Advent activities 2017

Most years at Christmastime, I enjoy putting together an Advent calendar for my family.

The calendar varies from year to year – sometimes I focus on quiet reflection and sometimes on lively activity; sometimes I hang the activities in a long paper chain, or make a poster with flaps that open. I try to create a mix of inward-focused and outward focused ideas (bringing our family joy and bringing joy to others), and I customize it to include the holiday activities already in our plans – like a whole heap of music, as you will see.

Sometimes I try too hard and it stresses me out. But the kiddos and I love having something special to do each day, to build our joy in the coming of Christmas.

Here’s our family’s Advent list for 2017:

  1. Go ice skating as a family.
  2. Cut paper snowflakes.
  3. Attend a candlelit hymn sing.
  4. Prepare a baked item to give to a pastor or teacher.
  5. Create a Nativity scene from an unusual material (marshmallows, snow, metal, paper mache).
  6. Invite guests into our home to sing carols and share a snack.
  7. Make a handprint wreath.*
  8. Make music on stage.
  9. Spend the day with people we love.
  10. Listen to live Christmas music.
  11. Prepare a hot cocoa bar (chocolate spoons, various toppings and dippers).
  12. Make Christmas cards for people who will never give back to us.
  13. Write letters to Jesus.
  14. Play Handel’s Messiah on CD, in its entirety.
  15. Celebrate the birth of a human child.
  16. Drive to look at Christmas lights, with snacks, in our PJ’s.**
  17. Go Christmas caroling.
  18. Spend time praying for needs around the world.
  19. Invite one guest to dinner.
  20. Plan a family cozy night: popcorn, spiced cider, books.
  21. Eat a snowman / gingerbread man lunch.
  22. Watch a Christmas movie.
  23. Read holiday books from the library aloud.
  24. Draw names and give a “certificate of service” to one member of our family.
  25. Give what we have: Gather a basket of household items to share with a neighbor or friend.***

Additional ideas that might still fit into Christmas vacation after the 25th:

  • Care for someone else’s baby.
  • Send mail to cousins and friends.
  • Sing in the streets.
  • Draw names; give each family member $1.06 and take a jaunt to the dollar store for an impromptu mini-gift exchange. (This is my mom’s idea and I think it’s wonderful.)

Do you use an Advent calendar for your family? What simple activities bring you joy in December?


* Trace a handprint from each person in our family, cut out multiples on pretty paper, glue into a wreath with the fingertips facing out.

** The Christmas lights will not be eating our snacks, and our snacks will not be inside our PJ’s. I hope a few well-placed commas made that clear. Also I hope we are not in an accident that night.

*** We plan to gather items we’d like to give away: new soaps, some tea or hot drink mixes, homemade goodies, any household items that come to hand, maybe the piano – I don’t know – and show up at someone’s door with it all in a basket. This will be nicer than it sounds, I promise. If any of you mock me I may show up with it at YOUR door, so there.

Our Passover 2017

Confession: Even though the month of April is history, I still want to share pictures of our Passover supper with you.

For the past two years, we’ve chosen to celebrate a Passover feast with our children on the Thursday night before Easter, as part of remembering Jesus’ last days before death. My giant disclaimer fits here: This is an American Anabaptist Passover. The main event is the food, and we don’t go kosher – we shamelessly pick which pieces to observe, and then fill in the rest with foods we like to eat together.

But our children love it, and we leave an empty place setting and a glass of grape juice for Jesus.

We eat lamb, because that follows the original story of when God’s people left Egypt. It’s a costly meat, special for our family – I know we could roast a chicken instead, but there’s something so perfect about the Lamb. We buy a small roast, already seasoned delightfully with garlic and lots of rosemary.

Last year I roasted potatoes and carrots, which is more traditional. This year, having served roast veggies a couple of nights before, I whipped creamy mashed potatoes.

We picked bitter herbs from the yard – dandelion, yarrow, and parsley (does parsley count?) – and dipped them in salt water. The herbs symbolize the bitterness of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, and the salty water is their tears.

For unleavened bread, I tried homemade matzo this year – thin crackers with salt. That was a hit, especially when we dipped them in the haroset.

Haroset is an apple salad, made in a food processor to look like the mortar the Israelites used. I can’t for the life of me find the site from which I originally borrowed this particular recipe, though I tried hard. It was from a private blog and I really liked how he wrote about Passover. We love this recipe well enough to eat it any time of year. Its spices and honey add a curiously delicious twist. So thank you, Mr. American Haroset, wherever you are…

American Haroset

3 red apples
3 green apples
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup pecans
To taste: honey, cloves, and ginger

Process all together in food processor.

