Sunday, December 30, 2012

Check out our best Christmas traditions - cookies, gumdrops, Michael Bolton and more!

My family and I are very particular and protective of our Christmas traditions and we love talking about them - with each other and anyone else who is foolish enough willing to listen.  Isn't it fun and funny how families have their own special things that they do at Christmastime and no matter what they may be, they hold them dear and think they're the best traditions in the universe? Well, our family actually does have the best tradition in the universe.  (skip to the end if you can't wait to hear about it!)  

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, a local radio station that plays a very unfortunate and uninspired variety of Christmas music 24 hours a day, was hosting a call-in thing where people would call in to leave a recorded message of their favorite Christmas traditions.  They were later played over and over at random times. (Warning: In the next few sentences I'm going to turn kind of mean and sarcastic and grumpy.)  People were calling in and leaving messages saying things like (and I am NOT making this up), "We wake up and open the presents under the tree," and "We have dinner as a family."  And I thought out loud, "REALLY??????  Those are your favorite traditions????  Those practically don't even count as traditions because that happens to be what everyone else on the planet who is celebrating Christmas is doing."  Well, I guess they may be considered traditions, but they hardly seem unique enough to merit calling in to a radio station and subjecting the listening public to the musings of Captain and Mrs. Obvious. (Ok, mean and sarcastic rant is over.  I'm actually not that mean-spirited or close-minded. I know there are plenty of people who must celebrate Christmas without gifts or away from family, and it's actually terribly sad that a family dinner might be so rare for some that it is a noteworthy once-a-year event.  For those in these and other unfortunate circumstances, especially at this time of the year, I offer my prayers.)  

But, if I may, here are two of our family's major Christmas traditions that are unique enough to merit a few paragraphs and photos here :)  I will stick with only the best two, and will not bore any reader kind enough to still be reading this with our minor traditions like * we listen to the live broadcast of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, England Christmas Eve morning to hear the boy treble that opens with "Once in Royal David's City" and tear up at his performance (woah... that was a run-on tradition) * we watch A Muppet Christmas Carol on Christmas Even night * we eat pizza casserole before watching the movie * we get scotch tape in our stockings every year * an ornament with a sexy windswept headshot of Michael Bolton holds a place of honor on my parents' Christmas tree * and this year we determined that it's tradition for my mom to say, "There aren't going to be many presents this year," and everyone looks at her with crazy eyes because somehow every year gifts are piled up anyway *  So, you don't have to sit through all that.  Here are our really unique traditions...

The Cookie Tree

No explanation, necessary; photos will suffice.  (Except, know that I was making this thing when I was a kid, and so it's super awesome to have my own kids helping out now!  My mom has been tasked with finding a cookie tree photo from my childhood... I'll edit one in if something surfaces.  I remember posing for them... now just to locate...)

Cookie trees from 2010 and 2011

and, drum roll please...
Christmas Snack Table

The best tradition ever invented is called Christmas Snack Table, and it's so old, it's hard to remember how it all started.  There is a home video of the very first one (I think I was about 12), which was actually held the day after Christmas.  I don't think anyone knows how it came to be held on Christmas Day, but I think it has something to do with not wanting to make and eat a repeat of Thanksgiving dinner one month later.  I really have no idea of the why.  It doesn't matter.  It's the what that's important.

Christmas Snack Table is an all-day buffet of the best party food - the kind that you've been waiting all year to eat.  The planning begins weeks before Christmas.  Deciding what will be on the snack table is fairly easy for us now - there are a lot of dishes that make an annual appearance, and everyone who will be "home" for Christmas is allowed one specific food request.  We divide up shopping and prep responsibilities.  This year, to save time, we did a lot of the prep the few days before Christmas.  The rest of the work is done on Christmas morning... and Christmas morning pretty much goes the same with my "new" family as it did with my "old" family growing up.  Get up.  Go to early Mass.  Come home, drink coffee and open stockings.  Prepare Christmas Snack Table - everyone is involved.  (That's part of the fun!  It's really a family-prepared feast!)  Say prayers and sing Christmas carols, bless the food.  Fill your plate, and eat all day!  In our family, we open our gifts one at a time and intentionally draw it out all day.  So frequently, someone will declare it's time for a gift break and another round of Snack Table.  Gift opening lasts well into the afternoon and Snack Table goes on all day.  For many years, it's lasted into the evening providing the adults much needed nourishment for intense games of SPOONS and Taboo.

