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For more than 40 Christmas Eves, McLean Hamlet’s quiet streets have become dazzling byways, illuminated by thousands of luminaries placed alongside its curbs.

The neighborhood's annual Festival of Lights draws visitors who stroll the quaint winding roads, tucked into the hustle-bustle of Tysons Corner. The light display is a bright welcome to those coming home for the holidays.

But this year, the meaning behind the candles reaches much deeper than in years past, says Michelle Blanton, secretary of the McLean Hamlet Community Association.

“After the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Hamlet residents chose to dedicate their luminaria to the innocent victims of last week's senseless brutality,” Blanton said.

“McLean Hamlet Community hopes the candles remind others of the fragility of life, the importance of balance and coexistence in our world, and sadly, the premature loss of so many innocent children and the adults who tried to protect them.”

The candle-lighting tradition began in the mid-1960s, after a couple so moved by a luminaria display in Mexico, decorated their yard with paper bags and candles. They inspired others to join in.

By the early 1970s, the luminaries had become so popular, The McLean Hamlet Garden Club took on the task of organizing and distributing candle kits. Nearly 100 percent of residents have participated each year. Charlotte Basset-Zimmerman led the effort for three decades. Now, Ahnya Barrer distributes luminaria to the more than 500 homes in the McLean Hamlet community.

“Today the event has become a multinational, multicultural, multigenerational, nonsectarian occasion reflecting the neighborhood's common humanity,” Blanton said.

Falls Church author shares story with ‘Chicken Soup’

Moria Rose Donohue, a children’s author from Falls Church, has contributed a chapter to the latest volume in the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series.

Her “Hockey, You Had Me at Face-off” is chapter 19 in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hooked on Hockey.” It begins: “The ‘hockey stick present.’ According to Urban Dictionary, it’s ‘a gift given another that is really a present that the giver wants for him/herself.’”

Donohue’s 20-something son gave her a hockey stick present one Mother’s Day: a ticket to a Washington Capitals’ hockey game. She wasn’t a fan — and wasn’t hooked even when her son explained the ticket was for a playoff game.

“I wasn’t sure what it was a playoff for (I later learned it was for the Stanley Cup), but I feigned enthusiasm,” she wrote. Despite the hesitant beginning, the story has a happy ending, one that’s good for the soul.

Donahue has written six biographies, two picture books — “Alfie the Apostrophe” and “Penny the Punctuation Bee” — as well as children’s plays, articles and poems.

“Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hooked on Hockey,” released in October, sells for $14.95.

Burke writer’s essay wins top prize in contest

Katrina Smith of Burke is the grand prize winner of the newly launched Kelly Culhane Writing Prize. Smith’s winning essay is one of 94 featured in “Upon Arrival of Illness: Coming the Terms with the Dark Companion,” an anthology of essays and poems entered in the contest.

Publisher Mike Savage of Savage Press started the contest to honor Culhane, his niece, who died of breast cancer in 2010, leaving a husband and two young children.

“Knowing she did a tremendous amount of writing about her diagnosis, treatment, fears and joys, I wanted to honor her memory, promote writing as therapy and provide a memorable trip to Ireland’s West, a place Kelly … was unable to visit,” Savage said.

The grand prize was a 10-day writing retreat at the Burren Cottage in County Clare, Ireland.

Each essay in the anthology speaks to a different aspect of major illness. Some people wrote about depression, grief or loss. Others wrote about Alzheimer’s disease and mental illness.

Smith, 32, wrote about cancer, drawing on her experience watching her brother-in-law live with terminal medullary carcinoma, a thyroid cancer.

“By and large, he was quietly resolute in the face of his condition,” she wrote. “He passed away ... a few months before we would have turned 25. He was an incredible human being, dealing with a set of extraordinary circumstances with more grace and certitude and joy than I have ever seen on this earth.”

Smith also witnessed her 11-year-old nephew deal with pediatric bone cancer in his leg, watching his dreams of playing professional baseball and serving in the military wither away.

“Imagine a boy who loves to hunt and fish and play sports suddenly hardly able to walk between two chairs in the same room, enduring bout after bout of chemo,” she said. “He, too, was brave. Angry, but brave.”

Her nephew is in remission, “but it was an experience that has fundamentally changed his outlook on life,” she said.

Smith, who is working toward a master’s in fine arts at George Mason University, traveled to Ireland on July 25. Winning the trip meant a return to a country she loves.

“It was as Ireland always is wonderful, divine, wild, inscrutable,” she said.

“Upon Arrival of Illness” can be ordered at www.SavPress.com for $14.95. A portion of proceeds goes to cancer research.

Springfield man photographs 50 National Christmas Trees

In December 1963, Al Nielsen drove his wife, Vivian, and four children to Washington, D.C., to see the National Christmas Tree, a red spruce from West Virginia.

That year, the mourning period after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy delayed the tree lighting. Nielsen placed his camera atop his car and captured the first photo of what would become a long-standing annual tradition.

The 90-year-old Nielsen recently photographed the 2012 National Christmas Tree, making this the 50th consecutive year he has captured history in the nation’s capital.

Although all 50 years have been memorable, Nielsen said, a few stick in his mind.

In 1979 and 1980, the National Christmas Tree remained mostly unlit out of respect for U.S. hostages held in Iran. Upon their release on Inauguration Day 1981, the tree was relit to celebrate their impending return. Al and Vivian were helping their church serve hot beverages to spectators at the inauguration.

“When I heard … I took my camera and got over there,” he said.

In 1995, a partial government shutdown threatened to keep the tree dark. “President Clinton himself financed the lighting of the tree,” Nielsen said.

Over the years, Nielsen switched from Minolta to Nikon with the advent of digital photography, and purchased a remote-controlled tripod. He also started videotaping the trees when technology introduced changing lights and colors.

The Nielsens moved in 2003 to Greenspring retirement community in Springfield, where Al is the “unofficial-official” resident photographer.

This year, two sons and a grandson accompanied him to see the brand-new Colorado blue spruce with 450 LED light strings. “It was a family outing, just like my first photo in 1963,” said Nielsen, whose son Brian might carry on the tradition.

The National Park Service has displayed Neilsen’s photos on its website. Last year, Nielsen produced a 31-minute video featuring each tree since 1963, including snippets of history and images set to holiday tunes.