A year of blogging in review ….

So, it’s been nearly a year since my first blog post, which was basically about the wonder of me having a blog. Thanks for not dropping my navel-gazing ass right then and there! At the time, I wondered if blogging would become a thing for me, or if it was a novelty gift to myself, destined to join the other dusty, failed resolutions that had gotten me all excited for about three days before being more or less forgotten, due to them requiring concentration or effort. Well, it didn’t – it’s become a weekly pleasure, and I plan to write more. So stay tuned …. In the meantime, WordPress.com compiled this for me, and I thought I’d share it with – of course – my faithful readers. Thank you for reading, reacting, cheering me on and sharing my posts with others. I consider your time and attention to be among the many, many, many gifts I have received over the past year. Enjoy New Year’s Eve, however you spend it, and may you be blessed (and know it) in 2015!

Here’s an excerpt from their report. (If you want to see more, use the link at the bottom of this post)

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,900 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Advertisements

A dozen reasons to read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” ….

Scrooges_third_visitor-John_Leech,1843

Every year, during the glittery days approaching December 25, I devote several evenings to lying on the couch next to the Christmas tree and reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. I have done this since I was a teenager. Back then, when I had very few responsibilities and endless energy, I would read it all in one night – Christmas Eve night, in fact, staying up sometimes til four a.m. to finish it. Can’t really do that now that I’m one of the makers of Christmas for two little girls – but I still take the time to stroll through that lovely old book. It’s part of my Christmas celebration. I’ve always disliked commercials that urge people to “buy a gift for yourself this Christmas” – alot of us spend all year doing that – but I did buy myself a gift two Christmases ago. I bought a beautiful red hard-cover edition, complete with prints of the original illustrations, and gilt-edged pages. I passed my trusty paperback (complete with my childhood phone number on the inside – 709-652-3077) on to my daughters, and Fiona’s reading it now.

There are probably some people wondering why I read the same book year after year. I don’t really care, since I am more or less past the point where I worry about what people think of me. For those who are interested, though, it’s everything. It’s the way Dickens paints his characters. His description of Scrooge is prose perfected: Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. It’s the vivid way he describes Victorian London so that you feel like you’re really there. It’s the way he slips into the story to scatter his pearls of wisdom over each scene – “I am standing in the spirit at your elbow”, he tells his readers.

I’m sure most people are familiar with the story by now, so I won’t dive too deeply into the plot. I will, however, share my favourite scenes and quotes from the book. Maybe you’ll love it, too, by the time you’ve read my sampling ….

1) The story opens with Scrooge in his office on Christmas Eve, and we are not many pages in before we learn exactly what Scrooge thinks of the holiday: “What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older and not an hour richer, a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? …. Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”

2) At which point we are treated to his nephew’s ardent answer: “There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profitted, I dare say,” returned the nephew, “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmastime, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time. The only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold in my pocket, I believe it has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!” This is exactly how I feel about Christmas, and I love to see it in black-and-white.

3) Dickens firms up Scrooge’s stinginess with the scene in which he is asked by two gentlemen if he would contribute to their charitable endeavour to buy the poor “some meat, and drink, and means of warmth” because, as they explain, “it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt and Abundance rejoices”. Scrooge asks for reassurance that there are still prisons and workhouses for the poor, and points out that his taxes support these places – and that’s as much as he is prepared to do. When one of the gentlemen points out that some poor people can’t go there, and many would rather die, Scrooge observes that they ought to do so, and “decrease the surplus population”.

4) Scrooge is later visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, who is chained. He explains that this is the chain he “forged in life”, and warns Scrooge that his own chain was just as long when Marley died, “seven Christmases ago”, and that he has “laboured on it since – it is a ponderous chain”. Marley tries to explain what is wrong with Scrooge’s life, and Scrooge has a pithy answer for everything, until the ghost loses his patience and howls “Oh! Captive, bound and double-ironed …. not to know that ages of incessant labour, by immortal creatures, for this earth, must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed! Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space or regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh, such was I!”

5) When Scrooge attempts to comfort Marley by praising his business sense, Marley answers sharply: “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!” Indeed.

