Tag Archives: Christmas

Tete-a-tete: Younger Sister’s penchant for staying on schedule never takes a holiday

Christmas loses a bit of its magic when children become older. Once the Santa Claus mythos has been dispelled, there’s less of a sense of urgency to go to bed early on Christmas Eve and wake up early on Christmas Day. By the time the college years roll around, you may be opening gifts in the early afternoon.

And yet, as the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Though the timing of our Christmas celebration may have changed now that Youngest Brother and Younger Sister are both in college, Younger Sister is still Younger Sister, which means the family will be held to a schedule regardless.

I affectionately refer to Younger Sister as “the tick-tock lady.” She is adamant that she be on time for everything, which, by her standards, means being early. If she has something to do but doesn’t need to do it at a set time – for example, picking up a prescription before the pharmacy closes – she’ll still have a schedule to which she is adhering in her head.

If you happen to be accompanying Younger Sister to an event or on an errand, she will tell you, quite firmly, what time she is leaving and remind you frequently in the hours leading up to the intended departure time. Should you not be ready at the pre-established time, you may find yourself chasing her car up the driveway.

We were initially confused when Younger Sister’s insistence on punctuality and schedule-keeping began manifesting itself, as there didn’t seem to be any precedence for this sort of mindset in the family. And then, after Grandma passed away a few years ago, we realized Grandpa was the tick-tock man. The only thing that had kept him from adhering to a rigid personal timetable was years of training by Grandma. Once she was gone, all those old instincts came flooding back.

Mom learned this the hard way when Grandpa decided it was time to leave for church and she still needed a few minutes to finish getting ready. Grandpa went downstairs and got into the front passenger seat of the car, Dad accompanying him to assist him.

Grandpa informed Dad that Mom “knew where the church was” and told him to go ahead and drive. Dad didn’t have much choice in the matter, so Mom ended up having to walk to church.

Given that that was what Grandpa was like in his late 80s, you can imagine what Christmas was like with 18-year-old Younger Sister as the driving time-keeping force. This was our first Christmas in 20 years without Grandpa, who passed away earlier this year, but Younger Sister stepped seamlessly into his role as the unofficial keeper of the schedule.

Of the three of us kids celebrating the holiday at home, she was (naturally) the first one to wake up. Mom and Dad convinced her to wait patiently for about an hour and a half, which was itself a Christmas miracle. I’m sure, however, that being allowed to open her stocking in the interim contributed to her willingness to wait.

Then, she began texting the family group chat, politely requesting that Youngest Brother and I join the rest of the family to open Christmas presents:

“Get up here now.”

After half an hour without a response, she visited our bedrooms to deliver the request in person. “Aren’t you up yet? We need to open presents!”

I had actually been awake since receiving her text; I was just waiting to see how long it would take her to break down my door and drag me out of bed. I may be an adult, but I’m still her sister, and I can’t help messing with her a bit when given the opportunity.

Once Youngest Brother and I joined the rest of the family and we all began opening presents, Younger Sister chastised me for opening mine too slowly. We had nothing pressing to do for the rest of the day, but her mental schedule did not entail spending her afternoon watching me ooh and ah over fuzzy socks.

I am of the opinion that if someone takes the time to think of me and spends their hard-earned money on a gift for me, the least I can do is take my time opening it and express my gratitude and appreciation while doing so. Mom in particular puts a lot of care into wrapping gifts, so I often exclaim over the bow or comment on the placement of the pattern on the wrapping paper before I open them.

Younger Sister, however, feels that too much of this creates an unnecessary drag on the gift-opening process. She’s all about efficiency, and –

I’m sorry, I just lost my train of thought because Younger Sister returned home after running an errand and pounded on the front door and rang the doorbell and yelled until I opened it for her.

Where was I? Oh yes, she likes things to happen according to her timetable and becomes somewhat irate if they don’t.

As the years go by, our family’s Christmas celebration will likely continue to change as we kids get older and life takes us in different directions. Through it all, however, Younger Sister will be there to keep us on time and on task, whether we like it or not.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Jan. 4, 2018


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Tete-a-tete: Grandpa had a ‘Wonderful Life’

As Christmas approaches, our thoughts tend to turn toward those who are no longer with us. Losses loom particularly large when we face our first Christmas without a beloved family member, especially when they’ve been a regular part of our celebration.

For the first time in 20 years, Grandpa will not be spending the holiday with us. He passed away in August at the age of 92.

