Thursday, 31 December 2015

New Year's Eve--Family Style

Spending New Year's with your family? Here are a few ideas to help celebrate.

  1. Bubble wrap dancing: just how it sounds. Keep all the bubble wrap used over the season and set it out on your dance floor. Turn on some tunes, and get popping!
  2. Memory box: we use a decorated shoe box and put a mailing label sticker on the end with the year on it. This makes it stackable and easy to find for reference. During the year, add ticket stubs, programs, awards, photos, cards, etc. to the box to commemorate various events. On New Year's Eve, share the box and review the memories together.
  3. Resolution burning. This is a protest to the tradition of making resolutions. It works best if you happen to have a wood-burning fireplace or stove, or have a bonfire, but you can do this with a candle and a heat-proof container as well. Write out bad memories, resolutions you do not wish to keep, bad habits you would like to abandon, etc. on small slips of paper. Burn them in the fire together, of course doing this before any alcohol flows and keeping safety in mind.
  4. Have a dry party and/or an early count-down for the kids. Try and make the count-down late enough that they still get to stay up later than usual, but not so late that it causes them or their parents undo grief. Include alternative beverages for toasting. Beverage suggestions: ginger ale with extra soda water, or diluted sparkling apple or grape juice.Why diluted? Sugar before bed, need I say more? Kombucha is our new go-to drink for celebrations. It is healthy, lends itself well to sipping, reminds some of champagne, is non-alcoholic. is healthy, and has a more sophisticated feel to it than pop or juice. Also, you can now buy it by the keg from Live Kombucha in Guelph.
  5. Make homemade noise makers, hats and/or crackers to add to the countdown celebration. A noisemaker making station can include washed-out cans and plastic containers, dried beans, peas or rice, glitter glue, whistles, wrapping paper and ribbon scraps, glue sticks, scissors, patterned and regular tape, confetti, etc. Crackers can be made with bathroom tissue rolls, leftover tissue paper, ribbon scraps, stickers and small trinkets to add inside. Homemade hats can be made from folded paper or crowns, or by decorating hat bases reclaimed from Halloween. You can always resort to banging utensils against pots and pans as well, which also has a strong historical tradition for "warding off evil spirits".
  6. Change roles. Adults become the children, or switch parenting roles. This is a throw-back to the custom from the Roman Festival of Saturnalia that lends itself well to festivities this time of year.
  7. Another tradition is mummering. This can take on many forms, but the most common is dressing up in absurd costumes and visiting your neighbours, regaling them in song, and demanding their participation in some way. This link details much more about the traditions than I have room for in this blog entry.
  8. If going door-to door is a bit intimidating, you can instead play charades in the comfort and relative social safety of your own home.
Whatever way you do or do not celebrate the New Year, I wish you and your loved ones all the best for the coming year.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Charity Should Have no Strings Attached

This is the season of giving. Many of us search out fun and unique ways to show we care for others. However, there can be a dark side to this charity, and we need to be aware of this when we choose how to give.

I am of the opinion that charity should honour the dignity of the recipient. I believe that there should be no religious or political strings attached to such giving. If you agree, then read on.

There is a local organization that collects shoeboxes to distribute to needy children. The idea is that you fill up the box with various small but needed items as well as a novelty or two to be given to a child. It is a fun activity to search out items that fit in the box and to decide how to decorate it. This charity requires the families of recipients to attend their church and to receive the boxes in front of the local congregation. This is the part I take issue with. Limiting the giving to those who are willing to share your belief system, then robbing the recipients of their dignity by making the giving public turns what could have been an honourable action into something much more self-serving. That this is one of the more popular holiday charities in my area concerns me.

I strongly suggest that if you are asked to participate in a shoebox-filling activity this holiday season, that you research the process by which the recipients are chosen and the gifts are distributed.

There are other options for creative giving. At one of the malls in the area, you can donate a filled Christmas stocking. You indicate the age of the recipient and which of several local charities you would like to distribute it. The whole thing remains anonymous, with no requirement to subscribe to a given religion or lose face in receiving it in a public ceremony.

Another group to watch out for is the Salvation Army. They do great work, and historically have been there for people regardless of their religious affiliation. For this reason, I supported them for many years. However, when their religious extremism and related homophobic views and actions became more public, they lost my support. Again, there are many groups who are more open and truly inclusive through which donations can be made in order to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

It is also good to look for the organizations that have the most "bang for the buck" with less going to overhead costs and more directly to the recipients in need.

Some charities I recommend include Kiva (microloans), Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), local shelters, and sponsoring a family through Family and Children Services (remains anonymous from both sides). Many malls and radio stations have "trees of hope" in which specific items are requested and you can choose to fill that need anonymously. Giving to your local food bank is always a great option as well.

Feel free to add your own suggestions and ones to avoid (please indicate why) in the comments below.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Seasonal Kindness--A Collection of Great Ideas

It seems like everyone writes about kindness this time of year. I've been wondering about re-playing some of these ideas in February or March, when people are just plain tired of winter.

However, it is December and not March, so for now I will simply share some of the wonderful ideas I've come across recently.

A colleague of mine shared this website with me recently on which there is an assortment on different kindness ideas to be added to an advent calendar. Some ideas include donating winter coats and baking cookies for neighbours. The free printables can be found here:

Cookie recipes:
 If those ideas seem a little too ambitious at this busy time of year, this calendar, available as an advent calendar and a kindness calendar for those who don't celebrate Christmas, has some simpler, but still meaningful ideas

Another simple idea is to keep items handy to give to homeless / needy people as you encounter them in your travels. Bus tickets, subway tokens, and coffee shop gift cards fit nicely into any purse or backpack. Blankets, hats and mitts can be packed in the car. Taking time to look at and talk to the recipients can also make a huge difference.

