Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I Sure Do Like Those Christmas Cookies

I am typing this in a few stolen moments amid the craziness of New Year's Eve Day stuff. This afternoon—by which I mean all afternoon—involved shopping with my girls for a mother-of-the-bride dress, as well as shoes for the bridesmaids. I am now grabbing a quick shower—shopping makes me feel grungy—before heading into the kitchen to work on the festive Swiss-German feast my husband planned and is supposed to be cooking, but isn't, because he's stuck at Men's Wearhouse taking care of getting his suit for the wedding—and my son PT's, who at 6'7" is too tall for the one they chose for the groomsmen to wear! (I'm telling you, wedding planning is not for wimps!)

My dear father-in-law is here with us this year, and he forgot to bring his hearing aid. Having been deaf in one ear since a childhood illness took his hearing on the right side, he is now almost completely deaf without the assistance of a hearing aid in his good left ear as well. What this means for us is that the movie we will watch tonight as we wait for midnight, has to be mostly dialogue-free. Enter All Is Lost, a perfect movie for Opa, an avid sailor in his youth and still-sometime-sailor now, at age 80. Never mind that it's kind of a downer for New Year's Eve. With a mere handful of words at the very beginning, in a voice-over monologue, it is really the only movie he will be able to follow and enjoy.

As I type, I am eating a cookie. In fact, I have been eating cookies for days. We have all been eating way too many cookies for about a week now, and I have polished off at least two dozen all by myself in the past three days, I'm sure. Why so many cookies? Because that's what we're giving up as a family this year. Beginning at midnight tonight, No Cookies 2015 will begin for us. My son PT has agreed to join us even while he's away at college. My daughter EV, the one getting married, has remained silent about her intentions once she's in her own home in February, but for now, she's joining us in our solidarity effort. Hopefully we'll have better success than we did last year, when we bit off more than we (couldn't) chew.

A few remaining Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies and Cheri's Snickers Cookies are still in the kitchen, and Laurie J.'s Chocolate Chip Cookies are being prepared as I type. Yum! Like George Strait declares in one of the goofiest Christmas songs of all time: "I sure do like those Christmas cookies!" And for a few more hours, at least, I get to eat them to my heart's content.
--------
*Entry 7, The 12 Days of Christmas Blog Challenge
The title is a line from the song "Christmas Cookies" by George Strait.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What Do You Get a Wookie for Christmas?

Some people send Christmas cards. My fun cousins, F. Michael Haynie and J.P. Haynie—joined by J.P.'s wife, Ashlee—send this kind of musical fun. Star Wars fans everywhere, enjoy!



*Entry 6, The 12 Days of Christmas Blog Challenge
This blog post shares the title of the song, "What Do You Get a Wookie for Christmas?"

Monday, December 29, 2014

Home for Christmas

While googling for lyrics to "I'll Be Home for Christmas," I came across this haunting—and hauntingly beautiful—song. It strikes me as desperately sad. The young woman singing has become disappointed and disillusioned, we can presume, by the relationship that took her from her old home to a new one. This year, she just wants to go back home for Christmas, where people know and love her, and she's not "more like a stranger" with each passing day.

My fervent and ardent prayer this Christmas is that my children will never feel this way! Yes, I want them to know how deeply and unconditionally they are loved. Yes, I want them to have deep and precious memories of a childhood well lived. Yes, I want them to always feel supremely welcome here. But after they've left our home to begin life with a new person in a new one, never, never do I want them to feel more at home here, than there!

As bittersweet as it is to walk through this last Christmas of having our sweet EV at home, I release her with all blessing to her new home. Next Christmas—ten months on the other side of her wedding this February—I'll be thrilled to see her as much as I can... but when she isn't here with us in these four walls...that's when she'll be home.

May this never be:


Careful what you say
This time of year
Tends to weaken me
And have a little decency
And let me cry in peace
But there`s a place where I
Erase the challenges I`ve been through
Where I know every corner,
Every street name
All by heart
And so it is a part of my
Courageous plan to leave
With a broken heart
Tucked away under my sleeve

I wanna go home for Christmas
Let me go home this year
I wanna go home for Christmas
Let me go home this year

I`ll pack my bags
And leave before the sun rises tomorrow
`cause we act more like strangers for each day
That I am here
But I have people close to me
Who never will desert me
Who remind me frequently
What I was like as a child

And so it is a part of my
Courageous plan to leave
With a broken heart
Tucked away under my sleeve

I wanna go home for Christmas
Let me go home this year
I wanna go home for Christmas
Let me go home this year

I don`t know what my future holds
Or who I`ll choose to love me
But I can tell you where I`m from
And who loved me to life

And so it is a part of my
Courageous plan to leave
With a broken heart
Tucked away under my sleeve

I wanna go home for Christmas
Let me go home this year
I wanna go home this Christmas
Let me go home this year
---------
*Entry 5, The 12 Days of Christmas Blog Challenge
This blog post shares the title of the song "Home for Christmas" by Maria Mena.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

I attended a funeral today. There were still decorative banners hanging at the front of the church... A beautiful silhouette depiction of the nativity—parents and Child—on one side of the church, and another of the traveling wise men on the other. You can picture them in your mind, I'm sure, along with the lovely evergreen tree laden with Crismon ornaments. I was struck by how out of place the urn seemed, carefully placed on the table, front and center, amid all that festive Christmas pageantry.

