Christmas traditions

We have to be careful when we plan something special for our family because if we do it once, the boys will insist on making it a tradition. This is especially true of Christmas.

We begin the season by decorating our home the weekend after Thanksgiving, often getting a jump by hauling the bins of decorations from the basement on Friday. On Saturday, we go out for a big breakfast at IHOP and head to Lowe’s for a tree. Since our oldest son, Barron, joined the University of Georgia’s Redcoat Marching Band and has to play at the annual Georgia-Georgia Tech game the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we’ve had to move up the timetable on this tradition to Black Friday, but that hasn’t dampened our enthusiasm.

There was one year, though, when the boys’ enthusiasm was greatly dampened. I didn’t realize how important the ingrained tradition was until the boys threatened to boycott Christmas altogether when we went to Home Depot for our tree because it was closer to IHOP than Lowe’s. When we pulled into Home Depot, the boys were aghast and refused to get out of the car.

“You are ruining Christmas!” they protested.

The Wallace family crams into a booth at the International House of Pancakes.
IHOP after Thanksgiving to commence a day of decorating is our traditional breakfast of champions!

We had no choice but to load up and drive down Highway 78 the two or three miles to Lowe’s. We have been able to get the boys to expand their idea of the tradition in recent years because the quality of the Lowe’s trees diminished so greatly. In 2019 and 2020 we bought our tree at Randy’s Water Gardens in Lawrenceville, which they tolerated only because we also went to Lowe’s to buy replacement light strings, spotlight bulbs or other items that enhance our home’s holiday visual presentation. It is worth noting we have been back at Lowe’s the past two years.

While decorating the house, rather than the strains of Christmas music, we typically have college football on. Because our decorating falls on Rivalry Weekend, we have our pick of intra-state match-ups to serve as our background noise. Our preferred games are Georgia-Georgia Tech and Auburn-Alabama, but others fill in so that there’s not a gap from noon to midnight.

Barron, Harris and Carlton Wallace hang ornaments on a lit frasier fir Christmas tree as their little white miniature poodle looks on.
The boys strategically place their special ornaments competing for most the eye-catching placements.

The decorating is not complete until the boys’ Christmas ornament for the year has been revealed. Carla began the tradition when Barron was little, and we thoroughly enjoy picking the ornament based on something significant from their lives that year. The plan is for each of our children to get 21 ornaments as keepsakes when they leave home. It brings us so much joy to decorate with these glass ornaments and listen to the boys reminisce about each one.

Our Christmas season has some traditions driven by the boys’ involvement in band. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the selections at the Christmas concert each year, including Barron’s turn to take the baton and conduct the Parkview band in “Sleigh Ride” during his senior year as drum major.

We’ve also enjoyed the annual Lilburn Christmas Parade. We started participating with the Cub Scouts, but the Parkview Marching Band has been our reason to attend in recent years. Bundling up and finding a good spot helps us enjoy this community event and appreciate the quality of life we enjoy in Lilburn.

As Christmas approaches, we pick a night to go out to dinner and drive around looking at Christmas lights. We used to listen to our favorite Christmas CDs, like Harry Connick Jr.’s “Harry for the Holidays,” but thanks to Spotify, we now have a playlist that includes all of our favorites, including “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” “Merry Christmas from the Family,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The restaurant changes each year, but the laughter and imitating Nanny’s pet phrase “Look over yonder!” are always a treasured feature of the evening.

Our Christmas Eve traditions include church, eating soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and watching “A Christmas Story.” One year the power went out in our neighborhood, and we went to La Sabrosita, a nearby Mexican restaurant that has since closed. We learned that disruptions to traditions can make the event more memorable. By the time we got home, power was restored, and Santa managed to find our house as usual.

Bedtime on Christmas Eve has been pushed back as the boys age. They no longer rush to bed so Santa can come. Christmas morning, though, still comes early as they cannot contain their excitement for exchanging gifts. Harris, in particular, has the most enthusiasm, stemming from his love of Lego. He knows that in order to complete the sets he gets for Christmas, he’ll need to start early.

To allow Carla some time to enjoy the day and not spend all Christmas in the kitchen, our tradition is to have brunch. She’ll make a breakfast casserole the day before and throw it in the oven before the presents are unwrapped. We always have pastries with it and often a tray of oven-cooked, brown sugar bacon. We spend the day in our pajamas and enjoy Christmas music all day long.

After Christmas we go to Florida to see my parents and about every other year some combination of aunts and uncles and cousins. It’s the one time of year they get to experience Lake Wales, Florida, where I last lived at home, and, frankly, it’s the best time of year to visit. The humidity is low and the temperatures are typically in the 70s. Granny and Paw Paw have lots of outdoor fun in their yard, including a tree swing, fire pit, and outdoor games like croquet and carpet ball.

