Category Archives: Christmas

Tidings Of Comfort and Joy

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This the final post in a 3-part series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Two family members will be missing from our family Christmas gatherings this year.

My mother died in April after a ten-year journey with dementia. She hadn’t been well enough to participate in our family Christmas celebrations for the past few years. Instead, we had established different traditions with her at the Healthcare Facility in which she lived.

My sister’s husband died in August as a result of Lymphoma, just one year after being diagnosed with what was believed to be a treatable cancer. We didn’t know last Christmas would be his final Christmas.

Many extended family members and friends are also facing their first Christmas after the loss of a loved one. The anticipation of seeing that empty chair can seem overwhelming. Recalling once-happy Christmas memories leaves you in tears.

I love Christmas music, despite the physical reaction I have to “O’ Holy Night” and “Silent Night.” Both cause my eyes to instantly fill with tearsThe first was one of my Dad’s favorite songs. It brings to mind the Christmas Eve Masses we attended. The second reminds me of my paternal Grandmother and her annual family party held on December 23rd.

At one point during the evening she would remind us to sing carols to invite Santa Claus’s arrival. Grandma would begin singing “Silent Night.” Looking back, maybe this was her clever crowd control:  Gather her 24 grandchildren and quiet them with the lullaby effect of a hymn! When I hear the song, I hear her voice.

A few weeks ago I was in the car with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” playing on the radio. The song suddenly had a different meaning as I listened to the lyrics.

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Comfort and joy? Wow! We were definitely in need of both this Holiday season. Where would we find them?

Then I unpacked some Christmas decorations. I was struck by the notes indicating the contents of some the boxes. It has been several years since my Mother and her Mother have written anything to me, but their handwriting is instantly recognizable.

Seeing the notes didn’t make me sad. It wasn’t even bittersweet. They made me smile. The notes are a connection to Christmases past, and a connection to my Mom and Grandma. I felt they were with me, giving me a decorating assist with their organized labeling. Funny, I didn’t know one day the real treasures in a box of Radko ornaments would be labels and crumpled sticky notes.

I think comfort can be found in our family traditions. As difficult it might be to carry on traditions without our loved ones, the familiar might be just what we need. They can at least get us in the groove, and provide a bit of a roadmap.

Traditions can be just as comforting when a new generation assumes them. My niece misses playing elf on her annual shopping day with her Dad, during which they would purchase a gift for her Mom. I imagine my niece’s  little elf-in-training will be shopping with her Daddy, very soon. How heartwarming is that?

I’m a fan of Christmas trees with eclectic decorations. Family heirloom ornaments that have hung on the tree for decades are some of my favorites. Whether they are legitimate antiques, a grade school craft, full of mid century kitsch or the coveted pickle, they tell the comforting history of family Holidays.

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Holiday menu fare includes family recipes that have become tradition. Grandma’s Jewish Coffee Cake, Mom’s Sugar Cookies, and Dad’s favorite cookies. We try to perfect those heirloom recipes in hope they will turn out exactly as they did when Mom or Grandma was cooking. After all, I think tradition is most comforting when it involves comfort food!

This Christmas, we’ll celebrate the birth of our Savior, be visited by Santa, and exchange gifts, but how can we possibly get in the mood for actual merriment when we are sad, missing our loved one and face an empty chair?

The empty chair has become a symbol for the absence of loved ones at family gatherings. There is a Facebook page dedicated to it. It is both literal and figurative, because the reality is, our missing loved ones took up more than a chair. This is especially true of my brother-in-law. His presence filled an entire room.

He lived his life in the spirit of the two main men of Christmas. He never had to ask himself, “What would Jesus do?” He just always did the right thing. He was a counselor in personal matters and a mentor in the business world.  Like Santa, he loved Christmas and gift giving. His quiet, usually anonymous generosity continued year round, and was life-changing for individuals and organizations.

With such a huge presence missing, how will we find joy?

