Friday, November 28, 2014

From Giving Thanks to Sharing Joy

The march to the holidays beyond Thanksgiving seems to start earlier each year – Christmas decorations appear in stores in October, holiday music plays on the radio in mid-November, and Black Friday deals are hawked well before Thanksgiving. It seems Thanksgiving – this day set aside for gratitude, for gathering with loved ones and sharing food – gets short shrift in the hurrying to what comes next.

The rush to Christmas and the relentless barrage of spend-centric advertisements is my holiday pet peeve. I love the holiday season, including Thanksgiving, and I will buy a good few presents in the coming weeks. But I will not join the shopping hoards hopped up on caffeine and consumerism during Black Friday or Cyber Monday or any other cutesy-monikered days following Thanksgiving.

I don’t like shopping, or crowds, on a normal day, and the two together are soul crushing for me, which negates the joy of finding presents to give to loved ones. I’d rather hold on to the feel-goodness and relative calm of Thanksgiving for another few days.

I understand, of course, that these days and weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are crucial to the bottom line for many stores, both the big chain outlets and the Main Street boutiques. I realize that Christmas and Chanukah are holidays in which people traditionally bestow gifts upon friends and family members. But bestowing thoughtful gifts is not the same as simply buying more stuff, even if the sales are incredible.

Whether we are religious or not, whether we celebrate Christmas or Chanukah or both or something else, whether we are surrounded by family or far from home, this season is meant to celebrate hope and peace, love and light, helping others and sharing joy.
With three children in the house, it is easy to embrace the joy of Christmas. My kids are at the sweetest age for holiday magic, for baking cookies and decorating the house and visits to Santa. Come Christmas morning, they will find presents under the tree and stockings brimming with goodies.

I know that these – the brimming stockings and pretty presents and, most importantly, the excited children – are among my family’s many blessings. And I try to carry the spirit of Thanksgiving into the holidays beyond so that gratitude is mixed with the sometimes chaotic joy. Surrounded by gift-touting grandparents and aunts and uncles, my children know Christmas to be a time of plenty – plenty of love, plenty of good food, plenty of presents to unwrap.

Sadly, there are many children who do not know a world of plenty, and this lack of abundance must be exacerbated during a season when joy-filled advertisements of colorfully-wrapped gifts abound. I cannot imagine what it is like to wake up as a child to a Christmas morning without presents.

When I was a kid, my family picked a tag or two each year from the Giving Tree at our church. We kids would help choose a child, nameless to us, based on age and the few other details we could ascertain from the clothing sizes and toy interests listed on the small tag. We were always amazed that there were kids, just like us, who may not have presents to open on Christmas day.

A few years ago, when my own children were young enough that the boxes and wrapping paper were more fun to play with than the gifts they concealed, we chose a tag from a similar Giving Tree effort. All three of my kids were small enough to ride in the shopping cart as we looked together for warm boots and clothes and a few toys we hoped the unknown child would love. My kids were too young then to really understand what we were doing, and to my great chagrin we have not picked a Giving Tree tag since.

This year, moved by a friend’s efforts on behalf of a Giving Tree child, I am inspired to again choose a name with my children and to endeavor together to provide a bit of holiday joy to another child, who is probably not so different from my own.

My friend, as she was shopping for clothes for her Giving Tree child, sought advice from the sales clerk. When he learned of her mission, the clerk told my friend that people like her were responsible for the gifts he woke up to on the Christmas mornings of his childhood. He told her how much that had meant to him, and that it would mean more than my friend could realize to her Giving Tree child, too.

If that’s not clear testimony that these efforts to share a bit of holiday magic are worth it,
I don’t know what is.

My children are older now than that first year we picked a Giving Tree name. They’re old enough to wish for certain coveted things under the tree on Christmas morning. They’re old enough to understand that not everyone has a holiday season filled with family and hugs and happy surprises. They’re old enough to know that a kind act, no matter how small, can sometimes make a big difference in helping another person feel good and loved and happy.

