Tag Archives: Christmas

Holiday Haven: Musings on Comfort and Joy

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!

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IMG_4412“A toast does not require a glass with which to clink.  It really doesn’t.”

The holiday season can be for many people…let’s just say:  fraught.  Maybe your life hasn’t gone the way you imagined.  Maybe you’d planned to spend Christmas Eve with a spouse, fireside, toasting to the future over your grandmother’s secret egg nog recipe.  Maybe you had dreams of children gathered around a beautifully set Thanksgiving table, drooling over the cooked beast, begging to hold hands and make sweeping statements of gratitude for another year of your endless bevy of sage advice.  Maybe you fell hook-line-and-sinker for the Holiday card photo that would be yours until death did you part—only this year, there’s only one parent in it, and you can’t find your camera anyway, and your kids refuse to pose.  Maybe you strung up your heart on the one small square box that would await you under the tree, filled with a tiny trinket with your name on it from someone called, Forever Yours.  Maybe your adult children and your grandchildren chose to go to the in-laws for Christmas and you’ve heard SHE makes better gravy than YOU, never mind her croquembouche !   My God…maybe you’re alone on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years.  Maybe your traditions never got a chance to birth.  Maybe the last time you felt that holiday cheer was when you were little and you’re far from little these days.  Maybe you want to beam yourself back to a time in your life that was more fair, simple, abundant, safe.  Or at least call someone who could remember that time with you fondly.  Only maybe, all those people are gone now.  

Don’t worry.  I’ll stop.  It’s not my goal to depress you.  But I’d like to think it’s my job to provide you some comfort and joy.  So here goes:

Whoever you are, wherever you are, the holidays are bound to leave your heart in shreds at least a little.  And before we get too far into the season, I’d like to help your heart hearth make its way to 2014 whole.  Fortified.  Happy to be beating whatever shape it’s in.

There are all sorts of ways to make the holidays sacred without focusing on what’s missing.   You can get a turkey from the grocery store (a lot of them give free birds this time of year), make soup out of it, and bring it to the local shelter.  You can invite friends you know are alone to sing carols at the local nursing home and gather for a meal afterward.  If your kids are elsewhere for a holiday, you can celebrate it with them on another day of your choosing and make it just as special.  You can make a Gratitude Tree out of branches, put it in a vase in the middle of the kitchen, and write notes of thanks on pieces of paper and hang them like ornaments—one per day until you ring in 2014.  You can read to kids at your local library some of those books your mother read to you and you read to your kids, or wanted to read to the kids you never had:  Truman Capote’s “A Thanksgiving Visitor,” “A Christmas Memory,” Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,”  Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Whales.”   You can gather up every holiday song you ever loved and blast them from the rafters of wherever you currently call home and sing your heart out. 

candleA toast does not require a glass with which to clink.  It really doesn’t.  You may tell yourself that it does.  And where will that get you?  On the Polar Express to the Holiday Blues.  Let’s step away from that train wreck and into the sacred.  Because no matter how you shake it, the truth is:  There is no shortage of sacred this time of year.  It’s everywhere.  You just have to receive it as the gift it is.  And there’s no re-gifting the sacred.  It comes to you, often when you least expect it, and it fastens you to reality like nothing else can, because it’s all yours.  No one can feel it for you.  Or take it away.  You can stand in a holiday-bedecked Lincoln Center, dripping in holly and cedar bows in the height of Handel’s Halleluiah chorus, standing next to everybody who’s ever been in your Christmas Card from the year you were born…and feel nothing.  You can hold hands around a cooked beast, candle-light dancing on the faces of generations of loved ones and generations of china, crystal, and silver…and feel empty.  You can stop in a snowy field in the middle of the night and watch steam funnel from the noses of draft horses, sweating from the sleigh ride they just took you on where you sang Jingle Bells, and drank hot-buttered-rum and someone quoted Robert Frost…and feel heartless.

