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Christmas in the French Alps

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(Start the saga with yesterday’s entry, if you haven’t read it already.) Once the river cruise boat saw us down the gangplank, the six of us hopped a train in Basel, Switzerland and took off for Geneva: Carol and I, Kathy and Bob, and Alexis and Brian. One of my friends had told me before we left that the run between those two cities was flattish and not especially scenic.

Well. There’s Nebraska flattish, and then there’s Switzerland flattish. Nebraska wins hands down. The land we crossed was rugged, and there were always mountains in the distance in one direction or another. It was a gorgeous ride, and our first look at rural Switzerland. I found myself thinking, if this is the flat part of Switzerland, what must the mountainous parts be like?

We’ll check into that next trip. Matt met us in Geneva, and we stopped for a while at his house before piling into several cars and heading across the border into France. The drive took an hour, and it wasn’t long as the crow flies. Not being crows, we had to deal with endless doglegs on mountain roads. But late afternoon we found ourselves in Morzine, a ski town in the foothills of the French Alps. Morzine itself is at 1000 meters (3300 feet) above sea level, but that’s just the town. All the real action is uphill. From Morzine you can take a dozen ski lifts a good deal higher.

For our second week in Europe we teamed up with several people in Carol’s extended family and rented an entire (small) ski chalet in Morzine. Everybody except for the old folks (like us) were skiers–and a couple of the old folks were too. Me, well, at 67 I’ve never broken a bone, and don’t intend to start now. You ski. We’ll watch.

The chalet was comfortable, if chilly at times on the first floor. The common areas were bright and cozy, with a wood-burning fireplace and lots of chairs and sofas:

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The dining room had huge windows overlooking the mountainsides. That is, when the weather was clear, we could see the mountainsides. Clear weather wasn’t the norm, so I took the shots when I could. This is the view from the dining room, on Christmas Day:

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And this was the view (without any zoom) through a nearby window that was typical of most of the rest of the week:

The ginormous dining table could easily seat 16, but we were only twelve plus a toddler. And the food, good lord, it was like nothing else we’ve ever had. Chef Michael prepared breakfast and dinner, and left fruit and fresh bread on the table for those who would still be in the chalet at lunchtime. This is a standard ski chalet practice, rooted in the assumption that skiers would not be coming back to the chalet for lunch. Carol and I bought ham, turkey, and cheese down in the town center for sandwiches.

Below is Christmas Eve dinner. After the meal we watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, a long-time family favorite. Most of us had brought Christmas Vacation-themed T-shirts, and some of us even dressed like the characters, especialy Grandma Wilma, Brian, and Alexis. (Carol bought the two of us T-shirts at our local thrift store. Mine was an XXL, but that’s what was there.)

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It snowed most days, if not a lot. (And Morzine knew how to deal with it.) Christmas Day, however, was crystal clear and brilliantly sunny. The whole bunch of us decided to take the big cable gondola up the mountain to Avioraz, a sort of satellite town that catered almost solely to skiers. Those who ski, skied. The rest of us wandered around looking in shop windows. The streets of Avioraz were (deliberately) under a foot or so of hard-packed show, and could be skied as easily as walked.

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Avioraz, as you might expect, consists mostly of ski chalets, ski shops, restaurants, and bars. We had lunch outside in bright sun–mercifully, there was no wind to speak of, so it was almost warm. Not long after lunch, while Carol and I were walking around (most of the gang had gone even further up the mountain on the ski lifts) I heard bells. And what should come around the corner but…a one-horse open sleigh! Egad, I’d been singing that song ever since I was a toddler, but until Christmas Day 2019 I had never actually seen a “one-horse open sleigh.” Maybe I just don’t get out enough.

We did get out Christmas night, and went to church in Morzine. It was the first time I had ever heard Mass in French, though we had heard it in German when we last visited Europe in 2002.

Sagely predicting that at least some of the week would suffer lousy weather, Matt brought a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a Bob Ross mountains-and-trees painting. We dedicated a game table to it and got to work on the first day. We worked on it whenever there was nothing much else to do. I had never before attempted a puzzle that large (nor one with such vast expanses of blue) and didn’t contribute a great deal. Carol worked at it a lot, as did her sister Kathy. Brian’s wife Alexis had a near-magical touch with puzzles, and whatever time she spent on it greatly accelerated its assembly.

