Epiphany (peanut butter Sunday)

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One of the things I loved the most about our church in New Jersey was how simplified the lessons were in the family services. Children were the intended target for the messages, but adults learned memorable lessons as well.

Take peanut butter Sunday. Some called it Epiphany. In the Anglican faith, the twelve days of Christmas culminate with Epiphany. This is the traditional day to celebrate the arrival of the three kings to witness Jesus’ birth and to bring presents.

In our Episcopal church, the children were asked to bring peanut butter from home for their gift to Christ. Next to the manger with the baby Jesus figure, jar after jar was brought forward to the altar by young children old enough to carry them. The gifts were for donation to the local food bank after the service.

I’ve often wondered if the children remember that ritual on the final day of Christmastide. Personally, it makes me want to commemorate the day now by eating something with peanut butter! Do you see how strong association and memories can be?

Our culture is pretty quick to dismantle decorations and remembrances of Christmas after December 25. We were invited to savor the 12 days and the season. I’m really trying still by walking the neighborhoods to see the light displays and still playing holiday music.

In memory of this tradition in our church, this cartoon depicts what could have happened at the altar with the innocence of a young child in mind.

The farm animals and Christmas eve

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Four friends sat underneath the Christmas tree in the late hours of Christmas eve. Colored lights and glass ornaments gave a warm glow to the room. On the boxes, and in sight of the Christmas stockings, sat a donkey, a cow, a pig and a frog.

You may have guessed that these friends were of the stuffed variety. They were born one by one by the hands of the mother of the house. Four young children were asleep in their beds, with no idea at all how clever and loving their mother was. Each animal was uniquely made, but in a similar style.

All animals were made of soft corduroy and had yarn-braided arms and legs. Their faces had felt pieces affixed to their heads, and some had ears. The donkey was a soft grey with black yarn. The cow was a medium brown with slightly darker arms and legs. The pig was a medium pink, and the frog had a color reminiscent of our familiar friend Kermit. They were proud of how clean they were and how fresh they felt.

Each of them wondered just how their lives would go. The donkey hoped that he could spend a little time on someone’s windowsill to see what goes on out of doors. The pig wondered if there would be any mud patches to roll his body around in. The frog, of course, hoped for a pool of water less dangerous than the toilet bowl. Now the cow wondered just what value he held, but mostly he wanted to be held. He was anxious to be gifted to a young boy or girl who would carry him on new adventures.

The pig tried to climb onto the package next to him. The frog leaped and tried to jump onto the mantel by the stockings. The cow told them that they had better keep a bit quiet so that the children did not wake up. Besides, Santa would not arrive and bring the other gifts for the children if they were too noisy. He might think the children were playing.

It was a long night for the animals. After playing, they laid down to rest and, apparently slept through Santa’s visit! His cookies and milk were gone, and none of the animals had dared touch them. The sounds of opening doors and shuffling feet approaching got the farm friends excited. It was going to be a great new life.

Ducks, trucks and a rescue

FiretruckThe day started like every other for the Muscovy duck mother. Her brood of nine flounced along behind her. The fluffy yellow and brown downy bodies were like little wind-up toys waddling behind their mom. A full-grown Muscovy duck has a face a bit like a turkey. It has bright red mounds of skin marking the eyes and bill area creating markings that appear as a face-mask.

Millie, the mother duck, hadn’t been wandering out quite this far before with her little ones. It was time to introduce them to the bigger world. Moving across open space in familiar territory was refreshing. She confidently crossed the parking lot and waddled with large, webbed feet over the sewer grate. She had done this a hundred times before while alone. As she went forward, it never occurred to her to look behind.

Suddenly, she felt quite alone. Turning around, all she saw was the familiar grate in the middle of the parking lot. Then she started to hear chirps of her little ones. She waddled towards the sound. Looking down, she saw nine small, fluffy bodies swimming in a round pool of water. They were further than a human’s arm length below. She began to call back to her ducklings.

A neighbor in the apartment complex came outside and heard the calls of mother and offspring. With the mother duck running around the sewer grate and sounds of unseen ducklings, it didn’t take long to figure out what had happened. Civilization often brings unexpected dangers to wildlife. That grate was way too heavy for the neighbor to lift herself, and the water was too far below to reach. Some professional help was definitely needed! True, but what kind of professional would one call? She had never heard of a duck rescue number in the city.

