Saturday, November 26, 2011

Christmas Traditions

The Christmas season is upon us.  I love this time of year.  I love the coziness of a warm fireplace on a cold night.  I love Christmas movies.  I love opening our box of decorations and seeing all the wonderful reminders of years past.

But, most of all I love our traditions we have established.

Christmas is a holiday that has been completely commercialized.  As soon as Halloween is over, we are inundated with adds for the newest and coolest toys for all ages that are "must-haves".  Trying to teach our kids the true purpose of this day becomes a challenge when we are surrounded with the gimme-gimme-gimmes of the world.  That is why we must be intentional in how we handle this season.  

You can do that by setting up traditions that teach the story of Jesus' birth and the joy of giving.  Spend time each day doing something that directs your children's attention toward our Savior and toward others, rather than toward themselves.

I did not grow up celebrating Christmas.  So when I became a mom and began celebrating it, I had no frame of reference.  I asked friends to share with me their memories and traditions.  Over the years, I have taken bits and pieces of other people's ideas and put together a collection of activities and traditions that my family looks forward to all year.

As most of you are aware, I love books.  So it's no real surprise that many of our traditions are book-based.  Here are a few:  

1.  Picture Storybooks -- Over the past few years, we have collected many great Christmas picture storybooks.  I wrap each book individually in Christmas wrapping paper and place them in a basket by our fireplace.  Each evening, the boys choose a book to unwrap.  We then cuddle up on the sofa and read our story.  I have a few light-hearted ones, but most are really-good-make-you-cry kind of stories.  I try to find a new book each year to add to the collection.

Right now, this is our list (in no particular order):

Jacob's Gift -- Max Lucado
The Crippled Lamb -- Max Lucado
Christmas Tapestry -- Patricia Polacco
Annika's Secret Wish -- Beverly Lewis
An Orange for Frankie -- Patricia Polacco
A Tree for Christmas -- Dandi Daley Mackall
The Christmas Star -- Marcus Pfister
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey -- Susan Wojciechowski
The Legend of the Christmas Stocking -- Rick Osborne
The Legend of the Candy Cane -- Lori Walburg
The Tale of the Three Trees -- Angela Elwell Hunt
The Snowbelly Family of Chillyville Inn -- Cheryl Hawkinson
Lift the Flap Nativity -- Allia Zobel-Nolan
How the Grinch Stole Christmas -- Dr. Seuss
The Night Before Christmas
Frosty the Snowman
The True Gift -- Patricia MacLachlan (This is a chapter book. It has 10 short chapters that can be broken up over the course of a few nights, if you so choose.)
The Christmas Book-Stories, Poems and Carols for the 12 Days of Christmas (This also can be broken up over a few nights.)

The kids love taking turns choosing a book and unwrapping it.  And they are pretty much used to Mommy getting choked up while reading!  I don't know that I could choose a favorite....I love so many of them!

2.  Advent Devotional -- This one might just be the boys' favorite.  There is a series of books by Arnold Ytreeide:  Jotham's Journey, Bartholomew's Passage, and Tabitha's Travels.  Each book tells a story of a kid's life around the time of Jesus' birth.  You read one chapter each night...and each chapter ends with a sort of cliff-hanger.  This year we are on Tabitha's Travels.  We have a set of Advent candles that we light while reading each night.  I cannot emphasize how awesome these books are!  These three books, in my opinion, are absolute must-haves. You can read more about them here.  You can find them many places, including Amazon.  Check them out.  You won't be sorry!

3.  "What God Wants for Christmas" -- 
This is a Nativity scene that you put together.  It is a set made by FamilyLife.  We space it out over the week before Christmas.  There are seven boxes to open with a corresponding poem for each.  Each box has a figure for the Nativity scene in it.  You can order it on the FamilyLife website here.  This is geared more towards the younger ones (preschool to early elementary), but my 5th grader still enjoys it.  There is also an animated movie that can go along with it entitled "The Very First Noel", which you can learn more about here.  If you are interested in coloring pages and activities to go along with it, here is a PDF booklet you can print out.

4.  The Jesse Tree --  This is a new tradition we are starting this year.  If you are not familiar with it,  take some time to look into it.  It is such a great way to teach your kids about Jesus and his lineage.  There are many different books out there that relate the story.  Ours is called "The Jesse Tree" written by Geraldine McCaughrean.  In the introduction of her book, she writes:

"A shoot will spring from the stock of Jesse, and from his roots a bud will blossom," said the prophet Isaiah in the Bible, foretelling the birth of Jesus.  It is this verse which gave rise to the tradition of Jesse trees in churches.
Jesse trees were the Bible-storybooks of unlettered people.  A priest could point to the figures or symbols and tell the stories of those Old Testament kings, prophets, heroines, warriors.  And the tree itself served to show how the New Testament grew out of the Old Testament; how, for Christians, the birth of Jesus was not just a beginning, but a completion.  He was the flowering of a tree planted long before, by God's own design.  By tracing his earthly ancestry back to King David and beyond, it was easy, too, to see Jesus as a real historical figure.

