In the Christmastime series, the home arts were always made of materials that Lillian, her sister Annette, and Kate and her daughters had close at hand. Sometimes this meant stepping outside to collect greenery, pine cones, and red berries.
A stroll around the orchard, farm, nearby woods — or for Lillian, Central Park — provided a way for them to bring nature indoors and decorate their homes for the holidays with winter bouquets, garlands, and wreaths.
A way to add a splash of color or a bit of charm throughout the house,
or to bring woodland beauty to the mantelpiece.
Orange slices were dried and combined with spices to decorate the Christmas tree and windows.
And of course, the holiday table was made more festive and colorful with holly, cranberries, and pine added to traditional desserts.
The home arts were a simple, old-fashioned way to make the home cozy and welcoming. Then and now, bringing the outside indoors is always a good idea.
Throughout the Christmastime series, the home arts enrichen the lives and homes of Lillian in Manhattan, her sister Annette on her orchard in upstate New York, and Kate and her daughters Ursula and Jessica on their farm in the Midwest.
Knitting, sewing, crocheting, and embroidering were activities for early winter evenings while they listened to the radio, or sat near a fireplace with a hot drink at hand.
The home arts were practical and serviceable, yet at the same time, they were creative endeavors that added beauty and charm —
whether quilts that were lovingly made from salvaged scraps of fabric,
cozy afghans that kept away the winter chill,
or crocheted-edged pillowcases and handmade sachets that made sleep sweeter.
The Christmas holidays were made more festive with red and green embroidery,
and decorations using oranges, pine, and cranberries added color and scent,
and were used to trim the Christmas tree.
The home arts added a sense of comfort and love throughout the year but were especially welcome at Christmastime.
Throughout the Christmastime series, I often use paintings or songs to help tell the story.
In Christmastime 1940: A Love Story, there are two songs that reflect the internal stories of Lillian Hapsey and Charles Drooms.
There’s a point in the story where Lillian invites Mr. Drooms to join her and her boys in decorating their Christmas tree. He declines her invitation, believing she is simply being neighborly. However, her anger at his refusal makes him wonder if she sincerely wanted him to stop by. He had long ago closed the door to love. Yet later that evening, as he sits alone at the usual diner, his heart is pried open as he falls into the soft strains of the song “Maybe.” Following is an excerpt from that scene. (images from Pinterest)
Drooms sat at his usual booth, opened the menu that he knew by heart, and began to peruse it. The thought, the possibility that perhaps Lillian had been sincere in her invitation, struck him like a blow. What if she had really meant it? She certainly appeared offended when he declined. He tried to imagine himself sitting at the same table as her. What would they have to talk about? He felt both shaky and warm, almost happy at the thought.
He quickly dismissed such foolery, looked again at the menu and saw that he had been staring at the dessert page. He opened to the specials, but once again his thoughts drifted, and he imagined Lillian moving about her apartment. Was she clearing the dishes by now, trimming the tree? Was she thinking of him?
His gaze fell beyond the menu and into the dark wood of the empty booth. Never one for music, he was surprised to find himself lost in the simple lyrics of “Maybe.” Maybe, you’ll think of me. When you are all alone. He set his menu down and let the rest of the world fall away as he listened to the words, wondering at the desperate stirring in his heart.
The waitress came and asked him if he wanted the meatloaf special. When he didn’t answer, she smiled. “You like the Ink Spots, sir?”
Drooms frowned at being caught in a personal moment. “When did you start playing music here?”
She looked around, perplexed. “You mean the radio? We always have it on.”
He glanced down at the menu. “It must be on louder tonight or something. I’ll have the special.” He slipped the menu back in its stand and continued to frown as he tried not to listen to the song.
The Ink Spots had great appeal to a wide audience in the 1930s and ’40s. Their ballad style lent itself to a host of love songs, as well as their rendition of the patriotic 1942 WWII song, “This Is Worth Fighting For.” https://bit.ly/32qSUJ2 (Youtube)
Maybe you’ll think of me When you are all alone Maybe the one who is waiting for you will prove untrue Then what will you do? Maybe you’ll sit and sigh Wishing that I were near, then Maybe you’ll ask me to come back again And maybe I’ll say maybe.
Towards the end of the book, the song “Only Forever” captures the happiness Lillian feels when it looks like her relationship with Charles is sealed. She experiences a sense of joy that she hadn’t expected to find again. Widowed, struggling financially, mother of two young boys, her dreams forsaken, she finally sees a beautiful future now awaiting her.