The reasons to have your own Christmas Snack Table are many.  The best I can think of are these:  It's fun holiday bonding to have the whole family involved in making a huge buffet early in the day and being able to enjoy it all day long (as opposed to two or three people tucked away in the kitchen all afternoon to make a big holiday meal while everyone else is still celebrating and socializing.  We just did that at Thanksgiving, so no need to repeat!)  It can be as casual or elegant as you like (or a tacky mix of both, which is where ours usually ends up - think gourmet stuffed mushrooms and potato chips and dip on the same table.)  There's something for everyone.  And it's just. plain. fun.  A totally unique way to celebrate an already fun and festive time of year!

As with the cookie tree, I'm trying to locate pictures of some Snack Tables of yore.  But here are a couple from this year (the pictures pretty much look the same from year to year ) followed by the 2012 menu to jump start your own planning for next year.  'Cause you know this is awesome and you're seriously thinking about trying it!

Merry Christmas!

Nearly my whole immediate family was in town this year, so the menu was extensive.  Yum!

The Basics:

potato chips, dip
veggies, dip
fruit, dip
(there are a lot of dips involved in Christmas Snack Table)
cheese, crackers, sausage, cheese spreads
red and green gumdrops (a tradition)
shrimp and cocktail sauce (don't leave this sitting out all day!)

The Stuff we Made:

layered taco dip and Frito chips
hot chicken wing dip and tortilla chips
spinach dip, bread bowl
bacon tomato cups
deviled eggs
pigs in a blanket (a tradition...)
salami with cream cheese roll-ups (also tradition)
spinach tortilla wrap pinwheels
brie with cranberry almond sauce, baked in a pastry
cocktail meatballs
raspberry and lemon curd tarts (it's so nice delicious to have a pastry-chef sister!)
the cookie tree
chocolate covered pretzels rods
candied pecans

beer, wine, juice 

Friday, December 28, 2012

On the Feast of the Holy Innocents

We spend so much of this time of year in wonderment at the God-made-man, sent to us as a small and helpless baby.  And rightly so.  Obviously.  But I can't help but think of the other infants that hold places of honor in the telling of the Christmas story.  The first that comes to mind is John the Baptist, the final prophet given to the people of Israel, and to us, to prepare hearts for the coming of the Messiah.  I have always marveled at the fact that John fulfilled his mission as prophet even before he was born!  Leaping in his mother's womb to proclaim the nearness of the Savior!  The other infants of the Christmas story, we honor today - the first Christian martyrs, the baby boys stripped from their mothers and slain at the order of King Herod, their lives taken in an attempt to slaughter the child king, their lives given in witness to the King of Kings.

The Coventry Carol
(16th century, England)

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Listen to two great versions, here and here.
(the first is by the Westminster Cathedral Choir and the second is performed by Loreena McKennitt)

"The cries of slaughtered children, called so poetically the Holy Innocents, echo loudly through our time.  For those deeply committed to the cause of life this is a day of pilgrimage and prayerful reparation and fervent petition to end the slaughter of children in our own time... Christ's peace is not a passive state of dreamy harmony that one sees in living room paintings.  Christ's peace is the victory prize in a relentless conflict lasting until the end of the world" - the day when He will wipe away every tear from our eyes and there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain.  - Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, Behold, He Comes: Meditations on the Incarnation

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

My oldest, who studied Latin this past semester, is always asking me stuff like, "How do you say garbage truck and off highway truck in Latin?" or "How do you say 'Stop touching my Legos' in Latin?'" or "How do you say 'Let's watch YouTube videos of Lego garbage trucks' in Latin?"  So it got me thinking, How do you say those things?  I know that all of the official documents that come out of the Vatican are written in Latin, and that many of them are about life in the modern world and  things related to technology (media, Internet, etc...).  The ancient Romans weren't using those words, people. Someone must be making them up.  So, who?

I asked my mother, who is by all accounts the absolute smartest person I know (and I'm not just saying that because she's my mother.)  And *gasp* she didn't know.  But she did put her formidable skills to work (she is a former radio personality with an awesome voice and is kind of a tech geek) and she called up her favorite pod-casting Catholic priest, Father Roderick Vonhogen in the Netherlands, and recorded a message to his show.  He took our question!  And answered it at length.  