Many food banks, soup kitchens and shelters are inundated at this time by seasonal well-wishers who tend to disappear after the holiday rush. Making a plan to help year-round is much more helpful in most cases.

An idea for the adults that can save lives is to give blood over the holiday season. This is a simple gift that costs nothing, and many are able to do.

If you know of someone for whom the holidays will be difficult due to loss of a loved one, divorce, illness etc., spending time with them doing something fun and not necessarily holiday related can help them get through the season. Often those who need it the most are the ones who fall off of the radar--this is the time to search them out and be there for them. Along similar lines, seniors' residences and hospitals often welcome volunteers to come in and visit and/or read to their residents.

The celebration of "Twelfth Night" can be a good time to consider some of these ideas as well, since the pressures of the season will have passed, and (perhaps) a little more time is available.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Pros and Cons of a Buy Nothing Christmas, or How Ugly Sweaters Became Cool

Image result for weasley sweaterWandering through the stores this fall, it seems every clothing retailer has at least 2 or 3 Ugly Christmas Sweater offerings. Was this a spin-of of Mrs. Weasley's famous letter sweaters? Perhaps. But there is no denying that it is a definite holiday fashion trend.
Well, that was meant to nicely segue into a discussion of Black Friday and the Buy Nothing Day movement, but it seems my writing skills are a little rusty, so please excuse my linguistic potholes as I plod on.

What is the symbolism with ugly sweaters anyhow?
Image result for homemade hand-knit christmas sweaterFor me, it is a symbol of love and caring, with perhaps a small amount of resentment thrown in. Picture for a moment a patient knitter going to the bother of choosing a pattern and yarn, then spending dozens of hours crafting a sweater with the knowledge that all of that hard work will likely be less appreciated than some latest impersonal and imported electronic offering from a buying spree at Walmart or Best Buy. There is bound to be more than a little frustration involved!

I had this personal experience myself. Twice now I have knitted sweaters for people. The first I knit for my now ex husband. I will let you speculate on whether there is a connection there, but I will say that he did wear that sweater, in public (even after the split), for more than a decade. It was not Christmas themed, and the pattern was subtle and the colours well suited to him.

With that "success" under my belt, I knit another for a different relative. I was a little more extravagant, and choose some (very expensive) designer alpaca and silk yarns. They were in pastel shades and were carefully worked so that the different yarns were spun together. The effect was subtle and classy, working well with her hair and skin tones, as well as with other items in her wardrobe. The receiver lost weight over my knitting time, so by the time I gave it to her, it no longer fit. I took it back and reworked it then returned it.

After several months, I asked her if it was working for her, She said she'd donated it to Goodwill. I spent over 100 hours on that, from sourcing the yarn, to knitting and reworking it! I have only knit sweaters for babies since then, since babies haven't found the Goodwill stores yet. That family member has been on the "gift card" list ever since.

Image result for ugly christmas sweaterFrustration, commercialization and lack of appreciation combined are my personal theory as to why holiday sweaters began to grow ugly. Another, much more positive theory is that receiving a hand-knit Christmas sweater means that someone cared enough about you to dedicate hours of work to your gift. That you would wear even the more outlandish ones is a visible symbol of love and appreciation.

Image result for ugly christmas sweaterBut then, the time and effort involved are overwhelming, especially when there are machines and cheap labour overseas, hence the new twist on an old tradition. Lost are the personal, local and environmentally friendly aspects that made the sweater such a sentimental loved (and dreaded) favourite.

Does anyone else see the irony in mass-market ugly sweaters?

Moving along here...

This coming Friday is "Black Friday" in the US. Canada has jumped on that commercialized frenzy over the past few years as well. Lineups, pushing and shoving, fist-fights, all for the sake of getting something at a reduced price that is likely to end up in the landfill in less than 6 months (where I'm sure they will join a few of the items in these images). Not only does such disposable thinking create landfill waste, it also is wasteful in the production stage, and especially in the transportation stage. International shipping is a huge contributor of GHG emissions. This article in the Guardian details the extent of the shipping contributions worldwide If that isn't the scariest Christmas ghost story since Dickens, I don't know what is.

Image result for christmas gifts 2015 worst toys
An alternative is to seriously consider the receiver of the gift and give accordingly. What are their needs and interests? Have you asked them directly what they would like? Is there a service that you could provide or pay for that would improve their life in some way? When the gift truly matches the receiver, there is less likelihood of waste.

Image result for kitchen gadgets

worst christmas gifts everIf you don't know the person, you can opt for a gift card. Gift cards for people you do know though can also send a message that you were too lazy to be more specific. An exception to this might be a gift card and a message in which you plan to get together to shop for a piece of clothing and go out for lunch, or movie passes with a personal note included. Adding personal touches is key.

Image result for keurig coffee makerFor someone who has everything, a donation to a cause that is meaningful to them is a good option. Services can also be useful here, depending on the situation. Stressed or over-worked people may benefit from a massage or spa treatment, although those aren't for everyone. Pet sitting, baby sitting, cooking / catering a meal are also some ideas that can be overlooked in the holiday frenzy.
The holidays are busy, so for some people, a gift that reaches into the future may be welcome, such as tickets to a live theatre or sporting event that matches their interests.

Once the gifts have been determined, I like to consider the environment when wrapping. There are many reusable wrapping options. This link has a few you can make yourself