Eight Favorite Thanksgiving/Christmas Traditions

These days Pinterest is all a-flutter with pins listing favorite holiday traditions. (That, and chalk fonts. What's up with that?) Some of these tradition posts state the obvious, like "going to see Christmas lights." You don't say! Whereas others have offered novel ideas for Christmas fun. Bring on the crazy dinner!

It got me reflecting on favorite traditions from our family over the years. Here are just a few, maybe familiar, maybe not, that might spark your own thinking:

1. Hundred Dollar Holiday. This one was inspired by Bill McKibben (no relation, sadly) and his little book of the same name. The idea is simple: to downshift the consumerism of the celebration of Jesus' birth by limiting one's holiday spending to $100, or whatever amount you set.

For the first several years of marriage---back when we had more time than money---Robert and I did the hundred-dollar holiday. One year we wrote a cookbook with favorite recipes, photos and reflections. Another year we made candles. We frequently baked a slew of homemade treats for folks.

Now our celebrations are more traditionally, um, American; there are plenty of store-bought goodies under the tree. But the hundred-dollar Christmas has influenced the way we think about the celebration, whether that means incorporating homemade gifts as well, or not stressing over weird notions about gift parity and spending "enough."

2. National Day of Listening. This is StoryCorps's initiative to encourage families and friends to share stories with one another on the day after Christmas. Check it out.

At this point Robert is reading this and going "huh?" OK, we did it once. And I have no idea where the sound recordings are. But I'm getting an itch to do it again, especially now that the kids are older.

3. Christmas Eve Dinner at the Church.  This is especially for you pastors and church professionals. The church I used to serve had four Christmas Eve services, with very little time between them. As the associate pastor, my duties were much lighter than the pastor or the music director. So Robert and I would bring dinner (usually soup and bread) for anyone who needed a little nourishment, especially between the 5:00 and the 7:30 services. I loved it.

4. Hot Cider Christmas Eve. The previous tradition has given way to a new one, now that I'm serving a different church with a single Christmas Eve service. Two years ago I ran my first race, the Hot Chocolate 5K. A few days later Robert said, "I woke up this morning thinking about a "Hot Cider Christmas Eve." And just like that, a tradition was born. Our family bakes cookies and heats up cider for people to enjoy following Tiny Church's 7:30 service. (Join us!) The first year, I wondered if people would grab and go, but sure enough, people stuck around and chatted, not the least bit hurried to get home. How wonderful.

Garth-Williams5. Little Christmas on the Prairie. I honestly can't remember where I got this idea, but it's become a favorite tradition: to read the Christmas chapters of each of the Little House on the Prairie books to the girls (and now, to James). Oh, the chapter in Big Woods in which Laura gets her doll is so cozy and gay! And the Plum Creek Christmas, in which Pa gets trapped in a snowbank during a blizzard and must eat the Christmas candy to survive, is truly harrowing.

6. Holiday Recipe. Most people have one of these---a special holiday food that they do not make any other time of year. Ours are the pralines. Which is strange, because there's nothing overtly Christmasy about them. But they are a culinary trigger just the same. It's not the Advent/Christmas season without them, and if we're eating them, then the season has arrived.

7. Festival of Lessons and Carols Broadcast.  This is the most steadfast of the holiday traditions, aside from the pralines. Every Christmas Eve morning we listen to the public radio broadcast of Kings College (Cambridge)'s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. We have a special coffee cake we always bake (see #6), and even the kids know to hush when the chorister begins to sing "Once in Royal David's City."

8. Fundraiser for the Homeless. Last year the girls wanted to do something to help people who are homeless, so we launched an idea for them to give away copies of their music and art in exchange for different levels of donation. In the end they raised more than $1100 for Homestretch, which blew us away. You can read about it here.

Let me state the obvious and say, this was a lot of work. I'm not sure we are feeling called to it this year, though some friends have already asked. If we do, you'll be among the first to know.

Sprinkled in the midst of this is a bunch of stuff we don't do, namely Christmas cards and outdoor decorating. It's also OK to let some traditions wax and wane (see #2).

What are your favorite Thanksgiving, Advent and/or Christmas practices?

New Running Playlist: Holly Jolly Edition

medium_4179627461 UPDATE for 2014: I've created a Spotify playlist, though not all of the songs were available.

You knew this was coming... after all, I have strong opinions about holiday music.

Very. Strong. Opinions.

On one hand, a running playlist consisting of holiday tunes is a daunting assignment. Christmas music is much more "hot toddy" than "hill repeats."

On the other hand... I own a LOT of Christmas music.

So here it is: the Christmas playlist, and at more than 25 songs, it's a long one. It may not get you pumping your fists like Rocky or strutting like Queen Bey or two-stepping to Texas, but it'll put a jingle in your step and a smile on your sweaty Grinch face.

Full list is below, including album info as needed.

