Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A No-Panic Advent: The Monstrously Long Post

Update, November, 2015: 

I first ran this as a series of posts in 2008. 
The next year, I pulled them together into one enormous post which, at first glance, looked insane and intimidating, but it wasn't meant to be. Forgive me my fervor. 

Just remember this: 
no one does everything I talk about in this post, not even me. This is a springboard, a pool of ideas, a bunch of memories, and hopefully, a little bit of help to you as you watch, wait, and prepare for Jesus during Advent.


Part I: Note some dates

It's the advent of Advent! So mark some dates on the calendar. You know that's the only way you'll remember anything!

Stuff that goes on my calendar:

*The first Sunday of Advent (Before the first Sunday rolls around, I try to buy candles for our Advent wreath. Sometimes I've been so annoyingly organized that I bought them the previous year and packed them away with the wreath. But I never know if I've done that until I unpack the thing....)

*December 5: St. Nicholas Eve. (Extremely important. St. Nicholas doesn't go to bed without remembering to do a few things first.)

*December 6: St. Nicholas Day

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

*December 12: Our Lady of Guadalupe

*December 13: St. Lucia

*December 17: O Antiphons begin (I always intended to do something with these, but rarely did. Here's an idea from my daughters' godmother.)


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

Pick just one or two things to focus on -- and have fun with them. Advent observances are meant to deepen our faith, help us pause and reflect, and draw us closer to God. Stressing out about how well we do this stuff (or whether we do it at all) doesn't deepen our faith. It just irritates us.

God doesn't want us irritated as we prepare for the coming of His Son. That would kinda defeat the purpose of the Prince of Peace, wouldn't it? Meaningful preparation is the key. No panic necessary ... just keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.

Part II: The Jesus Stocking

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

It's a simple stocking and I just 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.

As with our Thanksgiving Tree, at dinner we can each name something we're thankful for, write it down, and add it to the stocking. On Christmas day, it's fun to read all the blessings that were counted during Advent, from the littlest things (in the old days, that might be a tea party with Tigger), to grown-up concerns (such as being thankful that, on a sub-zero day, the car chose to break down in the driveway instead of twenty miles from home), to everyday-but-enormous joys (such as friendship, family and faith.) Here are some samples from years past:

Another way to use the Jesus stocking is for corporal and spiritual works of mercy. You're probably 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 Jesus stocking can be used the same way. Corporal and spiritual works of mercy, small sacrifices, kindnesses, and prayers are recorded and dropped in the stocking as gifts for Jesus.

For the first couple weeks of Advent, the Jesus stocking is the only one hanging on the mantle (the small tree to the right is our Jesse Tree):

That reminds us that He is at the center of the celebration. 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 a "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 used to post a small sign next to the tree (just in case my children forgot what I was educating them about.)  The sign read, "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. My salt dough has a tendency to break, so we've been through a couple sets of ornaments. I used to keep the ornaments right under the tree, within easy reach for the daily readings 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. (P.S.: 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 a small, artificial Christmas tree as our Jesse tree several 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 paper and 3D ornaments; another year I searched in vain for the perfect tree branch to place in a pot, a la a friend's example. Nothing seemed to satisfy me.

One year, I realized I was trying so hard to make the activity a perfect one that  I ended up abandoning the whole thing in frustration. Another year our tree was hastily thrown together on construction paper. I was pregnant then with Ramona, 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, pulled out the old 4' tree I'd been considering giving away, and our Jesse Tree dilemma was finally settled. My kids were 11, 8 and 2 when I figured this out. So. Huh. It took awhile.

What readings do we use? That took some time to figure out, too. I have to confess that for awhile, I reeeally disliked the whole Jesse Tree activity because I couldn't find an easy, workable, all-in-one version anywhere. If one source had ornaments I liked, it didn't offer appealing readings. If I liked the readings in a different version, suddenly my ornaments didn't match up with the daily reflection.

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

The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean combines a picture/storybook with all the Scripture readings I want to cover. I use 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. 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 the same 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. It isn't 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.

What matters is that you're digging into Scripture. Your ornaments might be hastily assembled, glitter-glopped and slapped on poster board, or they might be carefully crafted in the weeks leading up to Advent. Your readings might come from one source while your ornaments are nabbed from another. The bottom line is you should 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.

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 in mind.

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

Gather ideas from all corners of the world! Or, at least, from a few Catholic corners of the internet.

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 great links, too.

Part V: Files

This is simple.

Keep an Advent file. Online bookmarking and a paper file, too.

Toss good ideas into your file 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.

That idea will still be there next year. 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 do. Another year.

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 books, which we read and hung by their decorative little ribbons on the tree.

One year (before Atticus came into the Catholic Church), I worried that I shouldn't include anything secular in our Advent traditions and I considered leaving the Muppets in their box. I was trying so hard to impress on 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 make sure my children focused on Jesus. Though I was well-intentioned, I think I was wrong to approach it so rigidly.

That year, at the beginning of Advent, Anne immediately requested the Muppet Calendar, the one "Grandma gave us." Ummm, yeah. I suddenly saw 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 my worries about the little secular traditions that we include in Advent. Those things are part of our shared family history and they connect us to those in our family who are not connected to Jesus.