But then it occurred to me.

This is ultimately what Christmas is all about. In the end, the incarnation of God into a little Babe—who really was born, and lived, and died, and was risen from the dead—truly is the whole point.

We are lost in our sins, desperately in need of a Savior. Enter Jesus, stage left. Born of a virgin. In a stable. Lauded only by shepherds, the outcasts of their society.

And so all my "Christmas celebrating" was interrupted by a funeral. My dear friend's Christmas celebrating was interrupted by a terrible accident, and her son was taken away, just like that.

Sometimes it's all joy and pageantry and celebration. 
The wedding. 
The birth. 
The holiday du jour. 

This time it was Christmas. 
Christmas Eve, to be exact. 
A Son being given
To save the world from their sins,
Or something like that. 

A little too much celebration. 
Libations abounding. 
Lack of judgement. 
Again. 
Overconsumption. 
Again. 

A decision to walk home
Is always a better choice. 
A safer choice, 
At least according to MADD. 

But not this time. 
Not this day. 
Not this Eve, when Son is given.
And son is taken. 
In one step off the curb
At the wrong moment. 

And, you know, the thing is
That all is not calm. 
And all is not bright. 
And no one is sleeping tonight. 

How do we find that heavenly peace
In the midst of something like this?
When we want to run
And hide
And scream
And cry. 
And we do, until there's nothing left to give. 

And in that brokenness, we find the point. 
Find the place of emptiness that can be filled, 
For a full cup can hold nothing.
Can receive nothing
But an empty one knows its need
And a broken one, even more so. 

I don't really love broken and empty. I don't like crying until I can't breathe and my eyes are swollen shut. I don't want pain and grief and a perpetual knot in my stomach and a perpetual lump in my throat. But these are the things of life sometimes. This is reality. Sometimes it isn't all calm and bright. And thank God He meets us in those moments! Thank God He came for moments such as these.

----------
*Entry 4, The 12 Days of Christmas Blog Challenge
The title is a line from the Christmas carol "Silent Night" by Franz Gruber.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Sleigh Ride, F. Michael Haynie Style

Clearly it's time to take a break from Broadway and film to make that Christmas album!

My cousin, F. Michael Haynie, singing a version of "Sleigh Ride" that I want in the Christmas mix at my next Christmas gathering. Happy Third Day of Christmas!



------------
*Entry 3, The 12 Days of Christmas Blog Challenge
This blog post shares the title of the song "Sleigh Ride" by Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Stockings Are Hung by the Chimney with Care


It's the day after Christmas, and I'm looking at a Christmas mantel that looks decidedly different this year. This is a bittersweet thing for me, this particular expression of the reality that "things change." This year, the stockings look different... because they are different.

Many years ago, as we married and began to have children, I began looking for Christmas stockings for our little family. I selected some beautiful needlepoint ones, and over the years it became harder and harder to find another... and then another... and then another... to match the rest. Whenever I found a needlepoint stocking, I bought it, whether we needed it right then or not! By the time my third child, OG, was born, we were desperate and without success until my sweet friend Niki saw one—at the drug store where she was working as a pharmacy technician, of all places!—and snatched it up for us.

Those stockings are precious to me. I love them. I love the sweet memories of having stuffed them full of fun "little nothings" for the ones I love. For many years now, they have hung along our mantel, perfectly spaced... the same exact way, every year.

Enter Ronald. Last Christmas Eve, Ronald showed up at the hospital where my daughter was having surgery before we even did. (It was the wee morning hours, still dark outside!) He was by her side, along with her parents and grandparents, all day long. He sat by her bedside and held her hand throughout the day, until my husband finally prodded him, late that evening, "Ronald, go be with your family. It's Christmas Eve!" We should have known then how serious things were, but since they'd only  just had their first date a few weeks before, we hadn't realized it yet.

That's how it goes when old friends from church, who've known each other for years, finally have their first date!

This year, EV and Ronald are engaged, and we are feeling the "growing pains" of our last Christmas together as just our little family of six. Her heart is torn, half here and half there... she still lives in our home, but is busy preparing for her next one. Come February, our four walls will never be her four walls in the same way again. Our mantel will not be her mantel. Next Christmas, her stocking will not hang here... not really.

Facing this dilemma, I began to prepare for the inevitable—either removing EV's stocking from the line-up or adding one for Ron. The second option was far preferable to the first, but any stocking I would hang among that lineup of coordinated, matching needlepoint stockings was going to look sorely out of place! The last thing I wanted to accomplish was making him feel out of place!

And so, this year, in a deliberate move of inclusion, I bought all new stockings. The beautiful lineup of needlepoint treasures has moved to the staircase—a new holiday decoration that forever preserves for this Mommy's heart the lineup of stockings that graced our mantel for two decades. A season of our lives is ending, and it is a bittersweet thing to bid it farewell! It is a season I have loved very much... yet the children have grown and are maturing into women and men before my very eyes... and these stockings no longer hold us all.

