Remembering That Christmas Can Be the Hardest Season Of All

I mentioned a few weeks ago how my childhood Christmases have been categorized as being of the “Norman Rockwell” variety.

This is largely true.

I did grow up enjoying idyllic holidays. Year after year we would sing as a family around the Christmas tree or sit on the hearth in front of a blazing fire watching holiday movies together – the house filled with delicious smells and festive decor. For me, Christmas lived up to the lyrics purporting It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

But there was one very sad Christmas, and it has informed the way I view the holidays and the emotional impacts on those suffering a loss or enduring hardship. Because, quite frankly, Christmas can be the most difficult time of the year.

I was almost 12 years old. I remember exactly what I was doing that December afternoon – watching an episode of the soap opera Passions (not a sanctioned TV show for the daughter of a Baptist minister; DO NOT TELL MY PARENTS).

The phone rang.

I was home alone with my brother who was sleeping; he had just been diagnosed with mononucleosis, which explained his unrelenting fatigue. I kidded him about this endlessly, joking it was from having a girlfriend (mono often being called “the kissing disease”). I had gone so far as to cut paper lips out of red construction paper; I had taped them all over his bedroom door before he arrived home from university.

When I answered the phone, I was devastated to learn one of my sisters had gone into pre-term labour.

This was in an era without cell phones and I wasn’t able to tell my parents until they called to say they were coming home from work.

I woke up my brother.

I remember Amy Grant’s version of My Grownup Christmas List playing on the radio.

I remember crying.

I remember the supper we ate that night: broiled pork chops, whipped potatoes, and peas. I remember everything tasted like sawdust.

I remember getting into the car to drive to the hospital in a blizzard; watching the snow hit the windshield, it felt like we were driving through a snow globe. The giant hill leading up to the hospital was treacherous. The minister coming to visit my family couldn’t get his car up the hill – he kept sliding back to the bottom. Eventually, he gave up and parked his car at the base of the hill, and simply walked the rest of the way.

My infant nephew didn’t survive, stillborn just a few days before Christmas.

I remember going to my sister’s home while she and her husband were still in the hospital. The crib was set up in the nursery with homemade blankets hanging over the side. There were presents under the tree for the baby-to-be.

Christmas Day that year was gorgeous – crisp and cold with a perfect white blanket of snow. I remember leaving the house to go for a walk through unplowed streets while arrangements were being made with the funeral home. On Christmas Day.

This is a tragic story for so many reasons, but the proximity to Christmas makes the rawness of it all even more palpable. Because pain at Christmas is a special kind of pain.

I love posting about cheerful, uplifting holiday topics. Christmas is a time of great hope and joy, especially for those – like me – who celebrate Jesus’ birth and what that means for the future. Yet it can also be a very difficult season.

For those grieving a loss or struggling with unforeseen challenges, battling anxiety, burdened by past trauma, struggling with physical, financial, or relational tensions, or questioning the future, the pain of life has the potential to overshadow everything else.

So this year, as much as we’re able, let’s aim to be kind, mindful, and a true encouragement to those in our lives who might be struggling. Let’s leave our hearts open to meeting people where they’re at – whether that’s a state of joy or grief. Let’s be willing to acknowledge the pain others may be facing and journey with them.

Hard emotions don’t need to be (shouldn’t be!) wrapped up in fancy paper and bows and stuffed under the tree. We don’t have to say: It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Really and truly it’s okay to say: This is hard or I still grieve the passing of a loved one, or I didn’t expect this reality for my life.

There is no expiration date on grief. There is no prize for saying everything is “fine” when, in reality, the opposite is true.

If you are struggling this Christmas, I pray you find peace and comfort; but, also, I hope you recognize that lament and grief have a place at Christmas, too.

Header photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

November Favourites + Gift Ideas

December has arrived; the final month of 2022. How did this happen?!

But also – Hooray.

I’m excited about twinkle lights and holiday movies. The tree is up. There are peanut butter balls in the freezer (I’ve added my recipe to the bottom of yesterday’s post). This is a special time of year!

The last week has been especially intense (a sick kiddo, some health challenges of my own, a blur of activities, solo parenting and all the normal ups/downs of life), but overall it feels like a good ending to a busy, eventful year.

