I experienced my first white Christmas when I was 24 years old. But it didn't feel like Christmas. All those years spent waiting for that mythical white Christmas, and when it finally happened, the magic fell flat.
That year I learned the holidays are about a lot more than what you see out your window. It's what's on the other side of the window pane that really counts. And in 1998, my family and the holiday traditions that we shared in our home were over 1,000 miles away.
Now over a decade of white Christmases later, I find myself looking out the window and blaming the lack of snow for my deficiency in holiday spirit. How can it possibly feel like Christmas with green grass underfoot and pebbles in the driveway?
But that's where I've got something wrong. If I could find the spirit of Christmas in a world of blown-up snowmen on bare lawns and plastic Santas fading in the warm southern sun, why not now? Does my Christmas spirit hinge on something as fickle as the weather?
I'm beginning to think that it's the busyness of this time of year that is the great thief of holiday joy. Ironically, it's the very activities that we do in the search for the spirit of Christmas that keeps us from finding it.
As I step on to the treadmill of holiday festivities this year, I'm asking myself, "Just what is it that fills my holiday-spirit tank?"
December 1st comes, and it feels like someone hits the "Go" button. We start going through the motions just hoping that the motions, themselves, will generate the feeling. But I think it has to be more intentional than that.
It seems to me that we need to make room in our lives for the spirit of Christmas to come in.
Case in point: I love decorating my house for the holidays. But for years, I made the classic decorating mistake. I didn't clear out before I added in. I merely pushed picture frames and potted plants to the side to make way for porcelain nativity scenes and bowls of cinnamon-scented potpourri. As any designer will tell you, a little goes a long way. And too much stuff diminishes the impact of any one item.
Not so dissimilar from the "mindfuless" rule that applies to healthy eating. If you're cramming down your lunch while reading the paper and listening to voicemails, you probably won't taste the ginger in your carrot ginger soup. And you also won't hear your stomach sending the message that it's full.
When you merely dump holiday festivities on top of an already burgeoning schedule, chances are you'll overload the senses and be left with a nondescript plate of tasteless holiday mush.
So here's the question: Does all the holiday "merry-making" bring more stress than joy? Leaving us too frazzled and exhausted to drink in the magic?
It seems that every magazine on the shelf this time of year features a how-to article on simplifying the holidays, presumably to lower the stress quotient. They'll tell you to skip the homemade cookie batter in favor of slice and bake, send e-cards instead of ones you actually have to address and stamp, and mail-order your holiday rum cake - all in the name of creating efficiency in the machinery of holiday reveling.
I know of a woman who built a special room in her house to store a fully decorated Christmas tree on a moveable cart, so that she only had to worry with the hassle of decorating it once. She rolled it out a few weeks before Christmas and rolled it back into the closet on New Years.
Our overachieving culture would tell you the goal is to figure out a way to keep all the balls in the air while expending less energy and effort. But I would say that one of the precursers to experiencing holiday joy would be to zero in on a few special traditions and make them count more.
One of my favorite summer reads is Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. In it, she talks about the importance of creating "spaces" in your day, week, and year that help set apart and define the events that take place around them. Just as spaces in a sentence give meaning to a string of letters, she says that moments of quiet and solitude give form to the activities of our lives - and help us create memories.
So how to find those sacred spaces in a jam-packed December calendar? I don't think it takes that much. It could be as simple as sinking a peppermint stick in a hot mug of cocoa and sipping it by the tree, or taking a walk in the snowy woods just to take in the scenery.
I think it's a matter of stepping outside of ourselves for a moment or two to empathize with the joy or pain of others. Seizing the opportunity to celebrate what is, or lending a hand to help achieve what might be.
I love this time of year. And I'm the kind of person who wants to do it all. But I don't want to get to the end of it and wonder where the time went - or find myself lamenting that the snow never came.
So instead of waiting for the world to turn wintry white, I'm hoping that the Christmas spirit will take root and begin to grow in the spaces I'm setting aside for it.
Would a snow-filled December add to my holiday joy? Absolutely. But I'm not putting too much weight on it.
With the whirl of activity that encompasses the holiday season, it's easy to miss opportunities to connect with our loved ones. You might be standing in the kitchen alongside your mother or grandmother for hours preparing a holiday meal, but between the kids running in and out for snacks, the telephone ringing, and the to-do list running laps in your head, the conversation might not get very far.
