Wednesday, December 25, 2013

'Nollaig shona duit agus mise': Happy Christmas to you and yours!

Happy Christmas to you and yours! 

May you hold the love of family and friends,
both the near and the far, 
in your heart on this Christmas Day, 
and may many blessings come your way in the New Year.


Monday, December 23, 2013

The meaning of Christmas, and the year of the little red sewing machine

For our family, the last forty-eight hours have been a bit of an adventure. As the result of a severe ice storm, we lost electricity for over 30 hours, and our property is strewn with massive ice-caked branches that broke off and fell to earth from the large trees which loom over our garden. Without either light or heat, and in the interests of safety, we had to move out to a hotel overnight.

As a result of the storm, things have changed somewhat around home — with some minor damage, and a refrigerator that had to be emptied of Christmas goodies — but, all in all, we've come out of the storm only a little the worse for wear. We were very grateful when, around 9:30 this morning, our electricity was restored, especially considering that some 200,000 people in the greater Toronto area are still without light and heat, and may not have power until after Christmas.

This storm made us realize how very grateful we are for our home — not to mention electricity and heat — and all those other things which we take for granted every day.

The situation got me thinking about the real meaning of Christmas, and about a story I first shared in 2010. It is my recollections of a childhood Christmas, when I was old enough to have some understanding of the state of affairs in our home, but not old enough to truly appreciate what it meant for my parents to have a Christmas celebration for us that year. When you are a little child you never imagine what life is like for your parents, and what kinds of challenges they might face. You believe your mother and father can deal with anything.

Although I did not realize it at the time, the Christmas of the little red sewing machine was one of great struggle for my parents. It was not until years later that my mother told me the truth about that time. During that Christmas season my mother was still grieving the loss of her father earlier that year, and the loss of a baby to miscarriage in the September just past. Also, the company for which my father worked had closed down, so for a time my dad was left without a job.

My parents were always good at saving money, and my mother worked outside the home, so they used their savings and my mother's salary to take care of our family until Dad found another job. Although there was little money for Christmas that year, my parents made sure that Christmas was a memorable one.

For as long as I can recall, my mother made several traditional Irish Christmas puddings each year, but that year Mom made only one, and it was much smaller than usual. There was no Christmas cake, and no little dainties or shortbread, the treats which my mother made faithfully each Christmas season. Although I don't remember having a Christmas tree that year, Mom said Dad did bring home a small one, and we decorated it with just a few of the decorations we always used. Mom reminded me of my insistence that year of including the little feathered birds that I loved to clip on the ends of the tree branches.

The real change took place starting on Christmas Eve. Before that night, on Christmas Eve we had always been allowed to choose a single present to open just before we went to bed, but instead of a present, for each of us there was a new pair of soft flannel pajamas on our pillow, and new slippers on the floor next to our beds. I remember being excited about the appearance of the pajamas and slippers because never before had we done this. After we dressed in our new pajamas, we said our prayers, and Mom tucked us into bed.

In the morning there were no presents under the tree, instead there was to be a present hunt. We searched around the house as Mom and Dad gave us clues to lead us to a present, telling us whether we were getting 'warmer' or 'colder', as we searched for the gifts. I remember the sounds of a lot of laughter and silliness during the search.

Two presents were given to me on that Christmas day. One present was a little box of lace handkerchiefs, embroidered in bright red and green, the other was my little red sewing machine. There was no pretty paper around them, no ribbons or bows to untie, just these small special presents as they were. I still remember exactly where I found the sewing machine. It was tucked behind the tall white door which led into our living room. I was so excited when I found it that I held it in the air and danced around with it. It's funny the things you remember about such times. If I close my eyes now, I can exactly recollect the bright red colour and the coolness of the metal of that little machine, as though it was right in front of me. Also, I remember the delicate sheerness of those handkerchiefs as I draped one over my hand; they seemed so fragile that I was afraid to damage them.

In later years, my mom preferred not to think about that Christmas. It was difficult for her to associate any feelings of happiness with the fear of uncertainty that came with the struggles of that year. For me the memories of that Christmas stay with me because the greatest gifts I received on that day were the feelings of joy and love, comfort and security, that my parents imparted to us. Those feelings were better than any gift money can buy. Even though my brother and I were quite young, somehow we understood how much it meant to our parents for us to be happy on that day, and we were, we truly were.

