For the Week of December 21, 2015: Remembering Christmas

Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more....

Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

I admit it.  I haven’t quite realized Christmas is upon us; the lingering effects of our trip to Japan at Thanksgiving, the nostalgia for our time there after our return, and a sense of disbelief, “What?  It’s already December 21st?”  In years past, I’ve been much more organized in my holiday preparations, including a long-standing tradition of sending holiday greetings by mail to friends and family around the world.  This year, I’ll be sending New Year’s wishes instead, since I’ve failed to get any Christmas cards written and mailed.  Even though fewer and fewer of our friends or acquaintances maintain the tradition of sending holiday greetings by mail, I love the Christmas cards we continue to receive.  In this rush-rush world of ours, where communication is dominated by email or texts sent electronically, I cherish the notes, photographs and messages from old friends.  They re-kindle memories and connections, experiences shared together in years past.

This week we received a card sent from Germany, a greeting from a friend of our daughter’s, remembering the one Christmas he spent at our house in California several years ago, far from his home in England. That year was also the last Christmas holiday that we—my daughters, husband and I— celebrated Christmas all together. Just one year later,  Elinor called from Beirut to say “Merry Christmas,” and the following year,  Claire  traveled to Florida to spend the holidays with her ailing grandparents and meet the man who would become her husband.

Since that time, my husband and I have traveled to spend Christmas with one daughter or the other.  Depending on who is living where in the world, one or the other sometimes comes to us.   But now they are creating traditions and memories with their husbands and children, while we are  less willing to join the crowds of holiday travelers or brave the winter weather.   This Christmas, we’ll content ourselves with visiting friends and sharing greetings with our grandchildren via Skype.

It’s a bittersweet time for me.  There’s nothing more joyous that celebrating the holidays with my grandchildren, reading  Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, baking cookies, stuffing stockings with clever little surprises, and sharing in the children’s excited shrieks as they discover what Santa left under the tree Christmas morning.  There’s nostalgia too, the ones tied to Christmases long past.

…Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept. 

(From: “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” By Dylan Thomas)

Last night, after a day and evening spent with friends we drove home to our neighborhood, alive with colored lights and decorations.   I couldn’t help but remember how, when I was a child, we’d climb into our old Ford station wagon  to drive through our small town and admire the display of lights and decorations each year, or how we’d made the annual trek into snowy wilderness with Dad to cut the perfect tree.  Our tree was adorned with bubble lights and themed decorations, packages piled beneath the branches–ones we would try to feel or shake days before they were to be opened.  And always, there was Christmas day, when  dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles gathered together for the holiday meal– all of us singing carols.

There are other memories—ones less romantic but yet,  every bit a part of our family’s Christmas traditions.   Yearly, I was assigned the task of painting a Christmas scene in our large picture window, my mother ever hopeful we would win a prize in the “best Christmas window decoration” contest each year.  My artwork was colorful but untrained, and I was mildly embarrassed to have my work on such public display.  The honorable mention I earned one year only reinforced my fear that, despite my desire to be, I wasn’t really an artist.  And there were annual rituals, like my mother always registering her disappointment when we came home with the freshly cut tree.  It was never perfect enough to her liking, and after we got it in the house, there was the inevitable argument over the correct placement of lights.  My father agonized over a Christmas gift to buy her each year;  I remember only one year that she actually liked what he’d gotten for her.  And all three of us held our breaths each year as my father offered his present to her.  As much as I disliked these regular bits of unpleasantness, they were part of our annual Christmas traditions, and years later, became part of the family stories we told each year, just as woven into the fabric of our holidays as the carols we sang, the stockings we hung from the mantle or excitement we shared on Christmas morning that were remembered as well.

As children, we knew there was more to it –
why some men got drunk on Christmas Eve
wasn’t explained, nor why we were so often
wear tears nor why the stars came down so close,

Why so much was lost. Those men and women
who had died in wars started by others,
Did they come that night? Is that why the Christmas
tree
trembled just before we opened the presents?

There was something about angels. Angels we
have heard on high Sweetly singing o’er
the plain. The angels were certain. But we could not
be certain whether our family was worthy tonight.

(From:  “A Christmas Poem,” by Robert Bly, in Morning Poems,1998)

 Whatever your holiday traditions, reflect on those family celebrations you shared.  What memories are most fond?  What’s most vivid or poignant?  Write about holidays past—family traditions you remember fondly or even those you don’t.  Family holidays and the memories of them offer rich material for stories

May your holidays be filled with friends and family, a time of remembering what truly matters, a time of gratitude, a time of peace.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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