Many media outlets have declared that the Hallmark family of channels are the most watched channels in November and December because of their plethora of family-friendly holiday movies.  While many of the movies offered during those 60-some-odd days are ones that have been recycled from previous years, each year Hallmark debuts 20-30 new movies celebrating the season.  Many people (my husband included) denigrate these movies because they are somewhat predictable.  Granted, most of the time the plots are pretty similar, but that doesn’t stop people from watching them, myself included.  The annual marathon of holiday movies is over now, but the “lessons” these movies offer are worth noting.

Things I have learned watching Hallmark Channel Christmas movies:

  1. If your name is “Amy,” you are the first wife, AND you died of cancer.
  2. “North Pole Adjacent” is EITHER a veiled reference to Santa’s workshop OR it is a small town that does Christmas so perfectly that Santa would feel perfectly comfortable hanging out there in his down-time.
  3. Never try to travel during winter weather if you are single and there is a single, good-looking member of the opposite sex anywhere in the vicinity. You will have car trouble or snow will cancel all the flights.
  4. If a kid makes a “special Christmas wish,” it will come true before the end of the movie.
  5. Members of royal families from obscure or fictional countries in Europe will never reveal their family backgrounds unless forced.
  6. EVERYONE has Christmas traditions that include going caroling, making gingerbread houses, and baking cookies.
  7. You can’t bake without getting flour everywhere, including the tip of your nose.
  8. Even if it is Christmas eve, if you don’t have a tree, someone will get one for you and provide you with all the decorations you need.
  9. Those gifted ornaments will instantly have significant meaning for you for the rest of your life.
  10. Single moms are single because their horrible ex-husbands abandoned the family just before Christmas. Single dads are single because their wives died tragically. Either way, they have never really gotten over it.
  11. Stringing popcorn is WAY easier in the movies than it is in real life.
  12. No one adds alcohol to their eggnog because everyone (including the kids) drinks it at any time of the day.
  13. Hot cocoa is magical and can cure anything, including a broken heart.
  14. If there is an annual community celebration, it will be in danger of being cancelled for this or future years because of lack of funding, planning, or interest. Luckily, one or two people will be able to generate enough money and interest to save the town festival for years to come.
  15. The federal law that allows cancellation of any contract valued over $25 within the first three days of signing does not exist, or terms of the contract have been written such that this law can be ignored.
  16. Main characters who are angels will be able to become human again if they fall in love during their mission, but only if they are young and beautiful. Angels played by actors who are 40 or older will always be angels.
  17. If someone is searching for long-lost family, the people helping them search will turn out to be the missing relatives they are looking for.
  18. That man in town who “looks like” Santa is actually the real Santa.  Somehow, he has managed to get time away from the North Pole to visit Vermont or Chicago or Seattle or wherever the story is taking place.
  19. If you tell Santa your wish, it will come true.
  20. If a main character starts the movie already in a relationship, that relationship will be with Mr./Miss Wrong.  Their true soulmate will be a plot complication they meet in the first 20 minutes.
  21. Service members who are deployed oversees will always be able to make it back in time for Christmas.
  22. It will always snow in time for Christmas, even if you are living in a warm-weather place like southern California or Florida.
  23. The most preposterous things can happen because of Christmas magic or Christmas miracles.
  24. Even if there is an unexpected blizzard that suddenly hits the area, there is enough food in the refrigerator and pantry to feed a small army, including a whole turkey and gallons of fresh milk.  And everyone drinks Folgers.
  25. If you get a promotion at work within the first 15 minutes, you have the wrong job and will find your true calling soon.
  26. For every 5 minutes of programming, there are 4 minutes of commercials, and no movie lasts more than 1 hour 30 minutes without commercials.
  27. If you are stuck somewhere with your ex, it is because you are actually soulmates and this is your second chance to get it right.
  28. Everyone has a fireplace.
  29. Impromptu Christmas weddings will go off without a hitch.  The couple will be able to secure a dress, a tux, a venue, a minister, a caterer, a florist, a professional photographer, and musicians, all within 48 hours, if necessary.
  30. The only good Christmas tree is one you cut yourself.