It is in recollecting the feelings of that day so long ago that I find the true meaning of Christmas. For me, Christmas is a time for feeling gratitude for all that life has given to me, and for expressing pure joy in sharing with others those gifts that no money will ever purchase.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Manifesting Santa Claus

Thank you Graphics Fairy!

Christmas is the perfect time to reflect on the year nearly past, and to consider all the good there is in this world, and in your life.  In particular, on this day — the Feast Day of St. Nicholas — it is also the time when I think about those people who have been kind to me over the years, especially those who have acted kindly with no thought of receiving anything in return. These are the people whom I believe best manifest the magic of Santa Claus.

Years ago my mom told me a story about the Christmas season in which my brother began to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. Mom did not recall at what age his skepticism set in, but she did recall 'threatening' my brother with some unspecified punishment if he said anything about his doubts to me, his little sister. My brother is a good egg, and he never said a word to me about his feeling that Santa was a creature of dubious origin. I believe it is in part due to my brother that I still believe in Santa Claus.

Don't worry, I haven't lost my rational mind (not entirely), but there is honestly a teensy weensy part of me who still wishes for the whole landing on the roof and coming down the chimney extravaganza. I would be happy if it happened only once, just to see Santa emerge, red suit and all. After that I would worry about ensuring the chimney flue was open, and that there was no fire in the fireplace. Eventually it would be just too stressful, and I'd have to give Santa a front door key and the alarm code.

Nah! Overall a bad idea.

Instead, I believe in manifestations of Santa Claus. There is a kindness and a selflessness in old St. Nick which finds its way into people, not only at Christmas, but throughout the year. Over the years I have come across many people who have manifested Santa Claus in my life.

I am grateful for each and every one of those who are:

Definitely manifesting Santa.

In March of the year in which I celebrated my 11the birthday, while on my way to the public library downtown, I was hit by a car. A homeless man, and a woman who was passing by with her daughter, lifted me off of the road and waited with me until the ambulance showed up. I was badly injured, bleeding heavily from my mouth, and in shock. According to the woman, when the man noticed I was shivering he took off his coat, put it over me, and turned my head to the side so that I wouldn’t choke on the blood. Apparently, when they loaded me into the ambulance, I still had the coat over me, but by then it was covered with blood.

Afterward, my parents put an ad in the newspaper because they wanted to meet the man who had so generously helped me, to thank him and to replace his coat, but they were unable to find any trace of him. Every year around Christmas time, I think about this man who had so very little himself, but who nevertheless acted out of such kindness and selflessness to help me. In my mind he was definitely manifesting Santa Claus.

Of course, every day acts of kindness are not so dramatic as in this instance. Acts of kindness which manifest the magic of Santa show up in many forms. Here is a list of the many people I have encountered along my life's path who are

Definitely Manifesting Santa:

Family members and friends the world over who make my day, when they tell me they like something I've written in this blog. Sometimes comments include something about what is going on in their own lives. This makes me feel as though we are still connected as family, although many miles separate us.

The people who follow this blog, and those who comment, make my day by making me feel as though my blog matters.

* Fellow family history/genealogy bloggers who put themselves out there and share their research and their stories, their successes and their frustrations. They are a giant well of inspiration that will never run dry.

Thomas MacEntee, founder of the GeneaBloggers community, who inspires us, helps us, and brings our posts together, so that more people can see them.

Definitely manifesting Santa:

* The 'Christmas people', as I like to call them, who collect toys, clothing, and food for local food banks and for city wide charities.

The archivists at all of the repositories I've used, both for my history work, and for my family history research. So many of them have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help me, and I am so very grateful for that help.

The elderly man I met years ago at Glasnevin Cemetery who stopped on his way out of the cemetery, turned around and came back in, to help me search the rows and find my maternal grandfather's unmarked grave.

The Santa Claus at the Eaton Centre who made my day when he smiled and waved as I passed by.

Strangers who smile and hold the door for me, just to be nice.

* The man ahead of me in the Starbucks drive thru line, who paid for my coffee and for the orders of the five cars behind me, simply because he wanted people to have a good day.

They are out there everywhere, just waiting to do something kind, without giving it a second thought.

