Guest Writer Cindy La Ferle on “Why I Still Love Halloween”

TODAY, guest writer Cindy LaFerle visits ReadTheSpirit again with a delightful, new, holiday-themed story:



From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties,
And things that go bump in the night,

Good lord, deliver us!
A Scottish saying

Halloween always stirs a delicious caldron of memories.
Baby boomers are a nostalgic bunch, and most of us can recall at least one costume we wore in grade school. Wearing yards of pink tulle and a homemade foil crown, I dressed up as Miss America when I was in the first grade in 1960. And who could forget trick-or-treating in packs until our pillowcases were too heavy to lug around the block?

While the holiday suffered a lull in the 1970s, the “season of the witch” now competes with Christmastime as the biggest party season of the year. And with all due respect to religious groups refusing to celebrate it, I never thought of Halloween as inherently evil.

In fact, I always felt a little sad for one of my son’s grade-school pals, whose born-again Christian parents refused to let him wear a costume, attend Halloween parties, or go trick-or-treating
with the neighborhood kids on Halloween night. While I respected the family’s religious devotion, I disagreed with their conviction that the holiday’s pre-Christian history was a threat to their faith. (I wanted to remind them that Christmas trees and Easter baskets also boasted pre-Christian, pagan origins. But I kept my mouth shut.)

British and Irish historians are also quick to remind us that “All Hallows Eve” did not originate as a gruesome night of devil worship—though I’ll be the first to admit that American retailers, film producers, and merchants who cash in on Halloween are guilty of adding their own mythology—and gore. Regardless, in my view, what most of us seem to enjoy about the holiday is the creativity factor.

Stepping over age limits, Halloween extends an open invitation to play dress-up. It inspires us to raid attics and local thrift shops for the most outlandish outfits we can jumble together. If only for one magical night, it gives us permission to drop the dull disguise of conformity.

For flea-market junkies like me, Halloween is reason enough to hoard pieces of vintage clothing and jewelry that, by all rights, should have been donated to charity ages ago. My husband now refers to our attic as “the clothing museum,” and with good reason. Friends who have trouble rustling up an outfit will often call for help during dress-up emergencies. (“Can I borrow one of your medieval jester hats for a clown costume?” is not an unusual request.)

Over the years, in fact, I’ve collected so many crazy hats that we have to store them in a large steamer trunk behind the living room couch. Those hats get the most wear near Halloween, when even the most reserved engineer who visits will try on a pith helmet or a plumed pirate hat and wear it to the dinner table.

And why not? Historically speaking, the holiday has always been a celebration of the harvest, a madcap prelude to the more dignified ceremonials of Thanksgiving.

Halloween’s deep roots weave back more than 2,000 years to the early Celts of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It was originally known as the festival of Samhain, according to Caitlin Matthews, a Celtic scholar and author of The Celtic Book of Days (Destiny Books). The festival, she explains, marked the end of the farming season and the beginning of the Celtic new year. Lavish banquet tables were prepared for the ancestors, who were believed to pierce the veil between the living and the dead on the eve of Samhain. It was also time to rekindle the bonfires that would sustain the clans in winter.

“In the Christian era,” Matthews writes, “the festival was reassigned to the Feast of All Saints; however, many of the customs surrounding modern Halloween still concern this ancient understanding of the accessibility of the dead.”

And we can thank our Irish immigrants for the jack-o’-lantern, which reputedly wards off evil spirits. This custom evolved from the old practice of carving out large turnips and squash, then illuminating them with candles. The term jack-o’-lantern was derived from a folk tale involving a crafty Irishman named Jack, who outwitted the Devil.

On cool October nights, when the moon is bright and leaves scatter nervously across the sidewalk, a bittersweet chill runs up and down my spine. I like to recall a favorite quote from Ray Bradbury, whose affection for Halloween surpasses even mine: “If you enjoy living, it is not difficult to keep the sense of mystery and wonder.”

And I think of my beloved Scottish grandparents, who left their exhausted farms in the Orkney Islands to begin new lives in United States in the 1920s. I recall the knee-cracking highland folk dances they taught me, and the silly lyrics to their rural old-country tunes. I remember their hard-won wisdom, and how much I still miss their love.

Like my Celtic ancestors, I’m moved to take stock of my own “harvest”—how much I’ve accomplished throughout the year, and how many things I’ve left undone. My to-do list is yards long. There are parts of the world I haven’t seen; stories I haven’t written; debts and favors to repay. I marvel at the mellow beauty of the season, which has always been my favorite, but also feel a little sad that one more year is drawing to its close.

All said and done, I like to think of Halloween as the big good-bye party we throw for autumn’s final weeks. And a toast to the year ahead. All in good fun.


Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published essayist and author of Writing Home, an award-winning collection of essays. Her writing has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, Catholic Digest, The Detroit Free Press, Michigan BLUE, Reader’s Digest, Victoria, and many other publications. She enjoys posting inspirational quotes with her photography on her blog, “Things that Make Me Happy” Cindy visited ReadTheSpirit earlier with a story about her appreciation for Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

Season of Gratitude: An inclusive celebration of Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving? A feminist plot foisted on President Lincoln by the prominent editor Sarah Hale to augment Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July as national holidays for American unity?

Thanksgiving? An Anglo-Protestant tradition from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony as the dominant national narrative?

Thanksgiving? A Judeo-Christian community event based on the liturgies of harvest blessing and Holy Communion?

Thanksgiving? An American Christian holiday, along with Christmas and Easter, defining our religious heritage and identity?

Thanksgiving? A somewhat meaningful pause for Extreme Travel between the growing outlay of money for a macabre Halloween and the extravaganza of Christmas shopping?

Here in Belfast, Maine, nearly 7,000 of us cling to the mid-coastal Penobscot Bay. As we pause to ponder the November holiday, we probably define ourselves a little bit by all of the above.

But the local minister’s association decided this year not to have a typical ecumenical worship-and-music service for Thanksgiving. Each church, we thought, could have its own meaningful gathering, but the wider community is being invited, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, to a Season of Gratitude afternoon potluck supper at the local high school gym.

We might draw 60; we might welcome 200. We’re trying this for the first time in Belfast. We were inspired by the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit initiative from last year. And, we decided to reach out to people who we feel are a part of our community—but we never really see, much less share a common meal.

Inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s call for national unity, not necessarily in churches, we are talking with churches who aren’t usually involved in ecumenical dialogue, community service organizations and half-way houses, Buddhist meditation groups, ethnic minority fisherman, and just plain secular people.

Humility, gratitude, shared life, stories, food and presence. That’s our goal.

Lincoln would often make a meal of a single potato or an apple. We will feast more, and the local Co Op and grocery store have made generous contributions. Lincoln also said that even in hard times, like the Civil War, the Most High God does wondrous things, and we also need to be penitential of our national perversities. That’s what he tried to do on that first annual Thanksgiving 151 years ago.

We’ll let you know how it goes.


Worried about your body? A spiritual makeover actually works.


Do you dread walking down the checkout aisle at the supermarket? Do the magazine covers make you angry or anxious? Young women trapped in a downward spiral of low self-esteem trying to measure up to unrealistic images of thinness and beauty may want to try something more effective than perpetual dieting:

A spiritual makeover.

Worship, prayer and a strong sense of the importance of religion can help teens and 20-somethings with eating disorders overcome feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, new research indicates.

A study of nearly 2,500 young women published online in the Journal of Religion and Health adds weight to other U.S. and international research suggesting religion can be a countercultural force in promoting healthy body images.

Being part of a community that lifts up the message “God made me, and he doesn’t make anything bad” appears to help moderate the impact of the “body loathing” promoted by popular culture, said sociologist Andrea Henderson of the University of South Carolina, lead researcher in the study.

“Intuitively, it makes sense,” she said.

Several studies have found growing rates of eating disorders from excessive dieting to bulimia and anexoria nervosa among young women. The focus that females — as early as age 6 — place on body image can lead to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem as well as taking a physical toll.

Henderson and sociologist Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas San Antonio analyzed data from nearly 2,437 women ages 18 to 26 participating in the 2001-2002 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Women with eating disorders had lower self-esteem and higher levels of symptoms of depression. But for all women, more frequent religious attendance and a strong prayer life were significant predictors of lower rates of depression. Those who considered religion important in their lives and prayed regularly also had higher levels of self-esteem.

Young women with eating disorders, such as binge eating and extreme weight-loss efforts, were more likely to have poorer mental health the lower their levels of religious involvement, the study found.

Religion appeared to have a particularly strong effect on self-worth, researchers found. Attendance, prayer, a sense that religion is important and spiritual guidance all were associated with women who have eating disorders feeling better about themselves.

Research on religion and body image is still developing, but other studies also have indicated that faith may provide a safe haven from a secular culture that encourages women to fit into a body type that comes naturally to only about one in 20 females.

In one study, some college women were exposed to positive scriptural images such as the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit, then shown pictures of thin fashion models. Those women were far more likely to feel good about their appearance than college women in a control group who read neutral texts before being asked to look at the pictures of models.

“It seems plausible that women’s beliefs and feelings about their looks could become more positive from reading a set of affirmations … that espouse a vision of one’s body as divinely loved and accepted,” Bucknell University researchers reported in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

A separate study of 111 college women conducted by researchers at Hope College found students who were highly committed to their faith were more likely to report higher body esteem and body satisfaction.

In a University of Hong Kong study of 124 Asian college women, 23 percent of participants with no religion reported being extremely dissatisfied with their weight; just 6 percent of religious women expressed the same dissatisfaction.