Even though we oftenspend more time with our loved ones during the holidays than at other times of the year, quantity doesn't necessarily add up to quality.
So make an effort this year to step it up a notch, dig below the surface, and learn more about your loved ones - and your family history.
Here are a few holiday-related conversation starters you might want to try:
- How did your family celebrate Christmas Eve?
- How did your family's heritage shape the way you celebrated the holidays (meals, traditions)?
- Did you have a Christmas tree? If so, where did you get it?
- Do you remember making any special holiday decorations for the tree or to place around the house?
- What kinds of dishes did your mother or grandmother prepare for Christmas Eve or Christmas day dinners?
- Where did you celebrate Christmas, and who was there?
- What do you remember about Christmas morning?
- What special Christmas gifts do you remember receiving as a child?
- What gifts do you remember making or buying for someone else?
- Was there music in your home during the holidays?
- How did your family commemorate Christmas as a religious holiday?
- What favorite holiday books or movies stand out in your mind?
- How did your family celebrate New Year's Eve or New Year's Day?
- What special dishes were served on New Years?
- What is your favorite holiday memory?
Turn on the television this time of year, and you can instantly see how rampant commercialism threatens to steal the heart of Christmas. But instead of feeling disheartened, I've decided to "take back" Christmas by reinstituting some old-fashioned holiday traditions in my home this year.
Here are a few ideas that I've come across in my quest to get back to the basics:Have a taffy pull.
How many kids today would actually know what this is? I have to admit that when a woman told me it was a favorite holiday tradition in her family, I had to google it. Apparently, you can use honey, or mollasses, or corn syrup in the recipe. Click here to learn how to stage your own taffy pull. Play old-fashioned games.
Charades, checkers, chess. These traditional family games will slow down Father Time during the holidays and help you focus on what matters most - spending quality time with your family. One of the great "robbers" of Christmas joy is the busyness that overtakes us this time of year. Sitting down and playing a simple game of chess by the fire will make those precious minutes last longer.Bake homemade bread dough ornaments.
Remember these? What you'll need: 4 cups flour, 2 cups water, 2 cups salt. Mix ingredients into a ball; roll it out on parchment paper; cut with cookie cutters; make a hole at the top with a toothpick; and bake on parchment paper at 325 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour. After they cool, paint and varnish with clear fingernail polish. Tie a ribbon, and they're ready to hang!Go caroling!
Why not be the first person on your block in the past 30 or 40 years to organize a Christmas caroling outing? I remember going caroling with my high school choir, and this is still one of my favorite holiday memories. All it takes is a handful of willing partipants, a row of lit houses, and a few old-fashioned carols in your back pocket. What better way to share holiday joy? Nursing homes are also a great caroling destination.String cranberry and popcorn garland.
What you'll need: cranberries, popcorn (let sit overnight), strong string, and a needle (ask at a craft store about ones that are safe for children). I sprayed mine with hairspray to keep it from aging, and to keep the mice away while in storage (we've had ours for 6 years!).Make homemade cookie and candy baskets.
Pull out the cookbooks and select a few cookie and candy recipes; pick up all the ingredients at the store; and then designate a "cookie baking" day with family and friends. This is the perfect day to put on some Christmas music, make a pot of hot cocoa, and don the apron that hangs in your pantry the rest of the year. When all of the goodies are made, you might choose to place them in baskets or bags and deliver them to neighbors who are spending the holidays alone. Of course, don't forget to keep a handful for your own holiday nibbling!Read the Christmas story and other holiday classics aloud.
Remember sitting around the dining room table or in the living room listening to your mother or father read the Christmas story? If not, it's something that you could start with your own family. In our family, this has always been a Christmas Eve tradition. We light a few candles, snuggle together on the couch, and read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas followed by the story of Christ's birth. For me, it wouldn't feel like Christmas without this quiet, reflective time as a family to soak in the reason for the season.
If you're having trouble trying to come up with the perfect gift for your children this year, I have an idea. Write or record an Ethical Will. What's that? A letter (written or spoken) to your loved one ... telling him or her all the things you would say if you knew this were your last chance. Because it is. That's the point. You're saying it now, before it's too late, and so that when the time comes, your child will have something tangible from you to take comfort in.
