A Catholic Convert in Ottawa

Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

Homemade Christmas scene

Part of a Christmas scene created by my great-grandparents during World War II.

Every year, I read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, partly because I enjoy reading about Christmases past, but mainly because I enjoy seeing how the miserly, crusty Ebeneezer Scrooge is transformed by his experience.

When Scrooge pointed out to the Ghost of Jacob Marley that Jacob was “always a good man of business,” the Ghost had this to say:

‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’

Maybe we need to look at business in the way Marley’s Ghost described. Kindness, mercy and charity take up more room in our thoughts as Christmas approaches, but are they something we think about once a year, just in time to earn those charitable tax credits, or do we even think about these virtues at all?

It’s wonderful when people donate food hampers at Christmastime or make donations to soup kitchens so that people can enjoy a holiday meal, but people are hungry all year long.

It’s great when we donate gently used and new winter gear for charities to give out to those in need, but we could donate clothing and household items at any season as our children grow out of their clothes or we find we no longer wear or use items.

It’s a blessing to charities when we select presents from their gift catalogues, but we could support their efforts to provide clean water, care for expectant mothers, or educate girls and women all year long.

Our giving could have more of an impact if, instead of giving into charitable impulses or looking late in the year to earn receipts at tax time, we thought about what touched our hearts and gave in a planned way, whether in the form of money, time, or skills. We can learn more about the charities we’re considering giving to through the Canadian Council of Christian Charities’ certified charities website and Canada Revenue Agency’s Charities Listings.

May we not be so caught up in our day-to-day routine that we, like Marley’s Ghost, could ask ourselves this:

‘Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!’

While my husband and son have time off work and school, I’ll be taking a break from this blog to spend time with them, and I’ll post again the first week of January. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas, green though it may be, and all the best for the new year. 

 

My husband’s arguments to the contrary, I don’t think Die Hard is a Christmas movie; it’s a movie that happens to take place at Christmas. I think a Christmas movie has a main character who discovers the true meaning of Christmas or who receives a Christmas gift of love, forgiveness or compassion.

Some people, though, may not even want to think about watching one of the many schmaltzy holiday movies on TV right now, let alone debating whether they’re really Christmas films. I’m thinking of people who are grieving even as Christmas approaches.

Some of the hyper-festive holiday music on the radio might also be too much, I thought to myself as I listened to the laidback, jazzy soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas this morning. And the holiday lights and decorations and greeting cards? Too cheery.

Nanny's birthday

My mother with my grandmother on Nanny’s 80th birthday

I love everything about Christmas, but even I get a little sad sometimes while looking at the holiday treats—which seems silly, unless you knew that my mom’s mother loved receiving boxed chocolates as gifts, enjoyed an After Eight after Christmas dinner, and always gave my father a tin of cashews “From Santa.”

When life is on a relatively even keel and we’re looking forward to Christmas, it can be hard to remember that the holidays are challenging for some.

We could pause when we’re sending out cards and year-end letters to think about who might appreciate a thoughtful personal note more than a cheery greeting. For example, my mom, writing up her Christmas cards, realized that more low-key cards would be better for the three widowers on her card list, two of them facing Christmas as a single for the first time in decades.

We could give some thought as to which of our relatives, friends or neighbours might find themselves spending Christmas dinner alone because the spouse who did the cooking no longer lives there or has passed away. When I was growing up, after my dad’s mother died, his father spent Christmas Eve with us for a number of years.

We could also consider who might welcome a friendly visit as they struggle with the holidays—so focussed on children—because a child in their life has lost the battle with illness. Or who might appreciate a hand with their holiday preparations because they’re dealing with their own illness or that of a parent, a reality for many today as our population ages.

As we anticipate celebrating Christmas, may we be mindful of this prayer intention of the Holy Father for December:

That families, especially those who suffer, may find in the birth of Jesus a sign of certain hope.

 

 

 

 

I love Christmas music. But only in December and just after New Year’s Day, and not all day long.