We’ve never had a Christmas in New Hampshire without him. Every December since we moved to the great Granite State, Grandpa and Grandma would travel from their home in Seneca Falls, NY to spend the holidays with us, leaving just after New Year’s. After Grandma passed away in 2013, Mom would drive to New York and bring Grandpa back for his holiday visit.

Before Grandma and Grandpa would make their visit, they would participate in another holiday tradition: the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival. Seneca Falls is widely thought to be the inspiration for the town of Bedford Falls, NY, the setting of Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and Seneca Falls has held the festival every December since 1996 to celebrate the town’s connections to the film.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” tells the story of George Bailey, who has sacrificed his own dreams for the sake of helping others and is on the brink of committing suicide due to a devastating turn of events. Clarence, George’s guardian angel, is dispatched to intervene and shows him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.

Each year, the festival presents the George Bailey Award to an individual who exemplifies the spirit of George Bailey – someone who is a fixture of the community, who is generous with their time and resources and tirelessly puts others first. This year, the award will be presented to Grandpa posthumously.

I know this would’ve meant a lot to Grandpa, and it certainly means a lot to our family. It’s especially significant given that Grandpa’s similarity to George Bailey goes beyond a love of community and a desire to help others.

Like George, Grandpa wasn’t interested in taking over the family business – a farm in this case, not a building and loan association – and was eager to leave small town life behind and see the world. During their senior year of high school in 1943, Grandpa and his twin brother enlisted in the military to serve their country in World War II.

At this time, they were largely responsible for running the family farm. Their grandfather, who had previously run the farm, was injured in an accident and soon passed away, and their mother and father both worked at other jobs. Their request to enlist was denied, with the chairman of the local draft board telling them they were “drafted on the farm” because someone needed to be working the fields to provide rations for the soldiers.

Grandpa’s twin was given the opportunity to take college classes and soon left the farm for a career in sales. Grandpa, unfortunately, was not eligible for that opportunity because he was married and owned a home.

Like George, Grandpa married a charming and determined young lady who could keep up with his Charleston. Unlike George and Mary, Grandpa and Grandma actually won the Charleston contest in which they participated and did not fall into the swimming pool under the floor of the high school gym. They were high school sweethearts who went to every school dance together and continued to be dance partners until Grandma’s passing.

Their first home was an old structure that was being used for grain storage right up until the newlyweds shoveled it out. Much like Mary with the drafty old house, Grandma used her artistic sensibilities and flair for interior design to transform the former silo into a warm and welcoming home. Eventually, they were able to move into the main farmhouse, which Grandma decorated with the same artistry and skill.

Grandpa and Grandma remained on the farm for nearly 60 years and raised three children, setting aside their own dreams for the sake of the greater good. As with George and Mary, all the money they made went back into the family business to keep things going and continue taking care of people. They were never wealthy, but they were rich in the things that mattered.

As Clarence said in the film, “No man is a failure who has friends.” There was a place for everyone at the farm, with various family members and friends finding a job, a place to stay or simply a place at the table whenever they needed it.

Grandpa’s good character, friendly manner and persistence in doing what needed to be done were evident to all who knew him, and he and his twin brother were a memorable presence at the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival. Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu and famously said, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings,” met Grandpa at the festival on numerous occasions over the years. She took the time to send a lovely message of condolence to our family, assuring us that Grandpa undoubtedly has his wings.

From left to right: Grandpa’s twin, actress Karolyn Grimes (who played Zuzu) and Grandpa posed for a photo together at the 2016 “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival in Seneca Falls, NY.

From left to right: Grandpa’s twin, actress Karolyn Grimes (who played Zuzu) and Grandpa posed for a photo together at the 2016 “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival in Seneca Falls, NY.

To quote Clarence once more, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

It’s only natural to experience some heaviness of heart during the holidays when you’re missing a loved one. We can celebrate their life even while we are missing their presence in ours.

No matter the hardships and disappointments we may experience, George Bailey and Grandpa remind us that when all is said and done, it’s a wonderful life.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Dec. 7, 2017


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Tete-a-tete: Even the best-intentioned Christmas traditions can fail to take hold

For every successful holiday tradition, there’s an attempted tradition that never quite made it off the ground. It might be a recipe you hoped would be passed down through the generations but instead remains largely untouched at the holiday dinner table. Or perhaps it’s an ornament you anticipated would become a focal point of the décor but barely makes it out of its box, much less onto the tree.

In my family, our most memorable failed tradition is The Book. And yes, it merits the capitals.

Mom purchased The Book when Oldest Younger Brother was in upper elementary school and I was in high school. It was designed to be read during Advent, the period of time leading up to Christmas. For each day of Advent, there was a reading that corresponded to a Bible passage and a related family participation element, like a reflection question that every member of the family was encouraged to weigh in on. Each day also featured a Christmas carol, complete with music notes and the lyrics for every verse.

