Monday, December 31, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #31 -- Dance!

Year end celebration...

Get out and dance with the crowds at the outdoor New Year's festivities wherever you live. If that doesn't work, consider putting on some favourite, lively music, rolling back the rug if you can, and inviting friends over to move and groove. Or if you don't feel like being sociable, turn up your favourite tune and dance a solo. I'm coping with my sense of imbalance, and our planet made it through another year in one piece, so I'm definitely going to dance!

Whether you feel like dancing or not, Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #30 -- Set up a new Christmas giving box

Think about next year...

As I'm writing this (on December 23rd) Josh Groban is singing, "There's so much to be thankful for" (I'm biting my tongue about where he's situated his preposition!) and I'm thinking this is the perfect suggestion as we move into a new year. As North Americans and people in the developed world, we are blessed in more ways than we can count... and often find ourselves with spare change in our pockets, unlike about 92% of the planet's population.

Now is a good time to make a plan for next year's giving. Setting aside a box for that spare change, or organizing our charitable donations for the coming year means that by next December, we'll have contributed to many worthy causes, and still have our spare change box to share with the Food Bank or the Salvation Army, or any other Christmas charity of choice. We do have so much for which to be thankful, and it isn't hard to spread that gratitude around, especially if we plan in advance. So find a little box, put it in a prominent place, and dream of those who might appreciate some shared spare change next year...

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #29 -- Get enough sleep

Don't forget your ZZZzzz's

The problem with Christmas and New Year's being so close together is that it's just too easy to run a serious sleep deficit -- which doesn't help anyone's spirit of celebration. This is about the simplest Christmas idea there is. Turn out the lights early -- my uncle swears that the hours of sleep before midnight are the ones that do the most good, and I tend to believe him. New Year's Eve is only two days away, so it might not be a bad idea to bank a little time... especially after I was up past midnight last night, working on a jigsaw puzzle and drinking scotch with a friend!

On another note, today we'll be celebrating our beloved daughter's 19th birthday, though the actual day is tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Christina!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #28 -- Have a meatless meal

Take a break from turkey...

As a cradle Catholic, I was raised with meatless meals on Friday as a sign of respect for the fact that Jesus died on Good Friday -- a form of penance. It's a long standing tradition in the Catholic world -- though it's never been much of a penance for people who like to eat fish. As a Catholic who is tired of the church's overemphasis on sin and guilt, I continue to observe meatless Fridays -- but for a few other reasons besides Good Friday.

For one, I'm finding it harder and harder to enjoy meat when I learn about factory farming and the living conditions in which animals are raised for our dinner tables. For two, the meat industry has had some pretty serious health scare issues in the last little while in the meat processing plants. And for three, I think the hormones and antibiotics in some kinds of meat in particular don't agree with me at all. I have had some pretty serious stomach cramps at three in the morning, the kind that make me wonder if maybe I should go to emergency. But most important of all, animals deserve our respect, and our planet does, too. The meat industry is one of the biggest polluters and destroyers of our environment, when you think about how many resources it takes to raise a pound of beef in comparison to a pound of vegetables.

Our meat consumption as a family has dropped fairly steadily over the last few years, and even more so since Christina has started cooking out of vegetarian cookbooks. So not only do we have meatless Fridays, but we're into other meatless days, too. It's good for us to try new things and eat lower on the food chain.

So today's Simple Christmas idea is to have a simpler meal that doesn't involve meat of any kind. Ours will likely consist of a soup I made from our garden produce and froze in the fall, homemade bread, canned tomatoes, and Christmas baking. Or maybe Christina will make us a tofu dish. Either way, we, the animals, and our planet all win.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #27 -- Play a simple game

Have fun with charades or SPOONS...

Or any other game that gets people moving, laughing, and being silly. Twenty Questions, Blind Man's Bluff or other old fashioned parlour games that get people together and having fun are a great idea for these long wintry evenings. I won't get into the rules of charades (the silent acting out of a word or phrase in competition between two teams) because everyone has their own way of playing.

We had an interesting game of "Mafia" after Christmas dinner, but it's too convoluted to explain here. I can, however, tell you about SPOONS. I think I'll have to talk my family into cutting their fingernails so we can have a crazy game or two. The basic idea is this: take a deck of cards, and pick out as many sets of four as there are people playing. Put as many sturdy spoons as there are players MINUS ONE into the middle of the table or circle (we've played it on the rug in the past). Deal all the cards. On the count of three, every player passes one card to the left, until someone gets four of a kind and grabs a spoon. The person who doesn't get a spoon is "out" -- but can remain in the circle because dealers have been known to accidentally deal in people who were previously out. Remove a spoon each time a person is "out" -- when only two players are left, the first one to get the spoon is the winner!

If you're looking for a good list of Victorian parlour games, click here, and have fun!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #26 -- Adopt a gifts-in, gifts-out policy

A lot of people think that Boxing Day is the time to box up unsuitable, mis-sized or unwanted gifts for return to the stores, or for getting the most out of Boxing Day sales. But once upon a time, especially in Europe, the true meaning of Boxing Day was found in boxing up items to give to those in need. I'm sticking with that thought today:

Give a thought to the real meaning of Boxing Day...

