The Ghosts of Christmas Past

I’m lucky, usually my posts pretty much write themselves.   No matter what I’m doing in my day-to-day life,  ideas, stories, witty lines and colourful anecdotes are usually whizzing around somewhere in my brain.  Mostly this is a good thing, although occasionally I’ve gotten distracted and lost my dog or forgotten to get off the bus . . .a tad inconvenient, but I was burning up the mental pages and next thing you know – ooops – gone!    

This one’s been tougher though.   I know what I want to write, but it’s been finding a form for it that’s been trying.  Or maybe it’s because it’s a closer to my heart, more revelatory and (gasp!) shows a hint of vulnerability that I’ve struggled.  Or maybe it’s because I have a couple of others subjects I want to write on, but I haven’t decided yet if I”m willing to air that much of my personal laundry in public . . .writing under your own name, while an excellent tool for honesty, does force you to make some big decisions about exactly how much of yourself you are willing to put out there for public consumption.   Hmmmm.   And they are not seasonal topics anyway, so I’m fencing-sitting on those and instead going about the time-honoured tradition of simply committing words to paper (metaphorically speaking) and seeing what comes out for this Christmas post.   

Although living a life Just Past Normal is usually, for me, a great gig from one day to the next, there are certainly times that are more challenging.  Mostly these revolve around the concept of family and the times and milestone events in life when having a visible family is de rigueur.   To say the family I grew up in was a little . . odd . . would be a big understatement.   And different doesn’t even begin to describe my life during my “formative years”.   My extended family is now scattered over three continents and I have very few, well actually only one, “family” person here in Vancouver.   It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation – is my somewhat unorthodox lifestyle now a result of that or do I perpetuate it by the choices I make.    Probably a bit of both.   Armchair therapists, do your worst. 

So at times like Christmas, it takes discipline, practice and ruthless honesty to not find yourself crying into your rum and eggnog while watching reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life.  And it takes imagination, a willingness to not be bound by the conventional and a group of really good friends to actually sail through this trickiest time of the year not only in good humour, but with sanity and serenity intact.  I also have a deal with myself (ok, so it’s a rule – damn it) that I make no big life decisions or engage in any crucial discussions (in person, by email or worst of all,  texting late at night)  at this time of year – I don’t trust myself to make good choices and really, I think we are all a bit overwrought and not making the best choices, so I don’t really trust other people either.   Christmas is so over invested with emotional baggage . . .better put off those meaningful discussions till January, when we are all at least semi-sane again.

Finding myself at home, alone, on Christmas morning the first year of my independence (doesn’t that sound better than after I got divorced!) there was a serious temptation to head straight for champagne and OJ – hold the OJ.  My daughter had gone off to spend Christmas in Calgary with her Dad and his family and here was little ‘ol me, all by myself in my jammies with no-one to open presents with.   Wow – could have been a big downer.  But here is what I made myself do.   First I made myself a great breakfast complete with champagne and OJ, just like I would have done any other year, then I made myself sit down and examine  exactly what it was I was so sad about.   I missed my daughter – it was the first Christmas we had not been together.  Well, that was a given and I knew it would be an inevitable result of the choices I had made.   

Then, feeling suitably teary, I started in with wailing and gnashing of teeth, feeling miserably sorry for myself about not have a “real” family to celebrate Christmas with.   You know, the whole Norman Rockwell scenario.   But being a ruthlessly rational person I dried my tears and sat down and thought about what that really meant to me.   How many people actually had the sort of family Christmas that we are endlessly bombarded with in the media?   For me at least, this was yet another one of those exaggerated cultural expectations that I’ve been trying to live up to all my life.   We are set up with such unreal expectations of what Christmas should be, that disappointment is pretty much inevitable, unless we learn to truly appreciate what our own Christmas is.

So in this, like most everything else, I’ve built  my own road as I’ve walked it.   I’ve come to terms with what Christmas is (and is not) to me and those closest to me and learned to value what I have, rather than sorrow over what I have not.  So here are a few of my favourite things . . . .

