Of Christmas Decs, My Witty Husband, and Impossible Christmas Lists


My husband likes white lights. I grew up turning up my nose at white lights and in love with the gingerbread house look, but for the first sixteen Christmases, he prevailed. This year, though, the kids asked for colors, and he gave in.


As close as you’re going to get to a gingerbread house with a roof pitch this steep and a 3-story drop in the back.

Christian rethought our entire schematic for Christmas decorations this year. After all, things are very different in our house this Christmas. Not just colored lights. For the first time in almost ten years, we are using our gas fireplace. For most of those years, the gas valve has been shut off and the vents stuffed with as many plastic shopping and trash bags as we could possibly stuff in, a (failed) attempt to block the draft. Why did we have to go through this? Because some genius builder thought it would be a good idea to put the on-off switch 2 1/2 feet off the floor —at eye level for little ones with an obsession with flipping switches. (Do builders not have kids? Sometimes, looking around this house, I just have to wonder.)

Michael Mayhem turns 5 this week, so we decided to pull the fireplace out of mothballs. But of course, this means there are hot spots in the living room now, so Christian re-envisioned our entire Christmas setup, and came up with a way to use a few of the baubles we’ve accumulated over the years.


Simple as it is, when he was finished, it stopped me in my tracks. I stared at it and went, “Wow, honey…that looks…really, really good.”

“I can do these things,” he said modestly.

“It would…not have looked that good if I’d done it,” I said.

Christian rolled his eyes. “I know,” he said. “That’s why our house looks the way it does.”

I threw up my hands. “But you know what?” I said. “I may not be artistic with a house, but darn it, I CAN COOK!”

We’re feeling anxious to finish up the Christmas shopping, so we had the kids write letters to Santa tonight. Christian’s reaction:


Then, of course, there was Julianna’s letter:


In case you didn’t catch that, she wants a trampoline, a snowman (a real one; I asked), to learn to do a star gazer spin (it took a while to pry this explanation out of her), and snow. As in, white stuff falling from the sky.

Envision Santa beating her head on the computer desk right now. Santa’s feeling grateful that all evidence to the contrary, Miss Julianna actually isn’t all that picky, and that she will love, love, loves boots with fringes. Because that whole snow thing? Santa’s magic ain’t that good, folks.

Later this week I’m going to share some really good games for Family Game Night that we’ve discovered in the past year. Stay tuned!

An Open Letter From An Unapologetic Christian to Those Who Are Up In Arms About Starbucks


Image by julochka, via Flickr

To my fellow Christians who are up in arms about the so-called “war on Christmas”:

Cut it out.

No, really. Just stop. You’re giving all of us a bad name. And worse, you’re giving Christ a bad name.

There is no war on Christmas. Christian America quite successfully corrupted Christmas into a free-for-all greed fest without any help from people who hate religion.

And as for the rest…Does it really matter if Starbucks prints a red cup instead of a red cup with completely non-religious ornament shapes on it? Is anyone’s right to worship really being curtailed by the failure of the city to put a tacky light-up Nativity scene on public property? Have we forgotten that when people say “happy holidays,” they are actually, literally referring to a holy day? And why are we making such a hullabaloo about Christmas in the first place, when the reason for Christianity’s existence is Easter?

Christ in Christmas

Credit, I believe, goes to “Wild Goose Festival,” via Facebook

There are plenty of things in this world worth raising the ire of those of us who profess to follow Christ. Violations of human dignity in many forms we’d rather not confront, because the fingers point back at us as often as they point elsewhere. Violence. Pollution and overconsumption. (See: disposable red cups.) Refugee crises, and the violations of human rights and dignity that cause them. Various -isms. A government full of politicians who can’t play well enough with others to do something as fundamental as pass a budget.

But no, by all means, let’s focus on the design of disposable cups and whether we say “happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” Priorities, you know.


And with that, I’m going quiet for the week. I need to circle the wagons and get some work done.

