Hot potatoes and Christmas kisses

Grinch_3I started the day channelling my inner Grinch, due in large part to a phenomenon that can be counted on to happen in my workplace immediately before any holiday period. It’s very noticeable just before school breaks for the summer and vacation season starts in earnest. It happens in a small way before long weekends. And, since we’re gearing up to be closed for 2.5 days over Christmas, and since a lot of people are taking additional holidays between Christmas and New Year’s day, the phenomenon was in full force today.

I have dubbed this phenomenon “To-do List Hot Potato.”

Here’s how you play. You decide that, regardless of how far behind you have been for weeks months, it is absolutely imperative that you clear everything off your desk and do SOMETHING about every single item on your to-do list before you walk out the door. And so you send a flurry of hasty emails, leave a cluster of phone messages, and stack up the days immediately after the break with all the meetings you didn’t have time for beforehand. The objective is to relocate all the items onto other people’s to-do lists, and then head for the exit before you have to deal with their responses. By mid afternoon I had caught more than my share of To-do List Hot Potatoes, and had given up and relocated most of my own catch-up list to another spot on my calendar.

The weather has been unseasonably mild, so I was able to shake off some of my grinchiness by walking part of the way home. But the day’s real redemption came with a kiss.

No, not that kind of kiss.

I sat down on the bus next to a small boy. Across from us, his smaller sister in a pink snowsuit played peek-a-boo from her stroller. The boy clutched a green cloth shopping bag in his lap. Before I realized what was happening, he had reached into the bag and pulled out a single chocolate kiss, which he thrust in my direction in his chubby hand. kiss“This is for you.”

“Oh!” I said. “That’s very generous, but you should keep it.”

“It’s for you.”

“But I haven’t had my supper.”

“You can save it and eat if after supper!” He was very persistent. Wouldn’t take no for an answer, in fact. And finally it dawned on me that you have to be willing to receive a gift so that another may give, so I accepted.

“How old are you?” I felt that, having established a relationship, some effort at conversation was in order. My benefactor held up three fingers. “And what’s your name?”

“Cade.”

Another woman got on the bus, and sat across the aisle from us. In the blink of an eye, Cade reached into his bag a second time, fished out a second kiss, and once again reached his hand out to me. His mother grinned from over the little sister’s stroller.

“Could you pass this on to that lady?” “You can put it in your purse,” Cade suggested to her when she gently protested.

“It seems to be very important to him,” I whispered.

In the end, she was just as incapable of saying no as I had been.

The bus’s automated voice signalled my stop approaching. I exchanged a final smile with my new friend.

“You’ve certainly got wonderful Christmas spirit, Cade.”

And by the time I got off the bus, so did I.

Looking for the light

The solstice is making sense to me in a new way this year. I’ve always noted it in passing– always felt some sense of quiet relief that the days would now begin to lengthen. But it’s always been subsumed by the hectic chaos of Christmas.

I’m trying to slow down the season, along with everything else in my life. Trying to be where I am, and see where I am. Trying to pare away some of the clutter of the season and only keep the parts that are truly of value.

Today is, admittedly, one of the hectic days. But it is hectic in the service of a family tradition that is part of the valued core of the season for me.

Today is also winter solstice. The day the earth’s march into darkness stops, and the light begins to return. I’ve been so aware of the darkness this fall. So many things have happened in my inner  circle and in the wider circles of my world that have made me feel the darkness more acutely. I can scarcely stand to listen to the news, not sure that I can listen to another tale of injustice or brutality. I can’t walk past a Christmas display in a shopping mall without wondering about the lives of the sweatshop workers that produced the glitter and tinsel. As I tally and re-tally my carefully budgeted Christmas expenditures, I can’t help but think of those for whom Christmas will be another cold day on the street. I hold in my hands and my heart the family, friends and acquaintances for whom this holiday season is coloured by loss and sadness.

The solstice comes not a moment too soon. We all need the light to return.

Christmas Angels

There’s a comfortable predictability to Christmas Eve church.  There will always be a little girl in a red velvet dress running up and down the aisles to remind me of a time when it was my own little girls doing the running. There will be a mountain of poinsettias in front of the altar, ready to be delivered to the parish shut-ins after the Christmas services are over. There will be the crèche, and the candles. There will be lots of people we see exactly once a year, including a lot of tall teenagerish-looking people who look faintly like a bunch of little kids I remember from Christmases not so long ago.

And of course the story is completely familiar. The long journey, the stable, the baby, and a bunch of shepherds who suddenly look up to discover they are surrounded by angels trumpeting the good news. This year it was the part about the angels that struck me the most. Perhaps I had angels on my mind after yesterday’s post. Perhaps it was the preacher’s assertion that if a host of angels showed up and told him to “be not afraid,” he was quite certain that he would be afraid nonetheless. But the shepherds, according to the story, drop everything they are doing and go off to see the baby on the word of the angels.

