Monday, January 5, 2015

The 12 Days

And so today marks the twelfth day of Christmas. We began on Christmas Day and opened a gift of some sort each day. Whether a family gift or an experience, the goal was to celebrate, slowly, intentionally and joyfully. 

At one point years ago, I found myself completely over the chaos of Christmas morning. Jesus can get lost in the flurry and that's the last thing we wanted. We decided to do something different and we have enjoyed the twelve days ever since. 

The goal is to keep a reasonable budget and each year we include some days where the gift is one we give. At some point each day, we read from our beautiful book "The 12 Days of Christmas" about the significance of each gift in the song, then we sing it and we always belt out the "5 golden rings"! Following the song, the gift is given. We have a ball with this and each year it looks a little different. We will celebrate Epiphany tomorrow and the Christmas tree will come down and all of the celebrations will be over until next year.
We've enjoyed every gift and every day and we will do this as long as it makes sense for our family. It's made the holidays feel like a season of savoring and enjoying and slowing down. And this is exactly what we wanted. 


Epiphany, observed on January 6th, is traditionally the holiday that marks the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, and corresponds with the 12th day of Christmas. (Quick background for celebrating Epiphany can be found here.)  While most of us are usually very holiday-ed out by this point, our family has found it to still be a special day, and a way to continue to "spread out" the celebrations.

Knowing that I am usually quite sick of wrapping paper and even sugar by the time Epiphany rolls around, though, we have developed some simple and easy traditions that still mark the day as important, but are not overly taxing.

Here are  the ways we have observed Epiphany over the years.  Sometimes we do these just as a family, and sometimes we have friends or extended family join in.

1.) Gifts:  We choose to keep gift-giving more simplified and extended by giving our kids their stockings from St. Nicholas on December 6th and a couple of gifts on Christmas Day.  Then we save the gifts that our children buy for each other for Epiphany.  This has worked out well for a few reasons:  1.)  Instead of getting lost among the other gifts on Christmas Day, the kids have time and ability to better appreciate what they are giving and receiving from each other, 2.) They can shop for these gifts during the after-Christmas sales :) and 3.) The joy gets stretched out for a whole month!

2.) Traditions:  "Chalking the door" is a tradition for Epiphany that has origins going back many centuries.  The common practice is to write the year, with the letters "C+M+B" in the middle. (So this year, we will write 20 C+M+B 15.) The letters have stood for the first names of the legendary wise men (Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar) and also the Latin words, Christus mansionem benedicat,  which translates as "Christ bless this house."  Our kids have always thought we were weird to do this, but a couple of years ago when we were traveling through Germany and Austria we saw these markings on all kinds of doors!  They were excited to see this is a tradition practiced in many cultures.

To go along with the idea of "revelation" (which is what the word Epiphany means), we have also incorporated a tradition of doing some sort of scavenger hunt or treasure hunt.  Before our kids were old enough to purchase gifts for one another, we used to buy them one group gift.  In order to find it they had to follow the clues throughout the house.

We leave out our nativity set through Epiphany so we can have the wise men arrive on this day.

3. Special Foods:  In Celebrating the Christian Year, Zimmerman suggests making a treasure box cake.  We've adapted this a little differently each year, depending on my energy level and ingredients on-hand.  Inside the cake we hide a toothpick wrapped in foil.  Whoever gets the piece with the toothpick now was the "baton," and can determine either what song we sing or what activity we do that night (game, book, etc.).

On some years, again depending on energy level and on-hand ingredients, we may have Middle-Eastern foods for dinner, as a reminder that the Magi were from the East.

Finally, a good song to sing on Epiphany is "We Three Kings." 

We hope and pray that our activities, words, and thoughts of the day turn our hearts, and the hearts of those around us, to Jesus, and that He is revealed in greater ways.  As the wise men were amazed and worshipped the Child, we, too, want to be overwhelmed again by how great He is!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

St. Nicholas, part 3 -- and last one, we promise!

We hope we've made a good case by now for the benefits of adding in a St. Nicholas Day celebration to your yearly calendar.  We realize that you may be thinking another holiday is the very last thing you need in the short few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but as has been our premise all along, Christians of all people have the most reasons to celebrate!

