Christmas Is For Lovers

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IMG_1485Our first Christmas together, my husband did not want to get a tree. He reasoned that we would be spending the holidays with our families and were at home so little it wasn’t worth the effort. To me, no Christmas was complete without a real tree shimmering with lights and tinsel. So I was feeling glum as I made my way home from my teaching job one cold and wintry December evening. When I walked in the door, I was surprised to find my beloved kneeling at the base of a lovely tall fir tree, screwing the posts of a tree stand into its trunk. Next to the tree were boxes of lights and shiny ornaments he’d bought. He had carried the tree on his back for three blocks and up the three flights of stairs to the condo where it now stood in all its majesty at the big picture window. I was thrilled and touched.

Something about the holidays moves us to be kind and generous to each other. And over the years, it has been a time when my husband has gone out of his way to show me how much he loves me.

One of my favorite Christmas tree ornaments was given to me by my sister. It is a Precious Moments ornament with the inscription, “Our First Christmas Together 1988,” and I have always given it pride of place on our tree. One Christmas, one of my kids was attempting to hang it on the tree when it slipped out of his little hands and broke in two. I was inconsolable. Of all the ornaments we had collected over the years, that one was irreplaceable. That Christmas morning, in the pile of presents from my husband, was a small box with the very Precious Moments ornament I thought was gone forever. My husband had searched for its replacement and special ordered it for me.

Through the years, somehow my husband has found ways to give me gifts with deep emotional meaning. One year he had restored and tinted a favorite old photo of my sisters when they were little. Another year, I unwrapped three fancifully decorated letters of the alphabet representing the initials of each of our three children. But there was a fourth box of identical shape. When I opened it, tears came to my eyes. It was the letter “O,” representing our hope for the fourth child we were in the process of adopting.

Christmas is an emotional time for many people, and I am an extremely sensitive and emotional person. The year my father died, I could hardly bear to celebrate Christmas. The holiday that had always been marked by my father’s birthday on Christmas Eve would feel so empty without him. That year, my husband gently coaxed me through the season, helping me decorate the house and reminding me that our kids needed to feel the joy of the season – but also allowing me space to grieve.

The true magic of Christmas is that it can bring us closer to the people we love. That has certainly been the case with my husband and me over the years. I cherish the memories of almost three decades of Christmases together and pray that we have many, many more.

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Hope

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With everything going on in the world these days, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Greed, intolerance, partisanship, abuse, and violence have all cast a pall on my holiday spirits. I have several friends who have stopped going on Facebook to avoid the constant bad news and negativity. To add to my feelings of despondency, I learned that a little boy from my town lost his battle with cancer last week.

But then at Sunday morning Mass, something happened to me. I was watching parishioners file down the aisles after receiving Holy Communion, and a tiny feeling lit up my heart: hope. All these people, young and old, had given up their cozy beds of a Sunday morning and come together to pray. We were there because we have faith that goodness and love are stronger than evil and hatred.

Faith is the ” realization of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) This past Sunday, the first candle was lit on the Advent wreath, its light a reminder of that tiny flame within each of us that can kindle hope.

Hope looks like Sisterhood Soap, a collective of Iraqi refugee women living in the direst of conditions who are taking charge of their destiny by making and selling soap. Hope resembles the unlikely friendship between an 81-year-old white woman and a 22-year-old black man, who met playing the online game Words With Friends. Hope is the dominant spirit at GiGi’s Playhouse, a nonprofit that works toward achievement and acceptance of people with Down’s Syndrome. Hope is Operation Christmas Child, a mission to spread joy and faith throughout the world with boxes full of goodies for impoverished children.

Hope is the sound of the Salvation Army bell ringing out on the cold, busy street. Hope is the light in a young child’s eyes when he sees a brightly wrapped package on Christmas morning with his name on it. Hope is abundant as families gather at the holidays, break bread, and share their love for one another.  Hope is the babe in the manger, the unlikely harbinger of peace on earth.

With a spirit of hope, let’s move through the Christmas season, spreading joy and kindness, and doing good for friends and strangers alike.

 

Countdown to Christmas

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On December 1, my kids would all jockey to be the first – that is, the first one to open a door on our Advent calendar. For me, December 1 begins the frenzied (for me), agonizing (for kids) countdown to Christmas.

Prior to Thanksgiving, I would admonish my children that they were not allowed to utter the “C” word until after we had stuffed ourselves with turkey and made our way home from Grandma’s house over the river and through the woods. But on December 1, I began to pull out all the stops.