It took us until the middle of the last night we spent at the chalet, but at some point the last piece clicked into place and it was finished.

The skiers among us were gone a lot, but overall, we talked, laughed, drank good French wine, read, worked the puzzle, and entertained little Molly while her parents were out on the slopes. Molly’s parents, both her grandmothers, and her great-grandmother Wilma were all there, so Molly got plenty of attention. She’s starting to talk, and almost got the hang of “Uncle Jeff” during our week together.

Our trip home was long but uneventful: We flew from Geneva to London Heathrow, then from London to Dallas, where we had to retrieve our suitcases and go through customs. Carol got the two of us TSA’s Global Entry certification earlier last year, and so customs was trivial. We re-checked our bags and hopped a flight from Dallas to Phoenix.

At the airport we ordered up a Lyft ride. The driver told us that airport management was pushing ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft out of the airport, and that he would no longer be serving passengers after a whole raft of new fees and requirements are imposed later in January. The fees are being challenged in court, so the whole thing could collapse if the ruling goes against the city. I like Lyft and will miss it for airport trips, but technology has its way of getting past government interference. It’ll be interesting to see what ways eventually emerge.

Overall it was a wonderful trip, both on the water and in the mountains. I got behind on a number of projects (not least being the final bits of my novel) but it was worth it. On the upside, we didn’t put up much in the line of decorations here in Phoenix, so there was less to put away on our return. Alas, one of the first things that happened was the noisy death of our built-in 1500-watt microwave oven. We ran down to Walmart and picked up a smaller 900-watt unit for…$65. That’ll do until the JennAir repairman can make it out here.

In the meantime, we’re enjoying our (slightly chilly) Phoenix winter, and gradually getting over eight hours’ worth of jetlag. Happy new year to everyone here, and don’t believe the doomsayers: This is by far the best time in human history to be alive!

Five Countries, No Waiting

Ok. Some waiting. It’s tough to pinball your way around five European countries in two weeks without a little bit of butt-in-chair time. Then again, it allowed us to catch our breaths. We just got back and I’m still jetlagged. Longitude is a bitch. (I’m only now realizing that keto flu may also be involved. More on this in a future entry.)

But the trip, wow: It was something else.

We’d been planning this for a long time: a Christmas gathering of Carol’s close-in family in Europe, where our younger nephew Matt is working for a few years. Matt, his wife Justine, and their daughter live in Geneva, Switzerland, which is at the extreme southwestern corner of the country. Their townhome wouldn’t hold us all, so we pooled funds and rented a small ski chalet in Morzine, France, about an hour’s drive west. The chalet came with a caterer so that we could enjoy being together without worrying about where to buy food and how to cook it. All told, twelve adults and one little girl spent a week at the chalet.

For us, however, the chalet was the endpoint. To celebrate fifty years together, Carol and I took a week’s river cruise down the Rhine, from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland. We’d been wanting to do a river cruise for years, and there’s no better excuse than to celebrate half a century of being in love. Carol and I flew to Amsterdam via London Heathrow. We were joined by Carol’s sister Kathy and her husband Bob, and our older nephew Brian and his wife Alexis.

The cruise began in Amsterdam. The ship was the Amastella, from Ama Waterways. It’s 443 feet long and 38 feet wide. There were 140-odd people on the cruise. I never got a really good shot of the ship because it was so long; definitely follow the link to the company site for a photo. River cruise ship dimensions are constrained by the locks along the river. We traversed ten in a week, and the Amastella barely fit.

We passed a lot of quaint little towns, most of which had their names painted on the river levees, as shown with Filsen, below:

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This part of the Rhine is castle country, and there were castles anywhere there were hilltops. Some were ruins. Some looked rebuilt or at least thoroughly repaired. Many were a mix of ruins and more modern construction. I pondered that I might possibly enjoy living in the one below—but would not enjoy the heating bills.

