“Come and lie down with me, Mom! Just for a minute.” Exhausted, and ready to be on my own, my six-year-old pleads with me to snuggle in bed with him as I tuck him in for the night. His safari bedsheets and fleece dinosaur pajamas create quick, blue sparks with each wiggle. I would never have volunteered this on my own, but once I lay down, I realize the simple blessing my son has given me. It is something I will remember. We are having a moment, together. It quiets me, and I can feel the roughness and chaos of the day slowly ebbing from my fingertips and the top of my head. I let out a sigh.
“Aah, this was a good day.” G smiles under the covers.
And it was. I had just forgotten. I had chosen stress instead of appreciation and gratitude, so it had seemed rushed. I had felt there were so many things to get done that day, but that moment, cuddled up in whispers, there in my son’s twin-sized bed, I had been given the most productive part of my day. And that is what I am choosing to remember. I hope he does, too.
In the past couple of weeks, a few different people have encouraged me to ask my children to name their favorite family Christmas tradition. All children love receiving presents, and sometimes it seems our family doesn’t do anything particularly unique to any other American family for Christmas. Sometimes, I wonder what they will really remember about our family traditions once they are grown. I encourage you to ask your own children. It may surprise you once you do. To be honest, I half expected my own boys to shrug their shoulders, and not know what to say. However, they each had a ready answer. Their answers made me smile for their simplicity, like taking a moment to lie down on a bed, and for the fact that I recognized our particular family through their responses. We do celebrate in special ways I believe they will remember.
Here is how they answered:
G ‘s favorite is eating chocolate croissants on Christmas morning after emptying the stockings.
A likes picking out his own new Christmas ornament each year at Cracker Barrel or Kohl’s, and he likes the beautiful candle light Christmas Eve service at our church.
S remembers eating Trader Joe’s Panettone every year since he was little. Seriously, he would sit and eat an entire one on his own if I let him.
Nothing special….except that they are. They are special memories because they have become something we expect. They began effortlessly and unintentionally, but have become part of our favorite traditions. They are foods and moments and shared experiences. We can’t imagine the holiday, our life, our relationships without them. You may go to Trader Joe’s and enjoy the panettone, but in no other house does it taste as sweet as in ours.
Candles and pastries and ornaments. A quiet moment lying together on the bed. This is what they’ll remember.
“The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.”
May you be still, and at peace. May
you know the message the Angels still sing. May we be like Elisha and his servant whose eyes were opened to perceive the ancient heavenly armies about him (2 Kings 6:17). May our ears likewise be opened to hear the angels sing.
Peace. Good news. Joy to the world.
He has come!
Someone asked me a day or two ago if my kids were getting antsy during our school time, ready for Christmas. I laughed out of frustration, admitted they were and questioned why in the world they should be. I mean, we took a large chunk of time off in November, going to Florida earlier in the month, and then spending a week down south at Oma’s and Opa’s. But it’s true. When there is an impending holiday, it IS hard to keep your nose to the grind stone, regardless of how much time you have had off previously.
We are struggling to teach new concepts at this point, and are basically treading water. My attempts at simplifying include possibly cutting grammar down to one more lesson until the new year (or possibly out altogether until after the new year). This is both for their sanity’s sake as well as my own. We are plodding through with math, happily continuing with volume four of Story of the World, and doing bits of reading and answering questions for science. I hope the older two are enjoying our Christmas read alouds, as well as the novels they are reading on their own.
As for my five-year-old G, he drifts in and out of our read aloud, depending on the story. He and I always read at bedtime. Currently, we are making our way slowly through Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Sometimes he wants to read out loud to me, but will only do so if it is Honus and Me by Dan Gutman, a book series A enjoyed a few years ago. The last week or so he is constantly trying to escape from me. He wants to play by himself, or most often with S. He has become increasingly more difficult to find in a compliant frame of mind for anything having to do with kindergarten curriculum. I think he needs a break from me. I am trying not to burden him with too many “have tos” this month.
Today after building with our citiblocs and our calendar time I let him play alone, collected paper and cookie cutters, and invited him back to make an advent calendar.
Don’t judge. We are not a crafty bunch here, and this was a spur of the moment thing. He chose the gingerbread man shape. We’ll remove one figure from the stairway each night before going on up to bed. Only two more weeks! In the meantime, we wait…
We wait for cookies and friends, for outings about town and unwrapping presents. We wait. Just as so many people have waited throughout the years for an answer, a lightening of their loads, waiting with anticipation and trepidation and waiting in faith.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to…live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope- the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ..
