Friday, December 30, 2011

{God With Us. Still.}

I'm scrolling through the Christmas pictures, wishing it hadn't gone by so quickly. All of that excitement, all of the anticipation, all wrapped in that one glorious day. And now it's over.

At least, that's how I perceive it.

I mentioned this to a friend the other day. It's like planning for a wedding. The buildup and preparation are so intense and you can't wait for the big day to arrive. Then, all in a whirl, it's over and you wish that you could please, please have just a bit more.

The finality hit me on the way home from our celebration on Christmas night while listening to the radio. At midnight, on the dot, the Christmas songs ended. Michael W. Smith went out singing Emmanuel, and that was it. Like a slap in the face, 104.1 The Fish told me: "No more! No more Bing Crosby! No more Nat King Cole! It's done and over with! The End."

I was hopping mad. My cheek burned from the slap. I came up with a hundred reasons as to why they should keep on playing Christmas music just a little bit longer. My patient husband wisely nodded in agreement. We were still driving home! It was still Christmas! We still had visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads! But why should they listen to me? Christmas is over.

But is it really over? What if it's only the beginning?

When I let myself dwell on the wedding analogy for a bit, realization dawns like a fresh, new day: The wedding is the big event that leads to the rest of forever. It's not the day that matters. It's the life, the relationship, the commitment.

Isn't it the same for those of us who've gathered 'round the manger in hopeful anticipation all month long? He's here! He's come! He's with us! Emmanuel! And it's only the beginning.

Now comes the rest of forever: the life, the relationship, the commitment. Because of that one day, we can live all of the other days in a spirit of hope and joy and praise.

I glance more closely at one of the pictures from Christmas morning. The carpet is littered with wrapping paper, packaging and ribbons. The children are still in their pajamas, cheeks rosy, hair askew. They revel in their new treasures.

At first, all I can see is the mess. But then I look more closely. It starts to come into focus. Avery's little hands, busy at work. She's neatly arranging a table and chairs for her Playmobil friends. Amid the chaos, there's order, there's creativity, there's beauty. And it brings a calm to my spirit.

The transition away from Christmas can feel messy, chaotic, and, to be honest, downright depressing. But if we look closely, we see the order, the creativity and the beauty.

God is here. He is still at work. He did not come for just that one day. He came for so much more. And because of that, we have life, we have relationship. In Him we have everything that we've ever needed. He is with us, He is Emmanuel. And He always will be, whether or not Michael W. Smith is still singing it on the radio.
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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

{Easing in After the Holidays}

Jumping into a rigorous school schedule following the holidays can be a bit of a shock to our systems. The kids are tired from two or three (or more) weeks of weird sleeping schedules, unusual eating habits and plenty of excitement and stimulation. The transition to a full day of structured learning can be daunting, for both the children and parents.

But we obviously need to start sometime, somehow . . . Right?

Join me over at The Homeschool Classroom to continue reading.
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Thursday, December 22, 2011

{Hallelujah! Hallelujah!}

For to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given,
and the government will be on His shoulders.
And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

It's a tradition to stand during Handel's Messiah. My throat constricts and my eyes blur whenever I come to my feet and huskily whisper, Hallelujah! Hallelujah! I can't quite shout it out like those strong sopranos. I'm too emotional. Perhaps I should bow instead?

Dear friends, may this weekend be to you full of the awareness of this God Who is exactly all that we need. He is our Counselor, our God, our Father and the only One who can offer true peace. He is mighty, eternal and wonderful. And He came. For us. For me, for you.

This Babe whom we celebrate is all of this. He is worthy of all glory, honor and praise. Together we proclaim, "Hallelujah!" Yet we simply cannot stand for the weight of it. And so we bow.
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Monday, December 19, 2011

{Even in the Little Things}

I went to bed last night scribbling out my to-do list for the week. It's long.

I woke up this morning thinking about this list. But rather than jump straight to it, I sat in bed for a few minutes to read and pray while Jamie got ready for work.

When the list is a mile long, it's so tempting to set aside the things that really matter and jump to the things I can cross off my list. Because when I can cross it off, that means I'm in control. And that feels good. At least, that's what I tell myself.

