Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A No-Panic Advent: The Monstrously Long Post

I first ran this series in 2008, reran it in 2009, didn't get it updated in 2010, but now have tidied it up a bit for this year. I hope it helps as you watch, wait and prepare for Jesus.


Part I: Note some dates

It's the advent of Advent -- mark those dates on the calendar! You know it's the only way you'll remember anything!

Stuff that always goes on my calendar:

*The first Sunday of Advent (buy candles for wreath! Sometimes I have been so organized that I bought candles the previous year and packed them with the wreath, but I never know until I unpack the thing....)

*December 5: St. Nicholas Eve (extremely important that St. Nicholas not go to bed without remembering to do a few things first)

*December 6: St. Nicholas Day

*December 8: Immaculate Conception (Holy day of obligation!)

*December 12: Our Lady of Guadalupe

*December 13: St. Lucia

*December 17: O Antiphons begin


If you haven't observed all these feast days in the past, do not -- I repeat, do not -- feel pressure to do it all.  No one does it all.

You might want to pick one or two things on which to focus -- and then, have fun with them. These observances are meant to deepen our faith and draw us closer to God. Getting stressed out about how well we do this stuff, or about whether we do it at all, doesn't deepen our faith; it just irritates us.

God doesn't want us irritated in preparation for His Son. That would sort of defeat the purpose of the Prince of Peace, wouldn't it? Peaceful and meaningful preparation is key. No panic necessary ... just keep your eyes fixed on the Prince of Peace.

Part II: The Jesus Stocking

The Jesus stocking is something I started when Anne-with-an-e was very young. I was looking for ways to keep our Christmas focused on Jesus rather than all the (delightful and fun though they are) other trappings of the holiday.

It's a simple stocking (I keep thinking I should upgrade it to something worthy of our King, but on the other hand, I think perhaps He's pleased with the simplicity) and I used fabric paint to add His name.

What goes in the Jesus stocking? It can be whatever you like -- we've done it a couple of different ways.

Like the Thanksgiving Tree, each night at dinner, we all name something for which we're thankful. It's written on a small piece of paper, and added to the stocking. On Christmas day, it's fun to read all the blessings that were counted during Advent, from the littlest things (such as a tea party with Tigger), to grown-up concerns (such as being thankful that the car broke down in our driveway instead of twenty miles from home on a sub-zero day), to every-day-but-enormous joys (such as friendship, family and faith.) Here are some samples from years past:

Another idea for the Jesus stocking is to use it for corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Many of us are familiar with the idea of setting up a manger for baby Jesus and filling it with soft hay (we use yarn in a basket) in preparation for Christmas day.

The idea for the Jesus stocking is similar. Corporal and spiritual works of mercy, small sacrifices, kindnesses and prayers are recorded and dropped in the stocking as gifts for Jesus.  Children are encouraged to fill Jesus's stocking with gifts throughout Advent.

For much of Advent, the Jesus stocking will be the only one hanging on the mantle (the small tree to the right is our Jesse Tree):

to remind us that He is at the center of the celebration to which we look forward with such joy. Surrounded by our favorite Advent books and calendars, this place of honor for the King is a constant reminder that what we anticipate in this season of hope is not a gift, but the Gift: our Lord and Savior.

Part III: The Jesse Tree

I call the Jesse Tree the "family scrapbook" because through its stories we learn about our spiritual family and salvation history.

This is probably one of the most "educational" Advent activities that we do. (Remember, though -- life is school, and school is life, so it's all educational .... ) I've always posted a small sign next to the tree (just in case my children forget what I'm educating them about -- not that my kids ever forget such things ....) The sign reads, "The Jesse Tree ... Finding Jesus in the Old Testament" and that's exactly what a Jesse Tree helps us do. It introduces us to the truth that Christianity is not a new idea, nor a religion dreamed up and perpetuated by a motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors. It is the fulfillment of God's story -- our story -- from the beginning of time.

Reading the Scriptures that lay the foundation for and point us to Jesus brings all those seemingly disconnected Bible stories together into a meaningful fabric, a tapestry of history that makes sense to even the youngest of children. When we compare it to a family's scrapbook, it becomes a metaphor children can easily understand. The symbols we hang on our tree are snapshots of the history of Jesus, which is our history, too.

We use ornaments made from salt dough (which has a tendency to break, so we've been through a couple sets of ornaments. Always fun to make new ones, though, so that's not a problem.) I used to keep the ornaments right under the tree, within easy reach for the daily reading and ceremonial hanging, but you may not want to do that if you have babies or toddlers. The reason I no longer keep them there is we now have a dog who finds salt dough to be a delicacy. For young kids, I recommend scheduling the ceremonial hanging in a basic, "No fighting - your turn will come tomorrow," rotation to avoid having fights break out.