If someone were to ask me what my favorite topics are during our homeschool day, I would have to include history, but the read alouds are by far my favorite. Even before we began homeschooling, even before I began bandying about the term “read aloud,” well, really long before my boys were even crawling, we have read together. While there are many wonderful academic and professional articles explaining the benefits of reading aloud to our children, the most profound reason for me is the shared vocabulary and language we acquire together. By this I do not exactly mean that we learn new vocabulary words together, or write down definitions from a dictionary, but rather our hearts speak the same language because we have traveled together through the pages of historical fiction, biographies, fantasies, allegories and adventures.
There are times when a single word conveys more than if one of us had spent dozens of words describing a scene. How powerful and fraught with meaning the following:
C A I R P A R A V E L
the unbreakable vow
churning butter with Ma
“All’s well that ends well.” coxswain landlubber
“no good, dirty rotten, pig-stealing great great grandfather.”
S T A Y G O L D.
You may or may not recognize all these references. I know my boys will certainly know the context and significance of each and every one. And if we are having a bad day, or we need a quick reminder of our bond, if we want to explain a correlation, or illustrate a similarity, we have the common (literary) language with which to do so.
Like most years, I am finding this season hectic. In looking for a balance between a manageable school load, and maintaining a home, it is difficult to determine what is necessary. Although I refuse to give up read alouds, I wasn’t sure we would have the stamina to begin a fresh book at this time of year. So, what follows is our list of seasonal short stories and excerpts, nearly all set at the Christmas season.
We have only read a few so far, and who knows in what order we will share them, but here is our Christmas 2015 read aloud list (not including our advent reading, of course). These are stories hand picked in hopes of promoting a true spirit of generosity, goodness, kindness and compassion that may long carry my boys past the holiday season. Admittedly, it is a challenge to find read alouds simple enough for the five year old, yet engaging enough for the 12 and 13 year olds. The following list combines some tales with thought provoking stories with complex vocabulary for the older two, as well as simpler stories which should be nostalgic for them. If someone barely in their teens can feel nostalgia.
As we recall these stories we might contrast Scrooge with Stefan Avdeyitch. We may see similarities in Jo March and Anne Shirley. Whatever may come out of our reading, I hope it will ignite dialog and bind us closer together. I hope you enjoy this list, or create one of your own. Please share if you do.
God bless us, everyone!
CHRISTMAS Reading list 2015:
1.”Where Love Is, God is There Also” by Leo Tolstoy. Technically, this is not a Christmas story, but it does take place in the winter. It quotes so much from the Gospel of Luke and Matthew and concentrates on love for mankind that it exudes the spirit of Christmas without naming it. This is not a children’s story, but one that older children should be able to appreciate. I can hardly make it through the poor cobbler’s tale without my voice cracking at least a bit at the end.
2. Elves and the Shoemaker by Paul Galdone. A classic.
3. from All of a Kind Family Downtown, “Christmas Stockings” by Sydney Taylor. I adored this book series growing up and learned so much about the practices of Jewish holidays from them. Henny and Charlotte were my favorites, but I also harbored a special love toward Guido, their Italian neighbor.
4. “Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. When I was about A’s age I began saving birthday money and allowances to purchase leather bound books with gold pages. Dickens. Poe. R.L. Stevenson. And finally O. Henry. This Christmas classic is both sad and heart warming. It’s the one where the poor, young couple both get what they want for Christmas…sort of.
5. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien. I have written about this collection last year. These letters, which the fantasy writer wrote to his children as they were growing up each Christmas, are poignant, in keeping with the times and laugh out loud funny. Hints of his trilogy abound. Goblins appear and make trouble. Polar Bear inevitably saves the day…and the toys.
6. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. No explanation needed. No matter how many movie or play versions you have seen, the original is superb.
7. from Little House on the Prairie, “Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. There are many wonderful Christmas stories from this entire pioneer series, but for some reason this one has always been my guys’ favorite.
8. “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. Sad , sweet, poignant and almost lyrical in his writing, Capote recounts for us a piece of his childhood long gone. Largely neglected in a small town in Alabama, he and his elderly cousin set out to make fruitcakes for their acquaintances. As a bonus I found this lovely illustrated edition at our library. Even with the lengthy text, it held even G’s interest.