So it’s time to stop bowing at those altars, especially this time of year.  If the magic happens…good for you.  As long as it’s something not nothing…full not empty…heartful not heartless.  Otherwise, let’s change the way our holiday minds think.  Let’s look truthfully at what is comfort and what is joy.  And let’s create that safe haven around us.  It begins with us.  Not who stands or sits next to us and in what hallowed hall.  Not who toasts with us.  Sings with us.  Eats with us.  Gives us gifts.  Receives ours.  We can take those Action verbs and send them up the chimney.  And we can replace them with a Being verb.  It’s possible to actually BE comfort and joy.  Not wait for it.  Of course it’s powerful (and yes, comforting and joyful) to take that Being and share it with loved ones in celebratory holiday moments.  But again, it has to start with us.  Whether or not you have a faith base, the truth is plain:  Our heads don’t bow on their own.  We bow them.  And whatever we’re bowing them to, especially at holiday time, let’s let those altars be ones that truly fill the heart hearth with comfort and joy.  Not expectation for the future or grief over the past.

This simple bowing to this simple altar is better than any tradition ever has been or will be.  Because it’s free.  It’s un-fraught.  It’s as simple as lighting a candle.  Not as a window-sill vigil for family lost or never gained.  But as an act of pure delight in the exact moment of your heart and breath.  This exact moment.  Right now.  Take a flame to that wick.  Sit quietly and watch.  Smell the wax warm and watch it pool and dare yourself to stay long enough to see it flood and drip.  Don’t clean it up.  Maybe put your finger into its stream and wonder at the fact that you can take the heat.  That it’s still friendly flame.  Just you and a lit candle.  All of a holiday winter’s night. prints

As featured on Huffington Post 50

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Long Ago: Community Entry #3

My characters are in Mexico, but they have the souls of Fir trees, snow laden…

A space just opened up for my Feb. 27-March 3rd Haven Writing Retreat in Montana…  Maybe it has your name on it!  Contact me at Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com… 

I am loving your entries for my “Long Ago:  Community” writing series.  Thank you to all who are submitting.  Keep them coming!  The winner gets a scholarship to one of my Haven Writing Retreats here in Montana…where I am taking the dormancy of winter and turning it into prose this month.  Thank you for keeping These Here Hills warm in community.  Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject.

Please enjoy this lovely piece by Lynn Trudell who blogs here.

yrs. Laura

The Christmas Tree, by Lynn Trudell

“We’re Jews,” my father would say when I begged him each December to buy me a Christmas tree.

The truth is, we weren’t anything, really. Though my father narrowly escaped Nazi-occupied Russia at the age of 14, bribing Auschwitz bound train conductors with gold pens, he left the practice of religion behind him when he came to the United States. My mother, who he met three months after arriving at Ellis Island – also a Jew in name only — agreed to marry him before a judge at City Hall. But because they were medical interns, the only night they both had off was Christmas Eve. So they tied the knot then, and ever since, celebrated the occasion of their union on the eve of the birth of Jesus, alongside the rest of the Christian world.

As you can imagine, this celebratory nod to Christ slightly confused their three children, of which I was the youngest. Every Christmas, gifts were exchanged, flowers were delivered, all kinds of delicious food was prepared, and even a few decorations were hung with care over our grand piano. But there was never a tree.

“We can call it a Chanukah bush,” I reasoned one evening at the dinner table. I was probably eight or nine at the time and convinced that if I presented my argument in the right light, my father would concede.

“There are more practical things we can spend our money on,” he said, pointing the end of his knife at my half-eaten broiled chicken breast. “Finish up,” he added, ending our discussion. His colleague, a man I will always remember for his huge stature and his odd propensity for smothering everything he ate in catsup, happened to be eating dinner at our home that night. And though I didn’t know it at the time, he was paying close attention to the conversation.

That Christmas morning, like every other morning, I opened our front door to collect the New York Times for my parents. But instead of the usual gust of crisp winter air, I was greeted by a monster-sized blue spruce leaning up against the outer glass door of our home, its branches extended wide as if waiting for an embrace.

