She never let herself believe in the magic of Christmas . . .

I wrote this piece of flash fiction today, based on the opening words – She never let herself believe in anything as foolish as the magic of Christmas . . . This was a prompt for an old Christmas story contest that ran in a local paper years ago. I found the snippet in some notes of my mom’s. She was always entering writing contests. I used to think – why on earth would she care if she won a writing contest in a silly, little, local paper. Suffice to say, I was arrogant beyond belief in those days.

I got an email recently that reminded me that Christmas is not always an easy time for people. As I sat down to write, that reality was on my mind and this little bit of story emerged. It isn’t filled with holiday cheer – it doesn’t sparkle and make you smile like a freshly decorated gingerbread house might. But if you are lucky it could make you grateful for what you have. So – here goes.

She never let herself believe in anything as foolish as the magic of Christmas, but this year she couldn’t shake the thought that what she felt was real. It was as if time was standing still – her whole world poised on the precipice – watching and waiting.

It was a surprise – she definitely had not seen this coming. She had watched the early December days slip by like sodden leaves falling battered to the dark earth – each day she dutifully ripped off a page of the tablet on the desktop calendar, feeling as though a part of her soul was crumbled right along with the ball of paper that landed with a thud in the trash bin. Death was everywhere, now. It dogged her footsteps each day when she took Bella, their golden retriever, for a walk through the garden – plants dragged down to the earth by the weight of the West Coast rain. Everything dark and decaying – she supposed it was the way they would all end up one day.

The doctor said they might as well bring Tabby home for Christmas – make the time she had left special for all of them. In the New Year there would be time enough for thinking of hospice care and the end. So she had followed his advice and somehow, against all odds, the magic of Christmas had sunk into her the way the dark brandy her mother used to soak the fruitcake permeated every crumb of the cloth-wrapped loaves. There was a quality to the lights she saw on the streets and in the stores that brought tears to her eyes. They had taken three days to decorate the Christmas tree. The story of each ornament was told as if it was the last time any of them would ever hear that story. Hanging each special object on the tree was terribly important. She wanted Tabby to be able to see them all from the hospital bed that now dominated the living room.

She had never shopped for gifts when the only priority was the present moment – knowing that everything else was soon to slip over the abyss. A CD Tabby would love to hear this moment, a bottle of a light and fresh perfume to mask the ever-present smell of life slipping away, the prettiest flannel nightie to wrap around a body now diminished to skin and bones. And best of all, a stuffed pink bunny – just like the one Tabby had as a toddler – this one brand new and so soft all she wanted to do was stroke it over and over. She couldn’t believe the absolute joy she felt as she wrapped each gift and laid it under the tree. Or the pleasure she took in wringing out of each moment, precious drops of being together – baking and icing sugar cookies, pouring over Christmas cards, playing Christmas music, laughing together as they placed a Santa hat on Bella’s furry head. She knew she was already storing these memories like a miser with every penny that came her way.

The living room was dark now as she sat curled up in the recliner. The rest of the family tucked away, dealing in their dreams with their own versions of magic and pain. Tabby was asleep at last, the high sides of the hospital bed pulled up, the glint of the morphine drip catching the light from the Christmas tree. She traced the line of the IV tubing with her eyes before it snaked under the blanket. Her gaze shifted to the window and she saw the snow falling in huge, fat flakes to the ground. The trees, branches thick with the snow were already bowed under the weight like so many white garbed priests in supplicating prayer. The quiet was deep and total.

Her world was reduced to moments now – this last Christmas Eve, tomorrow the last Christmas Day. Tears washed down her cheeks and she was unaware. She knew the magic of Christmas she had felt this last week wouldn’t change the fact that Tabby was going to die. Very soon now she was going to bury her seventeen year-old daughter – bury her before her grown-up life had even really begun.

She rose silently and walked to the hall closet to grab a coat and her boots, a pair of gloves and a scarf. Out on the snow-covered lawn, among the tall trees, she turned slowly. Her head was thrown back. The snow fell on her face. She watched the flakes twirl  and twist far away above her. All that was – was now. All that mattered was this moment. It was all she had. Maybe all she would ever have.

xmas  star - peace on earth!

Holiday Survival 101


The Christmas season can be a stressful time. There – I’ve said it. For those of you who never experience any holiday madness in yourself or others – stop reading right now. These words are meant for the rest of us. Christmas can be a time when we make unrealistic demands on ourselves and the people around us. I think this is because many of us have been sold a Hallmark/TV version of what Christmas is supposed to be like. The subsequent jolt between that fantasy land and our own reality often equals stress, which can in turn lead to behaviours that are not pretty to witness, in ourselves or others. The plain and simple truth is that holidays make people crazy. The word bedlam fits well.

But don’t despair – I want to share a two-step plan that might help to temper some of the insanity. But first we’re going to need an insight and image to guide our way. When confronted with another person in the grips of holiday madness, I suggest we remind ourselves that the person is acting from a place of extreme discomfort – the mismatch between expectations and reality is brutal. Picture a small child sprawled on the pavement after a hard fall – lip split from the impact, knees and elbows scraped and bleeding – little bits of gravel imbedded in wounds. You get the picture.

OK – so with our insight and image firmly in place – two simple steps – and by simple, I mean simple to write, maybe even simple to remember, but extremely difficult to do. Why, you ask? When confronted with a person who is acting sort of crazy, you have to switch gears pretty quickly to get to a spot of feeling sorry for all that dirt in their scraped up knees. Your first reaction is going to be to head straight to your own holiday madness spot. If we aren’t careful we will find ourselves immersed in a screaming match within seconds. Holiday madness is a very infectious type of illness. So, suppress your own insanity, picture that crying little child and give this a try.

  1. Look right at the person and say – I see you are ________________ (fill in appropriate emotion – angry, upset, frustrated, sad, feeling like there is not enough liquor in the world let alone this house to make up for such a screwed up family). Pause to let this statement sink in. (Prepare yourself for the other person to say – you’re damn right I’m _______. Nod and repeat – I see that.)
  2. Follow up by saying – I care about you (or love you or like you or appreciate you – whatever fits with this person and situation.) Hopefully this statement can be accompanied by a hug or pat on the back or whatever is appropriate.

If you are feeling particularly saintly, these two steps can be followed by a sincere invitation to dialogue – i.e. would you like to talk? (I warn you though – if you issue this invitation be willing to put up with the possibility of some venting of steam before the person is actually ready to talk). And if you are right up near the top of the hierarchy of sainthood, you could add – what can I do to help?

But all kidding aside, the first two steps, carried out with sincerity, might just diffuse many explosive situations before the TNT really ignites. What have you got to lose? Think of it as a Christmas experiment – try it a few times and see what happens. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

(Warning – this strategy is not meant to be advice – heaven forbid, you all know how I feel about advice. Nor is it meant to provide a way of putting up with crap no one should put up with – it’s just a tool to tuck away in your holiday survival tool belt.)