A woman I've known for several years told me the other day that she has written several letters to each of her daughters (ages 8 and 10). Why? Because she'll never forget the day she came home after her mother passed away suddenly ... and she spent hours ransacking the house looking for something her mother left for her. A letter? A note?
"She must have left me something," she thought. Even now, almost 20 years later, she throws her hands into the air as she says, "There was nothing. I had nothing."
So every couple of years, she writes her daughters a letter. "I tell them all the things I want them to know about how they've impacted my life, how much I love them, and what I want them to carry with them as they walk through each stage of their life," she said.
And these letters don't just sit in a drawer, they are part of their everyday lives. Bringing them closer ... in the moment. "The girls are always asking me to read them aloud," she laughed. "Even at the dinner table."
We all have grandiose ideas of placing handmade gifts under the tree that would make Martha Stewart proud. But instead of knitting a scarf or feeling guilty because you didn't, why not give your son or daughter something heart-made, instead? Take an hour to sit down with a pen and paper and create something that will be treasured today and for years to come.
I met a woman this fall who said to me, "I have some things I need to say to my children, but I don't know what they are." Her face was slightly strained as she leaned forward in her chair, with a clear sense of urgency in her voice.
Mary* is 82 years old. Healthy, active, still going to work every day. But she's keenly aware that time slips by and can catch us unprepared and unready to say goodbye.
So over the course of a couple of days, and 2-3 hours of interview, we navigated our way through the things that needed to be said. This is going to be Mary's Christmas gift to her children and grandchildren this year.
What makes Mary's oral memoir different from others is that instead of focusing on the stories of her life, we zeroed in on the values, principles, and beliefs that shaped the stories. This is what some people call an "Ethical Will," the values not the valuables. When you share with your loved ones who you are from the inside out, giving them something real and lasting about who you are and what you believe — to hang on to.
At the end of the first session, Mary stood up and touched her shoulders with the palms of her hands, "I feel lighter," she said. And she looked relieved. Finally, her feelings and thoughts were taking shape, turning into something tangible with every recorded minute ... something that she would be able to pass on to current and future generations of her family.
I felt good, too, knowing that we were getting there ... one question at a time.
* Name changed to protect privacy.
There are limitless ways to preserve our memories, the story of our lives. It's a matter of picking the method that works for you and that fits naturally into your life.
I've been struggling lately with my lack of focus in taking down the everyday memories and moments of my children as they've grown. The funny things they say. The adventures we share together. I feel like I'm keeping a running tally in my head — that I quiz myself on regularly — of the entertaining things my kids have said .... struggling to keep them straight in my mind until that perfect moment when I can sit down and log them in their baby books.
But time passes, even just a week, and I strain to keep the memory fresh. It's lost in the constant motion of my mind.
And so it is with parents of all ages, I find. We have so much going on in the busyness of raising children that we have a hard time holding on to yesterday's memories. They get pushed aside to make room for today ... and eventually tomorrow.
But after viewing a movie created over the past few years by a father
striving to capture the memories of his little boy's childhood, I am wondering if preserving the experience of parenthood - the mental snapshots of those everyday moments - is perhaps more important than the details, themselves.
Sure, I aim to be more disciplined about keeping up with my kids' baby books. But maybe I can let myself off the hook a little and come up with a "memorycatcher" that works better for me. Maybe it's a letter to each of my children, or a collection of photos from our times together along with a story for each. Jeff Scher's film of his son
is worth a watch. He doesn't catch all the details ... but he captures just enough for he and his son — and anyone else who shares in one father's snapshot of time — to experience the story.
There are history museums where pieces of history are displayed in modern, sheet-rocked buildings with A/C and automatic doors. And then there are house museums, where artifacts are shown in small, 19th-century rooms where they might have been found in the first place, in someone's home or business in the center of a quaint New England village.
I wouldn't pass up the opportunity to spend the better part of a week perusing the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. But for a quick afternoon trip into the past, you can't beat the house museum down the road.
