Unexpected Gifts

Sometimes, I read old blog entries and I’m like, “Wow, did I really write that?” It’s weird to hear a message from your five-years-ago-self. Super weird. But this came up in my Facebook memories today. And, I say this with as much surprise as you might: it’s good. Like really good. Hahahahaha. Merry Christmas my friends!

Lightning Bug

Photo by claritaPhoto by clarita

Do you remember that Christmas present you always wanted but never got? I found mine while reverently flipping through the Sears Wish Book, eyes wide, excitement bubbling through my veins. I circled the picture over and over, practically cutting a hole through the paper with the tip of my pen. Then, when I showed my parents, they promptly informed me that a Barbie Dream House was not in the budget nor would it fit in our two bedroom apartment. Even after a letter to Santa and some earnest prayers, come Christmas day, among all the presents under the tree, there was no Barbie Dream House. So goes life. Sometimes, we ask for one thing and get another.

Most of the time, such disappointments are small and quickly forgotten. But at other times, they hurt. Imagine the child who wants a set of paints or a guitar but…

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Out of Darkness, Light | A Christmas Poem

Tough year to find time, energy and inspiration for a Christmas post. So I am resharing last year’s. I hope it blesses you. Merry Christmas!

Out of Darkness, Light

We walk in darkness
Stumbling, feet slipping
Grasping for something, anything to keep from falling

We scrape our hands on broken branches
Our knees on stony paths
In trying to save ourselves, we are wounded

Continue reading

Out of Darkness, Light | A Christmas Poem

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being told how to do Christmas better, how to get it right, how to rethink it or turn it upside down or make it count or What. Ever. Not that that those aren’t worthy endeavors, but rather at this point, I just want to enjoy Christmas for what it is. And when it came to writing a Christmas post, I was practically gagging on my own words. That’s when I know it’s bad – when I can’t even stand to listen to myself. So I gave up and wrote a poem. No commentary. No lectures. No exhortation. No opinions. No judgments. No assertions.

Just a poem. A painting, if you will, of words. Merry Christmas.

 

 

Out of Darkness, Light

We walk in darkness
Stumbling, feet slipping
Grasping for something, anything to keep from falling

We scrape our hands on broken branches
Our knees on stony paths
In trying to save ourselves, we are wounded

Continue reading

CHRISTMAS TRADITION DOs & DON’Ts | DO Have Fun!

One of our favorite traditions is our family Christmas Card. For the most part, Christmas cards have been Doug’s responsibility. If it had been left up to me, we would never have sent a single one.  But for years, Doug faithfully picked out the cards, signed, addressed and mailed them.

In 2004, I wrote my first Christmas letter. That was year the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. (You can read part of it here as I resurrected it for the 2013 World Series win.) Every Christmas since then, card creation has been a sort of game where we try, as a family, to come up with something new and different to mail to family and friends.

DO Have Fun!

We have done letters like the one in 2004 and another one titled The Pits from 2010.

One year we purchased beautiful, decorative envelopes and mailed them out empty, but on the envelope flap we printed “What’s missing in your life this Christmas?” (We did, however, send traditional cards to people who’d lost loved ones that year.) Tip: Don’t have fun at the expense of others, especially at Christmas.

We’ve sent family photos. Some traditional:

Traditional for us, I guess | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Traditional for us, I guess | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Some not:

Even superheroes need a Savior! (That's what we wrote on the card) | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Even superheroes need a Savior! (That’s what we wrote on the card) | 2013 Christmas Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

And one year, we sent a handmade, paper snowflake to everyone on our list. THAT was interesting.

And some years, just to keep everyone on their toes, we don’t send anything at all.

After a great year, we can feel a bit of Christmas card performance anxiety. It can be hard to live up to the previous year…like the year we dressed up like, well…see for yourself:

This started out as a family photo spoof gift for my mom and ended up being our Christmas card. | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

This started out as a family photo spoof gift for my mom and ended up being our Christmas card. | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

We signed our names “The Usual Suspects.” It took some people days to figure out who we were, especially because my brother and his wife were also in the photo.

