Mindy Starns Clark is the author of The Million Dollar Mysteries series, The Smart Chick Mystery series, and the nonfiction how-to guide The House That Cleans Itself. Her latest novel, a standalone mystery set in Louisiana called Whispers of the Bayou, will be released in January. A singer and speaker (and former stand-up comedian), Mindy lives near Valley Forge, PA, with her husband, two daughters, and two shih tzus. Check out Mindy’s website at www.mindystarnsclark.com.
Tell us about your first Christmas memory?
I can remember getting a cowgirl outfit complete with pistols and holsters when I was about five. Perhaps the joy I took in those guns was a foreshadowing of my career as a mystery writer!
Growing up, did your family have Christmas traditions? Tell us how you incorporated them into your family life. Or, how you created new ones.
My grandmother was an excellent seamstress, and every Christmas she would give me a beautiful handmade Christmas nightgown (and pajamas for my brothers). This was the only gift we were allowed to open on Christmas eve, and as such it always took on special significance; Christmas was official once we were wearing the new jammies! Though I’m not much of a sewer, I did always try to put my kids to bed in something new—or at least something cute–on Christmas eve, so that they would look their best in the Christmas morning photos.
We also love the family get-togethers that surround the holiday. They’re so much fun! With my husband’s side of the family, we buy gifts for the children only—and every adult brings their favorite CD, wrapped without a tag. After the kids have had their present-opening time, the adults sit around and have a blast doing a round-robin CD exchange.
The Christmas Eve service at our church is the spiritual highlight of our holiday, especially when it ends by candlelight, singing Silent Night.
When do you put up your tree?
Growing up in the South, I was always taught that the tree goes up the Saturday after Thanksgiving and comes down on New Year’s Day. My husband, however, would like to see it go up much closer to Christmas—and stay up at least a week or two into the New Year! Taking all of that into consideration, we tend to compromise somewhere in the middle.
Some years, our decorating is quite elaborate, though the older I get, the less I seem to do. (I have a feeling that once the kids have grown up and moved out, I’ll scale it all way down and maybe just put up a small tree and maybe the lighted village.) I’m trying to go easy on myself these days and not always have everything so elaborate or so perfect. There are more important ways to spend my time than obsessing over the wreaths on every window!
What is your favorite Christmas song or album?
To sing at church or with a choir, it’s Angels We Have Heard on High.
For pure listening pleasure, I love Handel’s Messiah. I always put it on as I decorate, so I can belt out the alto line as I work! I love almost every recording of the Messiah I’ve ever heard, even a hip hop version my brother once found for me.
I usually sing a Christmas solo, such as “Bethlehem Morning” or “Breath of Heaven.” My daughters have beautiful voices but would rather die than sing a duet with mom—though a few years ago I finally convinced my youngest to perform with me at a distant church where no one knew her. Our duet on “Mary, Did You Know?” was thrilling for me. (Though when it was over, she said, “I did it because you wanted it so bad, mom, but don’t ever ask me again.” Sigh.)
I also recently discovered the beautiful “Perfect Love (Mary’s Song)” by Darlene Zschech, though I have yet to perform it.
Relive your childhood Christmas mornings for us.
My mom would be up most of the night getting things ready, so we always had a “minimum time” we were allowed to get up. Of course, I would usually pop awake an hour or so prior to that—then I’d have to endure the sheer torment of watching the clock and waiting.
Once it was time, my brothers and I would wake up our parents and then wait in the back of the house while they went out front to wake our visiting grandparents, make coffee, and get the movie camera ready. Once they yelled the “all clear”, we would open the door to the den and step inside to see the vast array of gifts that Santa had left for us.
As we got older, that morning became less about the toys and gifts and more about the family just being there together, relaxing and laughing and enjoying the sweetness of the day. My grandparents were such special people, and the memory of their presence still lingers over every Christmas. It doesn’t take much to picture Grandpa carefully opening each of his gifts with his pocket knife, or hearing my grandmother exclaim (as she did each year), “Well, I do believe this was just the best Christmas ever!”
Seems to me snow and Christmas go together, and in Montana that’s almost a given! Tell us about your Christmas setting?
Growing up in Louisiana, there was little chance of snow, but we always hoped for a cold snap! I was devastated whenever it turned out to be a hot Christmas.
