Posts tagged: holiday
Over the years, what I thought of as the perfect Christmas has changed. When I was a child, it was what I found under the tree on Christmas morning that mattered most. Did Santa bring the bicycle I wanted? The doll I’d set my heart on?
When my own children came along, my focus shifted to making magic for them. The house sparkled and the stockings were always full. I measured my success in their delight with the hard-to-find toy they’d ask for and received.
Of course, as they grew up, and as I grew older, our traditions took on more importance and the gifts became less important than the structure of the day. The food we ate, the familiar decorations on the tree, the routine we’ve developed after decades of holidays together was what mattered most to all of us.
I’ve been thinking about that this year because in many ways it feels like this was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever known. And in many ways it has been the simplest.
Just a few weeks ago, all of my children gathered, making their way home to be together for Thanksgiving. In early December, I was able to spend precious time with my sister and my brother, the two people in the world I’ve loved the longest, and we were grateful for the chance to be together again. We picked up lost threads and talked about the people and places that make up our shared history. We said goodbye with tears in our eyes.
My children all came back home for Christmas and the house has been full of laughter and love, the happy chaos all the better for the presence of a clumsy puppy and the grandchild that delights us all.
My son and daughters cooked and wrapped gifts and teased one another, laughing over the photos in old albums, remembering the best of the years.
As Christmas holidays go, this has been the simplest. The tree was smaller and there were fewer gifts under it—we all wanted little and needed even less—and yet it has been one of the most wonderful I’ve ever known.
I have no idea what the new year will bring. None of us ever does. But I do know that as this year ends and the new year dawns, I’ve already been given more than I could have hoped for.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” (available at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
More than 20 years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop with friends. We were all young mothers enjoying a morning away from the children and we were talking about the encroachment of Christmas on Thanksgiving. It was getting worse, we all agreed. Someone pointed out the toy ads had started arriving in mid-November!
I said I thought that one day in the not-too-distant future, Thanksgiving would lose its place and become a feast day in the middle of a Christmas holiday season that would run from November to (maybe through) January. Everyone just rolled their eyes. Trust the writer to exagerate.
I hadn’t thought about that conversation in a long time. But this year when the candy canes were out before the Halloween candy in some places, and pop radio stations started playing Christmas music November 1st, I remembered what I said that day. I think I was right.
I suppose it is to be expected. There is a lot of money to be made at Christmas time and the longer the shopping season goes the more chances there are to sell and buy. (Of course, when times are hard it takes even more time to talk people into buying what they don’t need and can’t afford, and for a lot of people in this country right now times are very hard.) And because Christmas is a happy time of year—even when the cheer is forced— it’s human nature to want to extend a good time as long as possible.
A day of Thanksgiving is just too simple, I guess. There are no gifts, no lighted outdoor decorations, no Thanksgiving carols. All that is expected of us is to gather, sit, break bread and be grateful for the opportunity to do those things. Turkey-growers excepted, where’s the financial profit in that?
So, here it is, Thanksgiving Day, the fourth Thursday in November. This will be a busy day. All across the country, people will take time out of their busy Christmas preparations to feast and say thanks. And then they’ll push away from the table and get back to work. Those gifts aren’t going to buy and wrap themselves.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard each week Spokane Public Radio. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at email@example.com
We were fortunate again this year, the whole family was together for Christmas. We gathered, exchanged gifts, caught up on one another’s lives and enjoyed one another’s company. And we ate. We ate a lot.
When we weren’t sitting down to our traditional Christmas dinner, we were snacking on things I’d gathered on my travels and brought home to share with my family. That’s come to be one of my travel traditions and now wherever I go I spend time looking for goodies to bring home with me.
This year, while playing board games or working on a jigsaw puzzle we opened a can of Virginia peanuts that traveled back from Roanoke tucked into a corner of my suitcase.
We made pots of good Door County Coffee & Tea Company coffee and nibbled peanut brittle from Silver Dollar City in Branson Missouri.
I passed around a can of delicate and delicious Clear River pecan pralines I bought in Fredericksburg, Texas and hand-carried home. And we cracked pecans I gathered from where they’d fallen from the trees around the same city.
I spread tart cherry jam from, also from Door County, Wisconsin, on our toast at breakfast. In the afternoon I sliced a block of Wisconsin's Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese to go with the bottle of crisp white wine I brought back from Rhine River valley in Germany.