9. from Anne of Green Gables, “Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves” by L. M. Montgomery. Because boys know what it is like to want something so badly, too.
10. “The Burglar’s Christmas” by Willa Cather. A surprising ending. A family reunion. The meaning of grace.
11. from Little Women, “Playing Pilgrims” and “A Merry Christmas” by Louisa May Alcott. Jo and Marmee. Because we may all have presents at Christmas, but there is always something more.
Whether or not you are surrounded by family, or virtually alone, whether or not this has been a good year full of prosperity and joy, or one of struggle and pain, my family and I wish you a merry Christmas.
May the good news the angels proclaimed two millennia ago be true today.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11).
May the ancient prophecies be fulfilled in our hearts.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and you will call him Immanuel [God with us] (Isaiah 7:14).
May you not only be grateful today for the symbol of the cross, but the meaning bursting forth from a tiny feeding trough. May we marvel at the wonder and love of a God who has completely shared, and still shares, in our humanity. God with us. God, a part of us. Love in flesh and blood. Our reason why we search for ways to practice and emulate grace for those without.
For we do not have a [Christ], who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16).
It is unlikely that I could ever over exaggerate the significance Tomie de Paola has had on my children’s early years of reading. For family and humor, we have read Tom, for silliness we visit Strega Nona and Big Anthony, and for culture and language, we love Tony’s Bread and Days of the Blackbird. However, Jingle the Christmas Clown is new to us this year. I am reading it with G for the first time. He has chosen it on his own to be our book of the week. We must have read it ten or twelve times this week alone. Funny, because flipping through it at the library I wasn’t all that impressed. Isn’t it interesting how a book often expresses its magic only once you read it with your little one?
Not only has G expanded his Italian (I have caught him greeting me with a Buon Natale, and addressing one of his stuffed buddies as bambino mio), but has completely fallen in love with the book’s characters. Whether it is because of the funny, frenetic monkeys or the baby animals’ saddened eyes, G continues to pay more attention to the illustrations and details in the text with each reading.
Unable to perform for the nearly abandoned Italian village, il circo piccolo– the little circus- moves on to the next town, leaving Jingle and the baby animals to rest with the elderly citizens. While the ending miracle seems a bit trite, G smiles every time. The beauty of the little tale is in its spirit of giving. As the vecchietti– the “old-timers”- brighten at Jingle’s gift of Christmas, the real miracle of the story happens back in the middle of the book.
Now Jingle began to feel sorrier for the villagers than for himself and the baby animals.
This line alone made Tomie de Paola’s story of joy and giving well worth multiple readings….at least for G. I love sharing stories that demonstrate kindness and empathy, especially toward others so dissimilar on the surface.
Included is a recipe for stelline d’oro- golden star cookies, which are part of the final miracle. The recipe was created by PBS’s Mary Ann Esposito, host of Ciao Italia. This basic sugar cookie recipe has the extra delight of orange juice mixed in the dough as well as in the icing.
According to J.R.R. Tolkien, Father Christmas resides at the North Pole, is assisted largely by the Great Polar Bear and the Bear’s mischievous nephews, and periodically fights off the damaging rampages of black goblins. The fanciful musings of the British author most famous for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy are new to me. A few weeks ago someone in our book club suggested we read this lighthearted collection for our end of the year meeting. From 1920 – 1943 Tolkien wrote letters nearly each holiday season to his children John, Michael, Christopher and Priscilla as Father Christmas, recounting his misadventures in packing the annual presents for the world’s children, and in living way up north with such mythological creatures as elves, talking animals and “The Man in the Moon.” This is a collection impossible to read without smiling. Utterly charming, at times outright comical, I at once decided to share it with my boys. A and S believe themselves to be past the age of fairy tales, although one of them is an enormous Tolkien fan. Even so, we began taking our turns reading a few letters from Father Christmas each morning, which has even elicited a couple of giggles from G. Small children (and adults) will laugh at some of the antics and comments from the Polar Bear. A kindle version is available complete with the reprints of Tolkien’s original handwritten letters and colored pencil sketches.