Check it out on The Break, where Fr. Roderick discusses topics from "the Simpsons to the Sacraments and technology to theology."  The question was answered on the December 12th show (BFR 862 - I don't really know what that means, but it seems like some sort of important reference thing...)  The intro leading up to our question starts around the 9 minute mark.  I think the question itself is close to 9:50.  And the response, informative and somewhat tangential, lasts until about the 25 minute mark.   Hope you get to listen to it!

So, now we know.  And I'm happy to have gotten that out of the way because now I have some way bigger piscis to fry.  We just got some surprising news... My son and his peers at tutoring were such Latin stars, they finished the book in half the alotted time. So naturally, they. sent. him. home. with. a. GREEK. book.  Deus misereatur.  Uh, I mean, Kyrie eleison.  Whichever.  We're along for the ride either way....

ps - Want to impress your friends with your knowledge of modern-day Latin words???  Click here to learn how to say words like discotec, flirt, radio, rum, and zoosafari.... among others.  (And maybe by the end of the school year I'll be able to translate them into... Greek.  Ahhh!!!!)  

Step Aside, Martha.

Once in a while I dream about being Martha Stewart (minus the felony and jail time) - like when she showcases her amazing vegetable and herb gardens, or displays her gorgeous Autumn decorations which are the visual epitome of harvest bounty, or when she offers tutorials on how to make adorable canvas sunhats for babies out of materials leftover from previously attempted Martha Stewart canvas projects.  

So it's out there - there's a lot I like about Martha.  Except, not at Christmastime.  Because if you've ever perused the holiday issue of her magazine, Living, you may, like me, find that it falls flat.  There are beyond copious amounts of beautiful decorations... maybe a little too much glitz and glitter for my taste, but none-the-less, her home is superbly decorated.  There is no doubt left in your mind that it is Christmas and the decorating began months ago.  But, I don't care for it.  It's usually theme based - a concept, an idea, a color.  And everything has to fit into those conceptual boundaries.  Everything.

Christmas by the seashore

Crazy gaudy goldness

Country angels and stars, a study in red and white.

All images from
(I realize these are not all trees that she herself may have decorated ,
nor have they necessarily been in her actual home...)

In my humble I-don't-really-have-a-decorating-style-at-all opinion, this type of decorating seems sterile.  Her home looks lovely, but to me, it doesn't conjure all that we typically hold dear at Christmas.  Home, family, friendships, Faith.  Any given year, I may see the magazine and immediately know that her theme is "Woodland Christmas abounding in birch bark, twigs,  and hints of gold," or "Christmas of Yore accented with Victorian Lace, pearl ornaments, and ribbon candy."  But I've never looked at her decorating and seen the joy of Christmas past and present -   the joy that comes from sharing the best season of all with the ones you love.

Anyway, that's our decorating theme.  It's not fancy or fine.  The theme is Home.  The theme is Family.  And it's abundantly evident on our home-y Christmas tree.  There is no concept, idea, or color scheme to convey.  It's a mish-mash of family memories, and I love it that way.  Our tree holds many ornaments from my  late Grandma Louise - beaded ornaments and liquid embroidery ornaments, ornaments my mom has made throughout the years, ornaments that I made when I was younger - salt dough and sewn, and the ornaments that my children have started to work on - mostly crazy marker things (very modern...) and glitter atrocities.  Last year the kids even had some interesting pipe cleaner creations woven among the branches.  And of course, because the tree is about family and it's my family that decorates it (and redecorates it throughout the season) there are unattractive clumps of ornaments here and there and there are some areas with no ornaments at all.  Frankly, parts of our tree look totally ridiculous;  it's the most beautiful tree I've ever seen.

Somehow, year after year, we've managed to have the most  perfect Christmas tree of all.  So step aside, Martha.  We've got this one.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My beautiful, wonderful freezer

No more cooking for me for quite a while because I'm DUH-UN.  (that's done with an emphasis, ok?)

My freezer is stocked.  It's beautiful.  Here, take a look...

Meals, meals, meals !  Soups, chili, casseroles.  The bottom pull-out drawer is all home made applesauce and berries we froze from summertime picking.   In the door is what's left of our freezer jam, frozen pumpkin breads (yum!), and of course - my Perry's Pumpkin Pie ice cream.   What did you expect ???  It's limited edition, so I have to stock up on my favorite flavor while it's in stores :)  

It's so beautiful it's almost a shame to start removing meals from it thus diminishing the stockpile.  But I'll get over that pretty quickly.  You know there are few things I like more than pulling a ready-to-go homemade dinner out of my freezer.  If my estimations are correct I won't be doing much cooking until mid to late  February. (we do planned leftovers.)    That was how far we got last winter before I had to cook up a second round.  Last year's second round conveniently came a few weeks before the birth of our fourth baby.  I was nesting in high gear and was able to channel all that prenatal hyper-energy into my cooking.  I actually made three months worth of meals in about 5 minutes.  Sadly, this year I may not approach the second round with the same gusto.  

