View From The Glen

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Why Christmas?

I don't want to get into a debate about Christianity, but I do wonder what it is about the season that makes even non-religious people participate with such enthusiasm.

It could be that the Coca-cola version of the holiday - buy presents, get together, eat, drink and be merry - has taken over. But I don't think so.

Personally, I think it's because the message at Christmas is essentially one that is universal. Christmas is about Peace on Earth. Love and Goodwill to Man. Comfort and Joy. And yes many people find that in religion. But many people find it without religion as well.

In the messages of hope that abound this time of year;, as we light up our homes to ward off the dark days of winter (or metaphorically, if you prefer); and as we open our homes and hearths to friends and neighbours, there is something special about the season that brings happiness to those who embrace it.

One of my favourite Christmas songs is actually a poem written by American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1836. In it he talks about hearing the bells, and their song of hope and joy. He questions that, despairing: And in despair I bowed my head/there is no peace on earth I said/For hate is strong and mocks the song/Of peace on earth, goodwill to man.

He was thinking of the civil war when he wrote about that hate. We can just as easily apply it to any one of a hundred situations around the world today. Despair, under these circumstances, is easy.

But the bells continue, refusing to give in to that. And in the end, Longfellow could not resist: Then pealed the bells more loud and deep/God is not dead nor does he sleep/the wrong shall fail, the right prevail/In peace on earth, goodwill to man.

For a short time, at Christmas, it is easy to believe that the world is in harmony. That there can indeed be peace on earth.

It's a promise of hope that we can all relate to.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Medieval Christmas

Maybe it's because I studied Medieval History, but some of the traditions I like best from that period spill over into my celebration of Christmas, bracketing more modern traditions.

Like the Winter Solstice, which happens this week, and which we celebrated this weekend with a day out of doors gathering greenery and sledding on the hills behind the house. Then, as afternoon's shadows lengthened we came back in the wagon, the kids singing Jingle Bells and the sound of it ringing off  through the glen. We lit up the house with twinkling lights and candles and lanterns, warding off the darkness and decking the halls. And feasting. Always feasting.

We get caught up with Christmas and New Years, which have their own excitement, but I like to do something warm and cosy for Twelfth Night as well. We sing aboutTwelfth Night - a very overlooked tradition - it all the time (The 12 Days of Christmas) but not everyone realizes that the song refers to the days between Christmas (Dec 25) and Epiphany (Jan 6). Traditionally a day of feasting and merriment, we tend to be somewhat bloated from gingerbread men and turkey and trifle, and are more likely to celebrate it with a steaming tureen of soup and a family game of scrabble.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


They lounge on the serenity couch...

They lounge on the floor of Erik's room...

They lounge under the Christmas tree...

And by the kitchen fire...


Monday, December 13, 2010

More Than Just A Nativity Scene

I love my nativity scene.
My grandmother knitted this - yes all those figures and the manger and even the sheep. And she sent it over packaged in a box containing a bar of ivory soap, which I gather is supposed to keep the figures fresh all year. I don't know if it's true, but every December when I did out the box and open it, the first thing I notice is that fresh soapy smell.

The second thing I notice is the smell of the wool, and it's a smell that takes me back to childhood, and many, many Christmases of Grandma's knitted sweaters (the white one with a horse and rider, and matching hat) and all the teeny woolen clothes - dresses and onesies and hats and underwear and leggings and coats - that she used to make for my dolls.

There is a Nativity scene just like it somewhere at the Vatican. At least there used to be. My grandmother made a few of them, one of which went to my Aunt Valerie (who is also Sister Valerie) who was living in Rome at the time.

My kids love to set it up, and spend time deciding where in the creche to place them all, and who of the wise men or shepherds gets to be inside and who outside. Depending on where they are placed, it tells a different story.

It's usually the first thing to come out at Christmas, and I love to watch them ever so serious in their task of setting it up just so. I'm neither Catholic nor particularly religious, but I love what this scene represents - the miracle and hope of birth, the promise and mystery of life.

But I love my Nativity Scene most for a different reason altogether.

I love it for the textures and the smells and the picture it conjurs up of my grandmother sitting by the electric fire in her Liverpool flat, beside the great brass candlesticks and horse brasses I used to polish when I stayed there long ago. The silver Christmas tree and the budgies, and the big old scullery/pantry where all the scones and cakes where piled high. Electric blankets on the bed and a woven stool my brother and I used to turn upside down and pretend was a boat. The box of cars, and a small shelf with dusty hardcover school books belonging to my dad and his brothers and sister when they were kids themselves.

So much more than just a Nativity Scene.

Friday, December 10, 2010

We interrupt this Christmas spirit.... talk about Festivus.

