That which we pass on – at Christmas, and year round

Tis the time of year when ……. we sometimes find ourselves in the curious position of wondering what our friends and loved ones, neighbors and coworkers, celebrate in terms of holidays.  It can be a sensitive matter, which deserves our respect. We want to wish them well, to tell them that they matter to us; to share joy; but we recognize there are many ways of looking at life, and considering questions we all either face with uncertainty, or ignore.  Honoring the beliefs and perspectives of others is worthwhile; respecting that which others hold as their personal truths is to see them as whole people, like ourselves – not as “different”, not as “right” or “wrong”, but just as fellow travelers, seekers of understanding.  It’s far easier to just associate with people who see things the same way we do – why challenge our thinking? But you simply cannot escape – if indeed you wanted to – the awareness as we enter late fall and early winter, the seasonal practices that have deep meaning and significance to our own hearts may be very different than those important to others in our lives. Which brings me to Christmas; and to “traditions”.  (Cue Tevye).  

We all hold certain traditions, beliefs, and practices dear … perhaps too dear?

I love looking into word origins.  I have no idea why; my brain just seems to be wired to ask questions, day and night, even when I prefer to be asleep or trying to relax.  A number of decades ago, PBS had a series called “The Story of English”, which did an excellent job of illuminating how our common language had roots in many cultures, across continents and centuries.  That was before we had Google to answer these questions easily! I was surprised to learn the root of “Tradition” is a latin word, traditio, a variant of “trader”, created from two “root” words – “trans” for across and “dare” for give.  To give across; to deliver – to pass along. We pass along our traditions – and sometimes, the beliefs underlying them also, both evolving, some forgotten; some treasured by the next generation, and yet others discarded. 

Often, our practices, beliefs and traditions are formed by our family, perhaps even accepted without question. Christmas was in my childhood a way to escape from reality.  It’s funny to realize there is a whole generation or more that have no idea what the Sears Wish Book was; I cannot imagine how parents deal with their kid’s “lists” for Santa with all the information on the internet, social media, trends and tiktoks.  We just thumbed through the catalog to see record players and train sets, Mousetrap and Monopoly sets.  My church sunday school had fund raisers; I remember shyly carrying large books of sample Christmas cards glued into a binder to ask neighbors if they wanted to place an order for personalized greetings (no one could imagine electronic cards or facetime then, those were fantasies of another kind).  And of course, we had our phonograph records with carols – which I loved hearing, and singing; our tree, sometimes real, often artificial (once, even aluminum!); and the old ornaments pulled out of musty smelling boxes.  My mother kept ours in a large trunk in the garage and pulling it out was like the grand opening of the most “magical” time of the year. 

1965 Sears Catalog - Etsy

I realize much of what I hold dear about Christmas came from the repeated practice of those rituals with family, with church, and in time with friends.  But there were other factors; my childhood in a broken family, economically and socially differentiated from our neighbors and my peer group in school, planted seeds of isolation long before my awakening awareness of other differences widened those gaps.  My mother’s disability, and her own emotional issues, resulted in less extended family interactions; there were no holiday trips, and little group social activity outside church.  I remember so clearly being deeply ashamed as carolers, on a “mission” from another church, rang our doorbell and my mom instructing us to not answer because we could not give them any funds; and another Christmas where our freezing winter weather prompted that same congregation to gift us some firewood to heat our home.  We were poor, at least compared to those around us, and compared to the other families in my school – just another fact of life that said, “you do not belong”.  So, the shiny ornaments on the tree, the happy songs and the pretty packages, and the hopes that a magical jolly person would bring us gifts and joy were literally music to my ears.  Perhaps from a pied piper in a red suit. 

I still treasure my 60’s Santa Christmas book featuring the art of George Hinke.

Now I realize that the teachings of my Sunday school were a kind of wishful thinking too – not to say that my church teachers were not people of faith, or that the leaders were not themselves fully certain of the gospel that they preached.  I carried the candles into the service, I sang in the youth choir and was a part of the annual Nativity stage production.  Those services, the moments looking through the stained-glass window and past the poinsettias, the craft fairs where our neighbor would bring cookies and wonderful knit presents, were moments of hope that we certainly needed.  I still hold those many carols dear to my heart, and love hearing them now “on demand”.  Most of the ornaments of my childhood are gone, replaced by (I am embarrassed to admit) countless expensive “collectable” ornaments that began to accumulate in my own home once I began to observe Christmas on my own.  Even after moving from my former home where I would have multiple trees as I welcomed friends to celebrate, and my efforts to divest myself of the decorations and figurines, the angels, Santas and snowmen of years past still overpopulate our single artificial tree in our smaller home. They congregate in the basement, staring at me with glassy eyes and cheery smiles to ask “why am I not put out this year”?  Our new cat had something to do with that! 

