Different but the Same (FIVE MINUTE FRIDAY)

Christmas will be different this year with my dad gone.

But, to be honest, last year was different too. With my eldest living 200 miles away and having to work Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, we decamped to his house in Lincoln, went to the longest Midnight Mass ever at the Cathedral, made do for cooking and dining in his limited facilities, and had a wonderful time.

The two years before that were different, adjusting to Christmases without my mum. There have been Christmases I’ve worked, Christmases I’ve volunteered with the homeless or the lonely, Christmases with children and without, the Christmas my brother joined us to share his nephew’s first one to make a change after a difficult year and the alternate Christmases shared with a divorced friend when he’s without his children, Christmases spent with anything between two and eight of us, and more than one Christmas struggled through with illness.

Boxing Days with my husband’s family all crowded into my sister in law’s small flat have come and gone. Pre Christmas family meals in a pub have had their season. The churches and the services we attend have varied. The time for eating Christmas dinner has moved. The menu for Christmas dinner has altered. The favourite TV Christmas special has changed.

Some traditions have continued over time. We still have stocking presents for all and they are opened with everyone piled on our bed first thing, no matter how old or tall our children get or how many people are staying in the house. Christmas dinner preparation is always a shared affair. And if distance separates us, family phone calls make up for it in some way.

But the most constant in all our Christmases is the Origin of it all, ‘the reason for the season’. And He doesn’t change. He doesn’t go out of fashion. He doesn’t grow up and make His own family traditions. He doesn’t move away. He doesn’t leave us.

He came and ‘pitched His tent among ours’, got involved in all the glory and mess that is our human life, and holds out His hands to invite us to all the glory and adventure that is life in Him. He is ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’. And He loves a good celebration.



The Blessing of Tradition (THE BLESSING JAR)

I’ve spent the last two weekends getting on with my usual pre Christmas baking. So far I’ve made a Christmas cake, two Christmas puddings, three batches of mincemeat, and over sixty mince pies. It’s part of the Advent preparations that I love.

I first made a traditional Christmas cake in the early years of marriage, having discovered how much my beloved liked fruit cake. Making them for him led me to delicious recipes full of moist fruits barely held together by cake mixture rather than the dry crumbly ones of my youth with the occasional dried sultana that horrified your mouth like a dead fly. And I became a fruit cake convert.

Gaining confidence, I decided to try making mincemeat for another of his favourites – mince pies – and again found something to enjoy with him. These tasted so much better than the over sweet claggy concoctions from the shops. I felt especially proud baking a batch for him to take in for his work team each year.

The Christmas puddings, however, are a much longer tradition. I can’t remember how old I was when I first joined my mum in making them. The same recipe every year from the 1937 GEC cookbook that my great great grandmother used, passed down through the female generations of our family. Now I make them with my niece.

They are never made alone and we never make just one. The original recipe is for 14lb of puddings! And my early memories are of making one for the family and giving the others to be sold at the church bazaar. Over the years, I’ve given the extras away to extended family and friends. The last one I made with my mum was in her nursing home when my husband and I took all the pre weighed ingredients in one evening, watched by fascinated staff who’d only ever had shop bought, and then the mixture taken round every resident in the lounge so all could have a stir and a wish. We gave the extras that year to those same staff to take home.

My mum taught me a lot about the value of traditions. But what I learned best from her about them is, like a good recipe, that they should be a guide not a fixed set of instructions to follow slavishly. Mum never put alcohol in the Christmas puddings when I was a child whereas I reverted to the original with its Guinness (in honour of joint family roots in Dublin) and a spirit that varies from year to year. (Once, after everyone had gone to bed, I secretly added to my mum’s mixture the only alcohol we had in the house – Malibu!) My mum always replaced the candied peel, which she disliked, with chopped dried apricots. I have both but swap almonds and glace cherries with dried cranberries.

Traditions should be made to fit the people and not the other way round. I learned this lesson most clearly from her the year I got engaged. I had assumed that I would travel back to London for my last Christmas Day with my parents and brother and, similarly, that my fiance would be with his family. But he had concluded that, with his flatmates in Devon and Wales, as we were now engaged, this would be our very first Christmas together, just the two of us. I didn’t know how my parents would react to the change. However, my mum in all her generosity and wisdom, merely said, “It’s time to make your own traditions now.”

And that’s the thing about traditions – they are made and adapted and personalised. They might look like a fixed point in the landscape but they are meant to be molded and weathered by the changing seasons and the river of life.

This Christmas is another transition as we face it for the first time without my dad. Routine changes once again – no more presents or cards to buy for or from him; no more extra mince pies to make because he didn’t eat Christmas pudding; no more opportunities to spend with him over the holiday period, or any other time.