Carla and I got engaged on New Year’s Eve, but we don’t have any traditions for ringing in the new year. Many years, we’ve been in bed asleep by the time the calendar flips over to the next year, but we have tried to attend parties with friends on occasion. The last time we tried to host, our children were young, and all our friends, who also had small kids, left by 9 p.m., exhausted from wrangling their offspring, who were getting cranky from staying up past their bedtime. We decided a long time ago that ringing in the new year is overrated.

Our holiday traditions are important to our family, and I can’t wait to see what traditions our boys create with their families one day.

A random act of kindness

If you are worried about how much something costs, you shouldn’t buy it.

That’s been my philosophy for years, and I apply it most often during vacations. I don’t want to worry about how much a meal, accommodations or an activity sets me back because worry hinders my enjoyment. Why spend money on something you can’t enjoy? If the expenditure doesn’t lead to enjoyment, for me, it’s best to skip it.

That philosophy was very much on my mind back in 2008 when we decided to take the boys to Sea World with my brother and his family while visiting my parents in Florida the week after Christmas. It’s a notoriously busy time at the Orlando theme parks, but we wanted to give the boys something special and memorable during the visit. We usually work in at least one special activity during our annual visit with my family.

In the past we’ve made trips to the mall, Lakeland to shop or eat out, Cypress Gardens and then Legoland when it was converted to the new theme park, and local playgrounds. We don’t get to spend time with my family often, and a day at Sea World gave us the opportunity to spend time with Uncle Lee, Aunt Karrie, and Cousin Kalee.

Lance and Carla Wallace stand with their two young sons holding blue light sabres in front of a lighthouse at the gate to Sea World in Orlando, Florida.
With all the money we saved on tickets, we could afford to buy Barron and Harris light sabres with which to pummel each other all the way home.

Our boys had never been to Sea World. I had been numerous times, and Lee had visited even more. His love of theme parks and thrill rides exceeds mine, and his years as a church youth minister gave him many more opportunities to go to theme parks with his youth group. That year, he and his family had a season pass to Sea World. It wasn’t a financial sacrifice for them to spend the day with us at Sea World, beyond the overpriced food. For our family of five, however, we were starting from scratch, and it took a lot of money to buy single day admission tickets to Sea World. At the time, single day admission tickets were in the neighborhood of $90 a piece.

But I wasn’t going to worry about the money. I worked at the nonprofit Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at the time, and while I felt fairly compensated for my position, we weren’t exactly rolling in cash. Spending more than $500 for a single day of fun felt like a lot, but we were prepared to bite the bullet. We told ourselves it was an investment in making memories and spending quality time with family.

The front gate of Sea World is no different from any theme park I’ve visited. There are kiosks at which you purchase your passes, and then there are the gates at which you show your tickets have your bags searched and are allowed entry. Even as a kid, approaching the front gate of an amusement park created such nervous excitement I could barely contain it. One of the best parts of having a season pass at Six Flags Over Texas when I was 12 was the special pass gate I was privileged to enter. It was fast, easy and convenient, and I always felt a little bit of sympathy for the people queueing in lines at the ticket booths while I walked right in and started jumping on rides immediately.

There is nothing worse as a kid than waiting, and when you have a theme park in front of you, beckoning you to enter and experience the joys and thrills it offers, a line to buy tickets and then a separate line to enter feels like torture.

That’s where we were that day. Lee and his family zoomed through with their passes, while Carla and I stood in line at a ticket machine, choosing to bypass the lines at the booths where people were making in-person purchases. Our children were excited but being reasonably well behaved. Everything was going fine.

Then suddenly, the woman ahead of us in line turned around, smiled and spoke.

“Do you need tickets?”

Always suspicious of offers that seem too good to be true, we responded with a skeptical affirmative.

“We have three multi-day passes with a day left on them. We’re not going to be able to use them before we have to go back home. Would you like to have them?”

“Yes!”

Still, in that moment, this act of kindness felt like a trap. I worried that the tickets would be expired, non-transferable or counterfeit. The lines were getting longer behind us. If we purchased only two tickets from the machine and there was an issue with the passes over at the gate and had to return to the kiosks to buy three more tickets, we would be further delaying everyone’s enjoyment of the park.

She could tell we were dubious. She handed us the tickets to inspect. They looked legitimate. We were nearing our turn at the ticket machine. The clock was ticking. We had to make a decision. The woman looked friendly and honest. We went with our gut feelings.

“Thank you so much!” I responded. “This is great!”

She seemed relieved that the tickets would be going to someone who could use them. As she walked away, we stepped up and purchased two children’s single day passes. We crossed our fingers and approached the front gate where my brother and his family waited.

“Dude, you will never believe what just happened,” I said to him.

We showed them the tickets, and he confirmed they appeared genuine.

“Man, that kind of stuff never happens to me,” he said with a laugh. “You must be living right.”

We opened our bags for the gate employees to inspect and handed the attendant our tickets – the two new ones and three gifted ones. Without hesitation the attendant scanned all five, and each one beeped with acceptance. No issues. We were in.

As I pulled my backpack onto my shoulders I told Carla, “That woman just gave us $300.”