I started using an old, small, artificial Christmas tree as our Jesse tree a few years ago. Before that, I dithered about, trying to find the best way to approach this activity. One year we did poster board and a hodgepodge of construction paper and 3-d ornaments; another year I searched in vain for the perfect tree branch to place in a pot, a la a friend's example. I was trying so hard to make it all perfect that year -- I ended up abandoning the entire activity in frustration. Another year our tree was hastily thrown together on construction paper. I was pregnant with Ramona then, at a very tired age 41, and was extraordinarily pleased with myself simply for breaking out glitter.

I was finally inspired to use our artificial tree by my friend, Johnna, who always has great craft and liturgical ideas. She began using their full-size Christmas tree as a Jesse Tree, hanging Jesse ornaments during Advent, then replacing them with Christmas ornaments on Christmas Eve. I adapted the idea, and pulled out the old 4' tree I'd been considering giving away. Our Jesse Tree tradition was finally settled. And, my kids were 11, 8 and 2 when I figured this out. So. Huh. It took awhile.

And, what readings do we use? This took some time for me to figure out, too. I have to confess that for awhile, I reeeally disliked the Jesse Tree activity, because I couldn't find an easy, workable, all-in-one version of it anywhere. If one source had ornaments or other ideas I liked, it did not offer neatly corresponding readings. If I found a set of readings I liked, suddenly my ornaments no longer matched.

Harumph. Then, my English pal, The Bookworm came to the rescue, and we've settled in with a book she recommended.

The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean combines a picture/storybook with the Scripture readings we want to cover. I use both this book and a Bible to completely cover it all.

An important point to remember about the Jesse Tree -- and one that will keep you from falling into petulance -- is that it doesn't have to be done perfectly on schedule or legalistically. So what if you miss a day of readings here or there? It's okay! Catch up when you have time.

What you're aiming for -- the truly important thing -- is increased familiarity with Scripture, and a growing understanding that Jesus is present in the Old Testament.

In the same way that little math students do a lot of the same addition and multiplication problems year in and year out, students of the Jesse Tree study "the same old thing" each year,with the result being steady and continued growth and knowledge. Don't look for it to be immediately transforming. It's an activity that grows on you, that grows on your kids, and most of all, that increases everyone's fluency with the word of God. And with the Word of God, Jesus.

My final assessment: what matters is that you're digging into Scripture. Your ornaments might be hastily assembled, glitter-glopped and slapped on poster board, or they may be carefully fashioned in the weeks before Advent. Your readings might come from one source while your ornaments are nabbed from another. You might make up your own set of readings and symbols, or you might find a ready-made kit that's perfect.

But the bottom line is: do what works for you and your family, for your possibly-tired-or-pregnant-or-incapacitated body, your crafty or craft-challenged self, your one child or your many.

What matters most is focusing on Jesus as the celebration of His birth approaches.

Don't do what I did -- don't let the quest for "the perfect Jesse Tree" squelch a great way to spend time with God's word. Relax and have fun with it, and keep that big picture -- the growth and knowledge that will come over several years of doing it -- in mind.

Part IV: O Night Divine, Catholic Cuisine and Catholic Mom

Mary Ellen Barrett's Advent and Christmas blog, O Night Divine is a treasure chest from which you can pluck a few jewels for your preparations and celebrations.

Catholic Cuisine, a liturgical year resource that's a treasure trove all year round, is packed with ideas from a variety of contributors.

Lisa Hendey's CatholicMom.com Advent page is full of links, too.

If you haven't investigated these sites, start poking around. But keep track of the time -- you might get lost in the thick of all those great ideas and recipes.

Part V: Files

This one is simple.

Keep an Advent file. Bookmark great websites in an Advent folder, and keep a paper file, too.

Toss good ideas into your files as you stumble upon them. When you're halfway through Advent, or seven days into the Twelve Days of Christmas and you discover a great new idea, don't kill yourself trying to implement it right this very minute.

The idea will still be there next year. You and your kids will still be here, too.

So, don't try to do it all.

That's what files are for: to hold all the great stuff you're not doing at the moment, but will, one day, do.

Part VI: Don't Sweat a Little Secularity

Or, "What Does Miss Piggy Have to Do with Advent?"

Unexpectedly, Miss Piggy became a part of our Advent traditions many years ago.

When Anne-with-an-e was very little, my mother gave us an Advent calendar: twenty-four mini books, one for each day of December until Christmas. The calendar featured Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog bringing the O. Henry story, The Gift of the Magi, to fuzzy, muppety life. My daughter delighted in the story and looked forward each year to the daily books, which we read, then hung by their decorative little ribbons on the tree.