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Every day there was a stop, and we typically toured the local cathedral and the many Christmas markets. We attended a wine tasting in a wine cave in Rudesheim, which was the first time I had ever been in a wine cave. The wine itself was marginal (I much prefer reds to whites) but at least I was able to put certain recent news items in perspective. (No thanks, Phil.)

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Also in Rudesheim was Siegfried’s Mechanical Instrument Museum. My pictures were not terrific, but Atlas Obscura has a very nice article on it, with excellent photos. Before conventional music recording, to have music people either had to play it themselves (or have other people play it) or have access to self-playing instruments. The player piano is the best known of these, and they were still being made circa 1960, when the family down the block from us bought one.

An orchestrion is just that: not merely a player piano, but a whole player orchestra. The museum has several, including one that has and plays six violins, all mechanically. It’s done with a revolving circular horsehair bow. The violins are tilted against the bow when played. Drums, chimes, and other instruments are often present, and the overall effect, given that it’s all stored as holes in rolls of paper, is uncanny.

The lighting in the museum was not the best, and the only reasonable photo I got was of the Weber Maesto, which was at heart a sort of player pipe organ. There’s a YouTube video of one in operation, and the quality of the music is startling.

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In Speyer was something I had not heard about until just before the trip and did not expect: The Speyer Technical Museum. Even now it defies description: They have machines of all sorts on display, with an emphasis on vehicles and aircraft. (They do have some boats and two submarines–and 25 sewing machines. I counted.) You can walk through the bigger submarine, although if you’re the least claustrophobic, don’t. Bogglingly, they have an entire 747 mounted at an odd angle literally 75 feet in the air, and you can climb down a ladder into its baggage compartment. Not boggled yet? Although the stairs up to the 747 can be arduous, if you have a nose for thrills you can slide back down to the ground in a (long) stainless-steel playground tube. (My nose for thrills is notoriously absent. I took the stairs both ways.)

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Above is an aerial view from the 747 platform. Inside is an incredible, jam-packed collection of damned near anything that moves. (Below.) Lotsa cars, planes, boats, trucks, locomotives, and military vehicles, including a halftrack motorcycle. Oh–and a merry-go-round.

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A couple of snapshots can’t do it justice. If you’re ever anywhere near Speyer, do not miss it–and plan to spend a couple of hours, minimum.

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The architecture was an attraction no matter where we went. The building below (in Freiburg) is one of the coolest structures we saw. Alas, the tour guide told us what it is now (it may be an ex-rathaus) but I’ve forgotten.

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Among the cities we saw, Strasbourg (in France) was my personal favorite. Its cathedral is dazzling, especially its 3-story tall astronomical clock. I was unable to get decent pictures inside the Cathedral, but there’s an excellent article (with good photos) on Atlas Obscura. The clock shows planetary motions out to Saturn, phases of the Moon, sunrise and sunset times, and lots more, with all sorts of interesting mechanical gimmicks, including a mechanical rooster that crows, and a parade of the Apostles past the figure of Christ happening each day at solar noon in Strasbourg. And all this in a device built in 1843, with roots centuries before that.

I’ll get to the Christmas markets shortly, but in front of the Freiburg Cathedral there is a longstanding farmer’s market selling locally grown produce of all sorts, practically every day. Squash, carrots, bell peppers, leeks as long as my arm, and parsnips you could kill a man with:

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How all this produce survived to the end of December seems mysterious. I wonder how much can be had in late February? Greenhouses? If I’d known more German I would have asked.

I haven’t been in Europe a lot, and never over Christmas, so the Christmas market phenomenon took me a little by surprise. In virtually every town we visited, there was a Christmas market, and we saw most of them. It’s like nothing I’ve seen here: substantial booths selling Christmas food, ornaments, wine (especially gluhwein, which is warm mulled wine; white or red, your choice) jewelry, and handicrafts. German potato pancakes (kartoffelpuffers) and many kinds of sausages were everywhere.

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The handicrafts were generally winter clothing, including a booth that takes the cake for the most socks I have ever seen in a single 15 foot expanse, ever:

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In the absense of an English translation of the little sign above, I might have thought they were selling gummi socks candy. But no: In German, “gummi” means “rubber,” and “Strumpfe ohne Gummi” means “socks without rubber.” I’m not sure why that’s a selling point, but he had two signs to make sure no one misunderstood.