It seems a good lesson to remember, no matter how old we are, during this season of hope and love and joy – and of giving thanks. Kindness can come in many forms. A smile from a stranger on a dreary day. A heartfelt compliment from a friend. A hug during hard times. And the simplicity of gifts to open on Christmas morning.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 28, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Embracing November

November is not my favorite month. October’s colorful brilliance culminates in the pageantry and sugar high of Halloween, and then we wake the next day and it is dreary old November. It is dark, the landscape devoid of color, the air damply chilly. It is too cold (at least for me) to ride a bike or embark on an enjoyable jog, yet it’s not quite ski season, and the twinkling lights and joyful chaos of Christmas seem still far away.

Embracing November with friends.
Many people of adequate means and time flee their northern homes during November, heading south to warmer, brighter locales. The rest of us dig out our extra layers, lament the shortening days, and muddle through this in-between season.

At least, that’s how I’ve viewed November in the past: an in-between time to be endured. This year, however, I am determined to embrace November.

Instead of decrying the loss of color from the hillsides and light from the days, I’ve made a point of noticing the intricate subtleties of the season, looking more closely at the gifts of nature that exist beyond summer’s flamboyance and fall’s color explosion, enjoying the downtime that comes between seasons.

With the mixed bag of weather typical of any time of year in northern New England, I’ve managed to take advantage of a few of the warmer, brighter November days outside. The kids and I spent an afternoon tending to some final gardening, pulling out the remnants of our late planting of sweet peas and harvesting the last row of cold-stunted carrots.

In our final homage to growing, blooming things for the year, we dug cylindrical holes into the garden outside our large living room window and dropped the papery bulbs of daffodils and crocuses there. These, we hope, will evade hungry deer and rodents looking for a cold-weather nibble and burst forth in happy spring color next year.

The day after our bulb planting, the mountains in view from that window garden were snow-capped, earning their White Mountains moniker. The high-elevation blanket of white was a reminder that on the other side of in-between November comes winter, with its glittering holiday shine and snowy splendor.

We’ve also visited friends a short drive south this November, exploring new fields and woods, passing old cellar holes and their long-forgotten stories: a hike with a different view and good company. We’ve wandered some familiar trails close to home, too, with other friends – a posse of kids happy to be out of school on a sunny day and oblivious to the scarcity of color and the fact that it is dark these days at 5 o’clock. Happy oblivion, it turns out, is contagious – at least for an afternoon.

Even on the gloomy-sky days, when I need a break from sitting at the keyboard, I have headed into the woods out the back door with the dog, who is always willing and good company. With the trees denuded of their leaves, the landscape, though stark, is more giving. Without a canopy of foliage blocking the way, woodpecker excavations are revealed, formerly hidden birds’ nests exposed, and various hollows visible high in the trees. I speculate some of these may house the barred owls we hear calling, “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoooah,” back and forth in the dark of night throughout the year.

Amid the austerity of November’s backdrop – that dullish palate after leaf fall, but before snow fall – the season’s sparing color, if you look closely, is like a gift before winter. Deep crimson blackberry canes rise vividly at the edge of the tawny field. The tiny, scarlet tips of “British soldiers” lichens show bright atop their gray-green base on boulders and logs.

Faded gold beech leaves cling resolutely to their branches to provide a bit of muted color and an almost cheerful rustling in the late fall breeze. The black-splashed trunks of white birch pop through the drab backdrop. Sulfur-shaded tamaracks, whose summer green blends inconspicuously into the surrounding forest, stand out now in their late-fall yellow.

Our spindle tree adds a little bit of lovely to November.
The brightest bit of color, reminiscent of summer’s endless and cheerful hues, is from a small tree at the edge of our porch. A European spindle tree, I think it is, planted long before we arrived at this house. From its branches, which still hold their red-tinged leaves, hang small, bright pink, vaguely heart-shaped lobes, each surrounding an impossibly orange orb. These, I’ve learned recently, are the tree’s seeds: lovely, but poisonous.

I pass these unlikely bits of brilliance each November day as I come into the house from my various travels. It seems odd to find such warmth of color when I am shivering in my thick coat. Beyond their splash of pink and orange lies the field in its pale November shades of worn brown and faded russet, and beyond the field stand the mountains and their white peaks: summer color and the winter that will soon envelop us in white, both bordering on November’s in between.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 14, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.