Because I’m Pretty Sure Jesus Had Exploding Diapers, Too

Mangiatoioa abbandonata (abandoned manger)

Mangiatoioa abbandonata (abandoned manger) (Photo credit: lorenzoridi)

Every year when Christmas comes around, we get treated to a lot of reflections on the holy child. We try to imagine what God as a human being must have been like as an infant, and quite honestly a lot of nonsense makes its way into the common lore.

It first struck me when the choir I sang in during grad school performed a version of Silent Night containing a lyric I’d never heard before (and thank God I’ve never heard since):

…Lovely boy with golden hair

Blond hair? Really? News flash: Jesus was Middle Eastern! I had to grit my teeth to get through that concert.

And then there’s this one:

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.

Right. Because God in human form would never cry. Because He had telepathy and lightning bolts to communicate that he was hungry, tired, gassy or dirty. Riiiight.

We believe in a God who is fully divine and fully human. And I think very often we focus on the divine nature because the human one is inconvenient, or uncomfortable. Birth in a stable was probably pretty gross. Pretty smelly, and not just because of the animals. Baby Jesus had to nurse every two or three hours, just like our babies. And just like our babies, I’m pretty sure he had exploding diapers, too.

In order for Jesus to be fully human, a true bridge between Heaven and Earth, he had to have had the full range of human experience. To be fully human is to embrace the messiness of life on Earth–misunderstandings born of an imperfect mode of communication, entering into relationships without knowing what is going on in someone else’s head. It involves risk.

Sanitizing Jesus’ human experience serves to hold him at a distance. If we view him as superhuman rather than human, we can write off his holiness, his total commitment to discerning and carrying out God’s will, by saying, “Well, he was God after all. It’s different for me.” It makes him other. Separate. It absolves us of the responsibility to seek.

In Jesus, God embraced the messiness of life on Earth in order to show that holiness can be found despite (and within) the mess.

Our challenge is to do the same.

Michael Meets Advent


Santa 084By the time the fourth child passes milestones, they often slip past without much fanfare. Not that they don’t get noticed at all, but it is a little more muted.

Still, in the first nine days of Advent it’s been fun to watch Michael really connect with this season for the first time. I realized that the concentration of spring birthdays in our household means my other children have been pushing three before they had their first real Advent experience. So with Michael I’m seeing Advent in a whole new way.

First, a portrait of Michael. He wants to do everything, and he gets very bent out of shape if he’s passed over. He’s beginning, finally, to attempt to talk a little bit. Not spontaneous words, but increasing willingness to repeat (or attempt to repeat) words. Some spontaneous signing. He’s also toilet trained, as long as you don’t put any clothes on his lower half–even to the point where he’ll tell me he needs to go. I’ve never toilet trained in the dead of winter and it makes me wince, but it doesn’t seem to faze him. I’ve targeted the week after Christmas for knuckling down and making the transition to toilet-trained-while-clothed. And he’s singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” sans words, with enough pitch/rhythm accuracy that we can identify it. (“Is that normal for a two year old?” Christian asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “That’s not one of those skills they put on developmental charts.”)

Lately people who know Michael’s propensity for destruction through exploration have been pointing me to that U. of Iowa study about messy kids being smarter. It was really about babies smashing food, but it sounds good, and I made the leap as quickly as everyone else. The kid is impossible to keep out of anything: the iPad, the Advent calendar, the refrigerator, the pantry where the graham crackers are kept (on the up side, since he can get into anything now, maybe I can move them back to their old location on the lazy susan and free up that pantry space at last). You can see the intelligence in his eyes, just before he pounces. He’s a whirlwind, into everything. He knows how to turn on the computer speaking voice from the “unlock” screen,” and twice we’ve caught him almost purchasing something from iTunes via the iPad. The difference between him and Julianna, who has always, from age two to age almost-seven, been content to sit quietly and rifle through books and cards, is quite profound. She just never did get into things the way he does.

