Winners of the Colors of the Holidays Contest

Prose – 1st Place – Ann Browning Masters – “Holly”

Prose – 1st Runner Up – Diana Graveman – “Star of Wonder”

Poetry – 1st Place – Thornton Blease – “Lights and Angels”

Poetry – 1st Runner Up – Megan Dalziel – “Spirit of the Season”

Prose – 1st Place – Ann Browning Masters – “Holly”

  Christmas Eve morning before daylight, he stood at the foot of their bed and watched her sleep. Then he leaned over and lightly touched her toes, their forever signal that he was about to leave the house. This was the time for her to pop up to tell him anything she had forgotten in their drowsy discussion the night before. But she didn’t; she slept on in the faint digital light from her clock. Well, he thought, I won’t be gone long. Their dog Em lifted her head to look at him from the end of the bed, then squirmed back into a tight circle.

John Holly looked into the kids’ bedrooms before he walked down the staircase. He wasn’t surprised that Tony apparently hadn’t arrived yet from college. Had the boy taken almost everything with him? The room was spare and unlived in. Anna’s room had more of high-schooler essence, but it was neater than he remembered it usually being. And where was she? Surely Charlotte would have mentioned their daughter staying over somewhere so close to Christmas? His gut told him everything was okay, so he made the squeaking trip downstairs.

They had laughed about their It’s a Wonderful Life home since their first walk through the fixer-upper. He had finally fixed the newel post, but no matter what he had done for over 25 years, the stairs still squeaked. At first, they slept in what became his office downstairs. As children arrived, they rehabbed the upstairs bedrooms. When he came down into the living room, it felt warm and comforting now, even though darkness still hid the mantel, Christmas tree, and sweeping arch that led into the dining room.

He stopped in the kitchen, halted for a moment by the highchair that glinted in the appliance lights. What’s the deal with this booster seat? Duh, he said to himself. The kids are grown. It’s Christmas Eve. Tony is bringing his wife Lynn and their two children for dinner tonight. If they were lucky, Anna would grace them with her college self.

  This is heaven, he had joked last Christmas Eve to Charlotte. The grey clouds opened to shoot rays of morning sunlight into the bay the one time he talked her into his Christmas Eve shopping run. This is not heaven, she heaved right back at him. It’s me post-foot surgery and desperate to finish Christmas shopping with a procrastinating man. They both laughed, then became quiet on their way to the mall. He knew she would admit the magic of it if he pressed her, but he also knew she was crazy with holiday details in her injured state. It had been bad timing to break an ankle Thanksgiving weekend for a woman who loved Christmas as much as she did.

After years of funny, and mostly inexpensive, pieces of holly jewelry that had made the kids howl, he had hoped that day to find a serious holly treasure that she would begin to wear every Christmas. But postponing the search was okay; he’d rather have her with him this morning. Next year, he thought.

A 4th of July craft and gem show brought him the gift he wanted: a small pin with three emerald holly leaves and three ruby holly berries at the base. He couldn’t believe that Charlotte hadn’t noticed it as they moved from booth to booth. And he was thankful the craftsman had taken all his cash as a down payment and agreed to hold it for him so that he could figure out a way for it to not show up on a credit card.

Christmas wrapping paper was easy to find. He knew where Charlotte kept everything Christmas in a closet with everything Easter, Halloween…you name the holiday. Then he had hidden the pin in a drawer false bottom that he’d created in his workshop. Despite Charlotte and the kids’ best efforts, no one had ever located where he kept some outlandish holiday and birthday surprises.

But this morning when he stood in front of the cabinet, he couldn’t get the drawer to open. His hands didn’t work. Am I having a stroke? he questioned. He bumped his body against the cabinet to see if he could loosen the drawer. Nothing. He looked around and was shocked. Had they had been robbed? Where were his tools? Where was the child’s rocking chair that he had planned to finish before Christmas?

Stunned, he walked outside and sat on the workshop steps. Then he remembered making a fast run to the hardware store for nails to hold up the tons of patriotic bunting Charlotte had bought for Labor Day. He couldn’t seem to think beyond that.

He felt a rumble, a vibration that he didn’t recognize. What the heck was a garbage truck or delivery van doing on his street this early? What’s with that light?

Oh. God, help me. He stood and looked back to where he knew Charlotte’s best gift rested. 

John Holly always put a little something for Charlotte on the Christmas tree. The Christmas after he died, there was a present front and center on a fir branch! Charlotte cried out when she saw it and tears began to roll down her face. She caught the confused glance between Tony and Anna and mistook it for their connivance. She began laughing through her tears, which mystified them even more. Loving children that they were, they pivoted quickly, simultaneously conjecturing that their sibling had braved the squeaky steps to leave the gift. Lynn never forgot her goosebumps from that morning.

Tony and Anna, and Charlotte, decided to accept what had to be a graceful lie from one of them. To not would be incomprehensible. And Charlotte wore the holly pin every Christmas until it was passed to the eldest granddaughter, who faintly, sweetly, remembered her aunt, parents, and grandmother crying, laughing, and hugging over a small gift on the Christmas tree.

