Ah Christmas; it’s easy to be snarky or soppy about it, and you don’t see much else. I like Christmas, generally speaking, though I’m not religious. There are plenty of things about it that trouble me, and I get the reasons behind what some people call ‘political correctness’ – which I consider to just be ‘correct’. You can’t assume that everyone is celebrating the same thing; it’d be like assuming that everyone loves bubblegum icecream, which is clearly an insane assumption. I don’t mind people saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to me; but then, I also don’t mind someone saying ‘Happy Hanukkah’ or ‘Happy Solstice.’ I like a lot of religions; if they could get rid of a few deeply troubling ideologies, I’d happily belong to lots of them. In particular I think any celebration that involves homemade Latkas and gifts of socks (by far one the best gifts you can give anyone, especially in Canada) should pretty much count me in.
I had a number of very bad, stressful Christmases a few years ago; school, money, relationships, friends, family issues, everything kind-of just piled on while I was in university, and I couldn’t seem to work my way out from under it to recapture the loveliness, the excitement, the sparkle that I used to always be able to access despite the inevitable garbage. I was certainly snarky at Christmas’ expense during those years; I felt like it was a season that ought to be awesome, but whose loveliness was ruined by passive-aggressive guilt, personal tragedy, greed and people-related misery. I’d consider moving to another country to avoid it all, or getting drunk around mid-December and staying well-and-truly blitzed until January 5 or so. These options seemed pretty reasonable.
Slowly I’ve worked my way back to liking the season, though it took a long time. I’m almost prepared to be the kind of person who says ‘I love Christmas!’
Perhaps without the exclamation point.
But the way I did it was by taking it back, and creating my own traditions that became somewhat inviolable; ‘tradition’ is a word that gives other people pause. It’s harder when you’re a single person with no kids of your own, but even so, tradition is a buffer between me and the desires of other people.
Many years ago, a friend started calling it ‘Ecksmas’ – something I latched onto quickly as the appropriate name for my holiday, the kind of secular greenery-gifts-food-friends-family holiday that many people of my generation celebrate. ‘Ecksmas’ is great – everyone knows what you’re talking about, and which traditions you’re probably into. It implies nothing about your beliefs or your religion, though it usually speaks to the tradition you descend from. It gives a lot of information in one tidy little word. And for me, Ecksmas is tremendously personal.
It embraces friends of many faiths, as well as those without particular faith – we’re not celebrating the birth of a prophet in the middle east two thousand years ago; we’re celebrating the smell of pine and baking, the crisp cold air outside and the warmth and cosiness inside. We’re celebrating getting together, and traditions which bring people in fellowship together in the physical world. We’re celebrating the birth of children, marriages, new ventures, and successes though they may have come at any time over the past year. We’re comforting each other over losses and griefs, acknowledging the absences in the circle. We’re celebrating a definition of family that has nothing to do with shared blood.
My own personal Ecksmas season starts at the time of year when the sun begins to set around 6pm. The early dark and bright city lights always feels festive to me; more so if there’s snow, but I don’t need it to get into the spirit.Â I listen to Christmas music – usually the old stuff, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra. Sam‘s annual and much-anticipated Christmas CD arrives, and I cringe through some tracks (memorably the duet by Ozzy Osbourne and Jessica Simpson) and find new favourites.
I used to feel a huge weight of self-induced guilt over receiving Christmas cards and never sending any myself, so a few years ago I decided I was going to get over my endless procrastination and actually start sending them.Â I’ve surprised myself by making this an annual Ecksmas tradition, and one which I really enjoy. Last year I finally knuckled down and made myself a database with everyone’s mailing address, and printed labels with a holiday theme, which is sort-of nerdy, cheesy and Martha-y, all at once. On the one hand, my Ecksmas cards probably impair my ability to appear cool in the eyes of my acquaintances, but on the other, I think people like getting them, and no one really thinks I’m all that cool anyway.
I do a lot of baking, which helps warm up the house and makes it smell wonderful. It’s hard to resist my Ginger Cookies or Snickerdoodles or Apple Pie fresh from the oven.Â I know that advertising has given us all the impression that baking is hard, but I’m still always surprised (and gratified!) at the level of praise and glee that the prospect of home-baked goods inspires in people. Seriously, go try one of those recipes (or some of the others I’ve posted, all of which are Shaw-kitchen tested), and then take the results to a gathering – unless you’re at the annual Cretans and Jerkfaces Christmas Party, people get very excited. Also, it is good for the soul to bake things from scratch with your own hands. No matter how busy I get, I always set aside at least a few hours here and there to set aside my other concerns and meditate over a warm oven. And my Ecksmas week tradition of making croissants (from scratch! It’s easy!) to eat while we open presents is entering its third year; I hope not to burn them this year.
My sisters and mom and I traditionally cut our own live trees, a tradition that most people forgo in favour of a fake tree, which looks to me like another piece of junk you have to store all year in order to use it for a couple of weeks. I love tramping through a field and arguing over the perfect tree, taking turns sawing it and then squabbling over whether or not it’s too tall as we haul it back to the car. This year we tried a new place, Mackenzie’s Tree Farm near Indian River, and it was terrific – not a great tree selection, but we got a hayride, hot chocolate and doughnuts around a fire, we saw lots of friends there, and we came back with a tree that, as per tradition, has been declared the best tree we’ve ever had. It may be ridiculously tall and possibly prone to leaning to one side in a way that seems a little dangerous, but we’re all very happy with it.
Of course there are always lots of parties and gatherings and live music at this time of year, but the two events I really look forward to are the weekend at my Aunt and Uncle’s place in Collingwood, and Sam’s Life Day Party. Collingwood is a ski town, and last year we did a little downhill skiing for the first time as well as enjoying the outdoor hottub and fabulous food and hospitality at the Flynn’s with others from the Dowdall clan. Sam’s Life Day party is always a blast – we put the Star Wars Christmas Special from 1979 on in the background and eat drink and get merry at the expense of Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and the ghost of George Lucas’ dignity. It’s always a good time.
It’s easy to get drowned in the obligations and expense that December seems to bring, but I try my best to carve out spaces for myself amongst the noise and bother, places where I can find hope and peace and joy amongst the people I love. I’ve been pretty good at it the last couple of years, sailing (though sometimes on stormy seas, I’ll admit) through an Ecksmas of my own shaping, that sits a bit apart from the things other people would like me to do. I know that there are a hundred obligations, traditions that have outlived their time, guilts and stresses that intensify and relationships that strain to the breaking point. I still deal with a lot of that. Sometimes, you have to put your foot down and perhaps even hurt a few feelings, bruise a few egos, in order to maintain a space for yourself in the midst of it all; I know I’ve had to. The work is ongoing, probably life-long, to keep Ecksmas a time that I enjoy, mostly, instead of a time I dread and despair over. But I promise you all, from someone who has often spent the entire month of December with teeth clenched in grim determination to survive the season without committing a felony, that it’s possible. Probably. I’m not talking stress-free blissful perfect happiness; that’s a silly, advertising-induced pipe dream. Just a dialing-down, an added sweetness, a sense of perspective on what could be instead of what is. Loving the best of the season, and trying to neutralize the worst.
So a very Merry Ecksmas from me and my family (and our cats!) to all of you; I hope that you find joy, and love, and happiness in moments around this season.