“That might be the most expensive gift we got this Christmas,” she responded. “And it came from a stranger.”

Four walls and a roof

I hate moving.

Moving is one of my least favorite activities because when you’re married to Carla, moving means painting. I hate painting.

Our new home, less than a mile from our current residence in Lilburn.
Our new home, less than a mile from our current residence in Lilburn.

When we first got married we lived in an apartment with vaulted ceilings. Because of her need for color and beauty, she insisted we paint the rooms, forfeiting our security deposit and spending hours painting huge walls. Thus the pattern was established for our marriage.

A year later when we bought our first home, she walked in and pronounced with enthusiasm “This is perfect! We can move in right now!” Little did I know that by “perfect” she meant that I would take a week of vacation to paint every room in the house.

By the time we moved into our current home in Lilburn 11 years ago, I was on to her little scheme. Plus, we were moving for my job, and I was traveling more. Carla did most of the painting herself, so my complaining was really more of just rehashing old inconveniences rather than a current set of circumstances.

This time, though, is not just about the anticipated lower back pain, stirring up dust and pollen to provoke allergies and taking time off work to become physically exhausted for a week straight. This time, there is an emotional pain that underlies the entire process.

As much as I like to put on a façade of stoicism about changing houses, I really have grown attached to our house. We brought our oldest to this house when he was just 2, and we added two more sons here. It’s the only house they have really known.

At some point before we purchased our current house, the previous owners converted the garage into a large room that we use as our playroom. We live in this room more than any other room in the house. I will miss this room and the laughter and tears and conversations it has held. Carla’s colorful paint scheme and cheery window treatments have turned the room into a space for imagination and bonding. Along with the fingerprints, thousands of pushpin holes and furniture marks, there is a coating of love on these walls that can only come from 11 years of being a family together in it.

I wrote a novel in this house – at this very desk I’m writing this blog now. Yes, I know, I need to finish the re-write, but the spot I tuned into the mental channel to get the essential story that became my book happened right here in this house.

Carla and I figured out how to be married in this house. We had been husband and wife only six years when we moved, and we were still sorting out the issues that beset young married couples. Our relationship has only grown stronger and sweeter in our time together in this house.

We have celebrated 10 Christmases in this house, lovingly decorating inside and out each year. All our decorations have a place, and the boys know those traditions. I will miss sitting in my living room with a cup of decaf talking with Carla in the twinkling glow of the lit Christmas tree on cold December nights as we make our lists and travel plans. And of course, I will miss the Christmas mornings in that living room, strategically tucked around the corner from the stairs where for years we’ve forced the boys to pause for photos while Nanny and Poppy get in position to enjoy the scene.

I will miss the dining room or breakfast room, which we used to call it back before we converted the dining room into a guest room, because of all the conversations and laughter we’ve had in that room. I will not miss the tortured cries at having to eat vegetables, but something tells me that will be coming with us to our new eating space.

For the past six years, we have welcomed the young adults of Parkway Baptist Church into our home once a month for Second Sunday. That is truly an incredible time in which we get to extend hospitality to friends who share good food, life’s journey and the presence of Christ. Our cozy living room has been a suitable context for much meaningful dialogue on what really matters.

Our current home in 2003 when we moved in.
Our current home in 2003 when we moved in.

Perhaps more than the inside, I will fondly remember the hours I have spent taming the lawn: mowing, trimming, blowing, pruning, raking, digging and spreading. Yard work is therapeutic, and I’ve left a lot of stress and anxiety out in that yard.

We’re moving less than a mile away. We’re not leaving friendships behind because we will be able to visit and see our friends and neighbors as much as we like. We’re not changing school districts, so the boys will not have to navigate that transition. We’re not painting anything… yet … and this house we’re moving into is a lovingly maintained, beloved home sold by a family who is facing similar sentiments of loss and grief as they leave the place they built and raised a daughter in.

I hate moving, but if I have to move, I’m glad it’s this house and it’s at this time in our lives. We will make new memories there. We will bond even more tightly as a family, especially as Mama gets to spend more time with us in our daily routines. And I’m sure at some point there will be painting.

It’s amazing how attached you can get to a place in 11 years and how much stuff you can accumulate. I’m just glad you don’t have to pack memories. We would need a bigger truck.

Have you ever left behind a house that you loved? Do you like moving and move frequently? Share your favorite home memories in a comment below. It will do us all some good to share our homesickness.

Here’s to you, January birthday person

For people who don't have a national holiday in the honor, January can be a tough month in which to have a birthday.
For people who don’t have a national holiday in their honor, January can be a tough month in which to have a birthday.

Conventional wisdom is that folks with December birthdays have it the worst. Their special day gets lost in the run up to Christmas, and those with Dec. 25-31 birthdays are completely overshadowed.

I think we have a contender for most under-appreciated birthday month people: that would be the January folks.

After looking at our calendar for the month and realizing we have seven friends or immediate family members with birthdays, I’m seeing first hand how the January birthday person suffers.