So, what will I do with all of my new-found late afternoon/early evening spare time?  Stop. Right. There.  Let's not kid ourselves - just because I don't have to make dinner doesn't mean I suddenly have "spare time."  
Unfortunately, I'm afraid that I'm in a place in my life where even if a few hours were actually added on to the end of every day, I still wouldn't feel the effects of "spare time."  There is always more to be done.  However, it is my hope (and part of the plan) that in those last few hours of each afternoon I will not feel the stress and distraction that comes with preparing a hot and healthy meal while supervising (and sometimes entertaining) four littles.  I hope we'll be able to complete more craft projects, finish more puzzles, paint more pictures, read more stories, build more marble tracks, construct more forts, go on more excursions.  What a gift to my family (and to myself!) to be able to say, "Sure, we can do that.  Dinner's already made!"  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I have delayed writing anything about Friday's tragedy because I have no adequate words. But my mind has been churning with thoughts.  My heart is full of grief.  I am overwhelmingly grateful for my blessed life.  And all I have to offer are prayers...

For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. 


Friday, December 14, 2012

How to Choose a Christmas Tree...

...when half of the family have the stomach flu.  Choose one very quickly.

All ready to choose the perfect tree.  You can't even tell which half are under the weather :)

Some choose by texture and flavor... 

Some choose based on the peek-a-boo factor...

Some choose by how many branches will have to be trimmed
from the bottom - the more low hanging branches, the longer
the power saw will be in operation...

One fellow was just feeling too icky to pose for a picture. :(  
And some are just so handsome that you can hardly
think of a caption that doesn't have anything to do with
 how handsome he is.  Here is the most handsomest tree
chooser of all.  

Friday, December 7, 2012

Advent for Our Family

Our family Advent stuff is in full swing.  (It is only Thursday of the First Week, though.)  Is it weird to say that anything Church related at all is "in full swing."  It sounds more reverent to say, "we have deeply and prayerfully entered into the mysterious realms of the Season."  Well, we have begun our family Advent prayers and activities, but the only mystery around here is whether anyone will sit through said prayers and activities.  Ok, I'm kind of not giving my kiddos enough credit here.  They have mostly been paying attention and participating, and I've been pleasantly surprised at how much they remember from the last couple years.

My friend, Mary at Better Than Eden, recently shared some of what her family is doing this year to keep the Season.  What an awesome list!!  I especially loved the concept of a family commitment to participate in each of the Corporal Works of Mercy during Advent.  I have gotten some lovely ideas from friends and from total strangers who post their Advent ideas on line, and thought I would likewise share some of what we do here.  Spoiler alert: it's nothing that hasn't been blogged about before...  it's just my little list of the ways we try to set Advent apart from the rest of the year.  We are trying in our feeble feebleness to join our family to the liturgical rhythms of the Church and to prepare our hearts and home for celebrating Christ's birth. Sometimes though, instead of actually doing all that preparing-of-my-heart through prayer, I'm just alternating between glaring at a  fidgety child and glancing pleadingly toward Heaven, while subconsciously emphasizing the wrong words of songs through clenched teeth... "CAPTIVE... MOURNS in LONELY EXILE..."  

All kidding aside, pray for me and my family, that our hearts will really be transformed this season.  And I will do the same for you.  

Advent Wreath

We began this year using the wreath blessing from last year's Magnificat Advent companion - my 2012 Kindle edition doesn't seem to have one.  Anyway...each night we've been singing O Come O Come Emmanuel as usual, but this year we are also learning some of it in Latin.   Occasionally weirdness happens when we try to sing using Ecclesial Latin since we're all kind of learning Classical Latin for school.

We have lit the wreath each night before dinner and eat by candlelight.  While it feels very symbolic and in general the darkness has prompted better dinner-time behavior from everyone, eating by the light of a single candle has posed some problems.  Especially if we let the baby crawl around on the floor...  Where is she?  Did she just put something in her mouth?  Was it a Lego?  No, I think it was a lima bean.  But we never eat lima beans!  Well, I can't see anything so it could have been a lima bean!  and so on...