Of course we ate hard-boiled eggs, though when I turned them into mice with cheese Ryan said “Do you know how horrified a Jewish person would be to think of a mouse on the table?” I just laughed and said “Okay, well, yeah. Good thing we’re not Jewish?”

We lit candles and poured our homemade sparkling grape juice, and served everything up.

Each year I think, “This time we will do some of the readings and questions.” I even found Elisabeth Adam’s beautiful Haggada and printed it off, trying hard to include it. But then…

Do Jewish babies not fuss?

Are Jewish mothers more long-suffering when they do?

We skipped the readings for another year, and just ate a lamb cake for dessert. I told you the food was our main event, and hey.

It made Jenny happy again.


What ideas will you give me for next year’s feast?

Thoughts after the holiday

Congratulations, everybody. We made it through another Mother’s Day.

All you dads thought of something heart-warming and appropriate to give your wives, or survived the humiliation if you did not.

All you church leaders and Sunday school teachers avoided the fraught topics, or not, but at least it’s behind you.

You women who wonder if you really qualify as a mother, because your mothering is non-traditional, smiled and wore something pretty and made it through. I honor you.

You who are grieving the loss of your mother cried the tears and braved the ubiquitous shopping displays (BUY THIS NOW!! FOR HER!! – while you thought if only I could). You who are grieving the loss of a child you loved – I know it hurt. I honor you too.

You who are still waiting for that special someone who will rock your world – you who sat quietly with no one squirming on your lap and putting sweet arms around your neck – you made it. We saw you, and the tears you could not cry. Our community would be so much less without you.

You kids who pulled off the breakfast in bed, the handmade cards, the first attempts at cooking – Good job, honey. You did a good job, even if it didn’t look like you imagined.

You moms, whom this day is supposed to be all about – I thought of you especially. Some of you ate it up and loved it. Some of you found it didn’t look like you imagined either.

The before-church messiness and bickering, normal on most Sundays, can be unbearable on a day like this because can’t they for once let it go, just once this special day?? All the usual, reasonable sacrifices of motherhood – being last at the food, washing those dishes, sweeping up the glass shards – seem more burdensome. There are babies screaming to be fed. There are adolescents giving you that face. There are grown children who do not reach back to say thank you. Mother’s Day can be a reminder that not all is as it should be.

But we made it.

If there is one thing I have learned in the last months about motherhood, it’s that it is a GIFT, surprisingly unpredictable, impossible, and delicious. You who felt swamped with work and worry yesterday, remember – some in your congregation would give several years off their life for that honor. Okay, maybe several hours, I don’t know.

I read two books lately that changed my views on mothering and homemaking. One was The Bookseller of Kabul, a difficult read I wouldn’t necessarily recommend. Besides painful glimpses into the oppression of women in Afghanistan, including sexual exploitation, the punch-point that impacted me most was that the author could not imagine a fulfilling life for her main characters, women who lived out their lives in service to the men they loved, sweeping daily dust that never went away and cooking for daily crowds that never went away too, and falling into bed at night exhausted. I thought Abuses granted, yes. But women have lived this way for thousands of years, and some of them have been very happy.

I’ll be honest with you though: it rattled me. For several weeks I was choked by my own femininity and cultural setting, and I even printed out Maya Angelou’s beautiful poem Caged Bird and hung it by my kitchen sink. That worked, and made me feel noble and queenly and misunderstood, until my sons who were emptying the dish drainer began reading it aloud in an outrageous mixture of British, Swahili, and Pennsylvania Dutch accent. They don’t even speak Swahili. But they had it down, and it nearly ruined the poem for me forever. “A CAAAHGED bird stahnds on the GREEAAAVE of dreams, his SHAAAYHdow shouts on a NEIGHTHTHMAHRE scream…” When I stopped laughing, and crying, I took down the paper and threw it in the trash can.

We are not in a cage.

We are not in a cage just because our lives revolve around other people and we serve a lot and wash mounds of grass-stained laundry without thanks. We are honored. Jesus said those who serve are blessed, and I can’t help noticing that his servants eventually grow into pretty incredible people.