To avoid being indelicate, we will not attempt to examine the cause of January birthdays. We can all subtract nine. Instead, I offer five reasons why January birthday people face previously undocumented hardship:

1. Christmas hangover. People get depressed when they put away the Christmas decorations. It just happens. The vacations are over, the gifts have been received and need to be returned, the parties have ended and “cheer” is replaced with “drear.” In comes somebody with a birthday. People can’t even remember their name the first few days after the Christmas holidays much less your birthday. And when people finally realize they forgot, it’s spring.

2. Almost a tax write-off baby. When I worked in newspapers, I worked several new year’s day holidays, which meant I went to the hospital to interview the parents of the first baby of the new year. Their joy was always mitigated by the knowledge that they missed a significant tax deduction by mere minutes. When you are resented as being “late” at birth and costing your parents money, that can carry over for your entire life. “Yay. You were born at 12:01. Now we will be reminded every year that we missed out on an extra $3,600. Happy birthday, you.”

3. Friends and family are broke. I’m sure all of you follow Clark Howard and Dave Ramsey and budget for Christmas gifts so that you actually are cash flush come January, but some people aren’t. And they are related to you. So even if they remember your birthday, the best you will get is a card. Gee, thanks. A card. How thoughtful.

4. People are narcissistic because of new year’s resolutions. In January people are exuding so much energy to stick to their new exercise regimen and diets that you don’t even register as a life form in their universe. They will not realize other people live around them until the resolutions wear off or their birthday, whichever comes first. They will acknowledge other people when they want them to give them a party and some nice gifts. You? You’re dead to them.

5. Bad weather. After about the second or third week of winter, the absence of sunlight and cabin fever form a deadly depressive mood that dominates people’s outlooks. They might remember your birthday, but it will just depress them. They will dwell on their own mortality, and if they throw you a party, it won’t be a good party. It will be one of those obligatory, dud parties where everyone talks about their medical conditions and all the people they know who have recently died. Try making a wish in that environment.

This will help you January birthday people feel better, I'm sure.
This will help you January birthday people feel better, I’m sure.

I am not one of those misfortunate ones with a January birthday. Mine comes at the end of July when people are sun tanned, relaxed, vacationated and generally mellow. They are so mellow that they give extravagant gifts, and it’s been so long since they’ve had a holiday excuse to throw a party that they welcome the opportunity to celebrate your birth. So, I’ve got it good, and I know it.

But for anyone not named “Elvis” — people like my mother-in-law, brother, dad and other close friends — fate has dealt them a bad hand. I’m sure they are glad they were born, and January was a fine time for that. I just don’t think they’ve ever gotten the attention they deserve for the grief they valiantly carry.

So, here’s to you, January birthday person, you are loved and appreciated, and no matter how late your day is acknowledged or how few gifts you receive, you are important and you are worth celebrating.

Now excuse me while I get these cards in the mail.

Do you have a January birthday? What has been your experience? Does your birthday get overlooked or am I off base? Leave a comment below and speak out. Maybe we won’t be too depressed or cold or self-absorbed to notice

The gift of a time machine

Programming note: For nearly two years, New South Essays has been published on Friday mornings. Because of my job change, I’m finding that Saturdays are working better. I hope you’ll stick with me as I move to Saturdays. To ensure that you never miss a weekly post, click the email subscription link on the right. Thanks!

I was minding my morning business a few months back, checking the daily media mentions of my employer, when I ran across an article with the ominous lead sentence: “The video game is 40.”

I nearly fainted.

Immediately, two conflicting thoughts flashed to mind: “Has it really been that long?” and “Have video games really only been around for 40 years?”

Carlton plays Space Invaders
Carlton at 4 had no trouble picking up Space Invaders.

Fast forward to Christmas. During our visit to my parents in Lake Wales, Fla., we took the boys to see “Wreck it Ralph,” one video game villain’s quest for heroism that featured a walk down arcade game memory lane with dozens of characters from video games of the past. It was one of those occasions when the boys stared at me in wonder as I laughed out loud at what they thought were inappropriate moments.

On the night we arrived in Florida, not long after opening our gifts from Mom and Dad, we discovered my mother was obsessed about one Christmas gift she ordered on Amazon that didn’t get delivered in time. True to my parents’ form, they had ordered one for each of their three sons, but it had not arrived for any of us. Sitting at her computer, Mom diligently followed the tracking number across the country and each morning over my coffee she updated me on the shipping status of the mystery gift.

Honestly, I had forgotten about it by Wednesday when I returned to work. With the resumption of my routine, Christmas and its gifts were far from my mind when the UPS truck pulled up outside our home. Then I remembered there was one more gift to open.

We made the boys wait until after supper before diving into the plain cardboard box. I could not have predicted the bizarre emotional reaction I felt when the “Atari Flashback 4” emerged. I stared at the box, not with the eyes of a 42 year-old father of three but with the eyes of a 10-year-old on Christmas morning unwrapping a pulse-quickening, hours-wasting, life-changing, dream-making device. It was the Holy Grail. It was my Red Ryder BB gun. It was the most amazing device my brother and I had ever seen.

