Merry meet my darling Readers!
Well, ’tis the Holidays – the winter ones, that is, and that means erratic shoppers, crazy parking spot battles and me overloading on movies that make me cry into my dark hot chocolate with the homemade marshmallows that float on top. I do love this time of year!
Though I suppose for different reasons than most.
See, I am not religious. I would venture so far as to say that I am not spiritual either. I don’t believe in God with a capital “G” or “Y” or “A” or any other letter, or hell, even gods without any capitalization. My family is predominantly Catholic, I was raised more or less Catholic, went to Catholic school in Ontario (and an all girl Catholic School for highschool – chew on that!), and our roots are Iberian Jewish and Catholic as far as I can tell. Which does explain why I get the “You’re Jewish, right?” question whenever I’m at social gatherings. That or because I can pronounce “Challah” right. Also, I make some pretty swell Challah.
Anyways, the point is, from the age of about … 6 or so. I just was no longer convinced that this God-entity was real. I think it began in Junior Kindergarten when my lovely (and often crotchety) teacher claimed that God was always watching us. I would love to say that a part of me was intellectually sophisticated enough to understand the figurative nature of that statement, but no – four-year-old me just peered up at the ceiling, around the spot that my teacher’s finger pointed to, and stared hard, trying to catch a glimpse of this “God” she kept going on about. By communion, at the age of 8, I confided in my Dad on the way to the church that I couldn’t believe in a Jesus who only let Boys be disciples and priests and whatnot. My father, definitely not very Catholic at all, told me I didn’t have to believe in anything, that it was smart to as questions – and yes, girls were just as valid as priests as boys were, but could I just finish this communion thing off – the grandparents would be so happy.
Apparently I was a feminist from an early age.
Anyways, the older I grew, the more I left religious belief aside. The all-girl Catholic high school was a good experience in some ways, but since I was put in detention for arguing with the religion teacher (while on retreat) that claiming that “virginity” was a gift only to be given to my husband was degrading to women … well, you could tell from early on, I wasn’t going to fit in. Then university, with all its wonderfully spiritual-turned-philosophical students, who would talk about religion as an abstract, theoretical or historical set of political regime as opposed to any realness, and then I found my home.
That being said – I always loved Xmas.
The “X” in “Xmas”, by the way, comes from the Greek for “Christ” – and I only mention this because my eleven year old self wants to go back into Mrs. Gilbert’s class and yell back at her that “Xmas” is totally valid and SHE was the one who was wrong, not me. So there.
Anyways, this wintry holiday season has never been about Jesus’ birthday or the Church for me (even though, yes, my grandmother would drag us to “midnight” mass occasionally while we were growing up. Something I will never tire of complaining over): For me, Xmas was about things that were totally separate from Christianity:
Lights. Lots of Lights.
December isn’t the … brightest of months. All that darkness wears on a person. Christmas day, funnily enough, was chosen to coincide with the Pagan tradition of the Winter Solstice, or the day when the Sun starts taking over from the Night. Lights were a traditional way of expressing that – and thank those snow encased pagans for that since it’s one of my favourite things about this time of year.
It’s not just the ones with angels and Santa Claus and other tropes of Xmas – it’s just the twinkling lights, the different colours and the creativity of it all.
You walk around outside in the crissp winter air, and the houses around you aren’t dark and quiet – they’re shining with lights, in the night, like beacons of family and friends. The windows aren’t empty, and closed off either – instead there are Christmas trees that sparkle and candles on menorahs and, if my sister decorated your house, lights that hang from everything, reflecting off baubles that are hung along the tops of window frames and out on the trees in the front lawn.
As children, when our parents would bundle us up in scarves and snowsuits and belt us into the little blue Toyota corolla, the way to stave off the inevitable complains of “I’m cold!” and “Are we at Avo’s yet?”, was to get us all to play a game (usually started by my father) where we would compete to find the most Christmas lights on the way. My blonde sister usually won. In my defense, I was looking for quality, not quantity …
Also, the smell of Baking. Also, Baked Goods.