My brother-in-law’s family gathered at my sister’s home to celebrate Christmas last weekend. His six siblings and their children and grandchildren numbering 60+ strong embraced the spirit of their  brother/uncle. They “adopted” an in-need family and purchased every item on the family’s wish list.

What an absolute abundance of joy, and an abundance of love. My sister shared with them, her family of 40+ years, that the gift of their presence was what she and her children most appreciated. She assured them that they needn’t to be afraid to talk about her husband or say his name. In fact, hearing stories helps her and her children feel close to him, and in a way – keeps him alive.

So, our biggest source of joy, will come from simply being together.  The delight of our smallest family members will keep us entertained. We’ll savor our culinary accomplishments. We’ll talk about our missing loved ones. We’ll say their names. There may be a few tears, but there will definitely be alot of laughs.

If you are grieving and facing the first Christmas since the loss of a loved one, I hope you are able to find true comfort and joy.

Go ahead. Hang the ornaments. Sing the carols. Cry the tears. Fill the chair. Share the stories. Laugh.

And eat the cookies.

 

 

 

Christmas Chicks

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Christmas chicks list_Page_1 My girl Maria* is 13 years old. While I know nothing about her, and I will never meet her, I do know what is on her Christmas wish list.

For nearly 10 years, I have been lucky to be included in a group of women – a fabulous idea dreamed up by the kindness, and generous spirit of my friend Mary Ellen. She shared her spark of inspiration during an “I have an idea, whaddaya think?” moment on a morning beach walk.

She recognized that many of the tremendous Holiday donation programs focus on small children. Teenagers existing in the awkward space between childhood and adulthood, are often forgotten. She knew exactly which organization she wanted to work with.

A few  months later, Christmas Chicks were officially  hatched!  The flock includes approximately (85) women.

Every year, each of the Christmas Chicks  are  “paired with” a teenage girl who is a permanent resident of a group home.Girls in the care of this wonderful organization, have been removed from their  family because it was an unsafe situation for them.

Their abuser may have been a parent, a family member or perhaps their Mom’s boyfriend. While each girl’s situation is unique, they all have one thing in common: the adults in their life have failed them  through abuse, failure to protect them, and broken promises. Everyone in their life has let them down. Sadly, sometimes  Mom chooses the abuser over own her daughter.

During the holiday season, they become our girls. They are asked to make a wish list of (3) items.

Each year, shortly before Thanksgiving, each Christmas Chick receives her girl’s name and Christmas list, and then……she gets her  Santa on! She purchases the three items on the list…and only what is on the list.

This is possibly my favorite shopping to do during the Christmas season, because I know it has such an impact on the recipient.

Thankfully, my loved ones are blessed to have warm woolen mittens,  sparkly things, and techie gadgets that beep and tweet.The joy of shopping for them results from finding something unexpected that I know they will enjoy.

Kids in foster care or in the care of an agency often times don’t have many personal possessions. Our girls give careful and thoughtful consideration to writing  their list.

Over the years, I have purchased typical teenage girl things: pink hoodies, basketballs, Tinkerbell  and Betty Boop stuff, cameras, scrapbooking supplies, Victoria’s Secret body mist, Bath & Body Works products, and every year it seems: a blow dryer.

The unwrapped gifts are put into large Christmas gift bags.

On a Thursday evening in December, Mary Ellen hosts all the Christmas Chicks for a lovely and very lively evening of holiday cheer –  including in past years, a reindeer game…of dice. Nothin’ like dozens of women frantically rolling dice into pie tins,squealing for doubles,  and running to claim, or even better yet – steal a prize. It is a mad frenzy, because the stakes are high!  I mean, one year I scored an entire case of Costco toilet paper!

Due to the organization’s  policy of confidentiality, the Christmas Chicks never actually  meet their girls. The party also serves as a means for gift gathering, as Kimberly and her elves  efficiently wade through a sea of large Christmas gift bags and organize it all. The gifts are collected, so  the girls can receive them on Christmas morning.