When a gift comes into the house, something it "replaces" (of equal or similar value -- a book for a book, a toy for a toy, etc.) goes out as a gift to the less fortunate. Hopefully this creates generosity, reduces clutter, and keeps life as simple as we can make it.

So what will you pay forward?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Merry Christmas Prayer

Happy Birthday, Jesus!

When I was small, 
I loved that you came as a small child, 
to be a person like me. 

The idea that God would come to earth 
the same way I did 
and experience 
fear of the dark, 
scraped knees, 
splashy puddles, 
and the marvel of a butterfly's wings 
made me happy.

You discovered what it was like
to love and be loved,
to laugh and to sing,
to care and to embrace
in the very same way that I did.

And now that I'm older,
I understand that you know
joy and enjoyment, 
heartache and heartbreak 
not only from living your own life,
but because you continue to live
in the hearts of each one of us.

Thank you, Emmanuel,
Show us,
in every situation
what it is that you would have us do,
to act justly,
love tenderly, 
and walk simply and humbly on your beautiful earth,
and always.

Oh, and Merry Christmas!



For those who have asked, here's the link to Monica's Epiphany, a special Christmas story written for a writer's club of two... And for those faithful readers who already know that story from years past, here's a really neat version of Silent Night (thanks to my sister for sharing it!) For the record, I'm not a country music fan, but this one has grown on me -- neat orchestration, and I've always been a sucker for countermelodies/descants. There seems to be some animosity between EMI and blogger that doesn't allow it to play here in the usual way, so click the Play arrow, and then click where it says Watch on YouTube. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Simple Christmas ideas #24 and #25 -- Bake a birthday cake for Jesus/Serve Christmas dinner buffet-style

Today I'm sharing two simple Christmas ideas because I have something else planned for tomorrow.

Happy Birthday to you...

Whose birthday are we celebrating, anyway? Bake a cake of your favourite flavour, decorate it, and put on as many candles as you like (scripture scholars can't agree on Jesus' exact birthdate or year, and 2,008 or 2,015 candles won't fit, regardless). Sing a Christmas carol and Happy Birthday, of course! Take a piece to share with a lonely neighbour, or invite that neighbour over to share in the celebration.


Make life easier for the cook...

That's what we're doing this year. Christmas dinner is at our house, and because of the way our house is organized and the size of our dining table, supper will go more smoothly if we don't put all the food on the table. Buffet style supper makes for less work for the cook (yes, I'm a lazy sod), and for easier cleanup, too.

It's Christmas eve, and we're looking forward to 8 p.m. mass, Christmas carols, and time together as family. We wish you a beautiful, holy night.

Isn't our Christmas tree angel lovely?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #23 -- Go carolling

Sing we now of Christmas...

That's what a group of us will be doing this evening for a short time because it's blooming cold out there!  A friend of ours has always wanted a "Christmas Carol" sing song, so we'll carol around our neighbourhood until feet get too cold. We might make a brief stop at the local Senior's Extendicare facility, and hope to sing for a few neighbours who might be at home. Then it's back to our house for cookies, hot chocolate and conversation.

Carolling is another one of those activities that just needs someone to say, "Let's do it." It's a way of bringing Christmas cheer to our neighbours during these darkest days of the year... but I fully expect it brings more cheer to us as individuals.

Sing we joyous all together, fa la la, la la la, la la la
Heedless of the wind and weather, fa la la la la, la la la la...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #22 -- Try something other than wrapping paper

Don't judge a gift by its cover...

I love the Japanese practice of furoshiki. Haven't heard of it? Well, in Japan, people use lovely handcrafted cloth to wrap gifts. This week, our receptionist at L'Arche returned from her trip home to Japan and brought a gorgeous piece of woven material to be used for furoshiki. Sometimes the wrapping is prettier than the gift! In this case, the wrapping was the gift.

But at our house, the wrapping being nicer than the gift is rarely the case. Years and years ago, before green was "Green," our family started the tradition of wrapping gifts in Christmas flyers and newspapers. We wrapped our kids' gifts in long-saved Saturday colour comics for extra re-reading pleasure. My husband once wrapped a fishing rod for my dad so that it looked something like a stratocaster guitar! (Lee is a very creative wrapper. Early in our courtship, I received a box containing a teddybear that ticked like a time bomb and bounced like a beach ball). Then along came gift bags, and we've been reusing the same ones for ages, passing them from person to person, sticky old bits of tape and all, ever since they joined our family (join our family, and it's for life). I don't think I've purchased a single gift bag yet. I've also discovered that most books fit perfectly into dishcloths, and my loaves of Christmas Oatmeal bread -- that went to the girls' teachers  and a few friends yesterday -- fit perfectly into brown bags that my girls decorate and personalize for their recipients.