She found the non-emergency city number, and a fire truck was soon dispatched. When the firemen arrived, they removed the grate, but saw that they could not reach the ducks. People started gathering around the area when they saw the fire truck in the neighborhood. A spaghetti colander with string to lower down to the ducks was offered. That didn’t work, because the little ducks kept swimming away. A net was needed to quickly snatch the scared babies.

When firemen from the first fire truck saw that they would not be able to complete the rescue, a second truck was dispatched with the proper equipment on it. A long-poled net was put down the hole, and one by one the little ducks were brought up. The firemen tried to carefully round up each of the ducklings to reconnect with their mother.

It wasn’t simple to get all of the ducklings out and back with their mother. The firemen had obviously done this rescue procedure before and knew that each of the ducklings had to reconnect promptly as a family. After a round-up effort that would have made a shepherding border collie proud, all nine of them were accounted for.

Millie promptly went back to the quiet canal in the park next door with her brood behind her. One by one the little ones followed her into the quiet water to rinse off  the dirty water they had been swimming in. Then they followed her to rest quietly by the shade of the oak tree and nestled in the soft green grass.

The firemen put the net back on the truck with the crucial equipment they carried for emergencies. They went back to the firehouse and waited for their next emergency call. The neighbor went back to her apartment and considered the act of kindness that she had been a part of. The resident ducks may not be beautiful, but they’ve found a way into her heart.

The duck, the ghost and the cowboy

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Joanna walked excitedly down the rural lane with her older brother and younger sister. She kicked the leaves that were brittle and fragrant. The two flashlights they brought lit circles ahead of them. Wearing an old duck costume of a popular cartoon character, she had license to hunt for candy from the neighbors. Josh wore a cowboy hat and brown suede jacket that were family Halloween favorites. A sheet with two holes joined the pack. Underneath that bed-like garb was younger sister Josy.

It took a sibling on each side to keep Josy going forward and not stumble. With holes shifting as the sheet twisted, it was hard to keep a good sight. There was a big, pointy witch’s hat in the back of the attic closet, but Josy hadn’t picked it. There wasn’t time to invest in the face paint needed for a clever disguise. No, a sheet was efficient, cheap and available.

The smell of the air from the decaying leaves, the crispness in the air, the blackness of the sky and the naked trees set the Halloween mood. Running up to familiar doors each year and shouting “trick or treat” never got old. Carved, lit pumpkins illuminated some sidewalks. Broken and littering pieces of jack ‘o lanterns smelled ripe under the abandoned train trestle. Was it really fun to steal someone’s pretty pumpkin and do such violence to it? One had to be careful not to lose footing on the slick matter that oozed out of the assaulted orbs.

Josy turned to Josh and asked, “Have you ever seen any goblins?” The blackness of the night was spooking the youngest sister just a bit.

“Don’t worry, Josy,” he said. “Joanna and I know the safe places to go.”

Unlike a suburban prowl, trick or treating in the country is a long walk yielding less “loot.” “How cute,” was frequently heard, although the costumes didn’t change much from year to year. The sleeves and legs just got a little shorter, or longer, depending on who wore it. Next year, the ghost would be the cowboy and the duck might be a witch. It was a game of musical costumes.

When did Halloween become so much more about what you wear than how you feel? The frantic search to get the scariest, most unique costume is almost an obsession. How much candy you can grab in a pillowcase is the prize to catch!

Looking back at childhood, Joanna felt some regret that more effort and play didn’t yield a more exciting costume. The garb was a bit of an afterthought instead of an activity for creative family play. Growing up in a practical home, how much effort could be expended on something worn a couple of hours each year? Art and theatrical experience weren’t mainstream conversation. And joyful play with abandon was a solo art. On special days, it was a sibling production.

When we got home, we counted the 10 or 12 candy bars or packs of gum we each had. It seemed we had hit the jackpot! “Josh,” said Joanna, “were you surprised that Mrs. Martin didn’t come to the door tonight?”

“I think that when you get older,” Josh reflected, “that Halloween must not matter anymore to some people.”

Josy quipped, “It’s more fun to get candy than give it, I guess!”

We both laughed at Josy’s thoughts back then. Now I remember my part in helping children build good memories they will reflect on over their lifetime when I take the time to greet them on Halloween. What remains for Joanna is an appreciation for all that her senses gathered. The rich memories of star-studded nights and “magic” shared with siblings are in a long-term memory vault. The duck, the cowboy and the ghost remember those nights.

Where does your mind take you to feel the warmth of a flannel blanket around your shoulders? What’s the pumpkin that delights you?