The Gift of Christmas

Deb's mantleWhile generally speaking Thanksgiving is about being thankful, for many people Christmas is about gift giving. There are multiple tales about the giving of gifts on this day or shortly before or after. Christmas legends are fun to read. One of my favorites is about La Befana, an old lady from Italy. It is she who leaves the gifts for children on or around Christmas. The story goes she missed out on the actual birth of the holy child and so leaves all children gifts hoping not to miss out.

Lately my mail has been flooded with appeals. Every charity I give to throughout the year and quite a few I never do has sent me an urgent letter stating its need. Some hope to sweeten the pot by saying a donor has offered to match every donation if it comes in before a certain date. Giving at Christmas is built into our society; however, it is also a tradition that is so old it is part of the body of thinking that in psychological terms is called the collective unconscious.

Many people at this season disregard that way of thinking and deplore the emphasis on gift giving, calling it materialistic, or a symbol of our greedy society. They may be right in their way; however, I wonder if they have considered the inspiration to give that is inherent in Christmas. The focus in many ads is all about buying for others, for those on your Christmas list, and so forth. No one has much to say about buying gifts for yourself.

Actually, it is a good idea to buy yourself a Christmas/Holiday gift—at least one. I am a firm believer in giving to oneself as well as to others. That way you don’t feel deprived if you don’t get much back. To be sure, giving with unconditional love—likely the best way to give, means giving without expectations. Yet this is much easier when you give to yourself, perhaps purchased something you really wanted, or bought a highly personal item that no one is apt to give to you.

I believe the true gift of Christmas is the inspiration to give that it inspires. Depending on their belief system, many will tell you what the basis is for this tradition. For them this may be very important, yet from St. Nicholas to Santa, from the Three Kings to La Befana, whatever the inspiration may be, the gifts in the stockings and under the tree spell Christmas/Solstice/Chanukah /Kwanza, and perhaps other days, for us all.

Shopping for, not at, Christmas

Christmas Tree 17-1The house I grew up in from the age of four on had a funny little built in cupboard off the upstairs hall, My parents called it the box closet. It was lined with narrow shelves, perfect for small boxes. I was told the gardener whose cottage this was originally, used them to ripen fruit. My parents kept boxes of different sizes that could be reused there, as well as to hide presents until Christmas came around. That’s how I got into the habit of doing my shopping for Christmas all year.

“Where do you do your Christmas shopping,” asked my physical therapist as she and I worked on helping my hip get better. I shook my head and smiled. “We don’t,” I told her, “At least not in the usual sense. We collect Christmas gifts all year long from wherever we find them—yard sales, thrift shops, white elephant tables, or any other alternative shopping experience you can think of. It’s more fun that way.”

In one sense what that means is that Stephen and I think about Christmas and people we like to give to, all year long. It is such fun to think about and to give presents. Many of our dear friends live at a distance from us, so we end up spending as much money on postage as we do on the gifts. What we save by not shopping in stores will most likely get spent on the mailing of them. However, we’ve avoided much stress and discomfort.

One can of course shop from catalogues and the Internet, and many do and will. Christmas catalogues flood our mailbox from October on. I used to try to tell them not to send me any, however no one paid any attention, so I gave up. I know you can also specify which you want to receive; however that too becomes tedious. I figure at least the printers and designers are making money producing them, so I don’t feel too bad about throwing them away. . It’s too easy to order and then be disappointed when the item is not what you thought.

Occasionally I buy a gift for Stephen from a catalogue–usually because he saw it and pointed it out to me. I seldom purchase from them for anyone else. I peruse one or two of my favorites but most go into the trash. While they are filed with lovely enticing pictures and descriptions, for the most part I prefer the physical experience of seeing and touching my purchases.

I find Christmas shopping at retail stores to be daunting. There is too much to see and think about. They are too full of hopeful shoppers trying to cross people off their Christmas lists. The glittery items do not attract me; I prefer to give useful, practical gifts. That’s what I like to receive. Furthermore, most children have lots of toys and games as well as stuffed animals. Our friends and relations often receive books we have found at the Friends of the Library. By supporting alternative spending there and elsewhere, we recycle and reuse. This is really a gift to Mother Earth as well, and surely she deserves one too.

After the Gifts Are Unwrapped

gifts-4  In days gone by when my children were small and Christmas was something of a big production, by the evening of the 25th everyone was satisfied to play with his or her toys, eat the festival leftovers and chill out. It was then that I would take my guitar in hand and drive with it to the Beverly hospital to play for the patients. I was a regular volunteer there so I would don my pink volunteer jacket and go around to the wards and private rooms to play Christmas music together with my usual folk tunes.

During my time in Manchester-by-the-Sea I used to play my guitar several times a month and sometimes even more often for the patients who were well enough to be listening. However I did have to be mindful of my lyrics. This being in the days of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, my repertoire consisted mainly of traditional folk songs, some of which had lyrics that might not sound cheerful such as: “Go tell Aunt Rhody the old gray goose is dead,” or one that began “When I’m dead and buried, don’t you weep after me,” a rousing spiritual that was great fun to sing as long as I omitted the first verse and went right into the body of the song.

On Christmas night I felt as though with all the visitors having gone home by then, the patients could use a bit of cheering up. After all, the visitors were returning to their families and friends while the patients were still in their rooms or wards and perhaps more aware of being there than usual. It was heartening to see the welcoming smiles on their faces and to receive their enthusiastic approval. More than once someone who had been relatively comatose would actually clap their hands and manage a smile.