This list could go on and on.  The themes of family, togetherness, reflection, and opportunity run strong through Hallmark’s movies.  Mistaken identities, true love, and fate will be fodder for Christmas movies as long as there is Christmas, and Hallmark has found a way to capture it all.  They have a stable of actors that rivals the classic Hollywood studio system, and those same actors appear in multiple movies and series for Hallmark all year long.  They also have a variety of locations that reappear over and over.  There is one particular L-shaped, red brick house with a round turret that has been used in countless Larry Levinson movies.  If I didn’t know better, I would think it was Levinson’s own house.  Regardless, the similarities that run through Hallmark’s movies are consistent from movie to movie.  If some people feel that this makes these movies boring and predictable, so be it.  Nevertheless, for many of us, the “Countdown to Christmas” is part of our own holiday tradition.  So here’s to finding your true love or your true calling and getting everything your heart sincerely desires, even if you don’t realize at first that’s what you really want.

And, if for some reason, you missed this year’s Hallmark Christmas movies, you can always go back and watch some of them on their new streaming service.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

In trying to write a religious autobiography, I first had to answer the question of “Who am I?”  The simple answer is white, female, Christian.  But where is the fun in that?  The more complex answer begins with a single word: rebel.

On my mother’s side of the family, we are all Irish, and I do mean all.  My grandparents were 13th cousins who met at a family reunion.  This vast and sundry assortment of Simpsons have all been, for the most part, Protestant, going all the way back to County Tyrone in the 1700’s.  There was, of course, one cousin, Peter Gallagher, who broke his mother’s heart when he married a Catholic girl and converted, raising the children as Catholic, but we don’t talk much about him.  When our Simpson ancestors emigrated to the (brand) New Country in 1793, they joined or helped form Presbyterian churches in the communities they chose as their homes.

My mother’s family came to the United States by way of Pennsylvania, settling mostly in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.  My maternal grandmother lived her entire life in Peoria, IL.  My grandfather was born in Minneapolis, MN, but moved to Peoria when he was less than a year old.  Even though they were both raised in Peoria, they attended different churches.  My grandfather was raised in First Congregational Church, while my grandmother and her family all attended Arcadia Avenue Presbyterian Church.

On the other side of the aisle, as it were, are my father’s family – the original rebels, the Germans.  Both of my paternal grandparents came from good German stock, who brought their German Protestant traditions with them when they emigrated.  Following the German Reformed Protestant tradition, my grandparents became part of the United Church of Christ.  While my mother’s family came to this country when it was just starting out, both of my grandparents on my father’s side were first-generation Americans.  Their parents were born in Germany, but chose to come here in the late 1800’s to make better lives for themselves.

These two family groups – my mother’s family and my father’s family – were from communities a little over 100 miles apart.  They only met because my father chose to attend university in the town where my mother grew up.  If it had not been for that one choice, I may not have been here.

My father’s family settled in northern Illinois, in a small town about 30 miles west of Rockford, IL, called Freeport.  While my father was one of only two children, his father was one of nine children and his mother was one of seven.  All of these aunts and uncles lived in and around Freeport, so there were always plenty of German Protestants around.  My grandfather helped establish St. John’s United Church of Christ in Freeport, IL and was one of their founding members.  There are still people at that church who fondly remember my grandparents and tell wonderful stories about their contributions to the church.

But now I would like to digress, and tell another story.  The reason for this will become clear shortly.  In 1800’s, Peoria, IL was a booming little metropolis, filled with churches of all denominations.  This story focuses on two in particular – First Congregational Church and Second Presbyterian Church.  First Congregational had built one of the physically largest churches in the city.  It was an imposing structure filled with intricately carved black walnut décor, and it was referred to as the “Protestant Cathedral”.  Second Presbyterian was also a gorgeous church, built entirely of hewn stone, designed by the same architect who built the famous Water Tower in Chicago and the infamous prison in Joliet.  In March, 1936, an overnight fire destroyed First Congregational, burning it to the ground.  The parishioners were left without a church home.

The economic devastation of the Great Depression had taken its toll on all the churches in central Illinois.  Rumors of possible war in Europe were also having a negative effect, and the churches were struggling.  Even before the fire, both First Congregational and Second Presbyterian had been in various informal talks with other neighboring churches about consolidation or merger, due to financial constraints and low attendance.  When First Congregational burned, Second Presbyterian graciously offered to share its building – both denominations would worship there, albeit in separate services at different times.

Soon, members of both congregations began to notice some “cross-over” – members of the “other” church coming to their worship service.  Informal, and later, formal talks about the two denominations merging began.  There was a lot of disagreement, but it was not until the influential ladies of the churches got together that things were finally ironed out.  An agreement was struck that the two churches would enter into a formal Federation – an agreement to worship together while still maintaining their denominational independence and connection to their larger, national denominations.  Thus, First Federated Church of Peoria was born in 1937.  This church is half United Church of Christ, half Presbyterian.  It was this church that my maternal grandparents started attending shortly after they got married, as it was the closest Presbyterian church to their new home.  This is the church my mother and uncle were raised in.  It was this church that my mother was attending when she met my father, who had come to worship there because it was one of the only UCC churches in Peoria.