Wrapping paper is one of humankind's silliest inventions, because it's a total waste (most people just rip it to shreds) and the metallic, shiny kind can't even be recycled even at Edmonton's world class recycling facilities (though plain wrapping paper can -- just put it in your blue bag). So today's simple idea is to be creative -- don't wrap with anything that can't be reused, and give the planet a gift, too.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #21 -- Hold your own candlelit concert

A musical interlude...

Here's a lovely, easy Christmas idea. Round up the candles in your house, light them and situate them around your living room or wherever your stereo is located, turn out the lights and play a recording of Handel's Messiah or other Christmas choral music to which you have access. I'll be listening to The Mystery of Christmas by the Elora (Ontario) Festival Singers, a cd given to us by one of Lee's cousins. It's a mix of traditional carols and some English carols that are scarcely heard, like Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. I'm going to give it my full attention, as it usually plays while I'm preparing for Christmas and I don't get to hear all the lyrics.

What are you listening to?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #20 -- Feed the birds

Remember our feathered friends...

Our suet ball is hanging outside the window nearest my computer, so I see a lot of our winter feathered friends as I work. Lately, there's been a huge yellow-shafted flicker visiting, but mostly, it's characters like nuthatches, chickadees, and the downy woodpecker you see below.

Our sunflower harvest was amazing this year. We cut off the sunflower heads and stored them in our garage, thinking we'd bring a new one out for the chickadees every so often... but the mice had other ideas. So we hung our sunflowers on our fence, and there were lots of squirrels and blue jays around for a while. They're too heavy to hang from the heads like the smaller birds do, so they picked seeds from around the edges, and our smaller feathered friends cleaned up the leftovers. The jays still come around now and then, hoping, I think, that we've set out a few more heads. They eye the suet ball, too, as does our squirrel, but it's hard for him to reach it. So he checks out the sunflower heads in case he missed anything.

Nature is something that puts us more in touch with who we are, reminding us that our planet is one huge web of life of which we are just a tiny part. Today's idea is to find ways to bring nature closer to your door, even if it's just your neighbourhood birds. Hang a suet ball, put out some bird seed or unsalted peanuts, and welcome some guests of a different sort. Merry Christmas to the animals in our midst!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #19 -- Consider a community gift

Not everyone needs their own (fill-in-the-blank)...

On Sunday morning, I was delighted to wake up to a radio program about collaborative consumption, Buy Nothing Christmas, and the Sharing Economy. Finally, finally, our media is starting to take more notice of people who are refusing to buy into rampant consumerism, people who find alternatives to following our culture's obsession with possessions. More and more of us are discovering that we can be happy with less, and that celebration does not require that we buy, buy, buy. If you like to listen to good podcasts, you can find the radio program by clicking here. It's 27 minutes in length, and worth a listen.

One of the worst things about this consumer culture in which we live is the fact that it has brainwashed us into thinking that we all have to have our very own fill-in-the-blank. But as many of us already know, the truth is that we don't all need our very own snow blower, lawn mower, apple picker, car, or basketball hoop. Some things are better held in community where many people have access to them. Cooperating and sharing with neighbours means that people use fewer resources to get along in this world. Not only that, but just getting to know the locals and sharing things between us builds symbiotic connections that strengthen community and create opportunities for the sharing of more ideas toward a better and kinder world.

If you're lucky enough to have an active community league in your area, get a membership, and find out about community-building and community sharing initiatives. Often there are playgrounds being planned or other things in the works that can use all kinds of neighbourly support. If not, it's always possible to invite a group of neighbours to gather and discuss projects that can make your neighbourhood a happier and more self-reliant place. I can't resist attaching this video about a woman who did just that. Pam Warhurst and her friends at a kitchen table in Todmorden weren't thinking about the gift they were creating when they started the Incredible Edibles project, but that's what they have done. Sometimes all it takes is one person with an idea to bestow something fantastic upon an entire community!

Video from KarmaTube

And while I'm on the topic of making our communities' future kinder, I'd like to invite you to click this link and sign a petition to encourage the City of Edmonton to become a community that supports Fair Trade and Fair Trade farmers by using Fair Trade products. It's another way to gift our world by doing something small to make it a better place...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #18 Take a Christmas stroll

A little exercise goes a long way...

This is one of my favourite times of year for an evening walk. Lee and I like cruising the neighbourhood on foot after supper while our girls are cleaning up the kitchen after my supper cooking spree (that's the deal -- I cook, they clean). The darkness, Christmas lights, and crisp evening air make for enjoyable strolls, and it's always nice to have a mug of something warm when we come back in (a little coffee with Irish Creme, maybe?) I suspect the fresh air also makes for better sleep when we do settle down for our long winter's naps... or maybe it's the Irish Creme?

Walking is a great way to destress from the busyness of December days -- and those exercise endorphins can't be beat. Consider inserting a stroll into Christmas Day between dinner and dessert. Making an after-supper walk into a regular routine that carries on into the New Year is a simple gift to ourselves that we can really feel good about!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #17 -- Give homemade coupon gifts

Time/talents are treasures too...