Reading these letters on my kindle app has made impromptu research more convenient as I searched for images of Lotts bricks, Picabrix and original Meccano kits. If anyone is interested, the visitor Father Christmas mentions in the late 1920s who has come to the Tolkien family from Iceland was actually working as an au pair. Tolkien learned to speak some Icelandic before her arrival and was inspired by Icelandic mythology in his creation of various creatures in his trilogy.
Now, do you think I could interest anyone at the book club in a game of Snapdragon?
was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay:
in fields where they lay keeping their sheep on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
As parents we strive to cultivate in our children a truth faith in Christ; we also fight against many cultural norms. It is a daily fight to keep materialism, egocentrism, and shallow worldviews out of our homes and hearts. This is precisely why yesterday’s church service pleased me so much. As we sang this beautiful Christmas hymn, I felt I was participating in my own culture, without having to fight against it. I was happy to participate in a typical custom and tradition – the singing of Christmas carols.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel
Whether your faith sustains you daily, or whether you only nominally believe, whether Christmas is for you a holiday full of presents, family and warm memories, or whether it is the fulfillment of God’s promises to bring His Son to help His people, if you celebrate Christmas, you most likely sing carols.
I was struck Sunday morning in church services by the sheer beauty of sharing something with the fellow believers around me, but also with those outside a religious context. I am not always happy with the lessons pop-culture throws at us spiritually, politically, and morally. Yet, today, God’s people are joyful in their sharing of this cultural tradition. However, in my mind, it is because of Christ we sing.
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on
whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:14
The angels emerged on the scene, albeit a small, bucolic scene, praising God’s plan in marked contrast to popular culture. While the entire Roman world was benefitting from “pax Romana” the angels sang of an abiding, ancient, eternal peace. Their chorus resounded of a peace beyond political realms, and social boundaries. Sunday morning we stood next to other believers, professing His birth for the sake of our community and for the sake of the world. We sang of the peace of God.
And by the light of that same star
Three wise men came from the country far;
to seek for a King was their intent,
and to follow the star wherever it went;
Like the wise men, for many of us peace is an incomprehensible, distant thing.
“He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” Ephesians 2:17
The angels sang of both glory and peace. The joy and warmth of the season should be felt in this message – We thank God.
We share His gift of peace with all we meet.
As you love the holly leaves this winter, as you breathe deeply of spicy evergreens, may you breathe in and love His peace, whether you are far from Him now, or close enough to call Him Christ.
Holly, with its beautiful red berries, is a brilliant reminder that nature, and the God who created it, does not die off in the winter. Instead, it is ever new, ever nourishing, ever green. Admittedly, the evergreen, the oak tree, and the holly berries are all derived from pagan traditions, and yet, they inform our current traditions on the birth of Christ. Holly gives us the red and green colors of the Christmas season, and inevitably reminds me of a Christmas wreath or a candy cane. Besides, doesn’t the photo above just fill you with joy at its cheerfulness and beauty? Better yet is viewing this in person.
Seeing this tree the other day inspired me to create yet another sensory bin for G. Yes, I know, it is a bit of a stretch as a segue, but really, sensory bins seem to be one of G’s few go-to activities. I think about them way too much. Last year my husband teased me mercilessly about my obsession with sensory bins. Rightfully so, however, when one day I could not find a vacant plastic container in the entire house to transport muffins. They were all occupied with diversely-themed objects. Note: since then, I have become wiser, and only keep a couple going at a time. The rest of the bin items are stored in large ziploc bags. I especially store dry goods like rice and beans, or small toys and figures.
Here is last year’s winter bin.
Ingredients: cotton balls, rice, toy penguin figures,a wooden Eskimo figure, a plastic scoop, star and tree cookie cutters and craft jewels. We kept this bin out until mid-spring, he enjoyed it so much. I saved the cotton balls (always good for an indoor snowball fight) and the rice to re-use.
Here is this year’s winter bin.
I kept it even simpler, adding the old rice, cotton balls and tree cookie cutters. Instead of a star we used a tiny gingerbread man. G has been reading the classic tale “The Gingerbread Man.” Our favorite versions are Jan Brett’s “Gingerbread Baby” and Usborne’s “The Gingerbread Man.” The latter has the added bonus of repetitive, words for emerging readers and an introduction to the meaning of fractions. The fox SNAPS one-fourth of the gingerbread man, then one-half, and then three-fourths, etc. I smiled as he immediately began to reenact the story, quoting directly from our favorite books. Finally, I added some inexpensive candy cane ornaments we intend to eventually hang on our tree. G added the horse. Apparently, it is actually “Aslan, the good lion, and he is roaring through Narnia.” Well, that just demonstrates another reason I love these bins – they are a great way to showcase your little one’s imagination.