And, really, the way many of us observe St. Nicholas Day, it really is not adding in more stuff, festivities, or activities as much as spreading it all out.  Instead of Christmas Day being a giant hodge-podge of Santa-given stockings and multiple gifts.... oh yeah, and Jesus' birthday... it is now a little more parsed out.  The Santa stuff on December 6th, and Jesus on December 25th.  I, for one, have greatly enjoyed having that clear distinction.

Both of the last posts have given plenty of good suggestions for how to celebrate this day, but if you need some more, here are a few:
  • Use all your Santa decorations.
  • Make all kinds of Santa and reindeer foods, for any meals during the day (See Pinterest for ideas).
  • Use this day to bless others around you.  Our family has used the cover of night to "candy cane" a few people's homes each year, decorating their front yard with hundreds of candy canes and then anonymously leaving a note and gift.  We try to pick families who we think could use some encouragement or have a particular need.  (This is our kids' favorite activity of the day, maybe year -- getting to act like stealthy candy-caning ninjas!)
  • Get together with friends to enjoy a meal with Middle-Eastern flavors (since St. Nicholas was from Turkey).

Here is a detailed post of how our St. Nicholas Day looked one year.

We hope you enjoy this special day, celebrating and imitating a man who lived a unique life centuries ago!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

St. Nicholas, part 2

As mentioned in yesterday's post, we have asked a couple of guest authors to post their ideas and traditions about St. Nicholas Day -- which is coming up on December 6th.  This one is written by Kerry Williamson, who writes The Potter's Shed blog.  She and her husband and four children live in Monroe, North Carolina.

Recently, I’ve been trying to recall when we first started celebrating Saint Nicholas Day.  You see, I sent my eldest off to college this fall, and I’ve found myself reviewing a lot of our family traditions wondering what will “stick” and what won’t as our family begins to really grow up and out.  He’s our first out of the house, but the next two will be coming in close succession.  (Thankfully we have a caboose baby who will delay the final nest-emptying by several years).  Anyway, back to Saint Nicholas . . .

 I was trying to recall when we first started this tradition.  As best I can tell, we seemed to have begun celebrating Saint Nicholas’ feast day (Dec 6th) somewhere around 2004, when our eldest would have been about 8 years old.  Will it really be our 10th Saint Nicholas feast celebration this year? 

Neither my husband nor I grew up with Saint Nicholas….only SANTA.  We started it as a way to allow more emphasis to be placed on Christ’s birth on the 25th, and as a way to honor a great and much-loved saint.  No year’s celebration has really been the same as the year before, though.

Some years we’ve had a great morning feast, goody-filled shoes, new decorations, and a day of movies and fun.

Some years we’ve only put out shoes and decorations

Some years we’ve had shoes only.

But, we’ve celebrated.  And I hope, even if my children don’t continue this tradition in their own homes, that they have developed a love and fondness for a man who loved Christ…and was a REAL person.  It’s what I hope they learn about all the saints we read about (some of whom we feast) – that they were real actual people from history, even if some of their tales are hazy with the mist of legend.

If you are interested in adding this feast day to your family tradition, it can be as elaborate or simple as you can like….in fact start simply!  Pick a tradition or two that works for you and give it a try.  Here are some ideas to get you started…but just check out Pinterest or Google “Saint Nicholas” and you’ll get many more!

  • Put shoes out for St Nicholas to fill
  • Maybe consider leaving him a nice beer as they do in Belgium to say, “Thank you!”
  • Have a breakfast “feast” (this can be a simple as store-bought cinnamon rolls)
    • We’ve had gingergread waffles, soft-boiled eggs, peppermint hot cocoa as part of our feast
  • Make gingerbread cookies in shape of St Nicholas
  • Have some fun with a few days of “Secret Santa” good deeds for each other or neighbors
  • Make a St Nick display with all your Santa/Father Christmas/St Nick decorations in one spot
  • Read a story about St Nicholas, some ones we like:
    • Saint Nicholas by Ann Tompert
    • Santa’s Favorite Toy by Hisako Aoki (a sweetly illustrated story that has “Santa” pointing to Christ.)
    • Legend of Saint Nicholas by Demi
    • Saint Nicholas: The True Story of the Christmas Legend by Julie Steigemeyer
    • Wonderworker: The True Story of How Saint Nicholas Became Santa Claus by Vincent Yzermans

You’ll find lots more ideas and resources at the SaintNicholas Center!  You can also read more at my blog: The Potter’s Shed.