Last December was dark and grey – literally and figuratively. I recently skimmed a few blog posts from that time and it took a few minutes for me to put it all together. Oh, right. This time last year, we were heading into another lockdown! My parents were able to get across the provincial border for Christmas, but there was quarantining involved at the other end. We weren’t allowed to sing in church on Christmas Eve – everyone was extremely distanced, the services had 10% capacity and the closest we got to congregational participation was everyone having a glow stick to wave while we listened to an instrumental-only version of Silent Night.

COVID is still very much present, but things have opened up dramatically and I’m glad for a cautious return to “normal” activities this year.

On to my favourites from November:

mini naan dippers

Okay, so here’s the scoop on these adorable, delicious pillowy-soft clouds of carbohydrate joy. I was waiting behind a lineup of carts at the grocery store a few months ago when a woman at the front of the line grabbed two bags of these Naan minis. Then the next person grabbed a bag. You know where this is going, right? Without having had ANY plan to buy Naan minis, I thought: There’s gotta be something good going on here – who am I to miss out on the party?

So I bought a bag and – yum. Topped with hummus and some shaved ham they make a delicious lunch. Or, as a snack, I enjoy topping a few with a generous dollop of peanut butter.

Ikea Mala markers

Both kids love to draw/colour/create and I am a huge fan of the IKEA brand markers. The colours are vibrant. They last a long time. The covers snap into place easily but stay on tight. They are the perfect size and shape (slightly thinner than a regular Crayola, but not too thin). This is the basic set – which Levi uses – but there is a much bigger set with more tones that Abby uses. They’re at an excellent price point and I include them regularly with birthday gifts and try to always have a backup set at home. Highly recommend.

festive cheer

Nothing is big and bold and flashy but it feels like the closest thing we’ve had to a normal Christmas since 2019. Here are several things I’m feeling especially grateful for:

  • Putting up our holiday decorations earlier than usual. The last few days have been a bit crazy, and it was so nice to NOT have to think through holiday decor. And, when I did get a chance to escape the whirlwind, I was able to relax in front of a beautiful Christmas tree.
  • The gorgeous greenery and storefront decals in our downtown core (more pictures here). Beautiful, very festive, and free (though I suppose my tax dollars did go toward funding this enormous wreath).
  • Oat Nog. I don’t drink this straight, but have been enjoying a splash in my tea/coffee.

Okay, I kept my November favourites short and sweet so we could have a quick chat about gift ideas for this Christmas.

Christmas gift ideas (from others)

Gift guides are all the rage this time of year, but I had no real inclination to do a fancy collage of linked products. Thankfully there are lovely people around the interwebs who have done some heavy lifting for us; if you’re still looking for gifting inspiration, you might try the following:

  • Colleen did a wonderful round-up post of favourites gift ideas in her family.
  • NGS comes through again; her gift guides are always on point with so many clever, unique ideas!
  • Suzanne has got you covered (from bug vacuums to Mary Oliver sweatshirts to peanut butter and jam sampling collections to remote control tarantulas).
  • Young House Love – the very first blog I ever read and one of my all-time favourites – posts annual guides that are very original and include items at reasonable price points (I find some gift guides have the most outrageous pricing. $180 for a throw pillow? Um, no thanks!)
  • Shay at Mix & Match Mama posts annual gift guides – a lot of them.
  • I’ve found a few great ideas from Chris Loves Julia’s gift guides; they tend to be a much broader range of price points (and they very much fall into the professional “influencer” bracket; as does Mix & Match Mama) but definitely provide lots of fodder.

Christmas gift ideas (from me)

I can’t share what I’m giving people this year because…well, sometimes they visit this site. Stay tuned for a gift recap after Christmas.

But you know how much I love thrifting, so I’m going to upcycle my “gift guides” from last year because they all still ring true as things we love/have gifted/received. If you follow the link below each picture it will take you to last year’s post, which has more details + some bonus ideas:

REPEAT FAV | My Yeti. I use this daily to keep cold water cold. I love my Yeti (I’ve heard incredible things about the Stanley ones as well).