Add the constant holiday soundtrack to store announcements and the chatter of our fellow shoppers, and we may struggle to hear ourselves think about anything else but the pressure to shop and bake and mail Christmas cards and wrap gifts before time runs out. Or about the fact that we’re not ready for the holidays.

Compassion may loom large in our minds during the Christmas season, but self-compassion? Probably not on our to-do list, I realized this morning during my yoga class, as the teacher reminded us to be compassionate toward ourselves.

We need to remind ourselves that our homes don’t have to be design-show perfect. We don’t have to make or address our greeting cards by hand or include a lengthy Christmas letter, unless we want to, of course. We don’t have to prepare a huge family meal by ourselves. And we don’t have to feel guilty about these things.

Christmas is a time to come together with friends and family. It shouldn’t be a time to run ourselves ragged to pull off the perfect holiday, which isn’t even possible. Just read about the first Christmas in Luke 2:4-7*:

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Joseph and Mary had to complete their journey just before the birth of Jesus. And the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, wasn’t born in a palace but in a stable—the humblest of beginnings.

So why do we need our celebration to be over-the-top, best-Christmas-ever perfect?

Christmas card

A greeting card my great-grandpa sent my great-nanny during World War I.

Once upon a time, I would have been very stressed to be in the position I’m in. I haven’t decorated my home for the holidays yet. I haven’t started my holiday baking, either. And I realized this morning that I haven’t gotten my son a Christmas ornament yet, which is something I do every year. But I took a breath, looked at what I have done and what I need to do, and realized that everything could be finished, especially with some help.

What could we do to make our holiday preparations less stressful this year?

  • Ask one or more family members to help wrap gifts. I used to help my mom wrap gifts for our extended family. We could also use gift bags or boxes if wrapping is a challenge, and it would make it easier for others to help.
  • Have young children put stamps or return address labels on Christmas card envelopes. I enjoyed helping my mom address cards as I got older.
  • Let our children help cut out or put sprinkles on cookies or cut up ingredients for fruitcake, depending on their age. I used to help cut up the glazed cherries for fruitcake when I was a child, and my son likes to help with the butter cookies (cutting them out as well as eating them).
  • Share the cooking duties with family members. My family is contributing different parts of the Christmas dinner this year: my mom is cooking the turkey and making the buns, I’m preparing most of the vegetables, and my dad is making the caramelized potatoes. Maybe I’ll ask my husband to help make a pie!

If we remember what we’re preparing for—and it’s not a camera-worthy holiday extravaganza—we may just put less pressure on ourselves and find it easier to keep our Christmas spirit.

(*Scripture quote taken from the Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition.)

 

As a child, I loved How the Grinch Stole Christmas, both the book and the animated special. In fact, I still watch the show each December.

Remember how the Grinch was mystified that Christmas had come to Whoville without decorations and rafts of presents until he realized that, perhaps, there was a little bit more to the celebration?

As Christians, we know there’s more to it, even if our culture doesn’t always reflect it. Flyer bundles become fatter as December wears on, each ad describing that store’s amazing deals. Evening traffic is heavier than usual as people try to fit in a little Christmas shopping on their way home from work. Shoppers scan parking lots, normally only partly full, in the hopes of finding a convenient parking spot, or any spot at all.

A CBC story last year on “Christmas traditions: Why do we give gifts at Christmas?” tells us that “The common explanation is that gifts are given at Christmas to remind those celebrating the holiday of the gifts brought to the baby Jesus to celebrate his birth.” We read about this in Matthew 2:10-11*:

When [the Wise Men] saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Too often, we forget the worship part. We skip over Advent services, church pageants, and Christmas Eve or Christmas Day Mass and head straight for the gift giving.

But we don’t need to buy into the pressure to bury our loved ones in presents. We can give fewer gifts that will truly mean something to the recipients, thinking about their interests and likes. For example, last year, I gave my father a huge frame filled with old pictures of his parents and extended family, and this year, part of his gift will be some homemade rye bread; I’ve also made some other presents, such as an apron decorated with hand-drawn pieces of sushi for a niece who likes to cook and is interested in Asian cultures.