Are you stuck for ideas for certain people on your gift list? How about giving a little thought to something you might be able to offer them other than material stuff? Would that someone appreciate some light housekeeping? A regular coffee date? Some babysitting? Some baking? Computer help? Something else that you can offer?

My girls caught onto this idea early in their lives. I have received many hug coupons over the years, as well as certificates entitling me to art works and odd jobs. And the thing about coupons is that they can cover a huge range of possibilities that are only limited by the imagination and willingness of the giver. One year I gave a friend the promise of a handwritten letter each month. Turns out it was a gift I enjoyed just as much as my friend did!

Who would appreciate a gift of your time, talent or special skills this Christmas?

Just a quick reminder of the L'Arche Christmas Pageant, tonight at 7 p.m. at St. Thomas D'Aquin Church. If you click here you'll get all the details. Hope to see you there!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Simple Suggestion #16 -- Plan a few quiet evenings during the Christmas season

A little rest and relaxation helps...

This past week was a wild and crazy one for our family. Between Taize Prayer, meetings, school musical performances, some work-related shopping I had to do, and the arrival of The Hobbit in local movie theatres, we were out and running every single night. Tonight, we get to stay home, and we're planning to enjoy it!

A friend and I were lamenting this year-end frenzy that strikes during the darkest days of the year, days when it would be nice to curl up with a book, a blanket and a cup of something warm. Not that I dislike Christmas events and activities -- just that so often they get to be excessive, to the point that we're so tuckered out, we can't really enjoy another night out because it would be so nice to have a night "in", or alternately, when we get a few minutes break from feeling hectic and harried, we can't relax.

So today's Simple Christmas idea is just to have a quiet evening at home. Every couple of days. To keep our sense of sanity, sanctuary, and stability in the midst of the pre-Christmas rush. Make a drink of your choice, put on some music that you love, put your feet up, and enjoy!

On a completely different topic, after a year of listening to the prayers in the revised Roman Missal, I still can't stand them. I won't repeat my rant against the formalistic language here, but I will direct you to a website put up by some people who have given the topic considerably more thought and research than I have. Click here and you'll find a detailed explanation about why the new words don't work for many of us, and you'll also find a petition to sign if you agree with the article's writer(s). Unfortunately, I think the petition has already been presented to the CCCB, but I signed it anyway. It's the only place I've found where I can register my opinion, which is in agreement with the CNWE's explanation.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #15 -- Give gifts to the homeless

Support a local good cause...

In my dizzy state over the past year, I've only been to the Clothing Room at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul a couple of times, just for short stints. Physio has helped me realize that the vertigo's spinny-ness has dissipated, though my head still feels unbalanced. I'm back to driving, though not during rush hours, and am basically living with a sense of imbalance, since it's just not going away. So this week, it's time to return to the Clothing Room, and that makes me happy!

My mom has been keeping me up to date on my favourite homeless friends when they've come in. One of them has been praying for me, which is really neat, because I often pray for him when the weather gets really cold. I can't imagine life as a homeless person, but Dave has dropped little bits of his life story for me to collect over the last few years. He's a chronic alcoholic whose addiction keeps him from settling into a home, and he carries all his earthly goods a backpack which, according to him, frequently gets stolen by others on the streets, and needs to be replaced. He always seems to need gloves this time of year, frequently losing his, but he also admits to sharing his stuff with buddies who sometimes don't give it back. It seems that ownership is a much looser concept among our homeless brothers and sisters than it is with me, which makes me wonder sometimes -- who is the poorer?

Dave has a great sense of humour, and, I suspect, an even stronger sense of shame at times. But to me, he'll always be my first homeless friend, the man who taught me that homeless people are not to be feared or pitied, simply because we're all human beings who need to be loved, and because there's a fine line between Dave's life and my own. In reality, those lessons are a greater gift than anything I've ever given to Dave. His friendship is one of the lights in my life. He has made me more aware of the fact that none of us has any control over the families or situations into which we are born -- where I used to take that for granted, now I see how fortunate I've been. Dave? Well, he's just doing the best he can with the cards he's been dealt. I admire his resilience, because I don't know that I'd cope very well in his place.

There are those who say that charity creates a huge inequity between giver and recipient, and that we shouldn't be handing things out for nothing and creating dependencies. While I agree with that in principle, in reality, I don't want Dave to end up with frostbite, as he has in the past. The homeless in our cities need homes, but I am powerless to provide them with that basic necessity -- and some of our people actually seem to prefer life outdoors (except when it's really cold). What I can provide is some financial support to Housing First and other agencies that find homes for our brothers and sisters in need, and I can buy gifts for my homeless friends: socks, gloves, little soaps, shampoos, toothpastes and other toiletries, long underwear, toques, scarves, and other things that will get them through the winter.