But do I really want to be in control? I'm reading in Deuteronomy right now, and Moses is reminding the Israelites of all the "buts" in their journey. The Lord directed them to do such and such, and time and time again the response is the same: "But you would not listen" or "But you were unwilling" or "In spite of this, you did not trust." And the result? Wandering, wandering, wandering.

It's kind of like my list. Wandering, wandering from one detail to the next when really, the most important part of my day is that which is spent in the Lord's service.

Deuteronomy 2:7 is encouraging. Although the Israelites disobeyed, the Lord still cared for them. "The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything."

And this is true. We are blessed. We are watched over, and we are provided for. Why would we want to take control?

I caught a glimpse of this just this afternoon. One of my to-do's was to clean out the fridge. I was tossing old stuff into the sink like a wild woman, thankful for the magic machine underneath that would grind it up and take it away.

Well, this little machine decided to clog. I knew that cleaning a fridge and preparing meals would be very difficult without the use of my sink, and I also knew that Jamie wouldn't be home to do whatever it is that he does to make it all better until much later.

It quickly occurred to me that the Lord could fix it. So, I kid you not, I knelt down next to the trash can, laid my hand on one of the pipes and prayed. I asked the Lord if He would please see fit to fix my little garbage disposal because it sure would be nice to use that sink.

You've probably already guessed the outcome. That sink just came right unclogged. I jumped up and shouted to the kids, "God just fixed our sink!" They were a bit taken aback. But there was no doubt about it. The sink was no longer clogged. They responded, with wide eyes, "That's SO cool."

Perhaps there's another "explanation," but even so I know that the Lord cares about the little things in our lives. He hears us, blesses us and provides for us. There's no need to take over, panic and try to control, even when the to-do list is a mile long.

So this day, this week, as the to-do list mounts and I strive to keep my focus full of joy in anticipation of Christmas morning, I ask the Lord to bless the work of my hands. Whether I'm stringing up garland, frosting cookies, or scrubbing floors, He is watching over this little journey of mine. And I lack nothing.
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Friday, December 16, 2011

{Something Old, Something New . . . And a Couple of Thoughts About Pinterest, Too}

Several months ago I started to hear people refer to this thing called Pinterest. It was often connected with the words, "Look out! It's addicting!"

That sounded rather dangerous. So I waited.

Over time I talked with a few friends to see if there was anything beneficial about joining such a site. I learned that it can actually be a very useful tool, when used wisely. I timidly tip-toed on board (pun) and started pinning.

At first I just pinned random things that I liked. It was scattered, and I was trying to get my bearings. Then I started to get the hang of things and began to see how helpful it was as an organizational tool, especially for school, art and craft ideas.

I've since learned a few things about myself that have helped me keep this whole Pinterest thing in perspective.

The main thing is this: If I'm tempted to pin anything that might lead to a spirit of discontent, I let it go. (A certain lamp and cake post comes to mind . . . .)

I've struggled with contentment for years. So I intentionally do not have a board where I list all of the "things" I would like to have someday. The dream house, the dazzling wardrobe, the vacation destinations. Nope. I pin the things that will be helpful and practical in the very near future. (Please note: this is my personal choice. I know that many people love referring to a "dream home" page for inspiration and some really wonderful ideas, and there certainly isn't anything inherently wrong with this.)

My second rule is this: Only pin what I can afford to do.

Again with contentment. If it's going to cost me more than five bucks, I let it slide. It's not worth it.

Chalkboard paint over a $4 Goodwill print. Perfect for the school room!

I've also learned (at least as far as projects go) that if I can't complete a project in a day or two, I probably won't actually get around to it. So I dismiss the projects that require more than that.

Some of my favorite projects have led me to look in my own home and delight in what I already have. Making something old transform into something new is a satisfying thing. (Perhaps this has something to do with the One in Whose image I am made? Just a thought.)

Here are a couple of projects that I've enjoyed lately. The cost has been minimal, and I've enjoyed the added touches they've given to our home.

The JOY banner came about as I was searching for a variety of mantle decoration tips. I decided I'd like to do some sort of banner, bearing in mind that it should cost less than five dollars and require only a little bit of time. I was able to print up the graphics from home, and the ribbon ended up being my only purchase. It brings me such . . . joy!

Our centerpiece features a hurricane lamp that was used at my sister and brother-in-law's wedding reception. It was fun to come up with a new use for it. The plate is a Ross find from several years ago.

