Keeping Christmas Magical

I have no memory of believing in Santa Claus. Apparently, there was a party and a Santa with whom I wasn’t impressed and so quickly ended that magical relationship. I don’t know that I really missed out on anything. “Santa” gave us a present each year and I still believed in the Christmas spirit.

Now, my girls believe in Santa, though not rabidly. There’s a peripheral acknowledgment that they ask him for gifts but I’m not sure they actually believe. Bea is getting older and I expect it’ll die down sooner than later, which means Elle will follow close behind.

This past weekend, we took the girls to the mountains to ride a Santa Train. We’ve done this a couple times before and it’s a great way to enjoy a Christmas market, ride a train through the snowy mountains, and include Santa in the experience without making a visit with him the main focus. This year, after waiting in line to get on the train, waiting for Santa to make his way to our car, and then waiting for Santa to slowly work his way down the aisle for each family’s photo op, Elle was done. To top it off, Santa had the audacity to give Bea a high-five but gave Elle a tickle instead. She reluctantly told him she wanted a violin and a harmonica and then wanted off the train.

It made me wonder if this is our last Santa train experience. I enjoy our family excursions but also wouldn’t be too sad about moving on. What I do want to keep is the magic of Santa. I’m not sure if I’m ready to replace this piece of cultural mythology solely with the historic Saint Nicholas, though we have already introduced him.

Last week I saw a tweet about how the Little People Nativity set is rooted in white supremacy. It’s true, when I look at ours, Jesus is depicted with blond hair and the only people of color are the wise men, who shouldn’t even be part of the scene. But I’m not quite ready to give up our inaccurate set. The girls love playing with it and I’ve loved watching the story evolve over the years as they hear it told again and again.

One day we’ll trade our set for something to get us through the next developmental stage and will maybe even buy extra figurines to round out the actual cast of characters but for now, I want my girls to interact with this story on a magical, play-based level. I think it’s important to actually play with our nativity set and these plastic figures can’t be mistaken for anything but toys.

Like Santa, I grapple with how to best present the Baby Jesus to my girls. The story is rooted in history and yet there is a lot of storytelling that has evolved and captured our collective cultural imaginations. We’ve imagined the holy family to be quite alone on this journey of new parenthood, in a stable, surrounded by Northern European farm animals. For my young kids, I’m not too worried about this mythology. The point is that a baby was born and this baby grows up to be the Messiah.

One day, I hope my kids read the nativity story critically and through a lens that is different from their own North American culture. I hope they will question the accuracy and I hope that I will be able to give them tools to research and grapple with their own spiritual journey.

For now, I want them to focus on the magic of a baby born in Bethlehem. Maybe some shepherds from a nearby field really did visit. Maybe they were surrounded by women who had given birth before, encouraging and coaching along the way. Maybe they were alone, savoring some quiet moments of becoming a family. None of those details really matters, in the end. It adds to the story and creates a scene we can imagine but I don’t think those details are the point.

As Christmas approaches, I want to remember to balance magic with history, mythology and storytelling with critical thinking. I’ll fill the stockings with chapstick and new pens and chocolates from Santa Claus and we’ll keep imagining the story of Jesus with our plastic Little People figurines. We’ll keep cementing family traditions and add new experiences. And we’ll remember that this story we are living is always a dance between fact and fiction, between proof and story.

Did you believe in Santa growing up? How do you balance the magic of a story with its historical accuracy?


Advent Culminates With the Beginning

This Advent season, I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings. I like to know where the journey is going, to at least have an endpoint. But that’s not life or faith. I’m remembering that God has gifted us very few answers and endings and instead keeps pointing us back to the beginning. I’m over at SheLoves Magazine today reflecting on what I’m learning this season. Here’s an excerpt – I hope you’ll head over and join the conversation!

We are in the midst of Advent, which looks like lighting a candle each night before dinner and reading a short devotion from a kid-friendly book. Our oldest is now able to do the bulk of the reading which has added an incredible element to our evenings. Because she gets the spotlight for the reading, she has graciously ceded the extinguishing of the candle to her younger sister, meaning we have one less quibble at the table. There’s also something amazing about passing on the reading after seven years of finding the “perfect fit.” It’s a reminder of why we create imperfect habits and rhythms as a family. Now, our girls can’t imagine life without Advent readings and I am grateful that it’s an ingrained part of our year.