So, now you know where I come from. I was raised in this weird casserole church (where they serve casseroles at potlucks) where nobody really knows what you are (Presbyterian or UCC) unless you get voted into a position on a board for something because all the boards are still split up 50/50.  But that is only part of the story.  At the beginning, I included the word “rebel”.  Yes, I have the genetic Irish rebel DNA (we who will rebel against just about anything just for the sake of rebellion, at times) and the German rebel DNA (God Bless Martin Luther, the original rebel), but I also have my own, personal rebellious streak.

I was raised a child of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when if you didn’t at least question authority, there was something wrong.  I was also raised with a love of drama and high theater.  And, in my late teens, went through one of those phases (as teen girls are often wont to do) where they are searching for meaning and depth and insight.  So, after attending a spiritual self-awareness weekend sponsored by the Catholic Church, of course I began the process of conversion.

Prior to this, I had attended Sunday School, Vacation Bible School (both as a camper and a counselor), participated in Junior High Youth Groups and High School Youth Groups, and even gone on Mission Trips with my peers at First Federated.  The only problem was, when I graduated high school at 17, there was nothing there for me.  I was expected to show up at church and just sit there and listen for an hour and soak it all in.  I had spent years going to church and being active in church, whether it was playing parable games in Sunday school or doing team-building exercises during Youth Groups.  As young people in the church, we had been learning to live our beliefs, not listen to lectures on them.  I was bored out of my skull.

Attending Mass is Catholic Calisthenics.  You kneel.  You sit.  You stand.  You sit.  You kneel again.  You get up and walk around.  You kneel some more.  You sit.  You stand.  You go home.  It is active.  And it is interactive.  They talk, they you talk.  There is a back and forth.  I could go to Mass and feel like I was a part of something.  And it wasn’t just the superficial things like that.  I will never forget sitting in a darkened stone church in Chapel Hill, NC at 3:00 p.m. on Good Friday, waiting for the Mass to start, wondering what was taking so long.  Why were they running late?  It was so quiet.  And then, from the back of the church, hearing the devastating sound of a 16p nail being driven into a 6”x6” piece of wood.  The echo of the hammer ringing off the nail and the horrible squeak as the nail split into the wood again and again.  To this day, I get chills down my spine and tears in my eyes.

I continued to attend the Catholic Church as long as I lived in North Carolina.  When I moved back to the Peoria area, I found the Bishop here was a lot more conservative than the one I had been under in NC and I found the messages I was hearing did not seem to be as warm and as embracing here as they had been there.  Not finding a parish that made me happy, I came “home” to my Presbyterian/UCC roots.

I have been back at First Federated for almost 20 years.  My husband and I were married there, his two children from his first marriage were confirmed there, and our son attends Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, and our church’s LOGOS program.  I have taught Sunday school for the past several years and have been a VBS volunteer for the past six years.  I have served on our Board of Deacons, visiting the ill or shut-in, and have worked with our Missions committee on various fundraisers for community outreach programs.

Along the way, I have tried to be a student of the world of religion.  I have attended Rosh Hashanah services with friends several times, as well as Yom Ha Shoah services (including serving as a name reader) several times.  The Islamic Center recently held an Open House and Peace Rally at the Mosque, where they welcomed anyone who was interested to come in, learn about their culture, take a copy of the Quran, and meet members of their community and ask questions.  I took my son.  I explained to him why he had to sit in one part of the room and I had to sit in another.  I explained why we had to take our shoes off.  I have several friends who are Witnesses and talk “Bible” with them on a regular basis.

In my journey through this life, I have come to understand that “God” is known by many names.  He may be God or Jesus or Yahweh or Jehovah.  He could be Allah or Buddha or Mohammed.  He could be the Rainbow Serpent or the Great Manitou or the Tao or the Kami or any of the Hindu gods. It is not for us to decide or judge what is right or what is true.  What works for one person works for them because it works for them.  That doesn’t mean it will work for anyone else in the same way.  Spiritual journeys are, by definition, personal.  You have to go them alone.  You may walk and talk with others along the way, but it is what is in your own heart and mind that you must settle down with at the end of the day.

