The Joy Of Christmas Is In The Experience (3 Short Stories)


New Holiday Traditions

By Christina Ihnken

My first Christmas as a newlywed taught me that expectations and traditions – especially if they are not your own - usually end in disaster. I had unreasonable expectations for our first Christmas because being a newlywed in my first house and my first Christmas ever in the United States, I thought I had to prove that I could do it all. I felt the pressure even before Pinterest made all my efforts look inadequate and before the “Baby it’s cold outside” controversy.

 Here we were. Colorado Springs. It was our first Christmas and it had to be PERFECT. There would be family and friends to judge me and pictures to remind me of success or failure for the rest of my life. (Note: I couldn’t find a single picture today) Everything had to match, meaning a slight variation in color from the ruby red dishtowels to the dark ruby red hand towels was unacceptable. While I was stressing out over every little detail at home, Ryan drove up the mountain into the forest to pick out the perfect tree and chop it down himself. On the way up the mountain his truck got stuck in heavy snow; after digging himself out he got a speeding ticket that cost more than the tree, and back at the house the tree was so tall no tree topper would fit. The sticky sap from the tree covered our new hardwood floor before I had a chance to put down the carefully selected tree skirt. The sap would not come off the floor or the tree skirt, and the pine needles were stuck in the carpet throughout the house and could be found around furniture and stuck in socks for months. To top it all off, at the end of the season we were so frustrated with the tree that we decided to open the window and throw the tree into the backyard instead of dragging it all the way through the house to dispose of it. Out the window it went, right onto the shiny new grill Santa had brought weeks prior. The dreaded tree ripped off a door and left a nice dent.

This year, 10 years later, I somehow find myself experiencing the extreme opposite.

I didn’t plan to not decorate at all for Christmas, but I did consciously decide to not pack any Christmas decorations when moving from the United States to Belgium. As I was packing in June I thought it would be a waste of space to bring along any decorations plus most of them needed to be plugged in and I wasn’t going to buy a generator to convert my blinking lighthouse collection from 110 volt to 220 volt. The plan was to pick up a few things in Belgium. Now one week before Christmas there is no Christmas tree, I don’t have any Christmas cookies baked and there are no decorations at all at the house, inside or out.

Presents have been wrapped in the least festive Christmas paper available (Thanks to my husband for picking up mushroom vampire paper as a joke) and they are tucked away in my closet because there is no tree to place them under. If it wasn’t for Alexa playing Christmas music, you wouldn’t even know Christmas is right around the corner.  

Looking back at past Christmases, I don’t remember many of the decorations I had or any of the presents I got but I remember all the wonderful people I met along the way that became extended family and the traditions they shared with me. Everyone I met had different traditions like watching a certain movie, eating a particular dessert or going for a drive around the neighborhood to see all the holiday lights, and most of those traditions stuck with me and will always remind me of the person I picked it up from.  I feel very lucky that this year I’ll be celebrating with new friends again and maybe learn about new holiday traditions.

Wishing all of you a Merry Christmas and a wonderful 2019! Here is to making new friends, embracing new traditions, and for me hopefully finding a happy holiday decorating medium next year. 

This year’s wrapping paper.

This year’s wrapping paper.


the maker of Christmas

By Larissa Nemeth

As a kid I was a huge believer in magic, as well as a strong proponent of NEVER under any circumstances, peeking behind the curtain.  I always wanted to BELIEVE the magic, not BE the magic.  Well, my friends, that day has come - fast forward 25 years and here I am, the wizard herself.  Pulling all the strings and pushing all the buttons that infuse a season with whimsy and wonderment. I have become the maker of Christmas.

 If I'm going to be honest here, which I may as well be, its sort of great.  I can't say with any definition WHEN the switch occurred, the change from being more excited to get the present to being more pumped to give it. But it happened. The shrieks of excitement when our elf, Jingles Joyberg, moves from inside the cookie jar to hanging upside down from the light fixture or the anxious reading of a note from Santa or simply getting to open the next day on the advent calendar. Seeing my kids alight with cheer is one of the reasons to take pause in the hectic machinery of running a family. All of their delight and anticipation gives me joy. Maybe the careful, hard work I put in to creating an atmosphere of magic reaps a greater result because of the emotional investment? I wonder what the science is behind all of it... 

