Twisting Traditions

Living alone in his final years, my father developed a soft spot for Hallmark Christmas movies. From Thanksgiving through early January his television choices were predictable: football any time a game was broadcast, morning news on NBC, midday news on a local show, Hallmark Christmas movies from dinner to the FOX nightly news.

He knew every plot twist and how the pretty young woman and handsome young man would find a future together. He probably didn’t discuss Hallmark movies with his dining room buddies, but he and I talked about them. We shared the inability to remember the names of characters or their imaginary hometowns, but we could connect on parts of the shows that reminded us of times in our past. We had different memories about my reception to Santa riding through Luxemburg, WI on Christmas Eve. He would laugh about my dismay when ordered to hand over my babysitting money to my brother who decided December 23rd that he had to drive from Milwaukee to Philadelphia to be with the woman who would become his first wife. We treasured the wonder of having a newborn under the Christmas tree.

Every year holiday traditions twist apart a bit. A month ago I wasn’t ready to think about Christmas. I don’t track each evolution, but changes are noted. Some are mourned. Some are a released with relief like producing multiple fancy meals while wearing dressy clothes, make-up and heels for example. Or the discomfort of sitting on folding chairs in the grade school’s basement to watch Christmas services on a large screen, when it is easier to stay home and watch a televised version.

The pandemic is shaking traditions out of the holidays faster than a cat knocking ornaments out of a decorated Christmas tree. Economic hardships make generous gifting feel off. Hunger in the community demands assistance. Uncertainty has crawled into of all our minds and souls.

My father’s example has helped in thinking through 2020 holidays. He could have been morose about losing his wife and son. He could have been clingy. His memories of sitting at the head of the holiday dinner table with children and grandchildren could have overshadowed the simplicity of a small tree in his apartment and a side seat at our table. He found other ways to mark the season– contributing more to favorite nonprofits, listening to seasonal music, wearing holiday socks, relishing when we crowded together to cheer on the Packers, and watching Hallmark Christmas movies. 

A change noted: We don’t always know the lessons taught until after the teacher has left. 

In memory of Roman Frisque: January 21, 1927 – December 26, 2012

Holiday Wishes

This year’s Thanksgiving turkey is in the freezer. Ten pounds will be too much for two of us, but that’s no big deal. The big deal is that the United States is approaching a quarter of a million COVID deaths. Three friends move into the holiday season without their fathers who died of COVID. The world keeps spinning and for every family in mourning, there are others marking other happy events. Both those grieving and those celebrating share this very different international holiday season. 

Letting go of every tradition helped our family clearly think about Thanksgiving. Tentatively we’ll celebrate by putting up outdoor Christmas decorations together. Masked and socially distant, the hour we spend hanging lights and garland will make the day special. And we’ll prepare Thanksgiving favorite foods to send home for our meals shared later on Zoom. Notice the word tentatively– the weather could make being outside horrible or the pandemic could become more dangerous. This is 2020. Many surprises are not happy. We’re not talking about Christmas yet. One week at a time feels like the safest planning cycle.

Our parents and grandparents spent holiday seasons physically separated by war. Somewhere family members passed the holiday in danger. Military families today may face the same emotions plus deal with COVID’s impact. Working on 40 Thieves on Saipan made that separation more real to me than stories I heard as a child. For the majority of us, accepting the pandemic as an international public health war equals distance holidays for 2020..

One in three Americans say they will pass on this year’s holidays. But for those who do plan to do something special, now is the time to start thinking about how. Turkeys should be in grocery stores soon although small birds could be scarce. Good news is that butter is less expensive. There’s time to bake, send treats, and to remember those who may be struggling.

Here’s hoping the 2020 holiday wishes you hold come true. But mostly, here’s hoping you and yours stay healthy and safe. Whether your special people are around a common table or visible on a screen, those of us fortunate to be within the sound of their voices are thankful. 

The World of Holiday Greetings Has Changed

For the last several years, a friend and I have gotten together every December to address Christmas cards and catch up over tea. She still writes at least two dozen, while my output has dwindled to less than 10.

