Celebrating … My Way

Celebrating Christmas in Rio

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2013-2014 UPDATE!  As the holidays come to a close, will you remember them as reflecting your life, wishes and circumstances today?  Or did you get caught up in a wave of other people’s traditions, expectations and automatic plans?  Was it easier to default to “but we’ve always done it this way,” even if it doesn’t fit with your lifestyle today?Financial Illiteracy blue squiggle

Santa Claus wore bathing trunks and Christmas trees were pretty sad looking when I was growing up in Brazil.  The trees were grown by German immigrants who lived up in the mountains around Rio.  At that elevation, the climate was almost cool enough to allow the poor trees to grow … but never enough to thrive.

Brazil is south of the Equator, so December marked the beginning of summer.  And for us kids, Christmas signaled the start of our long summer vacation from school, although it was the middle of the school year.

Over time, Christmas in Brazil got as commercial as anywhere else in the world.  And, during the month of December, more and more totally irrelevant snowflakes made their way into street decorations.  Thermometers reported temperatures in the 90s and no one had ever seen snow, but “that’s how they do it in America.”

I do remember getting Christmas cards from relatives in the U.S., with scenes that looked like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  They sure didn’t look like anything we could ever dream up.

On Christmas Eve, Brazilian Catholics all went to midnight mass, then came home to their family Christmas feasts.  Three or four generations shared the meal, from infants to octogenarians.  They then opened their gifts, leaving nothing for Christmas Day other than to sleep in and to recuperate.

We weren’t Brazilians or Catholics, so our parents tried to align the holiday closer to a typical American Christmas Day.  We opened our gifts in the morning, then ate breakfast … but then what?  Everyone had maids so there were no Christmas dinner preparations to busy ourselves with.  Instead, we all wiled away the day at the beach and got home in the late afternoon in time for the skinny turkey to be served.  What I remember most is that anyone who had ever lived in the U.S. fought over the cranberry sauce if we were lucky enough to find a can in the local market.

And then there was New Year’s Eve.

Brazil’s culture was greatly influenced by its large slave population.  When the slaves were “converted” to Catholicism in the 1700s and 1800s, they simply pleased their masters by giving the names of the Catholic saints to their own African deities, and prayed to both.  Two-for-one.

Over the centuries, the lines between the two religions continued blurred and most New Year’s celebrations became a night for honoring Iemanjá.  She is the goddess of the sea to whom the slaves prayed for safe passage as they were tossed by rough seas, body against body, in the holds of ships coming from Africa.

Now, on New Year’s Eve on beaches all along the Brazilian coast, large floats of flowers are walked out into the ocean, beyond the waves, as offerings to Iemanjá.  Hundreds of thousands of candles are lit and set in holes carved in the sand to protect their flames from the wind.

And millions of people of all races and social classes head to the beaches to watch the celebrations honoring African deities that are as familiar to them as St. John the Baptist.

So maybe you can understand why I’ve always found American Christmas and New Year’s Eve to be a little bit foreign.

Over the years, wherever I’ve lived I’ve “borrowed” other people’s celebrations, always feeling like the “odd man out.”

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I stopped trying to fit in to other people’s celebrations.  I found that when I bought into their expectations, I was always disappointed.

One of the beautiful things about getting older is that you can finally decide that it’s okay to celebrate as you see fit.  You can pick and choose what brings you joy.  And you can gently say “no” to all the well-intentioned people who are sure you’re unhappy if you’re not celebrating the way they are.

This year my Christmas was perfect.

I avoided all the situations where family squabbles are hidden under a thin veneer of cheer.  I stayed out of the buying frenzy at overcrowded shopping malls.  I shared special moments with the people I care about the most … both face-to-face and electronically.  A meal snuck here, a drink there.  A few carefully chosen cards and remembrances.

And New Years?

Some years I’m with friends in foreign countries.  Last year I toasted the New Year with my neighbors.  We stood in the middle of our street with a few bottles of champagne, watching the spectacular fireworks set off by the nearby casinos … and then walked safely home.

This year?  Who knows …

All I know is that I’ll be celebrating it “my way.” 

Let us know in the Comments section below how close your holidays came to being “perfect for you!”
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Bio: Sharon O’Day fixes financial lives. She is a tell-it-like-it-is money expert with a successful career in global finance, plus an MBA from the Wharton School. Today she specializes in getting entrepreneurial women over 50 back on their game so they can have more money, less stress and more joy. With her “Over Fifty and Financially Free” strategies, they take actions that lead to their ultimate goal: financial peace of mind.

  • Angela brooks

    I really like this post – I have always always wanted to have Christmas in another style than the same ole gather at some ones house swap gifts that you would never use or needed – but spend time having fun in a place that was care free.