One night I made a big pot of chili and seasoned it with heritage chili pepper powder I bought at the Chili Pepper Institute in Los Cruces, New Mexico. I made a batch of brownies with brownie mix spiced with the same chilis.
We warmed up with mugs of hot buttered rum, savoring the bottle of Koloa rum I picked up in Kauai and saved especially for this holiday season.
This is the time of my life when I can travel freely and I don’t take it for granted because I know that could change at any time. My children are mostly grown and my work takes me around the world. I can’t always take them with me, but I can bring the world back to the ones I love and share it with them one delicious bite at a time.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
The mantel is done, dressed with billows of fluffy artificial snow and a forest of tiny white flocked trees and candles, so I open the next box and pull out the family Christmas stockings.
As I slip the small loop at the end of each stocking over the hook under the mantle top, I think about the child, now an adult, who will take it down on Christmas morning.
Every moment of the day will be scripted by tradition. First, those who spent the night will stumble and stretch as they walk into the living room, sleepy, with the deliberate nonchalance of someone who cares deeply but doesn’t want it to show. The back door will open and one by one the rest will file in. Their eyes straying to the tree and the wrapped packages below it.
Pots of coffee will be made, the dogs will be underfoot until someone finally puts them outside. Comfortable chairs and corners will be claimed and when everyone is assembled the ceremony of Christmas morning will begin.
First, the “Santa” gifts. The toys, things they can share and enjoy—what used to be bicycles and Barbies and model trains but are now video games or family board games—will be opened. This used to be the big event of the day but now it’s more of a nod to tradition. Nobody in the house lies in the dark counting the minutes and hours until morning. Nobody is waiting and wondering, believing in magic. Nobody races to the tree. But Santa still comes, leaving one or two special gifts for the child inside every adult in the room.
Next, is breakfast. “Dad” always makes a big casserole we eat only on Christmas morning and the kids look forward to it each year.
After breakfast come the stockings. Everyone takes their stocking to their own corner or chair and they pull out one treat after another and admire it, taste or share it. The room is full of voices and the lingering fragrance of sausage and cheese and eggs.
Then, for a while the house will be quiet. They will wander back to bed, off to watch a movie or upstairs to play the new game. My daughter and son-in-law will leave to spend a few hours at their own home. This year the new baby will need a nap.
In the afternoon the Prime Rib will go in and just as the sun goes down we will gather around the table again. Then, after dessert, we’ll sit around the tree and exchange our gifts to one another, taking turns so that everyone has a chance to open each gift slowly and savor the moment.
And with that, the long day will be over. After our goodbyes I will walk through the house turning out lights, picking up stray ribbons and bows and folding empty boxes. I will stand in the dark room, lit only by the tiny lights on the tree, and my throat will tighten with tears because one more family gathering has come and gone and I still can’t say I appreciated it enough.
All this goes through my mind as I decorate the house, as I open each box and carefully hang each each empty stocking with tender, loving, care.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons. She can be reached at email@example.com
(Photo by R. B. Millsap)
One night, on my first trip to Germany during the month of December, hungry and still a little jetlagged from the flight, I walked into a tiny restaurant in a residential district near the center of Munich. I opened the door and then, dazzled by what I saw, stopped to take it all in.
A forest of dozens of small, elaborately decorated Christmas trees were hanging upside down from the ceiling of the room. I’d never seen anything like it before. Beautifully-wrapped packages of all sizes were stacked on windowsills, strung like ornaments on garlands of ribbon and greenery, and piled into corners. Evergreen boughs, woven with tiny white lights that glowed in the fresh snowfall outdoors and were reflected in the mirror over the bar, trimmed every door and window.
The intimate neighborhood eatery was filled with locals enjoying a big plate of schnitzel or wurst and crowded with friends who’d stopped by for an after-work drink. I felt as though I’d walked into a scene from an ornate Victorian picture-book, but I quickly realized the over-the-top decor was no show for tourists. It was just a perfectly fine example of the way Germany dresses up for the holiday season.
Anyone who has ever spent time at one of Germany’s Advent or Christkindlmarkts can relate. It’s the same kind of over-the-top feeling. Strolling down the rows of wood huts, most strung with white lights and wrapped in garland and decorations, it’s easy to feel you’ve stepped back in time.