One year (it was before Atticus came into the Catholic Church), I worried that I shouldn't include anything secular in our Advent traditions. I considered leaving the Muppets in their box, trying as I was to impress upon the kids what the season was really all about. I was determined -- without my husband's help, and that made it seem a heavier burden -- to be certain that my children were focused on Jesus. Though I was well-intentioned, I think I was wrong.

That year, at the beginning of Advent, Anne immediately requested the Muppet Calendar. My heart was softened and I saw, finally and clearly, that this was a beautiful way to include my mother (who is not a Christian) in our Advent preparations. She lives far away and we see little enough of her as it is ... wasn't this a lovely way to make her a part of our focus on Jesus?

I let go of any worries about the little secular traditions that we include in Advent. The secularities we cling to are part of our shared family history and connect us to those in our family who are not connected to Jesus.

And, who am I to say that God can't work through a Muppet?

Part VII: Simple but Cherished Traditions

Here are a few more easy ways in which we observe the beginning of the new liturgical year, and count down the days until the real Christmas season. These are simple, but oh-such-cherished traditions.

The Advent Wreath

Pretty self-explanatory. We love ours. It's an old hand-me-down from the friend who introduced me to Catholicism. It's not about how the wreath looks -- mine is imperfect and crooked, like I am -- but rather what it reminds me of and Who it points to.

For nightly prayers, I've long used selections from Prayers and Customs of Advent and Christmas.

This page has prayers for the beginning of Advent, along with short daily prayers for each week. This page has some nice prayers for very young children. Some short Advent meditations are here. All of the prayers on this site are short and easy for families to use.

When my daughters were younger, we divided up the "duties" -- one child lit the candle, one read the prayer, and one got to snuff out the candle at the end of the meal (the antique candle snuffer we use made that task particularly attractive.) Some nights, though, everyone reeeeeally wanted to light a candle, or everyone reeeeeally wanted to snuff one out. So, sometimes we relit candles and snuffed them out again and again. Because we're easily amused, I guess.

New this year: We'll be using Sarah Reinhard's Welcome Baby Jesus.

Daily Prayers

The girls and I pray together before breakfast every morning. (Let me amend that: unless something interrupts our routine, we pray together. If we have somehow missed morning prayer, it becomes obvious. In all of us. A hovering crankiness and irritability are sure signs that we forgot morning prayers.)

I vary our prayers with each liturgical season. Mounting our list of prayers on construction paper is a simple way to teach about liturgical colors. Ramona knows that if the prayers are on a green background, we're in ordinary time. Advent prayers are on a purple background, and so on.


An Embarrassment of Advent Calendar Riches

We still read from our Muppet calendar every year. We also have another booklet-a-day calendar based on A Christmas Carol: 

Another Advent calendar (another gift from my mother) is a decorative wooden Christmas tree and twenty-four tiny wooden ornaments to hang on it.

And, who can -- or would want to -- resist a chocolate-a-day-calendar? It's a must at our house. One year Ramona even added some heavy-duty protection to the chocolate shelf:

But what if you can't find one of those chocolate-a-day calendars? Last year, I waited too long and thought I was out of luck. In true Karen-Shortcut style, I thought I'd throw a bowl of chocolates on the dining room table and invite the kids to have one every day. But my friend Johnna saved the day, chocolately speaking.

What I would've considered a major project because it involved plugging in the glue gun, Johnna saw as a nanoblip in her day. My kids were hanging out at her house anyway so she decided, "Why not take care of this little problem?" They made these:

A Hershey kiss for every day of Advent. Glued to ribbons. Then, primo candy at the top, for the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany:

Nifty, no? The girls can just pop one off each day, and thank their lucky stars for Magical Mrs. M.

To see Johnna's other Advent calendar idea, go here.

Ramona will also:

* fill an empty manger to make a soft bed for the long-awaited Baby Jesus (I use a small basket and pieces of yarn)

decorate a Christ candle (I use an inexpensive white candle that she can decorate it with sequins and jewels; it sits in the middle of the Advent wreath but will not be lit until Christmas day.)

* ready Mary and Joseph for their long journey (their figures are placed as far from the Nativity set as possible, and she moves them a little closer to the stable each day.)

(These three activities and others are mentioned in this wonderful article by Michaelann Martin.)

Part VIII: Why We Read Advent Books (or, "In Which I Am Imogene Herdman")

(I originally wrote this essay for Cay Gibson's book, Christmas Mosaic, An Illustrated Book Study for Advent and Christmas,which is a wonderful resource for books, activities and recipes to use throughout Advent and the entire Christmas season.)

The Nativity

I remember when I first met Him – that Child who was born in Bethlehem. I didn’t bump into Him in my childhood (though I now know He was there all along.) No, our first encounter -- the one in which I was really a participant -- came when I was older. I was a twenty-something atheist, and a Catholic friend recommended C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to me. “Pay special attention,” he suggested, “to the character of Aslan.”