In one sense, the research takeaway for congregations is to “continue what you’re doing” in terms of providing an environment where young women are valued for who they are, not what they look like, Henderson said.

In addition, women’s groups may find it of value to offer special ministries to young women. Clergy also may want to consider emphasizing theological images of the “beauty” of individuals transcending appearance in their sermons, Henderson said.

Beyond Appearance: A New Look at Adolescent Girls, a book published by the American Psychological Association, notes that “environments that enhance girls’ self-esteem in general and body esteem specifically … appear to increase resiliency against unhealthy eating patterns.”

Churches, synagogues and mosques can provide some of those places, the research suggests.

As one participant in the University of Hong Kong study put it:

“My identity is in Christ and that is what matters most. I am happy with myself and what I look like, mainly because of my faith.”

DAVID BRIGGS is one of America’s most respected journalists covering religion. In addition to his many awards and honors, David writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA)—and this column was published with permission from his ARDA series. David also is executive director of the International Association of Religion Journalists.

The Saloma Furlong interview on ‘Bonnet Strings’

Millions of Americans, once again, are thinking of driving through “Amish country” this year. We’re smiling at the nostalgic sights we’ll see, already tasting the traditional foods—and many are reading Amish novels (romances and mysteries, too) or tuning in made-for-TV Amish movies.

This is a perfect time to get a copy of Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, the latest memoir by Saloma Furlong who was featured on two very popular documentaries about the Amish on PBS: American Experience: The Amish and American Experience: Amish—Shunned.

As Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, in preparing for this week’s Cover Story with Saloma Furlong—I had to wait in line to read Bonnet Strings. The book vanished the moment it arrived at my home office. My wife had grabbed it! She had enjoyed seeing Saloma on PBS, had read Saloma’s first book Why I Left the Amish: A Memoir, and was eager to read this more romantic second volume about the twists and turns as Saloma fell in love with a young toymaker.

Want further confirmation that you’ll enjoy this book? Mennonite author Shirley Showalter (who we featured in an earlier author interview) writes about Bonnet Strings: “This story includes all the elements of a good romance—attraction, danger, secrets, beautiful scenery, obstacles, culture clashes and old-fashioned chivalry. You will cheer for Saloma and the sense of self God placed in her heart.”

Also: Don’t miss the moving dedication page at the front of this book. This time, both David and Saloma wrote chapters (Saloma wrote most of them, but David contributed a handful of key chapters from his perspective). So, the book opens with two real-life love letters—a single sentence from Saloma to David: “It is because of your understanding and quiet perseverance that our love not only survived but also thrived.” And from David to Saloma: “Your truth shines a light on the path to eternal love.” Now, come on: Who can resist a real-life story like this?


If you have seen Saloma in the PBS films, then you know that she’s a marvelous baker. You’ve seen her preparing those delicious “Sticky Buns” that look so good—you’re hungry when the film ends. Well, Saloma closes her new book with some classic family recipes: Today, she has given us permission to republish her Sticky Buns recipe (which includes her recipe for Mem‘s White Bread). In her book, the full recipe section includes her Pie Crust Made Simple, Olin Clara’s Peach Pie, My Favorite Apple Pie—and a link to find even more recipes. You’ll also be passing around her favorite foods for years to come!


DAVID: Amish or not, many people will be drawn into your story by the first paragraph of your new memoir. You write:

It was a mismatch from the start—being born with a nature that just did not fit into my Amish culture. For as long as I can remember, questions had bubbled up from within. I tried to emulate other girls who were quiet and submissive. I’d practice folding my arms in the demure way of Amish girls, looking down in front of me instead of looking directly at others and not talking. That never lasted more than five minutes before I’d forget and become myself again.”

A lot of people today feel they don’t fit in. They want to “become themselves,” to borrow your phrase. As millions of Americans know from seeing your story in two different, feature-length PBS documentaries: You finally left the Amish community. But, I’m wondering: Today, do you consider yourself Amish? Or “formerly Amish”?

SALOMA: I’m not sure I can be definitive in answering that. I am more of “a formerly Amish writer.” I don’t think of myself as “an Amish writer” because I’m not a practicing Amish. But, I’m still very Amish in my being.

I find myself serving as an accidental interpreter of the culture from which I emerged. There are so many misunderstandings about the Amish! I constantly find myself trying to clear those up. I get so many questions from my readers and from audiences when I go out and speak about this. I feel like I am constantly trying to right misrepresentations.

Often, I’ve felt like a lone voice in the wilderness until these two films came out. Callie Wiser was the producer of the first film that was shown on PBS and the director-producer-writer of the second film. She’s an amazing filmmaker because she’s such a careful observer and she understands things that many others miss. Thanks to Callie, those two films clear up a lot of misunderstandings, I think.