And we're lucky in New England, cause there are lots of them. But most are only open through early- to mid-October, so you'd better hurry and put on your driving gloves. It's time to discover the golden nuggets of local history hidden on the Main Streets and side-streets throughout Vermont.
The "Historic House Museums in Vermont" website, put together by the Victorian Preservation Assocation, is an excellent tool for planning your tour: http://www.vpa.org/museumsvm.html.
This week, I was on a phone call with two women — both from urban areas — about a possible work arrangement. Everything was going smoothly until they learned I was taking the call from Vermont.
Then there was a brief pause in the conversation. “Do you have high-speed Internet up there?” the woman from New York asked.
Yes, I do.
Even here in northern Vermont, most of us are plugged in. We may not all have high-speed Internet access today, but we will soon. For many of us, technology enables us to live in a place like Stowe. We can be here and work there. And that’s a good thing.
But I also think that, ironically enough, it’s that very technology that threatens the way of life we’ve chosen in this little corner of the world. And the life we’ve chosen for our kids.
I know a lot of people who moved to the area for the sole purpose of raising a family here. They wanted their kids to grow up in fields and woods and mountains, surrounded by the warmth and security of small-town living.
When I became a parent eight years ago, I decided that the most important thing I wanted my child to know was how to create his own experience in life, without being reliant on anything or anyone else to create it for him. This requires resourcefulness, creativity and drive. The ability to make something out of seemingly nothing.
And I can’t think of a better place to learn these life skills than along the banks of the West Branch River or on a trek through the Mt. Mansfield State Forest.
Kids have been fishing the rivers and skiing the mountains of Stowe for generations. But the experience of childhood is changing everywhere, and Stowe is no exception.
Amid the peace and natural beauty that surrounds us, the pulse of the digital world is beating. Forget television. There is so much more vying for our kids’ attention these days.
I recently spent a morning with Arden Magoon, who was born in 1927 on a farm at the top of Taber Hill Road in Stowe. The eldest of four boys, Arden spent the bulk of his youth doing farm chores, going to school, and conducting independent research.
He was a curious boy. Fascinated by the world around him, Arden would scavenge for books in his grandmother’s attic, check them out from the library, and bring them home from school. He built his first telescope when he was 12 years old using what he learned in books and a slice of his own creativity.
As he grew older, Arden began spending more and more time in the woods. Even today, at age 84, he knows more about life beyond the edge of the local forests than anyone else alive. His predecessor, fellow woodlands lover Craig Burt, who died in 1965, would be proud to know that Arden is still heading out on daily trekking adventures, when the weather’s good enough. He’s drawn intricate maps of the area, complete with bear dens and moose sightings.
So here’s what I’m wondering — Who would Arden Magoon be if he were born today? Would today’s technology have gotten in the way of his discovery of the world around him, and a passion that has lasted a lifetime?
A number of books have been written about the benefits of children spending time in nature. For those of us fortunate enough to live in beautiful, rural northern Vermont, we don’t have to give much thought to whether our kids are getting enough exposure to the great outdoors. They’re living and breathing it every day.
But still, this is not the world Arden grew up in — even here in Stowe. With cellphones and iPods in virtually every pocket, kids are seldom alone. And although the advent of the Internet has made information increasingly easier to find, we have to worry about what else our children might stumble upon in the process. Dusty textbooks in grandma’s attic were a safer bet.
When I talk to old-timers like Arden, I envy the simplicity of his childhood. The choices were few. Playing a game, reading a book, indulging in a daydream. How could you go wrong?
I wonder, if young Arden had had a Nintendo DS, would he have built that first telescope — one of many?
To this day, Arden still doesn’t have a home phone, let alone a cellphone. I guess he figures he can find whom he needs when he needs them, and they know where to find him. And besides, he can’t afford the distraction. His life is busy enough — making globes of the solar system, drawing pictures of wildlife, and creating maps.
And with a cellphone in his pocket, he just might miss something. Arden is clued in to the world around him.
“At least I’ve looked around and used my brain once in a while,” he says. “There’s a lot of people with IQs higher than mine, but I just use mine better, I think you’ll find. … There’s a lot more to it that people don’t see.”
I grew up in the South, where spring cleaning entails wiping pollen from the tops of patio tables and shining the windows in the sun room. Where mudrooms are called entryways and no one owns “muck boots.”