My friend had a way of recommending things that dramatically changed my life, so I read the book. As urged, I “paid special attention” to Aslan, and I fell in love with him. And I fell in love with Him, though I still didn’t fully understand Who it was that I loved. But I knew I wanted to hold Aslan forever, in my arms and in my heart. Like Susan and Lucy, I wanted to bury my face in His mane, inhale His sweetness, and never let go.

A few years later, the same friend gave me Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, in which “awful old” Imogene Herdman (while playing Mary in the Christmas pageant) is walloped with the story of Jesus for the first time in her short, rough life. She can hardly bear the weight of the irony and the beauty. And as I read about little Imogene bawling her eyes out, I began to sob. I loved Imogene fiercely, and realized that I loved her because I was Imogene: I was that sad little girl who’d never known Jesus, but who one day collided headlong with the reality and power of Him. The God of the universe had bowled Imogene over and she would never be the same. Neither would I.

What changed the Herdmans, the Pevensies, and me? That child born in Bethlehem two millennia ago.

That child. It’s hard to fathom, isn’t it? A child, born in a stable, in poverty, to a virgin. A child raised by a foster-father in relative obscurity. A child who for many years was nothing more than a carpenter’s son. A child.

The Christ Child set a Herdman sobbing, made perfectly sensible little British girls follow a lion for the rest of their lives, and He crumbled my unbelief.

Such is the power of our precious Jesus, and of the books written about Him. Although I wasn’t raised on beautiful tales of our Lord, I know the compelling power of books. I want to share with my own children everything I can about Him. I want to give them the gifts of picture books, chapter books, the Bible. I want to give them storytelling, fine art and great music. I hope to introduce them, through these things, to the Source of all that is good, and true and beautiful. I pray my daughters will remember countless, sublime meetings with Him, and will yearn to inhale His sweetness, the sweetness of that baby in a manger.

That baby was born for us. He lived and died for us.

He loves us so much.

Let’s pay special attention.

Part IX: Our Favorite Advent Books

All through December, our favorite Advent and Christmas books sit under our Jesse Tree, like the gifts that they are.

Here, in no particular order (and with links to past posts that contain more detail, in some cases) are some of our favorite books.

And, here's the "no panic" part: Although we own many of these, we certainly don't own them all. I make frequent use of the library and every year I purchase one or two new books to add to our collection.

The other "no panic" part: We don't read all of these every year. We'll definitely read our dearest favorites, but other books will rotate. For example, one year, we focused on all of the American Girl Christmas stories, baked related treats, and learned more about Christmas in other times and places. Read and do what works for you.

The Donkey's Dream by Barbara Helen Berger is an all-round favorite.

In this post, I talked about it, and "how literature teaches us beautiful things."

The first time we read The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey I cried a bucket. What a touching story about love and patience, healing and Christmas. Recommended with vigorous nodding of the head and tears in my eyes.

When I originally wrote this postThe Twenty-four Days Before Christmas was out of print and a bit hard to find. However -- huzzah! -- it's back in print!

The Tale of Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale is a story that can be read anytime, but is especially good for Advent and Lent.

It's a simple, beautifully illustrated book that helps children to see that God will answer our prayers, but not always in ways we can foresee.

The feast of St. Nicholas has us reading The Miracle of Saint Nicholas and The Real Santa Claus: Legends of Saint Nicholas (Yikes! Looks like that one's gotten rare.)

We used to get this one annually on inter-library loan, but last year I actually nabbed a copy of it and I didn't even have to barter my firstborn child! (Check out the typical prices to score a copy of this out-of-print rarity by Melissa Wiley.)

It's our must-read on St. Lucia day, along with saint books that tell us more about St. Lucy.

We love Tomie de Paola's The Legend of the Poinsettia and The Night of Las Posadas. Don't forget Jingle the Christmas Clown and An Early American Christmas (yikes, two more rare books! Check your library and watch your library sales.) Country Angel Christmas is a sweet one, too. And, anything else by Tomie de Paola that we can find.

 My sister gave The Legend of the Candy Cane to Anne-with-an-e when she was very little. A very sweet book.

It has become a tradition that both The Legend of the Candy Cane and Jan Brett's The Night Before Christmas must be read by Atticus on Christmas Eve.

Gennady Spirin's rendering of The Christmas Story is gorgeously illustrated. I think I bought this one for me.

Okay, so I cry a lot. Yes, I cried at this one, too. A lot. Love this book. Silver Packages is beloved by all the females in the house. Atticus has probably never read it, but then, he doesn't love to cry.