DAVID: Your first book’s title makes it clear that you left the Amish and, when people read that book, they realize that you grew up in a household with some tragically unresolved issues involving two men in your family. Eventually, we learn, some outside assistance helped with that situation—but you already had decided to leave. You left partly because of those men and primarily because your personality was in conflict with Amish ways.

Now, in the latest PBS film, viewers nationwide saw you helping another young woman struggle with her decision on whether to finally leave the Amish—or return to her traditional family. I suspect a lot of our readers are wondering: So, do you like and admire the Amish? Or, are you more of a critic of the Amish?

SALOMA: I am both. I like a lot of things about the Amish and I often find myself defending them, if I hear people wanting to demonize them. However, when people are trying to romanticize them, I point out some of the reality that doesn’t fit with the stereotypes. You could say: I complicate people’s idea of the Amish.

The Amish are people—they are human and they have their faults—but they also have some very important things to offer to the world, things like being more mindful about the technology we so easily adopt. They place a very high value on community.

DAVID: But you would change a few things about Amish culture if you could, right?

SALOMA: If I could change one thing about the Amish, it would be to allow the education of children beyond the 8th grade. When Amish young people graduate at 13 or 14 years old, they’re just too young to make it on their own in today’s world. Even if they got just a couple more years of schooling, then they’d have a prayer to make it on their own. But the Amish don’t want to talk about it. They say: God will take care of us.


DAVID: Well, let’s turn to the strong appeal of this second memoir: It’s got good food and real romance. At this point, publishers understand that those millions of American tourists who love to drive through “Amish country” every summer also are grabbing Amish romances and mysteries to read, when they get back home. In book publishing, it’s often said: “Put a bonnet on it, and it’ll sell.”

While a lot of books have bonnets on the cover, these days—most are fiction. Your book? It’s the real deal. It all happened.

SALOMA: We hear a lot of feedback from readers of this new memoir that they would like to see this made into a movie. David and I would love to see that, although we haven’t heard from any filmmakers, yet.

DAVID: As Shirley Showalter says in recommending your book, this is a compelling love story because it involves dramatic clashes and obstacles along the way. In real life, love isn’t easy—and your love story certainly was a roller coaster.

First, you left the Amish and fell in love with this toymaker—the young man who is now your husband David. But that love took a painful turn! You wound up almost breaking David’s heart by going back to the Amish and leaving him behind. He was so loyal that he kept pursuing you, despite some huge barriers you threw in front of him.

There’s a scene in this new book, on a day when David actually showed up and tried to reconnect with you. You had decided to go out in a canoe for the day with a sister and some friends. As you’re going out onto this reservoir in the canoe, he shows up and hands you a piece of paper that he thinks will be very meaningful to you. I won’t reveal to our readers what was on the paper. But, instead, you drop the paper into the water. Now, that’s a scene from a movie. I can see that fragile white paper sinking into the dark waters of the reservoir.

SALOMA: When we started talking about movie scenes, I knew you were going to bring up that moment in the book! And, of course, I can still see that in my memory. Memories, like that day when I dropped David’s paper into the water and tried to reject him again—those memories become so vivid because they’re the experiences that shape who we are as people.

DAVID: I hope that many readers buy your book, enjoy your story, make some wonderful baked goods from the recipes in the back of your book—and we wind up seeing your story on the big screen. Do you have a third book in this series of memoirs in the works?

SALOMA: Well, it all depends on how successful these first two books are. Right now, my husband is bringing in the bread and butter to keep our household going. In this book, the publisher has included a few chapters written by David, but I’d like to write more with him. The problem is that his work is so time consuming that, right now, he doesn’t have time to write.

DAVID: Meanwhile, keep baking! We’re going to share your recipe for bread and sticky buns. They’re so good!

Care to read more?

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Review: Don’t miss ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’

WHERE TO SEE ‘THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK’—Visit PBS’s webpage for this documentary to learn more about its background and viewing options. PBS provides links to local listings. Since this is a well-researched documentary, the PBS website also offers educational resources. There’s even a step-by-step curriculum for science teachers to reproduce some of the then-groundbreaking lab techniques used by New York City’s first scientifically trained medical examiner and his staff.

You also could opt to purchase the DVD from Amazon, titled American Experience: Poisoner’s Handbook. Eventually the film will reach Netflix. Your local library may choose to stock a copy.


REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Why should people of faith care about a bone-chilling documentary on the early history of forensic sciences in criminal investigations? Why should you help us to highly recommend this PBS American Experience debut to your friends, small group, congregation and community?

First, we all should promote this film because it’s flat-out fascinating. The two-hour documentary takes us back to the dawn of real-life CSI—the birth of modern homicide investigation and the spawn of thousands of hours of prime-time TV dramas. So, the first reason to see this PBS offering is: You’ll enjoy it!