So I’m holding on to those flexible family traditions, reminding myself that one Christmas is never exactly the same as the last – and that it’s not meant to be because life is not meant to be static. And I will hold onto my mum’s wise words, adapting them slightly (knowing adapting things is a family tradition in itself) to say once again, “It’s time to make new traditions now.”


ONLY (Five Minute Friday)

OK, I’ll admit to cheating this week! I wrote this post on 31st October last year as part of #Write31Days when we were on holiday in upstate New York. So. with the same prompt word for Five Minute Friday, I’m repeating it here (and at least it definitely takes only 5 minutes to post!):

The final challenge of Write 31 Days – Write out Philippians 4.8 and practise thinking ONLY about those things today (‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’) – is one I need.

I’m a perfectionist by nature, which is a constantly uncomfortable way to live. Faults, errors, mistakes leap out at me like an editor’s red correcting pen on a manuscript. It might be a missing apostrophe on a sign or an inaccurate reference in someone’s conversation. I don’t look for imperfections deliberately; it’s more like wearing glasses with a filter that makes them stand out. And the urge to correct a mistake is so strong it’s automatic, like iron filings to a magnet.

So it’s very easy for me to fall into criticism mode and to anticipate and interpret actions for the worst in others. My view becomes skewed, out of balance.

That’s why I need this verse.

And I have tried today. We’ve spent a lot of time on the road, where I would usually be very critical of other drivers, but I’ve tried to make allowances and not assume their mistakes were malicious. I’ve tried to counter worries about my dad back home with thoughts of yesterday’s majestic and raw power of Niagara Falls. I have filled my eyes with the beauty of the unfamiliar landscape and architecture we’ve passed.

It’s a particularly apt verse for today, Halloween, when our culture seems to celebrate all things unlovely. As a Christian, I struggle with this celebration and I mourn its metamorphosis away from its original purpose of remembering those loved ones who have died. It would be easy to just criticise it, especially here in America where it seems such a major festival.

But today I have tried to look at it with fresh eyes, to see if I can find anything admirable or praiseworthy in it. And I think I have. The little mountain town we have arrived in has closed off its small main street for the local Parent/Teachers Association to hold a fancy dress parade (for all who want to join in), lay on free hot dogs and a pumpkin pie eating competition, and set up themed stalls out of car boots where children can get festive treats. Laying aside my usual concerns about the ethics of Halloween, I have to admire the effort to make trick or treating safe for all involved. I have to admire the creativity of many of the costumes (especially the fluorescent jellyfish made from umbrellas). And I have to praise the sense of community that was evident to visitors like us.

Whatever I conclude about Halloween itself, the point is that by practising this verse, I was able to find light in the darkness like the stars in the clear black sky. And it’s given me much to think about in terms of how to harness and tune into such creativity and community spirit back in the UK, potential inspiration I would have missed if I’d concentrated on criticism instead.

It’s a great verse for me. And it’s been a great discipline to practise today.

But it’s not enough.

I need to practise this regularly.

The Blessing of Bed (THE BLESSING JAR)

Sometimes you have to go without something to appreciate it – at least, I do.

Last weekend, we held a sleepover at church for the 8-11 year olds in our Boys’ Brigade Company. They played pool and table tennis, made chocolate pizzas, did a quiz, and watched a film late into the night. Finally, it was time to settle down for some actual sleep, the boys in the church hall, the leaders each in a side room.

I retired to our Rainbow Room, used throughout the week for meetings, U3A sessions, and small youth group activities. It also had the advantage over the hall of having carpet tiles. And I had come well prepared – after all, I’ve done this before. I had my husband’s new, thick exercise mat; my cosy, brushed cotton lined sleeping bag; a pillow; and my long fleece dressing gown for an extra layer if needed. I even had my Kindle just in case I couldn’t sleep.

I wasn’t expecting any difficulties. I’ve slept in more uncomfortable surroundings, even fully clothed (complete with hat) when camping outdoors in November. I’ve slept in this room for previous indoor camps before.

But I was wrong. It was one of the worst night’s sleep I’d had in a long time. Carpet and mat seemed to make no difference as I struggled to find a position that didn’t dig into my hips or thighs or shoulders. My pillow instantly shrank to half its thickness and seemed determined to spend the night escaping from under my head. The light in the corridor (which we’d left on for the boys to find the toilet) flooded my room with unwelcome brightness, fooling my brain into thinking it was daytime. Unfamiliar noises, even though I told myself they were just the pipes after the heating had been turned off, kept bringing me to a state of alertness.

I was glad of my Kindle. I read a lot of my John le Carre book before finally dosing off.