BONUS | Pampered Chef cookie scoops. I now own two in two different sizes and use them constantly. Last week I used the smallest size while making Peanut Butter Balls. I use the medium size for virtually every batch of cookies (1 scoop) and muffins (2 scoops) I make.

REPEAT FAV | Spotify. What a great, no-space-required gift for a music lover in your life. I use Spotify daily. (Wrapped results are in and #1 is Avicii; #2 is Imagine Dragons which represents how our RoadTripBeats Playlist was put on an endless loop).

BONUS | A robovac. Okay, so this is a higher price point gift and, depending on your relationship with your spouse/friend/etc, it could be misconstrued in the wrong way (i.e. here, now you have no excuse not to keep your floors clean). But we love our Eufy enough to have purchased a duplicate (second-hand) for our basement.

REPEAT FAV | The IKEA Sparka Ball. This might be the most-used toy in our house. We own four (this alone should tell you how much I approve of this item)!

BONUS | Wreck This Journal. I highly recommend this book for creative tweens. It’s filled with prompts for “wrecking” the journal. So fun. Things like: cover this page with multi-coloured polka dots, attach red items all over this page. We’ve drawn hearts with glue sticks and then sprinkled cinnamon on a page. We’ve used it as part of a golf game. We’ve dropped it from heights. We’ve taken it outside in the rain. Almost a year later, Abby is STILL using her original Wreck This Journal.

I just bought two for upcoming birthday parties. The blue yoga mat on the floor was aspirational only…sigh.

Thrifting/organization, etc.

Again, why reinvent the wheel? Here are some links to more generic posts on gifting from last year – including thoughts on thrifting at Christmas and general organization.

gifting philosophy

At some point during the 2021 Christmas season, I came up with a little “gifting philosophy” and, if anything, I’m more determined to stick with it this year. Items should:

Most often, less is more. I do end up giving quite a few gifts to John/the kids, because we don’t exchange many gifts throughout the rest of the year (e.g. none for Easter, Valentine’s Day, “grading”). We do exchange presents on birthdays, but these tend to lean toward experiential. So Christmas is the big gifting shebang for us, which can be a tricky balance for a “minimalist.” That said, I still try to make sure all items tick at least some of the boxes in that list above.

Another great idea – which I don’t adhere to specifically – is the plan to buy each family member: something they want, something they need, something to eat, something to read. One of my kids’ teachers swears by this formula!

Okay, that’s enough out of me on the gifting front – I’m sitting on the couch in front of the Christmas tree and it’s time to stop basking in the light of a screen and turn my gaze to the stunning evergreen in my living room.

I’ll be back with more Christmas thoughts and “hacks” throughout the coming weeks.

Your turn. What are your favourite memories/items from November? Any go-to gift suggestions you want to share? If you have a Spotify account, have you looked at #SpotifyWrapped? Any surprising results? Can you remember your favourite Christmas gift from childhood?

Header Photo by Olesia 🇺🇦 Buyar on Unsplash

Feedback Can Be A Long Time Coming

Even though NaBloPoMo is over, I plan to continue my pre-November posting schedule of 5 days/week. I like this posting cadence but realize – especially after the recent volume of content – it might seem like a lot. To anyone feeling a bit weary of consuming and commenting, just pop by when you feel like it. Let’s imagine this space has a big front door, left ajar for you to stop by whenever you’ve got the time. I’ll leave the kettle on…no need to knock.

I was a rather…introverted child. Between living in a rural area, being the baby of the family (by almost a decade), and attending a very small church-based school, I didn’t have many friends – or opportunities to make them.

But through a series of fortunate circumstances, I befriended a girl named Mary – and her two brothers – when I was 8 or 9. We spent countless hours playing together, and I have nothing but fond memories of that time. I moved away when I was in my early teens, but we communicated via letters for years – all the way into my undergraduate degree, when we eventually lost contact.

Ironically enough, Mary connected with me again (I ditched Facebook over 15 years ago!) via this blog. We’ve exchanged a number of wonderful e-mails and it turns out she now lives just a few minutes from my father-in-law; it’s a small world!

In one of her e-mails, Mary told me that she had been going through a box of childhood memorabilia and found old letters from me. I have to admit I have almost no recollection of writing to her, but it certainly fits with my modus operandi. I did write a lengthy Mother’s Day post about letter-writing, after all.