I had been searching for holly, but didn't want to spend money for something that grows on trees (ha). While walking through the park the other day, I spied a holly bush and immediately borrowed a few sprigs from the obliging (yet rather prickly) branches. The cranberries had been in my freezer since last year's cranberry-and-popcorn garland creation. A perfect way to add a bit of Christmas cheer to the table! And the cost? Free!

I had to add this one, even though it's not Christmasy. My sister-in-law, knowing my love for books, whipped up this Pinterest-inspired project for my birthday (although she was sneaky and didn't pin it until after the party!). She used a book from the dollar store and created a work of art. I love it.

Many of us are still pulling together gifts and decorations. It's a lively, festive time of year, and there's great satisfaction in creating something new with our very own hands. Pinterest is a great resource for such ideas, and can certainly be a very useful tool, especially when handled with wisdom and practicality.

Are you a pinner? Feel free to share your Christmas ideas with us!
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

{A Mama's Heart: Preparing for His Birth}

Last week one of my dear readers posed an excellent question:

How do you as a mom prepare your heart for Christmas
when you are so busy with normal life stuff and then on top of that
you are doing all th
e preparing, planning, coordinating, Christmas shopping,
etc.? How do you juggle all those things yet still keep your focus on Him?
What things do you do as a mom to a
nticipate the birth of Jesus?

I've been mulling this one over ever since. At first it scared me because of the obvious. What am I doing to prepare myself?

I had hundreds of responses in mind and zero responses at the same time. Because don't we always hope to do better? Aren't we always painfully aware of our shortcomings? All I could think about was my faults. How I had raised my voice, overreacted, let the dust and laundry accumulate . . . the list goes on.

And then I sought the Lord. What would He have a broken, flawed mama share with other broken and flawed mamas?

He's gently nudged my heart with some thoughts that I am realizing are already a part of who I am, a part of who He is creating me to be. I am nowhere near perfect, dear reader. Daily I grieve over my inability to live in complete faith and trust. But He is teaching me, and He is faithful.

That said, I timidly offer a few thoughts on how a mama might prepare her heart during this Christmas season.

* * * * *

When I was about eight years old, my family gathered at my aunt and uncle's house for a Christmas celebration. I don't remember much about it, but I do recall that I got to sing a solo. The song I chose was "O Holy Night." I wore my favorite long black velvet dress with empire waist and Scandinavia-inspired embroidery and trilled:

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a
new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!

O night divine, O night, when Christ was born;

O night, O Holy Night, O night divine!

Ever since that night, this song has held special meaning for me. This year, my heart has been drawn again and again to the line, "A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices . . . ."

This, to me, beautifully summarizes a mother's heart during the Christmas season. We are likely weary. There is much to plan and organize. Funds run low and there are still gifts to purchase and there's the cleaning to be done and the laundry piles up and, yes, we are weary.

But. We have the thrill of hope. This bears repeating. We have the thrill of hope! We know that the Savior has come and is coming again. This, my friends, is divine. Because of this, we, the weary world, the weary mamas, we rejoice!

But how? Yes, I know it's nice to have a few tangible ideas to hold onto when we feel the weight of weariness but really want to rejoice instead (or at least feel like we should). So here are a few suggestions to get you going:

1. Begin the day well. I wish I could say that I'm up at the crack of dawn every morning with my Bible and tea in hand, blissfully worshiping the Lord as the sun rises in the east. Spurgeon's words inspire me:

Let us not see the face of man today till we have seen Jesus.

There are mornings when I'm able to do this (sans the crack of dawn part), but more often the children are clamoring for breakfast and I get swept into the momentum of the day before I know what hit me. I'm still aware that I need to start my day well, so I frequently put on some quiet music while making breakfast. I have an instrumental Christmas harp CD that is very soothing and worshipful, and it prepares my heart for the day.

2. Practice His presence. Throughout the day I talk with the Lord, sometimes out loud and sometimes quietly in my own thoughts. I keep a copy of Spurgeon's Morning and Evening devotions at hand (okay, so it's in the bathroom) and read it almost daily. Several years ago, before Avery was born, I was touched by his prayer, "Come, my soul, sit at Jesus's feet and learn of Him all this day." In the margin I scribbled, "Three small children! I cannot sit. But my soul can. All day."

