Our First Florida Christmas

We got to Florida on Thursday. I believe Al put the naked tree up that very day. We already had it down here for a family party one December. Our Seattle family flew in and Dad was here and I wanted a tree because Julia was still a baby and Owen was still little too. Kids love Christmas. So do I. Of course there were presents!

Since we’re planning to sell our Michigan home, and never ever ever be there for Christmas again, I brought down some of my favorite Christmas things. Dad came over Friday and we decorated the tree. That’s our bubble, now. Three. I invited Dad for Christmas dinner and then we all looked at each other. When exactly WAS Christmas? Why, just one week away. We’re going to keep our decor Christmasy until whenever in January I can finally part with it.

After Dad left, Al said, “The tree looks nice, but there are no presents!” We don’t usually do much in the way of gifts for Christmas, so this shocked me. Today we will shop for presents (wearing masks of course) and order the ham. Florida is wide open. I’m hoping with all my heart most of the small St Pete businesses and stores survived. We’ll find out today. And maybe see some neighbors and catch up on the gossip. From a safe distance.

I am Covid weary and Christmas cheery. See you next year!

Christmas Differences

Seems like this close to a year, I should be updating Retirement Diaries. On the other hand, isn’t everyone doing the same thing? Staying home? Lots of people dying every day. It’s depressing. We’ve lost several in our Michigan community. Out of 100 or so people, five died within a few weeks. I’ve had to make an effort to stay upbeat, not let fear or depression swamp me. It’s hard. I think it is for most of us.

Al and I have always thought differently about Christmas. It was so difficult in the early years of our marriage. My mother made our Christmas mornings magical so I enjoyed everything about it and Al didn’t share my enthusiasm. He didn’t like the commercial aspects of the holidays. But he never woke up to a living room filled with toys not just under the tree but set up like little scenes. For me, there was the little table and chairs, with a doll in one of the chairs and the Easy Bake oven on the table. Everything sparkled. One year there was a guitar for one of my brothers and a drum kit for the other one.

I didn’t know that having a special Christmas with lots of toys was commercial. I didn’t think about that. But now I see what Al means and it doesn’t matter to me that we don’t give each other loads of gifts. But it mattered to me when my boys were little. Al and I had very different childhoods and it took a few years to understand each other and all the various family traditions. We got to know each other better just by talking it out over the course of ten or twenty years. LOL I’m not even kidding. But we’re fine now and I don’t expect him to have loads of presents for me under the tree.

Many years we’ll think of one big item that we both want and we’ll buy that. Some years he surprises me with a special piece of jewelry. This year, trying to declutter the house before putting it up for sale in the spring, my mind has been hammering home to me that I have way too much stuff. It wasn’t always that way, but somehow I have about twenty boxes of Christmas decorations. I’ve sorted them into donate/trash/keep piles. Then I had to do two piles, one for Christmas in Florida this year and one for Christmas in Florida when we buy our new home. Because our condo is cute, but it’s little.

We are leaving in a week and I’m excited despite Covid. I still love Christmas. So far we have donated two large loads of Christmas things, including a tree and ornaments. I used to shop at thrift shops and Salvation Army so I’m always happy to donate things I can’t use anymore, thinking “someone will like this tree.” I tell myself a little story about how there’s a person or a couple or a family who don’t have money for a tree and they happen to spot my donated tree for $5 or whatever the price. And they’re thrilled to take it home and hang ornaments on it, wondering what kind of person gives away such nice things.

Very early in our marriage I would say to Al “I can’t believe you don’t like Christmas! Who doesn’t like Christmas?” and he’d say “I like Christmas, but I don’t like the commercial aspects of it.” And I would roll my eyes, thinking he was Scrooge. But now that our life overflows with so much stuff, I see his point.

Happy Writing Holidays

Stephen King does it every single day, sometimes including Christmas day. So does Nora Roberts. What is “it”? Writing. Some of us can’t go even a day without pen and paper or a keyboard. Unless we get our writing fix, things just don’t feel right.

That’s true for me, too, but I am not wealthy and I don’t have assistants to help me get ready for the holidays. Al is working more hours than God, saving up for the big retirement…so I alone must clean and shop and wrap and cook. And also bake cookies with Ben!