More and more:

The Legend of the Christmas Rose by William Hooks
Bright Christmas : An Angel Remembers by Andrew Clements
This Is the Star by Joyce Dunbar
Jesus by Brian Wildsmith
A Christmas Story by Brian Wildsmith
The Gift of the Magi (this version, illustrated by P.J. Lynch, is on my wish list for "Books to Add This Year")
Hark! A Christmas Sampler by Jane Yolen
This Is the Stable by Cynthia Cotten
The Story of Christmas (Orchard Paperbacks) by Jane Ray
The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell (just ignore the faulty theology. Sorry. I can't help it.)
Jacob's Gift by Max Lucado
Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories by L.M. Montgomery
The Christmas Story by Kay Chorao
A Little House Christmas Treasury: Festive Holiday Stories (Little House) by Laura Ingalls Wilder
American Girl Christmas Books

And, of course:

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Part X: Don't forget 

As Advent unfolds, you're savoring the liturgical season, you're teaching your children about watching, waiting, and preparing for the Lord.

But, what are you doing for yourself?

I grant that all the things we do for our children are done for us, too. We can benefit enormously from the books we read, the talks we have, the thought and consideration we give to our preparation. But, sometimes, it isn't enough, or it isn't exactly what we need. God wants not only for our children to be prepared but for us mothers to be ready, too.

During these weeks before Christmas, don't forget to do something for your own spiritual growth.

What do you want to do?

What do you need to do?

It doesn't have to be monumental. It just needs to draw you closer to the One who came for you, lived and died for you, and wants you to be with Him for all eternity.

What might help?
  • A book you've been meaning to read
  • More time with Scripture
  • A single Scripture verse on which to meditate ("The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name," from Luke 1:49 can lead to endless, grateful meditation ....)
  • A saint's biography or a collection of quotes from the saints
  • An extra five or ten minutes of prayer a day
  • A promise to give up complaining
  • A promise to give up something else until the joy of Christmas arrives
  • Daily devotional readings for the season

You know what it is for you, and I know what it is for me.

Remember: not only are we awaiting His arrival ....

He's waiting for us.

(The painting: The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1859-1937.)

Part XI: Feasts and St. Lucia Bread

The feast of Our Lady of GuadalupeCatholic Cuisine has easy, doable ideas for "Rosy Treats" here and other festive foods here.

We haven't always gone all out for this feast day in the past, because I've always been overwhelmed busy (but not panicked!) by other observances. But awhile back I added Tomie de Paola's The Lady of Guadalupe to our book collection and I'd like to add a fun food treat as well.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The feast of St. Lucia! And ... the Lucia bread!

Do not be intimidated by this yeast bread recipe!

If I can make this bread (and make it look beautiful), anyone can. Really. Trust me on this. This bread is easy. A little time-consuming (for a woman who, when left on her own, would easily eat tuna out of a can rather than cooking a meal) but easy.

And, as I mentioned in this post, if you don't have time to make it on the feast day, save the recipe and make it another day. It makes a great King's Bread for the Epiphany, too.

Here's the recipe, which came to me from my great friend, Holly (and to Holly via Family Fun):

Braided St. Lucia Bread

1 1/2 cups milk
2 (1/4 oz.) pkgs. active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar, plus 1 T. sugar
6 T. butter, cut in pieces
2 large eggs
1/4 cup orange juice
1 T. finely grated orange rind
1 t. salt
5 1/2 - 6 1/2 cups flour

Glaze and garnish:
2 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
2-4 T. orange juice
1/3 cup dried cranberries

Warm the milk in a small saucepan, then pour 1/2 cup of it into a large bowl. Add the yeast and 1 T. of the sugar and let it sit for 5 min.

Melt the butter in the remaining milk. Add butter/milk mixture to the yeast mixture. Whisk in the eggs, juice, 1/4 cup sugar, orange rind, and salt. Stir in the flour, 1 cup at a time, until the dough can be gathered into a ball. Knead the dough on a floured surface for 10 min., adding more flour until the dough is smooth and elastic and doesn't stick to your hands. Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, turning it once to coat it. Loosely cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours. Punch down the dough and divide it into 3 equal parts. Roll each part into a 30-inch rope and braid the ropes together. Transfer the braid to a greased baking sheet, pinch together the ends to form a circle and let it rise until doubled in size, about 45 min. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 min., or until golden brown, then let cool on a wire rack about 30 min.

For the glaze, stir together the confectioner's sugar and orange juice until smooth. Drizzle over the bread, then garnish with cranberries. Add candles for "wreath."

Some things we've done in the past to celebrate St. Lucia:

Made wreaths for daughters, found something (anything white) for the girls to wear for a St. Lucia procession through the house, read Hanna's Christmas (see Advent books, above.)

Employed "flexible homeschooling" in an off-year (i.e., when Ramona was still keeping me up every night, for the third year in a row of her fabulous life), and didn't sweat the imperfection known as "not doing it all" and also known as "moving St. Lucia day to a Saturday or an evening."