Second, by the end of this two hours, the real pioneering triumph of the film’s two main characters will become crystal clear: They proved to New York City and then to the entire nation that government must play a crucial role in scientifically investigating the vast array of potentially poisonous substances coming into our world—and protecting all of us, including the most vulnerable, from dangerous vultures. Most religious groups around the world hold human rights—caring for and protecting the vulnerable—as a sacred mission. The Poisoner’s Handbook is the true story of two men who fought against almost impossible odds to establish the government’s role in the science-based protection of public health.

Given the wall-to-wall prime-time status of CSI-style shows, you’ll be startled to discover that—before the arrival Dr. Charles Norris and his right-hand researcher Dr. Alexander Gettler—poisoners regularly got away with murder. There was no way to catch them. In 1922, 237 men and women died of fatal gunshots in New York City, but researchers believe nearly 1,000 died of poisoning!

The producers of this documentary have organized the two hours like a series of mini-CSI tales—all true stories. They begin with this new scientific team’s most puzzling early case, the 1922 death of an elderly couple in what appeared to be “a locked-door mystery.” I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing what they found.

Just as in the TV dramas, there’s even a recurring character, a woman accused multiple times over the years of what amounted to serial murders. And, yes, just like the TV series today, these early scientists head into the laboratory over and over again. Sometimes, they must devise new tests. Occasionally, they must exhume a body and look more deeply into the human remains.

In the second half of the film, Norris and Gettler tackle huge public-health issues. Viewing this in 2014, you’re likely to be startled by the official government position on what amounts to massive crimes against vulnerable people. Officials in New York City and Washington D.C. felt that these threats weren’t a part of their responsibilities, until Norris and Gettler joined the campaign to change their minds.

You’ll have a whole lot to talk about after watching The Poisoner’s Handbook. Bravo to PBS and The American Experience for kicking off 2014 with such a landmark film.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Dare to Downsize Christmas: Recovering its tenderness and hope

A NOTE FROM EDITOR DAVID CRUMM: The moment we read that Pope Francis ordered the Vatican staff to downsize St. Peter’s Nativity Scene, we knew that this prophetic pontiff was onto something!

Then, we read Francis’s recent Christmas message about recovering the “tenderness and hope” in this holiday season—and we knew we needed to publish a column about how to grab hold of the monstrous Ghost of America’s Christmas Present—and wrestle it back toward Francis’s kind of Christmas. In fact, the pope didn’t spend all that much time talking about Christmas in his message, which was published in an Italian newspaper—because he urgently wanted to talk about the plight of the world’s poor families. Now, that’s a pope!

THEN, we discovered Cindy LaFerle’s Downsizing Christmas, which includes a tip that sounds like what Francis must have told the Vatican staff this year about downsizing the Vatican’s huge Nativity Scene. The staff presumably was startled, but Francis must have told them something like: “I can decorate the way I want, and stuff the rest in the attic.” So, here is—with her permission—a Christmas gem of a column by Cindy LaFerle …

Downsizing Christmas


“We feel steamrolled by the sheer force of family tradition. The key is to take some control over the holidays, instead of letting them control you. … Most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings—they have family tension, melancholy, and dry turkey too.” From WEB MD

Christmas is my least favorite holiday, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it.

In newspapers across the country and in blogs throughout cyberspace, scores of fellow grinches are expressing their Yuletide angst. And you know there’s something to it when health and medical Web sites like WebMD publish serious articles on how to survive this stressful season.

My annual winter holiday dread has little to do with religion. In fact, at this point in time, Christmas itself has little to do with religion. Christmas has become a performance art; a commercially manufactured event designed to benefit our nation’s retailers. Even worse, it’s a form of emotional blackmail—cleverly repackaged with Martha Stewart trimmings.

Originally a pre-Christian Roman celebration known as Saturnalia, December 25th was converted to Jesus’s birthday celebration by the Roman Catholic Church. What started out as a rowdy solstice festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness has slowly evolved into a rowdy Christian festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness.

So there you have it. Just don’t accuse people like me of being sacrilegious for wishing the holiday would melt away quietly with the weekend snowfall. Regardless, as Garrison Keillor once said, Christmas is “compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all get through it together.”

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve come to believe about Christmas—plus how I’ve learned to cope with it and (sort of) enjoy it:

Giving to a favorite charity always restores my drooping holiday spirit. When the bah-humbugs start biting, there are two antidotes: (1) Roll up my sleeves and help someone who needs me. (2) Pull out the checkbook and make a donation to a good cause.

I remind myself that it’s not my job as a woman (or a family member) to make Christmas merry for everyone. Seriously, we all must STOP relying on women—usually the elderly—to keep cranking the Christmas Machine for us. Either we all contribute to the festivities—in any way we can—or settle for the holiday we get. Unless you’re still in college, you’re too old to hold your mom, your grandma, or your aunts totally responsible for your holiday happiness.

