Lens-Artist Challenge: A Covid Christmas Holiday

Daughter, Granddaughter, Granddaughter, Daughter

Things are different this year, we decided some time back that we couldn’t do our Christmas celebration the way we have done it for more than 30 years. I have moments that I feel a little bit sad, maybe tear up a bit, but most of the time I feel joy and excitement about what we can do. And I am so proud of my adult children for how they are making the best of this very crazy season.

When we made the decision that we couldn’t risk having our normal Christmas Eve family gathering, our kids started making decision about how to spend their Christmas. Our oldest son and his wife have been working from home and they asked if they could use our Florida condo from the middle of December to sometime in January because they can work from there as easily as from Lansing and be able to spend more time outdoors exercising. They packed up the car with computers and work materials and are currently enjoying the nice weather there. Middle daughter decided in late June to come to Michigan to live with us for two months to escape the ramped spread of the virus where she lives and works south of Houston in Texas. She, too, decided she could work as well from Michigan and wouldn’t experience the isolation fatigue of living alone and being house bound because of the horrid heat of a Texas summer. She hasn’t found any reason to return to Texas so will be with us for Christmas and New Years. Our third daughter lives two hours away in Grand Rapids and we haven’t been able to visit them because her three adolescent daughters are socially more active than we feel safe with. This daughter told me the other day that she is planning on starting her own family tradition with elements of our extended family celebrations for over the past 50 years. Here at our home, the three of us are planning for our small celebration, and are excited. Yesterday, Jim asked how many more sleeps until Christmas – I had to think a minute, wondering if I should add afternoon naps.

Grandson, wife, and great-granddaughter

We are finding lots of small pleasures to be excited about. Yesterday our neighbors were out for a walk and came up to our door with a container of Christmas treats (including some really good fudge) as a gift to let us know they appreciate us as neighbors. Christmas cards that come in the mail are meaning so much more to me this year as I hold them and read what is written in them. I spend some time thinking about how much I miss seeing the senders and smile thinking about when we may be able to see them again. I have enjoyed having extra time to make gifts for others – quilted throw-sized blankets for each adult child and a 90 year old sister-in-law, Christmas table napkins and hot pads, and I’ve started knitting hats again. It seems like there has been ample time to pull inside and enjoy a quiet peace while listening to the blustery wind blow or watch snowflakes dance on an air current.

I underestimated the lasting joy I would have when I make plans with our daughter who lives in Grand Rapids and our grandson who lives just this side of there to have a Covid safe present drop-off. I really, really wanted to see our great-granddaughter who just turned two but made it clear that we wouldn’t be going into houses and it would be a short visit because of the cold. I smiled all the way home and woke up the next morning still smiling.

Now I am going to the kitchen to make something I have wanted to make for the past five years – I am going to mix the dough to make pecan cinnamon rolls with lots of gooey, sticky, buttery, nutty topping. This year I have lots of time to enjoy both the process of making them and sitting with a hot cup of tea enjoying them.

Joy to all of you no matter what your celebration this time of year. We just passed the winter solstice. Please stay safe and wear your masks. We have to take care of each other.

This post was written with inspiration from Anne-Christine, host of our last Lens-Artist Challenge of 2020.

A Real Holiday Season

This morning we were treated to a beautiful snow fall. A flake bumped up against the window over the sink to get my attention – saying, “Here we come.” A few minutes later I realized that there were lots of flakes falling – some of them dancing on upward drafts, not ready to fall to the ground where they would soon melt.

Snow and cold seem to be an important part of the Christmas season, at least for those of us who grew up in the northern regions of our country. I remember the excitement of hearing the knock on our door, running to open it to our guests because my childhood anticipation of the forthcoming party had reached its peak. I remember the scent of cold coming in, relatives handing presents to me for under the tree as they stomped the snow off their shoes, took off their boots, unwrapped scarfs, stuffed mittens and hats in sleeves, and handed to outstretched arms piles of coats to put on beds. All completed to chants of Merry Christmas from everyone to everyone. This ritual was also reversed every year as we went to homes of friends and family. The teeth-chattering cold in spite of being bundled up, the snow, the lights of the Christmas tree in the front window welcoming us in even before we got out of our car, and the crunch of snow with each step. Ah, and the foggy eye-glasses as soon as I entered the house. This is what I’m remembering of my Christmas’s past.