We didn’t buy much. I had brought plenty of socks, and whatever we bought we’d have to drag home in our suitcases, which were already plenty heavy.

Frieburg was the last stop on the cruise, and the next day we docked at Basel, Switzerland, having visited Holland, Germany, and France. One final note: The food on the Amastella was superb, by far the best food on any cruise we’ve taken. The service was wonderful, the staterooms comfortable. I needn’t have worried about souvenirs; the three or four pounds I gained on the boat were more than enough.

And that’s where I’ll stop for today, given how long this entry has turned out to be. Next entry: Christmas with family…in the French Alps!

Excerpted from Old Catholics

Context: Back in 2004 I began a novel about a priest who resigns from the Roman Catholic church and falls in with a little house church in a Chicago bungalow. The very eccentric Old Catholic Parish of St. James and St. Julian of Norwich welcomes him and makes him one of their own during a cold Chicago winter. I never finished the novel and don’t quite know what to do next, but the excerpt here is the first half of St. JJ’s Christmas celebration. It captures the whimsy and gentle human comedy that I was reaching for. I posted a slightly earlier excerpt here on Christmas Eve 2013.

I’m alone this Christmas Eve, looking after poor Mr. QBit. Carol is in Chicago. I think I’m going to take another run at the story a little later today. Something made me start this, and I have 38,000 words down. It’s probably the strangest thing I’ve ever written as an adult. I don’t even know how it ends. Maybe I should finish it and find out.


Christmas Eve’s late afternoon was clear but very cold, and the sky’s rich blue was fading by the time Suzy parked the Volvo behind Schwartz’s Shoes. When they rounded the corner from the alley onto Campbell St, Rob saw Deacon Dan and PJ working on something set onto a shoveled-out circle in the middle of the snow-covered front yard. Rob had expected a crèche, but it was not a crèche. Atop a tripod was a black device that Rob slowly recognized as a small telescope, the little stubby computer-controlled type that he had seen advertised by Fry’s in every Saturday Chicago Tribune since before Thanksgiving. Over the end of the telescope someone had pulled a bright blue foam hand with the Chicago Cubs logo on it, its foam index finger pointing straight up.

Rob paused on the sidewalk, Suzy still clutching his arm and holding herself close to him against the chill. PJ waved to them, smiling. Dan nodded solemnly, with the pompom on his ratty stocking cap batting forward and back.

PJ stood to one side, tapping on a tablet computer. “Wi-Fi’s good now. Ok, here goes. I hope.” The little telescope began to pivot around, its motors whirring softly. The blue foam finger purred down from the zenith and swung toward the east. It came to rest at last, the motors falling into silence with the finger aimed at the front door of a bungalow across the street.

“That ain’t a star,” Dan said.

“That’s where Sirius would be if we could see it. It’s only just barely risen. I guess we need another star.” PJ tapped on the tablet. The telescope went into motion again. “The second-brightest star in the sky is Canopus.”

Dan made a face. “What dipshit would name a star Can o’ Pus?”

“It’s ancient Greek.” The foam finger again came to rest, now pointing down into the dirty snow beside the front walk. “Named after Menelaus’ navigator. It’s below the horizon. I don’t think we can see it from here.”

“Not if we’re lookin’ in the goddam dirt.”

PJ was pinching and spreading an area on his tablet that might have been a star map. “We need to skip the next three. I don’t see how to skip stars in this app.”

“I coulda gotcha an iPad for ten cents on the dollar, but no…”

PJ’s voice was resolute. “It’s Android or nothing. I only use closed systems when somebody’s paying me.”

Sensing that an argument was being held back while they watched, Rob nodded to both men and headed for the little house-church’s front steps as quickly as Suzy’s spike heels could manage. The front door was ajar. Taped to the wood below the leaded glass lights and the Robert Lenz icons was a hand-lettered sign reading:

“Come in! There is always room at Christ’s table!”