I missed the fun of the Christmas Chicks party last night, but I know the Chicks were kickin’ up their heels and shakin’ their tail feathers on the dance floor!

While I didn’t make the party, I did get to enjoy shopping for Maria! The items on my Maria’s list were:

  1. Boom box with AM/FM and CD player
  2. Blow dryer (1875 watts please)
  3. Journal

I love this list, because the items on it are transformative for a teenage girl.

As a curly-haired girl who endured my teenage years before the advent of ionic blow dryers, styling products, and the heaven-sent Brazilian blowout, I know the importance of a good blow dryer. I hope the one Maria receives will allow  her to face her challenges with the self-confidence gained from feeling well-groomed.

We all know  how music can enrich our life, soothe our soul, touch our heart and motivate us to shake our groove thing. I hope the boom box Maria receives  provides a soundtrack for her teenage years:  background tunes for a study session, a comfort during heartbreak or disappointment, and a dance party when she’s celebrating with the girls.

I smiled when I saw that Maria wanted to  journal.Writing is therapeutic in many ways.  I know the clarity  that can be gained from making a list, and that writing is a powerful way to process emotion. I also know that, if you  never dream it…it will never be. I hope writing is a step towards healing Maria’s heart, and I hope she fills the journal with dreams. Really big dreams.

As the Director of these homes has expressed, the gifts mean more than Christmas morning presents and material possessions. To the girls, it means someone followed through. Someone made a promise,and kept it. Often for the first time in their life, they weren’t let down by an adult. Even though, it’s a person they will never meet, it gives them hope.

Sure, the Chicks follow the rules and put only three gifts in the bag, but somehow the bags overflow with two additional treasures to cherish: love and hope.

To me, that feels like a little bit of Christmas magic.

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*Name has been changed

The Tale Of The Family Pa-flu-za

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IMG_3463Warning: While I try to avoid being a potty-mouth, this post does contain some potty talk.

“I think Grandma just threw up a little.”

Not what we wanted to hear as the entire family was arriving for Christmas Day Family Palooza at my sister’s home. Grandma said she felt fine, but this family of germaphobes erred on the side of caution. Grandma was taken home immediately and after some sanitizing, Christmas continued without incident.

December 26th, we all felt fine. Whew! We capped off the busy day with a big pot of my sister’s delicious vegetable soup. We had resolved to get back to eating healthy after a week of indulging. This colorful soup was chock full of fiber and chunky vegetables; exactly what we needed!  I went to bed around midnight.

We were staying with my sister’s family. My husband had already gone to bed, and his alarm was set for 4:30 a.m. to catch a flight back to the West Coast. A few minutes after I climbed into bed, without a word, he got up to use the bathroom. When he returned, he announced: “Oh man, I have bad diarrhea!” (As if there is a “good” diarrhea?) 

You might imagine, no announcement had actually been necessary. Believe me, I had put #2 and #2 together and figured it out on my own. I asked if  he thought he’d be able to make his flight, or if I should get online and change it.  He said he’d be fine.

An hour later, I was stunned when the first powerful wave of nausea hit me. I will never be able to stick-my-finger-down-my-throat-and-get-it-over-with. I fight it with lots of deep breathing and a “mind over matter” approach. However, I quickly realized there was no stopping this matter. Panic set in, because the en suite guest bath was occupied by my husband.

I told him I needed to use the bathroom, and soon realized that in addition to the toilet…I needed a basin for tossing my Christmas Cookies. My only basin option was a wicker wastebasket. I begged my husband to go downstairs and quickly grab a piece of Gladware or a bowl, and yelled, “DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!!”

I quarantined us to the guest room. It was a dire situation. We had to share the toilet, but thankfully, my spouse with the iron stomach, didn’t need to share my basin. For the next five hours, we danced a delirious, diarrhea do-si-do. This was a violent, bring-you-to-your-knees gastro-intestinal bug. There is nothing as humbling and  dehumanizing as the experience of having no control over your bodily functions.

