All my Christmases have a different story

Merry Christmas Across the MilesAll my Christmases have a different story, generally reflecting the state of my life at the time. My childhood Christmases – when I still believed Santa brought the gifts – were full of excitement and anticipation. Those were also the times when I still enjoyed going to church services and even sang in the choir when I was 13 and 14. I’m an only child but my mother had 6 siblings so I grew up with plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins and we all went to my grandparent’s house for dinner on Christmas. I have happy memories of those years. In my early adult years we all started moving away and then I got married and entered a new phase.

Our relationship was a rocky one with lots of ups and downs during our almost 9 years of marriage but, I have good memories of some of the Christmases we spent together. He had a great sense of humor and was very quick-witted so he could usually make me laugh, even when I was mad at him. Some stories only became funny in later telling; like the year he came home drunk from a work Christmas party and fell onto our little 4′ tree that I had just finished lovingly decorating! He was almost 6’5″ and about 230 lbs so you can imagine what happened to the tree. Then there was the year our dog got into a whole tray of gingerbread men and spent the next few hours puking and pooping (this is a companion story to the year my son’s cat got into his Easter basket and came walking across the floor the next day with a long strand of green cellophane trailing from her butt!) In the fifth year of our marriage our son was born and we had some nice Christmases together as a family – until we didn’t.

Then there were all the single parent Christmases. Except for the first Christmas in the first house I owned, all those years blur together in my mind. The stress, financial anxieties, and pressure (mostly self-inflicted) of doing everything possible to give my son happy Christmas memories. The sadness and feelings of failure despite all the effort. The difficult relationships. The loneliness of not having a partner when it seemed that everyone around me was part of a couple. The awkward social gatherings with my ex-husband’s family – he there with his girlfriend and me, of course, alone. Forced joviality for the sake of my son, when inside I was seething over another year of late child support payments and neglectful behavior.

After I moved to Florida, my feelings about Christmas gradually changed. I let go of unrealistic expectations and began to take responsibility for my own happiness instead of thinking like a victim. A few years later my parents retired and joined me and I had a lot of really nice Christmases with my parents and my son, who arrived from wherever he was living to spend Christmas with us. Gradually, and privately, I began to find my way back to God and reconnect with the meaning of Christmas.

This year marks another big change in Christmas. My 40-year-old son finally got married and had a baby so his life is completely different from when he came here last Christmas. Naturally, they wanted to celebrate Christmas in their own home and with her family so they came for a visit a couple of weeks before Christmas. We had a wonderful visit and my mother was thrilled to meet her great-grandson but, Christmas this year has been very different.

Matthew with his Nanna Catton 12-8-17

The new great-grandmother!

On Christmas Day Mom and I had a nice dinner and then we opened Liberty’s gifts – 2 new toys and lots of treats and chewies!  We exchanged our gifts and then watched “A Christmas Carol”, as we always do. My son called from his home a thousand miles away to wish us a Merry Christmas and thank us for the gifts we sent. It was so nice to hear his voice but, his presence was certainly missed. I had some sad moments this Christmas but, I’m thankful that my feelings have mostly been of happiness and gratitude. That is a gift in itself.

If you’re struggling with feelings of unhappiness during this time of the year I have two suggestions – find a way to be of service to others, and read “Happiness is a Serious Problem” by Dennis Prager. (I’m not talking about clinical depression or any serious mental health issue – if you fall into this category please seek professional help). I’ve mentioned this book before because it was such an eye opener for me – I’ve read it all the way through three times and I periodically re-read sections. He also has a YouTube video in which he lectures about happiness – one of his favorite topics!

Liberty - Christmas portrait #1

Liberty’s Christmas 2017 portrait

See more of my artwork and books at Lynda Linke Productions

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My return to Christmas

family-time-at-christmasI remember trying to stay awake on Christmas Eve to see if Santa appeared and then waking up at dawn to rush into the living room and find a lovely pile of gifts under the tree. I was almost as excited to give my parents their gifts as I was to open my own and, bless their hearts, they oohed and ahhed over the bottle of Evening in Paris cologne or Old Spice after shave. In the afternoon we’d get dressed up – every year my Mom, who was an excellent seamstress, made me a beautiful dress to wear on Christmas Day – and go to my grandparent’s house. All my aunts, uncles and cousins would cram around the dining room table – with an overflow table for the little kids – and have dinner. After dinner the kids played with their new toys, the men sat in the living room smoking and talking and the women washed the dinner dishes and laid the table with traditional English holiday treats like trifle, mince pies, shortbread and fruit cake (this was the 1950’s – men rarely helped in the kitchen!). Inevitably, one of my uncles would drink too much and lead us in a raucous sing along. Kids got tired and cranky and were discovered sleeping in strange places and, finally, were carried out to cars that their dads had warmed up for them.

