Christmas tree and Custom House clock-tower

Apparently I love this photo of the Quincy Market Christmas tree so much, I included it as the December image for both my 2015 and 2016 calendar. Every December, I pick 13 images from the previous year–12 months plus a cover–for a wall calendar I give to friends and family for Christmas, and this year I was so short of festive December images, I inadvertently recycled this one, which I shot on Black Friday, 2014.

Lit trees

As the days of December wane, I’ve been scrambling to cross things off my to-do list. December is the busiest time of the semester: I spent the first two weeks of the month commenting on essay drafts so my students could revise and submit their final portfolios, and now I’m in a mad dash to finish grading those portfolios before Christmas. Forget about my two front teeth: all I want for Christmas this year is to be done with grading so the real relaxation and recovery of winter break can begin.

Quincy Market Christmas tree

But before that, there have been other obligations: vet visits, routine car maintenance, and the holy trinity of Christmas shopping, Christmas wrapping, and Christmas cards. Family and friends know our so-called Christmas cards usually arrive around New Year’s, and those aforementioned wall calendars typically arrive sometime in January. As the days of December wane, my personal philosophy leans heavily toward “Better late than never.”

Keep Calm and Drink Up

This afternoon I submitted another batch of fall semester grades: four classes down, two to go. My next and final grade deadline is Thursday afternoon, which means I technically could spend Christmas day grading papers, but even my Inner Ebenezer isn’t that much of a Scrooge. I’ll be keeping my laptop OFF over Christmas, so here’s hoping you have a happy one. I’ll see you (and my remaining paper piles) when I’m back online on the 26th.


A twiggy tree clings to ornaments of frozen snow nestled among strings of ice-blue Christmas lights.

This is my Day Seventeen submission to a river of stones, a month-long challenge to notice (and record) just one thing every day. I’ll be posting my “stones” both here and on Twitter, where submissions are tagged as #aros. Enjoy!

Christmas window display

Now that Thanksgiving is past and December is imminent, I’ve begun listening to Christmas music on my weekly drives between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I have a handful of CDs I listen to during the Christmas season, including Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night” and my friend Frank Wallace’s “Joy: Carols and Songs.” But the recording I listen to time and again during December is the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Christmas window display

When most folks my age remember the soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the song they’re most likely to remember is “Linus and Lucy,” the upbeat jazz number that is the Peanuts’ theme song. “Linus and Lucy” is catchy and infectious, with a tempo that causes beagles to dance…but it’s not my favorite song on “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The reason I play this particular CD so often during the month of December has nothing to do with dancing beagles but with a relatively downbeat song called “Christmas Time Is Here.”

There are two versions of “Christmas Time Is Here.” The vocal version features a choir of children singing slow but sweet lyrics:

Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

Christmas window display

The instrumental version of the song, however, is the one I love…and what I love about it isn’t the fact that it’s sweet but the fact that it’s sad. Like all the Charlie Brown television specials, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” focuses on a lonely, loser kid; as I’ve said before, “As a ‘weird kid,’ I always related to Charlie Brown with his loser ways and ‘blockhead’ inferiority.” The instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here” captures the melancholy mood of being the one weird, lonely kid who sees Christmas as being a bittersweet time.

The instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here” sounds like a Christmas song, but it doesn’t sound like a children’s song. That’s what I like about most of the tunes on “A Charlie Brown Christmas”: they sound like songs grown-ups would listen to. To my ear, “Christmas Time Is Here” is the kind of song you’d listen to if you found yourself alone in a bar on Christmas Eve, a bartender and a stiff drink your only companions. “Christmas Time Is Here” acknowledges that the holidays are a sweet and happy time for most people…but it also admits that the holidays have a melancholy edge for folks who don’t have families, or are separated from their families, or are otherwise alone or outcast.

Christmas window display

What I don’t like about the Christmas songs that are played incessantly in shopping malls and on radio stations right about now is their forced frivolity. Yes, the holidays can be happy, but must they be? What about all the folks who aren’t happy over the holidays, or what about happy folks who occasionally like a break from general merriment?

Shopping mall Christmas songs always strike me as having an ulterior motive, as if they are designed to keep people manically happy, happy, happy so they’ll keep shopping, shopping, shopping. Songs like “Christmas Time Is Here,” on the other hand, allow room for bittersweet introspection. The song isn’t outright depressed or depressing, but it admits that grown-ups might face the holidays with mixed feelings as they remember with nostalgia their own childhoods and face the loneliness, disappointment, and other downbeat emotions that Christmas can inspire.