I deeply regretted eating vegetable soup. At one point, I spotted a green bean on the bathroom floor. My lack of equilibrium prevented me from disposing of it. Feverish delirium prevented me from being grossed out by it. Instead, I could only ponder exactly how it got…… over there. Clearly, I had reached the deepest depths of disgusting behavior.

Incredibly, my rotavirus roommate rebounded, and responded to his alarm clock. He was positive the worst was behind him (as it were) and left for the airport. I was delirious. I laid in bed praying for daylight. I was sure that in the history of mankind, no one had ever been as thirsty as I was at that moment. I was too dizzy to help myself. I also feared I would contaminate the house.

I sent my sister a text: I have the stomach flu. Can U bring me a pop?  No response.

I texted again. No response.

I hastily played a low-point Scrabble word on my ipad. This was no time to maximize points. She is competitive and I was sure the alert would rouse her from her slumber. No response.

Finally,  I heard the text alert on my phone.  It was not a text from my sister, but one from my older brother, celebrated during Jubilee Week:  I’m not driving into town today. I’ve been up all night with the stomach flu. He was at his lake cottage, over an hour away. I empathized and  felt bad that he was isolated. Empathy  turned to envy when I realized he was able to rehydrate  – fully stocked from Summer with all the soda pop and Gatorade he could possibly need.

Then I received a text from my niece down the hall, which said:  I have diarrhea. Mom has the stomach flu & diarrhea.

My sister hadn’t been ignoring me, she was suffering the same fate. For the next 48 hours, my sister, my niece and I were like vile, caged animals. Drinks were left outside our bedroom doors by the three healthy members of my sister’s family. There was no actual human contact. We communicated via text messages.

With five of us infected, we realized we had a real life version of OutbreakMy niece did some reconnaissance work, sending a mass text to all family members. The troops reported in gradually. Every few hours, the casualty count climbed higher. Within 48 hours, the final body count stood at 15 fallen family members. Multiple households were infected.

Days later, once everyone was healthy and the Hazmat clean-up was complete, we traded war stories. What had been the flaw in our battle plan? A thorough analysis took place. Hands had been washed. Paper guest towels had been in the powder room. The Chex Mix bowl had a scoop, and we had been on the lookout for our tiniest and most adorable little double-dippers and chip-sorters. How had we let the enemy infiltrate us?

We had failed to secure the borders. The little viral terrorists had gained entry by stowing away in Grandma. She didn’t realize she had been hijacked by the Rotavirus. Or was it Norovirus?  These guys are stealthier than Al Qaeda operatives. They are highly contagious and characterized by a rapid onset. Once they gained a foothold, we were under siege and defenseless. They swept through the ranks efficiently and swiftly via Christmas hugs & kisses.

I share the graphic, embarrassing and shameful details of the Family Pa-flu-za as my own personal PSA. A reminder that it can happen to anyone: even a bunch of germaphobes, neat-nicks, and clean freaks.

So if you think you, or someone in your family may be coming down with something during this Holiday party season, skip the festivities. Keep the borders secure. It might not be easy, but you’ll be giving your friends and family the ultimate gift: Health.

Unless, like Emily in The Devil Wears Prada you’re “one stomach flu away from your goal weight.”

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Now go wash your hands.

Seriously.

Thanksgiving Mourning

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Where did it go?

The ONE holiday that was about two things, and two things only:  family feasting and giving thanks, seems to be disappearing. I would mourn the loss.

Thanksgiving doesn’t require midnight noisemakers, chocolate hearts, egg hunts, fireworks or gift exchanging. No diversions other than football in the yard or on the flat screen.

Thanksgiving Day doesn’t even require much of a schedule. It goes without saying  “We’ll eat at 1:00” really means at least 2:00. Who cares?  The family cooks are taste testing, and even the folks just hanging out in the kitchen sneak enough Q.A. nibbles to tide them over until Grace has been said.