There was muted clatter and muffled conversation from the little kitchen at the back of the house, and the smells Rob would expect at one of Chicago’s famous North Side ethnic restaurants: sauerkraut, onions, orange zest, melted butter, baking bread, cinnamon, fried fish, mushroom soup. Rob hung Suzy’s coat on the peg behind the door and shook off his own, thinking that he also smelled pickled herring and the sharp tang of horseradish.

Between the last pew and the bungalow-church’s front windows was a long folding table close-set for eight. The chairs were simple folding chairs with much of their pale green paint worn away, and the tablecloth was rough white linen with tattered edges. The tablecloth seemed lumpy somehow. Rob leaned down and saw yellow-green straw peeking through small holes in the cloth. The plates were simple white china, and although the utensils were silver, they were not all the same pattern.

Mother Sherry blundered down the hall from the kitchen, edging past TV trays bearing crock pots and electric skillets. She held a cardboard box of plastic wine glasses.

“Hiyee! We’re so glad you could make it! Merry Christmas!”

From down the hall, Mrs. Przybysz’s voice was crystal clear: “It’s not Christmas yet!”

Mother Sherry leaned forward and lowered her voice. “It’s Mrs. Przybysz’s night, really. I’m still trying to figure out what all the, uh, traditions are about.” She cocked her head toward the front door, and (presumably) Deacon Dan and PJ searching for the first star of evening. “Dan found fresh hay somewhere for under the tablecloth. Mrs. Przybysz said it all had to be green, and he spent this morning picking the dead stalks out of it one by one. Those catfish fillets you’re smelling were swimming around in our bathtub until Dan cleaned them after lunch. You should see our kitchen. Boy.”

She launched off around the corner and began placing plastic wine glasses beside each plate. Rob and Suzy threaded their way up the hall, Rob resisting the temptation to lift each lid along the way to catch a little more of the delicious smells that hung above them. Suzy was an excellent cook, and he was hardly a stranger at good restaurants. Still, the fare of his daily bachelor life ran heavily toward peanut butter and microwaved bratwurst. To be invited to this sort of home-cooked feast was not an everyday thing.

As they approached the kitchen, they got the impression that Mrs. Przybysz was having telephone conversations with three or four people at the same time. Once they rounded the old wooden door, they realized that she was quite alone.

“Mona, look, I told you last year, cinnamon ain’t what it used to be. The crap I get at Jewel you have to throw in with a shovel.” The old woman held no phone. She was turning sizzling fish filets on a large pan on the stove. Her apron was pulled tight, and her hair was up under a lace cap. When she spoke, she was looking at the counter to one side of the stove. “Vietnam? Like hell I’ll use spices from Vietnam. My nephew died there. Look him up. You’ll get an earful.”

Abruptly, Mrs. Przybysz spun to one side and lifted the heavy glass lid from a stock pot. “Thanks, Virginia. You’re better than a timer.” She peered into the pot. “This still looks thin to me. Whatcha think?” For a second or two there was silence. Rob blinked. It almost looked as though a smiling woman’s face had appeared for a moment in the roiling steam rising from the pot. “I know, I know. Lowfat sour cream just doesn’t do the job. It was on sale. My mistake.” Mrs. Przybysz set the lid aside and tapped some flour into the pot from a measuring cup. She plunged a long-handled wooden spoon into the pot and stirred. She glanced briefly out at the deepening darkness outside the kitchen window. “We don’t have half an hour. The boys will spot the gwiazdka any minute now and everything had better be done.” The wooden spoon paused. “Unsweetened yogurt? I think we have some here. Will that work? Hmmph. Ok.” The old woman crossed to the careworn refrigerator and began rummaging around on its shelves.

Mother Sherry trudged up the basement stairs into the kitchen, a bottle of wine in each hand and a third tucked under her arm. She edged around Mrs. Przybysz and handed one bottle to Rob. “I keep praying for a miracle: another hundred square feet in this place. God created the whole universe from nothing. How hard could it be to give us a little more nothing?”

Mrs. Przybysz pushed past Mother Sherry while tearing the foil seal from a yogurt cup. The wooden spoon was soon at work again in the steaming pot. “God’s working on it. I told you that last year. Give Him some time.”

Rob heard the front door open and close, and feet shaking off snow. “We got it! Scapular! Right over the light pole!” Deacon Dan stomped his way up the hall, triumph on his battered face.

