A Hope-filled Christmas Story

“Why do you have those red shoes on your tree?” Danhya, my little friend from India, asked me. She pointed to the felt booties that hung at the front of my Christmas tree.

“Ah . . . that is a wonderful story,” I said, “and it began many years ago. Would you like to hear it?”

Her dark brown eyes twinkled as she squealed. “Tell it! Tell it, please!”

So I sat with her as we sipped our hot cocoa. The sweetness of the chocolate merged with the sweet story of the red booties on my tree. “Many years ago, a young lady and a man married. They worked hard and saved their money, then they wanted to start a family. But even though they tried and tried and tried, no baby came to live at their house.

“One year, at Christmas time, the lady thought she was going to have a baby. So she planned how she would tell her parents with a pretty Christmas package and a note inside. She could barely contain her excitement. But then, the doctor said she was not pregnant. So her Christmas that year was very sad.”

“Years and years passed by with no baby and many sad Christmases. But six years later, the lady was finally pregnant. All the friends and family of the couple were excited to celebrate this coming child. But the baby died before it could grow to full size inside the lady. Everybody cried for a long time.

“Two years later, the lady was pregnant again. The same people celebrated with her and her husband. But again, the baby died before it could grow. Again, everybody cried — especially the lady. She decided she would probably never hold her own baby, but she would teach everybody’s else’s children how to play the piano. She would try to be happy for all the people who had the blessing of babies.”

Danhya’s eyes filled with unshed tears. “I hope this story has a happy ending.”

I clasped her hands and continued. “Two years later, a miracle happened. The lady and the man welcomed their baby, a fully developed, beautiful baby boy who was born on the coldest day of that November during a sleet storm. The tiny baby was such a wonderful early Christmas present, the lady bought special red booties for him to wear to church.”

“I like that story,” Danhya said, “and were you the lady in the story?”

“Yes, and the baby is my son, Caleb.”

Danhya finished her cocoa and pondered for a while, then asked, “So you put the little booties on the tree every year, to remind you of that baby and that miracle?”

“Yes, and those booties also remind me of another baby. He probably didn’t have any soft booties to wear, but his mother and father dearly loved him. He arrived as a special miracle, too, and that’s the real reason we celebrate Christmas. Baby Jesus came to remind us that God loves us and wants to be with us always.

“So that’s the story of the red booties, but the real story goes on. For each person who believes in baby Jesus and accepts the love God offers, new stories begin. Stories of love and purpose as people realize Christmas is all about the wonderful gift of life and the miracles God does inside our hearts.”

©2022 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

For a special Christmas gift, check out The Women of Christmas.

7 Holiday Tips for Caregivers

The calendar reminds us how the holiday season is approaching. Our waistlines expand while the stresses of family dynamics emotionally stretch us.

As much as we enjoy the family time, the abundance of good food, and the reminders to be grateful — we also need to remember how stressful this time can be for someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

How can we best help our loved ones survive the holidays? How can caregivers find some joy during this stressful time?

Trim the Food Responsibilities. One year into her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Mom tried to figure out a recipe. She wanted to feel part of the festivities but even finding pots and pans proved to be difficult.

As we watched her struggle, worry about the cost of groceries, and wonder if she had made her salad — hundreds of times — we realized it was time to stop expecting Mom to cook.

Even if your loved one has a favorite recipe, relieve her of the stress of making it. Give her a simple task and make it together.

Plan Ahead for Shopping. Be prepared with a list and know the easiest way to get in and out of the stores. Forget about Black Friday shopping — too many people, too much noise, and parking places are limited.

Be patient. Take plenty of time and be prepared to answer many questions. If possible, buy everything in one store. Then go home. Better yet, sit down with a laptop and show your loved one the pictures. Then order everything online.

Include Favorite Foods. Even though her appetite changed, Mom still wanted pecan pie for every holiday. One of my duties included buying a pecan pie for Mom. I recommend the frozen variety. No fuss.

