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A Little Girl at Christmas

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By Alyce Barry

A revelation that won't surprise anyone: I sometimes turn into a little girl at Christmastime. I suspect it's a common phenomenon, in fact. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of The Little House on the Prairie books, once wrote:
"Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time."
This past Christmas, I thought a lot about the holiday traditions I learned from our family and what they do for that little girl in me. I think it was caring for my mother that brought it up so forcefully this year. In November I had helped her move to a new assisted living facility which didn't seem much like home to her. So I kept adding Christmas decorations to her room, and encouraging her to do the traditional things, until I feared I might be doing more harm than good.

The process gave me lots of time to reflect on our family traditions — both those that seem "healthy" and those that seem "extreme" — and on a few traditions of my own.


I grew up in a small Christian community north of Chicago that had, I now believe, an unusually strong focus on, and gift for, beautiful music. Since both my parents were musical, I grew up with music all around me.

In church, our congregation sang a wonderful variety of hymns in four-part harmony. My brothers, sister and I attended a Church-run school where the day began with morning chapel where we sang those same hymns, sometimes in harmony taught to us by my mother, who was for some years our school's music teacher and the community's choir director. I can remember standing next to Mom in church feeling proud of her lovely lyric soprano voice, which I think was of professional calibre. At 86, Mom can still sing nicely. She was also one of the community's church organists for more than 40 years.

My father had belonged as a young man to a barbershop quartet. He had a warm baritone voice and, though I don't think he'd ever had much in the way of music lessons, he could pick out tunes and chords on the piano in our livingroom. I can hear his voice singing a deep, "Bumm, bumm, bumm" as he hummed the bass part of a song.

Music was one of the traditions we kept at Christmas. On Christmas Eve, Mom and Dad held an open house for friends and relatives, and playing on the stereo was a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir called "The Spirit of Christmas." That recording was the soundtrack for every Christmas Eve as I was growing up. It would have been unthinkable for any of us to have suggested not playing it.

I listened to that recording again this past December for the first time in a while and was flooded with memories of my parents' house, of aunts and uncles talking and laughing in our livingroom, of cousins yelling as they ran up and down our basement stairs, of my uncle stirring whiskey into his eggnog, and the smells of a Christmas tree and a fire in the fireplace. Those memories were mostly good ones, particularly of faces of people long gone.


There were certain foods we ate every Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the appetizers in particular never varied: the plate of hors d'hoeuvres had to include small sweet pickles ("gherkins") and ripe olives, among other things. When I got older, I discovered that Mom had a list of those items written down in a notebook on the kitchen shelf for reference, and if she weren't the one hosting the meal, she made certain someone else was bringing what was required. I remember one year the pickles and olives were missing from the appetizer tray for some reason, and my mother did not let the omission pass unnoticed.

In my forties, I once hosted our family Thanksgiving, and I invited a woman friend I'd met on my Woman Within weekend, who had no family to celebrate with. I was shocked when Mom pulled me aside in the kitchen to inform that it "wasn't really Thanksgiving" if there were non-family members present. This was tradition taken to an unhealthy extreme.


My last two years of high school were spent at a boarding school outside Philadelphia, and I ended up settling in the Philadelphia area and living there for most of my twenties and half of my thirties.

During those years, I think the little girl in me missed celebrating the holidays in my parents' home, missed gathering in that familiar house and hearing that familiar music. So she found a way to create something to replace them.

I've always been something of a movie buff, so I guess it was natural for me to create a tradition around movies. I collected Christmas movies on tape and recorded others, including several musical specials. And each Christmas season, I religiously watched every item in my collection, usually beginning in early December and continuing until I'd seen them all. I called it "getting into the Christmas spirit."

With this tradition came a risk: if I finished watching the items in my collection before Christmas Day, I was disappointed to have nothing more to watch on the big day itself. And the idea of missing any one of them was awful to me. Every year I tried to pace out the shows just right; it was like walking a tightrope.

Looking back, I'm not completely certain what watching those movies did for the little girl inside me. Perhaps I was creating a sort of family for myself from the characters in those movies to replace the family that was far away. Or perhaps the movies themselves were like family members: I knew their scripts as well as I knew my siblings and my parents.


In 1996, I was back living in the Chicago area and listening to the radio on Christmas Day when the station broadcast a choral concert from Philadelphia. I stuck a tape in the tape deck and began recording the concert, just in time to catch an exquisite piece called "O Magnum Mysterium" by Morton Lauridsen, a California composer who had set a well-known Latin text to music.

I had grown up listening to classical music and usually thought of "modern" music as dissonant and charmless. I was stunned to hear that this beautiful piece had been written only a few years earlier, in 1994. So not only had I acquired a beautiful new piece of music, I had widened my narrow view of music just a little bit and felt good about myself in the process.

Listening to that tape became a new Christmas tradition, and one I tried to share with my family a few years later. I brought the recording with me to a family gathering at which each of us were invited to share something. As I played it for everyone, I sensed my mother's resistance to modern music, and I never played it for her again.

In my years of doing Shadow Work®, I've known very few pieces of music that evoke the feeling of compassion. "O Magnum Mysterium" is one of them, and I've used it when doing my own Sovereign work for some years now. So not only has learning this piece added to my joy in music and to my pleasure at Christmastime, it has inspired me at other times of year when doing my own growth work.


Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is the author of Practically Shameless, on's Bestseller list of books about Jungian psychology for more than a year. The book is available in paperback and on audio CD. Read more about Alyce.

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in February 2010. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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