And then there are the cards.  Yes, I still send Christmas cards, although fewer arrive annually; for a while, when I was still working, I would do a holiday newsletter via email, sometimes sharing a poem or a story but more often just chattering about events of the year.  Trying to find a way to connect with people that I didn’t see all that much, but who still were rattling about in my heart in some way, and I didn’t want to let go even though perhaps some of them had already.  I loved shopping for just the right cards, and I still enjoy selecting them carefully after Christmas for the following year – budgets are increasingly important in retirement!  Some of the cards reflect my own still closely held beliefs in the stories I was told in childhood of a promise fulfilled, a star shining, of gifts presented by strangers to a child in the cold.  Some are jollier, with smiling reindeer or friendly elves; still others are deliberately vague but still reflecting a wish for peace, joy, or hope in this special time of year.  But each carries love. 

One of our cards with a message of hope – Hallmark didn’t do these in the 60s!

Between my husband’s family and friends from around the country, and my own that have been added to the list (and sometimes subtracted) over the years, I addressed nearly 100 envelopes by hand the past few weeks.  I also treasure the cards that I kept over the years, selected annually and kept in a special box, the cards that had my mother’s handwriting or my father’s short but heartfelt comments; the beautiful cards from friends and family.  Some of those names have left my life; drifted away – or did I? I realize that some of the names that I am writing to this year would never know if that happened to me; they simply would no longer hear from me again, perhaps wondering why, but more likely not realizing it until something popped into their consciousness to remind them I used to be around. 

And then there are the names for those who I cannot write to again; I cannot call, or message, or wish happy birthday ever again.  Some were not unexpected, but still the shock of their absence over the past few months remains, even with us knowing their time was coming to an end.  Others were abrupt, and the hole left in the world by their absence remains open.  Life, and death, and sorrow and joy do not pause for seasons, or celebrations.  Perhaps Dickens realized this when he wrote of Scrooge visiting Christmas past, those memories that he had buried coming into the light again, dancing with Fezziwig and begging his sister to take him home to be with father.  The faces we see at the holiday dinner table glow in our memories, their voices echo in our hearts.  The message of the spirit of Christmas yet to come is clear – we may not see them, nor they us, next year or the year after that.  But the loss we feel is, in its own way, a gift as well. 

Here I am holding Santa close at a 60’s Christmas with my brother and grandparents – I barely remember them, but still have the styrofoam Santa!

I cling to that tradition, and think of all those faces, present and absent, as I write the addresses out, and try at least to write a little something on each; but my hands tire, and if I was honest with myself, I would ask why do I continue? Does what I send matter to these now absent dear ones, really?  But I press on because ultimately, I want to do even this small action to hold on to what we once shared, to say I remember, that I care still – that they mattered to me in the past, and even though now our lives are far from close, I still treasure them, that they live and were for a time a part of my life, and that celebrating those moments gives us a reminder that we need to create them anew, with the people in our lives today, every chance we can get.  Somehow, it feels as if I stop, I am letting go, and I do not want to lose them.

Hands down, my favorite movie, one that touches my heart every time.

Last year, as the COVID restrictions began to slowly be lifted, my husband and I enjoyed attending the SF Symphony more than once during the holiday season – their performance always lifts our spirit, but I particularly enjoy those with a chorus and vocalists.  One was a tribute to the holiday songs made popular by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and the soloist paying tribute to Ella shared a song I had never heard before, but it had a special magic.  The melody isn’t brassy, or loud, or flashy – no heavenly choirs, no catchy “hooks”; more of a lullaby than an anthem.  In its own unique way, it serves as a reminder of deeper lessons.  If you click here, this should take you to a YouTube video of Ella performing “The Secret of Christmas”. Here are the lyrics …. but I hope you can enjoy the recording.

“THE SECRET OF CHRISTMAS” by Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen

It’s not the glow you feel when snow appears
It’s not the Christmas card you’ve sent for years

Not the joyful sound when sleigh bells ring
Or the merry songs children sing

The little gift you send on Christmas day
Will not bring back the friend you’ve turned away

So may I suggest, the secret of Christmas it’s not the things you do
At Christmas time but the Christmas things you do all year through

Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas (Deluxe Edition) - Album by Ella Fitzgerald |  Spotify

These haunting lyrics and quiet melody remind us that love is not seasonal.