This soul-sitting is what I aim for.

3. Say "no" when self surfaces. This is part of practicing His presence. I've actually started muttering "no!" when my mind starts to wander in the direction of placing myself in a position of greater importance than others. Of course there are too many times when I wallow in self, but I am making an effort to clothe myself with Christ and treat others the way He would treat them.

4. Build your fortresses in times of peace. Several years ago a dear family friend shared this concept during ladies' Bible study. She referenced Solomon's life, when his father handed him a nation at peace. He wisely used that time to build the temple and extend the influence of his kingdom.*

This image has stayed with me. If I am "building my fortresses" throughout the normal quiet days, then these days of hustle and bustle won't catch me off guard. I'll be prepared, and my default won't be panic. I'll have stored the Word and worship of God in my daily routine, making my automatic response to Him one of praise, even amidst the chaos.

5. Tune your heart to sing His grace. I've posted often about gratitude, and now more than ever is the time to look for and acknowledge His grace and to praise Him for His gifts. Consider keeping a notebook or journal handy and chronicle His abundant blessings. When we focus on the Giver, it's hard to focus on self and the distractions of the season.

6. Choose a word. I did this by accident this year, but I've claimed the word "joy" for my Christmas season. Whenever I see or hear the word joy, I thank the Lord for speaking to me and I stop to quietly praise Him in that moment. It's almost like a little secret that I share with Him. Only I guess it's not so secret now . . . . You're welcome to "have" the word, too!

7. Worship as a family. This is an area that I hope to grow in as well, but we do enjoy our evening Jesse Tree devotions. We've missed a few nights, and I fight feelings of guilt when that happens (and then I feel guilty for feeling guilty . . . ), but when we are able to read and sing and pray together, it really is a blessed time.

8. Let go of perfectionism. Speaking of guilt, this is a good one to remember. A friend recently posted a comment on facebook about how much she's enjoying the season since she chose to set perfectionism aside. I couldn't agree more. When we want the halls to be decked just so and try to set flames to the brandy-soaked pudding and wonder why the kids don't love it, we are just setting ourselves up for disappointment. Let. It. Go.

9. Become a child. This, of course, has many obvious connotations. But this time, I want us to consider what our kids are thinking about this time of year. This ties in with the whole perfection thing. Will they care if the wrapping paper doesn't coordinate with the decor? No. Will they notice if the mantle decorations are askew? No. Will they notice if the laundry is piled up? No. (Until they run out of socks . . . .)

Will they notice how their mama handles these things? Yes!

So set aside your idea of "Christmas" and focus on what will make this season special for your kids. It's okay if the packages are bow-less and the mistletoe is crumpled. Really. It's okay.

10. End the day well. We begin in His presence, so too, we end in His presence. When I feel anxiety begin to mount the moment my head hits the pillow ("I still need to get a gift for . . .!" or "How can we afford new shoes during this season?!") I choose, in the words of Ann Voskamp, to "dismount it with gratitude." I turn every anxious thought into praise and thank Him for some aspect of that stressful thought. It sounds rather Pollyanna-like, but it works. I'm lulled to sleep in praise rather than anxiety. Not a bad way to end the day.

* * * * *

We weary mamas hold on to the thrill of hope. It keeps us sane and keeps us going. As we daily strive to walk alongside the Lord, worshiping in His presence and marveling at His gift to us this season, we will become more and more aware of the appropriateness of the angels' response to this hope: Fall on your knees!

And with them, on bended knee, we will rejoice.

*Special thanks to Sharon Nelson for speaking wisdom and truth to so many hearts. And thank you, Anna for sharing your question with us!
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Sunday, December 11, 2011

{Week's End}

Weekends always throw me off a bit since the schedule is so different. (You know how I like schedules and all.) December weekends are especially crazy, and this weekend was no different.

We did manage to squeeze in some cozy Christmas activities, though, so I'll get a little link happy with you and share some of what we did and some of what we hope to do sometime soon.

Candy cane cookies. Sigh. The almond extract makes these absolutely, perfectly yummy. I remember rolling out the dough for these treats with my own mama when my hands were soft and little and sweet like my girls'. I also remember tiring of the constant rolling and twisting. Just like Miss Kate. She very quickly resorted to other techniques.