Windows can stay open practically all year — although, interestingly enough, they don’t. And there are no piles of mismatched gloves, hats and grubby boots to box up and put away.
That being said, I wouldn’t trade a dustpan filled with Vermont silt for a season’s worth of sunny, 85-degree days. I love Vermont, messy mudrooms and all.
But I’ll admit that the spring-cleaning chores I inherited with my New England home can be a bit daunting: Storing away over a dozen bins filled with various scraps of winter apparel; clearing the mud from the mudroom; and finding a way for garden shovels and snow shovels, bikes and skis to coexist peacefully in an overstuffed garage.
And that’s just inside. I’ve only begun to assess the scars Old Man Winter left on our home’s exterior — deep grooves from overzealous snow-shoveling on a front porch that was freshly painted last season, window trim that has been beaten by incessant rain and snow, and a deck in need of restaining, again, this year.
But just when I think that my seasonal workload is too heavy to bear, I think of those poor souls who had to put up with coal heat.
Remember that scene in the movie “A Christmas Story,” when Darren McGavin rushes to the basement to battle the coal furnace? A plume of black smoke meets him in the doorway as he barrels down the stairs, shouting a stream of obscenities.
For those of us who have never lived in a coal-heated home, the scene is pure entertainment. But for others, I would guess that the black soot smeared across McGavin’s face and hands when he returns to the kitchen brings back memories of a far dirtier time.
Spring cleaning was serious business in those days. Drapes, rugs and furniture holding a year’s worth of soot and grime would be dragged onto the lawn and beaten clean. And every wall in the home was scrubbed by hand to remove a thick film of soot and ash.
I recently spoke with a man who remembers this annual rite. Along with the hard work that “the deep clean” entailed, he fondly recalls the profound sense of accomplishment and peace that followed. The entire family took part in the weeklong cleaning event, and in the end, the house literally sparkled from top to bottom.
When was the last time you washed down your ceiling or dragged your mattress out on the lawn to be dried and cleansed by the sun?
Even in the days of modern heat sources, these heavy-duty spring-cleaning practices of yesteryear aren’t a bad idea. Just think how much easier it’ll be to clean those hard-to-reach areas in your home if all the furniture is in the back yard.
All you need now is a gallon of white vinegar, a box of baking soda, and a bottle of lemon oil — and you’ll join generations of savvy spring cleaners in knocking off the most rewarding chore on the annual to-do list.
Ever been faced with a problem in your life and didn't feel like you had anyone to turn to for advice — someone with enough life experience to help guide you in the right direction?
That's the idea behind cyber-grandparenting. An online community of over 600 elders dispenses advice to young people through Elder Wisdom Circle
, a website that connects younger generations seeking advice with elders willing and able to give it.
Doug Meckelson founded the Elder Wisdom Circle
"What we do is match seniors between the ages of 60 to about 105 who have advice and wisdom to share with younger generations who have problems in their lives and are looking for some empathetic and caring advice," Meckelson says in a YouTube promotional video.
As a nonprofit, the Elder Wisdom Circle receives Google AdWords advertising, which has helped the organization gain tremendous exposure to web-surfers looking for a few words of wisdom. Last fall Mechelson estimated that the nonprofit had received over 20,000 requests for advice.
One cyber-grandparent says that she's written over 400 replies to online advice-seekers.
The website appears to be a win-win for those seeking help with life problems, and for seniors who want to share their hard-earned wisdom with younger generations.
"I see eldering as really trying to share insights, share perspectives, and share experiences," said one member of the elder circle.
Who's looking for advice, and what kind of advice are they seeking? The site attracts all ages — from teens to 40-year-olds — looking for help with career decisions, concerns about children, and family and marriage issues. On the Elder Wisdom Circle website, you can peruse the letters and elder responses, ask for advice, or offer advice.
Personally, I think Meckelson's on to something. He's filling a void that has been created by our fast-paced, geographically and technologically divided world. This passing-on of guidance and advice is a natural part of the aging process and an essential component of any well-balanced society.
Sure, in an ideal world we'd share these stories and life lessons over a cup of tea or on a walk through the woods, but you've got to work with what you've got. And in this case, the Internet is the obvious alternative.