Who am I to say that God can't work through a Muppet?

Part VII: Simple but Cherished Traditions

Here are a few other easy ways we observe the beginning of the new liturgical year.

The Advent Wreath

Pretty self-explanatory. We love ours. It's a 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.

I've used various prayers over the years. (In 2011, I adopted Sarah Reinhard's Welcome Baby Jesus. It sounds as if it's just for young children, but it's not. There's enough substance in that little book to make it fruitful for all ages.)

When my daughters were young, we divided up the "duties" -- one child lit a candle, one read a prayer, and one got to snuff out the candle at the end of the meal (our antique candle snuffer made that task particularly coveted.) Some nights, though, everyone reeeeeally wanted to light a candle, or everyone reeeeeally wanted to snuff one out. So, we often relit candles and snuffed them out repeatedly, because we're easily amused.


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 missed morning prayer, it becomes obvious. 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 and posting them on the kitchen wall 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 and we also have another one based on A Christmas Carol: 

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

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

What if you can't find one of those chocolate-a-day calendars? (They seem to be getting harder to find, at least in my town. One year, I waited too long and I was out of luck. In true Karen-Shortcut style, I proposed throwing a bowl of chocolates on the dining room table and inviting 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 one day so she decided, "Why not take care of this little problem?" They made these Advent candy ribbons:

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

Magical Mrs. M. has saved me numerous times over the years.

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

Young kids might also want to:

* 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 have used inexpensive white candles that could be decorated with sequins and jewels. The candle sits in the middle of the Advent wreath and is not 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 children move them a little closer to the stable each day.)

(I first learned about the empty manger and the Christ candle from this article by Michaelann Martin.)

Part VIII: Our Favorite Advent Books

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 books, we certainly don't own them all. I make frequent use of the library, then every year I purchase one or two new books to add to our collection.

The other "No Panic" detail: 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 only what works for you! It's not a race.

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 IX: Don't forget about you

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

But, what are you doing for yourself?

I grant that the things we do for our children are done for us, too. I 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 I need. God wants not only for our children to be prepared but for me 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
Something. 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 X: 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 don't usually go all out for this feast day because I've always been overwhelmed busy (but not panicked! Really!) by other observances. But awhile back I added Tomie de Paola's The Lady of Guadalupe to our book collection and maybe someday when I have grandchildren I'll add something else, too.

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

The feast of St. Lucia! And ... the Lucia bread! We love this bread so much it hurts.

Do not be intimidated by this yeast bread recipe!

If I can make this bread (and make it look beautiful), anyone can. Trust me on this. This bread is easy. A little time-consuming (this from 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 Holly originally got it from 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."

Other 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 XI: 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,
and busy-ness,
please, Lord,
give me the grace to remember,
that my obligations,
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 thank You,
thank You, thank You,
for Your undeserved Love.

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

One week until Christmas!

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

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 everyone have tights/socks without holes/hose without runs, clothes that fit? Shoes that won't send them into last-minute snits?

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 off anyone's head (well, not completely, and I always 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 I fell behind on, 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 we all fall under.

Sometimes things providentially pop up 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 her first big separation from me (although, after our reunion she sighed, "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 gets sick and throws 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 prayer. It grounds me. It reminds me that Christmas is not about shopping and doing, 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.

Part XIII: To Santa or Not to Santa?

There are always Santa conversations at this time of year. Don't throw anything at me.

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 meant that one day she'd think I'd lied about God, too. When she was two years old, people asked 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. I don't even remember how. So, yes, we started "doing" Santa. (Why does this 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, and we have presents from him on Christmas morning, too. 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 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, my daughters learned that Santa was just a lot of fun pretending. But, they also know that Jesus is a powerful King.

ETA: [With daughters who are now 22, 19, and 13, I can confidently say that Santa did not ruin my daughters' faith lives in any way. I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything, I'm just reporting on what unfolded at our house. My girls are strong Catholics. No Santa-harm came to them.]

Feelings on Santa vs. no-Santa are subjective and personal, and I would never say that my way is universally best. I understand not wanting to do it and I'm not looking to argue. I'm just saying that I no longer fret over it. And, since there's no doctrine of the Church that says we must not do Santa, I'm at peace with the magic.

And as someone who grew up with Santa, but without religion in Christmas, what was Santa for me? He was unconditional love. The times I was bad? He never left me a lump of coal. Not once. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) Santa was magic.

God is the ultimate Unconditional Love and the True Magic. I know that somewhere, deep down, when I loved Santa I 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.

Part Who-Knows?
The Last-minute "To Do" List of a No-Panic Advent

Christmas Eve:
  • Put youngest child/children's church bag together ... just a couple of extra things for them to do and read while you 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.

Part Hey-We've-All-Lost-Track 
(Written 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 cards 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 Advent file for next year.

12/31/08: Edited to add more 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. (Or is it until Candlemas? Check out this article.)

Celebrate! Rejoice! Worship!

Merry Christmas!


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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. :)

  5. 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! :)

  6. 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!

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

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

  11. Sarah, you will LOVE that bread. :)