(All Recipes has a version that's identical to the one I grew up with. I did make some changes so that the dough would be easier to work with. In place of shortening I used all butter, and rather than 1 C powdered sugar I used 1/2 c organic sugar and 1/2 powdered. The consistency was great!)

Saturday evening we gathered 'round for a Little House on the Prairie episode. Kettle corn sounded like just the thing we needed to nibble on. I've tried making kettle corn many times and always seem to burn half of it. This time I actually followed a recipe and it came out great. (Imagine that!) I made two batches (one red, one green) and mixed them for a little Christmas festivity.

I followed this recipe, again at All Recipes, using the "three kernel" popping technique suggested by some of the reviewers. I added about three drops of food coloring (don't tell my sister) to each batch and salted the popcorn once it had cooled. So pretty, and the perfect salty-sweet combo!

Oh! And I also played with my hair. (But not while making kettle corn.) 'Cause that's fun, right? My sister sent me the link to this YouTube demo, and she and I have been knotty ever since. Look out!

Here's my variation on the theme. Gotta love a one minute do. (How did pioneer women survive without hair claws?)

These ideas look fun. We may just try them this week:

Reindeer cupcakes over here . . . .

And I love this glittered deer project. How whimsical!

Sweet pipe-cleaner and wooden spool Christmas trees . . .

May your week's end, my dear readers, be blessed and full of the joy that comes from Him alone!
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Friday, December 9, 2011


Wednesday morning I hopped online and saw that All Classical was having a contest. The winner would receive a pair of tickets to see the Portland Revels' Christmas show, "The King and the Fool." I had no idea who this group was, but when I saw the words "medieval," "music" and "merry," I decided to go for it.

I won.

Jamie and I had planned to go together, but he was still getting over the flu. So I zeroed in on Bethie. After a very brief gym class, we hauled ourselves downtown. (This, by the way, is no small matter. I do not enjoy navigating the streets of Portland, especially at night. And it proved to be rather unfortunate that I didn't pay attention to whether the streets said SW or NW. Apparently there's a difference.)

Thankfully a nice couple whipped out their iPhones and looked up the address for us. We scurried ourselves back across the 405 and found the right spot. By this time we were running late and parking was limited. We finally found a spot in a nearby garage (also not my favorite thing to do), and prayed and ran to the theater. We looked ridiculous.

Upon reaching the theater, the jovial, holly-haloed ushers informed us that we weren't really that late. They led us to our seats and we finally collapsed with relief. The show had already started, but it didn't take long for us to be whisked into the delights of a king's palace in Medieval England. The costumes were delightful, the songs and instruments authentic and the "fool," absolutely hilarious. (Think Danny Kaye.)

I love taking Bethie to the theater. She sits on the edge of her seat, mouth parted just slightly as if she's literally taking in the whole scene. Our eyes sparkled and our feet tapped as the musicians, singers and dancers entertained in the king's court.

I was especially delighted when the audience was invited to join in song. I had tears in my eyes as we joined together:

"Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance," said he,
"And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance," said he.

But it got even better. Suddenly, the players spilled from the stage and began to dance throughout the theater, inviting their guests to join in. I looked at Bethie and wiggled my eyebrows. She hesitated. And I spoke truth to this girl (and her mother): "You'll be glad that you did." We jumped up, grabbed hands with the nearest merry-makers and danced.

Part two held more thrills and delights. We especially enjoyed singing "Dona Nobis Pacem" (Give us Peace) in a round with our fellow theater-goers. It was familiar from a Latin CD we used a few years ago, so we enjoyed the sense of ownership and awe that it inspired.

I could have sat there all night with my girl. But after more chants and carols, dances and anthems, St. George finally battled the dragon, symbolizing the death of the old year that the new may spring to life.

We parted, of course, in song,

God bless the Master of this house
With happiness beside;

Where e'er his body rides or walks,

His God must be his guide.

Although there was plenty of the traditional medieval superstition and "danse macabre" throughout the show, I was heartened by the number of references to the Lord in song. He was not removed for the purpose of putting on a "Winter Wonderland" show. No, He was there. And He was with Bethie and me, no doubt smiling as we pranced and flitted about the aisles. After all, He is the Lord of the Dance. Huzzah!
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Thursday, December 8, 2011

{Hams and Life}

All ready for Norman Rockwell to paint their portrait. The Saturday Evening Post never looked so good.