We added a bunch of nails to the mantel—enough to include my dear father-in-law and eventual spouses for each of my children, should they all be married one day—and I bought matching pairs of stockings for each of them. They opened them on December 23 along with our annual Christmas PJs, and EV placed a stocking for Ronald next to her own on the mantel.  I love how the nails just happened to work out so that, for now, the couples can hang together as a unit and still look relatively evenly spaced with the singletons!


It is a different look, to be sure, and I'm working hard to get used to it. For now, we've been working hard to give these new stockings their first year of "history," knowing that it's the memories that give them their true beauty anyway.

The thank you hug from my daughter "for working so hard to make Ronald feel included" is a good start!

And I can always walk around the corner to see the old ones, too...
Double the nostalgia... double the fun.

---------
*Entry 2, The 12 Days of Christmas Blog Challenge
The title is a line from the famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore, but it is also a line from the song "Christmas Time Is Here" by Brian McKnight.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

No More Let Sins and Sorrows Grow

  1. No more let sins and sorrows grow,
    Nor thorns infest the ground;
    He comes to make His blessings flow
    Far as the curse is found,
    Far as the curse is found,
    Far as, far as, the curse is found.
  2. Sometimes, sorrows are great and refuse to stop growing. Sometimes, the circumstances in our lives seem like anything but blessings. The curse is real, and sometimes it rears its ugly head, whether we're trying to celebrate or not. This is one of those Christmases. 
  3. Today, a dear friend of mine had to remove her adult son—struck by a car last night, on Christmas Eve—from life support. He will not survive the day, at least not in this world. A mother, and a wife, and two sons, and many other friends and family members are grieving today for this one they love. Never mind that it's Christmas. 
  4. A neighbor of mine buried her husband last weekend on what would have been their 47th wedding anniversary. He had fallen from the roof while hanging Christmas lights, landing in such a way on the driveway below that he sustained a fatal head injury. He never regained consciousness enough to communicate his love and goodbyes. Never mind that it's Christmas. 
  5. My pastor and his wife are navigating through the tricky waters of celebrating the family's first Christmas without their son and brother, Mark, who was tragically murdered last May in a random shooting as he drove home from attending his high school's graduation ceremony. Her thoughts about what that's like are poignant and real and vulnerable and honest and encouraging and fiercely beautiful, in an awful sort of way. Never mind that it's Christmas. 
  6. This year was a year of tears for me. I attended far too many funerals... some for dear ones who should have had a lifetime ahead of them... some for those who lived long lives, rich and full, but who are still so sorely missed. 
  7. Never mind that it's Christmas. 
  8. As I've moved through this holiday season—grieving, and praying for many other dear ones who are also grieving—it's been a daily exercise to seek joy. It's been work to move past my own confusion and pain and to find the Lord in all of it. Do I really believe that He's good, all the time? Do I really believe that He's sovereign? Do I really trust Him, in the middle of all this pain?

"Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words." 
 - 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18a| NIV84

  1. I've had to choose to find encouragement in those words. I've had to dwell on the reality that, though we grieve, we do not grieve as those without hope. My dear friends who have "fallen asleep in Him" truly "will be with the Lord forever"! They are with Him even now, as I type these words. As I struggle and strive, amidst grief, to celebrate the fact that God came to Earth as a baby to save the world—and yea, even me—from our sins, they are basking in His glorious presence, face to face. 
  2.  
  3. I don't pretend to have all the answers, and I certainly don't know what to say to a friend who is saying goodbye to a son on Christmas Day, but I do know this... must hang onto this...

  4. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
    Let earth receive her King;
    Let every heart prepare Him room,
    And heav’n and nature sing,
    And heav’n and nature sing,
    And heav’n, and heav’n, and nature sing.
  5. Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
    Let men their songs employ;
    While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
    Repeat the sounding joy,
    Repeat the sounding joy,
    Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
  6. No more let sins and sorrows grow,
    Nor thorns infest the ground;
    He comes to make His blessings flow
    Far as the curse is found,
    Far as the curse is found,
    Far as, far as, the curse is found.
  7. He rules the world with truth and grace,
    And makes the nations prove
    The glories of His righteousness,
    And wonders of His love,
    And wonders of His love,
    And wonders, wonders, of His love.
  8. -------
    *Entry 1, The 12 Days of Christmas Blog Challenge
    The title is a line from the famous hymn "Joy to the World" by Isaac Watts and Lowell Mason.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Oh Christmas Lights, Keep Shining On

Christmas lights are a magical thing for me... ever since I was a little girl, lying on the couch in the dark and watching the blinking lights—waiting for the inevitable moment, which would come for the patient, when every single light was out for a brief moment. I loved it. I would blur my eyes and watch the twinkling colors, magically heralding the fun of the season.

Many, many years have passed since those days, and I still find myself watching the lights. This year, they're not blinking, but they are still colorful, and they were hung more masterfully than ever by my oldest daughter, EV, who went up and down instead of round and round with them. The effect is beautiful, and it's a whole lot easier that way! (Who knew?!)

Tonight I begin what will be a fourth year (for me) of completing my friend Pam's "December Blog Challenge." Though she hasn't mentioned a word about it yet, I can only assume she is continuing the tradition this year. Even if she doesn't, I will, because I love the forced exercise of sitting down and gathering my thoughts during the comparatively calm days between Christmas and New Year's when it seems possible to grab a few moments from the busy life of a homeschool mom—happily on break!—to write.