No schedule means relaxation. It is our day to put everything on “pause.” Interrupting that relaxed vibe with the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping has to be the worst idea of 2012. Do we really need yet another day on which to be a greedy, grabbing, glutton in a retail store?  The idea of more, more, more material possessions, seems to me to be in direct conflict with the simple meaning of Thanksgiving. Can’t we commit for just one day with nothing on the agenda but giving thanks and spending time feasting with our favorite people?

Honestly, walking into a Wal-Mart any day of the year is sort of depressing to me. Finding myself in a stinky Wal-Mart (come on, they all have that icky, weird smell) on Thanksgiving Day might just get me picked up and locked up on a Code 5150.

When it comes to tradition, I am sentimental. Aren’t family traditions a part of the reason we enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner so much? Throughout the year, some of us count calories or Weight Watcher points. Almost everyone seems to be eating healthier: reducing their fat, sugar and salt intake; and focusing on eating more fiber, fruits and veggies. However, most of that goes out the window on Thanksgiving Day, as we use recipes from our Mothers and Grandmothers to prepare dinner. Most of these recipes are high in fat and heavy on sugar. They are delicious! It is an acceptable 1-day hall pass for dieters.

I’m not sure why these dishes taste so good. Is it because they are so indulgent after our varying degrees of gastronomic self-denial; or is it because they are being enjoyed in the company of our favorite people? Amid the celebration, these recipes provide a sense of continuity, even before we are aware of it. We can count on them, year after year. They connect us to our extended family when distance separates us. When loved ones have passed away and are missed more deeply during the Holidays, there is a certain comfort & joy to be found in trying to replicate their signature dish, dessert or cookie.

As families grow and change, traditions evolve. Each new member brings his or her own sense of tradition. Some of these traditions may be blended in, or the celebration location may change. An early morning Turkey Trot might be run, lactose-free or gluten-free items may be added to the menu, and the turkey might be deep fried instead of roasted. One year, the hilarious sister and I unwittingly turned Mother’s Classic Mashed Potatoes into Lavender-infused mashed potatoes, when she pumped the dish soap dispenser at the exact moment I was pouring a pot of boiling potatoes into a colander. Some recipes are best left unaltered.

Still, the focus of Thanksgiving remains feasting with family, and just being together. Oh, sure, the gathering may evolve throughout the day into two separate parties: a hen party inside, and the roosters and their cigars outside. That still counts as togetherness.

I think some traditions should remain unchanged,  so I offer the following suggestions:

  • For vanity’s sake, avoid the stores and their fluorescent lights.  You’ll look much better at home in the warm glow of the fire.
  • Instead of parking at the mall, and spending cash – Park your fanny and your full belly in a comfy chair and spend time  just hangin’ with your loved ones.
  • Skip the hunt for the bargains – hunting in the cupboard for Gladware and Ziploc Bags to transport leftovers is challenge enough.
  • Forego the battle stampede for the limited number of  “Door busters.” You won’t miss it.  Stay in and don your battle gear for an evening of Euchre, Poker, and Pictionary or better yet:  Mexican Train Dominoes.  Trust me, even your sweetest and most mild-mannered loved ones turn will into cutthroat competitors in this game. It will be way more exciting than scoring that TV on sale. That TV and many more will be on sale again in a week, anyway.

Wal-Mart and Best Buy hold no appeal for me, but Target is less than a mile from my house. Before a day of errands or shopping I enjoy making a list, and then throughout the day, I get a ridiculous amount of pleasure from crossing items off that list. So, this Thursday, I guarantee, I’ll definitely be making a list, but this one will only be to count my blessings.

The real truth is, after eating pie; my pants would be too tight to shop comfortably, anyway.

Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving and a day full of blessings, however and wherever you are celebrating!

See you at the mall on Friday.