Appreciating all the saints

It’s 31st October, Halloween; and pitch black outside. As I type, a single candle glows on the coffee table and the street lamps are starting to flicker to life. All spooky stuff, of course, if you’re in the mood to get into it, which sadly we in Europe don’t tend to do that much. I rather like Halloween – it has always seemed to me to be a great festival of autumn – the orangey colours, the pumpkins (a good excuse for pumpkin bread and soup), the nights drawing in. I love it for the same reason I love Guy Fawkes Night – the cosy, gather-round-the-fire, be outside wrapped up against the cold feeling it gives me.

Everyday saints

But this Halloween, I’m turning my attention to tomorrow’s holiday. Here in France, 1st November is a national holiday for All Saints’ Day, a Catholic celebration of all the saints in heaven, known and unknown. I’m not Catholic but the message of the day speaks to me on some level. For some reason, this year, it’s made me think about all the everyday saints that touch our lives.

I’m thinking particularly of a man who works in the canteen in my office building. He rings up the workers’ meals for payment and cheerfully wishes us a good day. He reminds you if you forget to take a paper napkin, and always has a genuine smile and a “bon appétit” for everyone. I always go to his queue to pay for my lunch, just because I know he will brighten my day. Now, I’m not actually suggesting anyone petition the Pope for canonisation, but I do want to take a moment to give thanks for this unsung hero of the lunchroom who never fails to put a smile on my face.

They’re all around…

And while I’m at it, I’d like to remember my friend Patricia, who, while I was off work sick recently, texted me a video of naughty baby pandas that warmed my heart. And the kind lady on the tube who silently handed me a tissue when I was literally crying with laughter at a David Sedaris book. And Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife – I’m on the third book of the most humbling and uplifting trilogy. And my chum Jimmy, who always greets me with “Hello, you beautiful thing”, something which will never cease to buoy me. And my Mum, who will make a full roast with parsnips whenever I am home for the weekend, as well as buying my favourite type of coleslaw, only to delight me. And my husband, who just has to look at me to make me smile.

These people will never have churches names after them. They won’t be praised in song or verse. But tomorrow, I’ll be thinking of them – and the million other people who touch my life – and giving thanks for the joy, warmth, humour, love and light they bring me.

Now that’s a happy thought strong enough to scare away any Halloween ghouls that may still be lurking in the morning.

 

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Choosing Christmas Cheer

The season is upon us – it’s an annual inevitability. But how will you choose to embrace the festive season this year? Will you be Scrooge? The Grinch? Or a zen Christmas fairy? Believe it or not, the choice is yours.

Christmas comes but once a year, but boy, each time it comes, don’t we know it! As soon as we hit December, it’s all systems go with decorations going up; the shops filling with goodies; and workplaces, schools, friends and family organising dinners and parties and drinks get-togethers. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, surely, but it’s also one of the most exhausting for a lot of people.

Stealing Christmas

Now, when you hear people complain about Christmas, as a few inevitably do, criticism is usually levelled at the consumerism of the whole affair, the indecent over-indulgence, the horrors of having one’s entire family in one place at one time with all the fighting and anxiety that causes; the stress of gift-shopping and the high street hoards… What you’re about to read will not join in with that kind of Christmas-bashing. I happen to love the festive season, and I can’t see that any of the things people hate about Yule are really linked to the celebration itself.

Christmas is a religious festival, certainly. For Christians, it’s about the birth of a saviour and the miracle of God made man, come to atone for our sins. Easy to see why that should be celebrated. And even for non-believers, it’s a magical, hopeful time of year. A time when we are encouraged to stop and remember to be a little kinder to each other, to spend time with the people that matter to us, to connect with fellow human beings, and to revel in the wonder in a child’s eyes as they sit on Father Christmas’ lap or decorate a tree. What’s indecent, stressful, indulgent and consumerist about that?

No, when Christmas turns sour, it is always a result of choices we make in how we engage with the season. And that’s something a lot of us forget as we open each window in the Advent calendar. Even at Christmas, we have choices and the power to say yes, or no, to traditions, invitations and customs. We can choose to get drunk at the office party, feel like hell the next day, and spend January kicking ourselves. Or not. We can choose to be on Oxford Street at 5pm on Christmas Eve. Or not. We can choose to buy a massive turkey and get up at 4am to start cooking it. Or not. Just like the other 365 days of the year, we have choices.

What makes your Christmas?

So many of the diatribes against Christmas that will inevitably be written by witty and arch columnists this year will play into people’s feelings of pressure and a perceived lack of choice around the holidays. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I for one do almost no Christmas shopping in December. All year long, when I see a bargain or a one-off item at a craft fair or on holiday that would make a great gift for a friend, I buy and stock. Sometimes I even – gasp! – make presents. I turn the radio off when they play Slade for the 100th time. I refuse to buy or eat Brussels sprouts even if, as I have been told, “it’s not a Christmas dinner without sprouts” (the devil of foodstuffs, if you ask me). I have agreed a gift spending cap with certain friends and family. I no longer give a Christmas card to people I am going to see and wish a Merry Christmas in person – this has limited the list to only those who don’t live near me and has seriously diminished my chances of getting repetitive strain injury once a year.