When we walked into the farm kitchen, Mom’s eyes always searched for the dessert table. She said nothing, but I knew what she was looking for. “I brought your pecan pie, Mom, and the first piece goes to you.” Then I topped it with a generous dollop of Cool Whip.

Every year, Mom replied, “I DO love pecan pie.” Enjoy blessing your loved ones with their favorite foods.

Plan an Activity Together. Although sending Christmas cards is becoming one of those forgotten traditions, my mother’s demographic still considers it a holiday courtesy. She loves receiving her cards.Remind your loved one who the senders are or tell a favorite story about the person behind the return address.

Be prepared to look at the cards several times during the holidays and tell the same stories. This repetition is part of the Alzheimer’s process. Someday you’ll be glad you took the time to do this simple task.

Be Careful About Timing. If you check your loved one out of assisted living for the day, check back in before dark. As the sun sets, Alzheimer’s patients often experience Sundowner’s Syndrome. They may pace, say the same words over and over, and exhibit anxiety. They feel safer in their rooms before dark, so time your meals and activities accordingly.

Travel is NOT for Everyone. Although we all want to be together during the holidays, travel out of the comfort zones is difficult for the Alzheimer’s patient: several hours cramped in a car or a plane, strangers, noise, unfamiliar surroundings, different types of foods and smells.

It makes more sense to hire a caregiver and let your loved one stay home while you join the rest of the family.

Avoid the false guilt that says you cannot leave for a day or two. Yes, you can. Taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to make it through the marathon of caregiving. Take a break and be with your family.

Gift-giving. None of us needs more junk, least of all — the Alzheimer’s patient. Keep the gift-giving simple.

Try these suggestions: a stuffed animal, a baby doll (especially for the women), a pretty picture for the room, a picture of family members with their childhood photos inserted next to the adult photo, a favorite piece of candy, a comfortable sweater.

Be aware that some gifts may disappear. Mom constantly lost things. One year, I bought her new sheets for her bed. Then I put them on for her. No chance to lose them.

One gift that always works is spending time with your loved one, a hug and a kiss, a “Merry Christmas. I love you.”

Do it while you can.

©2022 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

For a more substantial list of helpful tips, check out Holiday Tips for Caregivers, available on Amazon and Kindle.  

Finding Hope While Grieving During the Holidays

The colorful lights, packages wrapped with beautiful bows, Santa’s lap filled with happy children, the music of the season: all these joys spell Christmas.

But what if you are smack in the middle of grief this December? What if some of your joy is colored by sadness?

Over a million families will be missing someone this Christmas, due to how COVID decimated our lives. Numerous other families had to bury Mom or Dad, sister or brother, a best friend, or a spouse.

How do we find hope when the holidays offer a raw stab of grief? Three possibilities float to the surface:

Keep the Traditions. Did Mom make a certain type of pie, Christmas candies, or a specialty casserole? Bake it yourself and remember what a great cook she was.

Did Dad string the lights on the tree? As you string them this Christmas, remember how he made sure they were evenly distributed — how they reflected love throughout the room, how they remind you of family togetherness.

Did the family always meet at Grandma’s house, but now Grandma isn’t there and the house has been sold? Meet where you can and talk about Christmases past. Show pictures to the grandchildren. Keep the memories of Christmas alive.

Each family makes their own traditions. One of my favorites was shopping with my friend, Deb. That event does not happen anymore. Even after five years of grief, I feel the loss so deeply.

But I cannot find hope if I only remember what once was. Instead, I’ll remember Deb and find a day to shop alone, start with our favorite chai tea, and tell her about my purchases. Give the gift I planned for her to a single mom who needs encouragement. Remember the fun of shopping together and toast her with some eggnog.

Fill the Empty Chair. Nothing is more discouraging than the empty chair beside the table. It’s a reminder of loss — a visual of who is missing.