The following afternoon Lillian was in the middle of her Christmas baking. She wore her ruffled red and green Christmas apron and bustled about the kitchen, singing along with the radio. She didn’t want to appear too different to the boys, but she couldn’t forget that kiss, the warm embrace. She kept catching herself smiling as she remembered his hand in her hair, the gentleness in his voice when he said her name.
When Al Bowlly’s “Only Forever” came on, she turned up the volume and tried to dance with the boys. She could usually count on at least Gabriel to play along, but today both boys were restless and wanted to go outside, and the more she laughed and tried to twirl around with them, the more impatient they became.
“Can’t we go now, Mom?” asked Tommy. “I already read all my books, and if we don’t go now the library will close.”
“Yeah, Mommy, I want to go outside. I need some more books, too.” Gabriel ran to get his coat and started to put it on.
Lillian opened the oven, took out a batch of Christmas cookies, and set them on top of the stove.
“If we can’t go today,” she said, “we’ll go another day.”
“But I already read –”
“Now Tommy, what did I say? I can’t leave in the middle of baking.”
Gabriel stomped his foot. “But Mommy –”
“If you two don’t start behaving I won’t take you to see Santa tomorrow.”
Gabriel gasped at this possibility. “Mommy, we have to see Santa to tell him what we want!”
Tommy heard Drooms’s door open and close, and ran to look down the hall.
“Hi, Mr. Drooms!”
Gabriel also ran to the door and peeked out.
“Hi, Mr. Drooms! Will you take us to the libary?”
Drooms appeared in their doorway, dressed to go outside. He smiled at the boys, then at Lillian.
But she didn’t want to cross any as yet to be determined boundary. “Boys! Stop that. You know better.” She went to the door, pulled the boys back inside, and widened her eyes at them in warning.
Tommy relented. “Okay, okay.”
Lillian flushed with pleasure as she gazed up at Drooms. She had never seen him looking so handsome.
Though “Only Forever” was popularized by Bing Crosby in a 1940 movie (Rhythm on the River), and was performed by many different artists, it is the playful Al Bowlly/Jimmy Messene version that reflects the mood of Lillian at this point in the story.
Al Bowlly was popular during the 1930’s dance band era and recorded more than a 1000 records between 1927-1941.
He was killed in London in April of 1941 by a Luftwaffe parachute bomb. He recorded his last song two weeks before his death — (ironically) a duet with Messene of Irving Berlin’s satirical song about Hitler, “When That Man Is Dead and Gone.” (wikipedia)
Al Bowlly was among several performers who died related to the war, underscoring the pervasive loss and tragedy of WWII.
1942 – Carol Lombard died in a plane crash returning from one of her many War Bond rallies, devastating her husband, Clark Gable.
1943 – Leslie Howard, of Gone With the Wind fame, left Hollywood to return to Great Britain to make patriotic radio broadcasts and films. He was on the civilian KLM flight that was shot down by the Luftwaffe.
1944 – Band leader Glenn Miller volunteered to lead the U.S. Army military band. While traveling to entertain troops in France, his plane disappeared over the English Channel.
Do I want to be with you / As the years come and go?
Only forever / If you care to know.
Would I grant all your wishes / And be proud of the task?
Only forever / If someone should ask.
How long would it take me / To be near if you beckon?
Off hand I would figure / Less than a second.
Do you think I’ll remember / How you looked when you smile?
The Christmastime series takes a turn beginning with Christmastime 1943, with the sub-plot set on Kate’s farm in Illinois. Kate, Charles’s sister, and her two teen-aged daughters, Ursula (17) and Jessica (15), run the farm while her four sons are away at war. With the workforce severely diminished, and the demand for food production greater than ever, Kate does what many farmers had to do – she uses German POWs to help with the farm work.
Her elder daughter Ursula is furious about it. Francis, the brother she was closest to, has recently been killed by the Nazi army and Ursula is filled with anguish and hatred of the German soldiers. She adamantly refuses to have anything to do with the POWs.
Below are a few excerpts from Christmastime 1943: A Love Story, along with images suggestive of scenes with Ursula during the seasons of 1943-1945. Ursula: beautiful, willful, dreamy, passionate. (All images are from my Pinterest board Ursula – the Christmastime series, 1943, 1944, 1945.)