There are many ideas of how to make your own Jesse tree.  Most of what I have found online are paper or cloth ornaments.  Someone even made a quilt of a Jesse tree.  There are many options and you can personalize it as much as you want.  Basically, you make a family tree for Jesus.  We are currently working on making one of wood and brass, with whittled-wood pieces to hang on it that correspond to each story.  

Photo on inside cover of the book.

Now for non-book related traditions.

1.  Ornaments -- We each get a new one every year that reflects what we like that year.  I write the kid's name and year in permanent marker on each one.  When we decorate our tree, I let them hang their own ornaments.  They love looking at all their ornaments and remembering the things they have loved in the past.  We have VeggieTales, trains, Winnie-the-Pooh, airplanes, their favorite colors, and many others.  When they are adults with homes and families of their own, they will get to take all of their ornaments from their childhood to put on their own trees.

2.  Birthday Celebration -- We have a birthday cake for Jesus, typically on Christmas Eve after church.  The boys get to decorate it, we light candles and sing Happy Birthday.

3.  Gift Giving -- Each boy picks out a gift for one of his brothers, either by drawing names or by assignment.  We give them a dollar limit of how much they can spend and let them choose a thoughtful gift.  We really want to emphasize that Christmas is about giving.

4.  12 Days of Christmas Secret Santa -- I heard about this one a couple years ago and LOVE the idea.  We have not yet implemented this one, but I really hope to this year.  Pick a family (a family member, friend, or neighbor).  Then every day for twelve days you leave a present with a note on their front porch.  Knock on the door, or ring the bell, and RUN!  Don't let them see you!  On the final day, you hand them the gift face to face.  You can correspond each gift to the verses of the song, such as they have done on this website, and also here.  Or you can make your own lyrics, such as this one.  Be creative and whimsical.  If you look up "12 days of Christmas secret Santa", you will find many ideas on how to do this.  I know some people do it on the twelve days leading up to Christmas, others on the tradition twelve days immediately following Christmas.  This is another opportunity to show your kids the joy of giving.

5.  Operation Christmas Child -- This one is actually done in November.  This is a chance to teach your kids about how many children in the world live.  Samaritan's Purse ministry collects shoe-boxes filled with toys, clothes, toiletry items for children.  They then distribute the boxes to children around the world.  You choose the gender and age-group of the child and purchase items accordingly.  To learn more about this, or even build a box online (which can still be done), visit their website here.

These are our traditions.  I would love to hear from you about any you have that are meaningful to your family.

And I am always looking for more great storybooks to add to our collection. So, if you know of some that I don't have listed above, PLEASE SHARE!!!

I wish you all a wonderfully meaningful Christmas season, as we take time to remember the birth that changed everything!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Greener, schmeener!

Have these thoughts ever crossed your mind?

~I wish I had her hair.  It is so beautiful.
~Wow! I wish I could eat like she does and have THAT figure!  No fair!
~Her house is bigger, nicer, and cleaner than mine!
~Her car is newer, nicer, and cleaner than mine!
~Her kids are kinder, smarter, quieter, and cleaner than mine!
~She is SO organized.  I wish I were that way.
~She is so calm and sweet.  I'm sure SHE never yells at her kids.

And what about the heavier questions?

~Why does she have the perfect husband and I am still alone?!
~Why do I sit here begging God to give me children and that woman seems to pop them out every other week?!
~Why do I see people all around me spending lavishly, while I am struggling just to make ends meet?!
~Everything comes easy to all these people--money, relationships, parenting, career, life in general--but I struggle with EVERYTHING!!!  Why can't it be easy for me?!

You probably have never thought any of those, right?
You probably never compare yourself to others either. 
And you certainly never worry about what other people think of you. 

Surely I am the only one.  Well, maybe me and a few others (namely, most every female on the planet!).

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Why do we doubt ourselves and pick apart our lives? 

In my experience, it is not my dear friends and family with whom I compare myself.  I don't worry about their opinion of me.  I know they love me and accept me as I am.  It is all the other people that make me uneasy.  The complete stranger and the mere acquaintances.  These people who have absolutely no bearing on my life are the ones who make me the most self-conscious.  Think about that for a minute.  In no way would I turn to any of those people to ask their opinions or advice.  I would never go to them when I was having a bad day or a great day for that matter.  So why do they have the power to make me feel so insignificant and unworthy.

