Category Archives: Christmas stories
I wrote this post in December 2012. I’m re-posting it now, because some of us might have to re-consider our “cats.”
Are you trapped in your traditions? Do they serve you, or do you serve them?
I pondered this question after reading a Paulo Coelho blog piece about an ancient Japanese story, which I will paraphrase here:
A great Zen Buddhist master had a cat. The cat was his constant companion even during the meditation classes he led. When the old master passed away, another disciple took his place and continued to allow the cat to join in meditation. When the original cat died, the disciples missed its presence, so they found another.
Disciples from other regions heard about the cat who attended meditation classes, and spread the story around to others. These disciples believed that the cat was the reason for the greatness of the Zen Buddhist master. Other temples began to bring cats to class.
Eventually, writings began to appear about the importance of cats during meditation. A university professor studied the issue and wrote a thesis about the effects of cats on concentration and energy. Disciples began to believe that cats were essential to meditation.
Soon, an instructor who was allergic to cats decided to remove the animal from his daily classes. Other disciples were aghast and reacted negatively, believing the cat to be essential to their success. But his students made the same progress even without the cat.
Generations passed and, one by one, monasteries began removing cats from meditation. After all, it was a burden feeding all those cats. In fact, students began to study the benefits of meditating without animals. More time passed until “cat,” or “no cat” was no longer a matter of consideration. But it took many years for the full cycle, because “during all this time, no one asked why the cat was there.”
Christmas is one of the most tradition-bound times of the year. Christmas trees, shortbread, gifts, overspending on gifts, turkey, family gatherings, family fights, church services, candles, crèches, Santa, pageants, parties with too much rum eggnog, carols . . . These things have been part of our current version of the holidays for so long we have started to believe that Christmas is not Christmas without them. If we were to suggest not including them, people would react with aghast negativity.
Why are those “cats” in the room? Is feeding them becoming a burden?
Christmas means different things to different people. For me, it recalls the birth of a compassionate movement toward “all is one.” It recalls the birth of a man—an activist—who sought social justice and lived the idea that every person contains the divine spark.
As I meditate my way toward Christmas this year, whether I invite some of those “cats” to join me or not, the movement toward “all is one” by all of us divine sparks continues regardless.
Advent. Something’s coming. Get ready.
At our house on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas we light Advent candles during a pre-dinner ritual: candles of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love lit one by one in a countdown to Christmas. Most of those candle-lightings take place at our dining room table. Quiet, dignified affairs.
Not the first one.
As it happens, the first Sunday of Advent falls on the same date as an important sporting event: the Grey Cup. [For non-Canadians, that is the final game to determine the championship of the Canadian Football League (CFL). ] As it happens, a group of neighbourhood friends traditionally gathers at our house to eat unhealthy food, drink beer and watch the Grey Cup game. [For non-Canadians, think Superbowl party.]
We don’t let the raucous game and the noisy gathering get in the way of our ritual. At some point in the evening—at the time it feels right—we still the TV, quiet the conversation and we take the time to be peaceful, to appreciate each other’s friendship and to light the candle of Hope. Sometimes the team we’re cheering for wins and sometimes the team loses, but there is always Hope. Something’s coming. Get ready. Then it’s back to nachos, ribs, beer and raucous cheering.
The Grey Cup and the lighting of the candle of Hope have become so linked in my mind that if the CFL ever decided to change the date of the final I would have to take a moment during the game to light a candle just because. I would have to take a moment to remember, there’s always Hope.
Yesterday our hometown Ottawa REDBLACKS played in the Grey Cup. They were the underdogs, a long-shot to win against a Calgary Stampeders team that dominated the league all season. We took our quiet time to light the candle of Hope after the first quarter. Our team was ahead, but against Calgary a lead did not feel comfortable. We lit the candle.
Hope. Something’s coming. Get ready.
Against the odds the Ottawa REDBLACKS won in an overtime nail-biter. We jumped around the living room. We cheered. We blew our air horn on the street.
There’s always hope. Something’s coming. Get ready.
Just for fun, you’ll want to see these spectacular photos of the game the REDBLACKS played in the snow the previous Sunday. LIFE IN A SNOW GLOBE: EASTERN FINAL THROUGH THE LENS OF LANDON ENTWISTLE
“Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.” —Sir Arthur Eddington, British physicist
I read the quote above in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. The book was one way magic appeared in my life over a Christmas season replete with the word. At noisy parties, we talked about people with magical personalities. At informal gatherings with friends, conversations turned how children fully embrace the magic of Christmas. We went to see the enchanting, magical theatre production The Wizard of Oz. At our Christmas dinner, the crackers contained magic tricks.
It was almost magical how the universe led me to ponder magic.
Of course, each of those things has a rational, logical explanation. People don’t really have magical personalities; some people are just more outgoing and charismatic than others. Children do embrace the magic of Christmas, but there is no man coming down the chimney. The Wizard of Oz? Please. We all know we have to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. And to perform magic with our cracker prizes at Christmas dinner, we each had to know the secret behind the “trick.”
