Friday, December 22, 2017

Joy To Everyone Else

We are in the middle of the holiday “season.” What do you like about the holidays, and what drives you crazy?

Of course, my likes and dislikes over holidays mirror the average. Who to buy for. What to get them. Will everyone just make up their minds?? Who is cooking? Who is traveling? To tree, or not to tree? When is everyone leaving? When is the cleaning lady coming??

For me, it goes even deeper, into the bedrock of my identity, where lie deep cracks that, even at this stage of my life, feel unnecessary, and incredibly unfair.

The first nine Christmases of my life were rather loving and lush affairs. Similar to many working-class Chicago families, we had middle-class conceits, and my parents were adamant about ensuring my brothers and I had more than enough, and it served as leverage: from Halloween until New Years Day, we were crafty bastards. Wolves in sheep's clothing. Chores gleefully completed. Grades aced. Not a whimper about our behavior from other parents in the neighborhood. I'd like to remember it as if we were just happy children who respected the hard work and commitment of our mother and father. It was the haul under the tree. And it was a boon. The vacillation between Andy Williams's and James Brown's Christmas albums. Eggnog, both spiked and virgin, and me always choosing the wrong one. Drunk relatives showing up later. Fingers crossed there'll be no fighting, then starting one when one of my cousins breaks one of my new toys or, heaven forbid, didn't turn the pages of one of my comic books correctly. My brothers eventually getting into it and nearly ruining everything. The snow. Having my father to myself for just a moment. Realizing I didn't get my mother a present and feeling guilty after she gave me so much. Making up for it with a kiss. Night falls. Falling asleep with my new toys in the bed. The next morning it'd still feel like Christmas. The good times.

From eleven to eighteen, Christmas just didn't happen. There wasn't money. Moreso, there wasn't interest. Our family went from day to night. Being left alone. Inventing excuses for my family to my friends' parents about why we weren't celebrating. What was once so important stopped mattering to anyone but me, and there's no more lonely position in life than being the only one who cares. I remember when my moms forgot my fourteenth birthday. Indignant, I seethed for three days until I confronted her. Her reply explained what the rest of my life from that moment forward would be.

"We all have birthdays."

She shut the door in my face after that parting shot. It felt like a scene in a movie someone wrote for Meryl Streep in the eighties. I can't remember if the blood rushed to or from my head, but I was dizzy. schooled right then and there. Since then, birthdays and holidays were anathemas to me. They got in the way. Life doesn't care about my birthday, or Christmas, or Kwaanza, or whatever nonsense, thus why should I? And for about four years, I didn't have to worry about any of it.

Then I became a parent.

To have children is to know fear, which seems to stem from the notion of inadequacy. Will there be enough? Am I doing enough? Am I man enough? Will anything ever be enough? I went from ripping through my presents, one after another, relishing all my gifts to avoiding my friends' homes during the holidays because their happiness with each other seemed like wretched excess, just to, a few short years later, stare into the faces of my own children as they opened their presents, concealing my anxiety over whether they'll appreciate whatever is inside the wrapping paper, and then my dread when they didn't, and then swallowing my own grief over things that happened long before I ever thought I would help bring them into the world. The absence of joy inside me while, everywhere else, folks sang Joy To The World was far too much irony for me, high IQ 'n all. I'm not just a pretty face. The complexities inside me weigh heavier than uranium.

It isn't all dark. I do dig how holidays and other special occasions provide me with opportunities to show people I value them. What drives me a bit crazy is how, more often than not, I'm addled inside from rising to meet that chance. I do alright. I even come through like a champ, but my own enjoyment feels impaired. Handicapped by things that happened so long ago, they feel less like memories and more figments of my imagination, as if they were elements of some dream I had one night that I took far more seriously than was warranted.

Holidays move me to gratitude because when all these thoughts and feelings rise up, I realize I'm a writer and therefore have a place to put them.  If I didn't write and release so much of myself into my work, the cracks would show. I can't say it gets any better, but my writing is improving. That's something.


For those interested in the works to which I frequently refer, check out these titles at your local bookseller, your local library, or online where you enjoy purchasing your print and e-books. As always, thanks for your support and encouragement.

Works By Danny Gardner


Thursday, December 21, 2017

’Tis the Season

We are in the middle of the holiday “season.” What do you like about the holidays, and what drives you crazy?

By Jim

Let’s talk holidays.