Soon we, and perhaps you, will be packing away the ornaments, perhaps buying cards for next year, and folding up the artificial tree to stuff into the dark corners of the basement.  For many, it’s on to New Year’s parties, parades, resolutions; for others, the whole holiday cycle has little personal meaning.  So, the question I am asking myself is amidst this flurry of activity – what is it about Christmas that is truly significant – that is worth not only celebrating, but sharing?  What is the tradition worth passing on to the next generation?  And what is important to let go? I cannot yet answer that for myself, but it is worth thinking about, seriously. That trunk my mother had for ornaments is long gone, but it is the storage in my heart that needs attention now – to make room for what really matters, and to say goodbye to that which does not. 

After those enticing aromas of favorite dishes are wafted away, and we return from the “season of magic” or whatever terms are used in commercials these days, to the “daily grind”, we have a moment of opportunity. A moment to stop and seek clarity before we rush head on into repeating mindlessly the habits, the traditions, and the mindsets of the past.   Can we dare to take a hard look at what we claim to believe, compare it to how we treat others, and see the chasm between our words and our actions? Will we have the courage to stand before whatever we grasp as representing something beyond our knowledge – or perhaps just even before our own mirror – and honestly admit there are changes we need to make, even if we honestly don’t know how? There is a danger in passing on traditions without questioning their meaning, or their value; there is a risk in blind insistence that our “truth”, whether political, moral, spiritual or otherwise, is absolute.  The risk, the danger is that in closing our eyes to the possible, we close our hearts to something greater, seemingly impossible – a love that is immune to all the traditions and “rules” we have buried it under; powerful enough to push beyond the limits we use to fence it in, and keep it away.  

The prayer of a desperate man, from “It’s a Wonderful Life”

For me – as a believer who struggles with reconciling what I know intellectually with what I sense and understand at a different level – Christmas is many things, and separating the wheat from the chaff can be difficult. The traditions of the past generations, of our own childhood or culture, can be like comfortable little boxes we never dare to open up and peek outside.  There is a world, many worlds perhaps, out there waiting for us to find the courage to dare to open those doors, and walk out, even into darkness, knowing there is more to be found.  If this moment in time brings you to a place where you find yourself wondering, is it worth the chance to be wrong, to make mistakes, in the hope that it is not too late to create a better life – I hope you can find a way to say, yes.  To retain that which has meaning from the familiar – and to embrace the sense of curiosity and hope to keep our minds and hearts open to that which is new, while honoring and sharing what has meaning from our past.  What many now accept as truth, in whatever faith, was at one time scandalously outrageous to almost everyone around them; throughout history, in all kinds of movements, those who seek had to leave behind traditions because they believed that they had encountered something more real, more powerful.  The amazing possible in our lives is still emerging.

Let us not allow traditions to be a prison, keeping us from sharing life and love more fully – like the chains that bound Marley, weighing us down while we cling to them in the mistaken belief that is the best we can do.  Whatever matters most to you – whatever you truly wish to pass on, whether to your children, your community, your loved ones – let that be your beacon in the dark. It may not be shared by all or even seen by all; you may even feel alone. I sometimes think we each have our own to follow, and it takes a lifetime to stumble our way along the path. But if you are truly lucky, your heart will not let those uncertainties keep you from daring to follow its light to a better way of life, one where that greater, enduring love awaits, under a brighter star, shining just beyond the horizon.  Can you feel it calling? Look for me along the way, and I will look for you.  

With my husband at the SF Symphony, December 2022 – discovering love daily.

Whatever traditions or practices have meaning for you, and others in your life, I hope they bring you a chance to share love and hope this season, and always! Wishing you all happiness and joy ahead in 2023!

Two Strangers, Two Christmases

I’ve written more than once about how the power of storytelling, especially through film in my own case, can open our eyes to truths we somehow just didn’t see before.  Certainly, I’m a firm believer in the importance of sharing our own true life experiences – honestly, openly in the hopes that others might find encouragement as they pursue their own unique journeys. But, works of fiction, whether in literature, film or other art forms also can bring inspiration – and have done that for me many times in life.  As this will be posted in time for Christmas 2020 – a year without peer, I dare say – my thoughts drift towards two such tales that have very different origins, yet whose primary characters perhaps more in common than one might expect at first glance. 