6) “There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill will, hatred, envy, bigotry and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us, and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.” This is from my favourite chapter of the book – the one featuring Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present. If you’ve lost patience with the commercialization and fuss of Christmas, you’re certainly not alone. But don’t use that as a reason to denigrate this holy and beautiful time of the year …. Greedy people are responsible for the vulgarization of the season. Your Christmas is what you make it.

7) I love it when the Ghost of Christmas Present throws Scrooge’s callous words back at him in this powerful series of paragraphs.

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

8) …. it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself. So true! Sparkling Christmas cards, sugar-coated everything, gingerbread houses, snow swirling around haloed street lamps in the dark, shimmering icicles lengthening daily, kindly smiles from strangers, the hopeful act of giving …. and, of course, the miracle of the nativity. If you let the cynicism fall away, if you give air and light to the wonderment of your inner child, Christmas is pure magic, and it will melt your tired, discouraged heart.

9) Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery’s every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Scrooge his precepts. This is the true meaning of Christmas – the salvation of humanity.

10) Just before the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves Scrooge, he imparts his harshest lesson. It is heartbreaking and haunting.

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

11) Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand was open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal! What lives forever is not what we are or what we have, it is what we do and what we give.

12) Then there’s the end …. I can’t think of a single other book with such a triumphant, satisfying, solid ending – and I’ve spent about thirty years reading voraciously. It never fails to spread a smile across my face and fill my eyes with happy tears.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

Music to Christmas by!

musictree

As I’ve already said, I love Christmas music. I love dear old carols and modern favourites. I love it instrumental. I love it a capella. I love it warbled in the shower, hollered by kids,  and belted out by revellers. I love it spoken like poetry. All the same, some Christmas music has lost its lustre. Brenda Lee can stop rockin’ around all trees of any kind, forever. Nobody ever needs to cover “Last Christmas” again; Wham! did it right the first time. We don’t need any more mechanical phone-ins of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” either, complete with icky banter between the two singers at the end (although the old clip I just linked to has its charms). And Bob Geldof really needs to consider some alternative treatment to Band-Aids. The 1984 original is simply unbeatable. That moment when Bono wails “tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you” brings tears to my eyes, every time.

When Remembrance Day is over, Christmas music creeps into the background of my life. Sometimes, it’s our dusty CDs, rescued from the storage room and savoured, one by one, at odd moments. Sometimes, it’s the sweet surprise of hearing a Christmas favourite on the radio for the first time since last Boxing Day. Many times, it’s been the joy of discovering that Majic 100 has gone all Christmas, all the time – after days of checking in because we know it’s coming. In those cases, it comes roaring to the forefront, and I leap into it and roll around like Scrooge McDuck in his money vault. Today, I feel like sharing some of my favourite Christmas songs. These are in no particular order, and they are everything from whimsical to wistful. They are perfect for dashing through the mall, wrapping presents like a pro (even getting the ribbon curls right, because I am told that some people do), making a mess of a gingerbread house, or nibbling on your pen in front of a pile of blank cards. They are a precious part of my Christmas celebration, and I look forward to them every year. I’ve linked each title to the song. Enjoy, if you’ve a moment ….

“Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen

This old treasure, oddly tying together Snoopy and the first world war and that beautiful story of a Christmas truce, has been part of my Christmas for as long as I can remember. Oh, those bells after the baron wishes Snoopy a merry Christmas!

“2,000 Miles” by the Pretenders

I don’t know what it is about this, but it both lifts my heart and squeezes it, all at the same time.

“O Come All Ye Faithful” by Elvis Presley

The moment when the music surges and the drums pound us into the second verse, the high, sweet choir urging us to “sing”! That is a musical moment I look forward to, and cherish, every Christmas. It stops me in my tracks, every time.

“Santa Claus is Back in Town” by Elvis Presley

Elvis gets two songs …. but he’s Elvis, so it’s ok. This sexy little romp is pure festive fun, and I used to blast it at Christmastime when I was a teenager and my parents still had a record player. Now, I have the record, and it is no less loved.

“Spaceman Came Travelling” by Chris de Burgh

Chris de Burgh’s sweet quaver, and the echoing chorus, and the idea of seeing the manger from high above the planet like the spaceman …. and a celestial song kicked off by the first sound of new life, a baby’s cry.

