December 21, 2010

Pass the Book

Christmas, and the holiday season, is a time for reflecting on family traditions. I hear interviewers on the radio asking "What are your family's traditions?" I hadn't really thought about the things we did every single year as "traditions"...but they really are.

Having a mom who adores reading meant that our most treasured traditions involved books. On Christmas Eve, for as long as I can remember, our family would gather on the couch with two special books, "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and a children's bible. Mom would read us the excerpt from the bible that detailed Mary and Joseph's travels, in search of a place to rest for the night. It was like a magical fairy tale with a King, angels, wisemen and shepherds. A very captivating story for small children. Funnily enough this was our family's only exposure to any sort of Religion...the Christmas story.

When mom was finished reading the children's bible we would move on to the classic "Twas the Night Before Christmas". There was just one twist...the book would be passed around to each family member, assuming they were at an age that they could read. In turn we would each read a page. Of course, it was a little like reading aloud in felt a combination of nervous and proud as you belted out your page. Lots of giggles were heard when you "messed up"....that actually is a pretty hard book to read!

There were a whole slew of other steps to our Christmas Eve; annual family photo, pictures of each child in bed as they wave goodnight, setting out the cookies and milk and singing our family Christmas countdown song (a real original).

As is often the case, it was only when I was old enough to hang out with other people on Christmas Eve that I started to miss our traditions. In fact, when we were teenagers my mom and dad would wait for my sister, brother and I to all be home so we could read our books and complete our family traditions. They were a constant in our lives.

Of course the day came when I moved away from home, and moved in with Andrew. What was the first gift I purchased on our very first Christmas Eve..."Twas the Night Before Christmas". Even when it was only the two of us we would pass the book back and forth. We hosted my bro-in-law and mom-in-law a few times on Christmas Eve...and they each had to participate as well.

When the girls were born we decided to introduce "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to the mix. They enjoy Dr.Seuss, and the story really is a classic. This year Madeline is very excited that she will be able to read her pages with she is now an avid little reader. Charlotte is well on her way...this year we will help her read her pages...she can read the "popcorn" words she already knows how to next year I think she'll be reading her pages on her own.

A few weeks ago my sister and brother and I sorted through my mom's Christmas ornaments and decorations. I "inherited" a little mailbox with a teddy bear that my mom crafted herself, my brother "inherited" the original 1970's nativity scene that mom set out on top of the speaker in our livingroom every year, and my sister "inherited" the book - "Twas the Night Before Christmas". We aren't certain where the children's bible ended up...misplaced perhaps.

And so traditions go...rooted in memory and filled with love.

December 16, 2010

Book as Gift

Well, this is a no-brainer. A book is a perfect gift.

I am not just referring to “classic” works of fiction either. Any form of a book will do. So, what sort of book to purchase. In our house books are found in every corner. My daughters have access to books everywhere. Primarily they read, or browse books, on their own during the day. Our main reading event is bedtime. Ever since the girls could sit we have been reading to them at’s our ritual. Andrew puts Madeline to bed with a book and I put Charlotte to bed with a book. Andrew and Madeline have moved on to chapter novels...while Charlotte and I float between picture books and novels. This is a ritual we all enjoy. Here are a few books that my girls have LOVED over the years...mostly gifts of course.

A prize possession, that both of my daughters (7 years old and 4 years old) have adored is our complete collection of Mr.Men books. I remember these from my youth...and I love sharing the simple stories and colourful artwork with my girls.

When you mention beautiful artwork you really have to mention Eric Carle. His tissue paper creations are stunning. Fortunately, his stories are just as captivating. We are slowly working our way to having all of his books, thanks to a great gift giving girlfriend of mine.

The giving of a complete collection is a wonderful idea. We have “Disney’s Princess Collection”, “The New Adventures of Curious George Collection”, “Disney’s Friendship Collection”, Robert Munsch’s “Munchworks 2 Collection.” Word to the wise; be certain when you purchase these collections that they aren’t too cumbersome. Some collections are individual books, while others are many books bound into one large text. Sometimes these books can be too heavy and too full, making bedtime reading uncomfortable. The collections we have run somewhere around 100 pages. Charlotte loves reading these books, and calling them “chapter books” it makes her feel like a big reader...a definite bonus.