Actually, to find out more about Festivus, check out my friend Laura's blog. It sounds really fun. One of the things I particularly liked was the idea of airing grievances, so I thought I'd take advantage of the Festivus tradition to air a few grievances of my own.
  1. Folksy Softeners: I saw a sign in the mall by Santa's workshop that read Folks, no private cameras and it got me wondering about that word Folks, and how it gets used when you want to soften the message you are about to impart. As if prefacing with Folks makes it acceptable to get away with saying something people won't like. As if saying it makes you avuncular, hearty, one of them. You're the jovial uncle saying put those cameras away for now - we don't need them here instead of the hard nosed business wanting to scrape every nickel it can out of Christmas shoppers and children eager to sit with Santa for a moment.
  2. Nothing for Christmas: When I ask you what you'd like for Christmas and you say nothing, that just having your friends and family around is enough, I smile. I get that. We all do. But assume for a moment that if I am asking you, it is because I am going to buy you a Christmas present and have no clue what you would like. If you absolutely refuse to help me out, you are going to get something you don't want which doesn't make sense for either of us. What I really want to hear is Having my family and friends around is enough, but I'd really like the new Tom Clancy book out in paperback or a chocolate orange. Thank you.
  3. Holiday Trees: No, no, no, no, no. It's a Christmas tree. Always has been. Don't try to change it. And while we're on the subject, why does political correctness always take the fun out of everything. It takes the sublime (whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan or Kwanzaa) and reduces it to a bland mass of homogeneity with no heart or soul. We shouldn't live in a world where we're afraid to say Merry Christmas for fear of offense. Crazy.
  4. Advertising: I know this is the biggest season for stores. And they need to make money. But honestly, does Christmas advertising have to be so abrasive and in-your-face. You want. You need. You should have. You must buy. Buy $100 now and we'll give you a free coupon for $5 off your next purchase of $100 or more. Wow. Thank you so much. Now I love Christmas shopping - buying the right gifts for people. But the ads drive me crazy. They start early, ramp up to a pre-Christmas frenzy, and then - in case that's not enough - start in on Boxing Week (and when did Boxing Day expand to 7!). My least favourite ads - the ones that really make smoke come out of my ears - are the ones that air right after Christmas. Didn't get what you want? Auntie Ida send you another boring scarf again? You deserve more. Come in and buy ....etc. Um, isn't Christmas about other people, not yourself? And Aunt Ida probably put thought into that scarf (or you told her you wanted nothing, see point 2 above), so making fun of my relatives who tried to do something nice for me is just going to tick me off.
  5. Gift Cards: This kind of ties in. And I know they have a purpose, especially for those far away. I often tuck an I-tunes or Subway gift card in for those who will use them. And I have one child who loves gift cards because they can put them in a wallet and carry them around (like Mommy's credit card). But really, gift cards are a cop out. If you don't have the time or inclination to sit down and really think of something someone will love, maybe that person should not be on your Christmas list at all. I know gift cards are convenient, but they suck the soul out of the joy of Christmas giving. Why not just give cash? Or - easier yet - we all keep our own money, and go out on Boxing Week and buy ourselves the things we really want.
Wow. I feel better already. This Festivus thing really has something going for it. Kind of a release of the inner Grinch.

Now. Back to that Christmas Spirit!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Cookies

The cookies won't bake any faster...
...because you are watching them!

Not even if you give me that slow Grinch smile...

...that always makes me laugh.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees

It's Monday night, and everyone is out at karate. The dog and I are curled up in the warmth of the living room - a warmth that seeps out from the fireplace and enfolds us even in this big old drafty house. We decorated the tree yesterday, so there is colour and light and cheer taking up the west wall of the living room.

Because I am here by myself, I am able to give in to my penchant for cheesy Christmas music and so am lounging on the serenity couch with a mug of hot sweetened tea, writing out Christmas cards and listening to Elvis Presley sing Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees.

Holly Leaves (I planted this one last year)

And Christmas Trees 

Ocular Migraine

Last week, sitting at my computer in the office, jagged shards of light started to flicker across my line of sight.

It has happened once before, about 18 months ago, at which time I rushed myself to emerg, sure I was having a stroke, only to be told I was having a migraine. A migraine with an aura (someone once told me I had an auro. I dissed them, but it turns out I do after all). The hospital did sent me for cat scans to be sure, but the lights went away, there was no pain, and life returned to normal.

Until last Friday. Of course, I was less worried this time. Oh, I thought. It's one of those migraines. And it's not like I can complain - I get no pain with them, like so many migraine sufferers. And two in 18 months hardly constitutes something to worry about, even to a hypochondriac like myself.

Naturally, I googled it. I found out that it can also be called Alice in Wonderland syndrome, the thought being that Lewis Carroll suffered the same thing and that the flashing lights inspired Alice. I'm cool with that.

I also read up on what causes them, and discovered that possible triggers include caffeine, chocolate, aged cheese, rich meat and red wine.

But if I cut them out of my diet, what will I eat?

Think I'll take the migraine.

Friday, December 3, 2010

This One Is For...

...All my british relatives.

Snow! It's snow. It's real snow!

Especially my cousin Amy who, 4 years ago, first showed me the comedy sketch this comes from. She had me laughing so hard.

That was also the day I first used an ipod (also Amy's) and Andrew came downstairs to see me standing helplessly in the kitchen doing that silent-laughter-interrupted-by-snorting routine....but since I wore ear buds and the ipod screen was only an inch wide, he couldn't figure out what I was doing.