Desperate to plug it in and get started on the 75 games that came pre-programmed on the slightly smaller console, the boys pleaded and begged for me to set it up. As I examined the contents, I had that strange feeling of deja vu. The console and power pack were smaller. The joysticks were wireless. There were buttons on the front of the console where the little levers used to be. I was both taken back in time and a little confused.

So I did what any parent does in those moments: I sent the boys to bed. I needed time to sort this out. No, I didn’t need help plugging it in and turning it on. I needed to sort out the complex emotions this gift evoked.

Harris plays Atari
Harris didn’t know what to do with the overly simple controller at first.

By the time I got home from work on Thursday, the boys had figured out how to hook up the system. The family was gathered in the living room around the “old TV”. As I made my way from the kitchen, I could hear the rumble of tanks. The appropriately named “Flashback” did just that, taking me back to my youth when my brother, Lee, and I would press the red buttons and strain the vinyl-covered stick as we tried to put English on the bullets coming from our tanks.

Video games have played a part in my life almost since I was old enough to play them. Seeing that Atari’s Pong had turned 40 and then seeing this “Flashback” console made me wonder what will be the retro toys my boys will find memory-provoking 40 years from now.

I can’t imagine where technology is headed. I just hope my boys will have positive memories from their wasted hours playing video games together. For me and my brothers, the memories are what made the wasted hours worth it.

So what’s your earliest memory of video games? What was your favorite? Were you an Atari or an Intelivision person? Did you blow untold fortunes in quarters at the arcade? Share your memories by leaving a comment below.

Orlando beckons

In less than an hour on Interstate 75 the week after Christmas and it becomes abundantly clear that the entire population of the Eastern and Midwestern United States along with a great portion of Canada is heading to Central Florida.

Luminescence show at Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando
We ventured into Orlando from Lake Wales on Friday to check out the scene at the Gaylord Palms Resort. The ‘Luminescence’ show was an impressive combination of music, arial acrobatics and lights.

The mass migration is led by the exodus of Atlantans, fleeing the onset of a mild winter to visit Mickey, Harry Potter, Shamu and any fictional character built out of Legos.

I have the great advantage/disadvantage of having kin in Central Florida, and the week after Christmas is one of the rare times we get together. My parents and my middle brother and his family still call Lake Wales home, the area where I spent six years as a full time resident in junior high and high school in the 1980s.

More than 51 million visitors came to Orlando in 2011, up 7.5 percent from the year prior. According to the Orbitz Holiday Travel Insider Index, Orlando is the number one American travel destination for Christmas and New Year’s this year.

What caused me to contemplate Orlando and its stature as a destination city was a run-in with Atlanta friends for the third consecutive trip. Several years ago, we made the obligatory spring break trip with the boys to the Walt Disney World Resort. Fittingly, we ran into the Todds, our up-the-street neighbors, outside of “It’s A Small World.”

Then, two springs ago while staying with my parents over spring break we ran into the Nguyens from church at Seuss Landing in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

My niece and my brother
My niece, Kalee, and my brother, Lee, wait for the start of the ‘Luminescence’ show at the Gaylord Palms in Orlando.

It happened again on Friday. While enjoying an evening at the Gaylord Palms Resort with my brother, Lee, his wife, Karrie, and their daughter, Kalee, we bumped into the Paynes, more friends from church. Mind you, we don’t go to a big church.

While searching for stuffed polar bears as a part of a Gaylord promotional scavenger hunt, we came around the corner, and there was Trish, Brooklyn and Jordan, in town for a soccer tournament. Unfortunately, Dan, the Payne family patriarch, had to work and couldn’t make the trip.

What’s odd about the encounter was that I wasn’t surprised in the least. In fact, I half expected to see someone I knew, and the Paynes were as likely as anyone. Jordan, a high school senior, was playing in a soccer tournament at Disney’s Wild World of Sports, and the team was staying at the Gaylord.

If you are looking for someone in Atlanta this week, there’s a pretty good chance they are in Orlando.

Why has Orlando become the New South winter vacation destination? There are as many reasons to visit Orlando as there are dialects heard at the attractions, but the most consistent reasons are relative proximity, weather, abundance of family entertainment, and, at least for the New Year’s holiday, college football bowl games. This year, more Atlantans are here because Georgia plays Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year’s Day.

Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.
Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.

I’m glad to have family here. It’s about more than just having a free place to stay. It’s the one time a year the boys get to spend with my parents on their turf, enjoying their company doing things the boys don’t ordinarily do: climb in Spanish moss-filled Live Oaks, help Paw Paw with imaginative projects, serve as photo subjects for Granny’s constant picture taking, play games with their cousin and go on outings planned by their creative Uncle Lee.