Santa 078So it’s been really, really fun to watch him make Advent connections. I kept him (and Julianna) home while Christian took the big boys to get the Christmas tree on Saturday, because it was just so brutally cold. But when it was finally time to put ornaments on, he was so excited. He had to do it himself, and he had to point every one of them out to me afterward. Making cookies was Heaven. I get to measure spices, snitch batter, AND spread icing and sprinkles? And last night, when we bundled up and rang the Salvation Army Bell at Bass Pro, he was the cutest thing, walking up to people and ringing the bell at them, grunting for attention.

I’ve enjoyed every Advent since we started using Advent calendar activities to keep us organized and able to make time for service in December, but it’s different this year. I thought it was because I’d finally mastered the appropriate balance of activities, and I’m sure that’s part of it, but I think it has at least as much to do with watching Michael process it all for the first time.

Cover art

Santa Purgatory

English: Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, &q...

English: Thomas Nast’s most famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus”, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus’ current look with an initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough” in which Nast set aside his regular news and political coverage to do a Santa Claus drawing. The popularity of that image prompted him to create another illustration in 1881. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I learned the ghastly truth about Santa Claus in the first grade. I’m pretty sure I even remember which one of my female classmates told me, clearly intending it to be an emotional earthquake. I say that with confidence because even through the haze of thirty-three years’ distance, I remember feeling a need to play it cool because she was trying to get a rise out of me.

I was taken aback, but it did not crush me, because I was already well aware that other girls had much bigger Christmases than I did, and it made perfect sense to me to think that the difference in our parents’ incomes, and not the whim of some big guy in a red coat, was what made that difference.

Christian found out in the fourth grade, and it ruined Christmas for at least a year.

Alex is in the third grade. He’s asking probing questions about the nature of Jesus, and reality and fiction have been completely separated for over two years, except in this area. I’ve been punting all Santa questions to my husband in that time, because Christian was the one who thought we ought to let it continue. I am tremendously ambivalent about this whole Santa thing. “Christian,” I said this fall, “it crushed you because you believed too long. He’s starting to act like a tween. This is ridiculous. We need to get out ahead of it.”

“All right, I’ll have a conversation with him,” he said…but he’s been procrastinating waiting for Alex to bring it up for six weeks.

So last week, Alex asked at the top of his lungs, “IS RUDOLPH REAL?”

I looked pointedly at my husband, who sighed and sent me upstairs with the three little ones so he and Alex could have The Conversation. I tried to keep an ear out, but since I was also trying to make sure the noise level upstairs covered the revelation being imparted downstairs, I missed most of it. The gist of it was that he tried to let Alex down easy, using this book The Autobiography of Santa Claus, which does, I must say, a lovely job of covering every base. At the end, Santa talks about how kids realize even he can’t give gifts to every person in the world, so at some point they decide to give up their Santa gifts so someone else can have them.

“That doesn’t sound like you really told him,” I said dubiously, when we talked it over later.

“We talked about it,” he said. “We’ve started the process.”

I sighed and let it go, because maybe he’s right that slow and incremental is the middle ground between holding onto the magic and being crushed because it lasted too long.

Yesterday evening, though, we were watching Santa Claus is Coming To Town with the kids, and Alex, who is deep into the Autobiography, looked at Nicholas knowingly and said, “Just so you know, this isn’t really how it happened.”

“Uh…” I said, caught between the child who’s supposed to know and the one we’re trying to preserve the magic for, “Nobody really knows…”

Santa knows,” Alex said. “And I’m reading his autobiography. That’s what an autobiography is. Right?”

Speechless, I looked at my husband, who looked at me helplessly. I said to him said softly, “I don’t think that conversation ‘took’.”

He shrugged. “What can I say? I tried.”

Good grief. I’m in Santa Purgatory. Come on, some mouthy third grader, can’t you put me out of my misery?

(We’re going to see Santa tonight. I swear if the “is he the real one” conversation comes up, I’m just going to tell him already.)