I’ve been thinking about imperfect habits lately and how it translates to my view of God and faith. Recently, I was reading the parable of the lost son in Luke 15. It’s a story I’ve read countless times since I was a child and recently taught to the kindergarten Sunday school class at our church. As an oldest, rule-following child, I’ve always had empathy for the elder son. I absolutely understood his frustration at watching the mistakes of his younger brother celebrated. Growing up, I was taught to be like the younger son, and not like the ungrateful and shortsighted older one. But the other day, I was struck with the way this parable ends.

After listening to his oldest son, the father says, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:31-32, NIV)

And there the story ends. We don’t know what happens next. Head over to SheLoves to read the rest!

Where do you see God in the beginnings? What epiphanies are you having this Advent season?

A Love That Breaks Down Barriers

Imagine “love.” What colors do you see? What shapes? Now, try to think of the word without the color red or a heart. What do you see?

img_2680I often lead students through this exercise at the museum. An effort to understand that artists are constantly making choices – no matter how simple a drawing or painting looks – is a key part of this lesson. This discussion has so many interesting results:

I drew blue circles – because love is never-ending. And the sky is blue. We need love like we need to breathe.

I drew tulips – because there’s a field of tulips by my brother’s house that I love visiting.

It’s green – because green is calming and love should make me feel safe.

How do you view love? Sometimes I have trouble remembering that love does win; that love trumps hate. These days, it seems that those types of phrases are said in such an unloving way – that they’re used as accusations rather than reminders.

When I look to others and see that definition of love, I’m discouraged. It seems that I have to look so hard. When I close my eyes and think about it – really think, beyond hearts and red – I’m not as discouraged. It doesn’t seem so far away.

This second week of Advent, we lit the love candle. Sometimes it’s called the faith candle: A reminder of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem – a journey of faith and love.

We had our neighbors over to decorate the tree and have dinner. We lit the Advent candles, though we left off the devotional. There was something so amazing about starting this second week with these friends of a different faith background. As the girls decorated, we parents talked about Christmas and Bethlehem but from different perspectives.

As we talked about our own traditions this time of year, as made plans for making tree decorating a yearly tradition, love took on a whole new meaning. I am reminded that to love our neighbors is what this is all about. To come together and do life. To talk about our different experiences and celebrate the rich diversity we bring to our conversations.

I need to remember that as we tell stories of the manger. This love was revolutionary. It wasn’t about drawing more us-them lines. It is a radical inclusivity, where love truly does win and conquers hate.

So this week, I focus on a love that breaks down barriers, that doesn’t see differences, that turns the kingdoms of this world upside down.

What are some tangible ways you let love lead in your life? How do you actively break down barriers?


Finding Hope in the Messiness

Advent either started yesterday or last Sunday, depending on how you observe the season. Regardless, we’ve gotten off to a semi-rocky start. We’ve had a dinner-long meltdown during our candlelit meal because I wouldn’t turn off all the lights; I forgot to print out the Jesse Tree ornaments that go along with Unwrapping the Greatest Gift; and our first piece of candy for the calendar was dug out of the depths of our leftover Halloween candy treat basket.

My friend Debby said it best in her post about being Out of Sync with Advent:

When I thought about how out of sync we’d be with the Christian world I realized that Jesus intentionally lived his life out of sync with the world. He came to turn things upside down a bit. To remind us that he is the way to true life, not money or status.

img_2389This point of view has helped me as we start out this week of Hopeful waiting. And perhaps it’s why we begin with the hope candle. Hope itself is so expansive, so messy and sometimes rocky.

Hope can embody a deep anticipation but it can also be a bit out of sync. I often use the phrase, I hope so not to mean eager waiting but to hedge any expectation, in case things don’t work out. I use hope to water down excitement; to guard against disappointment.

This season has been one of reframing hope. I find myself using the word when talking about politics, about current events. I hope things work out; I hope it’s not as bad as it seems; I hope it’s better than I expect.

But what kind of hope is that? What I need to do is frame hope in the sense of complete trust. We are waiting in darkness, eager for the light and hope to emerge with Christmas. I put my trust in that hope; I put my trust in the small child who promises peace to our world.

My hope for this Advent season is that we take the time to recognize and sit with the rockiness that is life. Jesus didn’t come to give us an easy life or a beautiful Christmas memory. He came to turn this world upside down; to stir up the status quo; to cast out fear. Perhaps that’s not what we see in the small baby in the manger but it’s what is to come. I find that messy, a bit scary, but ultimately so very hopeful.

