In this second post for the last week of Nativity, I’m thinking about Gratitude and a person I met recently who knows more about it than I do…
You should continually and unceasingly call to mind all the blessings which God in His love has bestowed on you in the past, and still bestows for the salvation of your soul. You must not let forgetfulness of evil or laziness make you grow unmindful of these many and great blessings, and so pass the rest of your life uselessly and ungratefully. For this kind of continual recollection, pricking the heart like a spur, moves it constantly to confession and humility, to thanksgiving with a contrite soul, and to all forms of sincere effort, repaying God through its virtue and holiness.
– St. Mark the Ascetic, Letter to Nicolas the Solitary, The Philokalia Vol. 1
The other day, I met a woman named Gertrude—that’s the pseudonym I’ve given her at least.
Gertrude is one of those strangers you know right off the bat is just an interesting person. I’m not sure what gave it away: her (authentic) vintage cat’s eye glasses, excessive lipstick or the hot pink, knitting-needle tote bag she was carting around while out and about.
We met at a knitting circle I attend on and off. This week, Gertrude showed up—new to this particular group, but a sort of legendary presence in the Torontonian knitting community at large and thus familiar to everyone except me.
As we sat around the circle, she got us all talking about Christmas and traditions and our respective “hopes and fears of all the years.”
When people started breaking off into their own conversations, I turned and asked her what the meaning of Christmas was.
As though she were waiting for someone to ask, she began her comments with a preamble about how she’s grown up in Newfoundland. (This, incidentally, led to a brief but enlightening tangent regarding her accent—a strange, subtle twisting of consonants I noticed every few words. I’m still getting to know Canadian accents—it’s a strange and endearing world up here.)
Anyway, back in the 1940s, when Gertrude was growing up, Christmas didn’t start in October like it does now—or November either. Maybe, she said, maybe it started a week before Christmas. That’s the first you saw of any decorations or goods in the store.
Before then, people were too busy with life itself to start thinking about it. Maybe your parents got Christmas Eve off, maybe they didn’t.
Whatever the case, Christmas was a much simpler affair. People went to church on Christmas Eve—nothing extravagant or extraordinary, since they went to Church regularly anyway. In the morning, there were small gifts in their stockings.
“But just the basics,” she clarified. “Like, maybe some nuts and fruits. If we truly needed something, there’d be socks, new pencils, or a skirt.”
Despite the simplicity of the gifts, Gertrude assured me that they really liked their gifts because back then, just what you needed was a kind of luxury.
After that, her family would walk around, calling on neighbors and relatives—to say hi and give Christmas greetings.
Then they had dinner.
“The dinner was always special because we got to have foods we didn’t eat that often. Like meat, and just…. Holiday foods. And there was extra time to spend talking and laughing about things. We didn’t have a lot of free time back then so it was a real treat.”
By this point, I was seriously depressed with longing for the 1940s—honestly, any pre-internet era would do.
“It must have been so nice,” I mused. “It’s too bad things are so different nowadays.”
But Gertrude wouldn’t commiserate with my pessimism.
“It’s not all that different, I’d say,” she began. “Certain things are silly—they put decorations out in October already. And people stock up on all these huge presents. It’s all a bit much.”
She was quiet for a moment.
“But, I have a granddaughter. And now, I watch my kids give her a gift. She opens it, and the thing is: she’s grateful for it. It doesn’t matter what it is—she always is just grateful and kind when she receives a gift. She never asks for more, never whines. That, to me, is amazing. She has everything she could ever need—and she is still grateful whenever she receives something. I sit back, and I think here she is—receiving a gift my kids gave her, just as I gave my son gifts when he was little, and just like I got gifts when I was little. There is this thankfulness tying us all together, all the generations. It all goes back to the original gift.”
What was the original gift? I asked.
“Well, Jesus,” she scoffed like I was some kind of idiot. “I mean, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And you can call Christmas what you want. You can even call God what you want. But whether you like it or not, Christmas is about God showing love to us. The trouble is, you can’t receive that love if you aren’t thankful—I mean, if you don’t have thankfulness at your core. Otherwise, Christmas is just going to be like the inn: no room for it…
“You know, I think it’s harder to be grateful now than when I was my granddaughter’s age—we had less stuff back then. But maybe now, it’s better—we have to work at it a bit. It brings out your true colors. No matter what the circumstances are, gratitude is always a choice—even back then it was. When you can manage to make that choice, it doesn’t matter what decade or culture you’re in—that’s Christmas.”
After some rambling that I don’t remember as well, she continued her thought by concluding that nowadays, everyone is on the hunt for “simplicity.” In her view though, there is nothing more simple than gratitude—the simple act of giving and receiving. If you can be grateful for what you have and whatever you’re given, that is true simplicity.
I’m continue to remember the wisdom of Gertrude’s words this week, as I turn towards Christmas. Every commercial or trip online bombards me with all the ways I supposedly fall short–buy all the things, bake all the things, exude all the joy. Ordinarily, the steroidal excessiveness of it all would eat away at me, launching me into a Luddite counter-attack.
Perhaps, though, I can see this as an opportunity to figure out what my true colors are in all of this.
Can I work towards the simplicity of giving thanks?