But it wasn’t to last. Around 3am, I woke for no obvious reason. I went to the loo, snuggled back into my sleeping bag (which I’d moved into a darker corner away from the intruding light, simultaneously trapping my pillow against the wall), and once again returned to the saga of no comfortable position, disturbing sounds, and a brain that had switched off sleep mode. Surrendering to wakefulness, out came the Kindle again as I followed the exploits of George Smiley for another two hours before finally falling asleep again for the last thirty minutes or so before my alarm went off.

The following night, I was back in the comfort of my own capacious double bed with its elegant brass frame. Two fluffy pillows moulded perfectly to my neck and head. The mattress and topper gave just the right level of support to my curves. A double layer duvet wrapped me in a cocoon of warmth. The bed linen was freshly laundered, soft and scented against my skin. Only the faint outline of the closed door pierced the sleep inducing darkness. And the comfort of that familiar body next to mine filled me with reassurance and security. Bliss.

This was a bed full of memories: where my youngest was nursed as a baby; where both children found refuge when sick; where I was woken early by the phone to be told of my mother’s death; where everyone’s Christmas stockings and birthday presents are always opened first thing in the morning. Its history, our family’s history, wraps around me like an old, well loved dressing gown.

Such a welcome difference.

And I realised how often I take it for granted or don’t appreciate it at all. Even if insomnia attacks at home, I can decamp to a generous and very comfortable sofa with plenty of warm bedding. I considered my bed and my home with renewed gratitude.

With Advent about to begin, I also started to think about what it was really like for Mary and Joseph, trying to sleep in an unfamiliar environment with a brand new baby. How cold and hard was the floor of an animal enclosure? What about the noise, let alone the smell? How many disturbances from sleep by that child who needed feeding or changing? How many disturbances when the animals needed feeding or mucking out, let alone strange visitors?

No pillows or sleeping bags or camping mats for extra comfort for them. No Kindle for distraction.

The trouble is we have romanticised the story, sprinkled the stable with tinsel and glitter, and turned the whole thing into a pastoral idyll. We have magnified Mary and Joseph into saints or reduced them to characters in a children’s play. We have ignored the reality of it, turned away from the cold and the dirt and the smell, forgotten the fatigue and fears of new parenthood.

What if we try to imagine the modern equivalent – giving birth and making do in a garage?

I gave birth in the safety of a local hospital, then within a few hours brought my infant son back to our lovely brass bed and our warm centrally heated house and our fridge full of food and my parents staying for a few weeks to support us. No such comforts for Mary and Joseph.

And no such comforts for a lot of people in the modern world.

We’re trying a new tradition this Advent, a Reverse Advent Calendar. It’s a simple cardboard box, to which we will add one item per day, and give the finished result to our local Foodbank. It’s not much. But it’s an attempt to celebrate the truth of this season, to remember the God who didn’t just come for a sleepover but who moved into the neighbourhood, and to do something for others as a means of serving Him. I might not be able to give Mary and Joseph a bed for the night but I can make sure Jesus, in the form of someone else, has enough to eat and the toiletries He needs.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25.34-36 & 40)

So NEAR and Yet So Far (Five Minute Friday)

Check out all the other great writers at the Five Minute Friday community here http://fiveminutefriday.com/2017/11/30/fmf-link-up-near/.  Five minutes of free writing on a given word, no editing, no over-thinking, no worrying about perfect spelling or grammar, just write.

Here’s my contribution this week:

I’m facing Christmas with mixed feelings this year, my first without my dad. I feel a bit silly saying that though. After all, I’m a grown woman with a husband, adult children, and decades of our own family Christmas traditions behind me. But my parents were always part of our Christmas, even if it wasn’t always on the Day, so my first without either of them, grateful as I am for the rest of my family, feels bittersweet and just a little bit empty.

I guess that’s the thing with grief. You’re managing fine, getting on with life just like you know your Lost One would want you to, when suddenly a heart sink catches you unawares or a cold aching in your very centre settles in like a week’s worth of bad weather.

There are times when I find myself thinking, ‘Oh, I must phone Mum and tell her about that,’ only to realise that she isn’t here to phone anymore. Or something happens and I can feel my Dad smiling at it, except he isn’t.

I am blessed in the knowledge and experience of parents who loved me, who loved me well and long. Sometimes it’s as if that love lingers on, hovering just behind my shoulder, or waiting to envelope me in a hug, or echoed in my sons’ faces. At other times, even their memory feels very far away and the ache is hard to bear. Or I am so absorbed with the rest of my life that I forget them and their absence for a while.

Sometimes I think this push-pull of grief is similar to my faith experience. Sometimes Christ feels very close – my prayer life flourishes, church services inspire, Bible readings shout with words personal to my situation. But at other times, Heaven remains silent, distant, or I push Him away, too busy with my own priorities.

This Advent, I pray that I ‘will draw near to Christ’ and hope that ‘He will draw near to [me]’.