    As I observed people this year – the cheer was not real – it was hurry up and lets get this done. Christmas is meant to be enjoyed.

    • Anonymous

      Angela, as I’ve traveled around the world, I’ve always been able to find some people celebrating Christmas … and always differently. In everything from thatched-roof huts to old stuffy French mansions. What I liked most was that the focus wasn’t all about the gifts. Depending on how religious they were, it was either much more aligned with the original meaning of Christmas … or just being with people they held dear.

      Maybe next year you just need to break all the rules … 😉

  • This was a great story, Sharon. What I enjoyed the most was your memory of your childhood transitioning into the now. I totally agree with you on the getting older part. I’ve finally come into knowing that my choice is “my choice” and it’s ok. I’m done trying to please others, including family. I am doing what I know is right, not criticizing or forcing my beliefs on them. They can choose to do what they want, and they need to honor my choices. Fantastic way of making your point. Thanks for sharing with all of us:)

    • Anonymous

      Carla, you GET it! And it can be done lovingly. It’s all about not living life as a dress rehearsal …

  • Sharon… Loved your story! I too have found that the older I get, the happier I am when I choose to do things that bring me joy. In the last few years I have started my own traditions… some include family… and some include special friends. And… I have stopped doing things that I just don’t have the time or the desire to do. After all… the reason we are here is “to enjoy the journey!”.

    • Anonymous

      And I love the fact that I’m finding more and more people who are playing by their own rules. Makes us all happier campers!

  • Gela

    Sharon dear,
    I just discovered your blog… what a treat! I was delighted to hear from you recently. It was great to connect again.
    My memories of Rio are all so good; I loved your description of the macumbeiras and their floral offerings to iemanja. I have two very small paintings of the women in their white dresses on the beach in the moonlight, honoring iemanja. I bought them the last time I was in Rio at the Feira Hippie in Ipanema.
    Truly, one of the nicest things about that last visit to Brasil was getting to know you. You are a very special woman. I hope we can get together again someday.
    Abracos, Gela

    • Gela, I feel the same way about meeting you. Funny story: when I was Marketing Director for Godiva in the 80s, based in Brussels, I decided to leave a New Year’s Eve party up on the coast and go throw some white flowers into the North Sea. For Iemanja, of course. I borrowed someone’s Mercedes, threw on my white fur coat (of course I was dressed head-to-toe in white), and went to brave the elements. Howling winds, sub-zero temps. Next thing I know, there’s a Flemish policeman shining his flashlight on me, asking what the hell I’m doing … (Hmmm, my Flemish isn’t too good.)

      • Wish we could have met on the shores of the North Sea on New Year’s Eve … the stories we will share one day, Sharon, cannot wait for it!

  • May 2014 bring each and every one of you everything your heart desires!

  • So lovely, Sharon, you bring back memories of past holidays spent abroad: in Africa where schoolchildren, appropriately dressed in uniforms, would sing carols to hotel guests slurping their high tea and nibbling cucumber canapees in the smoldering afternoon sun! Not one choir, but every 20 minutes another one for days … and discreetly asking for some fundings which was very much ok with me as I felt I did something useful.

    • I’m fascinated by how differently the year-end holidays are celebrated in different countries, Barbara …

  • Susan Schiller

    Oh Sharon, each time you share a little more of your story it simply increases my desire to hear your WHOLE story! What amazing adventures and life experiences you have shared with us. I’m so glad to know you to have this special home online you’ve created where we can listen to your wisdom and get to know you – thanks!

  • Yetunde

    Sharon, thanks for sharing this Christmas story. Having lived in both Nigerian and Britain, I am happy to have experienced Christmas in both cultures. I still find the Nigerian Christmas more interesting. Interestingly in Southern Nigeria, Yemoja is worshipped by some as part of African Traditional Religion – she is the patron goddess for the woman. So many similar things with Brazil.

    • Yes, Yetunde, Perhaps because African slaves comprised such a high percentage of the total Brazilian population at one point (between a third and a half in 1820), many elements of African culture (food, words, religion, customs, music, dances, etc.) are part of Brazilian culture today. As for Yemoja (or Iemanjá in Portuguese), from what I understand, she was third in the hierarchy of deities in Africa. However, as the deity that was most prayed to for safe passage in the horrible conditions of slave ships, in Brazil she holds an honored position. Its beaches all face Africa and the same waters that brought ancestors across to Brazil, so the New Years remembrances are fitting.

  • Lynn O’Connell

    I’ve traveled a lot, but never had the opportunity to live in another country. Really must give you a different perspective!