It's easy to give money to help people far away, as with the microloans mentioned in Simple Christmas Idea # 13, but it's also important to support local initiatives. Last year our church gathered gift bags of helpful items to be given to those in need by the Inner City Pastoral Ministry. I haven't heard whether it's happening again this year, but even if it isn't, I can gather the same sorts of items and give them to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul this week. 

Mary, Joseph, and the holy child were homeless as they began their family life. We can all be so-called wise ones, bringing gifts, and receiving blessing. How can you gift the homeless or agencies that support them where you are?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #14 -- Create a family calendar

A gift of the year's highlights...

In the corner of one room in my parents' home is a wall covered with outdated calendars. Not your ordinary calendars, either. Each page sports pictures of my parents and their children and grandchildren engaged in different activities from years gone by. My sisters have done an amazing job of taking family photos and lovingly creating some gorgeous calendar gifts for Mom and Dad, and each time we visit, we have to check out the latest calendar page.

There are many ways to go about creating your own family calendar. Last week I saw a rather ugly freebie calendar at my drug store that could be vastly improved if some family photos were pasted on it. My computer seems to have a couple of calendar programs in its drives and there are downloadable programs on the internet. Places like Smilebox and Black's Photos have websites where you can upload pictures and get creative, though I've never tried those options. I just searched for internet calendars and found more options than I have time to sort through. As with Simple Christmas idea #12 (writing a family story), where there's a will, there's a way, and something personalized is a lot more meaningful than any generic, store-bought gift could ever be...

Now I need to get down to work and send some of this year's photos to my sisters for next year's calendar...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #13 -- Make a micro-loan gift

Sharing our abundance...

I've already moodled this idea before, but it's worth repeating: if we really want to "live simply so others may simply live," it's always a good thing to share our abundance with those less fortunate. One of my favourite ways to do this is through a micro-loan organization. The idea of giving small loans with very low interest to entrepreneurs in the developing world is catching on more and more, and it's easy for us to join in!

The thing is that people who are poor don't exactly have any collateral to offer in exchange for a bank loan. Providing proof of steady employment and a verifiable credit history are pretty much impossible for a woman with a family in a small village in Africa, so how can she be expected to apply for traditional credit to start her own business? Just the interest rates alone may sink her. And interest rates applied to the developing world by our developed world are a huge part of the reason that our brothers and sisters in developing countries are so far behind us in their standard of living.

There are those who question charging interest at all... but after years and years of sending donations to people in the developing world, we are realizing that free money creates an unhealthy imbalance between donor and recipient. Giving a loan at an interest rate that is easily repaid, however, allows for both sides to feel good about their efforts. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in India, understood that people feel better when they repay a loan rather than receive charity. He received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his pioneering efforts in microfinance, and the award brought his work into the limelight -- after he'd been at it for 30 years! He began in 1976, lending small amounts of his own money at low interest to help rural people start their own businesses. 35 years later, there are many organizations that do the same. Punch microloans into your favourite browser, and see how many hits come up!

My own experience has been through In 2009, a friend gave my daughters each $25 for Christmas to invest through Kiva. Since then, they've recouped their money twice, and will soon be able to reinvest again because a Sewing co-operative in Paraguay has almost repaid one loan. A music store owner in Honduras and a food store operator in Liberia are doing alright, too.

What we really like is that we're not sending money away and never hearing whether our donation made a difference. We can see that it did, and that makes us want to continue our microfinance efforts.

If you're interested in giving an entrepreneur in the developing world a low-interest loan, there are many organizations with whom to work. I know that Kiva works well, but if you've given through another organization and can recommend the experience, I'd love to hear about it. Any way that we can share resources with our brothers and sisters in the developing world is a project worth taking on!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #12 -- Share the gift of a personal story

Telling tales...

On the bookshelf in our living room is one book that you'll never find in a library or bookstore. It's the story of Lucas, a baby robin who was befriended by my aunt's little neighbour. My aunt wrote out the story, had her granddaughter provide the cover illustration, put it into a duotang, and shared the little treasure with her family, and mine. It's a neat little gift that is still read whenever it's rediscovered.

We all have wonderful family stories that could be written up as special gifts which might be appreciated more than anything we could find in a store. I've managed to write a story for my two eldest daughters, and will have to come up with one for my youngest. A creative retelling of a shared experience, perhaps with a few photos attached, can become a memento that will be treasured longer than the latest trendy Christmas item. And all it takes is a little time and effort...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #11 -- Be a secret angel

Do something kind...

My December calendar page quotes Hamilton Wright Mable, who says, "Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a CONSPIRACY OF LOVE." That conspiracy of love is everywhere in the month of December. Even the collision repair shop and the car rental place we visited yesterday are part of the "do something kind" campaigns that fill the month of December. Have you noticed any yet?

A friend of mine was at the Oil Kings game the other night when they had their "Teddy Bear Toss." Three minutes into the game, the Oil Kings scored, and over ten thousand teddy bears flew out of the stands onto the ice for kids' Christmas charities. (My friend's wedding ring went flying, too, and the kindness of people searching with him in the stands below brought it back to him. Note to Casey: you might want to get it properly sized!) There are similar activities all over the place if we just look for them.