Jesse Tree

Two years ago I started making felt ornaments for a Jesse Tree.  I managed to finish them in time for Advent last year.   This year it was so nice not rushing around getting a Jesse Tree ready.  It was just there waiting to be unpacked.  Love stuff like that!

I especially love this devotion because it's Scripture study with visual aids for ordinary people like me.  You don't have to be a theologian to get a basic appreciation for Salvation history and the Old Testament prophecies that are fulfilled in Christ when you see it all laid out on your Jesse Tree.  I am SO grateful that colorful ornaments can still capture the attention of my children, because we are all learning from our Jesse Tree.  We rotate who will hang the ornament each night, and this year we are learning the song People Look East to sing as the ornament is hung.
I bought this book last year, although we didn't crack it open until this year.  I recommend it!  We're all enjoying the story of the little boy who, little by little, learns the stories of the Jesse Tree from a cranky (but really kind-hearted) wood carver.  

"What Can I Give Him?"

I found a bale of hay in the craft store for $3, so that meant we would be doing the straw-into-the-manger this year!   It also means we have a lot of straw laying around... anyone local need some????
Our straw represents the gifts of love we offer to Jesus (extra prayers, good deeds, sacrifices, and practising virtues)  I loved this idea for Shepherd's Pouches ... but we had already begun the straw, so I combined the two.  We decided that if we are able to fill the manger with straw, we will offer a financial gift to help children awaiting adoption in honor of our God come to Earth in the form of a child as well as in honor of the Holy Innocents.  (We'll probably make this donation even if we don't fill the manger, but don't tell the kids just yet!)  My husband and I are trying to remember that the straw is for us too.  I can benefit from the tangible reminder to do more for Him throughout the day, and I also hope that it will show our children that we grown-ups are being intentional about our Advent gifts, just as we hope they will be.
I chose to include the line from the beautiful poem (and Christmas hymn) In the Bleak Midwinter, by Christina Rosetti, because our Kindergartner is memorizing part of it during his lessons!
(prediction - if any Advent "ritual" is to go by the way-side this year, I predict it will be this one.  I will keep you posted.)

Advent Calendar

Just for fun!  This year the calendar holds slips of paper that offer clues to finding the "new" Christmas book-of-the-day hiding around the house.  They aren't really new, they're just from our growing collection of great Christmas books that I've squirreled away for this purpose.

Singing Books

I have read that some families try to refrain from singing Christmas songs during Advent, but I unashamedly say, we don't.  (Ok, maybe a little shame, but I just love them too much.  I have little self control when it comes to belting O Come, All Ye Faithful.  Especially the second and third verses.  True story.)    The other, more significant reason we sing Christmas carols during Advent is this... I use this time to teach my children the words (even second and third and fourth verses) so that they can confidently and jubilantly join in during Mass and household sing-alongs on Christmas Day and throughout the whole Christmas season.   We have many books that are illustrated versions of hymns that include a lot of the often overlooked verses.  Since none of my children are proficient readers yet, repetition and illustrations are the way to go!  Sometimes we use our "singing books", as we call them, when we're all together on the couch or at the dinner table, and sometimes I use them one on one snuggled up before bed.  "Singing books" have become a really special way in our family to learn new hymns and it's so awesome when the kids can bust out with something like all five verses of We Three Kings on the Feast of the Epiphany!


Isn't this stable amazing?  It has a light inside.  Did you see that part?!?!  My dad made the original for my mom many years ago, and it was on our fireplace mantel every year growing up.  My dad surprised my husband and me with one of our own as a gift for our first Christmas as a new family.  You can imagine the overwhelming emotion opening the large package and seeing this in there during my first Christmastime away from home! 

(So much for a short list. Haha!)  

May we have a blessed rest-of-Advent.
I pray we can build on what we've begun.
May these external signs and symbols and observances serve as guides for our hearts and minds.
Use our feeble efforts, Lord!
Despite the occasional prayer time nudging and poking, scowling and glaring, and the inevitable "whose turn is it to blow out the wreath candles" arguments, I pray that whatever we do during this Season will be worked on by grace, and that by His grace we will grow in love for our newborn King.
Jesus, make our family like your own Holy Family!  (Only by grace!  Because we are no holy family...)
Help us, O Lord!
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