Here’s what she said:

I came across this red duo tang and inside are all the letters, cards, postcards you had written to me. Last night, I went down and dug it out and was reading them. Some from when you were…living in Quebec. I was sitting on the couch just smiling and had so much fun reading through them. Looking at all of the letters and things you wrote to me, I can’t remember if I had written as many to you, but I hope I did! You have such beautiful handwriting (one of those things you appreciate as an adult!) There was nothing more exciting than checking the mailbox and finding a handwritten letter. It makes me miss taking the time to sit down and write a letter to someone in hopes you’ll receive one back.

It has been over 20 years since I sent my last postcard to this friend, yet now – decades later – I’m hearing about their impact. It’s not like they changed her life, but they allowed us to maintain a connection for years after I moved away (in an era before e-mail and texting) and were a catalyst for our reconnection.

Quite regularly John and I end up reflecting on particular people that made an impression on us in our formative years. At the time we weren’t able to provide any tangible feedback, because we couldn’t predict the long-term impacts of their actions and advice. But, looking back, certain people altered the trajectory of our lives.

I suspect we all realize – theoretically at least – that we can be planting seeds now that will bear fruit later. A kind word said in passing to a stranger. The extra help we provide a new colleague so they can flourish in a daunting role. Parenting, of course, is often full of either little (or negative) feedback, but then don’t we all hope that someday our kids come back to us full of positive reflections on their childhood, highlighting specific moments – perhaps long forgotten in our own memories – that helped them grow and mature into capable adults?

We live our lives and we interact and, hopefully, bring joy and light to others. While we don’t typically operate with the expectation we’re making a long-term impact, we very well could be – and the feedback on that impact could be a long time coming.

Your turn. Can you think of a situation when someone has provided you with positive feedback years – maybe even decades – after it took place? Or can you think of someone that has impacted your life in positive ways that might not be aware of just how deeply they influenced your thinking or decisions (if so, you could try writing them a note)?

Header photo by kevin Xue on Unsplash

More Thoughts On the Power of the “Right” Words

This seems like a fitting day to post on the power of the “right” words because my second-born child – and favourite son* – turned eight this morning. And when I was pregnant with Levi, someone said exactly the right words at exactly the right time.

*When I was younger my Mom would often say, “You’re my favourite…youngest daughter.” It always gave me a thrill. To be called favourite anything felt special, so using this designation today honours her diplomatic wording all those years ago.

By way of a quick summary: we received some unsettling test results at our 20-week ultrasound and walked away from the hospital with a 1 in 4 chance our baby was going to be born with an underlying health condition. The whole experience was exhausting and the weight of uncertainty sometimes felt unbearable. When we shared this news with our friends, family, and church community, people rushed to offer sympathy and supportive stories of how they had encountered others in similar experiences where “everything had turned out ‘fine.'” Perhaps, under different circumstances, this would have been the response I needed to hear.

This time it was not.

And then someone I didn’t know very well came to me and simply said: I want you to know that you can call me – any time of the day or night – and I will pray for you.

That’s it. No promise that things would be okay. No story about someone else’s experience.

About a week after Levi was born – healthy – a different friend asked: Tell me how you’re actually feeling about everything that has happened.

I was stunned by this question. Because in the middle of a wave of relief and joy, there were so many other emotions. Guilt over my relief. Sadness over how much time I had spent in worry. Exhaustion from the whole experience. Everyone else in my life – logically – assumed all I felt was relief. But my emotions were extremely chaotic (hello postpartum hormones), and to have someone genuinely interested in plumbing deeper – beyond the situationally “appropriate” feelings – was a powerful experience.

I’ve also written about when a friend told me, in response to my catastrophizing about an inability to breastfeed, that my daughter could “still be a doctor.” Those words were exactly what I needed to hear and tangibly impacted my long-term view of my failed attempts. All of this accomplished in less than 10 words.

I’m not particularly good at finding the right words at the right time. That’s one of the reasons I like to write – I can take time to process and measure my speech to match the posture of my heart.

Also, no doubt we’ve all been wounded – perhaps for life – by unkind words. But the reverse is true, too. The right words can radically impact how we view the world or ourselves.

