Thursday, December 8, 2016

Reclaiming Your Holiday Spirit

Holiday spirits seem to be sagging this year.

For some, it's the lingering bitterness of the prolonged election process 2016 -- not solely (or at all) because of the results but because of the the toxicity and divisiveness of the campaigns.

For others, life changes keep spirits at low ebb as one longs for days gone by. Holidays are a time of togetherness, for better or for worse, for some. For others, the holidays are a time of missing special people. Those empty chairs at holiday celebrations may have been vacated by death, through estrangement or simply from children growing up, moving away and establishing their own families. These days, their busy lives may not always include getting together with parents for the holidays.

My dear friend Tim once lived in a large house filled with children and pets and laughter. Now the children are grown and living in different parts of the country. Tim lives alone in a lovely, but small city apartment. He wonders if he has room even for a tiny Christmas tree that no one but he may see.

My dear friend Mary, who has always loved Christmas, has a special challenge this year: her beloved husband Terry is in hospice care and the holidays have a bittersweet quality -- gratitude for each day they have together and anticipatory grief for future holidays that will be so different.

Both friends are naturally joyous and love the holidays, but, like a number of people this year, they have good reasons to feel a touch of melancholy.

If you share some melancholy feelings this season, it's important to honor those emotions, to feel your grief and sadness and longing, but then to let memories of the past and hopes for the future happily season the melancholy.

Holiday joy isn't just fueled by our present holiday circumstances but also by our warmly remembered holidays past. All of those memories of Christmas (and other holidays) past are part of us. They're not to be mourned but celebrated.

Reclaiming your holiday spirit can mean going back to those times for a joyous visit in your mind, celebrating the fact that these happened instead of making sad comparisons with the past and today.

So, just for a moment, go back through the years to the excitement and wonder of Christmas as a child. What was this like? What sensations and experiences do you remember?

Christmas 1947

I remember the fun of Advent calendars and being surprised by hidden gum drops under my pillow, left by elves, my parents told me. I remember singing in the church choir for Christmas services, loving the music and the spectacle and the feeling of a deeper meaning to the holiday beyond gifts and feasts. I remember the smell of baking cookies and special pies, the arrival of my Kansas grandmother's fudge in the mail and the creamy goodness of each piece, savored through the holiday season.

Gifts weren't a huge part of Christmas in my childhood home. But I remember some special gifts that are still with me today or that live on in vivid memory.

When I was about ten or eleven, Aunt Molly gave me a boxed set of records featuring my idol Cyril Ritchard reading "Alice in Wonderland" -- a gift I treasure to this day. That pretty much encapsulated my passions at the time: I loved Cyril Richard and I was on a major Lewis Carroll kick. The gift couldn't have been better chosen or more appreciated! I still listen to this magical recording from time to time and think of my beloved aunt with love and gratitude whenever I do.

And then there was the Christmas when I was six and still recovering from polio. I was just beginning the long process of physical therapy and learning to walk again after months of hospitalization. My passion at the time was a local television show called "Frosty Frolics", an ice-skating extravaganza staged anew every week. I asked my parents for a pair of ice skates. They knew I would outgrow them before I could ever possibly use them. But they gave me the skates -- and a boost of hope. So as I watched "Frosty Frolics", I used to lie in bed with the skates on, dreaming of a time when I, too, could glide across the ice. That time never came. But the hope and optimism that gift brought me have lived on forever to become a part of my love for the holidays.

What brought you joy and hope in your early holiday experiences? And how do these linger on?
Now travel back in time to those busy days of raising your own children, delighting in their excitement over the first snow of the season, of trimming the tree together and of enjoying family holiday rituals.

I remember those times so vividly. I wasn't blessed with children, but I so enjoyed getting Christmas cards with pictures of my friends' children and news of their activities and accomplishments. I started a Christmas album many years ago so I could watch these special children grow up in Christmas pictures.. My friend Tim's four wonderful children appear on many pages of this album, growing from babies and toddlers to accomplished and kind, giving adults in what seemed like a heartbeat. Now I'm seeing and enjoying the next generation in pictures that are going into this same special Christmas album.

Tim's Christmas Picture about 1985
From left: Laura, Stephen, Eliza, Mary Kate

I remember cooking and hosting family holiday dinners from the time I was in my mid-twenties until Aunt Molly died in 2004 and my siblings moved far away. I loved the preparations and the celebrations -- in my tiny studio apartment, in a townhouse and finally a lovely house shared with my husband Bob and the scene of many family festivities.

One of the most precious holiday memories from that time: the Thanksgiving that we welcomed my beloved cousin Jack, his wonderful parents Evelyn and Elmer, and his in-laws -- all from Kansas City. The reason for their being in California was tragic: Jack's wife Tanzy, whom we all loved so much, had just died of cancer at the age of 35 three days before. But in the grieving, there was a wonderful intimacy and in our despair, there came to be hope, sparked by the love we all felt for her and each other. It was a very special day. We laughed together. We cried together. And we built some lasting and loving memories together.

What are your favorite memories from this busy time of your life? Which ones linger to warm your heart to this day?

Perhaps, like me, you're now having quieter holidays, with fewer pressures and obligations. Maybe you've become the guest rather than the host. Maybe you still prepare your holiday favorites -- at a grown child's house. Maybe you've begun to make your own holiday rituals.

A friend of mine, whose adult daughter prefers to enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with only her husband and two children, has a new holiday routine she has come to enjoy (after recovering from the initial shock and disappointment of not being included in her daughter's family holidays). She and her husband visit her daughter to celebrate the holiday and exchange gifts on December 23. They spend Christmas Eve at home, listening to Christmas music, enjoying the sparkling tree and eating take-out Chinese food. On Christmas, they sleep late, lounge in pajamas all day and read, play board games and share feelings about what delights them -- from Christmases past or present.

