The Gift of Christmas Giving

Laura Dodge's Christmas windowOne of my fond Christmas memories is of my dad sitting by our living room fireplace wrapping and addressing his Christmas gifts to his workers and others with whom he had a working relationship. He was a horticulturalist and his company was on the North Shore where there were many fine estates and special gardens. He was good at designing views and helping the owners of the estates and their caretakers maintain their trees and shrubs.

His gifts ranged from cartons of cigarettes to bottles of whiskey and included neckties and other smaller items of clothing. Some were for the gardeners of the estates, some for those who worked under his supervision. His men and their foreman got the more expensive gifts. Each one was carefully wrapped and labeled. When I grew old enough to help him I delighted in doing so. All things having to do with Christmas have always been special to me.

Many years ago, on the advice of a spiritual teacher, I began cultivating an attitude of gratitude. This practice has since become much more popular, featured in books and by Oprah, on Facebook groups and on a variety of other sites. There is even a lovely, inspiring site devoted to the expression of gratitude called Gratitude.org. It features all sorts of good news together with thoughtful comments and teachings, as well as poetry.

As Stephen and I drove home after delivering the last plate of Christmas gift cookies, I thought how grateful I was to have an opportunity to acknowledge as my dad did, the kindness of those who had been of help. My token plates of cookies seem a small return for all that these people have done for us, yet they are at least a tangible offering on the alter of my gratitude.

Also, since I was a small child I have been the recipient of much for which I am grateful now, even though at the time I was not aware of the benefit. When I have the opportunity to do so, I acknowledge in my heart those who have been kind to me in the past as well as in the present. Some of them have passed out of my life and some have simply passed away. I remember them with gratitude and say a prayer for their happiness wherever they may be.

Thanksgiving is a fine time to be aware of that for which we are grateful, yet Christmas is my opportunity to express that gratitude in a tangible way to those whose generosity I hope to acknowledge. My life would not be what it is without the help I have received along the ways Those who have in the past, those in the present and even those in the future deserve my thanks as well as whatever I can do to pay it forward in gratitude for those who are too far for me to bring them cookies.

 

Giving Love at Christmas

Love for Christmas Giving

My mother wasn’t much for cooking, though she considered it her duty to serve us good, nourishing food. I don’t remember her ever baking anything sweet. She didn’t care for desserts; she considered them unnecessary and fattening. When I was old enough for her to trust me in the kitchen, she encouraged me to bake simple items like brownies or other easy recipes. Unlike her I truly enjoyed cooking and was happy to make what she permitted me to.

Once I had a family to bake for I broadened my repertoire and learned to make pies and cakes as well as cookies. However cookies were my favorite to make because they went farther. I used to count and divide up the cookies and each child knew what they could have. Because I was home with the children anyway, it was fun to try different recipes. Eventually I created a small Cookie Cookbook with my favorites that I still use today.

Although my family is grown and I no longer bake cookies regularly, every Christmas I make up several batches and create plates to give people who have been helpful or kind to Stephen and me in the past year. The newspaper delivery people who bring the newspaper to our floor, the ladies of the library where we take advantage of their services all year long, the fine gentlemen of the garage where we take our car for repairs and upkeep, and a few others I want to acknowledge for their kindness.

Favorite cookie recipes I usually make include my Disappearing Caramel Brownies, Jiffy Jam Delights, and Unexpected Company Bars, all reliable and relatively easy to make recipes. This time of year there are cookie recipes everywhere to be found, and while these are my personal favorites for giving, those with more time and energy than yours truly might make cut out cookies to decorate or even more fancy treats. If you want one of my recipes, please let me know which, and I will email it. To my way of thinking however one wishes to express love is valid. Spending time on a gift is one of my favorite ways.

While feeding people is one of the ways I use to express my love, I also appreciate recipes that take less rather than more time, yet still provide delicious tasting healthy food. I also collect recipes from others when they have something unique and special to share. Sometimes they even write them out for me. I have loose leaf notebook where I keep these, along with others. Within its plastic sheeted pages are pressed their treasured, handwritten pieces of paper.