How has your Advent started? How do you find hope in the midst of real life messiness?

Advent Day 1: Modeling Hope

Today begins our Advent journey, a time to reflect, to pause, to think about the coming of Christmas. We’re finishing our thankful leaves (though I can’t bring myself to take our tree down) and I have the Jesse tree ornaments printed.

Our refillable calendar

In our house, we have several Advent and countdown activities planned – lighting the candles, creating ornaments to align with a reading, opening a drawer with chocolate, opening a book…. Part countdown, part reflection, lots of anticipation, I wonder how we will strike a balance for our girls – celebrating the childlike excitement of Christmas with its trees and stockings and lights and encouraging the reflective cadence of Advent observation.

My hope, above all, is to have conversations with Bea that will help her understand the broader nature of this season. That it’s not simply about presents for her and excitement for Santa but remembering we are part of something bigger. That, together with all of creation, we anticipate and long for peace and reconciliation.

My prayer is that, through intentionally modeling Advent, my girls will recognize the stories of others and that they weave their way into our own.

ButtonJoin us this season as we pray through Advent together. I have some beautiful guest posts and there’s space for your voice, too. I hope you join us – either by contributing or on your own.

Messy Hospitality

On Sunday, we held a housewarming party, exactly one week after we moved in. We did it partly to ensure boxes would have to be unpacked (at least on the main floor) but mostly because when we bought this house, we wanted it to be a space we could fill with friends and food and hospitality.

At our old house, we didn’t let its size stop us from having people over. But, our dining room table fit six snugly around it and there wasn’t much room to spread. We mainly hosted bigger gatherings during the summer when we could move everyone outside. When we started looking for a new place, we intentionally looked for larger living spaces: Where we could sit comfortably around a large dining room table, have the kids close by, and open our home to anyone.

We found that in our new house: We have designated spaces, but we turned the formal dining room into Bea’s playroom so it’s at the center of the house. The previous owners had a large farmhouse table custom built for the space, and we were able to buy it from them. We instantly saw ourselves entertaining both small dinners and larger gatherings.

Because our intention was to open our home, we decided the best way to inaugurate that vision was to have a housewarming as soon as possible. With the holidays, one week from move-in seemed the best date. Around Thursday, I began questioning my sanity, but by Sunday our main level was unpacked and our friends were warned about the scattered boxes in our bedrooms.

Our party wasn’t something out of Sunset or Martha Stewart, though my mom spent the week leading up baking family favorite Christmas cookies. We bought appetizers in bulk from Costco and there were no cute decorations aside from our small Christmas collection. (What filled our old house completely now looks small on our mantle here.) Frank spent the morning making the Silver Palette’s Chili for a Crowd, and people were invited to throw their coats anywhere and give self-guided tours.

10 lbs of meat!
10 lbs of meat in that pot!

Some close friends came early to help with prep and soon our new home was filled with laughter, screaming children running through the halls, and the laid-back coziness we longed for. No one noticed that our bookshelves weren’t organized and staged; no one commented on the boxes upstairs or the fact that we have camp chairs instead of a couch in front of our TV.

I loved that our first party was messy and imperfect. That we threw it because we wanted our house filled with friends, not because we were showing off our beautiful decorating skills. I hope that it sets the precedent for future gatherings, no matter the size. That we can invite friends over for take-out pizza or a complex homemade meal and the point is community. I want this space to be a place where people are comfortable and where we can value conversation and laughter over presentation and style.

In this week leading up to Christmas, I want to keep that in mind. That the wrapping and perfect gift, while amazing to find, are not the point. The point of this is the thoughtfulness and love behind the presents and time together.

I hope your holidays are messy, imperfectly perfect, and filled with laughter and family!

Stop, Breathe, Reflect, and Adore

We’re finally moved into our new house! We still have a bunch of boxes to unpack, but our kitchen and living areas are mostly done. We’ve had friends over for dinner and fires in the fireplace and pictures up on the walls. It’s starting to feel like home. Last night, we finally bought our tree: The only Christmas decoration in the house. (And perhaps the only one for this year.)

Our house earlier this week. So many boxes!
Our house earlier this week. So many boxes!