Now that I live in Pennsylvania, however, I’d give anything for some of that warm weather. I’m not big on cold or snow, and a late-December break from the chill would be a Christmas dream come true.
It’s Christmas Eve… Describe your day and evening.
Running late despite all of my best intentions. Running late on gift buying, wrapping, decorating, planning for guests or travel, etc. Acting like a chicken without a head, scratching things off my list as I get them done, finally calling a halt to all of it around 6 pm—ready or not. Go home, get cleaned up, head to church for the Christmas eve service. Deep breath. Regroup.
Come home afterwards with priorities straightened out, family in a good mood, and the peace of our Savior in our hearts.
Eat a take-out dinner and relax a bit, then shoo the kids off to bed and spend a few hours alongside my husband, wrapping and setting things out in preparation for the morning.
Crawl into bed around midnight, thankful for my blessings—ever-mindful of the whole point, the birth of Jesus!
Confession time. Shop on line or at the mall?
On line!!! I live near the largest mall on the Eastern seaboard, and I will avoid it at all costs. Ugh. I hate shopping—except for toys. I dearly love to buy toys. Maybe I have an arrested development.
Christmas grows more and more commercial every year. Setting the hustle and bustle aside, what does Christmas really mean to you?
It means setting the hustle and bustle aside…and focusing on the reason behind all of it. There’s always a lot of “noise” inside my head—every item on my to-do list screams to be heard—but when Christmas eve finally rolls around, I’m able to quiet that noise and remember the point. Then with a big slap to the forehead, I’m wishing I had remembered earlier in the season so that I could have relaxed and enjoyed it all more.
As a child, it meant hanging our favorite ornaments on the tree, the arrival of our beloved grandparents from North Carolina, and the magic of a very generous Santa Clause who always seemed to know exactly what we wanted. It also meant lighting the advent candles every Sunday leading up to Christmas…and reading our way through Luke 2 a little further each week until the end.
It’s Christmas day… what’s for dinner? Do you make cookies or other traditional foods?
The menu varies year to year, though we’ll usually have a ham or a pork roast—and never miss the sweet potato casserole. Most years, we split the cooking duties so that everyone takes responsibility for a dish or two. And we always end the meal with a birthday cake for Jesus, complete with the song and candles that we blow out for him.
Tell us about your favorite Christmas memory.
Every year, my mother would buy two special ornaments, one for me and one for my older brother, which commemorated something important that had happened that year. The year that I was nine, we were blessed to adopt a baby boy, my younger brother Joey. After his adoption hearing—the day he finally became ours for good—my parents stopped at a Christmas shop near the courthouse and bought all three of us ornaments that looked like little baby toys. I remember getting it that Christmas and thinking it was the most special ornament I could ever own.
When I got married, my mother gave me all 27 of my special ornaments, to start my own tree filled with memories. I treasure each and every one, but especially that little baby toy.
Any final thoughts on Christmas?
Just some advice for mothers and fathers that I learned the hard way: Remember that you set the tone for the holiday from the very first Christmas your children ever have. If you go overboard with the gifts and the massive decorations and the fuss, they’ll grow up expecting that every time. As they get older, you’ll find yourself wanting to scale back—spend less money, decorate less, enjoy it all more—but it’s so hard to downsize if your celebrations set the bar too high too soon, and your kids end up feeling cheated!
If I could go back and do it all again, I take it all down to size by half—half as many gifts, half as much trouble—and make a point of scheduling more family activities and doing more for others at holiday time. Once our kids became teenagers, they actually began leading the way toward a simpler celebration. Last year our oldest daughter chose several charities and asked for donations in lieu of gifts. That was great fun, to turn our backs on the rampant commercialism of the season and do something more significant with our money. This year, she just wants Spanish Bibles to bring on a spring mission trip to give away to the children—and that’s a gift that we’re more than happy to give her!
Just remember that the toys eventually break, the decorations all have to come back down, and the big Christmas dinner is but a memory once it’s been eaten. Better to focus on the reason for the season and the people God placed in your life to share it with. All of the rest is just fluff that sucks up your time and can easily get out of hand.
Simplify! These days, the harder the stores push us to spend, spend, spend, the easier it is turn our backs on that and have a real Christmas celebration—the kind Jesus would have wanted. So start when they’re young by keeping it simple, and keep the focus where it belongs: on the baby that started it all.
Thanks Mindy! May you be “simplified” in the New Year!