Christmas window display

I have nothing against dancing beagles, but this time of year more than ever, I find myself relating to the kind of kid whose best friends include that aforementioned beagle and a sensitive, blanket-toting philosopher. Charlie Brown is the kind of kid who chooses the puniest, most pathetic-looking twig for his Christmas tree just because it needs a home, and “Christmas Time Is Here” is the kind of song you’d listen to, stiff drink in hand, while you decorated that kind of tree.

Today’s photos come from the always-lovely Christmas displays at Creative Encounters in downtown Keene. Enjoy!


My fall semester grades are submitted, my Christmas cards and packages have been safely sent their merry ways, and a fresh batch of online classes has been prepped for the New Year. Despite today’s mild temperatures, we’ll have a white Christmas here in Newton thanks to last weekend’s snowstorm, and I’ll be stepping away from my laptop for a much-needed break this weekend. Here’s hoping your holiday is restful and happy.

Get your kicks

Surely it says something about my priorities that the best photo I took during Sunday’s rainy Patriots game was an image of high-kicking, Santa-suited cheerleaders. Why settle for “ho, ho, ho” when you can have “rah, rah, rah”?

Click here for a photo-set of appropriately blurry images from Sunday’s gray and drizzly game. Enjoy!

Christmas display

Usually, I have an attitude of “bah humbug” when stores debut their Christmas displays before Thanksgiving. In my mind, displaying too much Christmas too early simply pushes the hand of time, and that’s never a good thing. Instead of pushing consumers to think about Christmas months before the first snowflake falls, I personally believe businesses and their customers alike should follow “a predictable and leisurely seasonal succession, with September bringing fall foliage, October bringing pumpkins, November bringing turkeys, and December bringing Santa.” No need to rush into a season that will arrive on its own eventually.

All that being said, I make a blanket exception for the Christmas shop windows at Creative Encounters, an art-supply and frame shop on Main Street in downtown Keene. Over the years and in various seasons, I’ve taken lots of pictures of their window displays. The windows at Creative Encounters aren’t large, but they are always colorful, interesting, and attractive. Just as the mannequins at Miranda’s Verandah always catch my eye, I always find myself admiring whatever is on display at Creative Encounters.

Christmas display

The Christmas windows at Creative Encounters debuted last week, more than a week before Thanksgiving, and I for once am not complaining. On these dark and increasingly gray days, I’m grateful for the spot of color and sparkle these well-designed windows offer. This year’s display at Creative Encounters features a three-sided kiosk that rotates before a wall with several framed mirrors, an arrangement that highlights the various products on sale while also providing a moving, changing display of colors, shapes, and reflections. It might sound strange for me to admit that I stood several moments so I could see the colorful kiosk cycle through its various arrangements, but I wasn’t the only one. Before I could approach the window to snap these shots, Reggie and I held back for about five minutes while a woman and her daughter stood transfixed in front of the display, watching the artfully decorated kiosk turn around and around, offering a kaleidoscopic allure of light and color.

Sniff & shoot

One way to celebrate a holiday is by condemning those who celebrate differently than you do. On Christmas day J and I drove Reggie and Melony the beagle into downtown Boston, where we left the car at a Back Bay parking meter and took a several-hour stroll down Boylston and Newbury Streets. J and I wanted to see the sights and snap photos; Reggie and Melony wanted to sniff and pee. To each her or his own, right?

No sooner did J and I pass Copley Square on Boylston Street than we encountered a slow-moving truck emblazoned with Christian condemnations. "Christians in the Bible never celebrated Christmas," block letters on the truck proclaimed. "How can you honor Jesus with lies about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and drunken parties?" To drive the point home, this Hellfire-Mobile had a loudspeaker with which the driver preached his message of condemnation to passing pedestrians. Why greet random strangers with a friendly "Merry Christmas" when you can shout "You're going to hell" instead?

You all are going to hell

Christians in the Bible never drove trucks with loudspeakers and damning slogans stenciled on the sides. How can you honor Jesus with drive-by words of hate? J and I have been around separate segments of the evangelical block: whereas I was raised Catholic and was “born again” as a college undergraduate, J was raised Catholic and became a Baptist as an adult living and working in Georgia. Currently, neither one of us attends church, but we aren’t antithetical to Christianity, either; we just don’t drive around with Christian slogans emblazoned for all to see. If choosing to take a quiet walk with your dog and digicam constitutes a damnable offense–if what God wants His followers to do instead is drive around yelling at people–then I guess J and I should get ready for a warmer climate. Let it be done to me, Lord, as you say.

Luckily, not all of the characters J and I encountered on our Christmas dog-walk were as “colorful” as the Drive-by Christian. Instead, some of the most tolerant folks we encountered were themselves plastic.

Mannequins and reflections

One claim I often hear around the holidays–one shared by Christians and non- alike–is that Christmas is too commercial. I guess it’s fitting, then, that J and I spent a good part of our afternoon shooting dummies who were born to be shot: the empty-eyed mannequins who peer with aloof gazes through the reflective windows of the boutiques on Boston’s upscale Newbury Street.