The point is, we have fun. Lots of it. Sure, there’s fighting involved and yelling and usually some tears – (Just ask my mom who has been privy to some of our behind the scenes action.) – but mostly, there’s fun. At least, that’s what I choose to remember.

Don’t you love watching your kids enjoy life with some good clean fun? I think that God, our Father, probably feels the same way. So please remember, even at Christmas you are allowed to have fun…so have some!

CHRISTMAS TRADITION DOs & DON’Ts | DO Keep What You Love!

Hang onto those traditions you love, even if they are a wee bit inconvenient.

After we put up the tree, we string the lights. “We” being me and me alone. Not because the others aren’t willing to help, but rather because I won’t let them. I know that sounds terrible, but the lights make the tree and I want my tree to sparkle. And sparkle it does! I’ve heard that pilots flying over our neighborhood on the way to Bradley Field can detect a faint glow coming from our home. (Maybe don’t tell the FAA about this.)

How long does it take to wrap every branch from tip to trunk, covering the tree in 2,000 lights? Long enough for my husband and kids to go out and get most of their Christmas shopping done. Which they’ve been known to do.

Almost halfway there! | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Almost halfway there! | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Not only does tree lighting take me three or four hours, but when I’m done my hands are covered in cuts and scratches and my feet and back hurt like I’ve been touring Disney for a day. (I know, I know, first world problems.)

Crazy, I know. And every year, a small part of me dreads the tree-lighting process, but I wouldn’t want it any other way because those few hours proffer me an entire month of tree viewing pleasure.

So if you love your traditions…even the inconvenient ones…then hang on to them! Life is hard and the holidays are challenging and if frosting a gingerbread house or creating handmade cards or knitting everyone you know a scarf or in my case, looking at bright, sparkly objects, brings you joy, then do it!

Just see how it sparkles | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Just see how it sparkles | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

CHRISTMAS TRADITION DOs & DON’Ts | DON’T Hang on to Traditions for Traditions’ Sake!

Tree

Tree (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

For the first 12 years or so of our marriage we had a real tree. I wanted our family to have that quintessential New England experience of singing carols while riding a horse-drawn carriage into the tree fields, cutting down the perfect tree and bringing it home to decorate before a cozy fire. I so firmly believed in my Hallmark Christmas Special fantasy that it took me 12 years to finally wake up and admit what tree shopping was truly like for this cold-weather-loathing family of perfectionist chiefs.

Let me paint you a little picture:

First we bundle everyone up in coats, snow pants, hats, gloves, scarves & boots. Then we squeeze into car seats and seatbelts even though it’s now hard to breathe properly. After arriving at the farm, we ride in a noisy, exhaust-emitting, tractor-drawn wagon that drops us off in a seemingly endless field of trees.  Two hours later, after trudging through the snow from one tree to another to another to another, someone asks, through chattering teeth, to look at the first tree again.(That person is probably me.) Of course, we can’t actually find the first tree but we try anyway.

Once we finally do choose a tree, we strap it on the car, drive home and cut the trunk so that the 10 foot tall tree we bought will actually fit beneath our seven-foot high ceilings. We then wrestle the tree into the house, struggle to make it stand up straight, fill the stand with sugar-water while trying to convince the cat not to drink said water and vacuum up all the pine-needles. After all that, we explain to the children that, no, we can’t decorate the tree yet because we must wait 24 hours for the branches to “settle,” whatever that means. (Come to think of it, that sounds a little like the kind of excuse exhausted parents might make up in order to give themselves a break before hanging ornaments. Mom? Jeb?)

Not quite the Hallmark Special I had in mind. Though, when considering the quality of Hallmark Specials, maybe we weren’t that far off.

Well, a few years ago my mother offered me her beautiful artificial tree. (She has vacillated between artificial and fake trees over the years.) I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this tree is the most realistic looking artificial tree I have ever laid eyes on. Seriously, ask my friends. The tree is so realistic it’s like its own little Christmas miracle. And she bought this woodless wonder at…wait for it…K-Mart!

So while the naturalist snob in me balked at having a tree that needed to be put together, the thought of spending another year in tree farm perdition propelled me to say “YES!”