Definitely Manifesting Santa:

I am very fortunate because my most special manifestation of Santa Claus, my husband Matthew, wakes up beside me every day, loves me, encourages me, challenges me and supports me in my work. Each and every day I thank my lucky stars to have him in my life.

Who manifests Santa Claus in your life?

“The Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories (ACCM) allows you to share your family’s holiday history twenty-four different ways during December! Learn more at”

Graphic courtesy of The Graphics Fairy.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: 'Oh, Christmas Tree'

The tradition of having a real tree continues in our home.
Once again the season of Advent is upon us, and it has me thinking about Christmas times of long ago. In honour of this first day in the Advent Calendar, here is a story I have shared before of an adventure with my father and my brother, the year our Dad took us out to chop down a Christmas tree.

Oh, Christmas Tree

As I write this, the morning is cool and grey, with a combination of ice and rain lightly pelting against my window. It is not the sort of December day I recall from my childhood. The day I am thinking about seems so long ago.  It began with a morning on which my Irish father, still getting acclimated to the then bitter cold Canadian winters, took my brother and me out to a Christmas tree farm to enjoy the experience of finding, cutting down, and carrying home our Christmas tree.

It seemed Dad had diligently created a plan in the weeks leading up to that Sunday, his only day off in the week. He had spoken to the men with whom he worked, trying to discover the best farm with the best trees. He seemed a little disheartened, but not put off, when we awoke that Sunday morning to discover it had snowed heavily the night before.  Never one to be deterred, after a hearty breakfast, he dug the car out of the deep snow, grabbed the axe, and we set off for the farm.

Back then my dad drove a big blue Buick that we had named Nellie. He skillfully piloted 'her' down the snow-covered roads, spurred on by my brother and me chanting "C'mon Nellie, C'mon Nellie", from our places in the back seat. We drove for what seemed like hours in little kid time, but it was probably not very far. As we drove, once again the snow began to fall. By the time we reached the farm, it was freezing cold, snowing hard, and visibility was poor.

At this point I was a little (okay a lot) unsure about this adventure. As we trudged through the snow I kept my head down, with my eyes closed, trying to stop tears from streaming down my face. I clung tight to the sleeve of my dad's coat, as he carried the axe in his hand. The snow seemed to get deeper as we walked, so somehow he hooked the axe through the belt loops on his coat, held tight to my brother's hand, and swung me up into his arm, saying, "There now, you're alright". I remember hugging his neck and pressing my cold little face into his warm cheek. It was wonderful.

As we reached an open spot in the rows of trees, my dad pointed to one just in front of him and exclaimed, "There now, how 'bout that one?" He set me down next to my brother in front of what seemed like a gigantic tree. Together all three of us brushed away the snow from the base of the tree, so that Dad could clearly see the trunk at which he would swing the axe. He lifted us out of the deep snow, set us back safely out of the way, and struck the axe against the trunk of the tree. All the while shivering, my brother and I clapped our snow-caked mittens and shouted, "C'mon Dad, C'mon Dad".  It didn't seem to take very long before he had downed the tree.

We needed to get the tree back to the car, and Dad encouraged us, saying he needed our help. He took hold of a thick branch on one side at the bottom of the tree, and my brother and I took hold of a couple on the other side. It seemed as though together we dragged the tree back to the car, but I'm certain Dad towed most of the weight. He warmed up the car, and we happily climbed in while he strapped the tree to the roof. He got in and opened a big Thermos of hot tea, and a box of shortbreads, that my mom had tucked into a bag for us. It seemed as though we sat there for quite a while, drinking and eating, sniffling and giggling, talking about how great our tree was going to look, and how much Mom was going to love it.

Eventually the snow stopped and we made our way home. Mom greeted us at the door cheering and laughing about the size of the tree. Even though we had very high ceilings in our house, it seemed as though my dad had to cut at least two feet off of it, in order to get our tree to stand upright. When he finally had it trimmed to the right height, we all loved it.

These days every Christmas when my husband and I go out to the Christmas tree farm to buy our pre-cut tree, I recall that wonderful day with my father and brother. The fragrance of the tree we found and chopped down on that day is still with me.


What recollections do you have about family Christmas trees?

Copyright©irisheyesjg 2010-2013.
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