Monday, December 1, 2014

St. Nicholas Day, part 1

Since St. Nicholas Day may be an unusual day to celebrate for many of our readers, we've asked a couple of guest authors to share some perspectives and ideas with us.

This first post is written by Anne Kennedy, who writes the blog Preventing Grace.  She and her husband, who is the rector of an Anglican church in Binghamton, New York, are raising six children, and they have celebrated St. Nicholas Day as a family and as a church each year.  Here is her perspective on the traditions and truths of this feast day:

My associations with St. Nicholas are nearly as old as I am. I grew up in a tiny African village, surrounded by people who neither celebrated Christmas nor St. Nicholas, nor any western holiday, including birthdays. But there was a Dutch Missionary Nurse and so besides growing up with a plentiful supply of Dutch pancakes, I also developed a great affection for St. Nicholas and his feast day on December 6th.

There is, for the westerner, an immediate and terrible choice when considering The Feast of St. Nicholas. Are you going to conflate him with Santa Claus and Christmas or keep him separate? Certainly their origins are similar. If you keep them separate, how can you possibly explain the similarity between Saint Nick, with his big white beard and his sack full of lovely toys and St. Nicholas with his thin white beard, weather beaten face and sack of gold coins? You must have your answer ready for an inquiring and clever child who is extremely interested in every single detail and contradiction in your face and words.

"Santa Clause is a fairy," I always say to my dubious and concerned children. "St. Nicholas is a Saint." Slowly they've learned to swallow their questions and just put their shoes out on the evening of December 5th and then three weeks later, hang their stockings on December 24th. When they come back to report that St. Nicholas did not visit their friends, I ask whether or not their friends put their shoes out. "No? Well, then there was nowhere to put the chocolate and orange and so he had to just leave."

Those are the basics of a St. Nicholas Visitation at my house. An orange, some chocolates consisting mainly of gold coins and, when I can find a nice one, a chocolate "Saint Nicholas" (so what if it looks exactly like a Santa), and a small special item that fits in the shoe--a pocket knife for a little boy, perhaps, or a silver spoon for a young girl, or a little tiny doll for a little little girl. When I am in my right mind, I think and plan and scour the Internet for little treasures. When I am knocked back by life, I run out between December 4th and 5th rushing through the aisles of crowded box stores, looking for something, anything, small and wonderful. 

And then there's the Visitation of St. Nicholas to the church. He comes whatever Sunday is closest to the 6th, unannounced, banging on the sacristy door with his Shepherd's Staff, glorious in cope and miter, bearing a basket of oranges (but really clementines, which are dainty and perfect for little reaching hands) and gold coins. He is always well timed, right during the end of the announcements. The Announcement Giver, hearing the loud knock at the door, stops and says, "I wonder who that is?" and goes to the door and opens it and there he is! The children gasp and wonder. St. Nicholas is usually someone they haven't seen very often--not any of their fathers or Sunday school teachers, but a man, as tall and thin as possible, hopefully with a small well trimmed beard.  He comes in and announces his greeting "In the Name of the Lord Jesus, whom I served so long as a bishop, fighting off the wicked heresies of Arius, even with my own fists. Are there any children here?" he asks, "who would like a piece of chocolate?" And the children come rushing forward.

Over the last many years, as I've embraced a life of a sort of average American, teetering between the quiet anticipatory joy of Advent and the craziness of the Christmas rush that demands and requires the management of so many expectations, desires, and sheer brutish work, the Feast of St. Nicholas continues to be a brief moment of private, quiet celebratory joy. It stands out and apart from the craziness. It is unexpected and satisfying in the delight it produces. For me, it unites that past and the present, in a schmaltzy liturgical glory, and some years I even make pancakes.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Advent: A season set apart for HOPE

The rhythm of the Christian year is building to a climactic point.... can you feel it?  After several months of "Ordinary Time," we now get ready, this Sunday, to enter a most meaningful season:  Advent.

As we've remarked on this blog before, observing special seasons give us the opportunity to interrupt our normal lives, which can have a tendency to blur days and years together in the midst of our busyness, and change our patterns to help us focus on a bigger Truth.  I love doing things for just a season.   Implementing long-term change is hard; implementing short-term change is much easier.  Monotony does not even have a chance to set in!