Mannequins and reflections

If you’re looking for an embodiment of Everything Wrong with Commercialized Christmas, a Newbury Street mannequin would be a likely candidate. Empty-headed, a mannequin exists only to be an object of desire; displaying the wares of modern consumer culture, a mannequin is the poster-child of style over substance.

Mannequins and reflections

Mannequins, after all, are created to reflect what we as consumers presumably crave. According to mannequins, we prefer our icons skinny and bloodlessly white, their limbs inconceivably slender. Attenuation, it seems, is what catches our attention; judging from mannequins, we want to hang the clothes we seek from sleekly skeletal forms who are ghostly and ethereal.

Mannequins and reflections

Still, I can’t bring myself to dislike, much less condemn, the mannequins of Newbury Street. If we lived in a world where people bought only what they needed, families exchanged hand-made rather than store-bought gifts, and nothing was marketed, we’d certainly consume less…but where would we go window-shopping?

Mannequins and reflections

Just my fond memories of a Catholic childhood make it unnecessary for me to reject that part of my upbringing even if I don’t currently practice it, I harbor no ill will toward mannequins and the marketers who manage them. As a child, one of my favorite pre-holiday activities was leafing through the pages of department store catalogs, where I’d see all sorts of toys I’d dream of but never own. Why do we automatically assume that seeing an object of desire means we’ll necessarily acquire it?

Mannequins and reflections

Of the countless times I’ve gone window shopping on Newbury Street, I’ve actually bought things there only a handful of times and at a handful of stores. If anyone should be shouting condemnations here, these mannequins should ask me when I plan on paying them for the visual pleasure they have continually provided.

Mannequins and reflections

I have no doubt Christmas is too commercial…and yet, when I try to find flesh-and-body people to condemn for their overly consumerist ways, I can find no likely suspects. The flesh-and-blood people I know are simply trying to live their lives regardless of how “simple” I consider those lives to be.

Mannequins and reflections

Long before Christmas, an acquaintance privately criticized another who was buying a popular plastic toy for her son at a big-name toy store. “When my children were young,” my acquaintance explained, “I never shopped at Store X, and I certainly didn’t buy my children Toy Y.” Implied was an assumption that civilization is going to hell in a handbasket because some parents are buying brand-name toys like Barbies, Legos, and Transformers at big boxes like Toys R Us, Target, and Wal-Mart. If our children play with plastic toys bought from plastic stores, at what point will society itself become plastic?

Mannequins and reflections

And yet, I myself played with Barbies and Legos…and had Transformers existed and been on sale, Santa would have brought me those, too. Did my parents love me any less because they selected my mass-produced toys from the clearance tables at K-Mart? Is the world today cheaper, more disposable, and more materialistic because my blue-collar parents bought what they could afford where they could instead of giving me hand-made, free-traded, earthy-crunchy artisan wares bought from from independent sellers?

Mannequins and reflections

We live in a nation where you have the right to worship where you please or not at all, and you similarly have the right to proclaim your beliefs (religious or otherwise) from a slow-moving truck if you so please. To each her or his own, right? And yet, what troubled me about the acquaintance who prided herself for not buying Toy Y at Store X was her very pride: we each have the right to decide what, where, and whether we spend our cash, but isn’t it downright pharisaical to condemn another parent for her or his choices?

Mannequins and reflections

What bothers me about the “Christmas is too commercial” rant is how it, like a drive-by Christian’s sermon, is typically directed toward other folks. I can’t recall ever hearing a concerned citizen say “My family’s holiday is too commercial,” which is unusual considering the amount of credit card debt the “typical American” carries. Instead, the “Christmas is too commercial” spiel always seems to be directed toward other Americans, not me: the problem with society, this rant suggests, is that other parents are buying too many presents of the wrong kind from the wrong places. The source of this presumably pervasive problem, in other words, always seems to be that elusive wraith, Someone Else.

Mannequins and reflections

J and I didn’t set a price limit on the gifts we exchanged; we simply tried to find gifts we knew the other would like. For J’s birthday, I spent what some would deem Too Much on tickets to go to a New England Patriots game; for Christmas, J spent I-don’t-know-how-much to transform my dog into art. Was either gift Too Expensive, Too Commercial, Too Whatever?

Mannequins and reflections

In my mind, only J and I (and perhaps Jesus himself, if He’s keeping an eye on our checkbooks) can decide. As for me, I pay my credit card balances in full each month, but I love my friends who don’t; I occasionally shop at Target, Wal-Mart, and the like, but I love and respect those who choose otherwise. To each her or his own, right?