So began the start of a new and magical era in the home of a Jewish girl who dreamed of decorating a Christmas tree. Every year after that, like clockwork, a perfectly shaped, deliciously smelling tree would arrive on our doorstep, freshly cut and awaiting my adoration.  I’d spend hours stringing popcorn through dental floss, cutting out stars of David on yellow construction paper and tossing silver tinsel over the outer branches. One year, my parents even sprung for a few colorful iridescent balls that I hung with precision on the side of the tree that faced the room. All of this fussing over a freshly cut tree made me deliriously happy through much of my childhood.

But as I grew older and my siblings moved out, the tradition grew less magical. Until one Christmas there was no longer a tree to decorate. And I didn’t miss it because I was busy making plans with my friends or traveling to visit a college boyfriend. In fact, it wasn’t until decades later that I was reminded of how a simple tree dressed in white lights and colorful ornaments could undo so much sadness.

I was thirty-four-years old, living in a beautiful home in Northern California with my two-year-old son, wishing I was dead.  It had been over three months since my husband’s accident, and though no one at the acute rehabilitation center where he lived ever said so, I knew I had already lost the man I married to the fathomless world of traumatic brain injury.

In spite of my broken heart, Christmas came anyway. And because I had a two-year old with piercing brown eyes and a penchant for pirate costumes, the members of a small non-denominational church in the town next to mine stepped up to make his Christmas, if not mine, magical.

People I didn’t know arrived at my doorstep with food and presents wrapped in colorful paper. They came with scented candles and snowman mugs and icicle lights for the outside of my home.  Then they brought the tree.  A simple green pine they propped up on an upside down cardboard box covered in red felt. When they asked if I had any ornaments to decorate it with, I told them I didn’t because I was Jewish and Jews don’t decorate Christmas trees. So they went home that night and returned the next day, each carrying an ornament for the tree they had placed on the box the day before.

That evening, Christmas Eve, my son and I laid on our backs under our sparkling tree, breathing in its earthy, citrus smelling sap.  I watched as his eyes grew big, taking in all the colors and lights that hung above our heads, and felt for the first time in months, a twinge of joy in the remote corners of my heart. It was at that moment, I think, that I realized there’s only so much room in a person’s life for sorrow. Eventually love does find its way home.

Fifteen years later, as I jot these memories down, I find myself gazing up over my computer screen at the gigantic pine tree that sits in the corner of our living room, decorated with many of the same feathery angels and beaded snowflakes that the members of that tiny church contributed to my now abundant collection of ornaments. My son is no longer a child. He’s bigger than I am and asks for dress shirts and cologne for gifts instead of toy helicopters. This year he tried to convince his eight-year-old sister that we didn’t need a tree.

“We’d be contributing to global warming,” he argues.  “And besides,” he adds as an afterthought, “we’re Jews.”

His words are a chorus to a song I’d long since forgotten. I catch my breath, wondering if my father, several years dead, is returning from the grave to finish our battle once and for all. But before I have time to respond, my eight-year-old daughter speaks for me.

“Have you lost your mind?” she shrieks with the authority of a person three times her age. “One stinkin tree is not going to make a difference.” She’s Montessori-educated, which gives her an edge. She also knows better than to touch the comment about being Jews. I, on the other hand, am ready to explain that our being Jewish is entirely beside the point. But I resist the urge because I know that one day my son will get it. He’ll understand that a tree decorated in white lights and weighted down with feathery angels – no matter where it comes from or why it’s standing in the corner of a living room — can’t help but bring joy into this world.

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Oh Holy Night

Featured on Rita Wilson’s Huffington Post 50…

Every year at this time I meet the holidays with an Andy Rooney attack that comes on a lot like gout. It begins with the first Kay Jewelers ad. And expands with the Lexus sporting the big red bow in the driveway. Then it snowballs with the slender young mommies in cashmere V-neck sweaters sitting on the couch with their kids doing Fisher Price arts and crafts, and then the deal is sealed by Best Buy which manages to make me feel badly every year about my last Christmas present. And the anxiety ensues. Even if I boycott the TV…the anxiety ensues. Please don’t judge.