Most markets are held in the traditional market square or city center. Surrounded by beautiful architecture, the air is filled with the sweet and spicy scents of sausages, pastries, potato pancakes and warm candied almonds and other nuts. Shoppers crowd around booths buying gifts of handmade wood toys, knitted items, ornamental gingerbread and hand-carved wood figures for the family creche. And the Glühwein stands are the most popular by far, with friends gathering to enjoy a mug of the hot, spiced and fortified wine that is so much a part of Germany’s holiday season.
Each market has a distinctive feel. The walled city of Nuremberg is famous for its red and white striped market canopies. The Munich “manger” market is where families come each year to select hand-carved pieces for the creche displayed every Christmas season. And the sprawling, busy, Frankfurt market stretches from the old city center to the river, highlighting both the history and contemporary culture of the vibrant city. The beautiful market in Cologne is consistantly voted one of the most popular.
If you have the time and want to explore Germany at a more leisurely pace, consider booking a Rhine River cruise. With frequent stops at villages between Frankfurt, Germany and Basel, Switzerland, a December river cruise down the Rhine River gives you a trouble-free way to enjoy the scenery as you cruise past ancient castles, beautiful and productive vineyards, old fortifications and picturesque villages. Each day brings a new opportunity to explore holiday markets in towns along the river, each with its own flavor and vibe, without the crush of peak-season tourists. Small-ship cruising combines the best of cruising—fine dining, comfortable staterooms and leisurely travel—but most river cruise ships carry fewer than 200 passengers so one never feels lost in the crowd.
No place is as beautiful as Germany this time of year. Every year when I hang the wreaths and decorate the tree I think back to that small but beautifully and exhuberantly decorated restaurant on a quiet street in a very busy city. And I'm always inspired to do just a bit more.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington, whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I hope that when you opened your eyes this morning—no, even before you opened them, even earlier than that—I hope that when you first found yourself swimming into morning light and out of whatever dreams you’d been having, somewhere in your mind there rang out the words Christmas Morning! And for a moment or two you were a child again, thrilled by mystery, consumed by possibility.
As an adult, I know that doesn’t always happen.
It’s so easy to lose the holiday spirit when all you can think about is the fact that you’re the one who is responsible for making the magic. That you’re the one who shops and wraps and cooks and cleans and plans and then makes new plans when the old plans fall through. It’s easy to lose the joy and let any happiness you might find in a song on the radio or a kiss under the Mistletoe slip through your fingers when you are already looking ahead to Visa bills and taking down the tree and packing away the decorations and standing in line to return gifts.
This time of year, the darkest part of the year, is laden—some might say booby-trapped—with reminders. There is the dragging weight of all the invisible holiday baggage each of us carries. Nothing is safe. Food, music, celebrations and even movies and books come wrapped in memory and association. Some pleasant, some not so pleasant. And, to add to the fun, for those with young children, there is the suffocating parental pressure of creating the mythical perfect holiday; the self-imposed quest of taking on the impossible task of sending our children into the world without the legacy, the thousand little failures, of an imperfect parent. Good luck with that.
So much of the stuff of life is out of our hands. Forget holidays, on any day the big things, war, weather, economic turmoil, toxic bosses, family issues, bad fortune and lousy luck, are beyond our control. But the one thing we can choose is how we will face each day in world that perplexes and frequently exhausts us. Even the weariest among us can, if we so choose, celebrate the gifts of sleepy eyes that open on a dark December morning and a childlike heart that unfolds to let the spirit in, and with it the mystery and the possibility of another Christmas Day.
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
We sat quietly in the car as I drove across town, the road-grimed headlights piercing the twilight ahead of us. I didn’t even think to turn on the radio. It was only 4 o’clock but it felt much later. I had a sense of being displaced; even the familiar route looked strange and suddenly unfamiliar in the indigo light of the late afternoon. For a moment I felt as though I’d lost my way, before the eerie feeling faded and I was back on track.
The effect of the early darkness and the warmth of the car after the sharp and biting wind outside, silenced us and we kept our thoughts to ourselves as I steered over slushy streets. The sky, pregnant and heavy with the wet snow that would fall later in the evening, hung over us as dull and gray as lead.