The following recipe wasn’t written out by my late friend because it was so simple. Avocado and Grapefruit salad requires one grapefruit and one avocado per two people, so if you are serving a family you need to double or triple, depending. Think kind thoughts as you peel and section grapefruit, removing membrane and preserving juice. Cut in half, remove seed and section one avocado into slices. Combine all, add a tablespoon or two of a good tasting olive oil, stir well, chill slightly, and serve with love for the holidays or at any time at all.

 

Riding a Time Machine into the Past

Reflections in SummerWhat fun it would be to hop onto a time machine and return to the Christmas shopping of my childhood, after I had turned eight. How I enjoyed buying my parents small stocking presents at Grants and Woolworth’s. I want to return to the days when the ten dollars I had saved up sufficed to purchase about everything I wanted to buy for them. Maybe there would even be enough left over for an ice cream cone. I loved the way the store smelled when I walked in, and the overflowing counters with the glass part in front to make sure items didn’t fall off.

I didn’t mind no longer believing that Santa filled the stockings, because it was such fun to wrap up my inexpensive gifts to fill them for my parents. Best of all would be to write notes on them the way they did. I bought Ponds cold cream and vanishing cream each year. I think they were ten or twenty cents each.

My mother told us a joke once about the latter. It seems a child took off all her clothes, rubbed her whole body with vanishing cream, and then went downstairs where her parents were hosing a party. The polite guests pretended not to see her. The next morning she told her mother gleefully that vanishing cream really worked. My twelve year old self thought that was very funny.

My time machine would whisk me back to my Great Aunt’s dining room with all the relatives gathered together and finger bowls brought in at the end of the Christmas meal–often roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. Sometimes there would be a plum pudding brought in and ignited after brandy was poured over it. The dancing flames were blue and very exciting. I didn’t care much for the plum pudding but the had sauce with it was pretty good.

It would take me down the snowy streets with the sparkling stars way up high, and the carols on the radio. Those times seem quite simple compared to now. The television had only a few channels, and the programs didn’t play all night but ended with a test pattern. Mothers mostly were at home. Most had only one car per family, and my mother’s friends met bi monthly for lunch and chitchat over their mending.

In my time machine I would also visit the wondrous Daniel Lowe’s department store in Salem with all the glittering silver and crystal when you walked in. I did no Christmas shopping there. Salem was the big city to me and we seldom went. Nearby Beverly was smaller. That was where the Woolworth’s and the Grant’s were, as well as Almay’s department store. We did some of our shopping there. In those less frantic times no one thought to purchase gifts until a few weeks before Christmas. The stores waited until after Thanksgiving to decorate for the holidays or play Christmas music. However, that was then. Though different from that time, now has its delights as well. While the past is fine to visit, I wouldn’t wish to live there.

Holiday Customs Make the Time Special

debs-mantle           My parents did not believe in getting too excited about Christmas until much closer to the date than most do now. They didn’t do a lot of shopping either, until closer to the time. I have heard some say they have all their presents bought and wrapped before December first! I remember ordering special things from the catalogue that came to the house some time around Thanksgiving, and feeling excited when my simple gifts arrived. As a child I only gave to my parents and later to siblings. Once I got to play Santa too, shopping in the dime store or Grants in Beverly for stocking presents was a great treat.

Despite the fact that these days Christmas catalogues come in the mail long before Thanksgiving, giving gifts is only one of the many rituals and traditions associated with the holidays. We had a few very simple ones, and my parents didn’t make a big deal out of decorating. These days most of us have much to do as the holidays approach. There are the cookies and other special foods to think about. The entertaining of friends and family is another ritual. Many businesses have staff parties and a lot of people entertain in their homes. These gatherings are not confined to the holidays themselves but take place throughout the time from Thanksgiving to the New Year.