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We fly back to Michigan to be with family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Each year on the evening before we leave, we say goodbye to Naples by going for my favorite meal at one of my favorite restaurants, fish and chips at the Old Naples Pub on 3rd Street South in the oldest area of Naples. We went for early supper, as the sun was getting low over the Gulf of Mexico just 4 blocks away, but the temperature was still a balmy 80 f. We ate outdoors, with smiles because it was so perfect.

Christmas decorations had been put up during the previous week so we decided to go for a walk down 3rd Street after we had finished sharing a piece of key lime pie.

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What I see every year is a jolt to my emotional memories. Poinsettias don’t seem to belong with tropical plants – outdoors no less (even though my brain knows they grow into large shrubs in people’s yards). We smiled, enjoyed and laughed as we talked about how different Christmas feels in sub-tropical weather.

Driving home we went down 5th Avenue South just because we could. In high season, when we get back, it takes forever to drive this two-lane, 7 block shopping district because of the cars and people. In November we breezed through, with windows down and sunroof open.

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I hold these memories in my heart and smile, as I am now preparing for a real Christmas with cold and hopefully just a little snow. I have a poinsettia on the kitchen counter and no palm trees with lights wrapped around their trunks. I’ll see the palms in a few weeks.

It is strange how we come to believe that traditions should be the way we have always known them to be. One of the advantages of traveling and spending time in different locations has been learning that even the simplest activities of daily living can be different when people live in different climates, have different faith stories, are a part of a different culture. When I took students abroad to study culture I learned that culture learning requires an open mind, an ability to identify similarities and differences without judgement, an eagerness to explore and understand.

I wish you a holiday season in which you have the opportunity to explore and learn customs that are different than your own and that this experience brings you increased joy. I also hope you find a way to maybe assimilate a little bit of different into what you find familiar and comfortable.

I would love to read your stories if you write them into a blog and leave a link in the comments. Please do!

Christmas Reflections

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I am half way between our celebration of Christmas and the celebration of the beginning of a new year. We had a fun and joyful Christmas Eve celebration and I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on whether we provided an appropriate celebration of a religious holy day of such magnitude. I have struggled as long as I can remember with trying to keep the season holy while surrounded by the hyped up commercialism that begins weeks in advance. Advent is the season of preparation of your spirits, our souls, for the coming of the Christ child into our lives, bringing renewal and meaning into what it means to be Christian.

This year we had 19 people celebrating around our Christmas Eve dining table. We had to snuggle in tight for all to fit around the table but there was lots of laughter and conversation bouncing from one end to the other, back and forth. Fate has given our Christmas dinner a measure of Russian/Kyrgyz culture in the past few years, and even more so this year.

Our daughter-in-law is from Armenia, previously a part of the USSR, and still enjoys speaking and hearing her native Russian language. She also gets great joy from cooking for others, including the foods she enjoyed while growing up. Our middle off-spring lived and worked in Biskek, Kyrgyzstan and became very close to a colleague and her daughter who are now both working on degrees from Kent State University in Ohio. They came to stay with us for five nights, both are ethnic Kyrgyz, but also fluent in Russian and English. During their stay she made us plov (the v pronounced like ff), a Kyrgyz dish of rice, vegetables, and lamb.

A couple of years ago our youngest daughter met some new children when she walked her youngest to the bus stop. There weren’t playmates in the neighborhood so she went to their house to introduce herself and possibly arrange a play date. The mother had just immigrated from Kyrgyzstan with her husband (a U.S. citizen who did contract work for the military in Bishkek) and their three children. Her in-laws have not accepted her and the marriage is failing – it has been a rough couple of years. I invited them to our celebration because she is ethnically Russian and I figured she would enjoy having adult conversations with other Russian speakers. I understand this because our native tongue is the one we use to speak from our soul, what our spirit uses to express who we are.

The gathering was joyful, high energy, and for me exhausting. I went to bed very tired, with achy body, but with a warm glow within. I have also been pondering if there was more I could have done to make this a celebration of Christ’s birth. I realized that there were only about 6 of the 19 who are practicing Christians, and a maybe a few more who identify as Christian but without church affiliation. I set out the manger under the upstairs Christmas tree and had traditional carols playing. As people arrived, choruses of “Merry Christmas” rang out, along with excited proclamations of “So nice to meet you.”