Charles Dickens created many great works, but for many his most loved is “A Christmas Carol” first published in 1843.  In 2017, a lovely film (not of course entirely factual) gave some insight into how it was created – “The Man who Invented Christmas”, with Christopher Plummer as the Scrooge of Dicken’s creative process. Endless versions and variations have and will continue to be enjoyed long after this year;  the most vivid in my own memory was a one man performance by Patrick Stewart at Cal Tech decades ago complete with multiple characterizations, sound effects and a sense of energy and discovery that he brought to new life. (The full audio performance is available on iTunes, I believe).  

I will never forget seeing this incredible one man performance by Patrick Stewart!

In film, for me, 1970’s “Scrooge” which I first saw in the little Corona theater at age 12 is still a part of my annual celebrations. The musical starring Albert Finney was in many ways a triumph of casting, art, and song – yet it did not initially register with audiences who were more interested in the new cinema of MASH and five easy pieces than a dancing Ebenezer. 

 I bought the soundtrack LP long before VHS made home viewing possible – listening to the songs by Leslie Bricusse, including my personal favorite over the opening credits – a chorus of joy and encouragement.  

Look around about you and see what a world of wonder this world can be! 

It was probably a few years later, in my teens, when (thanks to a gift from my Dad and stepmother of a small black and white tv) that I began to see older films at home, after school.  The ABC affiliate had a 90 minute afternoon movie time slot at 330 – and one day I turned on a black and white film that was spread over two days.  Later, I would see it first “screened” in its entirety at college – then, eventually in theaters in California, and even one December matinee in London, for it’s 50thanniversary.  At first I was mystified why the audience there didn’t seem to love it as much – but, it is a distinctly “American” narrative, made by a director and star who had worked together previously, won Oscars, and both served in World War 2, one as a pilot, the other making films that still are highly regarded for their honest portrayal of that epic struggle.  When they returned home to eventual peacetime, the director wanted to finance his own production – based on a very short story the original author, Philip Van Doren Stern, had included in a 1943 Christmas card to friends – “The Greatest Gift”.  He expanded on the concept and pooled together some of the best talents in Hollywood, including his prior star actor, and built a small town for the location filming.   Perhaps surprisingly it wasn’t a big hit, from an independent production company; and in time, without the licensing and copyright being maintained, the film fell into “public domain”, like the chopped up airing I saw in the 70’s on that little tv.  That circumstance led in time to it being aired so many times, more people saw it, and came to love it – becoming the classic it is today. 

“It’s a Wonderful life” portrayed an America that endured through the Spanish Flu, depression, and World War 2, through the life of its protagonist, George Bailey, in the small town of Bedford Falls. In the years since then, I cannot say how many times, or with how many friends, I have “visited” the Bailey’s and that little town; last year, my husband and I enjoyed a live performance of the score with the film by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, which was unforgettable. 

The film “finale” as performed by the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus

 I’ve had the chance to meet Karolyn Grimes, who played “Zuzu”, the little girl in the film; collected memorabilia (and given it away!), and decorated my tree and now our home with reminders of that story.  It is such a perfectly detailed story, of a time, a place, a family and a set of circumstances – challenges, failures, love, disappointment, loss and hope.  But, mostly to me, the message was – your life matters.  Even if you cannot achieve your dreams; even if you never become what you hoped, or others expected – you can make a difference in this world, one that is uniquely yours – one that is irreplaceable. In my lonely teens, escaping to a world where the promise of redemption was realized at Christmas was one way to hope for a better future. And there was one that I could not then see, but was waiting for me. 

In 2006, I gifted Karolyn Grimes (“Zuzu”) this British 50th anniversary poster!

Much has changed in my life in the now 50 years since I sat in that little local cinema for Scrooge; and the decades since I first watched George Bailey jump off a bridge to end his life on that little black and white screen.   Of course, both stories have happy endings – life doesn’t always offer those, or at least at times the possibility of happy endings seems very difficult to imagine.  Perhaps Christmas 2020 is one of those times for many more than usual, in a most unusual year, bleakness dimming the lights on our homes and in our hearts. 