I used to love Christmas cards. I tended to indulge in the expensive ones printed on high quality paper, the ones with artistic designs or humorous sentiments. Sometimes I bogged down with signing them and getting them to the Post Office, but I always got them out before New Year’s.

While doing business as Ellen Shriner Communications, I began handcrafting holiday cards to send to ad agency and marketing clients. Instead of dropping off clever client gifts or food treats (a common practice in the communications world), I made a charitable donation in my clients’ honor and hoped the cards would remind clients about my creative work. I also sent the cards to close family and friends.

Every year, I wandered the aisles of the now-defunct Paper Depot and let the stamps, vellums, fine cotton card stock, and gorgeous imported papers inspire me. For a month, I holed up in my office planning, writing, printing, cutting, gluing, and assembling 50-60 cards. Many years, I made several versions because I was attracted to multiple ideas, and it was fun to experiment.

The card with red ribbon involved dried flowers from my garden. For the one on the far right, I drew ornaments in watercolor. For the one in the center, I hand cut starbursts with an Exacto knife so the gold vellum would show through.

By the end of 2010, I was winding down my business and had accepted a hospital marketing job. I could have continued making the cards for family and friends, but handcrafting cards no longer gave me as much pleasure, and the world of holiday greetings had changed.

For many people, sending Christmas cards had become just one more thing on a long To Do list. Friends and family were relieved to let go of the tradition. Often the cards I received seemed to be guilt-induced (Dang! She sent me one. Now I need to reciprocate), and I didn’t want to cause that discomfort.

For me, Christmas cards had been a way to stay connected with out-of-town family or friends I rarely saw. Often the cards summed up how the year had gone, and that ritual reflection felt worthwhile.

Now a yearly missive is less important. Calling is so cheap and immediate that the most important people in my life already know what’s going on. As a writer, I’m at the keyboard most days and can dash off a quick email to friends. Social media has made it easy to stay in touch with an extended group of people.

Maybe one day I’ll rediscover the creative fun of playing with fine papers, glue, and an Exacto knife. But this year, I’ll sign a few store-bought cards and write a handful of personal notes. Of course, nothing replaces visiting in person, especially over a cup of tea!

To all of our blog readers: the WordSisters send lots of affection and appreciation for our connection. Happy Holidays!

Company of Strangers

Bell ringers, crowded parking lots, a too-warm coat in a too-warm store waiting in line to pay, missing a gift box, losing a gift receipt. Bright lights and glittering messages of sales and making others happy. A barrage of noise and pressure camouflage what was once Christmas. Thanksgiving’s turkey barely forgotten and three weeks of hurry up to run.

Away from the malls, eight school choir members dressed in the winter jacket and hat uniform of kids their age line Fish Creek’s historic Alexander Noble House’s porch while dozens of friends, family, strangers, holiday lovers gather on the walkways. Young boys kick apart snow chunks along sides of the gathering. Flashing Christmas lights hang around the necks of middle-age women. Babies watch from cocoons of blankets and scarves. Couples relax within each other’s arms or stand side-by-side exchanging private looks of contentment.

Candle flames flicker in a playful breeze, burning holes in plastic cup that offer minimal wind protection. Most stay lit for the community Christmas caroling led by a choir director’s strong tenor. Everyone beyond the age of teenage angst sings. Confidence is found in the company of strangers on a mild December evening waiting for lighting of a tree maybe twelve feet tall. Choir members stand absolutely still, sway on booted feet, move from one foot to another as the crowd owns old songs, contemporary songs, religious songs. The night could go on longer as people unconsciously edge closer to each other.

The temporary community chorale doesn’t need a soaring Rockefeller Center tree to proclaim Christmas. When the switch flips and hundreds of white lights sparkle, the moment becomes special. People clap. Some call out Merry Christmas. The tree festivities end without a pitch for funds or a speech by the someone with a title, just the exchanging of holiday wishes as blown out candles return to a box.

Happy holidays to all of you. May you find times of comfort and peace in the coming weeks and all of 2020.

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