This Winter, as the light dwindles in the Northern hemisphere and winter holidays approach, we here at the Neufeld Institute – faculty members and facilitators -would once again like to offer the gift of stories to you. This batch of holiday stories, our third annual collection, features stories about the incredible power of intentional togetherness. Deliberate and preserved family time has the power to transcend changing circumstances (Tamara), the power to connect in spite of the daily ups and downs (Bree) and, finally, in Karen’s story, we can witness the power of loving ritual to transcend even the greatest separation we ever face.

In this first story, Tamara Strijack describes how a newly created family activity, when done with care and intention, can evoke the same feelings of joy and togetherness as old ones did:

December always felt like a bit of a challenge for me. The question loomed large: how do I preserve meaning and connection in this season that seemed to become more about commerce with each passing year? But when my husband and I separated, this became an even greater challenge. Our family traditions were no longer something we could all count on. Where was the glue? It felt like things could easily fall apart. In the chaos of those first few years, I realized that as some of our old traditions were lost in the break-up, my girls and I needed something new to orient around. And so, Christmas tacos were born. A bit odd and unlikely perhaps, as traditions go, but those tacos gave us something to hold on to.

I remember that first transitional year when my girls and I had our first Christmas in our new family configuration. Inspired by a special taco night with extended family over the summer, we decided that this was going to be our thing. And so we prepared the seasoned jackfruit, the shrimp, the roasted yam, the cheese, the guacamole and of course, the much beloved baja sauce (my brother’s special recipe!). We laughed together in the kitchen and took our time – because it was just as much (probably more) about the togetherness in preparing as it was the eating of the tacos (which were incredible and worth waiting for!!). And as it turns out, you only have to experience something special once to create the intention for it to become a regular thing. It was the beginning of a new rhythm.

The important thing? We are doing this together, my girls and I, and are forging new memories, while still remembering and honouring what has come before. Not an easy balance to hold. But an essential one. Now to find the perfect avocado

In our second story, Bree Jordan, describes how her family’s cozy reading time provides a bridge of connection over all the inevitable ups and downs that come with each day:

Our “family reading” tradition began four years ago when our children were four and seven. It is something that we do year-round but, in the cold of our Canadian winters, the appeal of the warm blanket, a snuggle and an engaging tale is all the more enticing. We were homeschooling at the outset of our family reading adventures and I felt compelled to read them the classics. I worried about asking the children grade level questions that I had researched on teacher’s blogs online. However, I could tell it was becoming a chore and the joy was being leached from the story, so we ditched one of my personal favorites, “The Secret Garden” and started a fantasy series. The children did not want me to put it down! There is such a connection in this shared experience. The inside jokes, the interruptions to dispute the feasibility of a character’s plan, “They should have done this”, “Imagine if they did that!” were spirited and playful. It was such a powerful connecting activity that their dad started to feel left out and set about reading the same series to the kids over again. We found that we could impart our values and talk about life, love, disappointment and even death in a way that maintained connection and was not too hard to look at. We read myths from around the world and developed family travel fantasies and a deeper understanding of different cultures. When attempting to recover from events of sibling rivalry or in times of high stress, our family reading ritual lightens the load and provides an easy way to fall into connection again.

Finally, Karen Bollman, describes the way she and her brothers continue to connect with their mom each Christmas, illustrating the power of love and ritual to keep us connected always:

My mom’s favourite time of year was Christmas. She loved going to Christmas stores that had dozens of decorated trees, each bough bursting with a specific theme or colour coordinated ornaments. The list of special people she wanted to choose the perfect ornament for grew every year. Once her shopping was complete, she would present the ornament with a hand knit dishrag as an extra special touch.

Everyone knew her love for Christmas, so it made perfect sense that she was put in charge of decorating the hotel she worked at for over 20 years (some of you may be familiar with The Bayside Inn in Parksville). My mom created her own themed trees – blue and silver, white or red, and her favourite tree was packed full of shimmering golds.

When my mom passed away, my brothers and I split up her Christmas decor. I took her tree. It seemed fitting because when I was a teenager, I often decorated our tree for her. She worked long hours and despite some of our mother/daughter conflict, there was nothing like seeing her face light up when she walked in the door. Each year, I look forward to decorating her tree in my own home. My kids and I stuff each branch full of ornaments past and the new ones we picked from one of those Christmas stores she loved.

As a final gift to her memory, we had a beautiful blue spruce planted in her honour. Every year, my family meets at her tree to remember her, to honour her love of Christmas, and to fill each branch with handpicked ornaments that represent how special she is to us. It has been the most beautiful way to hold onto her while apart, and to connect her grandchildren to her heart.

This is one of my favourite ornaments pictured on my mom’s tree. She also loved the snow.

Whether this time of year finds you enjoying familiar beloved rituals, feeling the need to create new ones or, possibly, feeling the loss of familiar rituals or of loved ones, we hope you can find a small intentional way to connect with yourself and with those you love.

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