Instead of staring at the emptiness, fill the chair with another person:

  • An international student who cannot fly hundreds of miles to be home for the holidays
  • A single mom who is bereft of her children because it’s his turn to have the kids
  • A homeless person who longs to feel the warmth of a home and experience a full belly
  • A young parolee who needs to understand how grace means second chances
  • A first responder who is too exhausted to cook a meal
  • Anyone you know who might be alone

As we fill the empty chair with another living being, it reminds us life DOES move forward. We don’t have to remain stuck within the grief of Christmas past.

Give Thanks for Memories. We shared many holidays with that special person. We still have some of the gift s/he gave us. Wear that sweater she knitted just for you. Dab on that perfume he gave you. Clasp the necklace or play the CD.

Revel in those precious reminders and give thanks. That person represents a unique place in your journey: spouse, parent, sibling, friend. No one can ever replace her or him.

Share your favorite holiday memories around the table. The stories will help that person seem alive again. When Deb enjoyed her food, she always said, “Uhm, uhm” between bites. I cannot eat guacamole without hearing her soprano gratitude.

Although this holiday may seem especially empty for you and the grief even more fresh — keep the traditions, fill the empty chair, and give thanks for the memories.

Then remember your loved one is celebrating Christmas in heaven and probably thinking about you.

©2022 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

Soothe some of your raw grief with a book about hope. Hope Shines is available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and Large Print.

Hope Keeps It Simple

Because life is easier when it’s simple, I have decided to merge that principle into my holiday celebrations. What used to be a November and December filled with activities and the traditional holiday set-ups, I have now prefaced with the following questions:

  • How can I simplify the holidays?
  • What gives me the most joy about Thanksgiving and Christmas?
  • What changes do I need to make that keep the spirit of the season yet make life easier?

Christmas Cards

Although I love to send and receive greeting cards throughout the year, the business of addressing and mailing Christmas cards to my entire address list has become overkill. I hereby determine to simplify the process.

I still believe all these people are important in my life, yet I am setting a card boundary. This year, I will save time, money, and energy on Christmas cards.

Please don’t be offended if you are deleted. Consider this your greeting: Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas!

Holiday Treats

In the past, I have baked and frosted, wrapped, and packaged treats for my neighbors, the postman, my mechanic, people at work, and anyone else in my life who did not receive a store-bought gift. This year will be different.

The temptation of cookie dough in my large pottery bowl and the smell of rising breads no longer attract me. This year, my kitchen table will NOT be spread with powdered sugar treats fondly called People Puppy Chow. My body will thank me because I am always tempted to eat half of them.

I vow to protect my heart, my brain, and my arteries from excess powdered sugar. I am setting a culinary boundary.

Holiday Decorations

Throughout the years, my house has often sported decorations in every room. Walking through Pier One, Hallmark stores, or Kirkland during this time of the year gives me great joy.

But since a stager opened my eyes to a more simplified décor, I have decided to change my holiday habits.

Compared to other years, the mantel will seem sparse. My theme is pine cones which remind me of the New Mexico mountains. Simple yet beautiful — a display of God’s creation accented with little pearl lights.

Many former decorations, I will give away. It feels good to share the beauty of my past with someone else. My little tree with its tiny pre-lit globes still works. No need to buy the newer versions.

A simpler Christmas helps me focus more on the meaning of the holiday rather than the trappings of it. The joy of Christmas-giving still belongs with the young, so I have fun planning gifts for my son and his bride, for the family members in our gift exchange. The rest of us don’t need any more stuff.

The holiday surprise of 2022 is the joy of simplification. More room on my storage shelves with less stuff to store. More space in each room. More things to give away and share with someone else.

When I surround myself ONLY with the things that bring me joy, the essential leftovers offer pleasure. And in the choice to simplify my holidays, hope follows into the new year.

A toast of eggnog to all my followers. Enjoy your version of the holidays and let me know in the comments how you will celebrate.

©2022 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

If you’d like to share a Christmas gift with me, check out my Author Page on Amazon. The purchase of a book or a written review is always acceptable. 