Our first introduction to Ursula comes from Lillian. She’s been working on a series of war posters with the theme of Women in the Workforce, and the next posters will be on women and farm work. Based on an earlier visit to Kate’s farm, Lillian sketches an image of a young girl on a tractor.
Lillian studied it and realized that she had largely based the girl on Jessica, the younger of Kate’s daughters – blonde, cheerful, wholesome. Lillian had first tried the sketch based on Ursula, but the look was all wrong.
Again, Lillian gazed out the window, tapping the pencil against her cheek. Both of Kate’s daughters were extremely pretty – but Ursula had that elusive quality of beauty. Though her features were striking, Lillian felt that her beauty had more to do with her expressions, her soft way of speaking, her behavior – she was both pensive and brisk – as if her mind pulled her in one direction, and her body in another. No, thought Lillian, Ursula was more difficult to imagine on a tractor than Jessica, even though Kate wrote that Ursula had really taken up the slack at the farm as one by one her brothers had left. It was easier to imagine Ursula as some kind of mythic heroine – Diana the huntress, perhaps, or a winged victory figure.
Lillian thought of Ursula as she was two years ago – setting out on one of her restless walks across the fields or along the country road, or tucked away poring over a book. Her heart was set on going to college, and that was the life that would best suit her. She was intelligent, curious, strong-willed. Kate had sent a photo in the summer, and Ursula was prettier than ever. Lillian began a sketch of such a girl – tall and slim, with wavy dark hair, and those exquisitely lovely eyes – deep blue, beneath eyebrows like angry wings, smooth and beautiful. An air of intensity surrounded her, as if a quiet fire burned within.
Another impression of Ursula comes from Ed, the old farmhand who has worked for the family for years. He has news for Kate regarding the arrival of the POWs, but on hearing Kate and Ursula arguing about it inside, he waits out on the porch, reminiscing about Ursula as a child.
Glancing back at the kitchen door, he thought how he loved them all – Kate and her sons and daughters. He was fond of each and every one of them, but he couldn’t help the soft spot he had for Ursula. Even as a curly-topped child, she had a way of winning people over with her wide-eyed wonder and her demand for answers – “But why? How? What would happen if…?”
He chuckled, remembering how she used to ride around with him on the tractor, how he helped her learn to ride a bike, how she and little Francy used to hold hands as they jumped from the hayloft. And how, after her father died, she had transferred much of the affection for her father onto him.
How quickly the years had passed. Now here she was, almost eighteen years old, and more headstrong than ever. Yet sweet as a summer day. A hard worker, and capable, yet he often caught her staring out at the sunsets, or wondering at the beauty of snowdrifts, or listening to a strain of music on the radio with a hand pressed to her chest. There was a poet inside her, he often thought – though he doubted it would have the chance to come out now. If only she could have gone on to school, like she wanted. Well, there’s still time, he thought. He gave another shake of his head at the memory of the little girl who used to romp around the farm. Ursula. Here she was, seventeen – a breathtaking beauty in overalls.
Now Jessica, he thought, giving a little nod. She had more chance for overall, everyday happiness. Was more practical, down to earth, did not set her expectations up there with the moon. And was dang pretty. But Ursula…
Ed rubbed his whiskers, and his tanned wrinkled face scrunched in worry. She had that kind of dark beauty that troubled the heart. He took off his hat, inspected the rim, and readjusted it on his head. Well, they’re still young. It’ll all work out, somehow – it always does.
Ursula, after the argument with her mother about having German POWs on the farm.
Ursula plopped down in a chair in her overalls, arms crossed, an angry fire burning in her eyes. The only adornment she allowed herself these days – and in Kate’s eyes, evidence of her contrariness – were the amethyst drop earrings her family had given her after she was accepted into the women’s college downstate. She wore them every day as a reminder that she would go to college. Some day. And though Ursula wouldn’t admit it, she was just as hungry for a bit of beauty as was Jessica – perhaps even more so. In the middle of milking the cows, or feeding the chickens, or hauling firewood into the house, she would lightly touch the earrings – as a reminder of her dreams.
Jessica later attempts to give another point of view regarding the POWs — but to no avail.
“I was all ready to hate them. I really was. But it’s hard to do when they look like our neighbors. When they look like us.”
Ursula could listen to no more. “Listen to you. They’re brutal Nazis! They’re killing our men. Doing horrible things to the Poles and Jews. You’ve read the papers, seen the newsreels. Don’t be fooled by their appearance. They’re nothing like us. They’re cold-blooded murderers. Never forget that.”