New Year’s Day we’ll join the 450-mile conga line of minivans and SUVs heading back to the ATL. I just hope that with a mid-week holiday and a school vacation extending until Jan. 3, we can beat the traffic home.

And on the way home, we’ll plan our next Central Florida excursion, probably just like all our neighbors.

Is it just me or do people flock to Orlando this time of year? Have you made the trek during Christmas vacation? What memories do you have of Orlando? When is the best time to go? Share your travel secrets in a comment below and help make us all savvy travelers.

The faces of children

Christmas cards on pantry doors
Children’s faces beam at me from our pantry doors, bringing to mind the 20 children who lost their lives yesterday in Newtown, Conn.

Numbed by the senseless killing of 20 children yesterday in Connecticut, I went back to the drawing board for this week’s post. No topic merits discussion more than the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.

Like a lot of people, I experienced deep and complicated emotions when I first heard the news. Two of my own three children were at school at the time. When they board their respective buses each day, I take for granted that they will return home. Friday, there were 20 kids who will never again return home.

I don’t think the impact of the tragedy hit me until this morning. Armed with a cup of coffee to warm my body after a chilly pre-dawn run, I headed to the pantry for the pancake mix. And there they were, staring at me: Children.

This year Carla has been attaching with clothes pins the beautiful Christmas cards we receive to two parallel strips of red ribbon. I was dubious that the cards would actually stay up given the amount of traffic our pantry gets. So far, they’re hanging tight, giving me a smiling, happy greeting every time I go for a protein bar or handful of almonds.

What struck me this morning about these cards is the number of children adorning them. Radiant, innocent, mischievous, smiling faces. These faces are making my Christmas season brighter like no amount of twinkling lights can.

Today, there are 20 fewer such faces in the world.

No doubt the parents of some of these children had already sent their family’s Christmas photo card. Stuck with a magnet on someone’s refrigerator is a joyful face of a child whose life has been cut short. I can’t imagine the pain these parents are experiencing and the loss that the school and community are feeling.

I can imagine my pantry doors with fewer children, and it makes me sad.

I have seen much more eloquent responses to this tragedy in the blogosphere in the last 24 hours. I couldn’t help myself. So join me in remembering these families in prayer. There’s really nothing more I can say.

Ruining Christmas

Children are prone to hyperbole. I understand this. Overstated pronouncements barely even move the needle on my parental reaction seismograph.

But last weekend I encountered a new psychological phenomenon that both amused and confounded me. Let me paint the picture for you:

Buying our Christmas tree
Despite Barron’s best Scrooge imitation, the Wallaces proceed to checkout at Lowe’s with our Christmas tree.

Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, our family goes to breakfast and then goes to purchase our Christmas tree. We spend the entire day decorating the house — inside and out — so that by the time our heads hit the pillow, we are ready for Christmas.

By a quirk of the calendar, this happened to be one of those years in which Thanksgiving fell on the earliest possible date. Carla and I decided that we would be OK to postpone our annual tradition by a week. Our tree is usually a pile of needles anyway by the time New Year’s Day rolls around, so we thought this might be better to preserve the tree throughout Yuletide.

So we spent the Saturday after Thanksgiving catching up on laundry, tending to the lawn, buying groceries and treating ourselves to an outing to the $2 cinema to catch the runaway blockbuster of last summer “Diary of Wimpy Kid 3: Dog Days.” Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit like a summer movie.

The kids seemed to cope with this change of tradition OK until the following Saturday. We went to our closest IHOP, ingested copious amounts of pancakes of several international varieties and set out to buy our tree. This is where things began to go off the rails. The IHOP is literally in the parking lot of Home Depot. Naturally, we thought we’d just pull around, pick out our tree and be on our way.

The problem was that for the last four or five years, we have purchased our tree from Lowe’s, just a few miles down the road. When we announced we were going to Home Depot, we encountered resistance.

“Why are we going to Home Depot?”

“Because it’s right here. It’s more convenient.”

“But this isn’t where we buy our Christmas tree.”

“It’s the same thing except the building is orange instead of blue.”

They were not convinced. We piled out of the minivan and entered the huge tent outside the lawn and garden section filled with Christmas trees. As the aroma of Christmas permeated the air, our children began fussing. I looked over at our oldest who was doing his best “I just lost my best friend” impression, and I listened to the two younger ones debate Home Depot trees vs. Lowe’s trees. That’s when it came.

“You are ruining Christmas for everyone,” Barron said.

I laughed out loud.

“Seriously? We are ruining Christmas?”

“Yes! First, we didn’t decorate for Christmas when we were supposed to. Then we went to the wrong place to buy our Christmas tree. This isn’t the way we do Christmas.”

Still chuckling, I loaded us up in the van and hauled the family down the highway to Lowe’s.

As the day went on and more and more of their expectations went unmet, their emotional dam burst that night before bedtime. Barron was particularly affected by it.

Because we weren't doing Christmas "right," Barron took over and tried by force of will to get us back on track.
Because we weren’t doing Christmas “right,” Barron took over and tried by force of will to get us back on track.