I have wonderful memories of my childhood Christmases but there was no obvious connection to religion – we didn’t even say grace before dinner! As a child, I was sent to Sunday School and church services and even did a stint in the youth choir but, religion was not an important part of my upbringing. After I was married and had my son, I continued to celebrate Christmas in all the traditional ways but, it had no religious meaning for me. When I was a single parent it became a time of year that I dreaded because I was always financially strapped and Christmas just added another burden. I was stressed and overwhelmed by trying to make Christmas “perfect” for my son and parents. It was also a time when my disappointments and failures seemed to be magnified – at least in my mind. I imagined that I was surrounded by happy families, loving couples and people who were more successful than me in every way (it wasn’t until many years later that I realized what a mistake it is to compare your life to anyone else). The illustration I added to this post is one of the Christmas cards I drew this year. It depicts the type of happy, intact family that I longed for during all those years as a single parent. Back then, Christmas was nothing to me but financial stress and a reminder of all that I felt was missing from my life. I wish I could have found a way to enjoy those years more instead of being so self-absorbed and taking everything too seriously. I wish I could have found a way to relax and let my heart be light.

When I moved to St. Augustine, right after Christmas in 1993, I wanted to start my new life with a change in my attitude about “the holidays”. Since I knew I was going to be alone on New Year’s Eve, I volunteered to work the overnight shift at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. I made changes in how I celebrated Christmas the following year by using my relocation as an opportunity to downsize gift giving, decorating, and cards. I was working for Catholic Charities as an emergency assistance case worker so I had lots of opportunities to focus on the needs of other people and share the “spirit of Christmas”. I attended a Christmas mass at the old Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine with some nuns I knew from work and I went to a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the beautiful Memorial Presbyterian Church. These experiences helped to renew my appreciation for the things I liked about the Christmas season and, in hindsight, I think perhaps a couple of seeds were planted deep in my soul that took many more years to bear fruit.

It took a long time but, I gradually came to have different feelings about Christmas – feelings I don’t remember ever having. It’s not the anticipation and excitement I had as a child but, instead, is a much deeper feeling. It is harder to describe than the thrill I had waiting for Santa Claus. These days I experience Christmas as the celebration of a miracle that invites me to believe in something much greater than anything I can imagine or define. It encourages me to have faith. Now every decoration in my house, every ornament I hang on the tree, every gift I give, every kindness I share and every card I send is my own small way of celebrating that miracle. Oh, and my heart is light.

If you’re reading this and you’re feeling sad, lonely or overwhelmed my advice is to go outside tonight and look at the stars and the moon and take a deep breath. Forgive yourself. Then, go inside and give your kids extra hugs and kisses. If you don’t have kids, hug your significant other. If you don’t have a significant other, adopt a dog from a shelter! Most of all, remember to be kind to yourself.

I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. ~Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”

xmas-2016

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Christmas time is here

Spirit of abundanceI put my Christmas tree up last week and Mom & I had our annual tree trimming party the other night. We have been doing that together every year since my parents retired to Florida in 1997 – Dad used to sit in the armchair and give us directions 🙂 – and it’s a special time for us as we hang the ornaments and share favorite memories. Baby’s First Christmas 1977. Fragile, paper thin glass ornaments, including a treetop star, Mom bought in Woolworth over 55 years ago that were on all my childhood Christmas trees. My Dad’s favorite – Mr. & Mrs. Claus fast asleep in their little cigarette box bed. Ornaments for my cats, Nettie & Ceilie, and my dogs, Stella & Liberty. We always have something good to munch on – this year it was my friend Karen’s delicious (and super easy!) lemon pie. Other decorations and lights have been added and my house looks twinkly, cozy and pretty. I like to sit at night with just the lights on the tree and a candle on the mantle illuminating my living room, Liberty snoozing on her bed, Christmas music playing softly. Ahhh.

Christmas is a special time of the year. Although Jesus is “the reason for the season”, you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the lights, decorations, music and food. There is also a feeling – let’s call it goodwill – that feels stronger during the Christmas season. Our hearts are more open, our spirits more generous. We are moved to donate to our favorite charities, drop dollars in the Salvation Army kettles, drop food off at the food pantries, get a toy for Toys for Tots, take clothes to the homeless shelter, and many other acts of kindness we might forget to do during the rest of the year.

We also want to draw our family and friends near to us at this time of year. My celebrations are pretty low key compared to many people. I don’t have a big family or a lot of friends but I appreciate and enjoy every one of them. My son, who lives in NJ, will visit for the week as he does every year. We’ll have dinner at my Mom’s house on Christmas Eve (with Liberty, of course!) and then we’ll spend Christmas Day at my house. One night we’ll walk around a local park that has a beautiful Christmas light display and then go to a movie. Simple pleasures.

This month, whether you are celebrating the birth of Jesus, Hanukkah, or nothing at all, I wish you the peace and love we all desire in our lives and in our world.

Merry Christmas!

Liberty 12-8-15

Hope you get lots of treats and nice surprises! Love & licks, Liberty

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