And we don’t need to buy into the pressure to cram activities into every moment leading up to the big day. We can decorate and entertain the way we like, not the way the magazines tell us we should. We can bake a few kinds of cookies or have a cookie swap or skip the cookies entirely. And we can give our loved ones the gift of our time in making gifts for or with them; wrapping presents, doing holiday baking or decorating the house together; going skiing, sledding or skating together and enjoying a hot chocolate after; or hunkering down on a cold day and enjoying a movie or game night as a family. My husband usually takes some time off work at Christmas, and over the years we’ve gone tobogganing, enjoyed the Christmas Treats Walk at the Toronto Zoo, taken in a Disney on Ice show or two, and had lots of game and movie nights and dinners as a family—something we don’t always get to do in an average busy week.

reindeer and geese

Reindeer (and Canada geese) enjoying a snack during the 2007 Christmas Treats Walk at the Toronto Zoo.

We don’t need to make it our mission to bring stores into the black by charging purchases till we approach our credit-card limit and then hitting those Boxing Day sales. We don’t need to shop or run errands or attend holiday parties till we drop. But if we decide to enjoy the social events, baking, decorating and gift giving, we need to keep our holiday preparations and expectations manageable and reasonable so that we focus on the true reason for the season: celebrating our Saviour’s birth.

(*Scripture quote taken from the Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition.)

As I sat down to write this post, the title of an Erma Bombeck book popped into my mind: Family—The Ties That Bind…and Gag!

I could be talking about members of our church family we don’t get along with, but that might be a post for another day. In this case, I’m talking about family members we spend time with over the holidays.

Maybe we have a mother who pushes food on us when we’re trying to lose weight, a sibling who can’t let go of the rivalry, an aunt who always asks when we’re going to get married or have children, or in-laws who criticize the way we’re raising our family.

Or maybe we find it stressful to spend much of the holidays, or even just Christmas dinner, in close quarters with our extended family—and maybe it’s partly because of the way we view their words and actions.

This weekend, I read a wonderful quote from The Imitation of Christ in the “Celebrate December 2014” column of Catholic Digest:

Endeavour to be patient in bearing the defects and infirmities of others of whatever kind; for you also have many things which others must bear with.

Isn’t that the truth! We focus so much on the things that bother us about other people that we can easily forget we might be annoying them, too.

Maybe we won’t let anyone else help with Christmas dinner because they won’t make things the way we would—and then we complain about how much work it is. Or we insist on doing all the decorating ourselves instead of sharing the fun. Or we don’t leave room for our spouse’s family traditions. Or we exchange many of the presents we receive.

playful housecat

My “picture perfect” holiday includes cats that “help” tidy up the gift wrap…

Instead of striving for a holiday celebration that will “nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives,” as we hear about in “Sleigh Ride,” we need to remember that we’re all human, all flawed, and all in need of forgiveness. We need to be patient with one another and grateful that we’re still here to spend another Christmas together.

I pray that we would look past others’ faults and that they would look past ours so that we don’t miss out on the joys of celebrating Christmas.

I wish everyone a very merry Christmas and all the best in 2015.

And speaking of the new year, I’m taking a short break from this blog to spend time with my family over the holidays, but I’ll be back with another post on January 5th.

 

With the wintry weather lately, it was fitting that I read Sirach 43:17b-20* yesterday:

He scatters the snow like birds flying down, and its descent is like locusts alighting.

The eye marvels at the beauty of its whiteness, and the mind is amazed at its falling.

He pours the hoarfrost upon the earth like salt, and when it freezes, it becomes pointed thorns.

The cold north wind blows, and ice freezes over the water;

it rests upon every pool of water, and the water puts it on like a breastplate.

squirrels eating

Six squirrels eating–two at the feeders and four below them.

And today, I asked myself just what this winter would be like as I watched six squirrels—yes, six—jockeying for position at my bird feeders and just below them.

Winter can mean bitter cold and heavy snow, but the promise of hot chocolate or tea to drink or a fire to sit by when we head indoors can keep the chill from putting a damper on our spirits.

Just as I hope the hustle and bustle of the season won’t put a damper on our joy.