Contemplating Crazy (A Christmas Shopping Manifesto)


What it feels like in my house Christmas morning (photo by marco antonio torres, via Flickr

Let’s face it: My house is stuffed with Stuff.

I am engaged in an ongoing war to rid my house of junk (Halloween rings shaped like bats, useless party bag favors, toy airplanes built so shoddily they broke the first day, T shirts, T shirts, T shirts–what is it with the “we must have a T shirt for every possible occasion” thing?), and yet the truth is, a family of six is just going to have a lot of stuff.

We print on the back side of every piece of school communication or homework that has a blank side. (I’m kind of obsessive about that.) We are extremely selective about what schoolwork gets saved. We consider ourselves not big accumulators of kid paraphernalia. Yet we have So.Much.Stuff.

And about this time of year, I start contemplating crazy things to address it.

Because it’s time to shop for Christmas gifts. My husband’s family has always done Christmas big. Mine, not so much. So every year we engage in a (loving) (respectful) battle of tug of war to determine how much is “too much.”

Plus, we have kid birthdays four weeks on either side of Christmas. Julianna’s, in February, isn’t so bad, but Michael’s, which is this week, is a stumper. I mean, what do you give a two year old who doesn’t even get the whole idea of birthdays, and who has two older brothers? Everything he’s interested in playing with we already have! And guess what? We have two occasions to give gifts for!

Then there’s the small matter of how to do the shopping without ruining the surprise for the recipient. Last year, for instance, I thought Nicholas (3 3/4)was old enough to understand the concept of surprise. I thought it would be special for him to get to help me pick his daddy’s gift. I impressed upon him the need to keep it a surprise for Daddy, and we went to Kohl’s and chose two Jerry Garcia ties. That night when Christian got home, Nicholas met him at the door shouting, “Daddy, guess what? We got you TIES!!!!”

Needless to say, Nicholas is not going with me when I shop for gifts this year. And that adds some serious complication to the shopping process. My choices are: go while he’s in school, which is supposed to be my work time; go after the kids are in bed, which guts what little time I have to spend with my husband; or hire a sitter. How much moolah do I have to dish out on babysitting so that I can go spend even more on gifts?

I’m contemplating crazy, people. Here are the ideas I’ve come up with:

  1. The children must each pick two toys to give to charity, to make room for new arrivals.
  2. “Disappear” that train table we gave Alex for Christmas when he was two, and wrap it up as a birthday gift for Michael.
  3. Helium balloons. Because they’ll go away after three days.
  4. Take Michael with me while I go to Target to buy the markers we plan to give him. Because he doesn’t have a clue, anyway.

What crazy things have you done (or contemplated) at this time of year?

Planning Advent When You’re Even Busier Than Usual


News flash: we’re having a baby in two weeks!

So what does a family that puts such a big focus on Advent do when there’s a four-day hospital disruption in the middle of the season? I decided to share our Advent calendar activities list this year as a guest post for Catholic Mothers Online. I hope it might help others see how to make this daily activity thing work, even in the busiest season.

(Now, whether or not it works…well, I’m sure I’ll be posting on that topic shortly before Christmas!)

Click on through and tell me what you think. Does this look doable to you?

Christmas in October

Christmas gifts.

Image via Wikipedia

I know this will come as no surprise to those who know our tendency to plan, plan, plan, but we have already started Christmas shopping. In fact, we’re well into the process.

And you know what? It is awesome.

See, here’s the thing. Every year, Christmas shopping gets more stressful. We can always come up with a long list of things Alex would like, but Julianna’s desires remain very simple: books and music. But we have hundreds of books, and she’s deliriously happy with the music we already have. And Nicholas? Nicholas loves everything, but thanks to Alex we already have everything: Duplos, trains, superhero action figures…

For the last couple of years, we’ve brainstormed, made lists, and hired a babysitter to go shopping. But let me tell you, those shopping trips are anything but fun. We feel under the gun. Nothing ever seems like enough; we feel compelled to have equal amounts of gifts for each child, but the inequality listed above makes it really tough. I spend the whole buying process feeling anxious and under pressure to get it done before the babysitter bill racks up too much. Not enjoyable at all. This is a perfect illustration of why I wrote a book about reclaiming Advent in the first place.