Only fifteen more shopping days til Christmas. Coughs up the same hairball as: It’s twelve o’clock– do you know where your children are? For some reason this year I’ve tossed change into every Salvation Army bucket I come across and managed to totally ignore the rest of the holidays. Call it over-compensation. I’m daunted. Dashed. Maybe even depressed. My children’s wish lists look like checklists for a Moon mission and everything begins with a lower case i. The only item I’ve had the stomach to purchase is a pair of Ellen underwear because I remember a friend of mine saying recently, “I would do anything for a pair of Ellen underwear.” I went on her website. And lo…they’re not just give-outs to movie-star guests. They’re actually for sale! So I bought her a pair. In red. Cost me twenty bucks. And didn’t do much in the way of assuaging holiday angst.

A long time ago, I used to revel and delight in this season. I used to make all my Christmas gifts. Ditto my wreaths and garlands. I’d lovingly tie raffia around jars of plum butter and tomato sauce; make homemade wrapping paper with potato-stamped designs from star and tree-shaped cookie cutters. Arrange sentimental photos in shadow boxes adorned with glue-gunned dried rose buds from my garden. There were collages I’d assemble using magazine cut-outs I’d collect for each loved one over the year in a box with their name on it, cuz that’s how thoughtful I was. Very very thoughtful. For years I hand-designed each Christmas card and wrote loving messages in each with a silver pen– three-four hundred of them. All addressed by hand. What the hell was my problem?

Oh I know…I wasn’t yet an embittered middle-aged woman. I was still in the spell, nay, the myth, of Christmas carrying me somehow into wintery wonderlandy bliss. Christmas trees hadn’t fallen yet and broken the antique ornaments. Prime ribs hadn’t come out grey and tough. Yorkshire puddings hadn’t fallen. Santa hadn’t had one too many glasses of nog the night before and woken up at three a.m. without the stockings attended to. Those were the pink pure days of dog-earing catalogues like L.L. Bean and Garnet Hill and Williams Sonoma and Land’s End and FAO Schwarz and systematically making sure that the usuals were under that tree Christmas morning– a pair of pj’s, slippers, monogrammed something-or-other, a puzzle, the hot new board game, a Breyer horse, a hard-back classic book, a Brio train, a stuffed turtle, a baby doll. One year my daughter asked for an orange baby from Santa Claus. “That’s all I want for Christmas. An orange baby doll.” And by gum…Santa found her a baby doll with orange hair and an orange dress that smelled like freaking oranges to boot. She named her Halloween. I don’t remember what she was for Halloween that year, but apparently it had an impact on her.

Here’s what I’d like to do for Christmas this year: convert to Judaism. The Jews have it right. Spread it out. Make it sacred day by day. They don’t blow it all in one heap of wrapping paper and Amazon boxes flung all over the living room. In our defense, however, at least our family opens the gifts one by one and ogles. At least the kids can’t come down the stairs until there are adults standing by at the bottom. Yes, with a video camera. Okay, and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas (that tradition ain’t going anywhere, even though they both roll their eyes the whole way down the stairs.) At least we’re not trying to impress anyone with our theme Christmas tree. No, each year our Christmas tree looks like a drag queen with dripping mascara because I’ve kept every single one of my ornaments from childhood, most of which have Snoopy on them somewhere, and every single one of the kids’ school project ornaments which means they sometimes catch fire. And because on principal I refuse to be “tasteful” and get dainty white lights anywhere near my tree. I like the big colored bulbs from my childhood– the kind that when you squint, the tree looks like it’s dancing. In Vegas.

I guess what I’m really saying is…I’m a sucker for Christmas. That’s the plain truth. And since my kids are growing up and will be off to college before I know it…and because they told me that they hope Santa has room on his Visa card this year wink wink…(and the truth is that Santa’s Visa card is in desperate need of some head room) Christmas hurts this year. It just plain hurts. Does anyone relate?

