how an heirloom Christmas Cactus can be a reminder of God’s faithfulness

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When I got married, my aunt Margie gave me an aloe vera and four cactus starts–two Thanksgiving cactus, a Christmas cactus, and a traditional prickly cactus. The Thanksgiving cactuses were cuttings from a plant that belonged to Mrs. Maysel Lyon, my dad’s and my aunt’s beloved first grade teacher. (We heard many stories about this soft-spoken lady who later tatted the lace that my aunt used on her wedding dress!) 

The Christmas cactus was from a plant that was my great grandmother’s–my dad’s dad’s mom. (I didn’t know her when she was the active wife of a grass-seed farmer and beekeeper, but I’ve heard the stories about how Great Grandpa and Grandma could grow anything–especially watermelons–and about Great Grandma Vesta’s amazing cinnamon rolls.)

There are days I’ve worried my cactuses weren’t going to make it on my farmhouse windowsill that’s too-cold and too-sunny by turns. I’ve pruned wilted, discolored leaves and my husband has carefully re-potted them in hopes of reviving their lovely green shades. I’ve over-watered and under-watered and forgotten to water. Yet fifteen years later, I still have two of the cactuses–a Thanksgiving cactus that blooms white with pink blush and a Christmas cactus that blossoms a deep pink. 

Each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas (and sometimes closer to Easter!), my cactuses faithfully bloom. A reminder of God’s faithfulness, His promise of the seasons of summer and winter and springtime and harvest. A living testimony of generations who have lived and loved before me.

When I heard the title of my friend Christy’s new book The Christmas Cactus, I couldn’t wait to see how she would incorporate the cactus in the story. (It’s perfectly delightful!) My cactuses are special to me because they came from my aunt and my great grandmother, just like Katie-Jo O’Reilly’s came from her mama and her Granny MacDougal in The Christmas Cactus.

“‘And in that crate was Granny MacDougal’s Christmas cactus. Her mother had given it to her, and Granny treasured it.’”

“Hannah” in The Christmas Cactus by Christy Martenson

A heroine determined to keep her family together. A hero dedicated to letting the Lord direct his paths. Two boys and a precocious little girl. A farmhouse and a flower house. A peach orchard ripe for picking and a hay field to harvest. A Jersey cow, a pair of Percherons, a flock of laying hens, three cats, and a dog named Blue.

The Christmas Cactus is a delightful story of a sister’s love and a man’s promise.

It’s the kind of refreshing romance that makes you smile as you read it. There are clever witticisms and tender tableaus that may make you cry. It depicts entertaining real-life family scenes, shares sincere heart-searching conversations with the Lord, and gives you a taste of farm life in Washington Territory in the 1870s. Don’t miss this sweet and satisfying read!

If you enjoyed Christy’s historical fiction Halstad House, you’ll appreciate the homemaking and gardening details in The Christmas Cactus–and of course, the gentle love story. (Christy’s historical fiction books are ones I hand to my tween and teen daughters with no concerns, because of the wholesome, innocent way in which Christy writes romantic storylines.)

If you loved Christy’s epistolary middle-grade novel Love, Mary Elisabeth, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a four-year-old girl named Hannah in The Christmas Cactus. (Christy creates such adorably precious little girl characters–they remind me of my own three girls at that age!)

Though it will clearly make the perfect Christmas gift, The Christmas Cactus can definitely be enjoyed any time of year–not just when your Christmas cactus is in bloom.

P.S. If you read epilogues, you’ll have to watch for a set of “Easter Eggs” that those who know my family might spot. 

Review by my thirteen-year-old daughter Ruth Anne:

Katie Jo, a twenty-one-year-old orphan, is struggling to keep her family together. When her older brother Syd writes from Washington Territory and sends for them, Katie Jo is more than happy to leave behind her Aunt Agatha’s house.

Along with twelve-year-old Elijah, nine-year-old Henry, and four-year-old Hannah, Katie Jo journeys to Washington, where she is met by…absolutely nobody.

What’s Katie Jo to do now?

Mrs. Martenson has done what L.M. Montgomery did so well. She created a sweet, relatable heroine and then dropped her into a unique situation, in a unique location. Her characters also have an L.M. Montgomery feel, varying from mellow Lige O’Reilly to austere Vida Smith to duty-bound Katie Jo to caring Jamie Holcomb.

I loved The Christmas Cactus because I felt like I was Katie Jo as I read it. I could relate to the character, even though I’m almost fourteen and she’s twenty-one. Mrs. Martenson has done it again!

One of our most stunning plants is a Christmas cactus that is right above the sink. My mother-in-law has had this plant for a long time, and it blooms a few times a year—usually in step with when Hallmark starts their Christmas movies.

“Have you ever looked closely at the blossom of a Christmas cactus? It is exquisite. When this plant is in full bloom, doing dishes turns into an act of worship for me. My hands are in the suds, but my eyes are delighted by the blossoms in front of me. I can’t help but turn my heart to the Lord who spoke a plant like this into existence. He declared this to be good.”

Christy Fitzwater in Keeping House

Disclosure from Gretchen: I have had the joy of being one of the first readers of The Christmas Cactus and of helping Christy with the publication process. (My farmer husband was also the agricultural expert consulted for the chapters featuring the hay harvest.) Regardless, this review contains my honest opinion of the book. (And I’ll be buying lots of copies for Christmas presents.)

Photo by Anja Johnson of Peony & Thyme

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