“I Love Christmas” by Ali Milner

This jazzy little confection is just adorable, and you can just picture each scene as she sings about it. Instant mood boost ….

“Christmas is Calling” by Roch Voisine

Not sure who the leggy gal in the video is, and I know it’s rather random – but this is the only video I could find for this beautiful song. The sadness, the longing, the love – and the acknowledgement that Christmas can be many things, and it’s not always unalloyed delight.

“As Long As There’s Christmas” by Aselin Debson

This is just plain sweet …. Her wispy voice, the joy and nostalgia, the imagery – the homecoming. And the truth: there is always a little bit of a little girl in me at Christmastime.

“Maybe This Christmas” by Ron Sexsmith

Maybe this Christmas there will be an open door …. maybe we will touch or be touched, maybe there will be forgiveness and redemption. Maybe we will not have heaven on earth, but maybe there will be gratitude for the good we do have. This song is less than two minutes long, but it captures the simple message of Christmas: renewal. And maybe that’s enough.

“Another Year Has Gone By” by Celine Dion

Ok, ok, it’s Celine Dion. A Canadian cheeseball. But, but, but …. If you listen to the beautiful lyrics of this song, you will hear the story of a strong love, and the celebration of another brick – another year – being laid on a solid foundation.

“Merry Christmas, Darling” by the Carpenters

“But I can dream, and in my dreams, I’m Christmassing with you” …. This is lovely and sad, made more stirring by the rich, clear voice of Karen Carpenter and the perfect harmonies in the background.

“Momma Mary” by Roger Whittaker

And then there’s this one …. How I love this song! The thrilling lyrics – “it had begun, he was the one”. The powerful story of the woman who said “yes”, and became a vessel for the love of God made flesh, and all that seventies folk rock awesomeness. My favourite Christmas album, in fact, is Roger Whittaker’s.

These are just a few of the many Christmas songs I find deeply moving, and that I love to hear every year, over and over. I hope they make your celebration more beautiful, too. Merry listening!

(I’m sure that as soon as I post this I’ll think of one or two that I left out somehow …. And feel free to share your favourites, too! Maybe I’ll hear something new to add to my collection ….)

Have a holly, jolly Christmas! No, really, you can …. here’s how.

cms-115_Pooh_Christmas_Train_3_EEyore.153214530_std

It’s December. Even the greenest of grinches will agree that it’s ok to talk about Christmas now. So here we go …. I love Christmas. I love Christmas music (even the cheesy stuff) and Christmas decorations (even the tacky stuff) and Christmas traditions. (Except rock-hard, waste-of-rum fruitcake – that stuff can be tossed straight into the dustbin of history, with all the other things no one likes anymore. Marmalade and gerkins, I’m looking at you guys.) For me, Christmas truly is the most wonderful time of the year. Yet it seems that, for many people, it’s anything but. Every day since the beginning of November I’ve seen at least one holiday de-stress guide. They have titles like “how to survive the holidays” and “how to handle Christmas stress” and “avoid your annual Christmas meltdown”. One author bitterly said “no wonder my mother got sick every January”, listed all the things she hates about Christmas, and claimed that this year she is toying with cancelling the holiday in her home. Why all the fuss? How has Christmas become something to panic and rant about, rather than a sweet celebration bringing us all together during the darkest days of the year?

I have a family, and a job (sadly, it’s not writing this blog or testing wine batches). I have a house and car that need regular maintenance and repairs. I have bills to pay. I have problems to work around, and bad days. In other words, I’m as stressed and tired as anyone else. But I refuse to let the trappings of Christmas make me crazy. I love it too much to let that happen. Because I know what’s best for everyone (yes, I do – that’s one of my reasons for blogging), I decided to create a list of ways to help you stay sane, too. Or, what passes for sane. That’s my standard, at least ….

