Take back Christmas

Bentley beside my holiday urn

I watched Bad Mom’s Christmas last week. There’s a line in the movie when Moms Amy, Kiki and Carla rebel against the pressure of trying to create the perfect Christmas for their families and declare they are “taking back Christmas”.

I’m not sure at what point Christmas became a thing we needed to take back. If I had to pinpoint a timeframe, I’d say somewhere in the early 2000s, when gifts spiralled into electronics costing hundreds and thousands of dollars, pre-lit trees made an appearance, and suddenly decorating your yard became a Griswold-like affair.

Wise man Dave especially hates how commercialized Christmas has become. I’m still a lover of the holiday season, but admit I sometimes feel the pressure of finding the perfect gift, and especially this year, finding time to decorate, bake, send out cards and all the trappings and wrappings of Christmas.

So this year, I’m pledging to Marie-Kondo-the-flock-of-sheep out of Christmas by only doing things that bring me joy.

This is what brings me joy over the holidays:

  • Collecting pine boughs and decorating festive urns (what doesn’t bring me joy? When Bentley eats all the twigs with the red berries I picked)
  • Watching a small town Santa Claus parade—highlights this year were the unicycle club from the local high school, seeing our friend Jay ride the beat up Zamboni they use to clear Sydenham Lake rink, and of course the jolly old elf himself—even Dave was singing Christmas carols
  • Going to a church cantata or concert and listening to holiday music
  • Watching Christmas movies eating homemade caramel corn in front of a crackling fire and festive tree
  • Getting together with the neighbours and of course, spending time with family

You’ll note shopping and wrapping didn’t make my nice list, so I think I’ll cut back this year.

So who’s with me? This week’s #HappyAct is to take back Christmas or Hannukah, or whatever you celebrate. Seek joy and peace this holiday season and avoid the trappings.

Santa Claus float in parade
Old Zamboni in parade

Seven holiday movies you can watch in November

Scenes from Office Christmas Party

There is a raging debate that goes on in our household this time of year: how soon is too soon to start watching holiday movies and listening to Christmas music.

Dave and the girls are on the bah humbug, Scrooge side of the mistletoe, saying November is way too early, whereas I’m ready to curl up with a cup of tea or some hot chocolate and start watching holiday movies as soon as the first feathery snowflakes start to fall.

In the spirit of the holiday season and keeping harmony in households across the nation, this week my gift to you is my personal list of holiday flicks that will keep everyone in your family happy from now until December. I’ve checked it twice and all of these selections have some naughty bits but made it on my nice list:

Laurie’s list of holiday movies you can watch in November

  • Bad Mom’s Christmas: a sequel to the popular Bad Moms, rebellious Moms Amy, Kiki and Carla rebel against the pressure to create the perfect holiday for their families
  • Love Actually: I’ve always loved this ensemble movie for its beautiful acting (the scene where Emma Thompson sits on her bed listening to Joni Mitchell after she learns her husband is having an affair is masterful) and exploration of the meaning of love on different levels
  • Just Friends: still one of my favourite Ryan Reynolds’ movies of all time—a Hollywood movie executive Chris Brander finds himself stranded in his hometown over Christmas with his psychotic pop diva client played by Anna Ferris. The scene where Reynolds visits his former flame’s house and Ferris shows up makes me laugh out loud every single time 
  • The Family Stone: Another great ensemble cast movie about a dysfunctional family and the ties that bind the ones we love set over the holidays
  • The Holiday: Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz switch houses and lives for two weeks over Christmas
  • The Holidate: this Netflix original is a cute romcom starring Emma Roberts who finds a guy who agrees to be her plus-one for every holiday all year long
  • Office Christmas Party: Tired of going to boring office Christmas parties? Grab some spiked nog and enjoy this epic ultimate party thrown by a bunch of employees whose company is failing and vow to go out with a bang. Starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman with Kate McKinnon stealing the show as the HR person.

Of course, if you really want to embrace the Christmas/non-Christmas holiday movie debate, you can always watch Die Hard.

Finally, here are three movies I wouldn’t bother with that are on the naughty list: Four Christmases, New Year’s Eve and Bad Santa. And any Hallmark/Women’s Channel movie–all the producers deserve coal in their stockings for the terrible tripe this movies have become.

Kind it forward

Dalai Lama quote: When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner peace and happiness

“Do things for people not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.”
– Harold S. Kushner, prominent American rabbi, and author.