My Mother, in case people weren’t aware, is the Baker Extraodinaire (also, that rhymes! Points for me!) who brought us up from a very young age, standing on kitchen chairs to reach the counter, to follow in her footsteps. At Xmas time, this means cosscoroes – i.e. fried dough in sugar and cinnamon cut into weird rectangular shapes, sugar cookies (where I would be meticulously detailed, the Blonde would not, and the Baby would rush to get more done than the rest of us and end up with these avante garde deisgns, usually in pink and blue), eggy pastries and dense cakes and – the favourite of the household – chocolate truffles that we’d roll in cocoa powder, icing sugar, coconut, crushed almonds, or if it was just us kids, sprinkles.
This year I won’t be able to participate in the whole baking process with my family, so I am looking at last year’s pictures, taken by yours truly, where my parents, ssisters and I were assemly-lined up in the making of coscoroes – and we made about 2 huge bowls of them … after my father ate like half of the whole batch because he was on cinnamon-sugar duty (i.e. the fried dough would cool slightly and my father would pick it up and put it in a bowl of cinnamon and sugar to coat them … then he would pop half the ones he’d coated into his mouth. When we found out what he was doing, we switched his job with mine, and he was on frying duty.). It’s not only the yummy treats that come about as a result of the baking, but the time I spent with my family – the cool designs my sisters and I would come up with when decorating sugar cookies, the way my mother – especially when we were small – would give us the important job of stirring the chocolate on the stove in an “8” shape with the wooden spoon … or washing dishes , and how everyone would just gather in the kitchen to help out/eat during the process.
Aides from Christmas donuts and sugar cookies, we made truffles – what we called “bolinhas” – and of course, a gingerbread house. The latter would be divided up into thirds – one for each sister to decorate, so the houses tended to be … crazy. Sometimes very crazy. Steven and Chris would have heart attacks at the lack of cohesion in design …
And of course, the bolinhas – The Blonde’s favourite chocolate treat for the holidays – just rolled up balls of cream, chocolate, cocoa powder and butter. (Anyone want the recipe? Let me know!) We’d fridge them overnight, then hack away at the bowl with metal spoons that would inevitably bend as we tried and scooped out enough chocolate to make good sized balls … and most would go in the container … some would disappear. I am under a promise never to repeat where those that disappeared ended up …
The smell of baked goods will always bring me back to my Mother’s kitchen. And before that, when they were still doing this, my grandmothers’ kitchens. There was no shortage of kitchens, baked goods or crazy Portuguese women in slippers and aprons in my childhood, for sure.
I will admit – I am generally a prickly sort of person. I am not one for tear jerkers and romantic comedies (ugh, especially not those) or in general, anything soft and warm and cuddly in the movie department. I am not ssure entirely why this is – only a part of it is the anti-feminisst nature of a lot of romantic comedies. Another part, I think, is because I cry a lot. Like, a lot. Like, when the kid in the movie loses everything but his dog – I ball my eyes out. When the young child gives away the toy he just bought at Walmart for donation – I cry at the stupid commercial. That guiness commercial a while back? I teared up through the whole thing. And so, I steadfastly avoid those movies that are intended to make me cry.
Well .. except around this time of year.
Then I pile on the Love, Actually and the Miracle on 34th Street and all the Lifetime Holiday movies I can find.
I know, right? So unlike me. But it’s true. I can’t help myself.
And I have no idea why. It’s not like this is a Grinch story – My heart isn’t three sizes too small the rest of the year, only to grow absurdly when the wreaths start being hung on doors. At least, I am pretty sure that’s not it. It’s not like I watch those movies at other times in the year secretly, crying into a pillow case (well sometimes I do – and usually crying into the Boy’s shirt while he rolls his eyes and asks me why I do this to myself) but really, that’s not it either.
To be honest, I am not sure why I do this. But it has become a part of my Holiday traditions. There is something nice in curling up on the couch with a loved one, or two, and tucking into a good Xmas movie – even a travesty of an Xmas movie really (I recently got conned into a Touched by an Angel type of movie, and asides from the preachy “Jesus will save you!” theme, it was alright), and letting someone tell you a story that touches you. Watching it play out and crying into your hot chocolate, knowing it will turn out for the best because it’s a friggin’ Christmas movie. Especially the Lifetime ones. This time of year, I am all about the Lifetime movies.