Today my children are grown and gone and my family is for the most part scattered far and wide. Holidays are quieter. Nor do I play my guitar any longer, though next year I hope to have learned some carols on my new harp. However, I don’t expect to be singing them in a hospital. Life brings changes, some welcome, some not so. The happy memories of Holidays past become gifts to cherish with joy, more so perhaps than any other gift beneath the tree.

Now that the presents have been opened and our holiday meal consumed, I find myself reminiscing to myself over past holiday celebrations. I note familiar faces that have moved on from my life. Some still walk this earth others do not. I am reminded of the places where I have lived in the past and see again the rooms as well as the homes that hold the memories of holiday times. Each year holds its blessings. I am grateful for each and every one, and most of all I am grateful to be able to celebrate with joy the love that flows to me from those who each year remember me.


A Wreath of Remembrance

winter-red-and-green          The season of lights, as this time of year could be called, holds many holiday traditions and celebrations. In my home we combined my mother’s German heritage with my father’s American one. We opened our larger gifts from friends and family on Christmas eve, while the stockings that held presents from Santa were opened on Christmas morning.

My mother had played the violin since she was a young child. On Christmas Eve after a light supper of finger food and sweets we gathered around the piano and she played carols while we sang. Silent Night was always sung in German. To this day I more easily remember the German words to this familiar carol. I remember once as people knelt for Christmas eve communion in the Episcopal church I attended then, singing it as I played on my guitar.

Recently as I listened to the wonderful Holiday concert presented by the Claflin Hill orchestra in Milford a rush of remembrance from other times and places swept over me. An image of my mother with her violin tucked under her chin standing by the piano in our dining room playing Silent Night floated into my mind. I felt nostalgic tears prickle behind my eyelids. As the strains of the lovely music flowed on, so did the memories.

My mother loved the lights and other decorations people put on and around their homes for the holidays. I remember one year we drove around together looking at the sparkly holiday homes. I could feel her joy as well as my own as together we appreciated the colorful displays of lights. Another memory surfaced of when my eldest was nearly a year old. Whenever we were in the car on a December evening I would hold her up to the window to see the glowing lights. Her first words at almost a year were her version of mine: “Pitty Light.”

Holiday memories are often tied to music. One year I was to be in the Christmas Pageant at my school, and sing a solo. I had come down with a sore throat and could barely croak. Somehow I got through it. I remember squeezing my best friend Sally’s hand, tears streaming down my face as I sang the best I could. Too, I remember how in the 2nd grade I was to play a little angel in another pageant and my parents took me with them to Florida, leaving the day of the play. I was so sad. Happily I also remember sitting in another school auditorium listening as my own children sang solos in their concerts.

Now many years have gone by, and many things are different. Each year brings new traditions into the mix, new opportunities to add memories and images to be woven into my wreath of remembrance. Old and new merge into a timeless sense of inner joy that brightens and burnishes the present moment. Although many familiar faces may no longer be visible at my table, or certain traditions available to share in the same way, these remain part of my holidays, and they bring their share of joy to the celebration.

By Tasha Halpert

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



Keeping Christmas Merry

By Tasha Halpert

Twinkles 3 (best)When I was growing up no one around me thought much about Christmas until after Thanksgiving, and even then mid December was when we would begin shopping. Once I knew the reality of Santa, I was eager to participate. I was taken to the Five and Dime in Beverly. There I would purchase stocking presents for my parents with my saved up allowance. My gifts were always practical: Pond’s Cold Cream for my mother, pencils for my dad. I usually made their presents for under the tree–Santa only brought the stocking gifts.

We didn’t put up the Christmas tree until the day of Christmas Eve. It stayed up until January 6. Elaborate house decorations were not part of our tradition, however we had lovely ornaments saved from year to year along with the real metallic tinsel that made the branches bow nicely. I do not remember much stress associated with the holiday, We had a few friends over on Christmas eve with simple snacks and went to a relative’s for Christmas dinner.

How nice it would be if today’s Holidays were as simple and lacking in stress as they used to be. I’ve had some thoughts on how to help that happen. For instance, it’s hard when the holidays bring back thoughts of those who are no longer with me. I remind myself to be grateful for the time we had together. Then I tell myself, be thankful for those who are with me still.

Music lifts my spirits. Playing Christmas carols, not to mention the lovely classical music written for this time, brings me back to myself and helps me remember what the holidays are really about. I especially like to play Christmas music while wrapping presents or preparing food. I prepare food ahead during the holidays, and I often combine kitchen tasks. Since I’m already in the kitchen, I chop vegetables for soup while I bake Christmas cookies.

Family traditions can be onerous. It is best not to “should” on yourself during the holidays. Instead, make new traditions of your own, more appropriate to your current life and lifestyle. One of mine is to bake cookies for those who have been helpful to me during the past year: My garage mechanic, the kind folk at the library, the postman, my hair stylist.

Here is one of my easy cookie recipes you might enjoy making and sharing. Jiffy Jam Delights: Bake at 375 for 10 minutes on a well greased cookie sheet. Makes 30 to 36 delicious cookies in a half hour from start to finish. Ingredients: 1/2 cup Butter, (no substitutes please),1/3 cup Sugar, 1 Egg, 1 Tsp. Vanilla, 1/4 tsp Salt, 1 2/3 cups all purpose Flour, 2/3 cup Jam (raspberry preferred by us. Method: Beat butter, sugar well. Add egg, vanilla salt. Blend in flour. Drop from a teaspoon onto greased sheets. Make a dent in the tops of the cookies and fill with a half teaspoon or so of jam. Bake only until firm and dry to the touch. Cool before eating. Jam is very hot.


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.