Won't you join us this year? You don't have to join us every day. (My first year, I only got to December 30, the 6th day of Christmas!) Just grab a day or two during these next two weeks and capture your thoughts. I'd love to read them!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Winston's Heaven

This is our first Christmas without our beloved Winston. He was our Christmas rescue from the local SPCA in 2009. Five years ago, he came to us and hijacked Christmas. All we did that year was watch that unruly, crazy, not-so-house-trained dog! And we fell in love. This year, we have another new dog, acquired as a puppy this past July. Like Winston before him, Finley is still trying to figure out exactly where he should and shouldn't "do his business." Like Winston, he wants to eat both the ornaments on the tree and the presents under it.

Finley is a sweetie, and we love him a real whole lot, but we still miss our dear Winston... a real whole lot. So a couple of weeks ago, when we saw him staring back at us from the walls of the local Plow and Hearth store, we had to have the picture. It was marked half off, and—amazingly—was subject to our coupon as well. This isn't common, and we just took it as a further sign that this picture was meant to be ours.

OG calls it Winston's Heaven... "Finally allowed on the bed... and under the covers!" 

It really does look just like him. And now it hangs in our bedroom. Oh, sweet Winston. We miss you!

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Art of Sticking With the Giving Up

My friend Pam Fahs is one of those people who is extremely talented, extremely driven, extremely dedicated, and living life with great deliberateness. You know the type... the one you'd absolutely despise if she weren't so absolutely sweet... and didn't somehow pull off "unquestioningly better than you in every possible area" and still not make you feel judged or demeaned in any way. Seriously. I don't know how she does it, but somehow she always makes me feel inspired and encouraged toward improvement rather than judged and found wanting. I wish she lived nearby. I'd love to just hang out and share life ideas together! (Read: learn from her perpetually, and copy her shamelessly...)

So, one of the areas she's totally better than we are is in the Family Solidarity Challenge. (This is my name for it, not hers! Hers would be snappy and memorable and would either rhyme in a cool way, contain a clever play on words, or consist of a memorable acronym. And it would probably somehow involve the number 7.)

For many years now, her family has "given up" something together, for the entire year. Here is a recent Facebook post from her that explains the process a bit:

As No Candy 2014 is coming to a close, T. and I are trying (without too much success) to engage our kids in a discussion of what we will give up as a family in 2015 (all in the interest of building family unity and eliminating one unhealthy thing for a year). Winners of the "Nice Try Award" so far:

A: "No Fried Food on a Thursday 2015"
C: "No Ranch Dressing 2015"
Q: "No Rice 2015" (Yeah, impossible!)
T: "No Eating Out Monday Through Thursday 2015" (Also impossible!)
A: "No Cucumbers 2015"
A: "No Tomato Sauce 2015"
R: "No Peanuts 2015"

Pam continues: I'm about to make an executive decision on "No Cake 2015," "No Cookies 2015," or "No Ice Cream 2015." I think "No Cake" will cause the smallest revolt. 

For the record, I tried the "executive decision" approach last year. After having successfully given up soda for all of 2013—and finding it wonderful in so many ways—we were going to join them again in 2014. We chose "No Sweet Treats 2014," Um, yeah. None. Of any of them. Nothing. Of all of them. We made it, I think, to about February before we just quit. I don't consider it a total failure, however, since we learned what NOT to do if you want to be successful.

So, we're back to the drawing board for 2015, remembering what we learned from last year's fiasco: No huge, broad categories. No exceptions or special circumstances. No caveats. ("It's a wedding. Eat the cake."..."They made them special just for us."..."But they bought them for us and we can't just let them go to waste."..."Daddy ate one!")

What will it be this year? We're not sure yet, but we're all weighing in, considering some of the Fahses' past successful adventures: "No French Fries 2010," "No Soda 2011," "No Fast Food 2012" (Avid sportsters, they allowed themselves Chick-Fil-A for game nights), "No Chips 2013" (I believe there was a brief dispensational pause when they visited Texas or someplace with great Southwestern food) and "No Candy 2014."

It isn't at all surprising to me that Pam's family is five for five and we're hobbling in, trying to make two out of three this year. That's typical! But also true to form, she's inspired us to carry on despite our past failure. We bit off more than we (couldn't) chew last year with our attempt to give up every single sweet treat. This year we'll be more specific. (Specificity is key! No ever-expanding "grey areas" to go snacking in!)

The feedback I've gotten so far?

EL: How about we DON'T do "No Sweet Treats 2015"! I'm good with anything else... No chips, maybe? But that would mean no Mi Casita, no Guad's, no chippies! NOOOO!

IM: I could go with NO CAKE... if cheesecake is not really a cake.

OG: I'd say no chips or pre-packaged snack food. That's probably the worst thing you could reach for when you're hungry, but because it's easy, that's what's gravitated towards instead of something healthier like ants on a log or almonds or veggies....

PT: No cookies is probably smartest, given how many we can eat without feeling bad about it.

That last comment probably stems from the fact that EL has made three different batches of Christmas cookies so far—all meant to be served on Christmas Eve—and they're all gone! We eat them all, every time she bakes them. Clearly, we need some help!