What am I to do with these boys?

We all slept in this morning. Jamie's been sick which has thrown us all off a bit. It was nice to gather 'round the table and eat our cream of wheat together (cream of wheat feels so good on a sore throat). I seized the moment and asked Aidan to read our Jesse Tree devotion for us. We're a couple of days behind. I pushed back the guilt and enjoyed the moment instead. The sun poured through the kitchen window and we were warmed, inside and out.

* * * * *

Aidan's plunking away at "Up on the Housetop." He's wearing a Superman cape. The girls are wildly giggling in their room and most likely not making their beds like they're supposed to. Drew is noisily shooting hoops on the nerf thing.

My guess is that one-fourth of my children have followed the instructions to brush their teeth this morning. I better look into this.

Maizy is blissfully alternating between snoozing in a patch of sunlight and chewing on her rawhide chip. She's got it good.

We really should be doing math or something. That probably means I should step away from the computer and get dressed. Or something.
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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

{Playing School}

I was running behind schedule this morning and suggested that Avery might like to sit at my writing desk to do her school work while I put on my makeup. She thought this was a lovely idea. So lovely, in fact, that she said, "I know! Let's play school!"

This was funny for two reasons:

1. We do school every day.
2. It usually makes her angry.

But I certainly wasn't going to say anything about that. She merrily plopped down with her sponge curls and a clipboard (clipboards are very fun to use when playing school) and whisked through two assignments with cheerful perfection.

It was shocking.

Her work completed, she demanded with a Shirley Temple grin, "Now dismiss me!"

I summoned my best schoolmarm voice and said, "Push in your chairs, boys and girls. Class dismissed!"

She obediently pushed in her chair and ran out of the room screaming. She paused in the doorway long enough to explain the sudden burst of emotion: "That's what they do."

If curlers and clipboards and Mama's desk and screaming are what it takes, then sign me up.

Class dismissed.
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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

{Sensible Giving}

When I was a young newlywed, I got really excited for Christmas. The lights, music, decorations, anticipation . . . it was wonderful. And then we had children. Which, of course, meant that we had no money. At first, with just one or two kids, it wasn't such a big deal. But by number four I was just that much more aware of how hard it was to provide meaningful gifts for everyone.

Suddenly, Christmas became a very stressful time of year. I'd sit at the sewing machine for the whole month of December and agonize over the mixed emotions I was experiencing. This was supposed to be a season of merry and bright and O come let us adore Him, not "How on earth are we going to do this?"

Come Christmas day, of course, the merry faces and sweet spirits made it all worthwhile, but I couldn't escape that feeling of dread. (And I certainly didn't want to sew one more doll dress or pair of pajamas. Ever.)

Christmas just wasn't supposed to feel like that.

As the years evolved, I started to pinpoint a few problem areas. There were priorities to shift, gifts to cut back on and extended family members to coordinate with. With changes here and there, we gradually grew to a place of blessed peace and renewed enthusiasm. Christmas was once again a season of joy.

Perhaps you find yourself in a similar situation. May I share a few discoveries that we've made along the way? Hopefully some of them will ease any stress you may have during the Christmas season.

1. Gifts of Three. As I mentioned in a previous post, we've chosen to give our children three gifts each. They usually receive "something to play with, something you need, and something special for you to read." This keeps us focused and intentional.

2. Plan ahead. I keep a notebook throughout the year where I jot down gift ideas. I have the "three gifts" idea in mind and it helps me stay on track.

3. Plan ahead on the stockings, too. It's easy to go overboard on stockings. Especially when they're not planned ahead of time and there's that panicky feeling of needing to stuff them now. I have four shoe boxes under my bed. (Don't tell the kids!) One box for each of their stockings. I've chosen a pre-determined number of simple items for their stockings, and as I find or make things throughout the month, I toss them into the box. (Visit this post over at Passionate Homemaking for inexpensive stocking stuffer ideas.)

4. Consider buying gifts that go with a set. One of the stressful elements of gift buying and receiving is the thought of, "Where are we going to keep that?" As much as possible, we find gifts that can be added to a collection that our kids already have. For example, when Aidan was in his Thomas the Tank Engine phase, he received new engines or track pieces. (This info was passed onto grandparents as well in order to minimize the amount of stuff that accumulated.)