After much reflection, here is my analysis of the problem: A good many of us have wonderful childhood memories of a few magical Christmas celebrations. Those four or five years, or fewer, make such a profound impact on us, that we are conditioned to expect every Christmas to be just as magical as those. As soon as the first stanza of “Jingle Bells” hits our ears, we revert into children, happily baking foods that we know will kill us, purchasing gifts we know we can’t afford, filling our schedules with parties and activities that we know we can’t endure, all in the vain attempt of recapturing our fleeting childhood Christmas experiences.

There is a time between adolescence and parenthood in which Christmas becomes disconnected from its roots. Blame it on Santa if you want to, but the absence of children makes Christmas different. So when we have children of our own, we relive our childhood through them, rekindling our excitement through their anticipation and impatience.

I’m not ready to pronounce this a bad thing. It just is. Dealing with unmet expectations at Christmas is a rite of passage. We all have to go through it. Barron may be confronting that this year, but I predict he will have many more years before he feels the same expectancy as he felt in his early childhood.

Our house still isn’t decorated for Christmas, and lest we risk ruining Christmas for everyone forever, we have to get caught up tomorrow. I am willing to play along and help our children have our “traditional” Christmas.

My real objective, though, is to help them break through the trappings of Christmas and uncover the largely ignored truth of this holiday. Our Savior was born because God loves us. The earlier in our lives we learn to focus on this dimension of the holiday, the sooner we experience true joy at Christmas.

So whether you have a Griswold Christmas, a Ralphie Christmas, a Peanuts’ Christmas or even a Grinch-Stole-Christmas Christmas, I sincerely wish you a Christ Christmas. That’s the best way I know to avoid ruining Christmas.

What are your Christmas traditions? What activities do you engage in every year to recapture the magic? What is it that if you skipped it would ruin your Christmas? Leave a comment and share your story.

A month’s worth of thankfulness in one serving

November brings with it a number of seasonal peculiarities: falling leaves, premature Christmas decorations, cooler temperatures and now, in the New South, daily thanksgiving posts on Facebook.

It is not happy people who are thankful, it is thankful people who are happy
Being thankful is a lifestyle, not a state of mind.

I’m not sure when the trend started, but taking the month of November to post “What I am thankful for today” status updates has caught on. Yes, there is the expected reaction of satire and mockery, but overall what fills my Facebook newsfeed these days is more genuine than humorous.

My wife started the November Thanksgiving Facebook status updates last year and has continued the tradition this year. She reports that it’s more difficult to come up with something on harder days, but she always manages to post. So far she hasn’t been guilty of that prayer practice of small children who merely recite their thanksgivings to God by looking around the room and mentioning everything they see: “Thank you, God, for my socks and for Lego and for puzzles and for squirrels and for Thomas the Tank Engine…”

One of the most difficult disciplines is regulating your attitude apart from your circumstances. If we surrender control of our mood to the randomness of life, say a bad commute home from work or a vomiting child, then we will most likely be miserable most of the time.

gratitude is the memory of the heartHowever, if we approach each day with the reminder of all that’s good in our lives, we can ride the waves of life rather than be drowned by them.

I haven’t participated in this new Thanksgiving tradition simply because I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t know that I could come up with 30 days of thankfulness in the moment each morning, so to send you into Thanksgiving week, I’m offering a month’s worth of thanksgivings all at once (in no particular order):