    • It really does, Lynn, because it gives you an opportunity to really understand the inhabitants’ deepest traditions and values. Good stuff!

  • Gertraud Walters

    ‘One of the beautiful things about getting older is that you
    can finally decide that it’s okay to celebrate as you see fit. You can
    pick and choose what brings you joy.’ That’s what I like best. I have reached the point where I m still happy to have my German Christmas Eve get together with the family. And that’s it for me. We had a lovely time this year, most probably realizing that for 2014 we might not all be together in the same house anymore. 2014 is going to be different and whatever it is I’m going to make sure I’ll have a happy time. Beautiful story. To a Brave New Year.

    • Regardless of facing change, Gertraud, what you just confirmed is that YOU are in control of your happiness and how you celebrate. Brava! 😉

  • I soooo agree with You Sharon I am the same way…

    • Glad to hear that, Carly … but somehow it doesn’t surprise me. 😉

  • Scott Glaze

    Very interesting to hear your way. Sometimes we get blinded and think that everyone celebrates our way. However, I do believe that it is a time to be joyful and grateful and you should do whatever makes you feel that way. Blessings!

    • That’s the key, Scott: joy and gratitude. You’d be surprised how many people, once they ask others in the family, discover no one cares to do “x” or “y” and that the reason for doing so is no longer there. Blessings to you and yours as well!

  • Kung Phoo

    i get caught up in others tradtions, my wife family likes the holodays much more then my family does, so we adopted theirs..

    • As long as that’s okay with you, Rob, that’s great! What makes this work is just being honest with ourselves, and if we choose to follow someone else’s lead, acknowledge that we’re doing so consciously!

  • Yvonne

    You experienced a pretty cool Santa! Love it!

    Yvonne Brown

  • Veronica Solomon

    Sharon, I can so relate. I grew up in Jamaica where Christmas and New Year’s were done very differently – we were focused on Christ’s birth, family and food. Over the years, Jamaica has adopted American traditions as well. I am still very low key with celebrations, but because of my children who are Americans and my interior design business, the holidays have been very much like Martha Stewart’s. There is a big part of me that longs for Christmases past and just to do it MY WAY 🙂 Thanks for this great post.

    • Find a way to make that okay, Veronica. Even if it means promising yourself you’ll banish Martha to your shop once the children are over a certain age. Or promise to treat yourself to a Christmas at home (in Jamaica) every “x” years … even if it’s every 10 years. Whatever is realistic. And do it! But do not erase what’s important to you; simply agree that “for the sake of the children” (or whatever) you CHOOSE to celebrate them American-style. For now.

  • Tina Ashburn

    Very interesting! I don’t celebrate Christmas (I’m Jewish) but I do enjoy the spirit, the music and the idea that people get along, even for a day (although I never understood a “cease fire” for 48 hours…why wasn’t it forever?).

    • Interesting question about the limited cease fire, Tina! Because different religious events coincide roughly with the end of year, which we all celebrate (oops, different calendars too!), I think it’s great that there is good cheer and good will among (wo)men! I just like the idea of each individual looking at her/his choice of how to celebrate a holiday or season as personal one, and not simply lock-step because no thought is given … 😉

  • Roz

    Once again, you bring us into your life and share yourself, experiences and wisdom in a way that has me want more. You are an extraordinary woman and I thank you for just BEING you.

    • How kind, Roz! I know your targets for 2014 for your creative side, your jewelry business. May that and everything on the personal side be fulfilled to the max! What a joy it’s been getting to know you this past year …

  • Robin Pedrero

    I absolutely agree with spending holidays in your own way I get so tired of what we are “supposed ” to do. Enjoy every moment!

    • Something tells me you’re not too easy to push around when it comes to the “shudda, cudda, wudda” expectations of others, Robin! Hope your holidays were perfect!

  • Patsy Cormier

    What a nice post Sharon! Love reading your story. It is so easy to fall into other’s tradition. Slowing down to appreciate the wonderful time of year is what is important to me….Love hearing about Brazil too…I come from Canada, but in 1993, I had the chance to go to Brasil for 5 week. So much great momories from that Trip! Take care and have great Weekend! 🙂

    • Patsy, I’m glad Brasil treated you well when you visited. It’s an amazing country: so much energy, warmth and ‘joie de vivre’ …

  • Yes to living in the moment where you are, as you are and without the pretense. I spent holidays with my family this year and we did nothing traditional – I kind of like that. We’re making our own traditions and building new ones. Life’s too short to keep copying what others have done.

    • Life is especially too short when people copy what others have done … and it makes them miserable! Can you imagine? Glad to hear you’re establishing your own traditions, Marvia. Fun, isn’t it? 😉