher level than it has ever been, for example, and the political world is a cesspool of corruption (which is nothing new). On the other hand, there are many ways in which we are closer to Christian teachings than we used to be; for instance, slavery is illegal and civil rights are stronger than ever. Mental and physical health are more emphasized, with such practices as smoking discouraged, and dishonest advertising curtailed in some industries. Obesity in the US has replaced hunger as a social problem, and while that’s not ideal, it’s better than letting people starve. Women have more opportunities and choices. People with disabilities are increasingly freed from being warehoused in institutions where they have been neglected and abused. These are just a few of the ways we are closer, in my opinion, to what Jesus taught than we used to be.

      I’m not trying to sound like Pollyanna here — I am discouraged and saddened by the proliferation of the idea that there are no absolutes, and anything goes. However, I think we are in a much better place than Rome was when Jesus lived on this earth. When he told the most pious and religious people of his day “the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you” I don’t think he was using hyperbole. I think he was letting them know, in no uncertain terms, that their legalistic religion was not cutting it, and their conduct wasn’t as blameless as they thought it was. So I guess what I’m saying is that it doesn’t much matter what we say about Christianity or being a Christian nation; what matters is what we do.

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