I would, no doubt, be lying if I said that I DON'T pine for the unsullied joy of the childhood wonder of Christmas past. However, I now derive a simpler pleasure from the season.  The lights, the  baking, the live performances, the planning, the overall sense of goodwill- in short, the Christmas Spirit. Everyone can find something to be warm about in this one short month. Believe me, it would behoove you to, mainly because after the holidays it is just cold, damp and dark in the northeast with no reprieve in sight.  I encourage all Grinches to cave - just give in, and admit - it's magical, dammit!

The stocking I had since I was born.

The stocking I had since I was born.

Does Santa really exist?

By Cristina Byrne

There is an idea presented to us of what Christmas looks like, leaving us with those expectations of what its suppose to be like. I can’t necessarily speak about those expectations because I only know about my experiences.

Christmas comes once a year, as you know every year at the same time. For some, its shopping lists, donations, work parties, family, friends, church, gift exchanges, get togethers, drinking, the weather, lots of eating, a movie, a show, getting engaged, caroling, or Chinese food. It can be hectic, it can be busy, people can be crazy and they can be giving. “The bells are ringing, children are singing, oh what a beautiful time.”

Can I wish you a Merry Christmas? Or is it a Happy Christmas?

For me, the first part of my childhood Christmases were spent in Caracas, Venezuela where my Abuelita lives. Every year we would go down there and it was always a big hurrah with the familia! The days were filled with traditional Venezuelan food such as Pan de Jamon and Hallacas, there was singing, dancing, exchange of stories and outings. We cheered, we laughed, we play a dice game called Cacho and to top it all off there was even a visit from Santa Clause himself. Yes, Santa personally delivered my Christmas gifts! I am not sure whose idea this was to actually have him jiggle his bells through my Abuelita’s front door but not until last year was it revealed that it was my Tio Manuel who occasionally dressed up as the Fat Man in the Red Suit. I have very fond memories of those Christmases and every once in a while I doze off to re-live them.

Back to school from break and the question was asked, “What did you get for Christmas?” At the time it seemed like an innocent question to ask or be asked but some how it felt and was even interpreted as a moment to brag about what you got, what you did or what your holiday looked like – oh the expectations! I mean who wouldn’t want to talk about what happened over Christmas? Like the time when you got a Lava Lamp because they are cool or how you were the only one that found it funny to give a whoopee cushion as a gift exchange. How your Dad is a “practical guy” and he likes to give things of necessity like toothpaste or scissors and who still hides your gifts in the tree. The times when you and your brother came home from college and binge watch movies and never left the basement as everyone else was out at the bar. The time when your Grandma gives you an 80’s yoga book that she found in her closet and a 5-year-old desk calendar telling us that it can be used for origami. The time you hiked part of the Appalachian Trail and the Mexican Pyramids, saw the Christmas Tree in New York City and in Chicago, how you accidentally went to Mexico, spent Christmas in foreign and domestic land and pondered about the infamous question of, “Does Santa really exist?”

Now, every kid comes to a moment in their life wondering about this question. Either older siblings tell you or the kids at school do but my mother would always answer, “If you believe it then its real.” It was that simple. I realized that it was never about Santa Clause or a “Merry Christmas” or the kind of gifts you received or how many gifts you got or the wrapping paper used or any expectations that needed to be upheld. It was about believing in the magic and creating the magic which are life lessons that I carry with me till this day.

From my first Christmases in Venezuela to present day, for I have no expectations for I only have experiences.

“God bless us, everyone!”  - Tiny Tim.

Caracas, Venezuela 1994

Caracas, Venezuela 1994

Mi Burrito Sabanero (The Little Donkey from Bethlehem)


All About Hugging (3 Short Stories)


“Hug it Out” by Larissa Nemeth

I was waiting in line to get in to a venue for a show in Philadelphia recently.  These congregations tend to skew a bit on the awkward side- I guess it’s due to the bizarre mix of locals, college kids who think they are locals (but aren’t), suburbanites who travelled to the city for their “big night out” and of course the wild card folks who don’t fit any type of profile I could think up.