Today is World Kindness Day, a day to celebrate and promote good deeds and kindness. Last week I reflected on the state of kindness in the world in “Take the high road”. This week, I’m adjuring all of us to do one #KindAct to spread happiness and kindness in the world. Here are some ideas on how you can kind it forward:

Ways to kind it forward

  1. Reach out to a friend or family member you haven’t spoken to in a while.
  2. If there’s been a rift, forgive them. Apologize and be a good listener.
  3. It seems everyone is sick with some kind of cold or flu right now. Take someone who’s feeling under the weather a bowl of soup, magazine or some baked goods.
  4. Many communities right now are holding food drives for their local food bank. I spoke to our local food bank the other day and their shelves are desperately low and they anticipate higher demand with food prices soaring. South Frontenac Township is holding a food drive during the whole month of November. You can drop off items at the arena, 4432 George Street or 2490 Keeley Road.
  5. This one’s my favourite: do a random act of kindness that will make someone’s day, like buy a coffee for the next person in line or the drive-through or leave a beautiful card with an inspirational saying in a neighbour’s mailbox.
  6. Hug your family and tell them you love them.
  7. Be kind to yourself.

Kindness isn’t a day. It isn’t a single act. It defines who we are as individuals and a society and who we aspire to be.

The best way we can make the world more kind is simply engaging, listening and caring for others.

What will your act of kindness be today? More importantly, what will it be tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that? Leave a comment—I’d love to hear about how your day went.

Take the high road

Sign that says "I would rather be annoyingly positive and optimistic than destructively negative and hateful"

Is it just me, or does it feel like nobody takes the high road anymore?

Last week, I was out for my lunchtime walk, and I came across an altercation at the local high school. There was an older student on the one side of the road screaming at two kids across the road. The language was deplorable but it was the intensity and hatred that made me stop in my tracks.

I wasn’t sure whether I should intervene, or just mind my own business and keep walking. I was concerned it could escalate into something far more serious. I hesitated for about half a minute, then walked up to the girl who was yelling and swearing and her friends, asking if there was a problem and whether I could help.

The girl glared at me and said, “Those two have been staring at me non-stop for the past three days. They needed to be put in their place.” She had other choice words for the two kids that I won’t repeat here.

Now, I don’t know what transpired between these two groups of kids, and I know it’s high school, but I will say this whole incident really disturbed me.

First, I can tell you I never once spoke to anyone like that in high school. Sure, there were cliques and kids who didn’t like each other and didn’t get along, but you mainly stuck with your own friends and avoided them. No one ever stood in a street and hurled vitriole and swear words at the top of their lungs for the whole world to witness.

Second, this girl said these kids had been “staring” at her for the past three days. If that was their biggest crime, I can only imagine how this girl will cope some day when she experiences real conflict at home, with her friends or in the workplace.

I think what upset me the most though was this girl thought it was OK to act and speak like that. In fact, not only did she defend herself and her actions, she took pride in her response, saying someone had to stand up to them, they deserved it.

I just couldn’t stop thinking, if this is what our kids think is normal and acceptable behaviour, what hope do we have as a society of being kind to each other and battling the divisiveness that seems to be permeating our culture?

To me, it’s simple. You never know what people are dealing with in their lives. That’s why you should always take the high road and turn the other cheek.

It comes down to two basic tenets: treat others with kindness and respect.

This week’s #HappyAct is to always take the high road. Have a kind week.

Stop and read the signs

Gillies Bridge, Carleton Place

If you look around, there are signs everywhere but sadly, not many people stop and read them.

I do, I always have. I’m not sure if it’s the historian in me, or just an innate curiousity–I figure if someone thought it was important enough to erect a sign in a certain place, then it’s worth reading. It’s a trait that drives my family crazy.

On Friday, I went for my usual pre-game walk in Carleton Place before Clare’s hockey game. I was familiar with Carleton Place because Clare had competed in regattas there many times, but the arena was in a different part of town.

I started walking on a section of the Trans Canada Trail and came across a bridge that spanned the Mississippi River. There were several interpretive signs on the bridge, so I stopped to read them. Directly across from me was another bridge named Gillies Bridge in honour of John Gillies who built it in 1884.

Interpretive sign

John Gillies was the name of my father. Not the same John Gillies who built the bridge, and no relation to my knowledge, but it immediately caught my interest.

