Saturday, December 12, 2009

Can't Wait 'til Christmas, or Can't Wait 'til It's Over?

A few nights ago we watched the movie "Christmas Every Day" in which a little girl makes a wish that every day would be Christmas, much to the chagrin of her big brother, Billy. But if Billy thought he had it rough reliving Christmas day after day, what about parents?

As a child, the words I associated with the holidays were "festive," "bright," "joyful," "merry," "gay" (meaning joyful, glad, cheerful), "fun" and other positive words. Today, more often than not, Christmas is described with less positive adjectives: "hectic," "harrowing" (especially if your're in heavy traffic on snowy roads or in a crowd all trying to grab the last of this year's hot ticket item), "exhausting," "chaotic," and "over-commercialized." We've gone from "Can't wait 'til Christmas" to "Can't wait 'til it's over." And I began thinking about how Christmas is different for children than it is for adults, and why we look back with fond memories while dreading the present holiday season. Even those of us who love Christmas wouldn't want it every day of the year.

As children, we reap all the benefits without having to do any of the work. We build snowmen, go sledding and ice skating, build snow forts and have snowball fights, write letters to Santa, and sit on Santa's knee at the store telling him all the wonderful things we want him to bring us. We color holiday pictures, sing carols, and watch Christmas programs on TV. In short, we get to do the fun stuff. Meanwhile, what are our parents doing?

While we're out playing, our mothers slave over a hot stove baking special holiday goodies, buy and wrap gifts, disrupt an otherwise orderly household to make room for holiday decorations, address/lick/stamp countless cards, then cart those cards and packages for out of town friends and relatives to the post office where they wait in long, slow lines, often with cranky, tired children in tow. Then they must take those same cranky, tired children to see Santa, read them holiday stories, help them make or address their own Christmas cards, put up countless holiday pictures brought home from school, buy gifts for teachers, bake cookies for school parties, make costumes and coach lines for plays and pageants, then attend those plays, pageants, and concerts, too.

Mothers and fathers wrestle Christmas trees into stands, untangle and string lights only to discover--after the tree is all decorated--that some have burned out and need replacing, guide young hands in helping to decorate the tree, pretending not to care when old, treasured ornaments are dropped and broken, and turn a blind eye when the tree looks more messy than festive. Then, on Christmas Eve, they struggle to get excited children to sleep who are determined to stay awake to spy on Santa. By the time they have cleaned the house, finished the baking, wrapped the gifts and put them under the tree, stuffed the stockings, and climbed into bed long after midnight, parents are exhausted.

Then, often before the sun is up, the children are screaming, "He came! Santa came!" and heavy eyelids are pried open, smiles and bathrobes are put on, and parents try to oversee the opening of gifts, making sure one doesn't open another's toy, and refereeing when there are disputes over ownership or someone doesn't want to share. While children set off to play and fathers retreat to read the paper, mothers clean up the discarded wrapping paper and ribbons, put the room back in some semblance of order, then report to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. Depending on the ages of the children, they help kids get dressed for the day, then back to the kitchen to prepare dinner and ready the house for guests. Setting the table, serving the meal, clearing the table, doing the dishes, and, if there are no visitors, perhaps finally getting a chance to sit down and relax for a minute. If there are guests, however, relaxation yields to conversation and seeing that visitors are entertained. Then the dinner process is repeated at supper time, the house has to be straightened up before bed, and by the time the children are settled for the night and company has gone home, mothers finally fall into bed, the day a total blur, thinking about the thank you notes they will have to write not only for themselves, but for each of their children--or at least oversee the writing of the children's thank you notes. That means more writing/sealing/stamping, and another trip to the post office. And then there are the trips to various stores to exchange things that are the wrong size, wrong style, or just plain wrong.

In some homes, the tree comes down Christmas Day, in some it stays up until New Year's Day, and in others until Twelfth Night (Epiphany). But at some point, the tree has to come down, and it is usually the mothers who have to remove and pack away the ornaments and lights, and help the father wrestle the tree out of the stand and out of the house for pickup by the sanitation department. Is it any wonder that parents are glad Christmas comes only once a year? And why do they go through all of this? So they can make wonderful memories for their own children to remember and cherish when they are grown.

Now that I'm getting older, I understand why my mother down-sized Christmas in later years. I, too, find the refrain "simplify, simplify" playing in my mind. Sometimes we have to minimize the work of Christmas in order to preserve the wonder of Christmas. After all, it's not the presents we need every day, but the presence--the spirit of Christmas that reaches out to others in selfless giving, stands up for those who are oppressed, and recognizes our common bond with our fellow man. If you have to cut back a bit in order to enjoy the season, isn't it better to downsize some of the trappings so you can perhaps rekindle some of that excitement and joy you had as a child?