Since my own retirement from teaching, I’ve started most days with morning pages, and if I can’t work on my novel, those tide me over, like a snack before dinner. Or photos of my grandchildren until the next visit. But yesterday I had the whole day and I used it. Tucking laundry duty into yoga stretch breaks, I read and revised my entire manuscript.

It took about ten hours. I cut about ten thousand more words and didn’t add nearly as many back. But this morning I noted in my morning pages the holes in the plot that I need to fill. I have already filled Ben’s stocking and wrapped all the gifts. I just got back from grocery shopping for cookie ingredients and Christmas dinner.

I’ve got some final organizing to do tomorrow. Like get the guest room ready! I’m not sure when I will write those last few scenes, but I’m not worried because I know where I need to go and I’m almost ready for Christmas. I keep checking my calendar…can it be true?

Will Al really be home forever in one week? We have waited a long time for this. Even though friends think we’re in for a bumpy ride, I cannot wait to begin the next part of our life together!

And to all my friends, I wish you a heart full of love this holiday season. ❤

Christmas Reading

So far this holiday season (I started before Halloween this year) I’ve read ten Christmas novels. My very favorites are the classic “sweet” Regency romance novellas of Mary Balogh. She’s been reissuing these and I’m collecting them all over again on my Kindle. My top pick for holiday reading so far is A Christmas Bride, which is paired with A Christmas Beau. All Balogh’s books are excellent, well written and poignant. A Christmas Bride reached inside and grabbed my heart.

Balogh only writes historical romance, and she used to bring out a Christmas title every year, but this year she didn’t. Her newer books are not “sweet” (meaning they have sex scenes) and they are longer novels, not novellas, but they’re still delicious. Also re-read (so far) this year: A Christmas Promise and Under the Mistletoe.

Another favorite author, Anne Perry, also does a Christmas book every year. She’s another historical author. Her books are set in the Victorian era. This year she published A Christmas Gathering, which featured a wonderful minor character from the Charlotte Pitt series. Perry’s themes are often centered around forgiveness and loneliness. In this novella, a gentleman cannot forgive himself for a past failure and because he keeps this secret from his wife, they both feel that essential loneliness that somehow bites sharper during the holidays. But these are romances, so the endings are always happy.

Happily ever after is not just for historical fiction. I’m really fussy about what romance novels I read these days, but I always enjoy Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, especially the humor. Thus, I had to read the newest title Shopaholic Christmas. At first I was a bit worried. She’s married and rich now, so she won’t be having the debt dilemma of that first (and best) book in the series. It was a bit slow to warm up, but when it did, I laughed on almost every page. For sure a feel-good holiday book.

Brenda Novak is another go-to contemporary romance author (she writes mystery too) when I’m in the mood for a HEA. Her Christmas at Silver Springs was lovely. An ex-con and a rock star’s almost ex-wife seem like an unlikely couple–I was curious to see how Novak handled the ex-con character–but this prolific author skillfully navigated a tricky romance that includes kids who are missing their rock star dad.

I love books set in Nantucket and Nancy Thayer’s An Island Christmas gives readers a peek at this summer haven in the off-season. There was a hint of Scrooge in the ailing and elderly curmudgeon, but the island native heroine manages to capture his heart along with his more age-appropriate son.

I’ve read and enjoyed a few more Christmas titles, including the funny contemporary The 12 Daves of Christmas by K.L. Brady (fiancee leaves her at altar, the rat!) and Invitation to a Cornish Christmas, two historical novellas by Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott. All three of these authors are new to me. I loved Brady’s humor. Kaye surprised me with the sensual aspect of her lonely hearts characters–I think because I was raised on the sweet Regencies which are truer to the era IMO.

Romance readers know that these days even historical authors often go “all in” on the sex scenes. Kaye took her time with these lovers in Cornwall, so the sex is more a simmering slow boil. I really liked how she played with the ocean and swimming and incorporated them into the storyline. Makes me want to watch the series finale of Poldark, which I taped last night! Have not read Scott’s novella yet, but anticipate another hit of Cornwall after Poldark.