I resist the pressure to bake and I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it. I love to cook, but I’m not a baker. This is the secret to holiday weight loss. I even purchase pre-made pie crust for our Christmas morning quiche, and nobody seems to mind. My lack of participation in the annual cookie exchange doesn’t mean I don’t admire everyone’s Yuletide talents. Just not my thing.

When Christmas makes me sad or angry, I remember I’m not alone. I’ve grown more sensitive to the fact that many people are grieving losses (including death, health crises, and divorce) during the holidays. With its glaring focus on family unity, Christmas illuminates all the vacancies at the holiday table as well as any emotional distance that separates us from extended family. Talking with my friends, I’ve learned that almost everyone is facing some sort of holiday change and trying to make the best of it. Nobody’s having loads more fun than anyone else.

I can decorate the way I want, and stuff the rest in the attic. Every year, Doug banks our fireplace mantel with evergreens, pheasant feathers, twigs, and twinkle lights. It’s a set-designer’s fantasy that delights everyone who sees it—especially me. That tradition is a keeper. But over the years I’ve pared down to a few sentimental treasures, including a sterling silver bell (dated 1985) that was given to us by a dear friend when our son Nate was born. In recent years, Doug and I have lost interest in putting up a Christmas tree—which baffles some holiday visitors. We reserve the right to change our minds in the future.

I do something ordinary, with people I know and love. Forced merriment is not my idea of a good time. So I have to question the need to cram our calendars with “special events” between December and January. Why not spread the love throughout the year? Likewise, I enjoy giving gifts—but not under pressure and not all at once. What touches me more are the simple, reliable, consistent efforts made all year ’round. I’m nourished by un-fussy gatherings with dear ones who don’t expect me to turn myself into a pretzel just because it’s Christmas.

I’ve lowered my expectations and welcomed the new. Nobody will ever throw a Christmas party like my Scottish immigrant grandparents did when I was a kid. But I usually encounter a dash of their old-country energy and gregarious spirit at the Christmas Eve open house hosted by my son’s Croatian mother-in-law every year. Following my grandparents’ example, I try to bring some Celtic cheer (and a bottle of Bailey’s) to every party I attend. That said, I also privately acknowledge the times I feel mournful or alone — even in a big roomful of partying people.

I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve finally grown up. I cannot return to the home of my childhood Christmases (the house was sold years ago). My beloved father has been dead for more than 20 years, and my mother’s dementia has progressed to the point where she doesn’t know it’s Christmas. My son Nate is 28 years old now, and married to a woman we all adore. As much as I love to recall the memory of Nate’s first train set chugging around the tree when he was small, our family’s early traditions and special moments cannot be recreated or reenacted. And that’s the way life is supposed to work—every month, every day, of each beautiful year we’re given.

We grow, we change, we evolve, we endure, we move on. Glory be.


Visit Cindy LaFerle’s website: Cindy is a mutiply talented communicator, working both in words and the arts. The photo illustration with this column was assembled by Cindy. You’ll enjoy her regular columns at You’ll also enjoy her book, Writing Home: Collected Essays and Newspaper Columns.

For more on Pope Francis: Read Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton’s fascinating overview story about Christmas, which includes two news items about Pope Francis.

The Shirley Showalter interview: So much beneath this bonnet!

“Put a bonnet on it—and it will sell.” That marketing trend has sold thousands of Amish romance novels and even Amish murder mysteries. This formula has turned heads of even the most worldly publishers toward the riches of the Anabaptist tradition. Radio and TV hosts should be flocking to invite Shirley Showalter onto their talk shows.

But, it’s easy to misunderstand Shirley Showalter’s remarkable new memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. At best, the cover may suggest a nostalgic souvenir from what millions of tourists call “Amish country.” At worst, you might mistake this as just another “bonnet book.”


Let’s get a few things straight—so you’ll see the unique gifts of this book and Shirley Showalter’s voice.

SHIRLEY IS THE REAL DEAL: Raised Mennonite, she had an Andy-Griffith-meets-It’s-a-Wonderful-Life childhood full of colorful stories, savvy lessons in living a meaningful life—and good cooking. This is not back-handed praise. This is a sign of the memoir’s unique appeal: When is the last time you read a page-turner of a childhood memoir in which the main character doesn’t suffer the tortures of the damned? As Editor of Read The Spirit magazine, that’s one of the fascinating issues I raise with Shirley in our interview today.

GOOD EATING: Did you catch the “cooking” reference? This book serves up recipes. No, you’re not likely to follow Shirley’s “Food for a Barn Raising” instructions—but you are likely to try her Steamed Cherry Pudding, Shoo Fly Pie, Beet Pickles—and the famous family cookie recipe that is the subject of our Feed The Spirit column for this week.