There is a rational, logical explanation. Except when there isn’t. Something unknown is doing something we can’t figure out.
In her book, Elizabeth Gilbert encourages us to allow some of that unexplainable magic into our lives. Why not? Doing so opens doors instead of closing them. Doing so might lead to some “Wow” moments. Doing so is just way more fun.
Tomorrow is Epiphany—a good day to open the door to Big Magic. It just might be fun.
My daughter’s birthday is Christmas Eve. This means a lifetime of both (a) feeling a little special, and (b) being cheated out of a full day dedicated to her birthday and her birthday alone.
When she was a child, we had big, fun family gatherings for her birthday. She thought that was great. But when she became a teenager, she realized what a difference a date makes. “Hey, wait a minute,” she began to say to herself. “My friends get to do birthday dinners with friends and go to movies on their actual birthday. On my birthday, everyone is doing family stuff.”
Last year we realized that, as a result of all that “family stuff” we do at Christmas, she had never had a birthday lunch or dinner out at a restaurant on her actual birthday in her whole life. We resolved to fix that.
We chose the restaurant—one that was newly opened and about which we had heard good things. We appeared on the day, happy-happy. We ordered drinks to start. She and her brother ordered iced tea. My husband and I ordered beer. When the server came to the table, she set the iced tea down. The imbalance made her tray wobble, and she spilled an entire very large, very cold beer all over my daughter. It made a spectacular mess.
So much for a special birthday lunch.
The next day, we hosted Christmas dinner at our house—a lovely turkey meal with my family and our neighbours. At the end of the meal we stacked up the plates. I picked up the pile and turned to head toward the kitchen. One hand caught on the edge of a chair and the entire stack of plates flew out of my hands and smashed into thousands of pieces. It made a spectacular mess.
A shattering end to a Christmas celebration.
Two unfortunate circumstances. No one died or was permanently injured, so not tragedies. But they are the kind of circumstances that make you want a do-over. An opportunity to rewind life like a VHS tape to the point just before the event and then to alter the outcome. Alas, all we can do in such situations is shrug and acknowledge that things didn’t go according to plan. Let it go.
Given the back-to-back mishaps in our family last year, I’m hoping we bought ourselves a reprieve for 2015. But if my plans go awry, I’ll try to shrug and let it go. And in all the many holiday gatherings going on around the world this time of year, some things are not going to go according to plan. I hope people will be able to shrug and let it go.
I wrote this post three years ago, but I decided to post it again as we wind down our holiday preparations. A reminder of what is really important at this time of year.
Correspondence from an earlier time helps us to gain perspective about our own circumstances. These letters, written by my husband’s ancestors, span the years between 1928 and 1936. The mood changes from comfortable and optimistic, to worried, to discouraged, to desperate.
In 1928 times were good. People had no inkling of the challenges to come. They proudly made use of electricity as they gathered around their radio in the evenings.
By October 1930, people had started to feel the pinch, but hope did not elude them. Reading this now, we know the long, lingering hard times that lay ahead of them—the Great Depression and then World War II—but back then, they were certain it was a short-term dip.
In 1933 many people were out of work. Lay-off notices were dreaded but common. Without a social safety net, no work meant no food or shelter. This lay-off notice came just before Christmas.
At Christmas 1934, this letter was sent: “. . . we find that it will be impossible to send any gifts this year, and therefore we would rather not receive any gifts this year.”
By comparison, we are wealthy beyond all imagining. Our social safety net is not perfect, but it helps.
Rest easy. Enjoy our luxury. Happy Holidays.
A few days before Christmas my world-travelling author friend Anthony sent me a holiday greeting, and he shared a memory of his favourite Christmas.
In the Sahara desert, central Mauritania, in the early 1970s, he and a collection of about fifteen Anglicans, Catholics, Jews and Muslims built a log fire in the shape of a Christmas tree. Their camel herd snuffled and snorted in the darkness around them. In the early hours of Christmas Day, they held hands and sang carols.
In my mind’s eye, I pictured the flames and the desert sand. In my mind’s nose, I smelled the woodsmoke and the camels. In my mind’s ear, I heard the haunting echo of Christmas carols in the Sahara air.
His favourite Christmas was unconventional to be sure, and all the more meaningful for it.
This year Sainsbury’s ad tells the extraordinary story of the Christmas truce of 1914 in the trenches of war. An unconventional Christmas moment of common humanity shared, and all the more meaningful for it.
My favourite Christmas happened twenty years ago. I spent that one in hospital with our newborn daughter. By the light of a small, artificial tree and to the sound of carols played on a portable cassette player, my husband, my day-old daughter and I shared an unconventional Christmas, that was all the more meaningful for it.
Happy holidays to you all, conventional or otherwise.