This time of year, the stores seem to be busy all day long. Lineups take longer, drives are stop-and-go, and everyone seems to be in a hurry—often too much of a hurry to smile and say thanks, let alone allow other drivers to squeeze into traffic. But we can and should make sure our words and actions reflect the joy this season holds for us as Christians:

  • We can take a moment to wish people “Merry Christmas,” whether in cards, online or in person.
  • If we need to run errands, we can offer a smile and thanks to store staff, especially since it may be the only time someone else notices that they, too, are under pressure and doing their best.
  • We can take part in Mass and reconciliation to refresh, restore and remind us of the reason for the season as Christmas draws closer.
  • We can be friendly and welcoming to those visiting our parish from out of town—or from in town—or even invite a friend or neighbour to attend a service with us during the holidays.

With Christmas just a week away, I pray that we would not let the busyness around us—or the desire for a  “perfect” holiday—steal our joy in preparing for and celebrating Christmas.

(*Scripture quote taken from the Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition.)

 

Although I write my own posts twice a week, I like to take the time to read some other blogs, including some faith-focussed ones.

One of several blogs I read regularly is 8 Kids And A Business. In her recent post on “Eight Strategies for a Calm, Fruitful Advent,” Terry commented on the importance of thinking of others who are struggling this season, ending the paragraph with these words: “Give your time, not just your resources.”

I think most of us receive a lot of donation requests in the mail at this time of year from the food bank, mission, and other local charities as well as international organizations. Many of these are too far away for us to support with anything other than cash donations and prayers.

But what about local organizations? Often there are requests in the city and community papers, as well as church bulletins, for volunteers to wrap gifts for charity, deliver food hampers, collect donations of food and toys, and so on. Do these groups struggle to find volunteers?

Christmas tree angel

The angel on our Christmas tree

It’s easy to give money if we have some to spare but harder to risk connecting personally with those in need—to overcome our shyness, fatigue, busy schedule, or even apathy.

Maybe this Advent season could be the time we take a chance to give something of ourselves. Maybe this could be the year we help deliver food hampers with our church group or transport shoppers’ donated canned goods to the food bank. Or collect donations of gently used winter clothing for shelters. Or send Christmas cards with a meaningful, personal note to our distant friends and relatives instead of a letter for everyone. Or help elderly neighbours get to appointments or run errands.

I pray that we would find some way, whether big or small, to give of ourselves this Advent season and, in so doing, to share God’s love with others.

If you wish to go to extremes, let it be in sweetness, patience, humility, and charity.

~ St. Philip Neri, quoted in “Quiet moments, daily inspiration, feasts, and fun for December,” Catholic Digest, December 2014

gingerbread house

My then-7-year-old son with a gingerbread house he’d decorated

If we were to ask young children what’s important about the Christmas season, they might offer answers such as these:

  • putting up decorations around the house and on the tree
  • shopping for and wrapping gifts
  • making Christmas cookies
  • sending Christmas cards
  • planning to visit relatives

After all, children see us putting in a lot of time and effort into accomplishing all these tasks before the big day. Even adults who are people of faith might give similar answers.

I understand this. I love sending Christmas cards. I just finished a big house cleaning before the decorations go up. I enjoy making, buying and wrapping gifts; listening to Christmas music; baking those once-a-year-treats; and visiting with my extended family.

But if we want our children to become adults who keep the Christ in Christmas, we need to show them that Christmas is more than a time for giving gifts and eating special treats.

  • We can encourage them to take part in the children’s liturgy and the Christmas pageant at church and/or at school.
  • We can share the Christmas story from the Gospel according to Luke and play Christmas carols at home.
  • We can teach them to prepare for Christmas by lighting the candles on our Advent wreath to mark the Sundays of Advent; attending reconciliation services; making Advent crafts such as those in Arma Dei’s A Treasure Chest of Traditions for Catholic Families; and serving others by preparing Christmas food hampers, bringing cookies and much-needed toiletries and warm clothing to the local mission, and so on.

As we teach our children and youth what Advent and Christmas are truly about, I pray that our focus would be on Jesus and the miracle of his coming to us through the Incarnation.