And it was really expensive. (Disclaimer: if you know us at all, you know we are collectively the cheapest people in the universe. I’m sure many people would roll their eyes at me calling it expensive, but as far as I’m concerned, having to pull money from savings instead of covering out of the budget qualifies as EX.PEN.SIVE.)

Plus, there’s this factor. Last year, the kids loved their toys…for a month or two. But they haven’t touched them for the last four months.

It’s time for a change.

So this year, we’re taking a little different tack:

  1. Start early. Really early. As in making lists in early September.
  2. Spread out the expense. The last couple of years, we’ve panicked at the last minute, realizing we’ve forgotten gifts for teachers and the like. That’s never a recipe for getting something they’ll actually use and appreciate. This year, we’re starting to collect Panera gift cards via the local SCRIP program (one each ordering session), and gift boxes from Penzey’s.
  3. Limit the toys. I know we can’t avoid toys altogether, but we’re scaling way back. Why waste money on things they aren’t really all that interested in? My kids are experiential kids, not toy kids. Alex even said a few weeks ago, “I like toys that help me play. Like Wolverine claws.” (If only we could find those.)
  4. Think creatively. Guess what? We desperately need pillows and bedsheets. Why not get some fun ones and wrap them up? And the kids, fighting over the Spiderman bath sponge? Sounds like a Christmas gift to me!
  5. Check the bargain aisles. So far, bargain shopping has netted a book for each child (a fairy counting book, not Tinker Bell; a photo book of trains; and a car game book, total about $20), and we picked up two containers of sidewalk chalk for $.50 each.
  6. Go handmade. I’m planning to make a couple of headbands for Julianna, and enlist Alex’s help. Being my artistic one, I know that will be right up his alley.
  7. Go with time-gifts instead of Stuff that’s just going to lie around making more clutter. My work list is getting so long that it’s tempting to try to plow through the mornings and not spend time with the little ones. But they love to help me bake. Why not get some fun cupcake decorations and give them to the kids as Christmas gifts? Use them up, make a memory, and consume it. Sounds like a perfect gift to me.

That’s our plan for this year. But I would love to hear from others. How do you deal with planning Christmas gifts your kids will like without a) stressing out, and b) spending money on things they aren’t going to care about?

Christmas Night


Photo by Blyzz via Flickr

My yearly Christmas post…because I can’t say it any better than I did two years ago. May your holy day be just that…holy, and blessed.


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What did the sky look like the night Jesus was born? On that cold night, two millenia before humanity washed out the stars, what kind of celestial masterpiece must have been on display? When the shepherds lived and worked and slept beneath the stars, did they ever look up and fall silent, struck dumb by the vast, mysterious realm of beauty and mystery above them? Or was it so familiar that its wonder faded into the worn fabric of life–something that hardly warranted a second glance? When the glory of all the host of heaven rent the sky, what was it that these humble pastors feared–the angels, or the disruption of their humdrum backdrop? And after the angels left, did they ever look at the stars in the same way again?

The light of security and traffic safety has washed out the sky now, such that we’ve lost the habit of looking up. In the dark, we stare at our feet, sharp on the lookout for anything that might trip us. Even when we escape the aura of city night, we forget to raise our eyes to the heavens. And yet it is built into our inmost being–this wonder, this desire to know what makes the lights in the sky burn. It is one of the first shapes we identify in childhood; its effect is mirrored in lanterns strung and walkways lined; in tinsel fluttering and jewelry polished to perfection–even in the humble ceiling beneath which I sit, the pattern of the cosmos catches the light of chandelier and tosses it back at me.

If we took the time to stop, on these cold, crystal-clear December nights, to embrace the chill and find a place away from the lights, and look up…what message might we hear whispered in our hearts?