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