A wonderful part of reclaiming holiday spirit is seeing, once more, the fun of Christmas through the eyes of a new generation -- grandchildren or, in my case, my niece Maggie, 7, and nephew Henry, 4, the children of my brother Mike and his wife Amp. They usually live in Bangkok, Thailand but travel to the U.S. for Christmas every year. And together with my brother, I prepare a Christmas feast while Maggie watches closely "so I can make the same food when I'm grown up..." There is a wonderful feeling of continuity in that promise.

                                                     Family Christmas 2014
                                      Mike, Maggie, Me, Vivo and Nora
And there is pleasure in continuing holiday rituals.

My friend Mary and her husband are keeping an Advent calendar and a special Advent ritual. Every evening, they light candles, say special prayers and meditate on a particular Biblical passage. A feeling of peace and warm connection prevails. Mary is also busy picking just the right gifts for family and friends and is stirring up batches of her famous fudge -- nearly as tasty and creamy as my grandmother's.

Mary and Terry 2016
Sharing joy in every day

My friend Tim has decided that he can and will make room in his small apartment for a little Christmas tree this year. He is delighted as he chooses just the right gifts for his children and three small grandchildren Arthur, Lucy and baby Leah. And, while not all of his adult children will be able to make it back to Chicago for the holidays, he looks forward to lots of FaceTime visits and to helping to prepare a Christmas brunch at his daughter Laura's home.

There is so much to celebrate as life comes full circle in a delicious blend of past and present: a first snow, the smells of holiday baking, Christmas carols and the special joy of seeing a new generation thrill in the holiday season.

   Leah Yarbrough  
                                           Daughter of Eliza and Chris                                                                                   


  1. I needed this post today as I am caught up in the melancholy of what is passed and see no joy in what is to come. I need to relive those memories and remember them for what they really are. And hopefully find peace. Thank you.

  2. A needed post. I do get melancholy at this time of year, although it may have more to do with the darkness than with the holidays. I wallow in it for a while -- it has, in fact, become part of the memory stream I guess! But then I focus on my family and friends and enjoy both sharing memories of Christmases gone by and hopes for Christmases in the future. Have a merry Christmas.

  3. I love this post for any number of reasons. There is a lot of wonderful, practical thought here but I especially love your sharing all your beautiful memories. (I loved Cyril Ritchard, too! What a voice!) We all have a reason to celebrate -- even when things are heavy. Those memories, any single one happy memory and boy, if you have a treasure chest like you do filled with good thoughts, all the more!

    Interestingly enough, last Sunday I sent in my upcoming post to Modern Creative Life (one of two in December) called "Making Magic When the Heart is Heavy." Like you, I have noticed a lot of unsettled-ness in the world these days. The post I have now about noticing how much nicer people seem this year addresses that need, I think. We're craving kindness -- and I think memory. What you say here is so very, very important.

    I know you will have a beautiful Christmas because you know how to look at the ornament on the tree and see not only the ornament but the story and memory behind it. And really, isn't that what it's all about?

  4. Awwww, what a sweet post and what an adorable childhood photo - of you and all the lovely photos of family and friends! I'm particularly thinking of Mary and Terry, and hope that they have a very blessed holiday with many special moments. Merry Christmas to everyone you mentioned!

  5. This was a perfectly timed post. I was feeling a bit calloused about the holidays since my family are mostly in Florida and there just aren't that many small children in our family who are the ones that make Christmas a joy.
    You made me think back to a special time that brought me pure joy. I'm still smiling. Thanks.

  6. I have had some melancholy Christmases as I missed the old ways and the kids growing up. Now we plan more simply and are content.

  7. I choose to not celebrate Christmas although my hubs of nearly 43 years misses it a lot, we have some Hanukkah celebrations but I keep everything very small..My mother died when I was young and the Christmas before her untimely death was horrible, that is what guides me, fighting, trying to save her, screaming, etc. I vowed to never ever go thru that including my grandmother and aunt her hated each other and yelled and screamed and tried to keep me in the middle of their hatred..My grama died in 1969 and I was just barely 21 years old, it was absolutely devastating it was Mother's day Friday before and the nurse called me from the living place my aunt had dumped my grandmother, she hated the place and died about 2 weeks after my aunt dumped her there..The burial was done befoe I could catch my brath and that was that my entire mom's family gone by my 21st birthday..I vowed to just skip holidays after that even when I married in 1974 early I would spoil my hubs who never had birthday celebrations due to a completely hopeless alcohol father who wandered and made more kids and never supported him or his many siblings..But as for Christmas I just skip it I find it only money more money and greedy people..I contribute to salvy army who truly helps people and a domestic violence shelter and a no kill animal shelter..I just don't get that most people think it is just one dadblasted day, really, most people have to live the rest of the year and with no food, having someone beat the crap out of you and animals left outside to fend for themselves who cares about Christmas and drinking on New Years Eve, I worked hard for the little money I earned and I give it to humans who need food and shelter and hydration, animals abandoned and women, men and children who are abused!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. I'm just a 'tad' late (ha) answering this beautiful post... Oh the memories... I have them too---many of them. One of my best memories as a child was asking Santa for a new sliding board to go with my swing set... BUT--I was so worried that Santa couldn't get it down the chimney... That year --Santa left me a note telling me that he had place the sliding board on our side porch for me... (Thanks to my Daddy for putting that huge sliding board on our porch --BIG JOB for him.)

    George and I (since we didn't get married until 2001) choose to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day ALONE together --doing whatever WE want to do. We make time for family before or after Christmas --but Christmas is OURS....

    Thanks for sharing.