Next time: Suggestions for Simplifying the Holidays

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Happy Birthday, Miss Emily!

Unlike many modern-day celebrities, Emily Dickinson fervently avoided the spotlight. Born in Amherst, Ma, in 1830, she lived a reclusive life, rarely seeing anyone face-to-face once she had left school and returned home to care for her mother, who suffered from chronic illness.

Her shyness extended to the point that she would listen, out of sight, after inviting a friend over to play music for her. Although she appears to have fallen in love several times during her life, she never married. Her eccentricities included dressing all in white, using unconventional punctuation and phrasing in her poems and letters, and writing letters even to those who lived nearby, such as her sister-in-law who lived just next door, rather than engaging in conversation in person.

During her lifetime, less than a dozen of her poems were pubished. Fortunately, her sister Lavinia and a couple of friends edited the rest of her poems and published them posthumously.

To read more about her life and how her work was preserved, go to

In honor of Emily Dickinson's birthday today, I thought I'd share with you one of my favorite poems by this American poet and fellow New Englander.

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody,
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
--Emily Dickinson

Some other writers and poets born in December:

Joyce Kilmer - poet Dec. 6, 1886
James Thurber - humorist - Dec. 8, 1894
John Milton - poet - Dec. 9, 1608
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - novelist - Dec. 11, 1918
Harriet Monroe - poet - Dec. 23, 1860
Robert Bly - author - Dec. 23, 1926
Mary Higgins Clark - author - Dec. 24, 1931
Rudyard Kipling - writer - Dec. 30, 1865

If you have a favorite Dickinson poem, please share it in the comments section.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lessons for the Living, Gifts for the Dying

Advent is a time when we think of birth and beginnings, stars and shepherds, decorations and Christmas carols, trees and gifts. But, sometimes, illness and death are a part of the holidays, as well. Just before Thanksgiving my son-in-law's family experienced the loss of two family members within a week of each other: one, the sudden, unexpected death of a beloved uncle; the other, the natural culmination of the long life of a grandmother. They are fortunate in that they have a large, close-knit family who know how to come together in difficult times for mutual comfort and support.

Others are not so lucky. In our culture we try to distance ourselves from death. We closet it away in hospitals and nursing homes, couch it in euphemisms, and sanitize it so we can put thoughts of our own mortality out of our minds instead of recognizing it as a normal, sometimes even welcome, part of life. So, as we think about giving, what can we give to the dying, and what can we learn from them?

Today, I would like to introduce you to someone who transformed his own personal experience of a cancer diagnosis, and the attendant fear and grieving, into a means of helping others, and, in the process, learned some valuable lessons which he is now sharing through his new book and a series of videos. I met Stan recently through Facebook, and now, I'd like you to meet him, too.

Stan Goldberg is a Professor Emeritus of Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University. He has published six books and numerous articles dealing with loss and end of life issues. His latest book is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life. The MyShelf book reviewer says "it is a book to change the way you'll live the rest of your life."

Stan is also a regular columnist on,, and the Hospice Volunteer Association's quarterly magazine. Other articles also appear on his website: He consults on issues of change and leads workshops for adults whose lives were suddenly and dramatically changed. He has been a bedside hospice volunteer for seven years and currently serves with Pathways Home Health Care and Hospice. He is the 2009 Hospice Volunteer Association's Volunteer of the Year.

When Stan was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer, instead of giving up or giving in to self-pity, he decided to learn about dying from those who were experiencing it by facing his fear and becoming a hospice volunteer. Being with, caring for, and listening to those at the end of life taught him much more than how to die--it changed how he viewed not only death, but life. In Lessons for the Living he shares some of those stories and lessons with the rest of us and, in so doing, reminds us that death is as natural as birth, and by understanding it and allowing it to be our teacher, our remaining time on earth can be transformed into a more joyful, meaningful experience.

In addition to his book, Stan has just added a series of twelve videos called "Helping Loved Ones Die," which you can access through his website or by going directly to YouTube at In this series, Stan offers specific ways to make a loved one's last days and moments more comfortable and more meaningful so they can have closure and be at peace. I can think of no better gift to give them than that.

For more information about Stan, his books and articles, and to read an excerpt from the book, go to his website: His book is also available on Amazon and other outlets.