  1. A faith that is strong enough to endure challenges but flexible enough to grow when confronted with truth.
  2. Carla. Simply stated, the best wife I could have ever been fortunate enough to marry.
  3. My parents. They instilled in me early on the right priorities and have offered encouragement and guidance when I needed it most.
  4. Barron. A dad couldn’t ask for a better oldest son. Responsible, creative and funny.
  5. Harris. Like the crème filling of an Oreo, he makes the middle the best part. I particularly enjoy our talks.
  6. Carlton. Resourceful and self-reliant, his zest for life re-energizes.
  7. My in-laws. Gracious, generous and always delightful to be around, they make visits to their home a respite.
  8. My brother, Lee, and his family. I have the utmost respect for his ministry and know he has more integrity than just about anyone I know.
  9. My brother, Lyle, and his family.  I don’t get to see them enough, so each visit is a treasure, and I know he is preparing for a life-long ministry that will touch many, many lives.
  10. Our home. Not only do we have enough bedrooms for everybody, we have space to open our home to friends and family on a regular basis, and we are always the better for it.
  11. Good friends. You know who you are. No matter what segment of my life they enter through, my closest friends enrich my life with laughter, challenging ideas and support. I could have listed each of you as a separate item, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just lump you all into one entry.
  12. My neighbors. You never want to take for granted having considerate and friendly neighbors. Even just a smile and a wave add something to my life.
  13. My job. Working at Georgia Tech doesn’t just pay the bills. It stretches and challenges me while giving me the opportunity to form new relationships with quality people.
  14. Parkway Baptist Church. A place where I can serve, learn and enjoy the company of fellow travelers on the road.
  15. My daily bread. Haven’t missed a meal, and I don’t take that for granted knowing there is real poverty in the world.
  16. Good health. Despite a nagging shoulder/back strain right now, I enjoy exercise and nothing makes me feel more alive than a good run.
  17. Down time. It may be infrequent, but when it happens I cherish it.
  18. Lilburn. A great community filled with a diverse population who are involved and care about their children and is not so far outside the perimeter.
  19. Functioning vehicles. This may be a “knock-on-wood” entry, but for now, all systems are “go” on the station wagon and minivan. Never dreamed I would ever be thankful for a station wagon and minivan.
  20. Google search. Everything is knowable. No more struggling to remember which actor played in which movie or what the lyrics are to a song stuck in your head. It really has become our brain supplement.
  21. Fantasy football. A diversion I allow myself. It’s fun whether I win or lose.
  22. Summer vacation. We always go to Santa Rosa Beach, and it’s one of the highlights of the year for our family.
  23. Sunday afternoon naps. Forced to take them as a child, naps are now the most-anticipated event of the week.
  24. Scouts. The experience has given me so many opportunities to spend quality time with my boys that no matter what rank they achieve, I know it has been a worthy investment of time.
  25. Saturday morning pancakes. I contribute so little to meal preparation in my household that it’s nice when I get to prepare our weekly pancake breakfast. Even I can’t mess up pancakes.
  26. Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s millions of dollars of profit notwithstanding, this has been a great way to keep in touch and reconnect with friends from all over the world.
  27. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Not only was it a fantastic place to work for 10 years, it’s a worthwhile ministry doing amazing things worthy of support.
  28. Christmas vacation. Always includes a trip to Florida and time with both sets of grandparents. Beautiful weather, rest and great memories.
  29. Writing. Even though I don’t get to do it enough, I am enriched by each opportunity to express my thoughts. My book will get finished someday.
  30. Blog readers. You put up with a lot of lackluster writing, but you have hung with me for nearly 20 months now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Share what you are thankful for by leaving a comment below, then share this post with others!

No matter how far away we roam

I’ll be home for after Christmas.

We’re at T-minus two days and counting until the big day. Soon, Carla’s parents will be arriving and we’ll being going to Christmas Eve services at church. The surprise and joy of Christmas morning will give way to the irritability and arguing of sleep-deprived children.

Cognitively, I know that Christmas isn’t for me. It’s for the kids. Emotionally, though, I need to have a connection with my past before I can truly feel I’ve celebrated Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong, Christmas with my wife and children in our own home is special. I treasure the traditions we are developing and enjoy building life-long memories with our boys. But for me to feel like I’ve had Christmas requires a trip to my parents’ house in Central Florida.

Since I left for Troy University in 1988, I’ve been making a pilgrimage to Lake Wales some time during the holidays. The 502-miles of pavement allow my mind to travel through time to revisit memories of previous Christmases.

Michael Jordan cardboard stand up with Lee and Lance
Lee and I measure up with Mike, circa 1994.

Like the time I gave my brother, Lee, the life-size cardboard standup Michael Jordan for Christmas. All our Christmas pictures that year had Mike wearing a Santa hat in the background.

Or the year my youngest brother Lyle ate too many helpings of Lee’s famous barbecue meatballs during an all-night Madden football video game tournament. He has since sworn off meatballs.

Like Christmas itself, now that I have kids of my own, the trips to Florida have taken on a different meaning. My children look forward to these vacations because they get to spend time with grandparents they don’t often see, and, yes, they get even more presents.

My dad’s unpredictability adds to the excitement. One year he took the boys and their cousins for a night-time hay ride through the orange groves. Not a year goes by that he doesn’t introduce them to such classic songs as “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” and “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.”

Paw Paw takes the grandkids on a hay ride
Paw Paw's lawn tractor and trailer entertains the grandkids with a Christmas hayride in 2009.

So like so many snowbirds over the next several weeks, we’ll load up the minivan and head down I-75. If you have to drive home for Christmas, Central Florida isn’t a bad destination. At the risk of sounding like a member of the Florida Tourism board, this is really the best time of year to visit. It’s in that narrow window of about two months when the weather isn’t unbearably hot and humid. With temperatures in the 60s and 70s, we will be packing shorts and T-shirts, ready to enjoy outdoor play in my parents’ expansive yard or at one of the nearby parks.

Central Florida also just happens to be home to a number of theme parks. This year we’ll be trying out the new Legoland Florida, which opened this fall a convenient 20 minutes up the road from my parents’ house.

There is no place like home for the holidays, even for grown ups. I look forward to making more memories with my family even while reminiscing about a few that happened before I had one of my own.

Now I’ve got to go find my shorts to pack.

It’s your turn! Where do you travel for the holidays? Do you take family vacations or do you travel great distances to see family? Are you separated from family by geography and miss out and seeing family members? Leave a comment below on how you cope with holiday travel.