I probably shouldn’t tell you since it is politically incorrect, but the candy canes quickly became “candy cane guns” to my cowboy-loving guy. Anyone who knows G is not surprised. Besides, I have not yet explained to him what political correctness is.
May your family love every green holly leaf still on the tree. May you have winter cheer. May you take the time to pause and enjoy your little one’s imagination at this time of the year.
Proudly, S has just reached the double digits. It is unbelievable to me that a decade has already breezed by since his perfectly round, smiley face entered the world. Now that the homey and family-oriented celebrations of Thanksgiving and S’s birthday are over, there will be another blur, and then we will be up late wrapping last minute Christmas presents. Have you begun to feel the stress and hurriedness of the season? In between history lessons, shopping, preparing meals, bed time stories and mopping the kitchen floor, I highly doubt there will be much time for me to find a clever Christmas craft. Let’s face it – boys just do not care about making snowmen out of pom-poms and cotton balls. Yet, I want them to find the holidays meaningful and memorable. I want them to internalize the truths of a Christmas advent. It is not just about Christmas shopping, baking and cookies; it is not just for the fun of hand crafts, but about being joyful, deeply thankful, and expectant as we imagine peering into the feeding trough of a stable in the Jewish countryside.
Christmas, in so many ways, is already for children. There are presents. There are cookies and cocoa. There are parties. And so, I hardly feel like a killjoy when I invite my children to sit down with me to open the Bible and read some prophecies. These prophecies from the Old Testament help us to define the signficance of Advent, a patient, watchful waiting for the Promised One. Do I believe that A, S and G are as excited about doing this with me in the evening, as say, licking the cookie dough off the beaters? Hardly. Do I believe they fully grasp the profundity of Christ’s incarnation? Of course not. However, even G, at three years old takes his emotional cues from us, his parents. He is excited when we are. He is calm and happy when we are. These are the seeds as a parent I wish to plant: Christmas is a time to be quiet and thank Jesus; Christmas is a time to share the beautiful stories with those you love.
The following are some of the beautiful stories we will be sharing in the evenings. I have listed the prophecies of Christ which deal specifically with his birth and identity. We will be choosing one per evening. I have no visual aid, but if you have a crafty idea for how to make this more visually appealing for little ones, by all means let me know! I am just choosing not to stress over this, but to allow God’s Word to work on little hearts at this time of year.
ADVENT READINGS WITH CHILDREN
Genesis 3:15 – Man has done bad things, but God always had a special plan. Jesus is the answer to our problem. He came so we can be friends with God.
Genesis 22:17-18– God even reminds Abraham of the promise. Everyone will be blessed because of Jesus.
Isaiah 7:14– Jesus will born to a girl not yet married. Jesus will be human, but completely from God! His name will mean “God with us.”
Isaiah 9:6-7– Jesus will be our peace. He will last forever; He is God.
Jeremiah 23:5– Jesus will be from David’s family.
Psalm 2:7– Jesus is God’s Son.
Psalm 132:11– Jesus will be a king on David’s throne forever.
Micah 5:2–Jesus will be born in the small town of Bethlehem, the town of David, but will also be God.
Jeremiah 31:15– Jesus will be protected by God, even though the King will try to destroy him.
Hosea 11:1– Jesus will spend time in Egypt under God’s protection, and be called out of Egypt as someone very special. This verse has so many fulfillments. It may be interesting to discuss with older children how Hosea could be talking about Israel and Jesus simultaneously.
Zechariah 6:12-13 – Jesus is the “Branch,” a word sounding like Nazareth or the town where Jesus grew up. He is both our priest and king combined.
Luke 1:26-2:20– Many of the prophecies above are already seen fulfilled. THIS is why we celebrate Christmas. Our LORD has come. The angels rejoice, and so do we.
Christmas Eve and morning will be filled with tearing into packages, squeals of excitement, and Lego boxes littering the floor, but I hope over the years my boys will also remember the quiet thrill of waiting for Jesus’ coming. An advent not just for uncovering the chocolate behind the flap on the calendar,but instead an invitation for watchfulness through the centuries, for celebrating a Jewish baby for the world.