The traditions and customs of the holidays have been accumulated over the centuries from a variety of different countries. In America now more than ever we have a melting pot of nations. While many of us grew up with primarily European customs derived from a combination of pagan, Christian, and Hebrew stories, myths and historical remembrances, the addition of African American, Spanish, Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern and related peoples from other parts of the world has enhanced our holiday observations.

Like Christmas tree ornaments taken each year from attic or basement, today’s families pick and choose what to keep, which to use, and what to discard. The little paper cutoouts children made in kindergarten, the funny ornament Aunt Bessie gave us, the fragile glass bird carefully passed down from generation to generation are all part of the decorating rituals. Fashions may change and what looked cute once may look rather dated in the light of a new generation. The same is true of observances and rituals.

Regardless what we choose to do or not to do as the holidays come around, what really matters is the meaning of the act, the memories associated with it, and the good feeling it brings to the heart. For some it’s midnight mass and singing carols that warms and enlivens, for others it’s the Chanukah, or the Yule or Solstice feast that brings gladness and renews the spirit. At the darkest time of the year, as we participate in them, the bright memories that surround our holiday customs bring a sense of light and joy to the heart.

Tasha Halpert

 

 

Peace At Christmas, by Tasha Halpert

Johnnys tree2Even as a small child I was aware of the chaos of war. During the second World War my mother’s parents were still in Germany. My mother had not heard from them for almost ten years. Finally when the American forces broke through, her parents were able to communicate. I watched her wrap packages with food, clothing, and other necessities. Although there was still chaos and difficulty in Germany, at least my mother’s heart was at peace.

My cousin who lived in Cuba in the forties endured strife growing up. She wrote me of how shots might ring out and everyone took cover. I grew up without any direct experience of this kind, and I was fortunate. Now it seems that no one in the USA is safe from warlike behavior. What can we do to combat the fear that has begun to pervade our once peaceful atmosphere? I believe that on one hand we can raise up our courage and refuse to be intimidated, and on the other that we can work for peace within our own lives, most especially now.

The words “Peace on Earth” resonate throughout our Christmas carols and scriptural messages, and even our Christmas cards. Yet to think about peace amidst the hectic shopping, baking, wrapping, mailing hustle bustle of the holidays seems difficult. However I can promote peace in small ways.

I can invite a friend to Christmas dinner, bake cookies for the kind man who takes care of my car, listen sympathetically to someone who needs an ear. I can hold the door for someone or the elevator, volunteer to be of help where help is needed. Equally important, I can nurture peace in myself through meditation, eat well for a peaceful stomach, and of course, get enough sleep.

Taking time for myself is vital to my sense of peace. Remembering to breathe deeply, especially during a nature walk helps me feel peaceful. So does hugging a tree. When I am on my feet a lot I take fifteen minutes to lie on my bed with my legs straight up against the wall. This feels wonderful and it pacifies my body. When I feel more peaceful within myself, I influence the atmosphere around me to harmonize with my peacefulness.

I can talk all I want about the need for peace and the lack of it in the world, and that will change nothing. Alternatively I can set about making peace myself, promoting peace in my own way. I can be of service in the cause of peace. While I cannot influence nations or even large groups of people, I can be of help in small ways and thus help make peace.

There is a story about monkeys on an island learning to wash their food. When enough monkeys did that, those on neighboring islands began doing the same. There was no communication between them yet they were influenced. When we are peaceful within ourselves we help others to become more peaceful. When I work for peace in my own life, I am also working to bring peace in the world around me, and perhaps, who knows it may even spread out from there.

Time To Mail Those Gifts

Time To Mail Those Christmas Gifts, By Tasha Halpert

In the home I grew up in there was a small triangular closet with a slanting roof under the eves on the second floor. It was lined with narrow shelves. I believe it may originally have been intended for the storage of unripe fruit to be kept for later use in the cold months. My parents used it to store away empty boxes as well as Christmas and birthday presents bought for friends and family during the year, perhaps on sale or on the trips they took. As an adult I adopted this practice and put away gifts I came across during the year.