And here it is in iTunes widget form, minus some of the Chieftains medley and the U2 song (sorry, that appears to be on some kind of import that I picked up somehow)

"Jingle Bells," Diana Krall

"Christmas is Coming," Vince Guaraldi Trio (Charlie Brown Christmas)

"Merry Christmas, Baby," Bruce Springsteen

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," Mary J. Blige (A Mary Christmas)

"I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," Frank Sinatra

"Trepak," Modern Mandolin Quartet (from Winter's Solstice III)

"Silver Bells," Tony Bennett

"Sleigh Ride," Andy Williams

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Manhattan Transfer

"Go Tell It on the Mountain," Wynton Marsalis

"Little Saint Nick," Muppets (John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together)

"The Holly and the Ivy," George Winston (December)

"Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me," Elvis Presley

"My Favorite Things," Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (Making Merry)

"Amen," Take 6 (He Is Christmas)

"Medley, 'The Wren, The Wren!'" The Chieftains (Bells of Dublin)

"Greensleeves," Joshua Bell with Chick Corea (Musical Gifts)

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Amy Grant

"Soul Cake," Sting (If on a Winter's Night)

"Jingle Bells," Ella Fitzgerald (Ella Wishes You a Swingin' Christmas)

"Sleigh Ride," She & Him

"The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," Harry Connick Jr. (What a Night!)

"Maybe This Christmas," Tracey Thorn (Tinsel and Lights)

"Deck the Halls," Butch Thompson, Yulestride

"Good King Wenceslas," Mel Torme

"I Believe in Father Christmas," U2 (All You Need is Love EP)

"Holly Jolly Christmas," Michael Buble

"Hallelujah Chorus," pretty much anyone


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photo credit: Ben Lawson via photopin cc

A Family Liturgy for Halloween

medium_4053524544 Halloween is still several days away, but in many homes, the excitement and preparation has been going on for several weeks. In our family, the kids are planning their costumes, imagining ever-more-intricate ones. I love their creativity, and want them to have fun and feel great about their costumes, but some of the logistics of their imaginations require me to ratchet back their expectations. I am not a seamstress with an abundance of free time. As of this writing, we are settling on a zombie, Gaia (aka Mother Earth) and Luke Skywalker.

Truth be told, Halloween is one of my least favorite holidays. Some Christians have a suspicion toward Halloween because of its supposed relationship to the occult. That’s not my issue; in fact, All Hallow’s Eve is connected to All Saints Day, an explicitly Christian celebration adapted from the Celts.

No, I don’t love how over-the-top Halloween has become. The trend is away from homemade, improvised costumes and toward “authenticity.” My aspiring Luke Skywalker is angling for a “real” costume, not one of Daddy’s white shirts with a wraparound belt and makeshift lightsaber.

Halloween is a huge and growing industry, and it shows in my neighborhood. Every year we see more and more houses with extreme decorations—elaborate graveyards, spooky lighting, fog machines, even a full-fledged haunted house right on the front lawn. That’s their choice, of course, and my children love trick-or-treating at these homes… but they make even a moderate amount of decorating look positively Scrooge-like in comparison! (They also draw the bulk of the trick-or-treaters, leaving the rest of us to frantically give away six Snickers at a time as the crowd starts to thin.)

And the candy… oh, the candy.

READ THE REST, including some ideas to connect Halloween with Christian faith at Practicing Families. Thanks Joanna for the invitation to write!


photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via photopin cc

Penn Jillette: Atheists Need Holidays Too (Bonus Link Love)

festivus-yes-bagels-noTomorrow's Friday Link Love will feature a discussion on the New York Times about whether atheism is a religion. As a setup to that, Penn Jillette has a book out called Every Day is An Atheist Holiday! Here's an excerpt, posted on Brain Pickings:

In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll invents the idea of the un-birthday. If we celebrated those we’d have 364 more (in a leap year) un-birthdays than birthdays. Atheists have always had the corner on un-holidays. Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah, the day Tom Cruise had sex with a woman are all holidays in some religion but they’re never a celebration of life. The joy is the exception that proves the rules. It’s the celebration of a joy that we don’t have.

The word ‘holiday’ comes from ‘holy day’ and holy means ‘exalted and worthy of complete devotion.’ By that definition, all days are holy. Life is holy. Atheists have joy every day of the year, every holy day. We have the wonder and glory of life. We have joy in the world before the lord is come. We’re not going for the promise of life after death; we’re celebrating life before death. The smiles of children. The screaming, the bitching, the horrific whining of one’s own children. … Sunsets, rock and roll, bebop, Jell-O, stinky cheese, and offensive jokes.

For atheists, everything in the world is enough and every day is holy. Every day is an atheist holiday. It’s a day that we’re alive.

Once again Jillette lumps religion into the same tired heap of deferred-gratification, sweet by-and-by that bears little resemblance to religion as it's lived by many, many, many people. Even Christians for whom praying the sinners' prayer gets you a ticket to heaven are working to fight poverty, human trafficking, and even climate change. But that's not my point.

Further, the idea that atheists are people who are full of joy and mirth is so over the top as to not warrant much comment. I find them to be just as dour and road-ragey as the rest of us. Except Buddhists. You get the feeling those folks don't ever drive angry.