Prose – 1st Runner Up – Diana Graveman – “Star of Wonder”

On December 21, 2020, the day of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, a small crowd gathered on a sandy gulf shore and watched the sky for “the Christmas Star.” Astronomically speaking, we were waiting to see the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, an event that occurs just once every twenty years. This year’s spectacle would be extra special, according to NASA, because it had been nearly 400 years since the two planets had passed so close to each other, and almost 800 years since they had aligned at night, allowing nearly everyone from across the globe to see it. And although the giant planets would in reality remain hundreds of millions of miles apart, from Earth they would seem to converge and appear as one bright shining star. But this would not be a modern phenomenon. In fact, a 17th-century astronomer named Johannes Kepler once noted that it may have occurred similarly in 7 BCE and could have, in theory, been the source of the Star of Bethlehem.

Now, more than 2,000 years later, media broadcasts had hyped the planetary conjunction as a unique holiday experience, and as the sun dipped lower in the sky, people gathered outdoors in groups with picnic chairs and coolers. Some had telescopes or binoculars; some set up blankets on the sand or in truck beds. One family had dressed their small children in Christmas finery and had a camera on a tripod ready to capture the event for a photo card.

We all awaited the coming of the star—what I imagined for some would be a symbol of hope and a sign that our lives were about to get a little bit better, that the world might begin to heal from the angst and anxiety of a global pandemic, that we all might begin to move away from the political divisiveness and rage that seemed to divide us as a nation and as a world. For others, the appearance of the great conjunction ­­was simply an excuse to get out of the house and safely greet neighbors from six feet apart, sharing in the experience of stargazing and marveling at the mysteries of space.

For me, the occasion was a little bit of both: a unique celestial happening that sparked the imagination and signaled hope in spite of my weary cynicism. The year had not been kind to us; injuries, illnesses, and months of isolation had taken their toll on my family. But next year, 2021, was going to be “our year.”

Although my expectations were low for achieving a clear photo of the aligned planets, I kept my iPhone ready and passed the time by snapping a few photos of my adult daughter, her long blonde hair lifted gently by the gulf breeze as the sky darkened. At about thirty minutes past sunset, dozens of us fixed our gaze on the southwestern sky and pointed our cameras upward. And there it was—perhaps not as spectacularly bright as predicted but nonetheless remarkable—prompting satisfied sighs and gasps to ripple through the small groups and families gathered along the shoreline. “It’s the Christmas Star!” squealed an adult whose sleepy child seemed less than enthused.

The crowd was quietly reverent for a few moments, and then most of the skywatchers packed up their vehicles and eased their way into the line of departing traffic. The Great Conjunction of 2020 would still be visible for a few days, but the excitement was over.

Christmas Day passed, and probably like many other people, I held on to the tentative hope for a better new year than the one we’d just experienced. But three short months later, my daughter, who had just celebrated her 32nd birthday in December, was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer and began the treatment that would define 2021 for our family. It would not be our year.

Reflecting now on that winter solstice evening, I realize I was right: my iPhone camera did not capture the magnificence of the great conjunction. However, it revealed something just as sublime—my beautiful daughter and her long, shining hair backlit by the heavens. Those golden tresses are now many months gone due to the ravages of chemotherapy, and I am admittedly heading into the holiday season with a bit less exuberance than in years past. But my daughter is stronger and wiser for having leaned into the wind that has not yet subsided, and I’m more resilient for having traveled this arduous journey beside her. Was the Great Conjunction of 2020 an astronomical event or a promise of hope for a weary world? It probably depends on one’s perspective, religious faith, or science background. But this I know: I will remember it forever as the “Christmas Star,” come to remind us that hope is still within our grasp.

Poetry – 1st Place – Thornton Blease – “Lights and Angels”

Lights and Angels

Twinkling lights on the tree and tiny angels

in rows on crooked shelves. Angels

keeping memories off his mind. Angels

holding vigil in the silence.

Time stretches and thickens with silence,

something the angels forgot to mention

to the man collecting memories.

He, with little else to do with his memories

but wait and count and breathe and start

to wonder why perfectly good words

will stop making sense when in the mind too long.

The holiday lights will start to flicker before

he can finally scratch

another mark across the day,

across the month, across the year.

Across the anniversary

when too many of those he loved

 had become part of the twinkling lights and tiny angels,

part of his Christmas memories. He watches

the lights and the angels, though he suspects

they’re mere craftsmanship and hold no purpose

 for memories or memorials.

But the bells—

The music—

symbolize the season. And

call on him to celebrate his memories.

Poetry – 1st Runner Up – Megan Dalziel – “Spirit of the Season”

Gray clouds of grief and societal dissension 

Loom around our guarded hearts of late.

The collective spirit needs intervention 

So these dark clouds can dissipate.

Perhaps this is chance for all around

To seize an annual opportunity;

Bells and choral voices sound

As we seek out human unity.

This season’s joy, gifting and gratitude 

Need not belong to a single faction.

Beauty of monumental magnitude 

Is born from loving action.

A grand glow born in this yearly twilight 

Illuminatinates things we all can share.

There are likenesses we can highlight 

Though the world remains unfair.

It’s in the bittersweet feeling of the first year 

After a loved one departs suddenly.

The fact that they can be felt here

In memories shared by family.

Loved ones gather, children laugh and grin;

It is precious in all people and places.

Beacons of human spirit within

Shining on all kinds of faces.

Lights, whether twinkling around the tree,

Or born from ceremonious candle flame

Still fight darkness, still help us see,

And reflect in our eyes the same.

Though each holiday is sacred in its own

This golden thread lacks denomination.

The unifiers of love, peace and hope

Join all children of creation.

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