The other book was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and in it the author, who is a self-professed liberated woman, mourned the losses of a generation of stay-at-home moms. She spoke of the food losses, particularly, in healthy eating and homey happiness, but she spoke also of the deception of a System that promised us freedom and then harnessed us with long-hour jobs as well as childcare and housekeeping and cooking (someone still has to do it!) with less time than ever. She considers it “the great hoodwink” of her generation. (Read a larger quote here.) So I am happy not to have entirely fallen for women’s lib, just yet.

Mothering is hard. We women have always struggled with comparison and jealousy, but in this modern age of invasive technology and picture-perfect online worlds, I am convinced we have a harder time of it.

I’m not sure – forgive me for being cynical, I don’t try – I’m not sure that a day to honor us is the best idea. Besides all the people on whom it puts pressure (those I spoke to above: men and children, and women with pain), it puts some pressure on all moms – to get our smiles on and make this look good, and bask in rather dreamy praise while simultaneously juggling a baby in one arm and a stack of Bibles in the other (which the kids forgot under the pews), and thinking whether that casserole we put in the oven for dinner will really feed fifteen. And showing delight in everything we are given, no matter how clumsily and preciously.

They love us, and they want to show it. That breaks my heart. The way I made peace with the day is that I said to myself, Shari – it’s a great day to be a mother. Be glad, and do your job.

I was given a lovely hammock yesterday from my favorite people, and the columbine they gave to me last year bloomed again in my flowerbed this year, just in time for Mother’s Day. That was awesome.

Maybe it is primarily a day to honor the women who are done. When I went to town on Saturday, the store was full of women in their forties and fifties, prancing around with carts full of flowers. How many mothers do they have? Do they buy their own presents? Instagram post: #mythoughtfulson #amazinggift   Anyway, I honor my mom, and mom-in-law. They are at the stage to rest; I am at the stage to rise up and call them blessed.

And then I need to wake up Monday morning and draw sudsy water for those dishes. And Tuesday morning. And Wednesday morning. I’m a lucky kid, and I get to be a mother, and although this job is not classy or romantic it is liberating, and worth doing.

Hang in there, everybody. We made it for another year.

xoxo

Shari


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What did you take for granted about your mother?

Gifts of great beauty

So now that we are talking to each other, what should we talk about?

If I were a smarter blogger, I would have quickly followed up on your willingness to talk with a titillating post on a hot topic, like “Q: What do you think of The Shack?” (A: I don’t think of it at all. What shack?)

I’m not stupid, I’m just stubborn. And occasionally tongue-tied.

So this is a popcorn post – random bits of delight from my days – and then you can share some of yours with me.


First I have a few things to say about food. I found a new favorite cake: chocolate, with maple and buttercream frostings alternating. So yummy.

I’ve been eating my Grandma Grace’s peanut butter toast for breakfast (okay, my peanut butter toast made her way; I’m not stealing poor granny’s brekky). Take a piece of wheat bread and toast it. Spread with peanut butter and long slices of banana. Top with honey and cinnamon. I’m not sure if it’s *that good* because it’s *that good* or because I grew up on it.

This is my favorite lunch: a changing kaleidoscope of color, texture, and flavor. The best edible cure I know for gray days.

I’m spending lots of time with my family. I was watching this basketball game happen and they said “Do you want to play?” and I sort of laughed and panicked because I don’t know the rules. But I said yes, and it was actually fun. No one took pictures of that part, which on the whole is probably a good thing.

Then I found this on my kitchen counter, a teeny bouquet tied up with grass.

Only a six-year-old can be that artistic and precise with weeds, turning them into gifts of great beauty. I love that about her.

She is growing her writing skills too, and has spent much time on this paper just for the fun of it, imitating her big brothers’ assignments. (click to enlarge)

Spring has sprung in Meadville. Last fall I finally remembered to plant the bulbs for which I long in March, crocuses and tulips and daffodils and hyacinths, and I can’t wait to see more of them pop.

I am thinking often of Easter, remembering the wonderful things we did last year to celebrate. This year we are adding handicrafts in the form of glittery eggs from Dollar Tree strung on bare branches. I can’t stop looking at them. I never know how to decorate for this holiday, but if eggs are a symbol of new life, I cannot think of anything more appropriate for Easter than new life hung on a Tree.

Plus it makes the children busy and happy, cutting and twisting all that wire.

We revived last year’s mercy garden, with fresh things from the yard and gardens. On Easter weekend I will put a candle in the tomb.