PJ shook his head. “No. Not ‘scapular.’ Capella. Alpha Aurigae.” The young man waved the tablet in the air as he pressed into the kitchen. “Right ascension five hours sixteen minutes. Declination forty-six degrees. Approximately. But close.”

Mrs. Przybysz laid the wooden spoon down. “Gwiazdka. The first star of evening. Good work, boys. Now go wash your hands and help me carry food.”

Bishop Hughes stepped into the kitchen from the sacristy, in a black cassock with a purple stole. “My friends! Welcome again! Veni Emmanuel! As the prophet Nehemiah told the Hebrews: ‘Eat fat, drink sweet wine, and send portions to those who have nothing, for this day is holy to our Lord!'”

There was a half-empty can of lard on the piled-high kitchen table. Rob looked down at the bottle Mother Sherry had handed him. Mogen David Concord Grape. Yup. Nehemiah could relax: St. JJ’s had it covered. Wigilia supper could now begin-if the community could somehow squirm their way out of the tiny kitchen.

Trouble with the Messiah’s Handle

On the 10th of December, I declared Christmas Music! I yanked the general music mix thumbdrive from my car’s USB port (a car with a USB port…there’s something I didn’t predict back in high school!) and replaced it with the Christmas Mix thumbdrive. I know some of the stores have been playing Christmas music since Labor Day, but I don’t do that. 30 days and that’s it. Two weeks before Christmas is plenty soon enough, and we don’t end Christmas celebration on December 26th. Why constrain Christmas music time? Easy. I don’t want to get tired of it. I’ve talked about this before: Do Christmas too much or too long, and it ceases to be special.

And there’s that wonderful first few days when you hear songs you haven’t heard for almost a year (at least if you stay out of Target and Wal-Mart) that have in some wonderful fashion become new again. Loreena McKennitt’s “The Seven Rejoices of Mary” brought tears to my eyes, which can be an issue when you’re trying to merge onto the 101 beltway. And that wonderful cover of “I Heard the Bells” by Ed Ames, especially the kicker line, which in Ames’ bottomless canyon of a voice gives me chills and then makes me want to cheer: “God Is Not Dead Nor Does He Sleep.”

I added one this year, as I do most years. John Rutter’s “Angel’s Carol” came on our classical station, and I instantly liked it. Zoomed over to Amazon, paid 99c, and it was mine. That’s how music is supposed to work. Shame it took us so long to get there.

Not all Christmas music appeals to me. Jazzy stuff, well, no. Santa Claus stuff, yuck. Frank Sinatra, don’t get me started. “I Wonder As I Wander” has always troubled me. Not sure why. There seems to be a back-current of despair in it, and I absolutely cannot abide despair. Ditto “The Coventry Carol,” with a melody like something you’d sing at a bad funeral.

And so to my big sort-of-a-complaint for today. KBAQ plays classical Christmas music and does a good job of it. They’re particularly fond of “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” from Handel’s Messiah, and I like it too, especially the cover by Glad. When it comes up on my Christmas mix thumb drive I sing along. Good, high-spirited, affirming, all the stuff I really really like. Until we get to this part:

…and his name shall be Wonderful;

His name shall be Counselor;

His name shall be Mighty God;

The Everlasting Father…

BZZZZT! Hold on there. We’re talking about Jesus here, and I’m a Trinitarian. Jesus is not “the Everlasting Father.” Yes, I know, the verse is taken from Isaiah, written long before we had a clear handle on the Trinity. It still sticks a little, especially in a Christmas context. Ahh, well. Prophecy is hard. Isaiah was doing the best he could, and nailed all the rest of it. I’ll give him that bit, and assume God the Everlasting Father won’t be annoyed if Handel’s Messiah gets the Messiah’s handle a little mixed up.

Nor will I. I save my annoyance for those insufficiently infrequent moments when I’m in a store somewhere and they start to play “Santa Baby.” Please take that song and stuff it up the chimney tonight. Then light a nice fire, the hotter the better.

It’s turning out to be a marvelous Christmas. Don’t forget the Geminids tonight. And sing along with those Christmas songs. That’s what they’re there for.