She stuffed the remnants of the overalls into the rag basket, and then stood stiffly, sore from overdoing her chores.
“You look all done in, Ursula,” said Kate. “Why don’t you go soak in a hot bath? It’s been a long day.”
Ursula went upstairs and ran the bathwater, letting her clothes drop heavily to thelinoleum floor. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, pushing aside her hair. She did look done in.
She touched the amethyst earrings. It had been so long since she felt pretty, since she had worn a dress, since she had gone to a dance. Everything now was bleak and grim. Her brothers, and most of the town boys, were gone. Everyone was having a hard time, having to adapt to all the changes. For the most part, she didn’t mind. She loved the farm, loved the fields at sunset, had even learned to love the backbreaking work. It kept her mind focused, prevented it from filling with daydreams. Foolish dreams of college and travel, of seeing the beautiful capitals of Europe. She wondered if those cities would even still be standing after this nightmarish war was over.
The steam gradually blurred her reflection – just as her dreams had blurred and faded, she thought. No matter. There wasn’t time for girlish daydreams. Her mother was right; she had behaved childishly today. Work needed to be done, and she would do it.
Finally! The concluding book in the Christmastime series, Christmastime 1945: A Love Story, is available. Now you can find out what happens to the characters you’ve come to know: Lillian, Charles, Tommy and Gabriel. Izzy and Red. And on Kate’s farm, what is the fate of Ursula and Friedrich? What about Jessica and her brothers — do they survive the war? How do their lives unfold?
Below are images from my Pinterest boards that evoke the time, place, and feel of the world of Christmastime — historical photos, along with images suggestive of Kate’s farm, Annette’s orchard, New York City, and the warmth and coziness of Christmas.
The Christmastime series is available on Amazon, Kobo, B&N, iTunes, and Google and in libraries by request, on Ingram and Overdrive.
For all my books, I’ve created corresponding Pinterest boards to provide readers with a glimpse into the worlds I write about. The boards for the Christmastime series capture the charm of an old-fashioned Christmas, and a few black and white photographs help to provide a historical context.
Below are images for the introductory book in the series, Christmastime 1939: Prequel to the Christmastime Series. I hope you enjoy them!
In the prequel, we are introduced to the series’ main character, the young widow Lillian Hapsey, and her two sons, Tommy (8 years old) and Gabriel (5 years old). Many of the scenes involve Lillian’s determination to give them a happy Christmas.
The theme of transformation runs throughout this book, and I’ve woven in threads of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to emphasize this,
as well as other Dickensian themes of struggle, home and family, and general Christmas merriment.
Other images evoke Lillian’s recent Thanksgiving visit with her sister, Annette, in upstate New York,
the cupcakes Tommy and Gabriel see in the window of the German bakery,
holiday toys and candies,
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and the excitement of New York City at Christmas.
Come! Step into the world of Christmastime!
The Christmastime series is available on Amazon, Kobo, B&N, iTunes, and Google and in libraries by request, on Ingram and Overdrive
In the Christmastime series, Lillian Hapsey visits her sister, Annette, in upstate New York, close to where they grew up. Annette and her family live on an orchard, which provides Lillian a welcome change from the bustle of Manhattan. Though Lillian only visits once or twice a year, the orchard offers her a wider scope of seasonal beauty and an opportunity to be with family.
Lillian and her boys, Tommy and Gabriel, have fond memories of spending Thanksgiving and Christmas at Annette’s. Depending on the weather, they take hikes through the woods, sometimes taking the logging roads. The boys and their cousins explore the woods and run wild through the orchard, and with the help of their Uncle Bernie, they gather firewood to make bonfires at night, sometimes roasting marshmallows. If there is snow, they go sledding and take sleigh rides.
When the sisters are together, they take long walks along the country roads, gathering bunches of bittersweet and pine cones. At night, they fix a cup of tea and stay up late talking in front of a crackling fire.
One of the things Lillian most looks forward to is preparing wonderful meals with Annette. Part of their tradition is to make dishes that their mother used to make when they were girls.
To the delight of the children, they also make special seasonal treats — apple cider donuts and caramel apples, holiday cookies, and snow ice cream.
And every time Lillian visits, Annette packs a basket for her to take back home with her, full of wholesome goodness from the orchard: honey and beeswax candles, maple syrup and jars of apple butter, bottled pears, jellies and jams — and apples.