Was there more we should have done? We planned the menu to meet the needs of all who attended; young and old, Western & Central Asian, family and guest. We do very little gift exchanging – mostly gifts to nieces and nephews, and the new children were included. And most importantly all were able to participate in our 15 year tradition of ‘the Christmas stocking pile’. JB and I spend a whole year looking for items to include for people of all ages and life stage, I spend hours wrapping, and all have the excitement of taking their turn picking items. They then welcome the challenge of bartering for items they would like that someone else picked. JB and I love shopping for this tradition, and all look forward to the event – from our 50-ish old children, young adults, teens, right down to preschoolers. And even guests from distant lands learn the tradition quickly.

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Come on – you really would prefer the Tag-a-Moji game in trade for that boring paint brush.

Everyone leaves with gifts, and from my perspective the gifts were purchased and wrapped for the baby Jesus. They are given to family, friends, and new guests with love, good-will and the wish that the gifts will bring joy in the new year. It is a way to include all in our celebration of the coming of the embodiment of love and inclusion in the form of a holy babe. We are successful in our celebration of Christmas to the extent that all who enter our home and participate in our traditions feel welcome and cared about. This includes the old, the young, the ones with lots of tattoos, with green hair, and especially those who bring gifts to us of stories of far off places that have different ways of celebration. This year I feel more whole because of all the gifts of laughter, love, and story that were brought into our home and wrapped around me. Yes, Jesus has been celebrating with us.

Update on my hat making: I think I made over 60 hats for people getting meals at the local homeless shelter but only 40-some made it there. As people were making noises of having to leave (it was snowing and everyone had a one to two hour drive home) I brought out the box of hats for anyone who would like one. What fun they had trying on different ones in front of the mirror until they found the perfect one – or in case of the children who couldn’t decide, it was the perfect two. The day after Christmas we took the rest to the shelter and it felt so good knowing that family, friends of our family, and people I don’t know will feel some comfort in this very frigid winter. I have ordered more yarn on-line to be delivered for hat knitting in Florida next week.

The Morning After

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A new day is dawning after our Christmas celebrations. Two of our three house guests are being transported to Toledo to catch a bus and our home is mine alone for half a day. A perfect time for reflection and meditation, and maybe a couple loads of laundry.

I am a Christian and also a person who doesn’t feel a strong need to follow convention or tradition. It is a common thread in my family that has sometimes gone so far as a willingness to break from tradition to maintain individual integrity or to adjust to new life circumstances. Every time I think of tradition I think of the wonderful play “Fiddler on the Roof.”

When my Christian church calendar celebrates the major traditions and beliefs of our holidays, I spend time in contemplation. How can I celebrate that which is so central to my life in a way that is meaningful to me? Is it important for me to also reflect my faith in public so others can see? I’m an introvert, not comfortable with public displays. My identity and integrity are based on what my heart and mind do in private much more than what my body does in public. I know other people experience their faith differently.

This is a special year for Christmas because there were Christmas services on both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I didn’t attend either. We have our family Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve, a tradition we began when adult children created their own families – allowing them to spend Christmas day with in-laws. I would like to attend church on Christmas Eve but am not willing to disrupt a network of other families to meet my own spiritual need. I foresee a time in the future when this will change again as grandchildren marry and create their own families but with our children at the helm.

There were two extra guests in our house this year besides our daughter, and I could have invited them all to attend church on Christmas morning – but I didn’t have the energy. Besides, our time together eating blueberry pancakes and talking about religion and culture with our daughter’s friend and her 17-year-old daughter from Kyrgyzstan fed my spirit. I am sitting the day after, remembering our Christmas day as being filled with joy, relaxation, and way too many sweets left over from the day before. We served and nurtured each other in ways unique to the needs of each. Chynara rubbed precious Kyrgyz oil on the tight muscles of my back. I think Jesus would have enjoyed himself in our midst. Today, I shed tears of joy and gratefulness as I remember.

JB and I go to church because we recognize the need for corporate worship and the strength of living within the emotional bonds of a community of like believers. We are already looking forward to attending Lenten services in our Florida church. But we don’t feel bound to attend in order to ‘be seen’ as a good Christian, or because tradition says we should. We attend because it feeds our soul, just as our daily living in ways that are pleasing to God keeps our souls healthy and praises God.

This isn’t the way it always was, but as we are aging we are finding our spiritual needs are changing. It is how we balance our love of God, our love of others, and our love of self. In the coming year may all you, within the religion you practice and your family life-cycle stage, find a spiritual balance that is respectful and pleasing to all.