Speaking of her big sister...these days Madeline is completely into the Geronimo Stilton and Thea Stilton collections. So much so that she dressed up as Colette Stilton for Halloween this year...that was a tricky costume to explain. We, the parents, love these books too. They are full of adventures and have just enough artwork to keep Madeline entertained. Another interesting trait of these books is the inclusion of factual information. For instance, learning about the Native Americans who first discovered and named Niagra Falls.

We went through the Junie B.Jones phase last year. We, the parents, weren’t as impressed with these books. There is nothing more irritating than books assuming that children must talk like “children”. The poor grammar was super annoying.

Coming back to Charlotte she has been obsessed with The Berenstain Bears for a couple of years now. I think she might actually be losing her interest. Of course, it could be because we have read each book about 100 times! The “New Baby” book is a go-to gift for moms expecting their second child.

Poetry is another area of interest for the girls. They enjoy Dennis Lee and Shel Silverstein. Who doesn’t love Lee’s descriptive poems about our beautiful city, Toronto. They seem to make everything that is ordinary seem so much more spectacular.

Our never-ending mountain of Dr. Seuss books is definitely here thanks to my mom’s love of these books. Each one was once read by my sister, myself and my brother. Somehow they have landed in the hands of my girls and who knows where they will go next.

I am a fan of writing an inscription inside a book that you are giving. There is something wonderful about reading these inscriptions and knowing who was thinking of you when they gave the book to you. One of my favourite books is inscribed by my, now passed, great-grandmother Violet...fantastic! I love reading the book to Madeline and telling her that the book was given to me by the woman who she is named for...a nice little connection to her heritage found in a book.

December 1, 2010

These are Christmas too

In what I call my “previous life” before children...I had a "real" job. Over the course of my career I worked primarily with marginalized people; new immigrants, the homeless and people living with mental illness. Working with these people opened my eyes to the difficulties faced by so many people around the holiday season.

Although my parents divorced when I was in my early twenties, Christmas has always been about family for me. As a child we would open presents at home on Christmas morning, pack up the car and head to my grandparents for Christmas breakfast, lunch and dinner. The house was always full of food, presents and family. As I grew up I became more aware of other people's celebrations. Nothing made me (and makes me) cry like John and Yoko singing "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" or Band Aid's "Do They Know it's Christmas?" I was wholeheartedly moved by those moments in my youth.

However, it wasn't until I was working at a temp agency, that employed primarily new immigrants and the "unemployable", that I saw how Christmas is celebrated by people living in real poverty. Our Christmas party was full of grateful faces. Grateful for the time we spent having meaningful conversations, grateful for food we had prepared ourselves and grateful for the crafty gifts we presented to each individual.

When you work in social services you don't necessarily get Christmas Day off. It's on Christmas day that you see the real pain of Christmas. The elderly woman sitting in her rocking chair all day long...where she sits 365 days of the year. Visiting with a woman who is so blinded by the grief of her life lost to mental illness that she takes a near overdose of pain meds, simply to have a personal visit. This is how many people spend Christmas day. Through no fault of their own, they have lost family, lost friends and lost that personal connection we all desire.

There certainly are moments of hope. Don't get me wrong. The miracle is in the way people persevere and cope. When I left the woman who had taken the near overdose, she was with her husband...who was preparing a Christmas dinner. The smiles on the people I carpooled to a community Christmas dinner, where they too will create new happy memories. The many foodbank baskets we delivered to our clients homes. Or the homeless people I met at the bus station with tickets to get back "home" in time for the holidays.

I suppose the holidays now are about awareness for me. Being more aware of the story behind the person sitting on the sidewalk with their hand out. I try to fight the cynicism. My mother always gave that person her change. She fought the cynicism. When you open yourself to awareness you see into the hearts of people who deserve much better than they have.

I'll end with a lyric from my favourite Christmas album "Sesame Street Christmas" (1975)

Christmas means the spirit of giving, peace and joy to you.

The goodness of loving, the gladness of living.

These are Christmas too.