Perhaps we've already found our "need to give it up" thing for 2015 after all! Won't you join us? What will your family choose?

Goodbye, cookies! We'll miss you desperately. See you in 2016!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Letter to My Children This Christmas

Dear ones,
We got a lot of flack from both sets of our parents for "ruining Christmas" and "denying you the magic of childhood and believing" when we didn't "do Santa Claus" with you as children—didn't tell you that he was real... and watching you... and giving you gifts based on your behavior. 

We didn't have a John Piper article (see below) to support us or help us feel like we weren't freaks... we just knew that we didn't want this god-like man, Santa Claus—all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent, omnipotent—to figure into your thinking in any way about God. 

If we had chosen to "do the Santa thing" (which everyone around us was doing, and encouraging us to do!), we knew it was possible that it could cause a stumbling block to your young faith, a thing we weren't willing to risk. 

When push came to shove, we were unwilling to have your experience come down to this: When Santa (and the Easter Bunny... and the Tooth Fairy...) all turned out to be fabrications—untrue things we'd told you were true, and helped you believe, even—we didn't want you to doubt God, too. After all, every other too-good-to-be-true, invisible being we had told you about turned out to actually be too good to be true! We didn't want the truths you'd learned about the *true* all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent, omnipotent Being (the Way, the Truth, and the Life: for real and true!) to be compromised by our letting Him share the glory (and pieces of your heart. and affections. and love.) with other beings who were lies. 

We believe we did the right thing. We really hope you never felt gypped to have learned about the true Saint Nicholas, yes, but to have celebrated and worshiped and adored the coming of Jesus, instead!

Here are John Piper's thoughts on the matter, from his recent "Ask Pastor John" podcast called Rethinking Santa. Click on the link to have a listen.

Oh, my sweet children, how I love all of you! It's interesting—and a little hard, in a bittersweet way—walking through this particular Christmas... celebrating with you for the last time as just our little family of six. Over the coming years, our little family will expand into "extended family" as you each leave our home to start your own little family units of living and learning and teaching and traditions and celebrating. I rejoice with you through the growing pains, and I look forward to seeing how you guys honor the coming of the Savior of the world in your own homes one day. For now, though—this one last time—let's do it all this way

Merry Christmas, my little sugarplums. I love you! 

Celebrating Christmas

As we move into the week before Christmas, the excitement around our household is growing. Some of our family's "Christmas traditions" have already come to pass, and many are yet to come in the next few days.

This is an interesting Christmas for our family... our last as just our own little family unit of six. This coming February, our daughter EV is getting married. Over the coming years, our little family of six will expand into "extended family" as our four children eventually leave our home to start their own little family units of living and learning and teaching and traditions and celebrating. I am rejoicing through the growing pains, and I look forward to seeing how they will choose to honor the coming of the Savior of the world in their own homes one day. I'm sure some of our traditions might remain, having made their indelible marks and been found worthy of repeating. I know that some of those that were part of their spouse's growing-up years will mingle in as well. Most, however, probably will not, as they seek to create their own traditions and memories as a couple and with their own children.

I first wrote this post about our family's Christmas traditions back in 2008. (At that time my children were 14, 12, 10, and 8.) It has been amended and added to over the years, as our family has grown into (and one out of!) the teenage years, but many of the traditions have remained. Just this one last time, we're implementing as many of these things as we still can. And maybe, just maybe, in future years, some of those beloved "extended family members" will join us in some of the traditional celebrating at our place!

Here's the original (though oft-amended) post from 2008:
At the meeting of our worship team during our weekly practice last week, the "icebreaker" question was to share your favorite family tradition in celebrating Christmas. It was interesting to watch people decide which "life stage" to answer about—whether to answer about the traditions they remembered from their own childhood, or the ones they implement now with their own children, or the ones they used to implement when their children were still at home. Generally, the effect was that you got "the best of the best," as they had to choose a favorite from among all of those experienced during any life stage.

My own children were in the room, participating in the meeting, so we got to hear firsthand their perspective on some of the favorite traditions we're practicing now. What I discovered is that "it's working." We have long desired to capitalize on our children's love of holidays and special occasions and celebrations, and to use them to underscore the special significance of certain spiritual truths. We've always wanted Christmas to be more about Jesus than Santa. We've wanted them to be firmly grounded in truth. We've wanted them to be more excited about giving than receiving. And we've wanted to avoid the materialistic spending frenzy that is typical of Christmas in America.

Yeah, right. Pretty tall order. But we've done our best, and it seems to be mostly working. Here are some of the things we do toward that end... all of them are not "spiritual," and some of them have just "come about on their own" without any planning or thought or purpose to it. Some of them are just silly and fun, while some of them are deeply significant. Some we hold lightly; some we simply must do.

So, although I'm pretty sure nobody else is as excited to read all about our family's Christmas traditions as I am to write them all down, here they are, in no particular order:

* We usually stay away from anything Christmas-y until after Thanksgiving, in order to give that holiday its own importance and focus. On Thanksgiving day, after all the feasting, we always watch "It's a Wonderful Life." It is just a great movie that underscores what's really important and what really isn't... and my husband is pretty much George Bailey. (2014 note: This year was the first year in all of my married life that I didn't watch this movie on Thanksgiving Day. Seriously. Thank you, pre-Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving Day. Grrrr!)