 

The Grateful Tree

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I put the decorations on our Christmas tree today. I almost didn’t put the tree up – or more accurately almost took it down before I had all the lights on. Getting the lights on last year was a nightmare, but this year it was only a bad dream. I persevered for a week and think I should write down some notes about how I could make the process easier for next year. JB thinks I’m a perfectionists, but I think I just like things to be really pleasing.

The fun part every year is opening the box of ornaments and unwrapping each one from its tissue. I remember as I re-discover each ornament – for the first time all over again. I forget what ornaments I have but once my memory is jogged I remember the significance it has to the fabric of my life.

This year there was another layer to the process of re-membering, using Parker Palmer’s phrase. The stress of our current political uncertainty has created in me a need to figure out once again who I am and what my life has been about. When the seams of our life feel like they are being ripped apart, maybe we need to pull the parts of ourselves back together – we need to re-member ourselves. I need to remember what I value, to strengthen the seams of my life by remembering.

Putting the ornaments on the tree this year (and making sense of it through my writing) is helping me do this. Each ornament represents a piece of the story of who I am. I have three ball ornaments that belonged to grandparents – and this year they are front and center. My grandparents were the foundation of who I am. They nurtured me strong.

I have hand-made ornaments from a neighbor who was my children’s second mother and my own hand-made ornaments demonstrating my creative side. I have German stars that I learned to make in high school, and I feel gratitude for all the teachers I’ve had that taught and molded me. They were guiding stars, although not all German.

I have some ornaments made by my sister, Peg – one being a crocheted angel. How appropriate. I don’t have any ornament from my other sister, who passed away. Linda made beautiful greeting cards, however, and I kept all that she sent. One of them now has a place on the tree along with Peg’s ornaments. Both sisters were very important to my life story in very different ways – both are cherished.

I don’t have an ornament from my parents’ tree but I made that okay – I have created my own treasured memory ornaments. My father’s favorite ornaments were artificial birds that clip on the tree’s branch. I bought a red cardinal, his favorite, and also a dove. I did feel some sadness because I have no ornament from my mother, but then I unwrapped a bell dated 1986. I don’t remember how I came to possess it but my mother collected bells and this is now her bell. It hangs below the dove, maybe representative of the peace and love that we shared after I came to terms with past transgressions.

As I was going through Linda’s home-made cards, I found a very special one, signed Mom & Dad. A two-fer. As I am writing this, I looked over at it and smiled big with tears in my eyes. I am very thankful for all my parents gave me, both genetically and through their caring. I am especially grateful for God’s saving grace that made it possible for me to appreciate their gifts of love. I miss Mom, Dad and Linda very much.

I made ornaments, 37 years ago, with my children’s pictures in them and once again I gave them a prominent place on the tree. The last ornaments I placed on the tree were ones my children made in their early elementary school years. I have a precious collection so I have to decide which ones to use each year. Seeing them floods me with beautiful memories of all those Christmases as they grew and matured – as they grew and matured me. All the excitement. And that special moment when I opened the treasure that each had made for us, as they expectantly waited for our squeals of joy and praises. My heart swells with gratitude for all they gave us on Christmas past with the precious ornaments that still grace our tree, but also the 364 days in between when they helped me grow up.

In more recent years, we have made room on our tree for ornaments made by grandchildren. I am saddened that I don’t have one from my second grandson, so maybe I’ll have to tell him that my tree has a big empty spot that he needs to fill. Ahhh, but I remember that I’ve added a daughter and two more grandchildren through my son’s second marriage. How grateful I am that our hearts can enlarge to take in new family because they, too, are helping me write my life story. And soon we will hopefully make room on our tree for ornaments made by great-grandchildren Caden and Eevee.

Many ornament on my tree were bought on my many trips. This year they have special meaning besides the memories of the foreign lands they came from. This year I am grateful for the growth that took place as I learned about new cultures and met people who have different world views than I do. These experiences have enriched my life, but more importantly have made me a better person. I am more of who I am because of who I met and what I learned. This year our Christmas celebration will include a mother and daughter I met when visiting my daughter in Kyrgyzstan. I have several wool ornaments that remind me of the time I spent with them in their home.

Yes, this year I have a grateful tree. I have ornaments that remind me of people who healed me, who shaped me, who brought joy to my life. Each ornament has special significance for who I am, for who I have become. Each ornament represents a special person or event in my life, a special thread in the fabric of my person.

For each I am grateful. Thank you.