To ensure maximum family participation (this was before the arrival of Youngest Brother and Younger Sister), Mom would read from The Book every night after dinner while everyone was still seated at the dining room table. We were forbidden to leave until all aspects of the nightly celebration had been completed.

This wouldn’t have been an issue if the process had taken, say, five to ten minutes. Unfortunately, the combination of the reading, the family participation element and the Christmas carol took about half an hour. At least, that’s what I recall. Mom believes it took less time, and Dad believes it took longer.

To further include the family in our newfound “tradition,” Mom would ask for volunteers to read. I think there may have been some volunteering initially, but after a few nights, she had to start making personal requests because of how long the readings were.

As Oldest Younger Brother recalls it, even though each reading was a single page, the font was very small and the type was densely packed, so that what was crammed on to a single page could easily have fit on two pages or more if properly spaced. (Mom disagrees with that, too. I didn’t bother to ask Dad.) For my part, I remember my mouth starting to cramp up halfway through the reading process. By pre-teen/teenage standards, it was a torturous ordeal.

After the reading was complete and the family had grudgingly participated in the family participation element, Mom would play the Christmas carol on her flute and we would all sing along. It sounds picturesque and Rockwellian when described thus, but Mom had last played the flute in high school. As such, we sang as many verses of each carol as necessary for her performance to be flawless.

And if for some reason we missed a night, Mom would try to add it to the next night, so that we would do two readings, two family participation elements and two carols. I believe that was tolerated once, and then we simply had to forgo any missed nights due to dinner time encroaching upon bedtime.

Though The Book was introduced prior to the births of Youngest Brother and Younger Sister, this attempt at tradition did continue into their infancy/toddlerhood. Like most little ones, sitting quietly at the dinner table for an additional 30 minutes wasn’t a reliable part of their skill set – though they did enjoy listening to the flute – and Dad was only too happy to whisk them away from the table when they started to get antsy.

None of us took issue with the content of The Book – Christmas has always been a very important time of year for my family, especially in terms of the spiritual aspect of the holiday. It was simply the sheer amount of time that this “tradition” required on a nightly basis.

Over the course of several seasons, The Book’s appearances gradually became fewer and farther between until they stopped completely. This was partly due to Youngest Brother and Younger Sister learning how to walk and being less inclined to sit for extended periods of time and partly due to us “forgetting” to take it out of the box when we brought the Christmas items out of storage.

Mom, however, still wanted to have some sort of way for us to mark Advent together as a family. Taking into consideration our attention spans as well as our increasingly busy schedules, she invested in a reusable Advent calendar. It’s a three-dimensional tabletop display featuring a snowman and a Christmas tree. Each day, you select an ornament to plug into one of the holes in the plastic tree. The ornaments then light up and a jolly electronic voice proclaims that there are so many days left until Christmas.

Though it lacks the spiritual and musical elements of The Book, it does still have a family participation element in that we take turns choosing which ornament to plug into the tree. If we happen to miss a day, catching up takes a minute or two rather than another half hour. I would also venture to say that having a less stressful way of marking Advent enables us to focus more fully on the reason we count down the days to Christmas, which is that we are anticipating the birth of Jesus Christ.

Not every holiday tradition sticks. Some fail to become meaningful, others are too time-consuming or complicated to sustain. That, however, makes those traditions that do become a regular and enjoyable part of our celebrations even more significant.

And if you’re looking to try a new tradition this Advent season, I have A Book I’d be happy to give you – I’m sorry, I mean, “lend” you. (Mom is reading over my shoulder again.)

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Dec. 3, 2015


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Looking for a way to include the Christmas story in your Christmas celebration? Try this creative craft idea

In the chaos of getting everyone ready for church, opening gifts, preparing meals, and cleaning up the aftermath, it can be challenging to find a moment on Christmas (apart from during the church service itself) to reflect on the true meaning of the holiday: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Last year, I came up with a craft idea that incorporates the Christmas story into our family’s celebration beyond attending the church service. May I present to you, Christmas Star Boxes. Continue reading

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Tete-a-tete: How Mom and Dad saved Christmas (and a hamster)

Teresa’s note: I realize this topic is a bit unseasonal, but sometimes strange things happen to my family and I simply can’t wait 12 months to share them. Thank you for bearing with me, and please enjoy.