 It was a rainy and stressful trek into the city that night and I stepped sideward out of the line, courteously, to smoke a cigarette.  Out of the damp and gloom stepped a man- he appeared to be homeless- twice my size or more (not that large of feat if you ever saw me).  He approached me asking in a lighthearted but incredulous tone “Ha! You FOLLOWING me girl?!”. Since I definitely wasn’t, I didn’t quite know what to make of this inquiry. I laughed and returned bluntly “No, man.” Of course, next he asked me for a cigarette.  Not like I NEED them, so I handed one over. I also was not positive how benign the situation was at this point- I like to think myself street-smart to a degree, so while I was sizing it up I had my hand clamped tightly over my crossbody bag, glancing back to my squad still in line. I was planning my return to them when he asked me the most utterly ridiculous thing.

   “Can I get a hug?” I whipped around, shocked really- but also feeling like I needed to get the hell out of there because this COULD NOT be the start of a positive experience.  I shook my head, “Ah, man, no, I’m sorry”... he stayed, badgering me a little “come on, can’t I get a hug? Just a little hug? Come onnnn, gimme a hug!” I hate that type of persistence. It’s a thing about men in general I can’t stand. Their ironclad will to continue to make a situation uncomfortable even when you’ve made it clear you want nothing more to do with it.  It made it easier for my “no” to become firmer.

  At this moment, he stopped. He looked me straight on in the face, his large dark eyes met mine, unblinking. His jovial tone was gone-  and he said the most serious thing any stranger has ever said to me “Please. I really need a hug”.

    Every ligament in my body went lax. I swiveled around and threw my arms around him and held him there, just for a second or two- silently. I let go, smiled and walked away- my group had reached security at the door to the club.

    I called back to him, “You’re welcome!” because I know my hugs are awesome and also because I know I really gave him a little breath of myself, a small momentary connection-and that I wanted him to appreciate it. I did it because I knew in that instant that he really really needed it- and that in a small way I made him happy for a moment.  He said as I was leaving, to the crowd at large, loud enough for them to hear “Yes. Real people- they get it. It’s real”  and then something about “Aren’t we all just people? We all need to feel loved. We all need to be cared for. We need it!”. I’m pretty sure his sidewalk proclamations continued when I went inside. I didn’t look back again. The band was amazing. I went home. I retold the story to myself as I fell asleep in my bed at my house and I smiled.


 “Or Not” by Cristina Byrne

Rejection is always painful or at the very least awkward but being rejected for a hug feels especially personal for some reason. Can we all agree that most people would rather avoid conflict than initiate confrontation, especially if the stakes are low. I’d say accepting a one to three second hug from someone you don’t like takes a lot less energy than avoiding the hug or ignoring the person altogether. Unless you have a really good reason, we accept it.

I went up to someone to congratulate them with a hug and got rejected. I proceeded to hug the next person in line to try and play it off but it was still awkward. At that moment I knew exactly how Keesha felt when she tried to give Jerry Seinfeld hug.

I walked away from the situation and took a moment to reflect. I realized that I invaded someone’s personal space, which I have the tendency to do. My intention is to be warm but I am sometimes unaware of what boundaries are set into place. Maybe this had nothing to do with me and this person is simply not a hugger. So the rejection was understood and forgiven, and I moved on.

But later, I saw my “rejector” hug another person. I was confused and immediately went down the dark rabbit hole of wondering questions and thoughts.

“How come some people get to invade someone’s space and others don’t? 

“Does this explain how some people can get away with murder and others don't?” 

"Do I smell?"

As I made my way back out of the rabbit hole, I came to the conclusion that the first question we should ask when we approach someone is, "How should I greet you?”


“And Embrace the Awkward” by Christina Ihnken

I just recently moved back to Europe from the United States and was immediately reminded that here, to greet someone, you don’t hug but kiss each other on the cheek.

In Austria you give 2 kisses, one left, one right, but only to friends and family, and even then, this is mostly something girls do. In the french part of Belgium, where I live now, one kiss on the cheek is customary.

Imagine me walking up to a restaurant and three of my husband’s new friends are waiting for us, ready to meet me. To make a good impression for my husband’s sake, I took a big step outside of my comfort zone and leaned in for a hug with the only female in the group and as I had both arms wrapped around her, she did not engage in the hug but instead she kissed my cheek. I released her immediately, remembering out loud “Sorry, forgot I'm in Europe”. We both chuckle and all was well.