Finally, Happy Birthday to my sweet boy. Always and forever, my very favourite son.

1 day old
1 year old

Your turn. Do you know someone who has an uncanny ability to find the right things to say to lift a conversation, soothe an emotional wound, or enact change? Can you think of a time when someone has said “just the right thing” when you needed it most?

Header photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Stay Close To People Who Feel Like Sunshine

For years a friend signed her e-mails with the words Love and Sunshine. It was always a delight to see that signature at the end of a note and I’ve thought of her choice of words many times. It left me feeling energized and loved, but it also reflected the fact that this particular friend is like a ray of sunshine!

Sometimes we can’t help but interact with Eeyores. Here’s the point where I’ll raise my hand and admit that sometimes I am the Eeyore. But, when possible, why not make an effort to spend time with people who feel like Love and Sunshine?

Your turn. Do you have a friend or family member who “feels like sunshine”?

Header photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

Sometimes, Everyone Can Be Happy

In our household, emptying the dishwasher is one of Abby’s main responsibilities. There is the expected groaning about it being unfair and just about every day she asks: Didn’t I just empty this dishwasher yesterday? Yes…yes you did empty it yesterday; I also laundered your clothes yesterday and the day before that and the day before that…for the last 11.5 years.

Yesterday’s chores needing to be repeated again today is one of the unsettling realities of life.

While dishwasher duty is officially “her” job, I often come alongside and help. There are some dishes that are hard for her to put away on higher shelves and, well, teamwork expedites the process and makes it more enjoyable!

I always used to think I hated emptying the dishwasher (which is one of the reasons I delegated this chore to one of my children; there are perks to being an adult), but have come to realize I only hate emptying the cutlery. I would rather scrub a dozen toilets than put away clean cutlery. I truly loathe dealing with forks and knives – though I’m not sure why.

Abby happens to enjoy doing the cutlery. (Okay, enjoy might be a stretch; how about tolerates without complaining.) On the mornings when I help with the emptying process, I cheerfully stack plates and put away mugs while she tends to the spatulas and spoons. And it always feels like a win-win.

Your turn. Do you ever break down a task into subparts and divvy out portions of responsibility based on different personal preferences?

P.S. This topic reminds me of my favourite scene from Two Weeks Notice (Sandra Bullock/Hugh Grant) where the main characters – without even speaking about their actions – mechanically exchange different ingredients in their salad until they end up perfectly happy with their meal. She takes his sprouts, he picks through her salad for chunks of beet. The whole time this food exchange is going on, the characters are discussing other topics. They know each other so well, the behaviours are automatic. Every time I watch this movie, this scene stands out as such a tender reminder of how familiarity (and counterbalancing a partner’s likes/dislikes) can be a powerful demonstration of love.

Header photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

What Makes You Feel Special?

It’s interesting what things can spark the feeling of being special. Weeks ago I was visiting a friend – of Soup and Sandwich fame – and when I went to use the washroom I stopped to appreciate the guest towel.

Every time I visit she leaves a perfectly folded towel on the edge of the sink for me. It has a little palm tree on it and seeing it there waiting for me to dry my hands always makes me smile. Imagine – someone took the time to put out a special towel just for my benefit! It’s a small gesture in the grand scheme of things, but it never fails to make me feel special.

Your turn. Can you think of a seemingly insignificant item/action that makes you feel special?

Header photo by Diana Light on Unsplash

Celebrating Little Victories

About a month ago I enjoyed two different small – but exciting – “victories”. On both occasions I was out of the house when I received the news and both times I immediately (and gleefully) texted John who responded enthusiastically and joined me in celebration. One reply included a “Woot woot!!” with double exclamation marks.

I could have easily acknowledged these little tidbits and moved on with my day. My “successes” were almost embarrassingly insignificant, but I was excited, so why not amplify my joy in the moment by sharing the news, while also framing it as a cause for celebration?

I have no problem exaggerating the weight of negative things in life, so why not disproportionately celebrate the good, too?

So three cheers for the little things – because victories come in all shapes and sizes.

Your turn. Do you make a point of celebrating little victories? Does any specific event come to mind?

Header photo by Brenna Huff on Unsplash