The jig is up. The cat is out of the bag. This year, for the first time in the past forty years of my life, Christmas in my house is not revolving around Jolly Old St. Nick. Our youngest daughter, Sophie, whisked away a lifetime of Santa Magic with the snap of her fingers as she declared a few weeks ago that she knew that Mommy and Daddy are the ones who buy all of the presents. She announced this at supper. She said it as easily and nonchalantly as if she was talking about a game she had played at recess at school. And, with those words, everything changed in an instant.
As a child, I was raised by parents who went out of their way to protect my innocence. So, my own personal belief in the story of Santa Claus lasted until I was 10 or 12 years old. Even after that, my sister, Mary Ellen, who was six years younger than me, still believed with every fibre of her being so, Christmas and Santa’s visit remained at the epi-centre of our family Christmas for another five or six years after I first learned the truth.
By the time Mary Ellen learned the truth, I was ready to head off to university. Santa should not have been a factor anymore but, he was because Christmas now revolved around me coming home for the holidays. With me home, my mother viewed her family as being intact again and so, she went to great lengths to keep our old traditions alive. So, we went to church on Christmas Eve. We visited friends and neighbours on the way home and dropped off gifts. We had a big turkey dinner with all of the trimmings the next day with all of our relatives who could come. Through it all, stockings which were empty when we went to bed, magically were stuffed when we woke up. There were more presents under the tree than there had been the night before, too. Must be the magic of Santa!
Upon my graduation from university, I began my teaching career. I spent thirty years straight, surrounded by children whose innocence I strove to protect. They believed in Santa with all of their might and I was tasked with nurturing that belief. So, we read a ton of Christmas books (their favourites can be viewed here). We wrote letters to Santa. We drew pictures of Santa. We sang songs about Santa, too. I Ho-Ho-Ho-ed my way through a lifetime of Christmas seasons at school and all the while, the magic of it was very real. There is a beauty in the innocent belief of a child. I got to see that and get paid to have it wash over me everyday. I am lucky to have been a teacher.
Then, of course, in addition to those students I taught, for the last thirteen years, I have lived in a house with my own children and have helped them put Santa Claus at the centre of all our traditions as a family. The girls both wrote letters to Santa. We sprinkled reindeer food on our lawn. We left milk and cookies and carrots for Santa. We left a shiny, silver key outside our front door (because we have no fireplace) so that Santa could safely get in when he arrived. And, he always arrived.
But now, with Sophie’s matter-of-fact pronouncement, Santa is gone. We are a family in transition this holiday season. As you can appreciate, when Santa was real, his arrival was a very big deal. His presence loomed larger than life. But now, his absence has left a void that we are seeking to fill. We aren’t religious people so the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus is as much a fable to us as flying reindeer and elves at the North Pole. So, we can’t look to the Church to fill the void left by Santa’s banishment in History. The buying of gifts for each other isn’t really doing it, either. We all love each other and do kind and considerate things for each other all year long. We don’t need a special holiday to force us into doting on each other. So, it almost seems odd and unnecessary to have presents piling up under a tree in our living room.
This brings us to the crux of the matter. What does Christmas mean to us anymore? I never realized how much of a lynch pin the myth of Santa was to the feeling of Christmas for us. But, sometimes loss gives birth to new and better experiences. In that light, we have made a dedicated effort to create new feelings by channeling our energy in acts of kindness for others. After all, the whole mantra of the Santa-infused Christmas traditions of the past was that it was better to give than to receive. So, with that in mind, let me share with you some of the things we have been up to as a family as we attempt to re-invent the spirit of Christmas in our home.
First of all, even though things feel a bit different at home this Christmas, at least, I am home. There are many people who are not with their loved ones this Christmas. One such group are soldiers who are serving in the Canadian Armed Forces and who are engaged in peacekeeping missions throughout the world. A month or so ago, my daughter Leah and I decided to each write a card to our Canadian soldiers so that they would know that they were in our thoughts during the Holidays and to thank them for their service. If you look at the photo on the right, you will see my card at the bottom of this stack of three cards. My card made it to a Canadian soldier serving in Latvia. As it turned out, this soldier is from the same town as we live in. So, once he told his parents that he had received a Christmas card from someone named “T. MacInnes” in Cobourg, they rushed over to our house and knocked on our door! They wanted to share their son’s news and to thank us for thinking of him at such a lonely time for so many people. A small chat ensued. Smiles and hugs were exchanged. We have since visited their home and dropped off a Christmas card for them, too. A small act of kindness has resulted in a new connection with a family in our town and, at the same time, we helped perk up someone’s day far across the world. *My daughter, Leah, has not yet heard back from anyone regarding her card but, if we do, I will let you know via an update at the end of this post.
You may recall that last year, Sophie and I made Christmas cards for everybody on our street. There are 34 other homes in our neighbourhood besides ours. We heard back from approximately one-third of our neighbours. *I wrote about that experience in a post that you can read here. So this year, we hoped to build upon our success and get to know even more of our neighbours. We decorated another set of envelops. We wrote messages of good cheer inside the cards that we stuffed into our artful envelops. Finally, Sophie spent a couple of hours making her famous star-shaped Christmas tree ornaments out of coloured glitter glue sticks and a hot glue gun. They all sparkle when exposed to the light of a Christmas tree. She made 34 in all. We placed one in each of the 34 cards and then, we set out to deliver them one day after school.