Moving on to the next person, a guy, I extended my hand as in my mind only girls, friends, and family get a kiss, but he leaned in to kiss my cheek instead. As I pulled away after one kiss, I realized I left him hanging halfway for a second kiss on the other cheek. “I’m French. In France we give two kisses” he explained, and I leaned forward to receive the second kiss to not be rude. As we were indeed close to the French boarder this made perfect sense. I nervously laughed it off and replied, “same in Austria”. At this point I was already confused and embarrassed but I had one more person to greet. He didn’t extend his hand, so I thought to myself “two kisses in France, here we go”, but NOPE, I got one kiss on the cheek and as I leaned over for the second kiss, that person had already turned away to greet the next person in the circle. 


Here is what we’ve learned sharing our stories. It all comes down to this:

Meeting someone for the first time can be uncomfortable for both parties. We don’t usually remember what someone said to us when we first met them, but we do remember how we felt. Therefore, wouldn’t it be nice if we meet people with the intent of making them feel welcomed instead of worrying how we are perceived? 

If someone asks for a hug, give them a hug, unless they smell. If someone denies you a hug, their loss, because they must not know about the amazing health benefits of hugging. And if you made a complete fool out of yourself, move to a different country and start over, but remember to learn the local customs first.

Whatever the situation, as long as you are being genuine, you have more to gain than you have to lose.


“We Resist, We Persist, We Rise"

It was early on Election Day 2016, but I was heading to bed — the stress of the day and its implications rested heavily on me.  Fearful, I checked the earliest stats — exit polls, numbers starting to roll in... it was exactly then that I knew we were fucked.  The following day was spent mourning.  The next had me asking — to myself and aloud; in earnest — how do we fix this?

Fast forward to present day: DIBS attends the 2018 Women’s March in Philadelphia with special correspondent, 9-year-old Vivienne Grant. At our core we are strong, independent females with an enlightened worldview that takes into account the multi-colored strands that different nationalities, genders, and ideologies weave into a beautiful society. These threads are all currently being laid bare and actively threatened under our current administration.

I can’t speak for the entire DIBS team here, but I do not actually believe that protests “do” anything.  I don’t think demolition teams spare certain trees because someone chains themselves to them, and I don’t think you could say the length of the Vietnam war was shortened due to non-violent peace rallies or sit-ins. However, I do believe they are not only important, but absolutely vital in order to keep a sense of what is occurring deep in the dug-in roots of society. The only way to get the Suits who run the show to listen if you can’t afford to buy an ear.

To reiterate what Trump said, it was a beautiful day to get out and march.  An odd 50-degree day in January (the one-year anniversary of his inauguration), DIBS would have to accept that.

We were on the move!

We followed the flow of the crowd towards the art museum steps and with mini-reporter Vivienne on hand she scrambled and squeezed her way to the front near the stage — she persisted! — the two, grown reporters, awkwardly shuffling through behind.  Speeches and music were presented which highlighted many reasons to be invigorated into action and raising a voice.  

What was most striking to me was the beautiful mosaic of people, signs and reasons why the thousands of people were there.  I noticed an extraordinary amount of variation on themes for the day: empowerment, acceptance, equality, among other things. Each person’s attendance seemed to be as unique as their own thumbprint or strand of their DNA.

On the way back we raised the question- Why are YOU here today?

A group of young women and men cited simply “Equality.”

Our small helper on-hand, Vivienne, mentioned disaster relief for Puerto Rico (also the subject of a speech by Beatrice Sanabria-Caraballo).

Two young women mentioned being there to represent Haitians.

“Lending support to women,” an older gentleman said.

A woman who had not been drawn out to dissent since the protests against the Vietnam war mobilized for the women’s march because she is “against silence.”

A seated woman said she was there because she wanted to “be among a group of women who empower [her].”

A woman held a sign with a mirror asking march attendees to recognize how they were complicit and said the best way to combat this is by listening to marginalized groups.

The array of answers we gathered provided evidence for the need for a march of this kind whose slogan was “We Resist, We Persist, We Rise”. The march was hardly the period at the end of a sentence; It was all of us, pushing hard against a door to get it to budge open — process started in the wake of the election last year. By doing this, all of us are creating an opening to allow for discourse on change; POSITIVE change. Let me tell you, looking forward, I can start to see the light shining through that entryway.

Words by Larissa Nemeth | Images by Cristina Byrne