When Lillian returns home to Manhattan, she often adds Annette’s orchard gifts to her breakfast and dinner table — besides being a tasty addition, they serve as a reminder of their days up at the orchard.
Annette’s orchard is a haven for Lillian and her boys — a cozy, welcoming place, full of good food and adventures. For Lillian, it gives her a sense of stepping back into her beloved girlhood days, and is a lovely way for her to enjoy the seasons.
People often ask me what movies or books my Christmastime series is most similar to. For many reasons, the movie It’s A Wonderful Life comes to mind. It’s set during and just after WWII, it’s a story about love and family, the importance of friends and neighbors, and it’s about transformation.
I happened to catch it on TV the other night, and though I know the movie by heart, I found that I loved it as much as ever.
The story behind the movie is also “wonderful,” and offers an inspirational example for today’s independent writers. The movie is based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern (1900 – 1984), an American author, editor, and Civil War historian.
The story goes that in “February 1938, Stern awoke with the story in mind. Inspired by a dream that was reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol, Stern wrote a 4,000 word short story called The Greatest Gift. He began work on it in 1939 but didn’t finish until 1943.
Unable to find a publisher for his story, he printed two hundred copies of the story and distributed them as Christmas cards in 1943. One of the original palm-sized booklets came to the attention of a producer at RKO Pictures who purchased the rights, and then sold them to Frank Capra in 1945.” (Wikipedia)
“From this humble beginning, a classic was born. Stern’s story captivated Capra, who said he ‘had been looking for [it] all [his] life.’ Capra’s beloved adaptation, It’s a Wonderful Life, was released in 1946,” (Zoetrope – www.all-story.com) and has become part of the American Christmas tradition.
London is a labyrinth of parks and avenues, winding streets and narrow alleys that lead you from one beautiful neighborhood to another. A quick trip over Thanksgiving impressed me anew with the loveliness of London.
St. Ermin’s Hotel in Westminster was the perfect place to stay. It’s a beautiful Victorian building close to St. James Park and Buckingham Palace and just a block away from the Tube. They were just beginning to decorate for Christmas while we were there.
It had been many years since I last visited London, and for the most part, it was like seeing it through fresh eyes. The skyline had changed greatly — the London Eye alone transformed the feel of the skyline, as did the Shard.
While we were visiting the Tower of London,
I was struck by the architectural layering of history: a row of Tudor-styled buildings stood behind the thousand-year-old crumbling walls of the fortress, and behind them both rose the Shard. All over London, the historical and the modern are intertwined.
For the most part, my husband and I played tourists, going from one historical site to another: The Tower of London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Trafalgar Square, the Westminster area (we were disappointed to find Big Ben covered in scaffolding). But Buckingham Palace was beautiful, especially at the end of day when the lights came on.
This was the first time I visited Notting Hill, and I was immediately taken with its charm. I would love to see it in the spring when the wisteria is in bloom.
Another afternoon we spent in the ever-changing Brick Lane neighborhood, full of wonderful Bangladeshi restaurants.
Also new on this trip was a visit to the Leighton House, home of the artist Frederic, Lord Leighton. I fell in love with the exotic tiles and lamps, and the colors he surrounded himself with — rich peacock blue, muted gold, and dark woodwork.
I’m glad we visited London in the late fall. Dusk came early, and by 4:30 the corner pubs and restaurants dotted the evening with golden light and a feeling of coziness and cheer spilled outside onto the sidewalks.
Buildings that were beautiful by day took on a deeper beauty by night.
The shopping areas of Oxford and Bond Streets, and Picadilly Circus glittered with tiny lights and holiday decorations, and were bustling with red double-decker buses and crowds of happy shoppers. A stroll through Selfridges offered a glimpse of the glamour depicted in the Masterpiece period drama Mr. Selfridge.
Stores like Harrods and Selfridges brought to mind the wonderful scene from Howard’s End where Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel do their Christmas shopping.
Scenes from movies and books are everywhere. We took a train to the Baker Street Station and above ground saw the Sherlock Holmes Museum (with a long line outside).
At King’s Cross station there is Platform 9 and 3/4 from Harry Potter (with an even longer line of children waiting to get their photo taken). Though my list of things to see included the Charles Dickens Museum, the Samuel Johnson House, a stroll through Bloomsbury, and several other sites and parks, five days didn’t allow it.
So I’m already working on another list for my next visit.