Let's take high-school reunions as an example.  Many of us want to go to our reunions to catch up with old friends.  But when we go, we are not content just showing up in our average clothes with our spouse and kids behaving a wildly as they usually do.  No.  We go out and buy new clothes, if we can.  We spend much more time than usual fixing our hair and make-up.  We prep our families on how to behave.  We want to impress all those people with amazing stories of all we have accomplished since high school, with how awesome our husband and children are, with our amazing careers, etc.  It reminds me of "Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion".  The movie is clearly over the top, but so true in many respects.  And still, it's not my closest friends from high school that I would be trying to impress.  They would still love me and laugh with me if I showed up in my pajamas!  It is the ones who always made me self-concious back then, that somehow still have that effect on me years later.

But tell me something, do any of them have any right to speak into my life?  No.  Does their opinion of me change the quality of my life?  No.  And yet, just being around them can make me feel 2 inches tall again. 

I remember when my oldest son went to kindergarten.  I was nervous and excited for him and me.  I was eager to meet some other moms from my neighborhood and make some new friends.  Boy, was I in for an education.  Silly me.  I thought we had left the high-school mentality back in high-school.  How naive I was!  The cliques and snooty attitudes from some of the moms was shocking!  Once again, I found myself not measuring up to someone else's standards of "cool", and consequently felt my self-conciousness return. 

And how about this:  When you are a single mom, it is overwhelmingly difficult not to compare yourself to everyone around you all day everyday.  You are trying to do what's best for your child/ren, working hard to provide the best for them: driving your old, rickety car...wearing your clothes that are certainly not "this season"...buying your child clothes and shoes from Goodwill and Walmart because that's all you can afford...not being able to buy outrageous gifts for all the outrageous birthday parties you are invited to...trying to expain to your 4 year old that she doesn't NEED expensive sparkly shoes so that the other girls will play with her...seeing 'happy' couples everywhere you go.  Let me tell you from experience, it is near impossible not to spend everyday with a great big ache in your heart and doubts about your self-worth in your head.

But let me also tell you that joy and contentment have absolutely, positively NOTHING to do with what you do or do not have!  It is looking at others realistically and appreciating what you do have.

I am convinced that being confident in who you are and where you are in life is not a goal to be reached.  It is a life-long journey that requires daily tuning of your perspective.  At a conference a few years back, I heard a speaker suggest that as a homeschooling mom you should make a list of the reasons why you do it.  That way when the difficult days show up, you can refer back to the list to get the proper perspective.  Maybe that's what we need to do in this area of life as well.  As we approach Thanksgiving, I see many people posting things they are thankful for each day on Facebook.  That's a great perspective changer!  Why not take it a step further.  Try this: write down the top 5 - 10 things you love about your life, laminate or frame it, and put it in a prominent place in your home.  Here is my general list:

How I am Blessed

I have a wonderful husband who loves and takes care of me and my kids.
I have three sweet, funny, energetic boys.
I have a supportive and loving extended family.
I have an amazing group of sister-friends to "do life" with.
I have all a lot more than I ever thought I would and way more than I need.
I have the liberty to do what I think is best for my family.
I have forgiveness and grace given to me freely each and every day.

Take a few minutes to make your list.  (Maybe even make a wallet-sized copy to keep in your purse!)  Make it as generalized or specific as you like.  And next time you begin to feel small, for whatever reason, look at your list.

I heard it said recently that we often compare our normal to other people's best.  I wish I could remember the exact quote, it was much more eloquent.  But the point is, our comparisons are unfair.  Everyone's public persona is shinier and better than their real life.  Who we are when no one is watching is considerably different than what we put on display for all to see.  My close friends have seen my bad days and I have seen theirs.  That is why I love and respect them, and vice versa.  And that is why it is so easy to feel inadequate when we compare ourselves to those we don't know...because we DON'T know them.  We don't know their faults and struggles.  We don't know their failures and doubts. 

The woman with the beautifully clean house spent hours cleaning before you came over for dinner.  The 'perfect' kids are disobedient and unruly at times, just like yours.  The happily married couple have bad fights some times.  The family that can buy whatever they want spent years just getting by to pay off all their debts.  All the people that make you feel 2 inches tall, often feel that way themselves.  And guess what.  There are people out there that look at you and think you are the perfect woman with the perfect life.

So stop comparing your worst (or even average) to someone else's best.  And whatever you do, don't lose sight of all the great things you have to be thankful for.

Remember, the grass isn't actually greener on the other side of the fence.  And if you want to see how beautiful your grass is, you need to STOP LOOKING AT YOUR DIRT PILE!