The mantra of Advent is "Come, Lord Jesus."  As Richard Rohr says in his little devotional book, Preparing for Christmas, this means that all of Christian history has chosen to live out of a deliberate emptiness -- for now.  We know that someday we will have perfect fulfillment, but the present will not be enough to fully satisfy. 

"'Come, Lord Jesus,' is a leap into the kind of freedom and surrender that is rightly called the virtue of hope.'"  -- Richard Rohr

This season is a perfect time to add a new tradition or ritual to the daily life of your family to help us focus on this HOPE.  Although it can be a busy season, with all the preparations for Christmas, it is a good time to find a way to say "no" to some things so that you can say "yes" to others.

Some of our family Advent traditions:

On the first Sunday of Advent we always make our family's Advent wreath, sometimes with friends, sometimes on our own.  The easiest way we've found to make a wreath is to go to the local Christmas tree lot, ask the guy for some free branches (which he always gives us), and then attach them to a foam wreath form with wire or pins.

Each evening during dinner we light the candle(s), adding one candle each week.

 We also make a paper chain countdown, and on each link we write some people to pray for, and a Bible passage to read.  During our dinnertime Advent wreath lighting, we take the link down for that day (everyone argues about who gets to do that job!), and then we read and pray together.

Then we try to remember to blow out the candles before the house burns down.  (One close call with that one year!)

Some years we've implemented an idea from my friend Heather:  Mary and Joseph "hide" each night as they travel throughout the house on their way to Bethlehem.  The kids run around and look for them each morning.

They're hiding!

 By Christmas Eve they have arrived at the stable, and they await baby Jesus, who arrives in the morning.
Arrived at the stable, after the long journey

 And, one of our favorite things to do as a family, is read an Advent story by Arnold Treeide.  We started with Jotham's Journey, and the following year read Bartholomew's Passage,   This year, we're reading Tabitha's Travels.

 There is a good amount of adventure (i.e., kidnapping, danger, even killing) in these books, so they would not be recommended for younger children.  But we are always amazed at how the author ties in the truths, and even people, from the Bible so well, so we have enjoyed the family reading time tradition.

There are plenty of other great resources out there to help you and your family focus on Jesus' coming.  A Jesse Tree is always a good way to remind children about the Old Testament, and how the promise of Jesus was there all throughout.  (See here for Ann Voskamp's free printable ornaments.)  

Whatever books, routines, or traditions you choose to implement, let them lead you closer to Christ as you turn eagerly to Him, saying "Come, Lord Jesus!"  May this season interrupt your normal lives in ways that have eternal significance.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


I’ve been thinking lately about the different ways people pronounce the word “Thanksgiving.”  Largely, I’d put people into 2 groups:  those who say “Thanks-GIV-ing” and those who say “THANKS-giv-ing.”  (I’ve also heard a few Southerners draw “thanks” out into 2 syllables, but I’ll still put them in the second category.)

Today I was pondering this, and wondered which way was more appropriate.  Should we be emphasizing the “thanks” or the “giving?”

Turning to the original word for it in the Bible is no help at all.  Thanks to Ann VosKamp, many of us now know that the Greek word for thanksgiving in the Bible is “eucharisteo.”  Coincidentally, this word is also pronounced several different ways with the emphasis sometimes on the “eu” and sometimes on the “char” – and sometimes on the “is” or the “te.” ( Perhaps the Ohio State fans in my life would like to emphasize even the last syallable?)

But really, I guess my exercise in determining the most correct way to say the word is futile at best and stupid at worst.  Of course both aspects are important;  being grateful without offering up thanks is just being “happy” in today’s language, and giving without the thanks is probably legalism.  (because doesn’t every fault of Christian behavior eventually lead back to legalism on one side?)

Regardless of how you say it, we Americans will be glad that a special day is set apart each year to do the thing we should be doing every day:  overflowing with thanksgiving to the One from whom all blessings flow.  And we get to have special food besides.

The internet runneth over with recipes for that special food, as well as turkey crafts for the kids, creative nature-based centerpieces for the tables, and then recipes for the leftovers.  So we will not use our little internet space to add to the bounty.

Even though Thanksgiving is not a traditional “church calendar” holiday, it is one through which many people develop strong family traditions, and through which God is praised, so we say go forth and celebrate!

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” – Psalm 100:4