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How to have a meaningful Christmas

I keep staring at the assignment: “an article with five tips for a non-materialistic, yet meaningful Christmas.”

Why me? Why now? (Actually the email from my editor is dated November 8.)

Tip #1: Ignore the whole thing until it’s too late. This one’s easy. We’re all busy looking busy and distracted by all this mindless multi-tasking. When it’s all over, you can say, “Gee, I put it in my Blackberry, but somehow it didn’t interface with my schedule.”

Tip #2: Lose your job. This one lets you right off the hook. Who could expect a gift? And you’re likely to get invited to enough parties where there’s something to eat, so you don’t have to worry much about meals—until January 2.

Tip #3: Better yet, declare personal bankruptcy. The temptation to over-extend your credit is gone. You haven’t got any.

Tip #4: Arrange to come down with the latest, most exotic flu. Quarantine yourself in the interest of public health. Decline invitations over the phone with a hoarse and gravelly voice. Unplug said phone or put your blackberry in the freezer. Then hole up for the week, order in Chinese food and pizza, and reread the Deptford Trilogy.

Tip #5: Simply disappear. Not in such a way that posters go up around the neighborhood with your picture and a request to phone the RCMP. Tell people you’re going “home” for the holidays. Who’s to say that Argentina is not home?

All well and good, you say, but what about the meaningfulness? (Horrible word.)

Well if you can’t have a meaningful Christmas re-reading the Deptford Trilogy, then you have no right to call yourself a Canadian. That’s what I say.

And what if Robertson Davies doesn’t happen to be your cup of eggnog?

Try Margaret Laurence or Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro or Mordecai Richler. What could be more meaningful than Duddy Kravitz? I don’t know. Ask your librarian!

“But it’s Christmas!” you say. “You’re evading the issue.”

Guilty as charged.

All right, then. Here’s what I do at Christmastime. I make a retreat. I throw myself on the mercy of the Benedictine Sisters. They have to take me in; it’s their job. Mostly I sleep and read and take long walks no matter what the weather. I spend time in silence. During meals, I talk to the sisters, many of whom are American ex-pats. One is from Arkansas, and I find her accent and her manners particularly soothing because I’m a fellow Southerner. I go to mass on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas morning, and I accept the simple hospitality of the community.

It’s quiet. I go there to be alone. I mourn the dead. I take stock of my life, the year that has passed, a sort of examination of conscience. And I am painfully aware of where I continue to fall short, the places where I hold back out of fear, and where I carry resentment against others. Then at some point in my retreat, usually during a long walk, I let go of envy. Something opens in me. I forgive myself. And I remember that the season asks us to go inward, to become still. Which recalls Emily Dickinson’s line: “Winter under cultivation/ is as arable as Spring.”

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