Large red plastic boxes made their way up from the basement. Cookies dusted with red and green sugars appeared in the pantry while candy bowls got filled with peppermints and Hershey’s Kisses. The Christmas music I had refused to play prior to Thanksgiving now wafted regularly through our house.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. There are so many good things associated with it: twinkling lights, cookies, gifts, and Santa Claus. People somehow seem more cheerful going about their business with the background sound of jingle bells. And the season of Advent gives us a whole month of delicious anticipation.

When my kids were young, they would spend hours on their Christmas lists. Sometimes their wants were quite simple. One year my son asked for underwear and a Santa hat. Sometimes their requests were grander: a Brio train set, a play kitchen, a bike. My daughter has still not forgiven Santa for not getting her the My Size Barbie she asked for at age 6.

But more memorable than the gifts my children longed for were the traditions we kept each December. One of them was rolling out and decorating sugar cookies, some of which we would save for Santa. Our kitchen would be a flour- and sprinkle- infused disaster area. My son would pile his cookie high with frosting and sprinkles and then happily demolish it in minutes, red and green festooning his adorable face. We also attempted, sometimes successfully, the ubiquitous gingerbread house. I would scour the holiday candy aisle at my local grocery store for the colorful hard candies I remembered from my own childhood Christmases. These we would use to decorate our little houses, trying to make them enticing enough for Hansel and Gretel.

Another tradition of ours was to pile in the car on a wintry evening and drive around looking at Christmas lights. I’d keep the car nice and toasty for my pajama-clad kids, and we’d pass by our favorite streets and particular houses that really did Christmas in grand style. Afterwards we’d stop at a nearby Dunkin Donuts for a donut and hot chocolate before returning home and getting everyone tucked into bed.

There were fun holiday specials to watch each December and a huge Christmas tree to decorate. We’d play one of Amy Grant’s wonderful Christmas albums, and the kids would reminisce as they unwrapped special ornaments given to them or made by them in Christmas seasons past. I can remember Decembers when I would run myself ragged trying to collect all the Disney ornaments offered in McDonald’s Happy Meals.

But the tradition that really helped us anticipate the coming of Christmas was the aforementioned Advent calendar. It was a wooden box with a green wooden tree on top. Each morning a different one of the kids took his or her turn opening the designated door and placing another ornament on the wooden tree. Before long, the tree was filled with decorations, and it was clear that Christmas was almost here.

We also had a Jesse tree, which is a religious Advent calendar with 25 ornaments depicting the Biblical origins of Christmas. Each evening after dinner, we would read the Scripture passage on the next ornament and place it on the Jesse tree, and it gave us a chance to talk about Jesus’s origins as a descendant of Abraham and of the great King David, Jesse’s youngest son. This tradition gave us a glimpse into the true meaning of our waiting and anticipating: the coming of Christ on Christmas.

My kids are mostly grown now, but we still enjoy our traditions: homemade cookies, a new ornament and pair of pajamas for each kid, a Honeybaked Ham dinner on Christmas Eve, gift giving, and, of course, Christmas Mass, when “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” turns into:

Behold,
I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born
who is Christ the Lord.
(Luke 2:10-11)

May your anticipation of Christmas be happy and  holy as you count down the days of December.

 

Love, Actually

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Last night my daughters and I watched the movie Love, Actually. This 2003 film has fast become a Christmas classic for many viewers, with its humor and light romantic touch and its climax occurring on Christmas Eve. But the movie is about so much more than romantic love. It is about the enduring bonds of friendship and family, about loss, about bridging gaps between cultures, and about the triumph of love in the midst of life.

The first time I saw Love Actually, I’ll admit I was mostly focused on the couples, or the would-be couples, in the movie. Hugh Grant’s charming turn as a single British prime minister in love with an employee; cuckolded Colin Firth finding romance with his Portuguese maid; a little boy bereft of his mother falling in love with a classmate; wonderful Emma Thompson getting short shrift from her long-time husband, played by the late Alan Rickman. I felt the young man’s pain as he endured the love of his life marrying his own best friend, and the angst of a young woman in love from afar with a coworker but burdened with responsibility for her mentally ill brother.

What I like about the movie is that it is not all “happily ever after” for each romantic pair. And that is because other kinds of love often trump romance. For instance, when the woman and her colleague finally get together, the woman gets a call from her brother, and that familial love continually forces her to sacrifice her own happiness. Likewise, the forlorn member of the love triangle struggles to keep his feelings to himself so as not to harm the friendship he has with her husband. The young boy may be in love with a young girl, but it is the story of him and his stepdad and their growing relationship in the absence of a wife and mother that really takes center stage. And the Emma Thompson character stays with her unfaithful husband (for shame, Alan!) for the sake of their family.