Mannequins and reflections

One way to celebrate a holiday is by condemning those who celebrate differently than you do, and the same applies to shopping. It’s easy to target the upscale shops of the world’s Newbury Streets as being the source of modern materialism; it’s easy to see and condemn folks who pay top dollar for designer clothes while the Politically Correct of the world choose overpriced organic veggies over name brands. When it comes to both shopping and salvation, maybe we all should see to our own souls rather than shouting about the sins of others. As the Bible itself teaches, it’s better to tend to the log in your own eye than sweating over the speck in another’s.

A striking likeness

It’s not everyday when someone sneaks around behind your back to orchestrate the perfect present. J initially struggled to figure out what to get me for Christmas, and perhaps my giving him Patriots tickets for his birthday didn’t make matters any easier. But about a month ago, he claimed to have the Perfect Idea. “You’ll never guess” was all he’d say about the gift-in-the-making; all I knew was at several points he surreptitiously mailed envelopes I wasn’t allowed to see.

Smile, Keene

Those envelopes, it turned out, were addressed to artist Bren Bataclan, whose “Smile Boston” project I’d blogged when it took a road trip to Keene, NH after the flood of October, 2005. I didn’t claim the smiley-faced painting I found at the Keene State College student center back in 2005, figuring that someone else needed a smile more than I did. But the first time I visited J’s house, I smiled to see a Bren Bataclan painting in his living room: not one he found, but one he’d bought. On the secret checklist of “good traits” and “bad traits” every woman keeps when she first meets a man, I silently checked one in the “good” column: “Supports local artists.”

I knew Bren Bataclan painted whimsical, brightly colored characters; I didn’t know that he also accepts commissions to paint cartoon-like pet portraits. Now that I’ve seen Reggie’s cartoon alter-ego, I have to say the pairing is perfect. Reggie’s personality has always been goofy, and his orange poofiness is a perfect subject for painted whimsy. Bren perfectly captured the big, silly fluffiness of a dog he’s never met, thanks in large part to the various photographed portraits J took and secretly sent in those envelopes I wasn’t allowed to see.

In my opinion, the Perfect Present is one you never even thought to ask for, something you wouldn’t have bought yourself but you can’t imagine living without once you’ve received it. J’s commission of this portrait perfectly qualifies. “Loves me, loves my pet” is one of those good traits I’ve silently checked on my secret checklist of good and bad traits, and this year’s Christmas present merely highlighted that fact. It’s not everyday that someone transforms your beloved baby into a whimsical work of art.

Thanks to J for photographing Reggie posing alongside his portrait, which is still wrapped in plastic to prevent him from licking his likeness.

Extension corded

It’s beginning to look a lot like…extension cords. J tells me they keep the lights wrapped around the towering spruce tree in downtown Waban year ’round, and he’s probably right. But I don’t remember seeing these extension cords on previous dog-walks, so I’m guessing they don’t keep Festive Holiday Tree plugged in all year, just during the Festive Holiday Months of November through February-ish.


Yes, February-ish. I met J last January, and the first time he gave me directions to his house, Festive Holiday Tree was a notable (and conveniently illuminated) landmark. Newton is a largely Jewish suburb of Boston, and Waban is a largely Jewish section of Newton. This means there aren’t many Christmas trees in Waban, but Festive Holiday Trees are a different story. If you keep your Festive Holiday Tree lit until sometime in February, no one can accuse you of celebrating Christmas at the expense of other sectarian holidays. Instead, Festive Holiday Time, like Festivus, is a celebration for the rest of us.

Plugged in

Apparently it takes a lot of extension cords to keep a Festive Holiday Tree lit. In the past, I’ve used the metaphor of laptop power cords to refer to the way different religions tap into the same unnameable power source, and I suppose that applies to Festive Holiday Trees as well. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Buddha’s Enlightenment, or any of a number of light-focused winter festivals, you have to light your fire somewhere. It’s heartening to know a nice Jewish neighborhood like Waban makes room for both a Festive Holiday Tree and a Catholic born-again Buddhist who believes in truly eclectic holiday decor.

Every year, I think “they” (i.e. the Powers That Be who put up and plug in Festive Holiday Trees) are getting an earlier start on the season…but then I realize it’s later than I think. While I’m still getting used to the fact that it’s November already, the rest of the world is zooming into Thanksgiving. If Thanksgiving is here, can Festive Holiday Time be far behind? A quick check of my blog archive shows I posted a similar picture of the Festive Holiday trees in Keene on–you guessed it–November 18 last year. Whether “they” live in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, “they” have an impeccable sense of timing.

So whether your Festive Holiday Tree is a ginkgo with a light-lined trunk or a spruce with bulb-bedecked branches, ’tis the season for everyone.

Towering, with extension cords