Hope Embraces Gratitude

We know the health benefits of gratitude, and we focus on giving thanks—particularly during this week of the year. But every year, it’s a good spiritual practice to redefine and choose again those special things we are grateful for. This is my current list:

Hot Water. As I have watched the horrors of the war in Ukraine, I feel a special affinity for the brave women. Every night, I revel in my hot shower or bath. Hot water soothes my bones. Reminds me that winter will pass. Helps me sleep.

I cannot imagine how awful it is to have a baby when there is no hot water. To try and keep your children clean when the infrastructure has been destroyed. To soothe yourself with a cup of hot tea or coffee. To let the water warm your bones and help you forget about what Russia is doing to your country.

Each night, I thank God for hot water and try to do my part to conserve this precious resource. Each night, my prayers are for the brave hearts of Ukraine and a return to some type of normalcy.

Answered Dreams. What does it take to run down a dream? Several lifetimes of perseverance, some luck, and a whole lot of Godwinks. After my best year of book sales and after watching my coaching clients succeed, I am grateful for the answered dream of becoming a writer.

What does it take to run down a dream?

  • A young girl perched inside the barky womb of her favorite elm tree. Adolescent limbs swinging from an upper branch. Book opened. Devouring words and dreaming of becoming an author.
  • Parents who turned off the TV and encouraged more reading.
  • A high school counselor who confirmed, “You’re certainly good at English. Writing is easy for you.”
  • Straight A’s in every language arts class. Math? Not so much.
  • Notebooks and diaries filled with the detailed debris of my life.
  • Multiple rejections that strengthened my soul muscles and forced me to try again.
  • Seeing my books on a library shelf.

Spices. The sense of taste allows me to enjoy the wonder of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and of course—pumpkin pie spice.

Part of the joy of spices is how they smell up the entire house while they’re cooking. My mind easily roams back to the farm kitchen as Mom baked peppernuts. That smell evokes care, holiday fun, and love—all at the same time.

Add to those culinary smells, the herbs I grow and throw in recipes: basil, rosemary, and my goodness…Are you hungry yet?

Because the calendar reminds us Thanksgiving is coming, I share with gratitude my Famous Pumpkin Pie Recipe as a special gift for you:

Rebecca’s Famous Pumpkin Pie 

One day previous to Turkey day, mix ½ cup whole milk with 1 package vanilla instant pudding mix. Whisk together and let the pudding set overnight in the fridge.

The next morning: Mix the set pudding with 1 TB pumpkin pie spice, 1 cup canned pumpkin, ½ cup slivered almonds, and 1 cup mini-chocolate chips. Add ¼ tsp of ground ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon.

Fold in 1 – 8 oz. tub of whipped topping. With spatula, carefully pour the pie mixture into a graham cracker crust. For chocoholics, use a chocolate crust. For extra spice, crush up some ginger snaps with melted butter to make your own pie crust.

On top, sprinkle more mini-chocolate chips. Refrigerate at least 3 hours. Cut and serve. Eat with gratitude.

©2022 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

Let’s celebrate Thanksgiving by remembering single moms. Order a book and gift it. Just for Today: Hope for Single Moms.

Hope in a Jar

The caller ID showed a familiar number, so I answered it. “Can you come to the church office? We have something for you.”

Something for me? Did I forget my Bible at church? No. My journal? Nay, nay.

As I entered the office, the administrative assistant handed me a box. “It’s really heavy. Can you carry it to your car? The people who gave it to you wanted to remain anonymous.”

I managed to carry it down the stairs and out to the parking lot, then peeked inside. A jar full of change. Some kind person’s planned generosity. They must have saved all year to fill this one jar for me. What an amazing gift!

As a single mom at Christmas time, I had wondered how to give my precious son a special holiday. For Thanksgiving, a family from church invited us to share their meal, but now we were on the other side of turkey day.

But once again, someone showed up to help us. It felt like an early Christmas, and I could not even thank whoever gave us this amazing jar.