At the end of the movie, to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” we see love in all its many permutations as loved ones are reunited at Heathrow Airport. Parents and children, lovers, friends – all embrace in the comfort of their love for each other. Each snapshot is strung together on the screen until there is a “wall of love.”

Love, Actually is a cute, clever, but also surprisingly realistic depiction of the ties that bind. What better way to finish out Christmas Day with the family?*

 

*The movie is rated R for nudity, subject matter, and language. So save it for when your little ones are mature enough.

 

 

Christmas Memories

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242AB00E00000578-2881290-image-a-28_1419262681192.jpgAlthough I am mostly a forward-looking person, at Christmas I enjoy indulging in a bit of nostalgia. As a writer, I have always appreciated the Christmas vignettes of well-known authors, such as Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and the poet Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” In that spirit, I’d like to reminisce about my own childhood Christmases in a family of 13.

Christmas Eve seemed to take forever to arrive. After weeks of thumbing through the dog-eared pages of the Sears Roebuck & Company Christmas wish book, we kids were beside ourselves anticipating Santa’s visit and the toys we were dreaming of being placed magically under our Christmas tree.

Just a few days earlier, my father had bought a real balsam fir from the local tree lot and set it up in our basement. He’d wound the colored lights around the tree with the patience of Job. Then began our painstaking job of hanging the tinsel. Strand by strand, we hung each piece just so on the branches until the tree shimmered. Finally, we were allowed to hang the ornaments, many of them homemade by us and Dad, who loved art projects, paint by numbers, model airplanes and the like. I still have a couple of the sorry looking satin ball ornaments I decorated years ago with the bare minimum of flourishes. Art was never my strong suit.

But baking was. My favorite Christmas activity was baking cookies with my mother and sisters. Our table was covered with cookie pans, colored decorations, flour and the cookie press, which made adorable and delicious little spritz cookies that looked like trees and stars. My mother would color some of the dough green and red for an added festive touch. While we rolled and decorated and baked, we listened to Christmas songs on the hi-fi and sang along, attempting harmonies we’d learned in chorus class.

In school we cut out snowflakes and made cards with a lot of glitter and thick white paste from a jar with a plastic stick. We visited the Nativity scene at church and noticed that the manger was empty, awaiting the baby Jesus’ birth on Christmas. We sang the traditional carols of the season and lit the Advent candles each week – first one, then two, then the pink one, and finally all four in a circle, the four Sundays of waiting for Emmanuel.

In our big Catholic family, religion was central to our identity and to Christmas. Before we were even allowed to peek at what Santa had brought us on Christmas morning, we would bundle off to Christmas Mass. It was so hard to sit through an hour of prayers and songs, kneeling, standing, and sitting. All I could think about was my present under the tree. Even the arrival of baby Jesus in the manger couldn’t distract me.

The night before, Christmas Eve, I had found it so hard to sleep. I lay snug in my bed near the hissing radiator and strained to hear reindeer hoofbeats on our roof. I was sure I’d never fall asleep until, all at once, a filtered light shone through the curtains and onto the snow-ladened yard, and I knew Christmas had come at last.

All eleven of us kids sat at the long table in our breakfast room and choked down food, scarcely noticing what it was. We dressed in our red velvet jumpers, each of them painstakingly sewn by Mom. Our hair was brushed, and our patent leather shoes shone, and we passed the closed basement door longingly, knowing that Santa had come last night and deposited the mother lode down there under our tree. Into our galoshes, our coats, and our mittens, which were attached by a clip to our coats so that they wouldn’t get lost, we ventured into the cold and piled into our station wagon.

After Mass and the riot of 13 people removing all their winter outerwear (and, of course, hanging it up neatly), it was finally time. We lined up in the kitchen from youngest to oldest. My dad opened the door and went down the basement stairs with his camera so that he could film us coming down. Then pandemonium. We galloped down the stairs with shrieks of glee and ran to our spots around the tree.

