Tag Archives: Holidays

A Peace of Christmas

We’ll be taking a Christmas break from the blog, but before we go, Paul shares some holiday memories.

I’ve never fallen out of love with Christmas.  I’m thankful for that.

Somehow the madness of the holiday season – the crowded malls, the in-your-face commercialism, the social occasions with relatives you can’t stand – have all passed me by.

My personal Christmas is still infused with the memories of more than fifty years ago.  The smallish city I lived in then was blanketed in peace and tranquility on Christmas morning, with ghosts of solitary tire tracks on snow-covered lanes.

Scrooge's third visitor, from Charles Dickens:...

Scrooge’s third visitor, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To this day, some of my favourite seasonal music were the songs I first heard on an old Columbia Masterworks 10-inch Christmas LP – sounds that came out of hiding every December to evoke the holidays season:  “Patapan”, “Gloucestershire Wassail”, “Sing we Noel once more”, and others one hears too rarely these days.  The music was similar to that which played on my favourite Christmas movie – then and now – the black-and-white version of “A Christmas Carol” with Alastair Sim.

For a few glorious years in my childhood, the family assembled at least thirty five members from cousins to great aunts and uncles for a dozen hours of feasting and games.  Not willing to choose between the English tradition of ham and plum pudding, and the North American tradition of turkey and trifle, the family did both – one meal at one house, then everyone heading over to a second home for the other tradition.

Now perhaps as young children, my siblings, cousins, and I were protected from harsh realities such as family feuds.  But I doubt it.  I really believe that all thirty five of us were happy to be there, and everyone got along.  We were a family that truly enjoyed each other’s company, playing games, singing songs, and generally being jolly until the night overtook us.

Somehow I’ve been able to carry that sense of Christmas peace and love and family with me for half a dozen decades, despite the many changes the years have wrought.  The grandparents, great aunts and great uncles are long ago departed – most of the parents, aunts and uncles too.  Cousins and siblings have scattered far and wide.  The city has grown substantially and no longer shuts down completely for a couple of days in late December.

All the older photos were destroyed in a flood.  At this time, the gathering was under a dozen.

All the older photos were destroyed in a flood. At this time, the gathering was under a dozen.

I think my secret has been to keep the spirit and not fret the form.  A few years ago, when we were still buying a few Christmas presents for close family, I made a decision that I would henceforth avoid the box stores, malls and traffic jams.  I would eschew the best bargains for presents bought in the spirit of Christmas.  I would choose a quiet area of town, where stores were walkable, and do my shopping on foot at a leisurely pace, and without really knowing what I’d find.  I’d stroll the relatively quiet streets, chatting to shopkeepers, and seeing what caught my eye.  I always found what I needed. While others all around me were complaining of crowds and Christmas commercialization, I felt the same inner peace I’d felt in my childhood.

Not many years later, I noticed that Cheryl was finding Christmas more stressful.  Despite pacts with parents and siblings to eliminate gift exchanges, as our kids were growing up, it seemed as if old rituals were evolving into new obligations.  Holiday parties were becoming impositions, and even shopping for Christmas meals seemed to involve fighting crowds and traffic.  So we made a further pact with our two sons that we’d skip the presents altogether and put the money towards a Christmas holiday in Hawaii or some other tropical destination.  As it turned out, Cheryl’s Mom chipped in generously on more than one occasion, and we’ve enjoyed several low-stress extended-family tropical Christmases in recent years.

Christmas in Hawaii:  stars in the gift shop.

Christmas in Hawaii: stars in the gift shop.

More recently we’ve had to adapt to new realities.  Changes in family dynamics mean that getting everyone together on Christmas Day is rarely possible.  Both of my siblings are now grandparents, and the grand-kids may be claimed for the day by other families, taking their grandparents with them.  One or the other of our boys may be invited to Christmas dinner with their girlfriend’s family.  So, we roll with the punches.  Some years the day itself is a quiet one – this year, for instance, we may be on our own and spend the evening taking in the light displays in the neighbourhood.  Our family Christmas dinner may be on the 24th.

Still, new traditions are forming.  In some recent years, we’ve held a variant of the “widows and orphans” party on the 26th – we’ve invited friends and acquaintances who perhaps have no relatives nearby, and who we think might enjoy the sort of  fun, songs, and games my family used to enjoy over half a century ago.  This year we’ve invited about fifteen from a variety of backgrounds – we’re hoping to play Murder, a game we learned from one the recent immigrants I’ve been assisting, and who’ll be joining us that day.  Like our childhood games, this one requires no purchases and no supplies beyond a few pencils and scraps of paper – only a willingness to slow down and enjoy the family atmosphere.

It doesn't take much to enjoy Christmas.

It doesn’t take much to enjoy Christmas.

Will things change again?  No doubt they will.  The arrival of grandchildren – not yet on the horizon – will herald another major shift.  Gift-buying may once again be part of Christmas for us.  The “peace” of Christmas may only be found after the little ones fall asleep on the couch.  One day we may be celebrating Christmas in a retirement commune.   I have one other dream – a bucket-list promise to take Cheryl to a small village in the Alps for a traditional Austrian Christmas.

Thinking back over the years, I can remember many other sorts of Christmases.  Gatherings with family friends where my father would sing – the only time of the year I ever heard that.  A decade later, it was tobogganing with friends down the hill behind our country home..  Ten years after that, Cheryl and I were living in Australia and passed several Christmases on the beach under a blistering sun.  One year, while camping at Byron Bay, NSW, a Christmas-eve flash flood left us drying everything on tree branches the following day, while we barbecued crabs and sucked on fresh mangoes.  A few years later we were snowed in for days at my parents’ hilltop home, periodically hiking down the hill for supplies.  There was one low-key Christmas in Costa Rica.  More recently, I joined a Christmas choir one winter to sing at the light show at the botanical gardens.  And so it goes.

Main accessible beach from Byron Bay ...

Main accessible beach from Byron Bay (Australia), close to the swimming pool. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The same theme runs through them all:  a sense of peace, and love, and family – externally shaped by the conditions of the day, internally unaffected by the ebb and flow of life.

If I have any trouble getting into the Christmas spirit, I have only to play an old musical favourite like Patapan, and my heart once more fills with all those wonderful Christmas gatherings of family and friends.

Have a peaceful holiday season, both inside and out.  See you next year!

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