I really like to see snow at Christmas, so now when I leave work on Christmas Eve, I come right home and get my faithful pooch and we head up to a little known trail at the back of Cypress Mountain.  It’s used pretty much exclusively only by those lucky few cabin owners on Hollyburn Ridge, so it’s quiet, usually in deep snow and winds its way gracefully up through tall evergreen trees to the oh, so quaint Hollyburn Lodge.   My doggie romps in the snow, if I’m really lucky some snowflakes will gently drift down and I get to savour that wonderful peace that comes with being alone, outdoors, in the winter. 

There’s a kind of hush . . .(how many song lyrics are in this post?)  that falls on the city about dinner time on Christmas Eve.  It’s one of my favourite moments.  Everyone has gone home from work, all the frantic shopping is done (unless you are a complete loser and have to go to the airport to do your shopping – you know who you are!), the wheels of commerce and industry grind to a halt and everything just  . . .stops.   It’s the quietest moment of the year in the city.  It’s as if the whole world just lets out the collective anxiety that’s been building, stops the crazed running around and just sits still.  It’s magical, and it’s there, every year.   I like to just stand outside and listen to the sound of silence.  

My friends.   I am truly, truly blessed with an amazing group of friends.  Fearing that I will be (gasp of horror!) alone at Christmas, I usually have a list of invitations as long as my arm for breakfasts, dinners, parties, open houses and general merry-making.   I am thankful, to the bottom of my heart, for each and every one of those invitations.  By their generosity in including me in their families, my friends make me feel seen.   I am there and I count.   I am taken in and made to feel that I’m one of their family, for which I am profoundly grateful.  But I also made a decision that first year that I would not fill every minute, of every day, with a ceaseless round of visiting, eating and drinking.  It’s important to acknowledge both the sad and the happy in our lives, so I always spend Christmas morning by myself  – it’s an important ritual of personal growth for me.   

For not having turned my oven on at Christmas for four years now, I am profoundly thankful.   Do I miss cooking those turkey dinners – hell no.   I now get to be the glamorous single friend who shows up well rested and well dressed with a good bottle of wine in hand.  It’s not a bad gig.  Really.  

Two years ago Vancouver had a HUGE snowstorm on Christmas Eve.  It dumped snow, the roads were closed and then the power went out.  Nice.   I had a whole gang coming for dinner.   But I have a gas fireplace (heat), I’m a veritable candle ‘ho (light) and I have a gas BBQ (even if it was buried in a couple of feet of snow).   So I dug out the back porch, fired up the BBQ and finished the lasagna on that – it might not have been perfect, but it was  hot, it was dark with only candles and I served lots of vino.   My friends came over with board games and we sat around and had an honest to goodness “old-fashioned Christmas”.   We drank wine and talked for hours, the kids (well they were all in their 20’s, so not really kids, but still) sat in front of the fire with a game of Settlers and played by candlelight.  I had also invited a couple of neighbours who had been stranded at home, alone, by the snowstorm, so we were a good-sized and very convivial bunch.   When the power came on later that night it was greeted by howls of protest from everyone and we promptly turned off all the lights again and finished our evening the way we started it, by candlelight with only the company of good friends for entertainment.   That night is one of my all time favourite Christmas memories. 

What I’ve learned:  Family can be many things, it’s only constrained by our willingness to accept the different as an extraordinary gift and by our ability to cherish that, rather than mourn for the imaginary perfection we don’t have.  

And this year I’m looking forward to having my daughter home with me for Christmas and that’s my own personal Christmas miracle.  

In Heavy Rotation:  I love to indulge in lush, romantic, classical music at Christmas.  My favourite is Mozart‘s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, especially the beautiful and profound Adagio.  It never fails to move me.  I’ll also fess up to a guilty pleasure  – Andrea Boccelli’s Ave Maria.   It’s perfect Christmas music, even for a heathen unbeliever like me. 

The Printed Word:  I will get to catch up on a lot of reading, but I’ve saved a special treat for when I need it most:  “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”, the third book in Stieg Larson’s incredible Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.  If you have not read them, do so, but make sure to read them in order.  The Swedish-made movies are also good, remaining faithful to both the spirit and detail of  the story, so much so that I completely forget I was listening to Swedish and reading sub-titles.

And there it is written, my Christmas post.

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