I think that’s why I am fascinated by the part of the angels in the story this Christmas– because, whatever theological significance they might have, for me right now they represent something about embracing the unexpected. As it turns out, some of the best things about this Christmas have been the unexpected. Daughter #1 was able to spend more of the day with us than anticipated. We had some last minute additions to our Christmas dinner table this evening.  Daughter #2 officially took up the baton as chief turkey cook while I ran an unexpected errand at the critical moment. We had to improvise around a couple of dinner traditions because of items that were inadvertently left behind, but it all fell wonderfully into place.

We even managed to embrace the less “angelic” unexpected events– like a bad skid on an icy road that resulted in me rear-ending another car on the way to my sister’s for brunch. No one was hurt. The other woman’s car didn’t have a scratch. And my front bumper… well, the insurance will cover that, and in the meantime the car is still driveable. It could have been much worse, and I came away feeling more grateful than shaken.

The wind went down while we were at church on Christmas eve. When we came out it felt almost warm in contrast to the -30 Celsius wind chill we have been enduring for a couple of weeks. We stopped on the way home to walk a friend’s little dog that we are looking after while her people are away. It was so lovely out that after we got back from the first walk, the dog insisted on going out a second time.

When we arrived home, daughter #2 and I climbed through the snowbank up onto the dike to look at the river. Along the top of the dike there is still a well-worn path, but the snow on the slope going down towards the river bank was undisturbed. We just stood there and enjoyed being outside without suffering immediate frostbite, and then my daughter turned to me with an impish smile.

“Want to make a snow angel?”

“YES!” (I was, I confess, actually thinking to myself, “I really want to make a snow angel…”)

snow angel 5
The photo is dark because a) it was dark, and b) if you are a 52 year old woman making snow angels in a public park, it is probably better that way!

So we did. And it was great. Doubly great, because it was one more activity that I couldn’t have engaged in with my pre-surgery hip.

And then my daughter stomped MERRY X-MAS in the snow along the riverbank in ten-foot high letters. Probably big enough to be seen from across the river.

For sure big enough to be seen by the angels from their vantage point in the heavens.

snow angel 2

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Christmas pageants always make me cry. There’s  something about little kids dressed up as shepherds and angels that always undoes me.

She was dressed as an angel that year. I sat in the pew, beaming proudly as she took her place on the chancel steps with the rest of the angel chorus. Then I realized that she was crying.

In the brief minutes she was up there, I played through all the scenarios I could think of. Had someone said something to upset her? Was it stage fright? Had she hurt herself downstairs while getting in costume? Was she moved to tears by the deep significance of the story she was helping to portray? At the age of 7?

When the makeshift stage lights went down on the last of the wise men, I rushed into the chapel to see what was wrong. She was out of costume by the time I got there, and looking much more composed.

“You were great sweetie, but how come you were crying?”

She showed me her finger, still red where the thread had cut into the flesh. Her angel robe had had a loose thread at the end of one sleeve. She had absentmindedly wrapped the thread around her finger and then couldn’t get it loose again. Poor kid had been crying in pain the whole time she was “on stage.” Fortunately one of the Sunday School teachers had managed to free her finger once she discovered the problem. By the time we got to the after-church snack she had shaken it off. I was the one still feeling distressed.

I missed the kids’ pageant this year. Now that my own kids have outgrown Sunday School, it’s not quite the draw it once was. There are other things that make it Christmas for me now. Certain songs I have to sing–Hark the Herald Angels Sing  is one of them. Certain stories I have to hear. Certain people I need to gather with. It all comes together for me in this Christmas classic:

Wishing you peace and love this Christmas and always.

Ready or not

With this kind of help it's a wonder anything is ever ready.
With this kind of help it’s a wonder anything is ever ready.

Somewhere around the middle of December those awkward conversations that happen when one meets a casual acquaintance on the elevator start to stress me. I’m sure you know the conversations I’m taking about– the ones that normally revolve around the weather, and start with nice safe statements like “that was some wind yesterday” and “sure hope it warms up for the weekend.” I can manage a benign dialogue on these meteorological subjects for several floors without breaking a sweat. But I have come to realize that there is one elevator conversation-starter that I truly dread.

“Are you ready for Christmas?”

For some reason I feel like I am supposed to provide an actual answer to this question, rather than the usual meaningless elevator small talk. I think way too hard about my response, mentally kicking into overdrive as I silently review the status of my gift-shopping list and my pre-Christmas errand list and the to-do list on my desk of all the things I should really try to get done before I go on vacation. I generally blurt out a lame response like, “Almost.”

I wish I knew why I feel so pressured by this question. I know that the people asking it are just doing it to fill air space– that they don’t really care whether my gifts are all wrapped and my cookies all baked– that they aren’t really judging me on the basis of whether or not the tree is up and the lights hung.

Why then do I catch myself judging myself?

What does it really mean to be “ready” for Christmas? In the Anglican tradition in which I grew up, we spend four whole weeks of Advent getting ready for Christmas. Four weeks in which we light candles and reflect on the significance of the child whose birth we are celebrating. That is, if that is still what we are celebrating.