And you know what? My kids get can’t wait to put the silly, plastic thing together!

Just finished putting it together | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

They’re getting kind of big aren’t they? | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

It takes all of about 30 minutes and then we’re ready to decorate. (After I string the lights, that is.) And I love this tree. I absolutely love our K-mart, snap-together tree. And you know what? Having an artificial tree is a lot less stressful than trying to reach some artificial, unattainable Christmas ideal. That goes for horse-drawn carriage rides or Who-roast-beast or finding mom the perfect gift.

So if you have some traditions you’re hanging onto because that’s just the way it’s always been or because, like me, you have some artificial idea about what Christmas should look like, don’t be afraid to let go.

Set yourself free! Try something new you’ve always wanted to do or wait before God with an open hand and see what He has in store for you.

CHRISTMAS TRADITION DOs & DON’Ts | DON’T Fail to Consider the Consequences

Warning: When starting a new tradition, consider the consequences.

When our first daughter was still our only daughter, I had this grand idea to start an advent calendar. I crafted together (translation: it didn’t involve sewing) a fabric wall hanging with a large cross made of 24 two-inch square pockets.

Then I filled each pocket with a 5¢, 10¢ or 25¢ trinket (a sticker, a plastic car, a bracelet). Every morning in December, my preschooler would wake up, run to the calendar and pull out a surprise. She loved it!

I, however, failed to anticipate that this tradition would morph into something a bit more complex and a lot more expensive when (a) we had more children and (b) those children were no longer interested in stick-on earrings from Party City.

Things started to unravel, quite literally, when the wall-hanging began to fall apart. Just as my glue gun rescue flopped, I found, at the Christmas Tree Shops, a wooden, hand-painted calendar with little compartments and swinging doors for only $25. Which could be a good thing, or not, depending on your perspective.

As the girls got older, the little bitty gifts became harder to find and more expensive too!

I know, I know, Christmas isn’t about the gifts or having fun or keeping traditions. Yes, yes, Advent Conspiracy and radical living and turn your Christmas upside down and all that. But toss it! We really like this tradition and we are keeping it, so there!!!

My first compromise was to offset the cost of more expensive trinkets by filling half of the compartments with candy. (If you get on my case about sugar and trading one evil for another, I will hurt you. So just stop. Desperate times, my friend. Desperate times!) Not only does this save money, but grabbing a bag of Hershey Kisses takes far less time than tracking down 12 miniature presents.

I also make a point to include things the girls actually need (that is “need” in the first world sense, of course), like sticky notes and hair ties; thus not wasting money on useless junk that just ends up in the trash.

I know some of you are squirming in your seats and you want to know: Do I ever worry about obscuring Christmas’s big message? Or that I’m encouraging a consumer mindset? Sure I do, sometimes.

Actually, back when I worried about, well, everything, I added a Bible verse to each calendar pocket.

Scripture I found still  tucked away in one of the pockets Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Scripture I found still tucked away in one of the pockets | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

This assuaged my guilt for a short time…a really short time…like the first night. Because when morning came around, well…Silly Puddy or Bible verse? Chocolate or reading? I wanted to make the advent calendar more spiritual but instead I made the Bible less fun. As if the Bible doesn’t already have enough competition.

All because I had this irrational fear that my kids would grow up not knowing the true meaning of Christmas. I say irrational because what child who attends an evangelical church each Sunday, learns about baby Jesus in Sunday school, visits the local live nativity and bakes Jesus a birthday cake every year, turns to their parents at the age of maturity and asks with wide eyes, “What?! Christmas is about Jesus?!

(Well, besides the Skit Guys.)

I got over that the day I asked my seven year old, for the 400th time, what Christmas is really about and she answered with a “Puh-leeez Mom” eye-roll while grumbling the name Jesus. Doesn’t that just warm a mother’s heart?

My kids aren’t perfect but they love Jesus and I don’t want to smother that fragile fire with my wet blanket.

Believe it or not, I didn’t give up the advent calendar. Sometimes, we Christians can be a little uptight (shocker), getting so wrapped up in “doing it right” that we suck the fun out of everything. Heaven forbid our kids start to associate our stuffiness with God!