Don’t buy in. One of the complaints I hear multiple times every Christmas is how expensive it is. What few people seem to consider is why. Why do we need expensive decorations? Want a dash of sparkle? Every dollar store currently contains aisle after aisle of trinkets, and enough red bows to brighten an entire city. Want old-fashioned charm? Make paper chains, or strings of popcorn and dried cranberries. Hand your children a stack of paper and a package of markers, and let them create Christmassy scenes for your walls. Why do we need to empty our wallets buying piles of presents? Ask a roomful of people their favourite thing from their childhood Christmases, and few – if any – will say it was the gifts. If you want to give gifts, keep it reasonable. Think of one or two meaningful things for each person on your list, and buy those things. If your budget doesn’t stretch to gifts, how about time? Offer to do something for your loved ones – or, better yet, something with them.

Love what you love (or don’t). Many people’s holiday complaints seem to be about Christmas-themed annoyances (again, trappings). They hate the dopey Christmas songs that seem to be on repeat in every store and restaurant. They hate the obnoxious commercials. They hate the schmaltzy TV specials. They hate the Elf on the Shelf (so do I – that smug little bugger needs to take an “accidental” tumble into the fireplace). But nobody’s forcing anyone to put up with any of this stuff! Christmas music isn’t your thing? Wear ear buds that stream your tunes straight into your head. And a little perspective might be helpful, too – it’s not as if establishments play only your faves all the rest of the year. And commercials are annoying all year long …. It’s not Jesus’ fault that morons in marketing decided to use his birthday to make everyone want fur coats and the latest electronics and Starbucks gift cards. Not a fan of Christmas programming? Just don’t watch it. None of these things are Christmas – they are just people’s response to Christmas. If you don’t like them, craft your own response and enjoy that.

Don’t exhaust yourself. You don’t have to decorate like Martha, even if you’re hosting. Uncle Pullmyfinger is going to be just as happy in his turkey-coma on your old couch as he would be on a new one. Nobody is going to inspect your place with white gloves – in fact, wait til after the holidays to clean up. January is a long and boring month. I love writing and posting Christmas cards. I do dozens of them every year. They’re beautiful. I treasure the ones I receive. Many people don’t enjoy doing cards. If you’re one of them, don’t do them. Think about who might really appreciate a card, and then give that person a call instead. Great Aunt Grouchy would probably rather pour out her complaints to you in person anyway, instead of dashing off a line in her card about how she never sees you anymore. You don’t like baking? Buy cookies. You can’t cook? Buy boxes of wings and breaded shrimp and sausage rolls. Or order several pizzas. Or hire a caterer. This is not a culinary competition – it’s supposed to be fun. Too many social events crowding your calendar? Say no. I love parties. But if I didn’t, I wouldn’t drag myself from festivity to festivity like Eeyore searching for my tail. I’d stay home, throw on my flannel pyjamas, and curl up with a cup of peppermint tea and a good book – and I wouldn’t feel the tiniest sliver of guilt about it. If I thought my presence would be badly missed, I’d put in about thirty minutes of face-time, and then explain that I need a quiet evening to myself. People who really care about you will understand. People who don’t understand aren’t worth your free time anyway.

Downsize. You don’t have to do all the things, every year. Make a list of the things you consider Christmas obligations, and play with it. Put a star next to the ones you love. Then, look at what’s left, and put a star next to anything that is precious to your nearest and dearest. Your good friends enjoy a Christmassy trip to the mall? Your husband loves your homemade shortbread cookies? Your son’s Christmas is not complete without singing a few carols next to the fire? Do those things. Everything else, cross off. The things that are left will become more precious, and you won’t miss the things you were doing only because you felt like you had to.

Come together. The more, the merrier – especially when it comes to celebrating Christmas. I like to make chocolates at Christmas – vast quantities of them. This wasn’t much fun when I did it all by myself. So I taught some girlfriends how to do it, too. Now it’s a yearly event, with laughter and great food and wine. At the end of the evening, we divvy up the chocolates, and start talking about improvements for next year’s session. Shop with your sister. Decorate your home and wrap presents with your significant other. Recruit your kids to bake goodies with you, or arrange a cookie exchange. Encourage your co-workers to take on a charity with you. Christmas is a time to reach out to those around you, and give of yourself – and receive what is offered by others. Simple togetherness can be a lovely Christmas gift.

Disclaimer: This list is meant to help people who like Christmas but find it frustrating and stressful at times. If you don’t like Christmas, full stop, this post isn’t for you – try Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, or (if you’ve no time to read a novel) rum garnished with a cinnamon stick.