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It’s that frantic time of year between Black Friday and Christmas morning, when the overwhelming question coming out of our media boxes seems to be “What are you going to buy?” with the very clear assumption that you must buy SOMEthing.

I have a long-standing love/hate relationship with Christmas.  I prefer to celebrate the Winter Solstice instead and I wish I could ignore the whole gift-obsessed culture of the holiday season all together.  At the same time, I end up getting a new holiday CD every year, I love it when people wear Christmas hats to work, and I think decorating for the season is way super fun.

Over the past few years I’ve been struggling to come up with my own holiday customs and rituals.  This is the first year Mark and I will spend the holidays together as a married couple and now I feel the setting of traditions to be even more important.

Recently I met someone who gave me a wonderful idea.  A retired schoolteacher is meeting with Mark once a week for a writing group.  She’s an incredible, sharp-as-a-tack woman.  The writing she brings each week is short stories — often true stories from her own experiences.  Some of these she hopes to develop into a children’s book, others are simply stories to pass down to her grown kids and their kids.

Think about that.  Stories to pass down.  Real life, this-happened-to-me stories.  Do you know how your parents met?  Do you know how your mom/dad broke a leg at 10 years old?  Do you remember when you first learned the truth about Santa?

We lose so many stories, and yet there is such a wealth of incredible, personal stories out there in our families, among our own friends. How awesome would it be if we exchanged short stories this year in lieu of store-bought gifts?  I would be THRILLED if someone gave me a story.  It’s a beautifully satisfying gift on all kinds of levels — the obsessive collector, the curious busy body, the affectionate relative, or the estranged long-distance friend.

In a way, that’s what people were doing with the old custom of holiday family newsletters.  A friend of mine used to write us all a poem at the end of each year that summed up her adventures for the past 12 months … and it usually rhymed!  I’ve already asked my parents to just give me a story – any story – for Christmas this year.

Sure, writing a story is harder than just picking up something at a store … or is it?  I don’t know about you, but I would much prefer to sit at home, looking out the window, composing a little memory on my computer than go outside in the cold, drive through slushy crazy traffic to a crowded store or mall, and figure out which knick-knack will not be completely useless to the gift recipient.

My only regret is that I didn’t start asking for stories sooner.

I’ve mentioned here before that I enjoy doing quick informal visual surveys on the city bus to see how many people are reading.  A person reading a book in public always catches my attention for some reason, maybe because of all the “book is dead” naysaying.  I’m a gadget freak who has a love affair with paper, so that might also make me more excited by the sight of someone holding a form of paper and giving their attention to it.

Anyway.  This morning on the bus, I sat across the aisle from a young man holding a beautifully decorated book.  It looked like a Qur’an, and he was silently mouthing the words as he read.  I realized it must be prayer time.  Then a faster (or more direct) bus pulled up behind us so I dashed out and caught that one.  I took the first open seat I found, and the man sitting beside me was also reading a beautifully decorated Qur’an. This one was smaller, simpler, but the reader seemed to be really taking his time with it.  I didn’t want to be disrespectful, so I tried not to stare at the book, but I have to admit it was lovely.

But I was far more curious? interested? jealous? in the ritual than in the book.  This idea of having scheduled times each day for a brief spell of concentrated contemplation and quiet.  I remember being fascinated by it years ago when I read Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, and again when I heard a story once upon a time about Italians using Virgil’s Aenid to turn at random to a page and divine some sort of answer to whatever was bothering them.

I don’t have a faith to follow, so I have no automatic community, no book, and no book ritual.  But when I have weeks like this one, and stressful days and frustrating moments, I wish I did have some friendly, familiar book that could offer nuggets of inspiration.

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