First Federated Church History Part 1

First Federated Church History Part 2

First Federated Church History Part 3

First Congregational Church – Peoria, IL

Second Presbyterian Church – Peoria, IL

St. John’s United Church of Christ – Freeport, IL


My son is nine.  About a week ago, he discovered reading.  Not that he didn’t know HOW to read, just that he would not choose to spend his time reading for pleasure.  There was always something more important, more entertaining, more exciting to do than read.  And then, he found The Book.  We all have one.  That one Book that made us stop, pause where we were, what we were doing, and sit down to read.  The Book that took us to another land or another world.  The Book that taught us how to let our imaginations roam free in a world described on paper but created in our own minds.  The Book that will ALWAYS be better than the movie.  The Book that we may return to time and again, not because we have forgotten what happens within the pages, but because we remember the sheer joy we felt the first time we entered that realm.  The Book is different for each of us, but the results are the same.  It is that one Book that turns us into Readers.

For my son, it is a book that takes place within the Minecraft realm.  The characters are all taken from the game, but the adventure they go on is an original story created by the author.  He took a couple of days to read the first one in the series, and then blew through the next two in a day each.  And he shows no signs of slowing down.  Luckily for both of us, there are several more books in this series, and a couple of other series by the same author.  He will not run out of things to read.  But watching him become absorbed into the world of his imagination began to stir some nostalgic feelings in me.  I remembered those days of bumping into things and people in my own house because I would be trying to walk and read at the same time.  Nights spent under the covers with a flashlight, WAY past bedtime, because I just wanted to read “one more chapter“.

One wall of our living room is lined with bookshelves, our own little home Library.  It is about 15 feet long, 8 feet high, and packed with books.  Some are kids books, no more than 32 pages, where every character seems to be a talking animal that figures out a way to solve the problem they are confronted with, usually with the help of their friends or a kind adult or parent.  Others are textbooks from my and my husband’s college years.  Most are novels, biographies, and other “adult” books that we have picked up over the years, read maybe once or twice, and then they have found a permanent home on the shelf.  But one end of the shelf is devoted solely to my Book Collection.  Books that have been handed down or given to me by parents, grandparents, or other relatives.  These are books that have been part of the fabric of my life for as long as I can remember.  The Nancy Drew books I was given as a child when my mother signed me up for a “Book of the Month” club.  The Cherry Ames books that were my mother’s (along with the other, missing volumes I have acquired thanks to ebay).  The small, slim, red volumes of Shakespeare’s love plays – “Romeo & Juliet” and “Antony & Cleopatra” – that my great-grandparents (teachers, both) gave to one another as tokens of their affection.  Books that were published long before I, my mother, or (in some cases) even my grandmother were born.  Some of these books I have read over and over again.  Some I have never opened, and never will, but can’t seem to part with.  Some are in such fragile, delicate condition, that I keep the book, but if I want to read it I find an electronic version I can download to a tablet.  But, in all of them, I have found friendship, solace, comfort, adventure, wisdom, joy, fear, longing, and happiness.

I stood in front of this shelf today, just perusing the titles.  Seeing books I hadn’t thought about in a while brought a smile to my face.  Each title evoked images in my mind of setting, characters, or action.  Nancy trapped in the back of the moving van.  Plato, standing in his robes between marble columns, dispensing wisdom for the ages.  Sherlock working out the intricacies of a mystery while playing the violin.  Jo corralling a herd of boys, trying to instill in them the lessons and values that will make them Little Men.  Lincoln, in a distinctively un-presidential tent, within earshot of the battlefield, struggling over whether the choices he is making are the right ones.  Wynken, Blynken, and Nod sailing in their wooden shoe.  And Dorian, standing tall, looking as young and handsome as ever, while the portrait in the attic evolves into a contorted, grotesque version of its former image.

All of these books have helped to fashion who I am today, and I am grateful for them.  I could spend hours talking about books, but right now, I have to go – Cherry is about to board the train for nursing school.

The house had been in the family for over 50 years.  It was the house everyone gravitated to – for birthdays, holidays, weddings, funerals, and any other family gathering you can think of.  There had been days of joy and days of sorrow, days of ordinary and days of extraordinary experienced within those walls.  As a young family, they had bought the house when their oldest child was 10.  They moved in and proceeded to make the house a home.  The children grew to adulthood, but kept coming back to the house.  Soon, grandchildren began making their way through the house, running up and down the stairs, playing hide and seek in the closets, stealing cookies from the kitchen.  Years passed, and the grandchildren, too, grew into adulthood.  And the house remained the hub for the ever expanding family.