When I was growing up, we had a Magnus Chord Organ that once belonged to my great-grandmother. One of the songbooks happened to be a Christmas one, and I’d start playing the tunes before December 1st—as long as my dad wasn’t home, because he felt that was the earliest we should start playing holiday songs.

Christmas music

Some of my Christmas albums

These days, my tastes run from the music I grew up on, like the Robert Shaw Chorale and Living Voices, to Diana Krall and Andrea Bocelli. It’s probably too much for my family—Christmas carols playing in the car CD player, on our mini stereo while I cook or do chores, or on the Christmas music channels on cable—but those familiar carols bring back wonderful memories of Christmases past, and it wouldn’t be the same without them.

Just as the season seems not quite right without Nan’s butter cookies and fruitcake, Grandma’s brunekager, or a julenisse peeking out here and there around the house.

But we can easily get so caught up in nostalgia that we miss the joys of this season.

Yes, loved ones pass away, and children grow up and have families of their own. But we can celebrate the memories of our departed loved ones as we make their tried-and-true holiday recipes or display their favourite ornaments. We can share our traditions with the next generation, and the one after that. And we can take the time this Advent and Christmas to try something new:

  • Pass down family cookie recipes to our children or grandchildren—or, better yet, make them together and share stories about the people who created them.
  • Let someone else host Christmas dinner, bringing a dish or two to share and helping with cleanup instead.
  • Make time to take part in a reconciliation service and Eucharistic adoration before Christmas.
  • Take part in a service project: make up and deliver food hampers for the food bank, shoeboxes for women’s shelters, cookies for the local mission, knitted goods for street-involved youth, and so on.
  • Choose gifts from a charity catalogue or ask for donations in our name to causes close to our hearts.
  • Serve Christmas dinner at a shelter or soup kitchen, on our own or with family or friends.

Whatever our plans for celebrating Advent and Christmas this year, I pray that we would leave room in our hearts and lives for God to do something new in and through us.

At yesterday’s Mass, our priest asked the congregation when Advent would begin. “December first,” one little girl promptly volunteered.

I imagine she was thinking of the date she could open the first door on her Advent calendar. But she wasn’t far off: the first Sunday of Advent is next Sunday. Believe it or not.

Advent calendar

My son’s Advent calendar

We need to prepare…to prepare.

I don’t mean just stocking up on ingredients for Christmas cookies or fruitcake. Or checking our supplies of wrapping paper, gift bags and tape for wrapping presents a bit at a time or in one marathon session. Or even hauling out the boxes of decorations and ornaments and planning to pick out a real tree (or seeing whether the artificial one is still in good enough shape to use this year).

I’m talking about preparing our hearts to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Baking and gift-giving and decorating plans can be wonderful and enjoyable parts of the Advent season, but are we forgetting to make plans that focus on our faith?

Here are just a few things to think about:

  • Arrive at Mass in time to see the lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath. And when the parish list of Advent services becomes available, take note of the dates of the Christmas pageant, reconciliation services and Christmas services. Celebrate the season with the parish!
  • If the parish participates in a community holiday parade, offer to march with the parish float to remind people what the season is about.
  • If our parish prepares and distributes food hampers to those in need or collects shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, think about putting together a hamper or a shoebox as a family or as a youth group project.
  • Offer to help decorate the church for Advent or sign up to serve as a lector or greeter or in another role for Christmas services.
  • This time of year, many charities contact us with requests for donations. Ask God for guidance in donating money, time and/or items to organizations that touch our hearts.
  • Remember that Advent is a busy time for parish priests and pray for energy, patience and wisdom for pastors—and for ministry group leaders, too.
  • In the midst of all the festivities in December, set some quiet time aside to spend with God—at home, at Eucharistic adoration, at a midday Mass—asking him to help us be reasonable in our spending and mindful of those in need and to help us stay focussed on Jesus as the reason for the season. Block off the time in a planner, if need be.

I pray that we would keep our faith at the centre of our Advent and Christmas preparations.

 

 

 


Food for Thought

(Y)ou do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” ~ James 4:14-15

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