On a much smaller scale, every year at work, the admin team at L'Arche pulls names for a simple little secret gift exchange at Christmas. It's not the gifts that are so much fun -- it's the opportunity to do something nice for someone in secret. But the exercise of being a "secret angel" in December then begs the question: if I enjoy it so much, why don't I do secret acts of kindness all year round? Occasionally, this space feels like a random act of kindness when I'm able to share a happy little story to try to make the world a better place for people who might stumble across my moodlings.

Random acts of kindness can occur any day of the year. I love this little video of Syed Muzamil Hasan Zaidi's 22nd birthday in Islamabad, Pakistan. He decided to mark the day with 22 acts of kindness. A brilliant idea -- we don't need to be given gifts on special days as much as we need to express gratitude for the gift of life. And we can do that by being secret or not-so-secret angels for others.

The end of his movie says, "Let us be Kind" because basically, we only have each other. Especially during this Advent and Christmas, let us be kind, and carry it forward too, keeping in mind that any angels worth their wings emphasize kindness no matter the season!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #10 -- Give food gifts

Presents that nourish...

This idea is one I would like to see more of. Edible gifts are rarely wasted. And these days, as I'm working more, coming home later, and feeling uninspired about what to make for supper, I can't help but think how nice it would be if someone would just hand me a basket filled with all the ingredients for a meal. Noodles, a jar of some sort of sauce, a can of vegetables, and maybe a package of something sweet (non-perishable, of course) would really come in handy for times when I'm dithering about what to do. It also might inspire my girls to do a little cooking if I could just direct them to that basket.

The thing is, I'm fortunate enough to have a fairly well-stocked pantry, so I can usually scrounge up some sort of meal. But there are so many working poor these days who can't. So if you're reading this suggestion and thinking that a meal basket is not something you'd appreciate receiving, consider our brothers and sisters who can't make ends meet by making your own food gift or two to your local food bank...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #9 -- Attend an Advent prayer service

Taize Prayer -- 2014

For the past three years, a group of churches in my neighbourhood has welcomed Christians of all denominations to pray in their worship spaces one Sunday evening each month (except June to August) in the style of prayer that originated in Taizé, France. If you've never heard of the Taizé (pronounced Tay-ZAY) Community, or the beautiful music that draws people from all over the globe to go in pilgrimage to a tiny village in the Burgundy region of France, I would like to invite you to come and join us for a musical, meditative, internationally flavoured way to pray (also, see

Music is the foundation of the prayer that flows for an hour, interspersed with psalms, a gospel reading, silence and intercessory prayer. At the evening's conclusion, we gather as neighbours and friends for conversation and refreshments. Honestly, it's one of my favourite ways to pray, because I've always been strongly drawn to music as a form of worship... and because there is no preaching. We sing and listen to the scriptures and let them speak to us of God in the silence of our hearts.

I am posting the dates and times below for future reference of any of my readers who might want to attend. (If you want a printable poster of your own, email me -- my e-address is on the sidebar under profile.) All are welcome! This Sunday evening's prayer (Dec 8th, 2013) at Holyrood Mennonite Church will be a beautiful Advent meditation for all who join us.

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near; wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart!

Taizé Prayer 2014

Ecumenical, musical, meditative prayer 
in the Taizé style from 7 - 8 p.m.

January 12   St. Thomas D’Aquin Catholic Church   8410 89 Street
February 9   Hope Lutheran Church   5104 106 Avenue
March 9   Lenten Prayer St. Luke’s Anglican Church   8424 95 Avenue
April 18   Good Friday Prayer Around the Cross
Providence Renewal Centre   3005 119 Street
May 4   Easter Prayer   St. David’s Anglican Church   7751 85 Street
September 14   Assumption Catholic Church   9040 95 Avenue
October 5   Holyrood Mennonite Church   9505 79 Street
November 9    Peace Prayer    Strathearn United Church   8510 95 Avenue
December 14   Advent Prayer    First Church of God   9224 82 Street

Everyone is Welcome!
For more information, email Maria; also see
Sponsored by these church communities, 
and the Edmonton Taizé musicians/organizing group.
Music copyright permissions obtained through the kindness 
of the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton,
and candles donated by Universal Church Supplies.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #8 -- Make your own wish list smaller

Rediscover your Christmas stash...

If you clear out your closets, cupboards and hidey-holes, what are the chances that you'll find something you forgot you owned but that might be on your (or someone else's) Christmas wish list this year? Last year I rediscovered a Christmas stash of things I had intended to give as gifts the year before -- but had hidden away so well, they were completely forgotten (my memory isn't what it once was!) Or perhaps there's something you're not using that someone you know would really love to have. Why not opt out of consumer culture by passing it on? Reducing the amount of resources we're using in our gifting is better for our planet.

