Tag Archives christmas

Anecdotes and advent calendars

Winter, Yorkshire, 2021

I can see why Paulo Coelho might be an author that people either rate one star or five. He is, perhaps, a bit didactic. He comes across as knowing that he knows things. That’s all very fine, you might think, for someone as ‘enlightened’ as Coelho, but what about me. He regurgitates ideas which strike one at once as both simple and complex: in that they strike one as being simple, his voice might hit as a little patronizing; in that they are complex, he is frustratingly vague about their application. His language is neither flowery nor poetic, or if it is poetic it’s a modern style made up of everyday words that reads something like a shopping list. If this leads to many harsh criticisms (and you can find many criticisms of his work online) then so be it. The world needs variety. And, when you’re on your commute or in the family living room where nobody manages to remain quiet for more than five minutes this plain accessible text is readable.

As to whether his claim to all this wise knowledge is true, a brief scan through the biographical section at the back suggests that much of it was earned first-hand through that old-fashioned form of education: suffering.

His book, Like the Flowing River, is a collection of anecdotes and thoughts, like feel-good slogans scribbled on post-it notes and stuck on the bathroom mirror but with a little more context. For me, I felt a lot of it was too short and could have been further developed. There’s a risk that if you tell things too straight the reader doesn’t pause to think and reflect but skips from one section straight to the next.

Sometimes though a section sets off a spark

In one anecdote, the author meets a happy lady and asks her the secret to her joy.

“I have a magic calendar. If you like, I can show it to you.”

The following day, I went to her house.

The woman invites the author back to her house and shows him a calendar filled with good things that happened on the same date of previous years.

“Right, today is the day they discovered a vaccine against polio,” she said. “We must celebrate that, because life is beautiful.”

Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River

Within my family, this solved the problem we had to do with our advent calendar. Our calendar is one of those with little pockets which you fill and then day-by-day open throughout advent. The problem was that we hadn’t got anything to put in the pockets. Serendipity intervened and just in time I realized that what we could do was place little notes in each pocket, making our own ‘magic calendar’.

I took the odd dates, the mother the even ones, and we went off to find feel-good facts. As we counted down advent each day, at lunchtime, we unrolled the scraps of paper and read out something splendid about the world.

Feliz Navidad

Palm tree.
Summer; Christmas.
Limari Valley, Chile, October 2019
Summer; Christmas.
Limari Valley, Chile, October 2019

I have never spent Christmas away from my family. Until now.

It’s been coming upon us for weeks now. I’ve taught small children Christmas carols and had my photo taken in a stupid Santa hat. I’ve sat with friends preparing traditional Venezuelan Christmas food – a ‘mais’ pastry filled with everything but the kitchen sink and boiled wrapped in a banana leaf. And with my housemate, I’ve made origami stars and storks. Like the Christmas stork that brought Jesus to the world amid a night of brilliant stars… or something like that.

And my mood goes up and down. I have an injury to my left shoulder and a stabbing pain which makes me mardy, and if I were at home I’d be pouting and stamping and causing a right fuss, and I’d be laughing and leaping and causing mayhem, but here is not there and as much as I am at home here, it’s summer and Christmas is mid-winter and I am ill at ease with the gods changing the seasons like this.

I tried to explain why Christmas feels so wrong here. First, there are the songs, playing in the supermarkets, which with a something like 3% of the population in La Serena being at a decent level of English are unlikely to be understood by anyone. Second, there’s a colour scheme problem. Christmas, as a winter festival, is done in winter colours: forest green, deep crimson. This is aesthetically weird placed in the middle of a city which is sunny year-round. I’m not saying Chileans should skip Christmas, I’m saying enjoy Christmas but do it in a Chilean fashion. Or go traditional and put Mary in a beautiful blue dress and have wise men arriving on camels from the desert. We do have a desert. Third, people here are stretched for cash and watching the shops mount up with plastic crap makes me want to scream.

But all this is making me think, what is the point of Christmas? And it’s not meant as a cynical question. Festivals do matter. They’re a time for people to step out of the routine and think a little differently, treat themselves to something nice, celebrate being alive, together.

Mine this year will be a bit strange. I’m going to miss home more this week than usual. It’s a quarter of the planet away.

This is not a bauble.

This is not a bauble. Photo Sicily, December 2016.

I was tidying up Christmas decorations in my grandparents house when I reached into a large plastic box, the sort my grandparents store baubles in eleven months of the year, up in the roof. And ouch. My finger hurt. Sharp pricks in my skin. A brush with something sharp.

I peered inside the box for a better look, and discovered, to my astonishment, a cactus.

Round, pale green and spiky, I carefully picked it up and showed it to the Grandmother

She wasn’t at all surprised. She knew there was a cactus in the box. She had already stuck her hand in and pricked herself that morning. And then she’d done nothing about it. She was mildly amused that the cactus had survived what she assumed was a full twelve months in the box, but otherwise unperturbed by the situation.

Personally I think she should have been more bothered, bothered enough not to leave it in the box with the baubles waiting for the next poor soul to reach inside.

“Put it in the bin,” the Grandmother said.

So, as a dutiful granddaughter, I placed the cactus by the compost bin.

A short while later I heard a commotion in the kitchen as the Grandfather discovered the cactus and decided to investigate. It was, he claimed, very much alive. Just in need of replanting.

The Grandmother insisted that the cactus be binned.

A short while later the Grandfather was seen trying to find a home on one of the overcrowded windowsills in the back bedroom of my grandparents’ house, a room filled with more plastic boxes, bags, cardboard and evidence of Christmas. The Grandmother, well, she was heard to be rather disparaging about his efforts.