The house had been in the family almost 15 years already when she was born.  It was the first home she came home to from the hospital.  Over the next 35 years, it would be her home again and again, as she came back to live within its walls multiple times.  The house itself was a source of comfort, but the others who also lived there made it a home filled with love, understanding, and forgiveness.  She lived there with her mother and grandparents, and then later with just her grandparents.  She helped take care of them, and they helped take care of her in return.  She knew every inch of the house by heart, from the hidden storage underneath the basement stairs to the tiny eaves attic inside the closet.  She had dropped clothes down the 3-story laundry shute, and also toys (much to the grandmother’s chagrin).  She knew where everything was, even the hidden things, and helped keep all the secrets of the house.

Eventually, the grandparents grew “old”.  The grandfather began to have health problems, so she moved back in again to help.  When things got better, she moved far away, to another state, but the house was still her home.  When the grandfather died, she came back, and the house welcomed her.  When her world came crashing down around her and her marriage ended, she moved back in again.  Now in her 30’s, the house was again her home, but too proud to admit defeat, she didn’t stay long.  She got back on her feet, and moved out for the last time, with that arrogant confidence that the house would always be there for her.  Until the day it wasn’t.

When she found out the house would be sold, her biggest regret was not having the money to be able to buy it herself.  She, along with the other members of the family picked and chose the things they wanted to take with them to help preserve their own memories of the house and all the times they shared there.  She began to fill her own home with things that reminded her of the grandparents, of the times they shared, and the love within the house.  Once the house was empty, she wandered through the rooms, thinking about all the time she had spent in the house over the past 40 years.  She knew she would probably never be in the house again, so she took her time saying good-bye.

Over the next few years, she would occasionally drive by the house, sometimes alone, sometimes with others in the car.  If she had someone with her, she would point the house out and explain her relationship to it.  She would not stop, would not hesitate, but would continue on her way without giving any more thought to the house.  Then came the day the main road was closed, and the detour led her back to the neighborhood.

She was alone in the car, and had to stop at the stop sign across from the house.  In all the time that had passed since she had last been in the house, she had only thought of the house in the abstract, as a building with which she once had a connection, not as a home.  It had not been a home in nearly a decade, in her mind.  As she sat at the stop sign, looking at the house, she saw it.  A young girl, maybe 7, danced through her line of vision in the large picture window in the dining room.  The girl was smiling, laughing, having a moment, maybe even making a memory.  As she watched the girl disappear from view, it occurred to her that the house was as it had always been – a home.  It had been a home when she was a child, when she was an adult, and it was now a home to another little girl.  Another little girl who would grow up and have her own wonderful memories of the house, the home.

Cancer is a surreal creature.  It is sort of like a bus ride, and it doesn’t matter how or why you end up on the bus.  Once you are there, you are along for the ride until the end, no matter what that end might be.  Some days the ride is smooth, the weather is clear and you might even enjoy the scenery out the windows.  Other days, the bus seems to hit every pothole in the road, everything is stormy, and you don’t even want to open your eyes to look around.

We went to the doctor today.  On our last visit, he was all doom and gloom, talking about how much time my mother-in-law might have left, and how she would have to make a decision about whether or not she would want to resume chemotherapy treatments.  We spent five weeks agonizing over what to do, even through my father-in-law’s death, knowing that today would come and the answer would be expected.  Despite all the time and effort we put into preparing for that moment, none of us were ready for what happened next.

The doc came in, took one look at my mother-in-law, and began marvelling about how well she looks and how strong she looks and how well she is recovering from her broken hip.  He then went on to say how much he wants her to resume her treatments, even though he wasn’t going to do anything today due to a minor bacterial infection she currently has.  We asked about not doing treatment anymore, and he responded that not doing treatment wasn’t even an option at this time.  Same thing when we asked about getting Hospice involved.

Ironically, the doctor never seemed to notice how relieved my mother-in-law was when he told her she would not be getting a treatment today.  She hasn’t gotten to the place where she can come right out and admit it, but she spent most of the summer telling anyone that would listen how she hoped they wouldn’t make her do any more treatments.  The problem is that, on the one hand, she doesn’t want to die (who does?) but on the other, she doesn’t want to deal with all the side effects from the chemo again.  For the time being, it seems as though the decision is being taken out of her hands, which is probably the most relief of all for her.  Not having to decide is the most desirable choice for her.

So, for now, we will stay on the bus and keep looking out the windows.  Odds are that we will see some dark clouds ahead and the road will get rough again, but for right now it’s blue skies and easy going.  No matter what the journey brings, for now, we will continue the ride.