According to the Lanark County tourism website, lumber was king in the Ottawa Valley in the nineteenth century and John Gillies “was one of the industry’s crown princes”. He acquired the first sawmill in Carleton Place in 1866 and built the operation to employ 200-300 men to produce more than 20 million feet of board lumber a year. His mills eventually covered 300 square miles and spanned the greater part of six townships.

His Gillies Machine Works was his retirement project. After selling his mill operation, he built the Machine Works in 1875, manufacturing steam engines, water wheels, gearing, shafting and boat engines.

I thought this was ironic given Dave’s and mine luck with boat motors.

I stopped to admire the old abandoned millworks on the island, and then kept strolling, taking pictures of the old stone buildings since it was such a gorgeous sunny morning.  

It was interesting to read about this famous namesake, and in a strange way, made me feel closer to my Dad, who has been gone for more than 20 years.

This week’s #HappyAct is to stop and read the signs some time. You never know what you’ll discover.

Abandoned mill
Mill property
Old sprinkler on Mill

The rainbow connection

Double rainbow

What is it about rainbows that make us look up with wonder and smile?

Last week, I saw the most incredible double rainbow. It appeared one morning on my way to work and I stopped to take a picture of it. My boss did the same thing and when we walked into the office, there were a bunch of people milling around the glass doors, gazing out at the beautiful arched spectacle framing the sky.

It’s easy to understand why we’re so enamoured with rainbows.

Rare, beautiful, magical, their kaleidoscope of colours are a miracle of nature.

Pure, elusive, we recognize they are a gift from heaven and we gaze at them with childlike wonder.  

They teach us that when things are dark and gloomy, light and beauty may be a raindrop away.

They represent hope and wonder and remind us of the importance of stopping to take in the moment, because at any time, their elusive beauty may fade away.

Just like the words in the song, even though they are mere illusions, we are transformed into lovers and dreamers while we remain under their spell.

This week’s #HappyAct is to find your rainbow connection even if you don’t see a rainbow.

The King of Chips

Dunn's potato chip bag

Anyone who knows the Swintons, knows we love food. After all, one of our favourite sayings is “You can call me anything, just don’t call me late for supper.”

So for our family to anoint a food as the best ever is a big deal. Well, I’m happy to report that we’ve discovered the best potato chips in the world and can officially declare Dunn’s dill pickle potato chips the King of Chips.

You probably know Dunn’s, the famous Montreal deli known for their smoked meat and dill pickles that has been around since 1927. I was trying to find out when they started to make their potato chips and couldn’t find anything on their website, but they started selling their chips in Costco in 2020, and the rest, they say is history.

What makes them the King of Chips? In a word, they are simply, perfection. Each rippled bite contains a burst of dill and garlic flavour that sends your mouth into its very own happy place.

You know how with some chips, after half a bowl, you get that tart, yucky after taste in your mouth? Not with Dunns. They are so good, you could probably eat a whole bag in one sitting (but don’t try it, the bag is humungous)! One person on Dunn’s Facebook page described them as “heaven in my mouth”.

What gives us the authority to declare them King of Chips? Well, in addition to eating a few different brands of chips in our day, our family has been on three different potato chip factory tours: Herr’s in Pennsylvania, Cape Cod potato chips in Cape Cod, and the Old Covered Bridge chip factory in New Brunswick. Herr’s was definitely the best tour since you were right on the factory floor, eating chips after they came off the conveyor belt.

I also lived with the ultimate chip connoisseur for a year, my old college roommate Scott Milne, aka Skeeter Milkman, or just “the Milkman”. I never knew anyone who loved chips as much as Scott. He’d make up not one, not two, but three different kinds of dips for any chip-eating event like watching the Toronto Maple Leafs get smoked on a Saturday night. His signature dip was some strange ketchup and mayonnaise concoction, a staple in his chip repertoire.

So Scotty, if you’re reading this week’s blog, I’ll let you render the final ruling: are Dunn’s Dill Pickle Potato Chips the King of Chips? Leave a comment.

And for the rest of you dear readers, give your mouth a happy act, and buy a bag today at Costco—they’re worth the cost of the membership alone.

Happy munching!

Beneath the canopy

Forest canopy

A trail beckons
Overgrown, almost indiscernible
Leading me away from my thoughts
Between fallen branches and stumps
To the secret waterfall

Silent and barren
Still
Forlorn
Waiting for spring’s rebirth

I gaze up to the canopy above
Soft green leaves
Cradle the sky
Enfolding me in their arms
Protecting me

I stop and listen
And am rewarded
The forest reveals itself
Chattering like two old ladies on a park bench

The jays’ jeers and caws
Echo through the leafy canopy
Overpowering the faint chirps and peeps
Of warblers and songbirds

The rustling leaves dance in the wind
A lone leaf spirals downward
Swaying back and forth
Down, down
Landing gently on the forest floor

I look down
The canopy above is reflected below
A sea of scattered yellow leaves
An early surrender
To fall’s call to arms

This week’s #HappyAct is to spend some time beneath the canopy.