A DOORWAY INTO A COURAGEOUS WORLD: Every American knows something about the Amish—and Read The Spirit has reported extensively on the Amish, too. However, few Americans know much about the Mennonites, a major branch of the centuries-old Anabaptist movement that today is known for its courage and generosity in peacemaking and community building. Blush is a welcoming doorway into that world—a world that Shirley herself still proudly represents.

So, here are some additional recommendations:



DAVID CRUMM: Today, you don’t wear a bonnet. There still are many visibly traditional Mennonites in the U.S., but you are part of the Mennonite Church USA, a denomination of about 1,000 congregations in which members don’t tend to follow traditional dress codes, right?

SHIRLEY SHOWALTER: Our church does contain some members who still are conservatively dressed, but many of those members are older. We no longer have to follow the rules and regulations under which I grew up. Our members no longer have to be “plain” on the outside.

No one can tell just by looking at me today that I am Mennonite. So, what defines us? This question has challenged me to grasp for and hold onto the deepest values in the theological commitments of the Mennonite church. I really would love to be “plain” on the inside now. I love the phrase, “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That’s from Richard Rohr.

DAVID: And from Thomas Merton before Richard; Jean Vanier of L’Arche loved that line, too, and, even before that, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” There’s a lot of shared wisdom there.

SHIRLEY: That kind of simplicity is what I seek myself—and what I hope my church is helping its members and the rest of the world to seek.


DAVID: We will talk more about the Mennonite movement in a moment, but I have to tell readers: This book’s narrative is very compelling. I’m not alone in saying that—Bill Moyers praises your book, too. At the same time, this is a strikingly simple and happy story. I mean, the worst thing I can recall your doing in the course of this book is locking your little brother inside the chicken house on your family farm until he cried.

SHIRLEY: One of the questions I had in writing my story was: Is it possible to write a good memoir that’s primarily about a happy life? (laughs) Well, now that I’ve written this book, I hope the answer to that question is yes!

It is a serious question: Think about Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes—such an incredibly hard childhood! For a while, writers seemed to be competing with these misery memoirs—each one writing about a life more miserable than the last one. Or there’s The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls—that’s an amazing memoir about a very strange family. Misery and strangeness seemed to be selling. I think that’s one reason James Frey felt so much pressure to put really tough details into his book.

DAVID: Yes, and it landed him in hot water when his A Million Little Pieces proved to contain as much fiction as fact. So, back to the original question: No one is murdered in your memoir; you aren’t abused; there’s no one addicted to crack cocaine; so, can a book-length memoir work, if the life is essentially happy?

SHIRLEY: For me, Haven Kimmel answers this question: In her books, she has shown that, yes, we can write about an essentially happy life in a way that readers will enjoy. All lives have conflict in them—conflict that makes for a good story—even though the person’s life may not be full of dramatically dysfunctional experiences.

DAVID: Well, I loved your book and my answer to the question we’re discussing is Frederich Buechner’s answer. He has written this—and said it—in various ways throughout his career. Here’s one passage where he writes: “My story and your story are all part of each other, if only because we have sung together and prayed together and seen each other’s faces so that we are at least a footnote at the bottom of each other’s stories. In other words all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here.”

SHIRLEY: Thank you for sharing that. You know the most risky words I wrote in this book? The opening words: “Ever since I was little, I wanted to be big. Not just big as in tall, but big as in important, successful, influential. I wanted to be seen and listened to. I wanted to make a splash in the world. Admitting this desire still feels like a huge risk. It contradicts much of what my church and my home taught me about the importance of humility.”

You cannot know how frightening it was for me to write those words—and to put them there on the first page of the book. The answer to this whole question—and to the risk I am taking in those opening words by putting myself out there in this way—they’re answered in Buechner’s words. We want to share these stories because, in the end, all our stories are one story.


DAVID: Flipping through your book—let’s say in the Amazon “Look Inside” feature—will show readers some of  your black-and-white photos of farm life and, of course, photos of you among school children. They’re charming photos. The accompanying stories take us into 4-H projects, farm life, the kitchen, school—and so on.

What impressed me, in reading your book, is that it brings to life the process described by the philosopher and scholar of world religions, Jacob Needleman. In our earlier interview with Jacob, he urged people to try to recall the inspiration of childhood. Rediscovering the boundless curiosity of childhood, Jacob says at one point: “That’s where we can join with great scientists, with searching philosophers, with religious seekers and with so many young people today. When we reach toward that point of sharing this larger need, then hope opens up for us.”

I think readers will have fun with the passages in your memoir where you describe the books you discovered as a child. I smiled when I read about Bunny Brown, one of the series for young readers produced by the Bobbsey Twins folks. And you read the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Tell us about Christmas Carol Kauffman, who is still available from resellers on Amazon.