* By far our most important and significant tradition is doing our "Advent banner," beginning on December 1. Iivo and I created this banner (from the book Family Celebrations - Meeting Christ in Your Holidays and Special Occasions by Ann Hibbard) when I was pregnant with EV, and we've been going through these family devotions during Advent ever since. We made a banner with a large flannel Christmas tree, and each "ornament" (with its symbolic felt emblem) is velcroed onto the tree by a child after the Advent meditation has been completed each evening. This keeps our focus clearly on the spiritual dimensions and implications of the Advent season. Our regular family devotions are replaced with this Advent banner during this time. [2013 note: These devotions are perfect for little ones, and a little "babyish" for older ones, but we walk through them every year anyway. We've added an Advent "road to the manger" candle tradition—compliments of Ann Voskamp's son, who handcrafts them himself, with all profits going to missions. We printed the pictures and made the "ornaments" for her advent tree devotional several years ago, and we usually do some of that, too, when we can. We reprise the "thankfulness tree" from Thanksgiving, and we hang that beautiful artwork on it. Sometimes, now that they're older, we'll do three or four days' worth of felt banner devotions at a time, and other nights we won't do it at all. Whatever works to keep all the relevant Advent scriptures before our eyes and minds throughout the month.]

* We also have collected quite a set of Christmas books over the years, so our evening "family read-aloud" is also disbanded during this time, and we read a Christmas story together each night. These range from the explanatory (Santa, Are You For Real?) to the symbolically spiritual (this year's acquisition—The Tale of Three Trees) to the silly and fun (A Wish for Wings that Work - an Opus Christmas Story). We have enough by now to last us throughout the Christmas season. The red-white-and-green basket of books comes out with the Christmas decorations and sits out all month, by the couch; the kids tend to pick up and read the books on their own throughout the month, as well.

* However soon as is practical after Thanksgiving, we head together as a family to get our Christmas tree. Though there is a lovely(?) artificial tree in our attic even as I type, over the past few years we have developed the habit of heading to our local Taylor's for a "real" tree, which as of this 2008 writing can be had for only $14.99. Somehow it has come to be tradition that after we choose our tree and strap it to the van, we head across the street to eat at the Tijuana Flat's restaurant that is there. There is nothing Christmas-y about it, but it is pretty expensive for our whole family to go there, so we usually only do it this one time during the year. It has become part of the Christmas traditions purely by accident. [2013 note: The "must have a real tree" thing has continued, through several price hikes at Taylor's over the years and then the eventual abandonment of that store entirely after this tree fiasco. Also, the super-close Tijuana Flats closed down, so we now head across town to the other one, though it is nowhere near the purchasing place of the Christmas tree anymore!]

* We usually end up putting only the lights on the tree at this point, and then "do the ornament thing" about a week later. While the lights go up, we tend to gravitate toward a favorite Christmas CD called It's Christmas Time, with carols and fun Christmas songs sung by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra.

* After the lights are on the tree, the girls usually grab the other Christmas decorations from the attic and scatter them about the house, while iivo and PT put some Christmas lights outside, on the house and bushes.

* We have a variety of nativity sets, and they go up in different rooms of the house... right down to the little clear glass ones EL bought at the Dollar Tree for her sister OG and her brother PT one year when she was very little, "so they can have one of their own like EV." (The "nativity of her own" for EV came from her Sunday school teacher when she was a preschooler, and is a little nativity set of black figures. She still puts it up in her room every year.)

* Iivo's birthday falls in the middle of the "Christmas season," so there is usually a break somewhere in here one weekend to celebrate him and his birth.

* "Doing the ornament thing" is an experience around our house, and it is usually reserved for a weekend of its own after Iivo's birthday weekend. (We're still homeschooling during these weeks of early December, so weekends are all we have!) Each ornament is brought out and—since many of them have significant memories attached to them—discussed as it is put on the tree. My mother has been buying a different Christmas tree ornament for each of my children every Christmas since they were born, so that they'll have a set of ornaments to take with them to their own homes when they leave ours. They each pull a few of their own ornaments out of their ever-growing collection of special storage boxes, smiling and remembering and deciding where to place each one. It is usually best if I stay out of this process as much as possible. (See here for more about this!)

* When we put ornaments on the tree, we listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. This is relatively calm and mostly instrumental, which helps during the frenzy. So does egg nog, by the way, so that's become typical during the ornament-hanging as well.

* Though we own a lot of Christmas albums, and have put them all into a Christmas playlist on the iPods, a few favorites tend to come out and stay front and center around our house in December. These include the two already mentioned, James Taylor's James Taylor at ChristmasChristmas Portrait by the Carpenters, and A Christmas Together by John Denver and the Muppets. A local radio station plays Christmas music all season, and it tends to irritate some of us and thrill others of us. So there is usually some listening to "I'm Gettin' Nuttin' for Christmas" or "Feed the World" or "Santa Baby" type songs... and the commensurate "radio wars" that go on when one member of the family doesn't want to hear "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime" for the eight-hundredth time, while one other member of the family has every radio station in the house tuned to this station—and turned on!

