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 Wishes

The too-tall Christmas tree Christmas is a magical time. It’s a time when we are reminded of redemption, love, generosity and forgiveness. We are reminded of miracles and mysteries. It also seems to be a time for wishes.

We all have wishes we hope will come true – for children it is their requests to Santa; for adults it is usually more complicated. Sometimes we might wish for material things but, more often, we wish for intangibles like love, good health, and good fortune. If we have family members far away who are unable to gather together for Christmas, we wish them the comfort and companionship of good friends. If loved ones are traveling a long distance to share Christmas with us, we wish for their safe arrival. For those who are no longer with us, we wish peace.

This Christmas I have four wishes. I wish to be a person who is more tolerant, more patient, and more grateful and, last but not least, to have more love in my life – both given and received. Many years ago I stopped making a list of New Year’s resolutions and decided to have “aspirations” instead. I will carry these four Christmas wishes in my heart and make them my New Year’s aspirations  every day.

Think about the difference between resolutions and aspirations – aspirations are messages from your higher self; resolutions are usually based on “shoulds” – and be kinder and gentler to yourself in 2014.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year … and may all your wishes come true.

The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.        ~Michelangelo

Stella's fondest wishes usually involve treats!

Stella’s fondest wishes usually involve treats!

        See more of my artwork and books at Lynda Linke Productions

Changing your seasonal attitudes

 

Comfort and joy

It’s that time of year again! Is this a happy time for you or do you feel stressed emotionally, physically and financially? Do you have the true meaning of Christmas in your heart and spirit or do you feel like you’re just going through the motions and doing what is expected of you? I enjoy the trilogy of holidays now – Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year – in a way I didn’t for much of my adult life but it did take a long time to get here. As with so many things in my life, I spent a lot of time on the wrong path. I lost my belief in the true meaning of Christmas in my early teens and didn’t start to get it back for many, many years. For a long time I even doubted the existence of God so Christmas meant nothing to me but pressure to spend money I didn’t have, and pressure to “make the season bright” for my son and my parents. As a cash-strapped single parent I dreaded the annual letter to Santa Claus! I felt like I had to fulfill his every wish (the guilt monster again!) even though I knew I’d be paying my credit card off for the first three months of the New Year. On top of that it seemed like every holiday season was fraught with relationship troubles and, since I especially wanted to have a “special someone” in my life at the holidays, I was usually depressed and feeling sorry for myself when things weren’t going well in that department. The relentless commercialism of the season disgusted me and certainly didn’t help my mood. It seemed like every year I ended up with back spasms or bronchitis or both.

When I moved to Florida 20 years ago (two days after Christmas) I decided to change the way I observed the holidays. I wanted to have a completely different perspective. I started by drastically reducing my gift giving and card sending and, believe me; this didn’t go over well with everyone in my life. I didn’t care; I was on a quest to find authentic meaning. Since I didn’t know anyone in Florida, relocating was an opportunity to remove myself from the expectations of others and do things differently. That first New Year’s Eve I offered to staff the hotline office at the domestic violence shelter at which I had begun volunteering. I had no plans and, having worked in a shelter, I knew the regular staff would appreciate having the holiday off. I could have stayed home alone and felt sorry for myself because the man I was involved with was out of state, which is something I would have done before but, I decided to make myself useful and I was glad I did. As a result of spending less on gifts and cards I was able to start my own tradition of giving an annual donation to a few charities I like. When my parents moved to Florida a few years later I encouraged them to keep the gift giving to a minimum and I began another tradition of putting tickets to a show in their Christmas cards – the gift of time and shared memories instead of “stuff” they didn’t need. These simple changes in my perspective and habits paved the way to a better appreciation of the holidays – no more stress, no more pressure, no more unrealistic expectations.  

If you love the holidays and are perfectly happy with the way you observe them – carry on! On the other hand, if you are struggling to keep your spirits up I hope you’ll take some time to find authenticity and meaning. If you have children, do everything in your power to keep them from getting sucked into the empty void of materialism and greed that has enveloped Christmas. Teach them that it truly is more blessed to give than to receive. If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on gifts, just remember that Christmas is not about the number of gifts you give or the cost of them. It’s not about the lights, the decorations, the music, or the food. It’s not only about romantic love; it is about every kind of love. To be sure, those are all enjoyable trappings but it’s important to remember that they are actually symbolic rituals to remind us of deeper meanings. The gifts we give each other are symbolic of the gifts the three wise men brought to honor baby Jesus. The lights signify the return of “the light” to a darkened world. The evergreen trees and branches that we bring into our homes (even the artificial ones!) represent eternal life. Many of the decorations we hang on the tree are symbolic or representative of things that have importance in our lives. The food is a celebration of the abundant blessings provided to us from the harvest. The celebration of the birth of Jesus is a reminder of God’s gift to us of love, forgiveness, redemption, and new life. I didn’t think about the miracle and mystery of Christmas for a long time and, when it started coming back to me, I felt sadness for all the years I had been oblivious but, also joy for the return of belief. Even though I don’t fully comprehend the meaning of Christ, I recently began studying his life again and I have a new appreciation for the wisdom, simplicity, and truth of his teachings.

I’m glad I’m not the same person I once was and that I can be truly thankful on Thanksgiving for all the blessings in my life, feel the spiritual promise of Christmas, and look forward to the New Year with hope and optimism. This won’t be a surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog but, I believe it all starts with self-love.

 Christmas Gift Suggestions

To your enemy; forgiveness.

To an opponent; tolerance.

To a friend; your heart.

To a customer; service.

To all; charity.

To every child; a good example.

To yourself; respect.  

~Oren Arnold

So ... who's the little fat guy in the red suit?

So … who’s the little fat guy in the red suit?

See more of my artwork at Lynda Linke Productions