Part XII: A Prayer

Dear Lord,

When I become harried
and impatient,
when I think I have
too much to do
and not enough time,
when I feel burdened
by obligations,
activities and
please, Lord,
give me the grace to remember,
always to remember,
that my obligations,
activities and busy-ness
spring from
an abundance
of blessings.
Enormous, ineffable blessings.
Help me to see
my busy days
and busy ways
as the privilege
and the gift
that they are.

Help me to remember,
pray for,
and tangibly support
those who are not "burdened"
by too much to eat,
too much to bake,
too much to decorate,
too many books to read.

Help me, Lord, to see the Advent of Your birth
as a time to remember all of these things,
to drop to my knees and thank You,
always to thank You,
for so much undeserved Love.

Rejoice! (Part XIII of a No-Panic Advent)

Gaudete Sunday! Rejoice!

The third Sunday of Advent sees us more than halfway through the season, and the celebration of the birth of our Savior will soon arrive.

"Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!" ~~ Philippians 4:4

And, do not panic! I know that Christmas is only, oh, say, tennish days away. But, again, I say: do not panic!

Remember that even though our days are full of busy-ness, if some of that busywork falls by the wayside, or someone gets the flu and all your plans are for naught, or if something this year just isn't quite right or isn't full of the perfection you'd hoped for, it's okay.

Christ will still come. He came two thousand years ago, He is here now, He will arrive for Christmas, and He will remain with us always.

Again I say, rejoice!

"Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus." ~~ 1Thess. 5:16-18

Part XIV: A Week Before Christmas -- Do You Know Where Your Daughter's Tights Are?

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One week until Christmas!

What do I still need to make? Buy? Wrap?

Who has a birthday in December that I've completely forgotten? (I'll remember Jesus, of course, but others? Friends? Family? Who needs a birthday card?)

Have I thought about those stockings that will soon hang over the fireplace, and about what will go in them?

Speaking of stockings, when Christmas Mass rolls around will all of my children have tights/socks without holes/hose without runs? Clothes that fit? Shoes that won't send them into last-minute snits? Some mothers might buy festive new clothes each Christmas, but others do a little jig of joy when everything from last year (or in Ramona's case, the most current Christmas hand-me-down) fits. Yes. That'd be me.

And, let's be totally honest here. The problem with writing and running a "No-Panic Advent" series is that at some point any sane, normal, writer-mom will panic.

I've done it. I've panicked.

"Hi, my name is Karen, and I'm a fake."

Well, not really. Usually not cataclysmic meltdowns. I don't take anyone's head off (well, not completely, and I do tell them I'm sorry for being snippy), and I don't run from the house, ripping my hair out and screeching, "I thought I had more gift bags!"

But I've had my moments. Suddenly, it seems, Christmas is upon me, and there are things I've forgotten, things on which I fell behind, things I didn't get around to.

One year, when I went to have coffee with two friends, I practically threw their Christmas gifts at them and said, "Now I can cross you off my list." I was kidding, of course, but there is something to that awful, "Must ... Do ... During ... Advent .... " spell under which we all fall.

Sometimes things providentially pop up, things that help us rearrange our priorities. For example, although we always celebrate St. Lucia Day, one year some friends were available at the last minute and invited our kids to stay overnight while Atticus and I ran away for a one-night vacation. We jumped on it and were thrilled we did. We had a great time, and Ramona survived the separation (although, after our reunion she noted, "I did miss you more than I can say. And I love you dearly.") We missed doing our traditional St. Lucia activities (the bread, however, had been consumed and eaten two days prior), but when I felt a pang about that, I reminded myself that "no panic" means accepting what God allows.

Sometimes it's a refreshing one-night vacation.

Other times, it means someone is throwing up on Christmas Eve.

Whatever happens, we can rest assured that He knows about it. And He'll get us through.

So, when I start to panic, I go back to my prayer. It grounds me. It reminds me that Christmas is not about shopping and doing, and not about presents (with the exception of the Ultimate Gift.) Rather, it is about sin and redemption, about panic and apologies.

And, it will come, as the Grinch learned, whether it is surrounded by all our cultural, habitual trappings or not. It will come to our sloppy, imperfect selves, and when it does, I need only ask myself, "Is Jesus pleased with what I've given Him this Advent, and in this Christmas season, or is He wagging His finger at me?"

If I sense any Divine finger-wagging, then I can get a head-start on the next to-do list: spiritual resolutions for the new year.

Because He's all about beginnings, this God of ours.

Now, I'm off to cross "tights" off my shopping list.

To Santa or Not to Santa?

There are always Santa conversations at this time of year.

We're all busy, so I'll make this quick.

We do "No-Panic Santa."

