Simple Holidays for Complicated People
December should be a time of peace and joy, but it isn't just the horrible massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School that makes this holiday feel so fractured and harried right now.
We're all busier than we want to be, less focused than we need to be -- about what matters. Christmas and New Year's should be a time to realign ourselves and dig deep to our core beliefs. What do we need? Who are we?
I started slowing down my holiday a few years ago, when I came down with food poisoning one Christmas Eve. I was too busy throwing up on Christmas morning to enjoy it, and felt like I missed the holiday. One vow I made was to celebrate in small daily ways in the weeks leading up to Christmas. At the end of every day, no matter how hassled, we all sit down and contemplate our wondrous tree. Every ornament, every branch, tells a story about us. We turn out all the lights except those on the tree, and sit comfortably on sofas and chairs while we appreciate and discuss what we see. We've come to call it our "tree sit," and it's an oasis of quiet closeness even my teenage son appreciates.
The thing is, when people try to create new traditions, they sometimes reach for excess, believing that if they pile on enough decorations, music, food and activities, their time together will feel special. But in today's multi-tasking times, what really feels special is single-tasking, stripping away glitter and glare, sugar and spirits, to steep ourselves in bald, shocking silence. We need to let go of our Tweeting monkey-minds and exhale. When I look back to my many years of church youth events growing up, I can't recall a single outing or Bible verse. What stayed with me was one New Year's Eve where all the kids were told to fan out across the dark, empty, vast sanctuary, and sit silently with our own candle contemplating the promise of the coming year. The place felt sacred to me for the first time, and I felt a new aliveness.
A friend told me recently about a couple she knew who lost their 13-year-old son in an accident. He had loved the family's practice of sitting down every Sunday night and lighting a single candle. Each family member would declare his and her "intentions" for the coming week. In honor of their deceased son, the family called on everyone in their circle of friends to follow this special ritual on Sunday nights in his memory.
I love this simple but profound ritual, and believe you can create all sorts of deep and effective traditions using nothing more than one candle and your own focus. For the holidays, one family I know has each person in their circle light a candle and hold it while, together, they sing one hymn. Often, they choose Silent Night.
While we're talking about simple but powerful holiday rituals, I want to share another favorite of mine, which is great for both the Winter Solstice (today, December 21) or New Year's. Prepare some twigs, about 6 inches long, by tying red ribbons around one end and green ribbons around the other. You will gather around a fire, which can be in a fireplace, an outdoor bonfire or even a grill. After explaining the tradition, every person snaps his or her twig, then flings the red end into the fire: this symbolizes the bad happenings and habits of the year ending (Note: it's good to think about what your red twig stands for beforehand.)
Save the green end as a memento: it represents new growth, new beginnings and a New Year.
May your new year be filled with love and meaning, captured and enhanced by all the traditions, old and new, that you choose to celebrate.
My Comeback: Inventing a Ritual to Recover From Surgery
I'll be honest: this was a challenging year for me. On top of my husband's health issues, and getting my son ready to apply to college, I had two surgeries in less than a week in late September. Neither were for life-threatening conditions, but first I had surgery for a pelvic prolapse, and five days later, I had Mohs surgery to remove a patch of skin cancer from my forehead.
For weeks, I was not allowed to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk and for another month, I couldn't engage in my regular weekly workouts that maintain my body and my sanity, including Pilates and weight-lifting. However, my doctor said I could and should walk every day.
Aha, I thought, if there ever was a need for a daily ritual, this is it. If I can conceive of the walks as a ritual and find a way to walk with focus, even joy, that will deflect my disappointment about missing more vigorous exercise and make the walks something more than a dreaded to-do item.
I must say I got some strange looks from my husband, with whom I walk often, when I grabbed my camera that first day and took a picture of my own two feet before they left the front porch!
The vow to do this and record each and every walk really worked for me. I would force myself to walk new places and signed up friends to walk with me when they could. I took photographs of beautiful trees, the changing colors, or a spectacular sculpture on the grounds of Princeton University while I walked.
Although I did miss two days of walks, not counting the day shortly after surgery when walking to the mailbox was the best I could manage (yes, I did dutifully photograph my own mailbox, across the street from my house), I walked mostly daily for 6 solid weeks. It began to feel like a quest, and a chance to be more creative about daily things.
Happily, I'm now back to my regular workouts and loving the feeling of getting my body back. But I feel like my plan for elevating the necessary walks totally worked. I bought a lovely hard-backed journal with Audrey Hepburn on the cover, from Breakfast at Tiffany's, and am pasting in all my words and photographs. "My Comeback" is the title of this journal.
Every day or two, I would write down the length of my walk, where and with whom I walked, how I was feeling physically and what I saw, in a word document. And every couple of days, I would download all the photos I had taken from my camera: that's when the genius of starting each walk with a shot of my feet proved itself: it was easy, days and even weeks later to see which photos I took on each walk, and match the photos with the text that I wrote.
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Library Journal review
November 15, 2012
"Browseable, readable, doable and lovable, this stellar offering belongs on the shelf of every library and every kid's home."
"Whether you are the parent of a newborn or a teenager, the hundreds of ideas for fun year-roound celebrations make this a must-read."
Hint: Want to give Meg something awesome for Christmas this year? Write a reader review at Amazon.com or BN.com, and recommend the book to your friends.
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Who is Meg Cox?
Journalist, Author, Traditions Expert
Mother, Step-mother, Grandmother
Quilter and President of the nonprofit Quilt Alliance
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I give lectures and workshops all over the country, so contact me if you think you might want to hire me for an appearance. Send an email to email@example.com or call me at 609-924-9135.
You can find out more about my schedule and other work at my radically renovated website, www.megcox.com.
For fresh ideas about how to celebrate with friends and family, I'm posting things on FaceBook a couple times a week. Click on photo above to check out my FaceBook traditions page.
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Recent Articles and Appearances
Appeared on the Yahoo!TV show "Away We Grow" in a segment about Thanksgiving traditions.
Articles on tradition that include quotes from Meg Cox:
How to Change Traditions When Needed.
"Creating family traditions teenagers will think are cool"
Ideas for Deployed Military Families to Celebrate Holidays.
Meaningful Holiday Traditions
You Tell Me
In my previous text-only newsletter, Meg Cox on Family Rituals, I often asked readers to pick topics for me to address in future issues.
So, what is on your mind?
Do you have a milestone occasion coming up for yourself or a family member or friend? Do you have something sad to mark and mourn? Are you looking to create a new daily ritual to help your children over a hump?
Just send your suggestions and requests to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, did you ever create a ritual like my comeback walks to help you weather a difficult period in your life? I would love to hear your stories of how you use and create new traditions in your own lives. Tell me your aha moment about rituals and celebrations.