It should be obvious that the word “holiday” derives from “holy day.” But its meaning and, indeed, significance have changed over the centuries. Holidays traditionally marked sacred dates in the calendar. Some dates were designated as feast days, times of joy and celebration, while others mandated contemplation and fasting. Only the -e- separates a feast from a fast, though the words are unrelated from an etymological point of view. “Feast” comes to English from the bon vivant Old French, while “fast” has sober Germanic origins. The faithful observed religious feasts, rites, and ceremonies as part of their covenant with God. Only much later on did “holiday” acquire the meaning of “vacation” or “day off.” Personal days, mental health days, and three-day weekends are recent phenomena not observed by the ancients.

The annual cycle of holy days divides the year into regular, manageable chunks to organize worship and maximize adherence to the religious principles of the faith. Since the ancients, religious rites have followed the seasons, which make up the solar year. Pagans, polytheists, and monotheists alike all marked their calendars with festivals and observances tied and tailored to each season. Many ancient holidays are mirrored by modern counterparts, an indication that what’s old is new again.

The vernal equinox, a time for festivals of renewal and rebirth, is the holiest period in the Christian calendar. Observances of the Annunciation, Good Friday, and Easter all fall close to the vernal equinox. At the same time, Jews commemorate the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt — Passover. Easter and Passover are “moveable feasts” whose occurrences depend on calculations based on the lunar calendar, an echo of the ancient rituals inherited from our good friends the pagans. (How much do you want to bet that there’s a caterer in your phone book called “A Moveable Feast”?) The word “Easter” derives from the Old English name for the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre. Romance languages take the name from the Greek word for Passover, “Pascha.” In both cases, Easter is called by a name previously associated with an earlier, non-Christian tradition.

By the way, English takes the names of three of its four seasons from Old English: spring, summer, and winter. Autumn, however, has Latin origins via Old French. It’s somewhat unusual to have such an unbalanced paradigm, but language change sometimes takes seemingly arbitrary paths. “Fall,” the common American alternative for “autumn,” is all that’s left of the poetic “fall of the leaves.”

Close detour and back to the equinoxes:

The autumnal equinox, which takes place around September 21, is a period of many ancient and modern religious festivals. In the northern hemisphere, the autumnal equinox inspired harvest celebrations. Canada and the United States mark the harvest with the Thanksgiving holiday, though not on the same day. Canadians pause to give thanks on the second Monday in October, while Americans wait until the fourth Thursday of November to enjoy their turkey and football.
Though more widely celebrated in Europe than in America, Michaelmas (September 29) is a Christian holiday honoring the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. This is a great example of why you always want your name listed first in any joint enterprise. As the days grow shorter with autumn’s approach, the archangel Michael, patron saint of warriors, is seen as a protector against the dark. Note, also, the change in pronunciation of “Michael” when “mas” is tacked onto the end (Mĭk’əl-məs vs Mīk’ əl). Just as Christ (krīst) changes to Christmas (krĭs-məs). The stress change, caused by the addition of another syllable, creates a shift in the vowel sound. Think of the second -o- in photo and photography.

The secular world also has its celebrations, designed to ease the burden on working people at regular intervals. May Day honors workers throughout much of the world except the United States, where hard work is recognized on Labor Day in early September. Americans honor the dead on Memorial Day, which falls at the end of May and marks the unofficial start of summer. Europeans, on the other hand, observe All Souls’ Day on November 2 and All Saints’ or Hallows’ Day on November 1. The night before All Saints’ Day is Halloween. “Halloween” is built on “hallow” or holy/saintly and “e’en” for evening. The use of “e’en” for “evening” may appear at first to be a misnomer, since Halloween is actually the “eve” of All Hallows’ Day, not “the evening of.” But the original meaning of the “eve” we know today was indeed “evening.” “Evening,” by the way, was once a present participle, not a noun, and had the literal meaning of “becoming eve.” Along the same lines, “morning” meant “becoming morn.”

Imagine a couple watching the setting sun:

Man: How beautiful you are as the day is evening.
Woman: Yes, but will you still love me when the night is morning?

“Eve,” with the meaning of “night before,” dates from the late 13th century.

But I suspect this post was supposed to be about the end-of-year holiday season. Let’s see. There’s Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s. I like those. The television commercials, however, drive me crazy. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Break out the ugly Christmas sweater

We are in the middle of the holiday “season.” What do you like about the holidays, and what drives you crazy?

by Dietrich Kalteis

Stick the antlers on the dog, mix up that Christmas punch, jingle the bells and call your friends and neighbors. Who doesn’t love a good Yuletide party? It’s the time to eat too much, drink too much, and break out the ugly Christmas sweater.