In some ways, it hasn’t felt like Christmas because of the move. No baking or decorating. No time for little events around town. But… We’ve been reading books with Bea and talking about the nativity. She found some of my old art history books and a few are specifically about the ancient icons of the nativity. It’s been amazing to look through these photographs of icons and mosaics of long ago. It’s reminded me of the true reason for Christmas: Not the decorations or even the traditions, but this time to stop, breathe, reflect, and adore a small baby.

By the time December 25 comes, we’ll be ready. Gifts will have been bought and wrapped and we’ll have a few more decorations up. In the meantime, I’m embracing this unusual holiday and taking the time to stop, sit by the fire, and remember the history and miracle that we are celebrating.

Linked with Kate Motaung’s Five Minute Friday, a time to write without editing.

Five Favorite Christmas Movies

Frank adores Christmas. He begins playing carols at the first snow. (One time we took a road trip to Yellowstone over Labor Day weekend. It snowed on our drive home and we listened to carols in early September.) For him, the Christmas season cannot be long enough. I am more of an after-Thanksgiving celebrater. By the end of December, I am tired of the same songs played over-and-over again. While I easily tire of the jingles, I do love Christmas movies. There’s something about watching the same films each year, remembering the first time seeing them, and reciting lines to favorites. I thought I’d list my top five Christmas movies here (in no particular order):

A Muppet Christmas Carol: Any movie with the Muppets and Michael Caine is an instant winner. This is a wonderful rendition of Dickens’ classic. I used to show it to my second grade students because it follows the story well and also explains any antiquated terms and ideas. Plus, the songs are cheesy and fun.

Yes, Virginia: I have never believed in Santa Claus. Frank claims he still does. We’re still in a discussion about how we’ll present this idea to Bea… When we were dating, Frank read me the classic letter from the New York Sun to convince me of the Spirit of Santa. Of course, when I saw this movie, I had to get it for him. The movie does a wonderful job of presenting the spirit of Christmas in each of us. I look forward to the day when we can watch it with Bea.

It’s A Wonderful Life: I love this classic film in the same way I love rereading favorite books: With each phase of life, I connect with something new. When I was younger, I was so frustrated that George never realized his chance to travel. Last year, as a new mom, I connected with Mary’s strength in creating a beautiful life for her family. It’s a long film, but one I look forward to watching every year.

Santa Claus is Comin to Town: I hadn’t seen this Fred Astaire animated classic until just a few years ago. It’s the history of how Kris Kringle became Santa Claus. I love that it tells the legend of how Santa originated. It’s another one I look forward to watching with Bea.

Joyeux Noel: Though not a traditional Christmas movie, this is an amazing true story of World War 1 soldiers on Christmas Eve, 1914. It shows hope and humanity in the midst of a horrific time in our history. It’s worth watching for the scene of Silent Night being sung in No Man’s Land.

What are your favorite Christmas movies?


Next week begins the season of Advent, of anticipation and waiting. This year, with a 16-month-old, we are talking more about the family traditions we’d like to form. Do we want to celebrate the magical myth of Santa Claus or the miraculous birth of Jesus? Do we completely ignore the commercialism but risk raising kids who try to find connections between Santa and Satan? Do we read through Advent scripture with Bea? Do we create amazing, cocoa-filled experiences and memories? In a season that is meant to quiet our hearts and help us to reflect on the miraculous, it is often met with blaring date-rape carols and the celebration of debt.

At our last MOPS meeting, our speaker Alex talked about how time, money, and relationships all affect the Advent season. Often, we try to pack every conceivable amazing Christmas memory into one month and we simply run out of time to do it all. In our excitement to create magic, we spend way more money than originally intended. And, during a season of in-laws and quantity-vs.-quality parties, we can overextend our relationships. As we talked, threes kept coming up. Perhaps we pick three memories we really want our kids to have – from a certain party to an experience like Blossoms of Light or cutting down a tree. Maybe we only give three presents, to focus on the spirit rather than the consumerism of Christmas. What if we choose three relationships to really focus on and give more quality time to.

I don’t know what family traditions we will create this year or what random things we will do that turn into traditions. Perhaps we’ll keep Bea up way past her bedtime too many nights in a row and end up having three meltdowns rather than three memories. What I do know is that I want to keep the anticipation of the season in mind. What are we waiting for? What do I want to instill in my child? Maybe it won’t be picture perfect, but if I can slow down and wait, maybe we will create some beautiful memories.

What are some of your favorite holiday traditions? How do you keep from becoming overwhelmed by Christmas?