The response to our efforts has been overwhelmingly positive. In all of the cards, I made note of the fact that each star-shaped ornament had been hand-made by Sophie so, in the replies we have received to date, every single card from every single neighbour has included a special Thank You for Sophie. A few folks have included photos of her ornament on their trees. We have even visited in a couple of homes and have been shown where her ornament is hanging. The best part of all of this is that, from one home, we received, not only a card in reply to ours but, a notice saying that there is to be a Christmas-themed Open House this coming Saturday and that the whole neighbourhood is invited. Not only that but, if the weather co-operates, this family wants us all to go for a candle-light walk together. Now, that’s Christmas spirit! This is what I was hoping would happen when Sophie and I first starting drawing on envelopes last year. Our neighbourhood is becoming more of a community. Our lives, more closely intertwined. Actual conversations are accompanying what, in the past, were merely smiles and waves from afar. Our neighbourhood family is growing and becoming real. This makes me happy.
The final aspect of our Christmas in transition involves my mother. She is 88 and a half years old this Christmas. For the past four or five years, she has lived in an assisted-living complex in Sydney, Nova Scotia. She is well cared for there. During her time there, my mother has waged a valiant battle against aging. She became a prolific colourer of adult colouring books. She was an avid jigsaw puzzle maker. Finally, she enjoyed word search puzzles and tried to complete, at least, one each day. All of these things were intended to help keep her mind sharp and focussed. As well, my mum has always been a friendly person and her heart has always been large. As a result, she has devoted much time and energy to charitable causes, out in the real world, as well as, within the building she now resides. It was around this time, last Christmas, that my mother’s outgoing nature got the better of her. She became involved in too many activities and attended too many events and, eventually, her body rebelled and she ended up in the local hospital with chest pains.
That episode took a lot out of her. Her appetite has decreased. She does not attend to her puzzles or colouring the way she used to. She now naps every afternoon, too. So, this Christmas, my sister and I decided that we did not feel comfortable letting Ma attempt to shop for presents for us, go to the post office to mail them, go to the bank to pay for it all and so on. The days of our mother going out on her own are coming to a close. It is just not safe for her to do so anymore. So, I went down to visit her a week ago. The intention was that I would help set her decorations up and that I would drive her to the Mall and help her get our presents. I would do the wrapping of gifts and the mailing of them at the post office. I could do all of the running around that she was no longer able to safely do on her own. My sister is scheduled to come down after Christmas and help her put everything away and do whatever else she may need doing at the time. Hopefully, between the two of us, we can help guide our mother successfully through this holiday season.
Well, that mother of ours is a stubborn lady. Just like when I was coming home from university, Ma wanted everything perfect for her boy for Christmas. She managed to lift and display most of her decorations before I had ever set foot back home. However, because the weather was bad while I was down, she was not able to go shopping with me. I did the shopping on my own and brought back the presents to show her. But, she felt like those weren’t her presents because I had bought them. She asked me several times during the visit if she had already mailed our gifts up to Ontario from Nova Scotia. I replied each time by reminding her that the gifts I had shown her were her gifts to us this year and that I was taking them back in my suitcase. She was never entirely convinced that this was so.
To combat this, I asked Ma if she wanted to wrap these gifts herself. She was delighted to do so. She addressed the name tags, too but, forgot to put down her own name. That is where things stand with Nanna….my mother…this Christmas. Her mind is no longer alert. She is slowly being enveloped by a cognitive fog. It was sad to watch happen. But, having said that, while she may not be able to tell you what she gave the girls for Christmas this year, she did know that I was coming home for the Holidays and, just like in days gone by, she decorated her home for me for Christmas. In doing so, Ma gave me a pathway forward toward understanding the transition process we are all undergoing. It may be the best gift I will receive this year.
So, this Christmas, we are all transitioning. Gone is Santa. Going slowly is my mother. New arrivals include two-thirds of my neighbours who I can now call by name. But, on Christmas morning, as we open those gifts that sit under our tree, many of which the contents are already known, we will stop before we open those from my Mum. Those gifts remind me what Christmas is really all about. Those gifts were wrapped with love and with longing and may end up being the last gifts of their kind from my mother. But, while gifts may come and go over the years, the heartfelt sentiment behind them remains forever vibrant. Our lives are a tapestry; each connection we have with another human heart is a thread that connects us and helps our lives to have meaning. Perhaps that is the key, right there…..understanding that Christmas is a way of being, not just a single day on the calendar. It is more than the myths presented in the stories of babies in mangers and in reindeer that can fly. The real meaning of Christmas is found in the stories we create with those we allow into our hearts. It is believing that we matter to others and allowing others to matter to us. Love makes us all rich. So, while the pageantry of our Christmas traditions may be in transition, the Love and caring and kindness toward others remains the same. Thanks, Ma.
Merry Christmas to you, all. Thank you for being a part of my world of words. I value your presence here and wish you all the best in the year to come. May your hearts be filled with Love….always.