* Our children do not have "Christmas wish lists," and we tend to buy each of them only one "big" present each Christmas. This item is something we think they would enjoy having, not something they've asked for. (I think both our homeschooling and our not watching television have helped in this regard, because there aren't nearly as many "have to have this" items in a kid's mind when he isn't in the peer-conformity world of school or watching TV commercials telling him how much he needs a specific thing.) They never ask for particular things they want, as we've never fostered an environment that caters to that. They do have grandparents, however, who will sometimes ask if there are any particular wishes; occasionally one surfaces, but not usually.

* What they do love (and I mean love) is the practice we have of going out shopping—one child at a time, with me—to buy a specific gift for each of their siblings. (I talked about this in my last post.) They plan out and think about what they might like to buy each other, sometimes for weeks and months before Christmas, and head out once we finish homeschooling—with either a very specific plan in mind, or with an open mind combined with a pretty good knowledge of the sibling—and we shop. This is both exhausting and exhilarating to me. Truth be told, I love it, too! There is something thrilling about seeing your children genuinely more excited about the gifts they're giving than the ones they're receiving. (2014 note: Although I still LOVE watching them give each other perfect gifts that demonstrate how well they know each other, I've had to let go of the joy of helping them pick them out and getting to shop with them. They've all been old enough to get each others' gifts without me for a while now! Every once in a while a non-driver will ask for a ride, and I'll secretly smile inside at this throwback to the good old days!)

* The actual celebrating really begins for us on "Christmas Adam." (You know... the night before Christmas Eve! This nickname was given to December 23 one year by one of my children—I don't know which one started it, honestly—and it has stuck ever since.) This night, for us, usually involves opening a single present... the huge box—all individually wrapped inside but also wrapped together in one big box—of our new Christmas PJs. I wish I'd taken pictures of everyone in them, every year, to watch the growth of the kids and to save the memories... but we didn't, so we just have to remember in our brains. Even as I type right now, I'm wearing the "Downton Abbey-style" PJs we selected in 2013all warm flannel with buttons and collars, and oh-so-comfy.

* Christmas Eve, for us, traditionally involves a series of Christmas Eve church services. There is a children's service at my parents' church up the road that starts at 4:00 and involves story-telling and craft-making and a "birthday cake" for Jesus. My parents pick up and take the little ones to that, while the older ones and we adults get ready for our church's service. Iivo is the worship leader, and usually some of the rest of us are involved in the music in some way, too. That service is typically at 5:30. My father brings the little girls after the children's service is over, and then attends that 5:30 service with us. My mother is usually doing some last minute rehearsing at her church for the 7:00 service there. Once our service is over, we try to limit the intake of Christmas cookies by our children, then head up the road to that service to see Nanny sing in the choir and ring the hand bells. By the time this service is over, we are all "sung out" and starving, and we head up the road to the local Chinese restaurant and share a variety of dishes, served "family style." Afterward we head back to my parents' house for more Christmas cookies and hot apple cider, and to open stockings.

* [If my family has traveled out of town to TN for Christmas, or if Iivo's family is visiting from out of town, this pattern tends to look a little different. We only attend our Christmas Eve service, and afterward we eat a meal highlighting a blending of traditional Estonian and Swiss foods. This would typically be a pork roast, sauerkraut and red cabbage (very Swiss-German!), rosolje (Estonian "purple potato salad" containing pickles and beets and—if you're lucky—skipping the herring!), sai (an Estonian Christmas bread made with raisins), and verivorst (Estonian Christmas sausage). If my mother-in-law has cooked and brought some verivorst, the Eesti folk eat this—and Iivo loves it—but the rest of us tend to pass on the blood sausage. If my in-laws are here, we'll stay home and open our own stockings on Christmas Eve, with my parents joining us here for egg nog or cider or Christmas cookies.]

* Once the kids are in bed, we go around and swipe all the baby Jesus figures from each nativity set and carefully wrap them together in one package. We wrap this package very plain and dull and place it under the tree. (This becomes "the first gift of Christmas" in the morning, and we highlight the fact that Jesus—the greatest gift ever given—arrived here without fanfare or recognizable earthly glory.)

* On Christmas morning, Iivo and I get up early and put in the dough for the traditional cinnamon rolls that are our Christmas breakfast. Afterward, we crawl back into bed and "sleep in" as late as the first child. This child—however big or small—crawls into bed with us and waits for brother or sisters to awaken and join us. Once three of the four are up, we decide it is time for the final child to get up, and all head in together to rouse the sleepyhead.

*We get up and get going in the morning with the final installment of the Advent banner. This is meant to be the Christmas Eve lesson, but we wisely skip this since we've usually already attended two church services that night. This lesson is on the wise men, and segues nicely into the first gift of Christmas. We open this (the baby Jesus figures wrapped the night before) and the children go put each baby Jesus back with the corresponding nativity set. This was more naturally "fun" when they were little, but it has become part of what we do, so even these older children love to walk through this process.

* After this, we head into the kitchen, fashion the dough into cinnamon rolls, and get them going in the oven. While we wait for them to bake, we open our stockings.