5. Special stockings for Mom and Dad. There have been especially lean years where Jamie and I have decided not to purchase gifts for each other (or where we simply chose to buy one thing that was especially needed). Instead, we focused on meaningful stocking gifts for each other and took joy in giving the "tree gifts" to our children. Funny, but those years stand out as rather hallowed in my memory.

6. Coordinate with extended family. As the family grows, so does the gift list. There have been years where we've drawn names and done group gifts. For several years, my sister and sister-in-law and I agreed to purchase one gift (such as a puzzle or game) for our nieces and nephews instead of individual gifts for every single child. Now that they're a bit older, we pair the kids off. For example, Bethie exchanges gifts with her cousins Alainna (on my side of the family) and Olivia (on Jamie's side). We set a price limit, and the kids absolutely love buying for each other.

7. Consider revising adult gift giving. We used to exchange gifts with our own siblings (by drawing names or pairing off), but in the past few years we've revised this as well. We realized that we'd much rather spend time together than money, especially with my brother and sister-in-law living overseas. So when we do get together, we plan a special dinner date. It's become a yearly tradition that we really look forward to.

8. Go through the closets. Start putting together a few boxes of items to donate before Christmas. Adding new toys or clothes to your home can be messy and overwhelming.

9. Give gifts that siblings will enjoy. One of my favorite things is seeing my children play together. There are a number of toys and games that are interactive and promote this kind of play. When possible, we focus on gifts that will keep our kids playing together.

10. Embrace tradition. As I look back on past years and hear the kids talk of their fond memories, I realize that it's not the gifts that matter. (Cliche, yes. Also true.) They are mostly excited about family and traditions.

If you don't have many traditions, why not start a few this year? Throw your kids in the van, turn on the Christmas music, pass out the candy canes and drive around looking at Christmas lights. Or snuggle up on the couch with popcorn and White Christmas. Visit a retirement home and share music and homemade ornaments. Light the candles and read A Christmas Carol or invite your children to act out the nativity. The possibilities are endless. And these are the things your kids will remember.

I glance at the calendar and see that it's already December 6th. There's still quite a bit to do, but I don't feel anxious or stressed or worried. I feel excited and eager and hopeful. Just like a kid.
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{Shameless Promotion and Giveaway!}

You just need to hop on over to my sister's blog. Right now. She's amazing and wonderful and she knows how to make stuff. Really cute stuff. And, she wants to give you some really cute stuff. Here's a little sneak peek:

Are you dying of cuteness overload? I know I am. So head on over to The Nourishing Apron to enter the giveaway!
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Monday, December 5, 2011

{Sometimes I Wonder}

Sometimes I wonder what Louisa would think if she could peek into the present world to witness her stories still thriving and bringing a calm tenderness and wholesome inspiration to young (and not so young) hearts around the globe.

I sincerely hope she doesn't mind, however, that many of her novels are being experienced electronically (with just as much enthusiasm and delight). It's so much easier to eat tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches without holding a book in hand.

My apologies, Louisa. I still love you.

Louisa May Alcott, A Garland for Girls.
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Saturday, December 3, 2011

{Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree: A Book Review by Aidan}

In my last post I mentioned that my children would wake up on Friday morning to find a wrapped Christmas book awaiting them. I happened to find four books at Goodwill, each correlating fairly well with my kids' ages and interests.

This first Friday book, although enjoyed by all, was one that matched Aidan's personality quite well. So he got to unwrap the book. He also asked to read it aloud, which was a delightful treat.

Speaking of delightful, Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree proved to be just that. I'd never heard of this story, but upon scanning the pages in the store earlier this week, I could easily tell it would be a hit. It was.

And now I present for your enjoyment, a review. By Aidan himself.

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree is written by Robert Barry. It's about a man who gets a Christmas tree, but it's too big. So he cuts off the top and gives it to the maid. But it's too big for the maid, so the maid cuts off the top and puts it in the trash. Timm the gardener thought it was too beautiful to throw out, and he brought it back home. His wife thought the tree was too big, so she cut off the top and threw it out the window.