When I cashed it in at the bank, the total of all those quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies equaled $258.00. Plenty of money for our Christmas meal, goodies for my son’s stocking, and plenty of brightly wrapped gifts.

On December 24th, I looked around the living room and thanked God for the change jar. “Please bless those people, God, and help them know how grateful we are.”

Neither my son nor I have ever forgotten that holiday season and the hope given us through a jar of change. I share this post early in the season, hoping that some of my followers will think about single moms and their children this year.

Do you have a jar of change you’ve been saving? Could you give it away? Do you have extra room around your table? Do you have space in your heart to offer hope?

It doesn’t take much to help another soul, but sometimes it DOES require that we rethink what generosity looks like. The cost includes a new mindset, an opening of our hearts, an inclusive attitude laced with compassion.

How many of my followers will give a jar of change? How many single moms and their children will look around their house this year with gratitude?

©2022 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

If you know a single mom, consider giving her Just for Today: Hope for Single Moms. It might share hope each day of the coming year.

Hope Beyond the Stereotypes

Perhaps it is the coming of winter that causes moments of reflection. Or the new journal I use to record my thoughts. Or the writer in me who MUST write in order to process life. Whatever the origin, my reflection turns to a time-honored quote.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge reminds us how the Jews honored the name of God. They would not purposely step on a piece of paper, in case it contained the name Yahweh. He suggests we should apply this practice to how we treat others.

“Trample not on anyone. There may be some work of grace there, that thou knowest not of. The name of God may be written upon that soul thou treadest on. It may be a soul that Christ thought so much of as to give his precious blood for it. Therefore, despise it not.”

This not trampling on anyone sounds like an easy goal. A worthy purpose. Yet when I see the blatant evil perpetrated by some, it seems impossible.

How can I love every soul, no matter what they choose to do? How can I honor the second commandment of Jesus, to love others as I love myself?

  • Even the evil ruler who is bombing the life out of the citizens of Ukraine, for no other reason than to garner for himself the trophy of another country?
  • Even the knife-wielding radical who stole the eye from a courageous author who dared to confront the inequities of his religion?
  • Even the abuser who torments a puppy, then kicks it out onto the street?
  • Even the man who threatens his wife and children, using his second amendment rights to weaponize their home?
  • Even the religious leader who uses his bully pulpit as a tool for control?
  • Even the woman who allowed her boyfriend to kill their child in one of our Kansas City neighborhoods?
  • Even the murderers of 14 year-old Emmett Till?
  • Even me and the self-righteousness legalism fostered in me?

When I cannot do anything about these horrors, how do I respond? How can I pray? And how do I live in these perilous times to make sure my home is safe yet offer grace to others?

I flip the page on my journal, still not satisfied with how the processing of this question is going. For such a quandary, there surely is no easy answer. For all sin is the practice of ignoring God, and all of us have been guilty.

Some of us just hide it better than others.

Were it not for grace, any of us could be included in the above bullet list. The giving of grace seems so easy for Almighty God who loves unconditionally. Yet it did cost the life of his Son. No easy road there.

And I admit I am still learning how to receive and gift this same costly grace.

What will it cost me to release my stereotypes of these people who choose evil? Will it be to remember that trauma often begets trauma, that evil can multiply through the generations? That people who are raised without knowing the love of God will therefore act like satan?

When did it become my responsibility to judge another? Never. Not even when it became personal to my family, to my soul.

For if Christ died for me, he also died for these others who choose to ignore his grace. And his infinite patience is somehow allowing them the time to make another choice, to open their souls to his healing grace.

It is in the patience of the timing that I am stuck. When, God, when?

So although I find no answers, I will choose to live each day trusting the One who knows not only the answers but all the relatable questions.

And I will embrace the backward living suggested by Father Richard Rohr. That instead of trying to think my way into a new way of living, I should instead live myself into a new way of thinking.

Have mercy on us, oh God.

©2022 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

Uploading Faith addresses such reflective questions, especially for those who seek answers.