I admit to being one of those annoying people who starts Christmas shopping in August. I’m not a big fan of shopping in general, so If I can spread it out over a longer period it is less of a burden. Even so, I am almost always dashing out to pick up something at the last minute. This year in spite of carefully buying the various components of Christmas dinner for which I am responsible well ahead, I have still thought of one more thing I will have to go out and buy amidst the throngs of last-minute shoppers.

Even when I’m ready, I don’t feel ready.

I think it has something to do with the fact that the older I get, the more complicated Christmas gets for me– the more I understand that Christmas happens in spite of us. If you are sick or hurting, Christmas doesn’t wait until you feel better. If you are lonely or sad, Christmas doesn’t wait until you feel more like celebrating. Christmas doesn’t care if you are ready. It comes regardless. And, because we have imbued its coming with such significance, with such–dare I say it– baggage, its relentless determination to arrive on schedule despite our degree of readiness can make the things that weigh us down seem all the more weighty.

If you are grieving, the fact of Christmas  can make the grief harder to bear. If you are alone, Christmas can be even lonelier. When you are low, there is nothing like the expectation that we will all be “merry” to make you feel even lower.

You know the song “We need a little Christmas?” It’s a mall and radio station favourite, because it screams Christmas without anything suspiciously religious like shepherds and stars. But do you know where the song originates? It’s actually from the Broadway musical Mame. The song comes at the point in the plot where everything has gone about as wrong at it can go. Auntie Mame has lost her job, and lost her fortune in the stock market crash. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, they aren’t exactly merry:

I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older

 

Essentially the song is saying that we need a little Christmas to distract us from the fact that, at this precise moment in time, life sucks.

Since I started writing this post I have put the finishing touches on my 5-year old nephew’s made-to-order Darth Vader cape and reversible Indiana Jones vest. (Yes, I’m THAT aunt. Jealous?) I have wrapped my last gift. Aside from that one last grocery run, I am ready for Christmas.

And for me, at this point in time, life doesn’t entirely suck. But I know people– people I care about– for whom it does. And Christmas is coming whether they are ready for it or not.

That’s why I was delighted to come across a blogging  initiative called C4C– which stands for Company for Christmas. You can read all about it here. It’s being managed this year by a terrific blogger who goes by the handle Rarasaur, and the premise is that bloggers volunteer to spend some time online on Christmas day so that other bloggers who are alone on Christmas have a community to interact with. I continue be amazed at the kinds of connections that happen in the blogsphere. Just when I start to get the cynical feeling that 99% of the blogs following mine are either spammers or out to enlist me in some pyramid scheme, something like C4C comes along and restores my faith in humanity.

Because when it comes right down to it, being ready for Christmas doesn’t really have anything to do with how many tins of cookies are stacked on the kitchen counter, or how overdrawn your bank account is. Remember the Whos down in Whoville? Even after the Grinch stripped their homes of all the gifts and treats and trappings of Christmas, they were still ready. Ready to hold hands and be a community that celebrates together even when times are tough. Now I’m ready.

It’s beginning to look a lot like…

cookiesMy house looks like a bomb went off. A sugar bomb, to be precise. My youngest is having a bake-fest, and when I staggered in after working late, the condo smelled amazing. Every inch of the kitchen counter is covered with bowls and cocoa powder and sheets of parchment paper. Recipes, both new and old,  are taped all over the kitchen cupboards. She’s a much more adventurous baker than I will ever be. I tend to go back to my tried and true recipes year after year, but by the time we fall into bed tonight our home will be a heady melange of the smells of old favourites with the tantalizing aromas of her latest internet recipe discoveries.

Sometimes the new recipes disappoint. One of tonight’s new ventures proved to be a dud. The dough was difficult to shape, and when it came out of the oven the cookies were tasteless.  Yet another reminder that you can’t trust everything you find on the internet!

xmas treeWhat I love is that she keeps trying new recipes even when they don’t always pan out. Christmas is an evolving tradition in our household. We have some non-negotiable traditions, but within those traditions there is room for flexibility. There WILL be massive quantities of cookies, but they might not be the same kinds every year. There WILL be a real tree (well, except that time I broke my foot and we had to stay at my mom’s over the holiday…) but it isn’t always the same kind of tree. Some years we have procured the tree from a swanky greenhouse. Some years we have trouped through the woods to cut our own. There WILL be a turkey (which I WILL be responsible for cooking!) but some years we have eaten that turkey at our house, and some years I have carted it across town to my sister’s. One year I cooked it in one sister’s oven and transported to the other sister’s house to eat.

Families evolve, and celebrations by necessity evolve along with us. Sometimes the traditions require some major re-invention. Over the years our family Christmas celebrations have been recast around births and deaths, illness and divorce. If our Christmas traditions were music they would be jazz– we have some basic melodies and chord progressions we all agree upon, but when the time comes we are always improvising variations on a theme.

wrapLike my bundle of gift bags salvaged from bygone gifts and Boxing-Day Bargain rolls of wrap, we continue to blend the old with the new. Some new recipes will be keepers. Others we will chalk up to experience and put aside to make way for another year’s experiment.