My Christmas wish list has gotten a lot shorter since I've realized that a new Christmas outfit every year is NOT a necessity. In fact, it's not sustainable. Just think about the strain on the planet if all seven billion people on earth bought new Christmas duds every year. Special clothing for just one day of the year or one particular party of the season is actually a crime if we consider the environment, and if we want to live in solidarity with those who are less fortunate. Dressing nicely in older styles rather than adhering to ever-changing, unsustainable fashion trends is perfectly fine. The guy whose birthday we celebrate on December 25th certainly won't complain!

Bottom line: there is no rule that says that we have to go out and buy MORE, especially if we already have...!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #7 -- Choose charitable gifts

Gifting that keeps on giving...

Buying Christmas presents from charitable groups, fair trade organizations or local fundraisers means that not only the gift recipient will benefit -- you'll be helping others as well. I'm too late to promote the Just Christmas Fair, which usually happens the last weekend of November, but Ten Thousand Villages and Earth's General Store are good places to go Christmas shopping for fair trade items in December. I usually pick up my Christmas Chocolate from EGS, and love to see what's new at Ten Thousand Villages every year. If you know of any other earth-friendly Christmas gift shops, please let me know!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #6 -- Avoid using credit cards for gift purchases

Money, money, money...

Why would internet-savvy, credit and ATM-card-loving people want anything to do with cold hard cash? It's so inconvenient!

Well... if I give it a bit of thought, cash isn't so bad, really. True, I have to stop at a bank or ATM to get it, but once it's in my wallet, I am more aware of how much money is visibly passing through my hands. Handing over a card makes it really easy to lose track of what's being spent, especially during this Christmas season.

Then there are those nasty little mostly hidden costs called service charges that come with bank and credit cards. Every time I pay for something with my ATM card, I get dinged; a small amount, yes, but over time, small amounts accumulate. Even worse is the interest rate on credit cards. Did you know that most retailers, in order to pay for the privilege of credit sales, have to mark up their prices around 3%? So perhaps those places that give me a deal when I pay cash aren't really giving me a deal -- maybe they're just charging me the true price "before credit," if there is such thing as a true price.

Then there's the whole credit addiction thing. We caught a glimpse of the high cost of credit in 2008 with the North American financial meltdown, and we're seeing more with the European debt crisis and the U.S. fiscal cliff in the news these days. Canada has plenty of debt, too. For a lot of of us all over the world, it's much too easy to go overboard, but charges listed on a piece of paper don't impact us as much as empty pockets do.

The thing about paying cash is that it forces me to live within my means. There have been times where I've walked into a store sans credit card, attracted by something I didn't really need, and when I looked into my wallet, I discovered that I didn't have the necessary cash. By the time I had the money in hand, that purchasing impulse was gone because I realized that the item wasn't necessary -- or in keeping with my desire to live simply and sustainably. Cash (or its lack) can help in the category of "checks and balances against living beyond the planet's means to sustain life."

If you are buying gifts, using real money from your pocket instead of credit cards also makes January much nicer! Try on a cash-only Christmas for size, and see how it feels... and don't forget to put a few dollars (or more) into a Christmas charity kettle during your travels...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #5 -- Forgo gifts for family togetherness

Christmas Presence...

Let's face it -- most of us don't really need Christmas gifts. We have more than enough when it comes to stuff. We don't need to spend the $1500 per capita that numerous chambers of commerce say most Canadians spend on Christmas swag. (I don't!) But most of us have family who are far away that we would love to see... so why not use our dollars to be Present to those family members, or to bring them to our Christmas celebrations? Presence, instead of presents!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #4 -- Turn off the TV

Removing distraction...

I've moodled this idea before, but it seems to have even more significance for the Christmas season somehow. When I was growing up, my sisters and I decided we would give up TV for Advent one year. Not veging in front of the boob-tube gave us a lot more time to prepare homemade Christmas gifts, curl up and read, practice Christmas carols on the piano or guitar, hang out with friends and each other, and a lot of other things that made us happier than any Christmas TV programming could.

When it comes to the holidays, the fact is that people connect better without background noise, or top news story interruptions. Giving up the TV might seem difficult during Christmas special season, but time to do special things with the people you love is always worth more, isn't it? Heck, it might even be worth turning off the cell phone, at least on Christmas Day. Or longer, if you dare!!


Here's a little something that's too good not to share. At L'Arche last Monday, I told my core member friend Thomas that we got a new car on the weekend. (After becoming a single car family we soon realized that we need one that will be able to make it through back alley snowbanks in the winter time and pull our trailer in the summer, so we opted for a Hyundai Santa Fe. Our smaller, shorter car is up for sale.) Nothing excites Thomas like a new car. He went straight to the window to look for it, and was a little disappointed when I told him that my husband took it to work.

On Tuesday, Thomas asked me about my new car again, and I told him my sad story. The fellow who parks beside Lee somehow neglected to notice the slightly larger new vehicle beside his usual parking spot, and managed to scrape the paint off the rear corner of it on the first day. 