I don’t want it to hurt. I want to rally. I want to make a gingerbread house. I want to have a caroling party. I want to hang garlands over the breezeway door and adorn the mantle with cedar boughs and the staircase with drooping garlands and gold bows. I want to go to the Messiah and get chills and feel my heart explode during the Hallelujah chorus. I want to have Sees candy on the kitchen counter and I want to dare myself not to bite into one with a cherry in it. And smugly win. I want to force Paperwhite bulbs in my grandmother’s crystal bowl with tiny pebbles holding their roots and I want to smell them first thing Christmas morning when I start the tea kettle and everyone is still asleep and I want to feel grateful for the fact that I pulled it off another year. Everything magical. Dreams met. The baby Jesus safe in his olive wood creche being watched over by lambs and donkeys and shepherds and angels and loving parents and God. Traditions in tact. Still.

And yet, for some reason that’s beginning to sort of scare me…I’ve got my heels dug into the ground this year. It’s the 11th of December and I haven’t bought one present. Except for the underwear. I haven’t done Christmas cards. I haven’t even gotten the Christmas music out. Truth be told, there are still pumpkins on my front porch. Really rotten pumpkins. I guess it’s because I want a different kind of Christmas. I want a quiet little chapel in the woods where we go in, shake snow off our boots, and watch our breath merge as we sing Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel and Once in Royal David’s City and songs like that. Sacred songs.

How can I make Christmas sacred this year? I just don’t feel it. Maybe I need to have a Charlie Brown and It’s a Wonderul Life back-to-back all day marathon with toothpicks holding my eye-lids open like in Clockwork Orange. But even those good old standards (Clockwork Orange excluded) depress me. The sacred delivered by media. I want the holy to show this season. And yes, I’m sure that it will just when I least expect it. I’ll let you know when it does. And I’ll believe in it for now.

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

One Man's Trash…


When we were kids, a person my parents held in highest esteem gave us some Christmas ornaments. They were red balls with Santa’s caps, felt eyes, and faux fur brows and beard. My parents coveted them and would only let the kids hang them when we were dexterous and teenaged, and even then we’d get stern looks before they put them in our charge. “Two hands,” they’d say. When I was finally old enough to hang these ornaments, I did it with fear and self-doubt.

A point came many years later when I was staring at the Christmas tree with my father like we used to do– “dreaming” he called it, and I looked at those Santa ornaments on the tree, waiting to feel that old tingle of being gifted by “kings”…and I realized, in my adult cognition, that they for all intents and purposes were…really really tacky. And ugly. And cheap. We had given them so much meaning, and there they hung, like the emperor and his “clothes.”

“Dad, you know…those Santa ornaments? They’re kind of horrible,” I said.

His face scrunched into a look of disdain, readying himself for fatherly-flung disagreement that truth-be-told, had worn thin as I’d got older and smarter and more dexterous. And then his face softened. And he laughed. “My gosh, you’re right! They ARE horrible.” And we laughed and laughed and laughed and I’ll never forget it. A total castration of royalty, right there in our sun porch.

Still, even more years later, when my parents sold their home of 40 some odd years, my sister and I divided those Santa ornaments up like family jewels. Two for her, two for me. And every year since then, I’ve hung them myself, only recently entrusting them to my own children. Even though I know better than to cling to such things, those Santa ornaments hold some sort of power for me. I think it’s because my parents believed they had power. And I believed in my parents.

Then yesterday, I came in from grocery shopping and my husband was under the Christmas tree with the vacuum. My ten year old son looked at me. “We’ve had an accident, Mommy. The tree fell down out of nowhere and a few ornaments broke. But just think of all the ones that DIDN’T break.” I looked at the re-erected tree and scanned it, making a check list of my most favorite ornaments, dating back to my grandmother’s childhood in the late 1800s. Then I saw my son’s eyes dart to the coffee table and there were the Santas. Both of them broken. And you know, I cried. I did. I wept. I wept because my father’s fingers had touched those powerful tacky bulbs and believed in them. I cried because they were apart of his Christmas “dreaming.” I cried that my mother and father needed to assign power to a thing like a tacky Santa ornament in the first place. I cried that I had assigned them the same power. I knew the person who had given them to our family. I believed in her power too. And now she’s dead. And so is my father. And all that power is either in my memory of them, or died with them, or never existed in the first place. I cried because at Christmas time, no matter how good you are at busting through myths, it’s hard. You want to dream. You want to believe. But I knew that this was yet another lesson in letting go.