* For breakfast, we have cinnamon rolls and either sausage or hard-boiled eggs for protein so no one "melts down." After we eat this, the kids are finally able to head in and distribute their gifts to their siblings. They are fairly about to burst with anticipation by this point, but they take turns and go one at a time. One child "plays Santa" first, and gives her gifts to her siblings one at a time. Said sibling opens the gift and we all enjoy seeing what was given and received. This process takes a while, since there are twelve gifts (three each) that have been purchased by the children for each other. It always strikes me every year how fun it is to "know" and "be known," as these gifts perfectly reflect their knowledge of each other and what each other likes and might enjoy receiving.

* After this, we take a break to read a Christmas storybook, then give the children the presents we have bought for them. Iivo and I don't buy each other any gifts (his birthday is in early December and mine is in early January), but instead buy one "big thing" we feel the family needs or would enjoy. This can range from the immensely practical and needed to the totally frivolous and decidedly un-needed. Everybody usually knows about what this gift might be, as there's been some discussion about it throughout the preceding months. It is revealed at some point over the course of the morning.

* At some point several years ago (2011, maybe?) we started a tradition of eliminating each child's "big gift" and replacing it with $100ish dollars' worth of credit toward a World Vision or Show Hope gift that they select and give, using the money that would have gone to their "big gift." (If you didn't click on those links, you really should. Or at least click here and take 90 seconds to see how it works. We love giving gifts that make a difference in the world all year long!) They still receive a small gift or two from us, but now more than ever, Christmas is, for them, about what they get to give, not what they are going to get... both to each other, through the gifts they buy each other, and through the gifts they choose for the needy around the world. They choose, and we order, these gifts on Christmas morning. (Cards of thanksgiving for the donations arrive in the mail sometime during the ensuing 12 Days of Christmas we're celebrating around here.)

* After all this, my parentsif they've joined ushead back home, we shower and get ready, and then we all re-convene at their house for a holiday meal mid-afternoon. The menu used to vary a bit every year (usually some variation of turkey or ham, with each of us contributing different side dishes to go with it), but over the years it's settled into ham, Nanny's warm potato salad, Nanny's cranberry salad, fresh green beans, and Laura rolls. When we gather at their house, we eat the feast, and then open the gifts from them.

* Over the course of the month, we tend to watch a Christmas movie or two. These vary from year to year, and have included such favorites as Miracle on 34th StreetElfThe Santa Clause, Samantha (An American Girl Tale for Christmas)Prancer, and The Polar Express. We also usually try to fit in a viewing or two from among the favorite childhood television specials we always watched when they (and we!) were little:  How the Grinch Stole Christmas; A Charlie Brown Christmas; Frosty the Snowman; Rudolph; or Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey (my personal favorite since I was a girl). As the kids have gotten older, this list has expanded to include many hardly-seems-right-to-call-them-Christmas-movies-just-because-Christmas-is-in-them films that we've enjoyed with our teen children. (Think Die Hard or While You Were Sleeping here!)

* We have watched The Nativity Story every year since we went to see it in the theater with my sister and her family, who were visiting, the year it came out, but we have yet to figure out a "regular" time to do it, so the tradition is simply that we must do so some time over the course of the season.

* If Iivo's family hasn't come to visit us, there is usually some holiday travel involved after Christmas to go see them. This may be the weekend after Christmas, or over New Year's, but sometime over the course of the break we try to get to see them, too.

* Although the Christmas decorations disappear from my mother's house as quickly as the local radio station playing Christmas songs reverts back to its usual love-song format, we tend to leave the decorations up through all of the "twelve days of Christmas." We're just not quite ready to see them go by December 26th, and so we leave them up until a weekend falling somewhere around January 5.

* Unfortunately, it is usually not until this stage of things that I get around to doing our Christmas cards! We are terrible about Christmas cards, but I love them!! I love sending them, and I love getting them, even if they do arrive later than everyone else's! (See here for more on this!)

"The aroma of our homes is created by the liturgy of our lives. The liturgy of our lives, simply put, is what happens when we deliberately think through what we do and why... There is liturgy in all of our lives. We all have family traditions that in many ways tell the stories of our homes and what we value."
- Steve Murphy, publisher of 
Homeschooling Today magazine


What is it we value at Christmas time? First and foremost, we value the Savior. We long to keep Him first and foremost in our minds as we walk through the season that follows Thanksgiving and incorporates New Year's. What began as a celebration of the incarnation—God made man and delivered to us as a baby—has become deliberately secularized in American culture. It has become more about Santa and getting stuff than about Jesus and giving stuff. It has become more about "happy holidays" than "Merry Christmas." It has become a spending frenzy that breaks many families' budgets and creates many spoiled, ungrateful, never-quite-happy-enough children. We work hard to reverse that focus in our home. Jesus is squarely the central focus for us.

We also value the fun and the feasting and the break from the routine that this season offers. It is a chance to break out of the daily grind and to reflect on what is important to us in new, fresh ways. We value our immediate family, and we love remembering them with special little tokens of affection. We value our extended family, and we treasure the chance to visit with them in whatever ways work out each year. We value the special friends we have, and we enjoy spending time with whichever ones He's given us to be particularly close to in each of the various seasons of our lives.

Even talking about it all has made me nostalgic and anticipatory. We will walk through many of these traditions again this year... this week... and over Christmas Eve... and Christmas Day... and New Year's Eve... and New Year's Day. I really can't wait!