Reclaiming the festive season

I choose what Christmas means to me. And Christmas to me is making the pudding with my mum while listening to the same tape (yes, tape) of Christmas songs we’ve had since I was a kid; it’s giving friends gifts without expecting anything from them; it’s attending a carol concert and bellowing the descant to O Come All Ye Faithful; it’s watching Love Actually and giving silent thanks for my own Beloved and all the love I have in my life. Christmas (and Hanukkah, Eid, New Year’s Eve, Easter and Thanksgiving, for that matter) and is what we make it so if you find yourself Scrooging and Grinching as you shove round the shops and weep at your bank balance, don’t blame Christmas. Remind yourself instead that every day, you’ve made choices. Think about how those choices are working out for you.

Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3…

Get happy: give thanks now to shore up your soul for days when reasons to be cheerful seem few and far between. 

My beloved, who’s a lofty and well-built 6ft1, often ribs me about my somewhat more dinky stature – I’m a whole foot shorter than him (if you’re reading this on the continent, 1m84 vs. 1m59). It’s usually stuff about me jumping to reach the higher shelves at the supermarket, or making sure I avoid puddles in the rain in case I drown. If we see a large group of children, he’ll grab my hand and tell me to keep close in case their teacher mistakes me for one of them and I get swept off to primary school. I’d always found these little jokes between us sweet and funny – until this week, when my beloved’s fears came close to reality. Cue scary music.

The day began like any other…

I was wending my way to work one morning when I spied a group of be-wellingtoned kids kicking up the fallen leaves and having what looked like a lot of fun. Now, we live in a part of Paris that has a huge quantity of trees – we’re right near a large park, and the roads around it have been decked out with foliage for aesthetic consistency – so you can imagine how big that pile of leaves was and how crisp, dry, golden and, well, inviting.

Reader, I had to. Without thinking, I was in there myself, kicking up the leaves and having a fine old time. The funny thing was, people didn’t really seem to notice – leading my beloved to comment that I simply blended in so well with the other children that nobody noticed that I was a fully grown adult. Ha ha, most amusing.

Back to school

Anyway, the point behind these ramblings is that this week, I played in the fallen leaves and loved it. In that moment, I was so happy to live where I do and was utterly filled with gratitude for the trees in our quartier, the extra five minutes I had left myself so I didn’t have to rush that morning, the stroke of luck we’d had in finding our apartment right there (another tale, another time). Maybe it was because I was behaving like a schoolgirl, but I was suddenly transported back to my secondary school assemblies, where the autumn hymn of choice was always “Autumn days”. Anyone who grew up in the UK will have come across this harvest festival classic:

Autumn days when the grass is jewelled,

And the silk inside the chestnut shell,

Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled –

All the things I love so well!

So I mustn’t forget, no I mustn’t forget –

To say a great big thank you, I mustn’t forget.

I’m a big fan of all things autumnal, and that morning ditty was always my favourite. Even as a kid, I could relate to the idea that we all have such a lot in our lives (especially in Europe and North America), that it’s essential not only to be aware that we have a lot but also to feel and express that joy and gratitude.

The Glad Game

In Britain, we have the harvest festival to celebrate Mother Nature’s bounty, in Canada they do it in October, and in the US this month, the hustle and bustle of life will stop for one day so that loved ones can come together and perhaps think about all the good in their lives, offering a up a silent or a spoken “thank you”. For me, the Canadian and American Thanksgiving holidays are a cue to remember how happy I am to have some dear Canadian and American friends in my life – and to write and tell them.

So, whether it’s because of the blatant indoctrination practiced by my school in making me sing that hymn every autumn or because of friends scattered across the globe, this time of year I’m reminded more than ever of all I have to be glad about (I truly think Pollyanna had the right idea). There are so many little things that can easily be forgotten, but that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Admittedly, it’s hard to feel glad on cold, rainy days when the bus is late and you drop your new phone in a puddle, yet that’s precisely when you most need to remember your abundant blessings. That’s why it’s crucial to make that list – mentally or on paper – on days when life is a cruise ship rather than a destroyer. I’m starting right now, with both the big things and the small – in no particular order.

I’m thankful for the EU – without it my life in Paris would be harder, or perhaps would never have been possible.

I’m grateful I don’t have any allergies.

Gizmo, from the film Gremlins.

I thank God every day for my beloved – there are no words.

I’m thankful that I have loving and supportive parents, to whom I owe everything.

Alain de Botton, Jasper Fforde, Jane Austen and Richard Carlson.

I’m really glad I managed to stop biting my nails.

French cheeses – say no more.

I’m so grateful for my cherished friends – every one of them nourishes and teaches me.

I’m deeply thankful that someone, at some point, invented musical theatre, and that my mum introduced me to it at an early age.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to write this column and for the readers who enjoy it.

Love Actually and It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’m thankful for the autumn days, when the grass is jewelled, and their wordless reminder to say a great big thank you.