Editor’s note: I wrote this poem in the woods near my house. I’ve always found the woods a very peaceful place and studies show spending time in nature can be directly correlated to a person’s happiness.

I wanted to comment on a recent trend, Forest Therapy Walks. The whole idea of calling a hike in the forest a “therapy walk” makes me cringe, but nomenclature aside, I’d advise against joining a group of people. Group walks are great if you want to learn about the native species or meet new people, but if you truly want to connect with nature, explore on your own.

Forest canopy looking up
Sunlight in a forest

Just hang in there

Happy couple of 30 years

This weekend, Dave and I celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. We’ve always been there for each other and supported one other, but I’m sure if you asked Dave, he’d say at times it hasn’t been easy living with me. (He on the other hand is the President’s Choice of Husbands).

I think the best advice I ever received about how to have a long, successful marriage was from an older gentleman who I met earlier this year at the Old Mill in Toronto. Leslie and I were there having brunch, and were seated next to a large party, a family celebrating some special occasion.

At the end of the brunch, while his children and grandchildren were visiting, the gentleman who was sitting at the head of the table must have noticed me watching him so I smiled at him and he smiled back.

He reminded me of my father with piercing blue eyes, a kind smile and gentle goodness about him. After a few minutes, he came over to talk to me.

We exchanged greetings and chatted casually as strangers do. When I asked if it was a special occasion, he told me he and his wife were celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary. He told me how he met his wife, and a bit about their life together. When I asked what the secret to a long, successful marriage was, he thought for a moment, then answered, “Just hang in there.”

Such sage, simple advice.

To my loving husband of 30 years, thanks for hanging in there with me. As we often say, I can’t imagine going through this crazy life with anyone but you.

Ein prosit!

Oktoberfest beer hall in Bavaria

There’s nothing that says fall more than Oktoberfest.

Each year at this time, I start dreaming of swilling pints of beer from froth-filled glasses, eating warm, freshly-baked pretzels, and singing ein prosit by the hour with newfound friends.

While Oktoberfest is celebrated around the world, most local Oktoberfest celebrations can’t capture the magic and spirit of the authentic German festival, except Canada’s grand celebration in Kitchener-Waterloo.

I’ve been to Kitchener-Waterloo’s Oktoberfest many times and to the real Oktoberfest in Munchen, Germany. Many people don’t realize that in Germany, Oktoberfest actually kicks off in September. This year it runs from September 17 until October 3 and is expected to attract six million visitors.

In Germany, it is a national celebration with the whole country shutting down or taking vacation to celebrate for two weeks. In Munich, the festival is held on the Theresienwiese fairgrounds with dozens of beer tents, performance stages, carnival rides and attractions to keep festival-goers entertained between pints.

The first day of Oktoberfest in Munich, we arrived at the fairgrounds around 1 p.m. That’s another big difference between Germany and our Oktoberfest celebrations—in Germany, many of the events are in the afternoon, so you start drinking early. We sat down in one of the festival tents and quickly made friends with a group of German men who were visiting from out of town.

Fraulein servers in traditional colourful Bavarian costumes, their biceps bulging out of their costumes, wound their way through the crowded tables, carrying six gigantic beer steins in each hand. On stage an oom pah pah band played polka music. There was lots of toasting, singing and every hour, you’d sing ein prosit, and raise a hearty toast and chug to the cry of Oans, Zwoa, G’suffa! 

Truth be told, I don’t remember how we made it home that night, but I do remember the memories that have lasted a lifetime.

Here are three Oktoberfest celebrations in Ontario to check out:

  • Kingston-Waterloo: on now through to October 15. While the Concordia Club is generally considered the most authentic hall, both the Alpine Club and Transylvania Club provide authentic experiences. Bingeman’s used to be more the draw for the university students in town.
  • Prince Edward County Oktoberfest: September 30-October 1
  • Toronto Oktoberfest: September 30-October 1 at Ontario Place

This week’s #HappyAct is to get your leiderhosen on and raise a toast to fall. Ein prosit!