Once we got together, Stephen joined me in this. All year long, we keep an eye out for items we think will be suitable for friends and family for the holidays. We store what we find away until it is time to get them out and in some cases, mail them off. Having suffered from waiting too long in the past to mail them, we have learned our lesson: we have become true early birds at the post office. Now that Thanksgiving is over, it is time to wrap and send off all that we have accumulated.

Because our apartment is small we have to squirrel things away here and there in out of the way corners. Finding all of the presents we have acquired and bringing them all out into the open is the first step in the giving process. They need to be sorted and decisions made as to for whom we bought which gift. Sometimes what seemed just perfect for someone several months ago evokes question marks when examined in the light of now. It’s fun figuring it all out. Once the gifts are arranged, we consult the address book for those we intend to give to and the wrapping begins.

The actual process of wrapping can be the most difficult part of all. Fortunately I learned some tricks a few years ago from a friend of mine who used to wrap department store gifts. Boxes we have been saving come in handy now, as does the extra tape I purchased and the paper bags we cut up and use to wrap DVDs and books. It is more fun to make use of free stuff than to depend on purchased padded envelopes or boxes. In addition, the rising cost of postage makes it important to be as thrifty as possible when it comes to the mailing of what we have chosen.

Over the years this little ritual has become the opening chords to Stephen’s and my Christmas celebration. Because many of our friends have moved away and some of our family live at a distance, we seldom if ever see them physically. Now the gift giving ritual of choosing and wrapping becomes a heart warming pleasure. As we prepare and address what we have chosen, we spend time thinking of our dear ones and chat about our memories of them. Thus in giving we ourselves receive a gift, and it is even more precious than anything we may mail away.

 

The Gift and the Wrapping

by Tasha HalpertKathy's Christmas tree

Being somewhat uncoordinated when it come to things like wrapping packages, I have always struggled with trying to make my presents look reasonably attractive. Some people are really creative with how they wrap their presents. I envy them. I wish I had that kind of creativity. My mind tends to run along more utilitarian tracks and I don’t always think to add the trimmings.

I have a friend who does lovely wrapping. She told me about the finishing touches she had put on the colorful hand made gifts she had crocheted. She went on to tell me that someone said to her that the decorative packaging she had purchased to do this was extravagant, asking why she had spent so much money on something that would soon be discarded.

I understood completely why she had wanted to do this. Her gift was special and she wanted it to look that way. Her expenditure made perfect sense to me. While I tend to be less decorative in my thinking I can admire someone who knows how to do up a package and make it look special. My artistic friend has very clever fingers and knows exactly how to fix up a package to make it look extra special. I wish I had her skills.

The care with which a gift is presented says something important about the giver as well as the gift. Stephen and I accumulate presents for family and friends all during the year; my wrapping though not fancy is part of the caring. I used to have a dreadful time wrapping presents until a friend who had done professional wrapping for a department store showed me some useful tricks. Now I can make my packages look much more attractive.

There was a time when wrapping paper for Christmas gifts was not as inexpensive or as available as it is now. When I was a child we used to save all our Christmas gift paper from year to year and reuse it as often as we could. The use of scotch tape was discouraged and gift paper was sturdier as well. I remember one special piece of wrapping paper that appeared every year on a different present. It had an elaborate design and was very lovely as well as quite durable. In her elder years as the Christmas presents were opened my late mother would spend her time folding the wrapping papers. I expect this brought back vanished memories of when we were all young.

At this season of giving many feel compelled to spend money they don’t have to buy gifts for others who probably don’t need them. The simple gift of a hug and a plate of home made cookies or a hand made card might do just as well. Even young children need to learn to be content with less rather than yearn for more. Whatever I give at Christmas is primarily a token of my affection, and it need not be expensive or fancy. I will, however, wrap it with care and love because these are the real gift I am giving.