The mountain of gifts seemed enormous. In reality, we each received two or three things. Our excited chatter filled the room, and my parents wearily watched us from a couple of easy chairs. Dolls, toy cars, games, soft and cozy pajamas. One year my younger sister and I received a joint gift – a beautiful dollhouse with tiny furniture and a little family. I still remember my favorite piece from that dollhouse: a red velvet chaise longue. It seemed so elegant, as if a rich family resided in that toy mansion. After sufficient oohing and ahhing over our gifts, we checked the socks we had hung by the fireplace. Invariably, there would be plenty of hard candy stuffed inside and, at the bottom, a perfectly round tangerine.

Later on, we would have an early Christmas dinner in our dining room and then visit relatives. After a long, full day, we would go to bed and sleep heavily, our days of waiting and longing finally fulfilled. And in the morning, if we were lucky, there would be snow to play in. And I could start dreaming – of my January birthday!

 

 

Bleak Midwinter

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The poem/carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” is an homage to the lowly circumstances of Christ’s birth. Like the setting in everyone’s favorite fantasy gore-fest, Game of Thrones, the cold and humble stable where God’s son entered the world serves as a metaphor for a world of pain and bleakness.

This year, winter has come early and with a vengeance here in the Midwest. Only a couple of weeks into meteorological winter, Chicago already has about 10 inches of snow on the ground. In the next few days, temperatures are expected to plunge below zero. I’d say it’s more like a bleak early winter.

Already feeling a bit blue over the results of the presidential election and the horrid slew of Cabinet appointments by Donald Trump, I am in no mood to slog through the snow or face the bitter cold. Despite the twinkly Christmas lights that adorn houses and commercial buildings, I just can’t get my merry on.

Christmas is a difficult time for many people. The poor, the sick, the lonely, and the homeless all suffer from want in the midst of plenty. Those who recently lost a loved one can’t help but compare this year’s emptiness with last year’s cheer. Depression hits many at this time of year, and some of us are emotionally affected by the lack of daylight.

As I see it, the only way to shake the melancholy is to take the focus off myself and give it to others. Making the effort to smile and be kind to harried shopkeepers and other service personnel; placing an extra dollar or two into the tip jars of those who help us all year; participating in toy, clothing, and food drives; staying in touch with friends and family: All are good ways to banish the cold that creeps into our winter hearts.

The last stanza of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” goes:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

No matter what our circumstances this Christmas season, our love for others is a gift that keeps on giving. And it’s the one gift that we feel lucky when it’s returned.

War on Christmas

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I’m so relieved! Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has announced that, thanks to Trump’s election as president, Christmas is saved. So glad that President-elect Trump is Making Christmas Great Again.

To be honest, though, I was pretty sure Christmas was not going underground when I shopped recently at my local Target. Here’s the display of Christmas items there:

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In contrast, here are the Hanukkah items you can buy at Target:

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And thank heavens I didn’t even see any Eid or Kwanzaa decorations. I guess Christmas’s dominance over the holidays is assured.

But not so fast. Many Americans are still concerned that the political correctness police (AKA the Democratic Party) is preventing innocent citizens from uttering the words, “Merry Christmas.” For instance, just this morning the smiling but frozen Salvation Army bell ringer offered me a mere “Happy Holidays.” But seriously, folks, I think the “C” word is safe, what with all the radio stations playing Christmas music 24/7. I haven’t heard of one instance of someone feeling affronted by being wished a Merry Christmas.

Yet what about that creche you want put up in the public square? The hateful U.S. Constitution won’t allow it! To these people I say: If you want to see baby Jesus in the manger, get your a** to church. They all have them on display, usually outside, so you don’t even have the inconvenience of attending a service.

I do believe there is a war on Christmas, but to my mind it’s a spiritual one. It’s the lack of civility and kindness that has really ratcheted up since the election of the Divider-in- Chief, Donald Trump. Newsweek recently reported the following:

There were nearly 900 reports of hate incidents in the 10 days after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and schools across the country reported an uptick in violence, derogatory comments and verbal harassment, according to a new study from the Southern Poverty Law Center. (newsweek.com, Nov. 29, 2016)

In the ultimate irony of conservatives’ insistence that Christmas is under attack, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, was vilified for having a black Santa Claus greet kids and hear their Christmas wishes. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which reported this “first” for MOA, was forced to turn off the comments section of its online site due to the racist and hateful messages posted. And the corker is that black Santa Larry Jefferson is a U.S. Army veteran. The right loves their veterans, except when they are black and trying to be Santa.

On the very first Christmas night, when angels appeared to announce the birth of a newborn king, they proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

That is the Christmas spirit for which we should all be striving during these next few weeks. All the rest of it – the jingle bells, decorated trees, presents, and Santa – are just trappings.