For me, it’s the time of year that brings back some great childhood memories, of trimming the tree, the presents that go under it, and all the magic that fills the house. It’s time for Rudolph, Frosty and Scrooge. And those classic films of Charlie Brown dealing with it, the Muppets saving it, and the Grinch stealing it.

 It’s a time to read some Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen. And it’s time for those favorite treats. And a house filled with the aroma of Christmas cake and mince meat and roast goose.

And it’s a time for goodwill too. A time to give generously, drop off some cans and packages to the Food Bank, and time to donate to some favorite charities.

A time for classic carols by Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and the Chipmunks. Or something more contemporary like Nick Lowe singing “Christmas at the Airport”, Bob Dylan’s “Must be Santa” and the Ramones “Merry Christmas Baby”. 

Yeah, all of that’s Christmas.

And then there’s ringing in the New Year. Counting it down, blowing noise makers and topping that glass with some good champagne.

What drives me crazy about it? Christmas sales starting before Halloween. Black Friday sales, pre-Christmas Specials, and Boxing day week. Feeling a day late as I rush from store to store in mid-December searching for that elusive gift. And trying to find a parking spot at the mall is like threading a needle without one’s glasses on. And what could be worse than navigating through a crowded airport? Or the dreaded dollar-short feeling when January’s overstuffed charge-card bill gets squeezed through the mail slot. 

But as Christmas Eve closes in, who cares about all that? It’s time to deck the halls and pop that top pants’ button, join in the festivities and gather around the tree.

So, however you celebrate the season, I wish everyone peace and all the best for the coming year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Writer's Christmas in Quebec

By R.J. Harlick

We are in the middle of the holiday “season.” What do you like about the holidays, and what drives you crazy?

For me, Christmas is all about family and traditions. I love this time of year and though it can get a bit frenetic, that period is fleeting. For the most part I view it not only as a time to catch up with the lives of family members spread far and wide, but also a time to put my feet up in front of a crackling fire and enjoy the calm before the pull of the new year takes hold.

For close to thirty years, we have been celebrating our extended family Christmas at our log cabin in the Quebec woods. We can usually be guaranteed a good covering of the white fluffy stuff giving us a Christmas card perfect setting for the celebration. When children were young and boisterous, it was also the perfect place to keep them amused. They would spend much of their time outdoors tobogganing down the hill or skating on the frozen lake and if the snow conditions permitted, having a snowball fight.

Christmas starts with the search for the perfect spruce tree growing somewhere on our property. A few days before the big day we chop it down and drag it home…or more correctly my husband chops and drags it home, while I and the dogs offer encouragement. We let it drip dry in the basement until we put it up on Christmas Eve, when everyone has arrived.

The number of family members have changed over the years as the older ones have passed on and the younger ones have grown up and acquired significant others, even a baby. The demise of a marriage caused a few hiccups, but eventually that family settled into a Christmas routine. This year one family is heading off to where their daughter, our niece, now lives, so our group will be somewhat smaller. But come Christmas 2018, we could all be back together again with additions, for a marriage is in the works for next summer.

Decorating the tree is a family affair. Everyone gets to hang a bobble wherever they want. I’m not into a perfectly decorated tree or a themed one, rather I love a mishmash of colour, glitter and tradition. We have glass beads that once decorated my husband’s family tree, glass balls bought for my own Christmas tree after moving out of the family home, decorations acquired in Moscow, some purple icicles and tinsel bought at Harrods and so on and so forth. I still have the clothespin decoration my grandmother crocheted for my very first Christmas. Each has a story to tell. I love that they remind me of Christmases past.

Christmas Day invariably starts with the opening of presents followed by a scrumptious breakfast usually cooked by a nephew.  While everyone else relaxes and enjoys the day, I begin preparations for the BIG meal. For thirty years, the menu hasn’t varied. I think if I did try to introduce a change, there would be a major revolt. The pièce de resistance is of course the turkey with stuffing and lots of gravy, mash potatoes with sour cream, green beans and butternut squash, followed by a green salad. Dessert is minced meat pie with hard sauce. This year, however, will be an exception.