So I took a photo, and then I promptly tossed them in the garbage can, smashing them down with my naked hand, perhaps wanting to bleed a bit. They’re just ornaments. They’re meant to be enjoyed and part of their wonder is that they are so fragile. Memories aren’t. The love of a parent is not. I haven’t told my mother yet. I wonder what she’ll say. I wonder if a thing like an ornament matters when your husband is dead and your friends are dying all around you. Perhaps that is why I wept. I wanted that return to childhood where time stands still just for a moment every year, when I wink at those tacky Santas and feel their power. I know the “dream” is in me. But sometimes it’s nice to have a little boost. So tacky little Santas, may you rest in peace. Thank you for your years of service. I’m sorry you had to go the way you did. But I’m not sorry we believed in you.

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Christmas Fire

Sending Christmas blessings from my hearth to yours. yrs. Laura

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

A Nest in the Hand…

Every year we go to this Christmas tree farm and cut down a Frasier fir. We make a day out of it. We listen to Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra singing old Christmas tunes in the car on the way there. We laugh. The adults act like children and the children act like smaller children. We bring hot cider in a thermos and peppermint bark candy and sometimes a little whiskey for my husband and me.  We are easy on each other.

It took us a while to get our tradition right. One year, the year our first child was born, we were frazzled enough to go to a Christmas tree yard in town. We spent $90.00 on the most gorgeous Frasier fir. That sounded about right. We’d recently moved to Montana from the city. That’s about what a Frasier fir ran. I asked the cashier where the tree was from, assuming that it was at least from some little corner of Montana. “Wisconsin,” she said, smiling. Probably cut down in September, sprayed with green preservative, and shipped out here in a truck. We agreed would would NOT tell anyone where our tree was from that year.

Then for a few years, we used to go out in the woods and cut down a tree, but we didn’t like how we went from environmentalists to opportunists, stalking the perfect tree, looking suddenly at the forest like a decorator’s showroom, considering taking the full tops off 30 foot trees just for our living room pleasure. The Charlie Brown trees that needed to be thinned were not enough for our years of inherited and collected ornaments. No that had to stop. A farmed tree was always meant for one purpose, and it usually had been loved and nurtured by someone who needed the extra cash come Christmas time.

So every year we go to this farm, and every year I feel a wash of newness and simplicity. We are kind to each other on this day. We know to take it slowly, marching around in the snow, shaking hands with trees to make sure we don’t end up with a dread prickly spruce. We have fake arguments about who picked the keeper last year, who will find the prize this year. We pretend we hear its call. We let our kids carry saws when they were too young, the punchy snow so forgiving. We take turns with the cut. We giggle and clap our hands when it finally falls over in a little timber that couldn’t really hurt anyone if it tried. We love watching my husband drag it through the snow like he’s just bagged a buck that will feed our family for the winter. Like it’s a hundred years ago. And it is like it’s a hundred years ago. No one pushes any buttons. No one has anything pressed to their ear except for maybe a wet mitten. I love this day.  We all love this day.

And maybe for this reason, the last two years, something really beautiful has occured. As we erect the tree getting ready to proudly mount it atop the truck, my husband, with his dirty XL manly work gloves deep in its branches, stops and sighs and says, “A nest!” And we all peer in and sure enough, there’s a nest. “That’s pro,” my ten year old son said this year. “Of course it’s pro,” said my fourteen year old daughter. “It’s a bird nest. All birds are pros.” And that big work glove carefully extracts a tight, dried mud nest, woven with horse hair, and full of flaxen larch needles. I have last year’s nest on my windowsill in my office, and will put this year’s next to it as a reminder of what it is to receive life’s little gifts, especially at Christmas time. I like to think that nature showers those who are open to its gifts.

Icelandic lore says that a bird nest in a Christmas tree means a year of health and fortune for the whole family. I wish health and fortune to the family that meets at THESE HERE HILLS. Happy 2011 to you all from Montana.

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