Thomas was alarmed. "You sad?" he asked, sitting down beside me. 

"Yes, Thomas, I'm a bit sad," I admitted. 

He leaned in closer. "You wanna talk about it?" he asked. "You can talk to me."

He was ready for me to cry on his shoulder. I was so touched, I offered him a cookie from my secret stash. 

"You're nice to me," he said, happily munching.

"You're nice to me, too," I smiled.

Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and I'm celebrating Thomas and all my friends with disabilities!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #3 -- Have a cookie of a day

A little Christmas community...

For the last several years, my mom, my sisters, my daughters and I have gotten together to do our Christmas baking. Cookie Day has become a much anticipated event. For a while there, it looked like Suzanna might have to miss out on it this year because of the school musical, but both she and her younger sister made clear to Mr. band teacher the incredible importance of Cookie Day, and he gave her a break from Saturday's rehearsal.

Christmas baking can be a wonderful community builder, and our world could use a deeper sense of community in so many ways. I know that Sherwood Park United Church is a stronger community because of their Cookie Walk, which was also held on Saturday. In 2011, the church members made over 2000 dozen cookies for sale! Not only did all that baking and working together bring church members together, but it also benefitted the larger community as all the proceeds went to local charities. Brilliant, if you ask me!

As a solitary activity, baking is not my favourite. But inviting a few friends to join in makes it a lot more fun. Baking gives people a common ground activity where they can get to know each other... and share the fruits of their labour when ready. The beauty of it all is that it usually just needs one person to ask the question, "Shall we have a cookie exchange this year?" and a few folks willing to bring favourite recipes to get the ball rolling.

This is mine -- cherry bells!

Are you participating in a cookie exchange this year?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #2 -- Have a Happy Advent


One of the things that drives me absolutely nuts about this consumer culture that we live in is that the minute Halloween or Remembrance Day is over, the Christmas music starts trickling out over the airwaves, and by December 1st, it has become a common place torrent that erodes any real sense of celebration long before December 25th. Our girl Christina is working in a downtown dental office that plays a top 40 station, and November 20th, she came home saying, "If I hear Santa Baby one more time today, I might kill something." Not that Santa Baby is real Christmas music.

The rush to Christmas starts too early for my liking. Not only that, but the full on decoration, lights and sounds we find at malls are guaranteed to prevent me from shopping because I love anticipation. We need a little Christmas right this very minute is not my song.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Personally, I can't have a Merry Christmas until I've given some thought to what the world might be like without Christmas. Advent is one of my favourite seasons because I love spending time in joyful waiting, longing and hoping. It's good for the soul to rest in this winter darkness and wait for The Light. I wish someone would come up with an album of Advent songs like the one below that I could play for most of December. Christmas without Advent is like a movie without a trailer, Suzanna says. And my girls would know... they've been anxiously waiting for The Hobbit and Les Miserables for months, checking websites for sneak previews, longing for the movies for months or longer.

Today's simple idea is to let the anticipation of Christmas build like that in whatever way works best for you. My thing is singing Advent songs. Here's one of the few I could find on Youtube. Even if you don't like bluegrass, you have to admit that these people are pretty talented! Personally, I like the little catch in the lead singer's voice, like an audible longing... but it's the ancient O Antiphons that I really love. I just wish they had sung all seven. Enjoy! And Happy Advent!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Simple Christmas idea #1 -- Decorate organically

I've decided to moodle some simple Christmas ideas daily for the next month or so, along with any of my usual odds-and-ends-ish reflections on life. These ideas come from a video that was posted online until Youtube rapped my knuckles for using background music that was copyrighted (I guess Handel's Messiah is in the public domain, but not that particular recording of For Unto Us a Child is Born). My bad -- you'll just have to imagine your own Christmassy background music as you read, I guess.

Sharing some simple Christmas ideas...

Tomorrow being the first Sunday of Advent, our family begins decorating for Christmas with our Advent wreath. I go out and cut a few branches off our cedars, soak them in warm water for 15 minutes (to kill any critters that might be on them), shake them out, hang them to dry in the laundry room, and eventually lay them across our metal candle holder. We're also using last year's candles (actually, we've had the same candles for many years). Buying new stuff that is only used once a year kind of messes up tradition, anyway.

Most of our decorations come out of three banker's boxes we store under the stairs, or from the great outdoors. Evergreen boughs, pine cones and fresh fruit are lovely, touchable decorations, and according to some research I ran across when getting my Simple Christmas workshops together, eating apples at Christmas is considered good luck in some places.

It's been years since we've purchased any Christmas ornaments. My favourites are the ones  our girls have made, and the Christmas cards that come in the mail, which I hang around our dining room. When preparing for Christmas, it's always good to consider where our decorations come from and where they will go when we're gone. A few branches of cedar will decompose in my compost pile, but plastic tinsel goes on forever, and if I really love my planet, I want no more than I've already got!

What's your earth friendliest Christmas decoration?