Everyone is called upon to save Christmas at least once in their lives. Sometimes this entails snagging the impossible-to-find toy of the season, salvaging a burnt turkey, or squeezing in a trip home to visit relatives you haven’t seen in years.

And sometimes, it involves performing CPR on a hamster.

This Christmas was our first without Cleo, our beloved family feline who, as I mentioned in a previous column, passed away over the summer at the ripe old age of 22. It was also our first Christmas with Jinx, the hamster 15-year-old Younger Sister convinced Mom and Dad to acquire to help ease our heartbreak. I’m sure Cleo would be less than amused to know that our current pet is, from her perspective, an appetizer, but I digress.

As a Christmas gift, Jinx received a large seed treat molded into the shape of a bell. She nibbled on it for a moment and then lost interest, so Younger Sister put her into her hamster ball to get some exercise. The majority of the family gathered around the kitchen table for a card game while Jinx scooted around the first floor, occasionally bumping into feet and furniture.

It was late and the card game was running long, so Younger Sister (who claimed fatigue but was also bringing up the rear in terms of points) decided to drop out and play with Jinx in the family room. She took the hamster out of her ball and reclined on the couch.

A few minutes later, we heard a terrified scream: “Mom! She’s not breathing!”

Mom bolted up from the kitchen table and Dad pelted down the stairs, converging on a sobbing Younger Sister and an unresponsive ham-ham. The rest of us remained around the kitchen table, frozen in near silence.

None of us wanted to verbalize the thought that was on all of our minds: If Younger Sister’s hamster – the “replacement pet” for our dearly departed feline – dies today, this will officially be our Worst Christmas Ever and Younger Sister is going to need counseling.

In true wifely fashion, Sister-in-law turned to Oldest Younger Brother and asked him if there was anything he could do. Oldest Younger Brother, who works in computer software, did the only thing he could under the circumstances and Googled instructions for how to revive a hamster. I simply sat and prayed that we wouldn’t be taking yet another family pet to the animal crematorium.

Joyful sobs suddenly erupted from the family room, and we all realized that we, too, had stopped breathing. Mom hurried in to the kitchen to share the details of the successful resuscitative efforts.

Mom had gently taken Jinx from Younger Sister and was cupping the insensible hamster in her hands when Dad, who we had thought was upstairs resting, raced into the family room and started barking orders at Mom like an army drill sergeant walking a new recruit through rodent resuscitation.

As though he had been in this odd situation numerous times before, Dad confidently instructed Mom to press on Jinx’s chest with her fingers and blow in the hamster’s face in a scaled-down version of CPR. Mom did so, adding a mini Heimlich maneuver by allowing Jinx to dangle slightly in case anything was stuck. Suddenly, Jinx started breathing again and, after a moment, impatiently indicated her desire to get back in her ball.

Upon entering the ball, Jinx ran a short distance and then stopped. Mom, Dad, and Younger Sister had exchanged a terrified look, thinking the CPR had been unsuccessful after all, and then realized that Jinx had paused to vengefully devour the rogue seed from her Christmas gift that had been dislodged during the resuscitative process.

How lovely. So had Jinx expired, it would have been because she choked to death on her Christmas present. What a wonderful holiday memory Younger Sister would have had to share with her own children – and a therapist.

The seed bell went into the garbage to avoid any future near-death experiences, and Jinx continued to roam around her ball, enjoying her second chance at life. We returned to our card game, shaken and emotionally drained but exceedingly grateful for our Christmas miracle.

Saving Christmas is not about creating a holiday celebration that puts Norman Rockwell to shame, with picture-perfect food, gifts, and family interactions. It’s about going the extra mile to show our family and friends how much we love them, just as God showed how much He loves us by giving us the gift of His Son, Jesus.

Sometimes love is driving to a dozen different toy stores to find the only gift your child asked for for Christmas. Sometimes it’s scraping the burnt skin off a turkey and eating it with lots of gravy to show appreciation for the first-time cook who prepared the holiday meal. Sometimes it’s putting up with the stress of taking time off work and traveling just to see your relatives smile.

And sometimes, love is putting your heads together and doing everything you can to save a small, furry life. Love does what needs to be done, no matter how hopeless – or ludicrous – the situation may seem.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Feb. 5, 2015.

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Tete-a-tete: When Christmas starts before Thanksgiving (a reflection on temporal discombobulation)

Since mid-November, I’ve felt unusually off-kilter. I feel awkwardly situated, as though I’m in the right place but at the wrong time or vice versa.

This is, I’m afraid, the direct result of having gone to the mall two weeks before Black Friday and discovering that Christmas had already arrived.

