On the road to Christmas

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By Vince Luecke

I used to devise all kinds of ways to count down the days to Christmas. I was that eager to wrap up a semester at school and welcome Santa and his presents under the tree.

The longing began in church, usually the weekend after Thanksgiving, with the lighting of the first Advent candle. A wreath with four candles was placed in the front of our church at New Boston and each week another candle was lit, leading up to the weekend before Christmas. Advent, from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming,” is the four-week period before the nativity of Jesus.

However, I cared little about the religious aspect of preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus back then. The painful longing for Christmas deafened me to the priest's words from the pulpit. Instead I daydreamed of running up front and lighting all four candles, boldly declaring to all present that Christmas had arrived.

One of my most memorable systems of preparing for Christmas was a photo of Santa printed on a sheet of white paper handed out by a grade-school art teacher. Our job was to paint Santa's face and cap, not a hard job, but I was no artist and the peach shade of watercolor I concocted with my limited palette of colors made Saint Nick look like he'd spent the past few months taking in the sun in Miami instead of working inside his workshop at the North Pole.

But the best part of the art project was the small calendar printed below Santa's face. There was a small square for the 25 days of December and the idea was to glue a cotton ball to each of the days, thereby forming Santa's white beard. It was a clever mid-1970s version of interactive art.

I'm sure each kid went home that night begging their parents for cotton balls. I certainly did and spent the next three weeks giving my suntanned Santa a slow-growing but fluffy white beard. Before heading to school each morn, I glued on another cotton ball, counting the days left and questioning why the days of December passed so slowly compared to the rest of the year.

Today, Christmas arrives, it seems, sooner each year. Instead of longing for Dec. 25 to arrive, the chore is finding the time to prepare before it comes and goes. In fact, I'd like to add another candle or two to the Advent wreath.

Maybe I'll be on track this year. I'll be on vacation for a week and a half in December and while I've been tempted to catch a suddenly-affordable flight to Europe, I plan to take my time off at home, getting ready for Christmas and socking away the money I would have spent on an airline ticket, hotels, bratwurst and beer for other last projects.

I'll be removing leaves from my gutters and, if weather cooperates, planting the last of the tulip bulbs that have been waiting to go into the ground for several weeks.

My thrifty attempt to reuse last year's Christmas amaryllis may or may not pay dividends. I stored it in my basement root cellar for a couple of months and repotted it several days ago. The fat bulb is still very much alive and had new roots filling the pot that had been its home for the past year. I packed it in a larger pot with new soil and placed it in a sunny kitchen window sill. There's no new growth yet, but I'm optimistic.

Though I won't visit the Christmas markets in Germany, I'll participate in a couple of Old World customs this week. Saturday is St. Nicholas Day and I'll ask nieces and nephews to put out their shoes the night before the saint's feast day in hopes of finding a few coins and chocolates there the next morning.

The stories surrounding the saint, who was known for working miracles and giving gifts in secret, helped bring to life our modern ideas of Santa Claus.

For centuries, kids and hopeful adults have placed their shoes out on the eve of his feast in hopes the saint would visit.

Thursday is the feast of St. Barbara, a martyr killed in the third or fourth century for her conversion to Christianity. By tradition, she was killed by her own father, who was then struck down by lightning and killed on the spot. That's why St. Barbara was the patroness of people who worked around gunpowder or who served in the artillery.

In some parts of Europe, people clip small twigs from cherry trees on this day and place them inside in a vase of water, keeping alive an old tradition of the Barbarazweig or St. Barbara's Branch. The legend goes that St. Barbara, when locked up in a tower, found a dried-up cherry branch that miraculously bloomed when she moistened it with a few drops of her drinking water. The branch bloomed just before her execution.

Other people without a cherry grove use sprigs of other fruit trees such as apple or plums, or shrubs such as lilac or forsythia. With a little luck, the buds will bloom and there's an old legend in Germany that the girl whose St. Barbara's Branch blooms on Christmas Eve will be married the following year.

I'm not expecting wedding bells, but I'll put a few sprigs of lilac in a vase and hope for the best as I wait patiently for Christmas.