My kids aren’t perfect but they love Jesus and I don’t want to smother that fragile fire with my wet blanket. Besides, even people who grow up with very little can develop greedy, selfish attitudes. And if that doesn’t answer your question satisfactorily, please reread paragraph six.

Now back to my point. If you want to start a new tradition, learn from my mistakes and consider the consequences. What will it look like in two, five or 15 years? Traditions are difficult to give up, especially when involving children.

Remember that one time you made potato pancakes for your kid’s birthday and the next year he was like “But you always make me potato pancakes on my birthday!” and he was like 3 and couldn’t even remember his last birthday? You get the picture.

Previous post: CHRISTMAS TRADITION DOs & DON’TS | DO Something Untraditional

Christmas Tradition DOs & DON’Ts | DO Something Untraditional!

And so begins a series of Christmas Tradition Dos & Don’ts. If you’re wondering who I am to be giving out such advice, join the club! I’m wondering the same thing. But when inspiration comes, I just gotta write it down. So Readers, thanks for humoring me!

Traditions don’t have to be traditional. That’s what my family discovered when we decided to give up the customary Christmas dinner.

When was the last time you were lying in bed on Christmas night thinking, “Man, I just didn’t have enough to eat today!”? If you’re like me, the answer is: never! We always have more food than we can eat, eat more than we should and finish the day feeling like we’ve swallowed a bowling ball.

Until about 10 years ago, our Christmas menu included something like 12 appetizers, a main course of meat, potatoes and various side dishes and about eight mouth-watering desserts. Things were getting a bit out of control. A simple solution would have been to cut out some of the appetizers and desserts, but we rather preferred the appetizers to the main meal. And no one wanted to give up dessert. So now, every year, our Christmas dinner consists of finger foods only.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, do something different, try something new and make it yours!

Let me tell you, in a family full of cooking (and eating) enthusiasts, we have some deeeelicious Christmas spreads. The staple foods are usually my step-father’s cheese fondue and chicken liver pate, my mom’s pepperoni bread and obligatory veggie tray, my aunt’s salsa and/or dips, and my three layer, filled peppermint bark.

Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Last Year’s Peppermint Bark | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

My youngest brother is like a crazy, mad, food artist who never makes the same thing twice, but when he joins us we don’t complain. Because whether it’s prosciutto wrapped asparagus or feta topped watermelon cubes, we’ll be impressed. To all that, we add a variety of fun fare like miniature shish-kabobs, bacon wrapped water chestnuts, mini-quiches, pecan tassies, ooey-gooey brownies, etc., etc., etc.

It doesn’t have to be traditional it just has to be yours.

What do we love about this tradition?

  • As people who enjoy cooking, we get to experiment in the kitchen.
  • As people who enjoy eating, we get to try new foods.
  • Guests can come and go as they please without being restricted by a set meal time.
  • There’s plenty of time for exchanging gifts, visiting, playing games, whatever.
  •  It’s ours. 

That’s what’s great about any family tradition. It doesn’t have to be traditional it just has to be yours.

Some people probably dread the idea of Christmas without a formal, sit-down dinner complete with a baked ham, London broil or lasagna. For us, it seemed a little weird at first too, but in 10 years we haven’t even discussed making a change. So while our Christmas dinner is decidedly untraditional, it’s still one of our favorite traditions.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, do something different, try something new and make it yours!

Actually, when you really think about it, the first Christmas was pretty untraditional too. God as a Jewish baby boy. God in the arms of a dirt poor virgin girl from the slums of Nazareth. God whose angels sang before shepherds and called them to His side. God, not just a king but the King of kings, called not the lowly but the lowest of the low, shepherds, society’s outcasts, to be the first to worship Him.

If you have a minute, listen to this song and consider just how outrageous, how radical, how decidedly untraditional was that first Christmas Eve and all that would follow.

Do you have any untraditional traditions? I’d love to hear about them! Please leave a comment below…

This post is part of the WordPress Weekly Writing Challege: Multimedia Storytelling.