Trees. Specially, pagan-inspired, Victorian-popularized Christmas Trees.
You heard right – Pagans used to decorate (or set on fire, wily pagans) trees in celebration of winter solstice. I think, in general, lighting fires was a thing. Anyways, the tradition became popular in the so-called “west” during the Victorian age when our lively Queen decided to marry a German (though she was pretty German herself .. and they were related). So, like white wedding dresses and huge pouffy skirts, Victoria and Albert also popularized Christmas trees, more or less, as we know them today.
When I was a kid, we had a plastic Christmas Tree. It was about 5 feet tall, and we smothered it in decorations. Just, smothered. Over the years, we’ve switched from plastic to real to plastic again, depending on the year, but the trees have stayed smothered.
My favourites were the real ones – not because real Christmas trees are any more beautiful or special than their positively camouflaged plastic counterparts, but because, having a real Chrisstmas tree meant going out to Drysdale tree farm out past Barrie, and hunting for the perfect candidate in the snow and cold. And yes, for some reason, that holds appeal for me.
It was something about getting the whole family out, slipping and sliding in the hard-packed snow, together, arguing over a tree – even though we were all adults, and there were young families with small children that always seemed to come to easier agreements – it just held that Christmassy spirit for me. Also, then we’d go home and decorate it. Important since, we all have very different decorating styles, and would quarter the tree so that my stuff would go here, yours there, etc. It made for some interesting times. Also allowed for Christmas-Music dance parties. If I were allowed (Which I am definitely not) I would post video of these dance parties for the internet’s amusement …
Yeah, I know right? How can you admit that presents are a part of the holiday season!? For shame, Ammy.
But here’s the thing: I love giving presents. I love fighting crowds and inspiration in the mall, or on the internet these days, and finding something that will make the people I love happy. I love that some presents are shared jokes between me and other people and that some presents are merely representative of listening to them throughout the year. I love that you can see someone’s face light up when they unwrap something that touches them, and I even like the feeling of trepidation as I watch them unwrap it, mouth agog and hopeful that I did it right.
I like getting presents too – Can’t deny that. It’ not overly necessary for me – but I have recieved presents in the past that are worth more to me than all the gold in the world. Things like a camera I got once – a cheap little thing that has since broken (this being thirteen yearr or so ago) with black and white film – things to help me record the memories I was making. And pieces of my grandmother’s handiwork, like the quilt I got that lies on my bed right now. These are things I will never forget, and things that make my life that much better.
There’s also the wrapping and packaging thing – there was one year that my sister’s boyfriend got her some tiny little Pandora charm or ssomething – but in an act of creativity beyond what we expected, he brought in this HUGE giftwrapped box. And inside was a smaller, also gift wrapped, box. And inside that … ah you get the picture. Eventually, like twenty giftwrapped boxes later, there was a tny jewlry box and we caught it all on video for years to enjoy.
In our family (and most Portuguese families as far as I can tell), the whole point of Christmas Eve, asides from eating fish, is to stay up all night until midnight, at which time, all the children crowwd around the tree, or whereever the presents are, and wait their turn to rip them open. Over the years my family developed a “one present per turn, starting with the youngest family member” rule, which is equal parts frustrating and timely (we usually don’t go to bed before 2 or so in the morning …) but means we all sit together, in the wee hours, laughing and making fun of one another and generally being in a merry-making mood.
The point is this: gifts are a good part of the holidays – there are gift guides and holiday catalogues to prove that. That doesn’t make it materialistic – it means you have to remember what the point is – not just presents for presents-sake, but rather, things that mean something.
So if I have been bitching all year over the lack of good tupperware, my love – please take note …
The crux of this post is this: I like a secular Christmas. An Xmas without all the religious trappings. A time of year, at the end of the year, to get together with family, enjoy each other, eat a lot, and appreciate the year you were allowed to have together.
That’s all there really is to it.
And so, that is why I will be raising my future hypothetical children with a secular Christmas – with the spirit of Santa Clause, the tear jerker movies, a few traditions still in development as of posting, and all the things I mentioned above.
So, Happy Secular Xmas to all from me!