I don't worry about it. Honestly, I don't. When Anne-with-an-e was a baby, I worried (a lot) that lying about Santa would mean that one day she'd think I'd lied about God, too. When she was two years old, people would ask her what Santa was going to bring, and she'd stare blankly at them, wondering who in the world they were talking about.

But then, my own past Santa fun crept into our Christmas traditions, and so, yes, we started "doing" Santa. (Why does this blog always sound slightly confessional? "Hi, I'm Karen. And I lie about Santa.")

Well, I don't out and out lie. I imply. I play a game. We get a visit from St. Nicholas on his feast day ... we have presents from him on Christmas morning ... We wink, we leave cookies, we love the magic.

And, although I completely respect the many different ways that good Catholic parents handle this question, here's the reason I don't worry that "the Santa lie" will lead to atheism:

God is real.

My children will know, see, and feel His fingerprints on their lives. We have seen God at work, and we know He isn't the stuff of toyshops and flying reindeer.

Yes, Ramona will learn that Santa was just a lot of fun pretending. But, she'll also know that Jesus is a powerful King.

Feelings on Santa vs. no-Santa are subjective and personal, and I would never say that my way is universally the best. I can understand the other side. I'm just saying that personally I no longer fret over it. And, since there's no doctrine of the Church that says we must not do Santa, I think I'm in faithful territory.

And, sometimes, even the most roundabout ways of celebrating things can have lovely, unexpected, faith-filled results. I thought of that when I reread this old post on Santa, at The Wine Dark Sea.

Melanie writes,
"The Santa myth can be in our secular world a sort of pre-gospel."

I completely agree. As someone who grew up with Santa, but without religion in Christmas, I can say that Santa was indeed pre-Gospel for me. Santa was unconditional love. The times I was bad? He never left me a lump of coal. Not once. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.)

And Santa was magic.

God is the ultimate Unconditional Love and the True Magic.

I know that somewhere, deep down, the child who loved Santa was yearning for Christ.

And He came to me. Just as Santa did. But when He came, the Magic was bigger, and powerful.

And when He came, the Magic was here to stay.


12/24/08 Edited to add this great bit of G.K. Chesterton, courtesy of Chris in the comments:

On Christmas morning, he [Chesterton] remembered, his stockings were filled with things he had not worked for, or made, or even been good for.

The only explanation people had was that a being called Santa Claus was somehow kindly disposed toward him. “We believed,” he wrote, that a certain benevolent person “did give us those toys for nothing. And ... I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

“Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

“Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking.

“Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic good will.”


Aaahhh ... no one can say it quite like G.K. Thank you, Chris.

A No-Panic Advent, Part Who-Knows?: The Last-minute "To Do" List

Christmas Eve:
  • Put Ramona's church bag together ... just a couple of extra things for her to do and read while we wait and wait for Mass to begin. 
  • Bake the birthday cake for Jesus:

  • Make a pie
  • Watch in awe as my husband works various other food magic in the kitchen
  • Look forward, with increasing anticipation, to the celebration of the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me
Wishing you a blessed, happy and holy Christmas Eve.

On the Sixth Day of Christmas ... (in which she finally talks about the Twelve Days)

We've been "keeping Christmas" here (translate: "keeping too busy to blog") so rather than talk about it, we've been celebrating and visiting friends (with a bit of work sprinkled in, just to keep me from becoming a slug.)

But I wanted to take a moment out to share some ideas on keeping the Twelve Days.

When we first started doing some of these things, my kids noticed that much of the world was dismantling Christmas Joy just as we were picking up speed. I told them (repeatedly, because that's a mother's job), "It's a shame the whole world doesn't realize that the Christmas season is just beginning! They don't know all the fun they're missing!" The harping instruction paid off. They get it. And Ramona, who has never known any other way, is the first to correct one of us if we call Advent "the Christmas season." Which can be kind of irritating, but endearing. Mostly endearing.

  • Keep your tree up until the Feast of the Epiphany, of course
  • Read with the kids about the twelve days
  • Keep watching Christmas shows and movies, continue reading Christmas books
  • Post prayers for the season (I put them up on the wall in our kitchen -- our page of prayer intentions for the Christmas season is accented with glitter. One can never have too much glitter)
  • Send Christmas greetings during the 12 days ... and don't apologize for it -- it's the Christmas season! Mine went out yesterday and today
  • Observe the Epiphany -- have a Twelfth Night party, or make Kings' bread (the St. Lucia bread works well, or perhaps make a "King Cake" -- Google it for endless possibilities. Other ideas are here at Catholic Cuisine)
  • Give Epiphany gifts (as large or small as you want them to be)
  • Have the wise men from your Nativity set travel through the house during the 12 days, making their way to the stable
  • Make gingerbread houses 

I just found this page at Catholic Culture. You can click on each day of the Twelve Days for a new activity and recipe.