I think it is so amazing that I found an incredible photo backdrop I didn’t know I had, in the form of my dilapidated basement doors (above). Isn’t that smashing? You might see more of them in future. I always assumed foodie bloggers had cardboard backgrounds they stood behind their masterpieces… I didn’t know they carried the food outside and set it on top of their junk.

But talking of eggs, my son brought me a real trophy from his flock. “Imagine being a hen laying normal eggs and then having to lay this one,” he said.

She is doing well on bedrest.


What popcorn would you like to share from your days? Three pieces at random.

Happy Tuesday!
Shari

Kids gifts under $15

Okay, I’m glad you weren’t holding your breath waiting for this post, because first I got sick (that is, I fell unexpectedly into a vat of back pain) and second, my suggestions involve pretty basic stuff… the kind of classic, useful, and slightly educational gifts I love for my children to receive.

If you like to buy big gifts, use these as gift toppers or add-ons.

But thoughtful gifts don’t need to be expensive. There’s an endless array of lovely gifts you can give a child for five to fifteen dollars. When my daughter turned six this summer and unwrapped beautiful presents from many friends, I started making a list. Here are ten ideas to get you started.

1. Wallet ($5-10)

What child doesn’t want a special place to keep their change? There are awfully handsome varieties for both boys and girls. My daughters have also received the cutest purses, sometimes stuffed with treasures—tissues, gum, a writing tablet and pen. Slip in a dollar bill and she’ll love you for life.

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2. Watch ($10-$15)

Instant maturity advancement guaranteed. Besides the I’m-such-a-big-kid! factor, there’s no better incentive for learning to tell time. I always bought analog when my children were preschoolers and taught them the half hours, saving digital watches for the truly big kids.

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3. Sunglasses ($3-10)

It’s the end of the season now, but here’s another favorite. Plus they’re so photogenic.

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4. Clothing ($10-$15)

A cute sweater, fuzzy socks, a flannel shirt, a great hat, even a pack of undies patterned with Lego or princesses… Something that it makes them feel proud and happy to wear.

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5. Craft ($10)

I don’t even want to start the list under this category… it goes on and on. Weaving looms, beading stations, wooden models, paint-by-number, sand art, modeling clay or playfoam, paint-your-own toys, science kits and robot creators. Anything that gives a child hours of happy and wholesome play.

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6. Umbrella ($6-10)

Again, slightly seasonal—but adorable all the same. I try not to pep talk Walmart, but they stock the sweetest mini ones in their baby section. The only caveat is that sometimes it’s hard to avoid movie characters. I don’t object to all the movies, but I do object to becoming a walking advert.

In this case, the umbrella was coming to get her. Poor baby.

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7. Set of matchbox cars ($5-10)

Not just for boys, Matchbox cars provide endless playing opportunities from emergency vehicles to hot rods to construction equipment. At Regan’s last birthday party, we used new ones for cupcake toppers and let the guests take them home.

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8. Big pack of crayons or playdough ($5)

There’s nothing like art supplies to make me want to be a kid again. I love the giant packs of Crayola crayons, every imaginable color, with a built-in sharpener—or the sets of fifty different colored pencils. Washable paints and markers are another alternative. And new Play-Doh brings out the happiest, artsy creativity in a child.

(Don’t worry too much about the mess, moms. You know you have to let Play-Doh dry before sweeping the floor, right? Okay. Then it’s easy.)

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9. Personal care accessories ($10)

For a girl, buy a pretty hair brush and hand mirror, a new comb, some fun elastics or little clips. For either boy or girl, pick out some cool kid shampoos, tub finger paint, and bubble bath. Or a vibrating toothbrush and a tube of paste.

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10. Puzzle ($10)

Floor puzzles are great fun for toddlers. For puzzles our whole family loves, we pick designs by Charles Wysocki or Anthony Kleem, with their tiny details, bright colors, and homespun peace. We started a tradition of buying a new one before every Christmas vacation. (Older children may also enjoy Wysocki’s adult coloring books!) Our favorite of favorite Christmastime puzzles is O Night Divine by Richard Jesse Watson, a gift from our friends Bob and Jeanne.

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What would you add to the list?


This post contains affiliate links, mostly so that you know what I’m talking about.

That means if you buy something linked from this page, I get rewarded by Amazon at no additional charge to you. It’s part of my unending and deeply personal search to make blogging worthwhile.