Tensions were rising.

Which is when, as the dutiful granddaughter, I stepped in and volunteered to rehome the cactus. Now obviously, you can’t take a cactus in your hand luggage to Spain… so I wonder how it’s going to appreciate the care of its new warden… the Mother.

Mid-winter blue skies (and dealing with disorientation like a grown-up)

Rooftops. December 2018.

I’ve been in England a week and I remain somewhat disorientated.

Writing this, I sit at my desk. It’s an old-fashioned, green-leather topped desk with drawers (some of which lock) and the scars of a life spent existing full of things. It has history. I acquired it from a junk shop in the middle of a public carpark in some small unpronounceable Welsh town. It’s lived in four different houses under my ownership alone. And, whilst I admit that it’s not the ideal shape for perfect ergonomics, it makes up for it by being psychologically wonderful. It feels like a desk where one writes. It’s a comforting presence. Something sturdy and reliable. Homely.

A week ago, I was sweating as I dragged my tiny suitcase into the Spanish airport

I wore coat and a scarf over the layers I imagined would be necessary in such a cold country as England. The sky outside was bright blue. Straight from the tube bright blue.

But, when I arrived, three hours later in Yorkshire, I appreciated the layers. I pulled my gloves out of my pockets and tugged them onto my hands. The chap at passport control hoped I’d had a lovely holiday, I laughed and told him the holiday was yet to come.

Disorientating.

We went to my sister’s house for Christmas

Yes, the Midget (and the Blacksmith) own a house. That’s my baby sister. It’s got walls and ceilings and multiple toilets. They had just (and I mean just) had an oven installed. My baby sister owns half an oven.

I curled up on the corner of her sofa and started working through the Blacksmith’s library. In the past my very small baby sister would have asked me questions about the cooking or would have wanted me to give some sort of guidance, but other than a brief explanation of how Grandmére (that’s the French grandmother I once lived with) made soup, I found myself off the hook.

Afterall, if we’re being entirely honest, nowadays the Midget is the better cook. She (and the Blacksmith) made the Christmas dinner appear (other than the parsnips) on the table in a manner you might otherwise only believe was possible in photoshopped recipe books. Wise elder sister advice is unrequired. I know nothing of such grown-up activities as house ownership.

Once upon a time I would have got all hung up on the concept of home

I would have felt the disorientation and instantly felt a need to reaffirm my identity. I would have felt my role of bigger sister changing and compensated with bossiness. But sometimes the best seat is the corner of the sofa, and the best response to disorientation is to smile, with pride.

Now I’m back in my bedroom at my own desk. Well, the bedroom that sometimes I sleep in when I’m here. I have my records spinning, the music floats out of my speakers filling the room in a fashion I daren’t try in the ‘habitación’ I rent back in Spain. There are Spanish verbs on the walls and a piece of masking tape labelling the small cupboard inherited from my Nonna as ‘la mesa de noche’. It feels a long time ago that I read those words.

For the first time in a week, the sky looks somewhat blue. Not out of the tube blue, something somewhat mellower. A wintery, Yorkshire blue.

The Tortoise and the Turtle of the Sagrada Familia

By Posted on Location: 3min read
tortoise

I’m standing staring at a tortoise that represents the land. It’s squished by, or holding up, a column. The column’s symmetrical partner is held up by a turtle representing the sea.

turtle

Now, I’m not very good at understanding Christianity, and much of my knowledge of Catholicism comes from reading historical fiction (the Borgia books by Kate Quinn or the Tudor books by Philippa Gregory) or that one time I went to a Catholic mass and got told off for crossing my legs. So when I looked at the ‘minor basilica’ (it’s not a cathedral because no bishop sits there) and I saw a Christmas tree, I wondered why.

I consulted Wikipedia on my phone and a friend consulted a guidebook.

Turns out, the whole scene at that wall of the fancy church is the story of the Nativity and Jesus’ early life, tortoise and turtle included. There are babies being slaughtered, shepherds with their lambs, some rich men and a cow and a horse looking surprised to see a newborn baby. To the side are scenes of Mary and Joseph escaping to Egypt on a donkey, the precocious child Jesus lecturing the priests on how to be good, and a young man practising his carpentry skills.

My strongest memories of learning and writing about the Christmas story are from primary school. First, there was the day that I was ill from school and my three best friends all volunteered to be wise men. I ended up as a star. Second, the teacher spent the first ten minutes of the lesson talking about angles instead of angels and saying how we were all certain to spell it wrong, so much so that when I finally came to describe dear Gabriel I was convinced that my spelling ‘angel’ must be wrong that I went through my work and carefully changed my angels to angles.

The same teacher had criticized my work on the turnip story four years earlier. I’m not bitter much.

three-wise-men

Having seemingly missed out on the real religious meaning behind Christmas, I went on to study the Victorians, who I discovered introduced the idea of the Christmas tree to England. This is also apparently wrong, as according to Wikipedia Victoria already had Christmas trees as a child. The tradition it seems did however come from Germany which since the royal family were German makes sense.

In any case, for Gaudi, who took over designing the church in 1883, to have thought to put a Christmas tree on the facade seems to me forward thinking. And yet, maybe this is because it isn’t quite a Christmas tree. According to the Sagrada Familia website:

The cypress, a long-lived evergreen associated with hallowed ground since ancient times, symbolizes the eternal love of Christ. In Catalonia, the cypress is planted as a sign of welcome in local farmhouses.

I want to know if in Catalonia they really do plant trees inside farmhouses, or they plant them by farmhouses, or what they mean is at Christmastime they have a Christmas tree.

killing-babies

I don’t yet feel enlightened.