I usually make my own minced meat with real meat liberally doused with brandy. My recipe makes six imperial pints, with one pint per pie. This gives me six years worth of pies. I tell you the older the minced meat the better it tastes. But I haven’t replenished my supply for a couple of years. Last year I bought a minced pie from a local bakery and was very disappointed, so I think I will make pumpkin pie this year, which will be a significant change. I hope my family can handle it, though I suspect the younger generation won’t mind. Minced meat pie has never been their thing. In fact, I usually have to include another less traditional Christmas dessert like chocolate cake to make them happy.

Another tradition carried over from when I was a child is the Christmas cracker. We all have great fun trying to get them to bang, reading out the jokes and playing with our prizes. And everyone, no matter how reluctant must wear their coloured paper crown, though I will admit usually by the end of the meal there are only a few diehards still wearing them.

Another Christmas treat is the small wooden Christmas tree that serves as the centre piece for the table. It is decorated by eight candles. I picked this up in Stockholm many years ago. Unfortunately, I can only buy German candles in Ottawa, which are a touch too large. So my brother-in-law shaves them down so that they can fit into the Swedish holders. We also have to be extra vigilant as the candles burn lower, to ensure that they don’t ignite the wooden tree. We’ve had a couple of near misses over the years.

Once the meal is finished we retreat to the sofas and chairs in front of the fire to relax and groan from over-eating and continue to enjoy each other’s company for come the next day most will be heading back home to resume their hectic lives.

I mustn't forget to mention the Christmas of the power outage after a major snowstorm. We were leafing through the recipe book trying to determine how best to barbeque a turkey when the electricity miraculously came on. 

Now I know I’m supposed to be mentioning things that also drive me crazy at this time of year and I won’t deny that there are a few. But you know what, I prefer to ignore them. I’d rather dwell on those aspects that make Christmas so special for me, my husband and our family.

I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and hope you can enjoy it with family and friends. See you in 2018.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Ho Ho Ho and a Bit of Humbug

Happy Holidays....I think.

Terry Shames here, writing about what I love about the holidays and what drives me crazy. Short answer: everything does both.

I heard an interesting factoid a few days ago. Before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, only the “lower classes” celebrated Christmas--with gifts and good cheer. The “upper classes” pretty much ignored it. I’d love to know more about that subject, but it seems to be the perfect metaphor for the oddities of the holidays. “Class” aside, some people go “all out,” others barely bother. Some people decorate and have parties, others go about their business.


That said, it’s the trappings of the holidays that I have a love-hate relationship with:

I love eggnog and fruitcake….except that I struggle with my weight, always have. So indulging either of these comes with a healthy dose of guilt.

I love the smell of Christmas trees….except that I’m allergic to them, so if I bring one inside it means weepy eyes and runny nose.

I love Christmas music…except when it starts November 1. By the time Christmas rolls around, I’m sick of most of it. Not the old carols. I don’t mind that. But how many times do you have to hear “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” before murderous thoughts arise?

I actually like giving presents to people…except that I’m always nervous that I chose something that isn’t good enough—not thoughtful enough, or unique or….whatever it is that would make it perfect. Neither my husband nor my son likes getting presents. It makes them nervous. Maybe because they don’t like giving them either. Go figure! From the time my son was old enough to talk, he hated surprises, and only began to enjoy gift occasions when I told him exactly what he was going to get and how the gifts would be wrapped. From then on he could deal with it.

There is one thing I truly dislike at this time of year--the phony “war on Christmas” hype. It is the essence of fake news—and the less said about that the better.

I love getting people’s holiday letters. Yes, I read them, look at the pictures, and am happy to know what they are up to. No, I’ve never written a holiday letter.

I love holiday parties—for about thirty minutes. Then I’m ready to go home. What I like most about them is getting dressed. I’m a writer. I usually wear funky clothes. So it’s fun to dress up. But when I stand up too long, my feet hurt. My most fun at a party is if I get into a conversation with someone I don’t usually see much of and we sit down and talk. But that’s rare. Usually people are standing around talking about God-knows-what, and I’m not good at small talk.

I don’t like sappy Christmas movies. Except for Love, Actually. That was pretty good, but I see no reason to watch it again.

And finally, I like New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. But not New Year’s Eve parties. I like staying at home, or maybe having friends over for dinner. I like to be home well before midnight.

What I most about the holidays is making New Year’s resolutions. I like to think about last year’s resolutions and contemplate new ones. It seems like a fresh start. So, in the spirit of fresh starts, Happy Holidays, everyone. Whatever you celebrate and however you celebrate—or if you celebrate—I hope it’s exactly what you want it to be.