SHIRLEY: I read all her books. She was a Mennonite fiction writer. Of course, she wrote stories for the purpose of moral uplift, but I liked her stories because they were about worlds I recognized. I did begin to notice, as I read more of her books, that they had very similar plots. She was very important to me, because she was a Mennonite writer.

Tom Sawyer also was an important book in my life. And, Robinson Crusoe, too! I made my brother play my man Friday.

Then, I should mention Gene Stratton-Porter! When I read her book, A Girl of the Limberlost—which was also one of my mother’s favorite books—I became an instant naturalist. I started to go out into the fields and tried to gather butterflies. I now recognize and appreciate the independent woman who was behind that book more than I realized at the time. But, even from my first reading of it, that book was very important to me. I was able to get into Gene Stratton-Porter’s characters in a way I never was able to get into Christmas Carol Kauffman’s characters.


DAVID: We’re moving full circle here. It’s time to return to the question of what makes Mennonites distinctive. Christmas Carol Kauffman was born on Christmas Day in 1901, which was the source of her unusual name. In addition to writing semi-autobiographical stories like Lucy Winchester, she and her husband were remarkably successful Mennonite missionaries in Missouri. Among other things, they did prison ministry.

As a journalist for many years, I’ve been dispatched to cover major disaster stories in various parts of the U.S. and, often, I would run across crews from Mennonite Disaster Service. So, you’re educators; you’re peacemakers; you’re community builders; you’ve got very well-organized relief crews.

What makes you remain a Mennonite?

SHIRLEY: The first word I would choose is: community. There is a commitment to support each other in congregational life that is very strong. In fact, my own congregation is called Community Mennonite Church. It’s a place where people weep with you when you’re weeping and rejoice with you when you’re ready to rejoice.

As a person—I need help to be who I say I am. So, it helps me to be surrounded in my church by people who have made these same kinds of commitments. We want to avoid the worst of American consumerism, the worst of American individualism and the worst of American militarism. Together, we try to speak and live the opposite of those things.

DAVID: Your book is coming out when America’s wealth gap is so bad that we haven’t seen such inequality since the Gilded Age. Your Mennonite community stands in direct contrast to that winner-take-all approach to American culture, right?

SHIRLEY: It sickens me to see the gap widen so far in my lifetime. Another reason that the word “community” is in our church title is that we are rooted in our community—literally. We believe that the church is where the poor and those who are disenfranchised can be heard and their needs can be met.

You mentioned Mennonite Disaster Service, which recently was highlighted for its work in the Sandy relief efforts. They’re known not only for coming early, but also for staying late. They stay until they feel they have helped to restore a core strength in a community that has been affected by a disaster. I did some work in the 9th Ward of New Orleans with Mennonite Disaster Service and I can tell you—it’s wonderful. When you are part of one of their projects, you begin with devotions in the morning. While I was in New Orleans, I worked on tiling a floor during the day. Then, there are lots of other opportunities for fellowship throughout the whole experience.

DAVID: Say a word about the peace tradition. Mennonites represent part of the great “peace church” tradition.

SHIRLEY: That’s right. That commitment to pacifism has been there since the beginning of Anabaptist history. It’s a very important part of what unites Mennonites and Amish and Quakers and a broad spectrum of people in terms of their practices in other areas of life. These are the historic peace churches and, to this day, they support each other and maintain solidarity in the face of what sometimes has been great resistance to this message throughout history. Mennonites continue to stand in harm’s way as peacemakers in conflict zones. They help people who have gone through trauma; they help people avoid conflicts; they help to heal brokenness wherever it is found.

We take Jesus at his word that we should love our enemies and turn the other cheek. We don’t participate in war—but we’re not content just to say: We won’t fight. Rather, we want to offer as much help to the world as we can in creating alternatives to conflict.

DAVID: At the very end of your book, you have added a few pages on these themes. Mostly, in this book, readers will be enjoying your years growing up as a Mennonite girl. Overall, if you could talk to readers finishing your book: What do you hope they will be thinking as they close your book?

SHIRLEY: Let me answer that question by quoting something I prepared for a video introduction to the book. I would leave readers with this thought:

The book’s title—Blush—refers to my discomfort in that place between the church and the world. It also means that I tried so hard to be sophisticated. It took me a long time to discover that God made me a feisty, curious, plain Mennonite farm girl for a reason. When I am vulnerable and wholehearted, I am much more aware of God and my community can come in and support me, even in times of conflict and pain and doubt.

I’m no longer plain on the outside, but I would love to be plain on the inside. Being plain is not simple. True simplicity requires us to drop our pretenses, let go of our ego and learn to embrace the blush, rather than to fight it. This wisdom is ancient. It’s as true for you as it is for me.

And, the place where it leads is—home.




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