December, especially in this northwestern corner of the country, is the darkest time of the year. The sun can hide for days, giving at best only a weak and watery light, rising late and setting early. Little surprise then that decorations go up early and stay up long after the holiday. We are starved for the light.
Still thinking about this, I am struck by the feeling of comfort that washes over me as I turn into my driveway. Light shines warmly through the front windows and I know that once I am inside I will be surrounded by the familiar smells and sounds of home: Dinner in the oven. Music. The sound of boots being kicked off and footsteps on the stairs. The bother of the cat and dogs under my feet, hoping for treats in the shopping bags I am carrying.
So many aspects of the holiday season are centered around images of home. Candles in the windows. Lights on the tree. The Welcome mat. A wreath on the door. A fire in the fireplace. A glass of cheer once you’re in the door. A shared meal. An embrace. Winter isolates us, changes even the most familiar landscape, blanketing us with snow and silence and darkness. No wonder we sing and celebrate and gather. No wonder we act on an ancient impulse to dress up and dance and make noise to keep the wolves of winter at bay.
We may have evolved, but somewhere deep inside each of us beats the heart of a cave-dweller who wants nothing more than safe shelter and the comforting light of the fire.
We are still lost in the dark until we’re home.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
This is a repost of one of my favorite columns. I recorded it for Spokane Public Radio several years ago and it is available on Public Radio Exchange. This year, the audio essay was broadcast by Delta College Public Radio in Michigan.
November 22, 2004
Giving her thanks for a gift of insight
When I was a girl, an old blind woman lived in the faded white house with peeling clapboards and a shaded, vine–covered porch, next door to me. Mrs. Miller was small and wiry, and very old. Her thin white hair was always pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck.
She lived with a little Chihuahua named Rocky – a strange and exotic pet at the time. The dog was ancient, barely able to walk on his thin matchstick legs and he, too, was almost blind.
Sometimes, Mrs. Miller’s son, John, lived with them. John was a loud and angry man who worked nights – when he worked – and either slept or watched game shows on the television all day. John drank. And when he was drunk, he wasn’t very nice to his mother.
I was afraid of that house and everyone in it. To me, the old woman was a person of shadows, living a dark and shuttered life. John, whose angry voice I could hear through the closed windows, frightened me and I was wary of the odd little dog.
Occasionally, when John wasn’t home, my grandmother would send me over with a baked sweet potato, a couple of ripe tomatoes or a slice of homemade pie. I would knock on the back door and listen to her shuffling through rooms, calling out to me in a thin, rough, voice. Rocky would totter across the linoleum floor, coughing out a dry, raspy, bark.
As quickly as I could, I would leave the food on the kitchen table – the sticky oilcloth–covered surface crowded with salt and peppershakers, paper napkins and bottles of hot sauce and pickled peppers – and run back out into the sunlight.
One Thanksgiving Day, my grandmother asked me to take a meal next door. I drooped, but I knew better than to argue.
I carried the plate, piled with turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans and ruby–red spiced apple rings across my back yard. I walked up the bank and past the little grove of plum trees to her back door, and knocked.
“Mrs. Miller,” I called. “I brought you some Thanksgiving dinner.”
I listened to her slow, painful, progress through the cluttered rooms. I imagined her reaching out for familiar doorways, feeling the edges of the furniture with bent and arthritic fingers. When she finally opened the back door, I thrust the plate at her, anxious to deliver it and leave.
But she didn’t take it. Instead, she put her face down to the steaming plate of food and inhaled deeply, breathing in the warm fragrance.
“Oh, Lord,” the old woman said. “That’s good.”
And she didn’t move. She just stood there, lost in thought. Finally, as soon as she stepped aside, I set the plate down on the table and ran home.
Just today, when I thought about what we will have for our Thanksgiving dinner, and my mind remembered, and replayed for me the taste of roast turkey and cornbread dressing, I recalled that day so long ago.
Thinking about it now, I understand that at that moment the old woman and I traded places.
I was blind to everything but my desire to run away, but for an instant Mrs. Miller could see. Through clouded eyes, she looked back at other Thanksgivings, long gone. Happy days before she was old and blind, and trapped in a dark house with an angry son.
In the years since that November day, when the trace of a scent or the sound of a voice leaves me gazing at ghosts, I’ve learned that time gives back as much as it takes away.
And for that, like the old woman, I’m grateful.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org