I know it’s a bit early, but here I am already reading for Christmas spirit and so want to say happy holidays to lovers of Christmas. ❤

How to Find Holiday Happiness

IMG_4951When I was growing up, Christmas was a mixed blessing. Christmas Eve, all four of my grandparents visited. My teenage aunt and uncle came over as well. Everyone had gifts, and it would have been very fun except Grandpa was often roaring drunk, dressed as Santa and bearing gifts. He was jolly, though, and I wasn’t sure why my mother was so upset. Which made my father a bit upset. One year, Grandpa went to the wrong house and distributed our gifts to the neighbor’s children. That night began with hope and ended in tears.

By Christmas morning all that drama was forgotten. My memories of Christmas Day are of waking up to a Shirley Temple dream. Beautiful dolls and wonderful toys spread around the tree and all about the living room. There was no space where a toy was not. Nothing was gift-wrapped and my presents were in the middle of the room, with my brothers’ to each side. As the only girl, I knew what was mine. The little kitchen table and chairs, the sweet easy bake oven, with real cake mixes. The dolls, the velvet dresses, the necklaces and bracelets and the satin-lined box that opened to a twirling ballerina.

Christmas morning was always the best morning of the year. It’s why, despite knowing it’s not true, I still sometimes equate gifts with love, money with love, abundance with love. As a young single mom, I tried very hard to duplicate those Christmases for my own children. With very little money for gifts, I tried my best. I went into debt, even. I’m not poor anymore, but when I was, I could not afford to pay off my debt, so I stayed under its steady thumb, struggling just to pay the outrageous interest so my boys could have a semblance of what I thought of as a magical Christmas.

Christmas is why I became a romance writer. When life is too stressful, too harsh, too much to take, I make another world. One that can be difficult but always ends with the feeling of Christmas morning and its beautiful treasures. I remember that feeling and it’s what I went for in my HEAs, every month of the year. Now that I write crime fiction, there’s still that satisfying ending when the criminal is captured and the world is set right again.

When I’m not writing, I have other December ways to deal with unromantic reality. I watch Christmas movies, read Christmas novels, listen to Christmas music and deck the halls. I keep the tree lit and a fire burns all day long. There is absolutely nothing in my contract with life that says I have to remember the bad Christmases, like when my sweet granny died early one Christmas morning. I only found out when I got to her hospital room for a visit and found her bed stripped, the room devoid of flowers.

That year, and the next, my husband left me home alone so he could visit his family. And I was really alone because my boys were with their father almost every Christmas. He and I wanted to give the boys as much security and continuity as possible, so, most years I had Christmas Eve and he had Christmas Day. Sometimes, when I was home alone on Christmas, I went to visit Granny at the cemetery. I realize life is full of suffering much deeper than my own personal sorrows. Somehow, despite my own sadnesses, I mostly manage to find the holiday sweet spot, which is a feeling and not a place.

Psychology and science now know why bad memories are easier to remember than good ones. The bad times, the sad times, cut a painful impression with which sweeter moments cannot compete. Painful memories remain vivid because they are an evolutionary tool; they keep an awareness of possible danger, learned from experience, front and center to ensure survival. Just knowing this cheers me up and makes me more determined to celebrate life while I’m here.

We don’t have to fall in with those deeper impressions of pain. We don’t have to drown in them. I know several ways to beat the rough hand with which life often slaps us. I write down the good memories, I create new ones, or discover those written by others and read them over and over. Eventually, they replace the painful stuff, which these days I am adept at kicking away before it stomps me down.

People make fun of romance, or the sentimentality of Christmas. Many bemoan the commercial aspects of the holiday season, but that’s okay. I know many suffering Scrooges. I don’t wish to join their chorus. I would rather be happy baking cookies. Music, movies, reading and writing also help make the season bright. During the holidays, I like to sip hot chocolate by the fire and think about all the blessings in my life. Now that I’m older, I don’t need lots of gifts under the tree to feel good. My thoughts dwell on happy times, like Christmas visits with my own grandchildren.

My wish for readers of this blog is that you, too, can be filled with the magic of this season. xo