In keeping with the "No Panic" philosophy, don't try to incorporate twenty-seven new things into a twelve day period. Pick a couple, and put the rest in the file.

12/31/08: Edited to add ideas:

From Sarah, who inspired this post:

I have some friends whose kids open one gift a day for each of the 12 days, some gifts are larger and some are very small like what might be used as a stocking stuffer. We're considering that for next year. We read The Three Wise Kings by Tomie de Paola a few weeks ago and I'm planning to pull it check it out from the library again to read this week.

From Jenn:
We read all our Christmas books and bake a festive cookie every other day or so (instead of all at once like I used to do.) We read The Legend of Old Befana on January 5th and make pizzelles on Epiphany. That's the only thing set in stone. I also finally found the frankincense and myrrh incense I bought last year. Lucy's conveniently learning "We Three Kings" on piano.
Our priest was talking about the peace of Christ on Christmas Eve. I've always hoped for a peaceful Advent and it struck me as very fitting that night that that peace I've longed for arrives the very moment we gather to celebrate Christ's birth and is very tangible throughout the Christmas season.

from Margaret in Minnesota:

We keep the season by talking about the 12 Days of Christmas--specifically, the Christian symbolism of each of the days. And we don't sweat the "small" stuff, like getting cards and presents out "on time". As my dear friend Sarah puts it, we're supposed to be living Christmas every day.

1/5/09 -- More ideas:

My friend, Mary P. writes: "I bought an Advent box at Starbucks. Behind each door was a piece of candy. Why not make one for the 12 days of Christmas? I think I know somebody that would like chocolate each day."

from the comments:

Amy says: "My kids were thrilled to get a little bag with their own kid-friendly versions of gold (chocolate coins), frankincense (scratch-n-sniff stickers), and myrrh (bubble bath)."

Connie's Daughter says: "You know, Karen, the Christmas Season goes until the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, which this year is on Jan. 11th. We usually keep our tree up until then, and we have lots of treats throughout the entire time, ice cream being our favorite. :) And even though the world has moved on, I continue to wear my Christmas sweaters and earrings and socks. Our Nativity set is still being lit each night in our yard, too!"

Twelfth Night!

It's still Christmas!

Even when the Twelve Days come to a close, we're still liturgically in the Christmas season until the Baptism of the Lord.

Celebrate! Rejoice! Worship!

Merry Christmas!


Gardenia said...

Dear Karen, thank you for this annual post, which I've been reading every year -- it's one of the first things I have to do as Advent approaches!!-- and I enjoy the little updates you put in each year. Your writing has a way of putting everything in perspective and you help us understand that this time is truly about preparing for the Little One ! God bless your Advent.

Leanne said...

You are amazing! Thank you so much for such great ideas! I have two young kids, but my oldest (3) is definitely ready for some of this. I can't wait to try some of your suggestions, especially the books.

Tiffany said...

I absolutely love your honest approach:) Thanks for keeping things real to the point where you just have to chuckle! Have a holy and peaceful Advent and thanks again for sharing...I will be sure to share your post along!

Donna Jannuzzi said...

I too have been reading this series for a few years now, and I can't thank you enough for it!

And your take on Santa is one of the most sensible I've ever read in Catholic blogland. I feel very much the same about it... but could never put it into words. So, thank you for that too. :)

Karen Edmisten said...

Thanks, guys! It took me quite awhile to wade through this post and clean up links, etc., and you just made it all worth it. Thank you! :)

Sarah said...

Wow, Karen! This is an amazing post! Thank you!!

I really like your Jesus Stocking! I have been thinking about a way to help the children consider what they/we can give to Jesus for HIS birthday! I have thought about having them write a letter or draw a picture for Him. Maybe we can include good deeds. This is similar to putting straw in the manger ... The children *love* having filled stockings on St. Nicholas Day, so maybe they will get into filling Jesus' stocking, too?! It's worth a try!

carmelitemom said...

Found you through a reading of *A Little Way of Homeschooling*. Any blog that gets me chuckling in the first couple of sentences is a keeper. Glad to have found you.

Blessed Advent Season to you and your family.~Theresa

Margaret in Minnesota said...

Karen, this is such an awesome (monstrously long) post! I'm giving a talk tomorrow on living liturgically and you better believe that I'm giving this series a shout-out.

Karen Edmisten said...

Thanks, Mags!

Karen M said...

This post was a mammoth effort and I so appreciate reading through all of the ideas you've gathered, books you've recommended, and musings about what is most important and doable. Thank you so much!

Karen Edmisten said...

Thanks, Karen!

Sarah O said...

So excited to add St. Lucia's day to our Advent celebrations this year - your recipe looks fantastic! Thanks for sharing!

Karen Edmisten said...

Sarah, you will LOVE that bread. :)