So as our TV plays the familiar voice of Clarence, George, Mary (and, my special friend Bert the Cop) on Amazon Prime while write; and tomorrow, as I join my husband to again enjoy the dancing, singing cast of Scrooge (with Alec Guinness as Marley!), I have a lot of feelings come up.  If you’ve read anything I have blogged about this year, you KNOW I share my feelings – because I hope that reaches others, and does some good, perhaps – a little George Bailey in me trying to get out.  And I realize – Old Ebenezer and George have a lot in common. 

For my bunny lover friends (and I know at least one!) – here is a special treat!

History – not just fiction – tells us that most cultures have representatives of that part of life which we cannot understand, whether we consider it the afterlife, some representative of eternity, or other spiritual beings that exist outside our ability to measure, but – somehow, we sense, or want to sense, their existence.   Perhaps as some suggest this is just our desire to understand what is beyond our comprehension; for others, these beliefs become deeper truths, very personal truths.  Centuries of faiths with various representatives of such spirits have uncounted stories which most of us will never read or otherwise enter our thinking.  The 3 spirits of Christmas that visit Ebenezer, and the angel hoping to “earn his wings” that answers the prayers reaching heaven as George considers ending his life in despair, are such beings.  Outside forces that enter the lives of two very different men, both on Christmas eve, in very different times and places. 

If you ever wanted to visit “Bedford Falls” – here is one option …… I hope to one day!

Ebenezer, of course, was a selfish, bitter man, hated by many;  Dickens suggests that the spirits visit him because Marley hopes that will save his only friend in life from a similar, doomed fate.  George, a beloved husband, father and citizen who, through his character as much as through his deeds, touched the lives of so many in his small town, had reached a place of hopelessness; through an act of selfishness by Mr. Potter, a “modern day” Ebenezer of post war America, he stumbles onto a bridge hoping to end the life he sees as wasted as the only way to escape his own, undeserved fate.  The spirits help Scrooge, and Clarence helps George, see his life (and the lives of others around them) from a new perspective – and to realize that they want to embrace life anew.    

Many of us know what despair feels like.  Right now, many of our friends and family may be suffering through it, perhaps not with our awareness; trying to find hope.  In other posts, I have talked about some of those periods in my life; thinking back about those who helped me, who either reached out in love or responded to my own seeking of a new way to move ahead, they were the “spirits” helping me to see there was a promise of a better life, perhaps not obvious or easy, but possible.  I remember a counselor sharing with me about the concept of “liminality” – not something I am qualified to explain, but I feel applies in some way to the experience of both our Christmas Eve characters, and perhaps you and I as well. 

The ending you always wanted to see, but Frank Capra left out!

If you look online, where of course there are MANY interpretations of just about any philosophical concept, you can explore perspectives (here is one) on liminality.  I recall that from a purely anthropological sense, the “liminal” state is that “in between” – the middle stage of a “rite of passage”, or a period of growth and becoming.   In religious traditions, similar concepts exist – a stage from separation, between beginnings and the future.  For our two (eventual) heroes, Eb and George – Christmas Eve became a liminal space, in a way – a place between what was, and what could be.  Where spirits could speak to them, and minds, hearts and souls could be open to new understanding.  

I wish I was learned enough, and literate enough, to bring home some insight, awareness to share from these musings with you; all I find I am able to do is to open the door, or perhaps a small window.  To say – or ask – what are the lessons that I learn, that you can learn (or share with someone you love who needs that more than ever at this very instant) – to be open to this moment, now.  To know there is a possible waiting for discovery; a Christmas morn where the presents are not wrapped in paper, but in a renewed spirit that awakens and cries, just like a child at birth, and embraces the future, in faith.  These are OUR unexpected turning points.

To my “Angels” and guiding spirits – THANK YOU for lifting my heart!!

For now, I can only, as always, share what little I have to offer – the thought comes, “to play my drum” for you, perhaps, on this Christmas.  To remember the words of fictional characters that still represent real truths – from George Bailey, his prayer of despair – 

Answers to prayer may not come in the form we expect ……

And from Tiny Tim – not at the triumphant end of the tale, but during the “Christmas Present” where his family struggles with little food, and he is living what the Spirit shows Scrooge is his final Christmas – despite all their travails, faith –

By the immortal Norman Rockwell

Wherever you are today – know, there is hope.  For you – and for you to share.  Until next time – Merry Christmas, and wishes that the New Year brings new joys, discoveries – and renewal, for us all. 

Christmas 2019 – SF Symphony Hall – God Bless us, Everyone!
Thank YOU for reading my blog, as I finish 2020 – see you NEXT YEAR!!!

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