The tops keep being taken and cut off by Barnaby Bear, Frisky Fox and Benjamin Rabbit. Then Mistletoe Mouse finds that it's the right size and brings it home and puts on a star made out of cheese.

I liked Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree because it's funny how all the animals take it and cut off the top until the mouse takes it and doesn't cut off the top. I think six, seven and eight year olds would like this book. Maybe a bit younger kids would like it, too.


How about you? Does your family have any favorite Christmas stories?
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Thursday, December 1, 2011

{Our Favorite Christmas Traditions}

I love driving through town and catching glimpses of warmly lit living rooms, especially during the holiday season. Tall trees blink and sparkle in the front windows, children running 'round its base, merry as can be. No doubt there is Christmas music coming from within, mingled with the aroma of cider warming on the stove top. Perhaps I'm an idealist? Yes, perhaps.

Now, if I was to actually step into one of those homes, I'm sure there would be plenty of real life going on. Piles of laundry, LEGOs underfoot (ouch!) and dinner running late. Yep. Just like our home.

There's definitely plenty of real life going on over here. But I've found that it's the real life mixed with the ideal that makes it so magical. It's the dream blending with the reality in perfect peace. They actually can co-exist, especially when one is grateful for the present. Grateful for now.

The now I'm finding myself in this month has been preceded by thousands of other "nows." Gradually, over time, these "nows" have become traditions. And so I share with you a glimpse into our real, topsy-turvy December. The traditions that have been born over time, the moments that our kids look forward to for weeks and months, the silly "nows" that, although nowhere near perfect, have given us a glimpse of heavenly peace.

1. Decorating the tree. I asked the kids what their favorite tradition is. I think they all said it was decorating the tree. That may sound like a very unoriginal choice. But there's more. Because every year since we were married, the decorating of the tree has been accompanied by doughnuts and hot chocolate (a tradition that started during Jamie's childhood) with Arthur Fiedler's Boston Pops orchestra playing in the background (a nod to my childhood). The kids take turns putting the angel on top each year, too. Jamie hoists them up and we quickly snap a picture. Those kids are starting to get really heavy.

2. Reading A Christmas Carol. This morning, in lieu of our traditional school work, I pulled out our illustrated Dickens. I've divided the book evenly into sections so that we can read through the story over the course of the next few weeks. It's great fun to whip out my British accent, and the kids are starting to light up when we come across familiar passages. "There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate . . . ." (I can't help but picture Gonzo saying this.)

3. The Christmas Books come out! I had planned on wrapping up 24 picture books as a sort of Christmas countdown, but the kids were so eager for me to bring down the box of Christmas books that I decided to just put them out and let them feast. I do have a handful of picture books they have yet to see, though, thanks to my jaunts to Goodwill. So I think I'll just make a new tradition. Every Friday morning in December, a wrapped book will await them at the school table. I'm excited.

4. Jesse Tree Journey. We've been so blessed by Ann Voskamp's advent devotions. Every night we light candles in the living room and gather round to read, pray and sing. Even if it's late, we pull our hearts together for this moment. It's glorious.

5. Stockings in Bed. This is another tradition that I carried over from my childhood. On Christmas morning, my brother, sister and I brought our stockings into our parents' room, piled onto their bed and took turns pulling out treasure after treasure until we finally reached the little orange at the very end. So it's continued with my own children, right down to the mandarin orange.

6. Christmas Breakfast. After stockings, we have our first Christmas meal. The menu has changed little over time. I always serve an egg casserole dish, sour cream coffee cake, sausage (would you be horrified if I told you it was reindeer sausage? I kid you not . . . ) and a saucer of fruit. Sparkling cider bubbles in the crystal goblets, and the children feel quite grown up when sipping at the sweet drink.

7. Gifts of Three. Long ago I heard someone share a wonderful idea. Just as our Savior received three gifts as a child, this is the number of gifts that we give to our own children. It keeps the focus simple and pure and helps us give wisely and purposefully. When the children were especially young, I made a rhyme out of the gifts they would receive:

Something to play with,
Something you need,

Something special for you to read.

The "things" have evolved over time, but the principle has remained the same. I'll share more about gift giving in a later post.

There are other traditions, some small, some big, some conventional, some not. Each has become a part of our December tapestry, part of this real family living real life. Living now.

What Christmas traditions have been born in your own home? May we take a peek?
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