The mall itself and all of the stores were completely decorated, with holiday music piping over the speakers and a bored-looking Santa posing for selfies with his assistants because parents with small children had yet to get into the festive mood.

I am accustomed to a certain amount of chronological disorientation due to the nature of my work. I worked in the Telegraph’s newsroom for about ten years, and it was just a fact of life that you never knew what day of the week it was. You’re not only writing articles for the next day’s paper; you’re also working on pieces that will run a few days from now all the way up to a month or more in the future. Concepts like “Tuesday” only exist as deadlines, not actual states of being.

Now that I work for a magazine, it has only magnified my confusion in regards to time. Newspapers typically plan ahead in increments of days and weeks; magazines work several months ahead. I edited the December issues, with all of their Christmas content, back in September. Now that it’s finally December, I’m editing the March issues and mistakenly believing that warmer weather is just around the corner.

This temporal discombobulation is nothing, however, in comparison to the retail world welcoming Christmas before Thanksgiving. Younger Sister and I had ventured out to the mall to pick up Christmas hand soaps for a gift basket for a silent auction, and I must confess that our errand took longer than necessary due to my bewilderment. I simply could not get my mind around what I was seeing, and I kept stopping to gape at decorations and displays.

Entering the bath product store that sold the hand soaps was even more mind-boggling, with special holiday scents and gift sets having already taken the place of the non-seasonal inventory. There were so many Christmas items to choose from that I had to double check with one of the clerks to make sure I hadn’t overlooked any of the options.

The clerk was very helpful, but she looked as overwhelmed as I felt. I asked her how she felt about the premature holiday influx, and she admitted that it was a little disconcerting. But that, she said, is the direction retail is taking—getting the holiday merchandise out to shoppers as soon as possible, even if it means skipping another holiday in the process.

Don’t get me wrong—I adore Christmas. The spiritual significance of the holiday is paramount to me—my family’s Christmas dinner includes a birthday cake for Jesus (though we blow out the candles for Him). I also love the decorations, the lights, the music, and the emphasis on generosity and goodwill towards others that accompany the holiday.

But I also believe that the anticipation of a good thing is part of its enjoyment. Part of the reason that Christmas is special – indeed, that any holiday is special – is because it’s only celebrated for a limited period of time. If the celebration of Christmas was a year-round event, the ornaments and the prevalence of red and green would become a bit tiresome, just as even the hardiest New Englander welcomes a change of season after six months of snow.

Given the economic climate, however, and the fact that brick-and-mortar stores are trying to remain viable in the face of their online competitors, it’s hard to imagine Christmas returning to its normal time frame if these tactics prove successful. As someone who was able to assemble a Christmas gift basket for a silent auction two weeks earlier than anticipated, I must admit the early sales do have a certain usefulness.

So what, then, is the best way to combat the temporal disorientation that results from this bypassing of Thanksgiving?

When I worked in the Telegraph’s newsroom, we had metal racks labeled “Monday,” “Tuesday” and so forth that held the newspapers for that particular day of the week. My coworkers would walk over to the racks to get the day’s paper and, more often than not, freeze in confusion.

And so, I made a little sign that said “Today” and, after double checking the date on my computer, clipped the sign to the appropriate rack. Problem solved, at least in these particular circumstances.

I therefore propose that when stores set up for Christmas before Thanksgiving, they require their staff to wear large pins shaped like turkeys—the animal, that is, not the Thanksgiving dinner staple. That way, every time you interact with a store employee, you will be reminded that even though you’re buying hand soap that smells like gingerbread and candles that smell like holly wreaths, you still need to think about turkey with all the trimmings before you start trimming the tree.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Dec. 4, 2014.

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Remembering God’s ‘peculiar mercies’ at Christmastime

With Christmas just around the corner, I am reminded of the very personal ways in which God has acted in my life over this past year. Remembering these actions, I have discovered, helps me to appreciate afresh His most personal action of all: God sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem a sinful and fallen world through His sacrificial death on the Cross.

The Creator of the Universe wrapping Himself in flesh and coming down to earth as a vulnerable infant, to straighten out the mess we created for ourselves. It’s such a mind-blowing concept, I can barely begin to wrap my mind around it. But when I see God acting in the details of my life, who He is and what He has done – and continues to do – for me becomes that much more personal, that much more accessible to me. Continue reading

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Lost Words: the holiday edition

Looking to spice up your holiday vocabulary? Try out these gems from the Compendium of Lost Words, courtesy of one of my favorite language resources, The Phrontistery. Though these words exited everyday use centuries ago, they have a certain flair and specificity that more common words are simply unable to express. Continue reading

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