Instead, I want to highlight the importance of holidays, for atheists and for everyone.

Of course every day is a gift to be celebrated, whether you are a Christian, a Baha'i, a Pastafarian, or a member of the Church of Christopher Hitchens of Latter-Day Drunks. No less than Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out that in the Jewish/Christian creation tale, God creates the stuff of the universe and calls it all good, but when he creates the Sabbath he calls it holy.

Things are good. Time is holy. Jillette is absolutely right. We have the wonder and glory of life, right now. We need not wait until Christmas or Easter to revel in it.

But the problem is, that kind of wide-eyed wonder is simply not sustainable 365 days of the year. I'm not even sure it would be desirable. Human beings need seasons. We need rhythms and days and times set apart. OK, maybe need is a little strong. But psychologically speaking, holidays are healthy. They serve a worthy purpose.

I respect the heck out of Alain de Botton, atheist philosopher, partly because he approaches both his atheism and the religious life with humility and curiosity. He understands the utility of many aspects of the religious life, including days and seasons for specific purposes. Take it away:

Ms. Tippett: And, I mean, it's interesting, a couple of other things that you — features of — very religious features of traditions that you also say that atheists and secular society could learn from, like the Day of Atonement in Judaism or the tradition of saints in Roman Catholicism.

Mr. de Botton: Yes. I mean, taking those two, the Day of Atonement, a fascinating moment in the calendar in Judaism where people essentially say sorry to each other and they say sorry against the backdrop of a God who doesn't make mistakes, but humans who do. You are given license, encouragement, structure to do something which would be mightily hard if you were left to do it on your own like, as I say, saying sorry. It's much easier to say sorry if everybody is doing it on a particular day because then there's a sort of cycle of mutual apology and forgiveness which makes the whole thing much more normal. We're very suspicious of ritual in the nonbelieving world. You know, we think that there shouldn't really be rituals, that the private life should have its own rhythms and that no one should come in from the outside and say, you know, today we're going to say sorry and next week we're going to worship spring and the day after we're going to think about the qualities of humility in a saint or something. The idea is you should do all this on your own in private. I'm coming around to the view that that's nice in theory, but the problem is we'll never get 'round to it.

As someone who practices, thinks about, and writes about Sabbath, let me humbly suggest to Jillette and other atheists that you not let go of holidays. I'll leave it to you to discern what those might be---and you could have big fun with this by coming up with your own, or just co-opting the religious ones. (We did it first, and turnabout is fair play.)

But this wonderful life that we all live in different ways? Is also a life filled with commutes and grocery lists and sciatica. It gets away from us, all too easily, if we don't take time to savor it. Holidays help us do that.

How Not to Have a Gut-Busting Holiday... I Think

Two things:

1. I've been trying to maintain a weight loss for the last six months.

2. I adore holiday food.

I am a moderator, not an abstainer. Some people need to swear off sugar/meat/gluten in order to be healthy. That's not my path; I just try to eat less. In the next month, there will be pralines made from my mother's recipe. Coffee cake from the Cafe Beaujolais cookbook. Gingerbread cookies from Cooks Illustrated. Etc. So what's a weight-conscious gal to do at Thanksgiving and Christmas?

I may have stumbled upon a bit of wisdom this weekend, and it was thanks to a tardy pecan pie.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but it's tough. I love the side dishes, and I want to sample everything. But I hate that "I'm gonna pop" feeling. Besides, it doesn't feel very mindful or grateful to eat the way I often have on Thanksgiving. (I know others who love the sense of overindulgence, of throwing moderation to the winds. Eh. Your mileage may vary.)

We were hosting friends with little kids on Thursday, so we didn't get fancy with the feast. Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, roasted brussels sprouts, storebought rolls, pumpkin pie. Fruit salad and cheese and crackers for the little ones. That's a banquet by most of the world's standards, but it's a pretty low-key Thanksgiving meal for us.

And I'll admit it: I missed the sweet potatoes. And the dressing. And some kind---any kind!---of casserole.

Meanwhile, I'd found out on Wednesday that the pecan pie my brother was sending me from Texas (I won a bet) wouldn't arrive until Friday. I pouted for a few moments, then realized it gave me a perfect excuse to make one of those beloved side dishes I'd been missing. So on Friday I made a sweet potato dish, which we ate with our leftovers... and pecan pie for dessert, of course.

The success of Thanksgiving Part II made me wonder how long I could keep Thanksgiving going. I love a good squash casserole, so we roasted two acorn squash over the weekend which I will use to make this offbeat carbarrific beauty.

So here's what I'm wondering. Instead of blowing the wad on a single gut-busting meal, why not make the feast last for a few days? Why not celebrate that thing you love to eat by making it the centerpiece of the meal?

That way each dish can be truly savored and enjoyed on its own terms, not relegated to a teeny corner of your plate. Remember, one of my approaches to weight maintenance is to "make friends with food."

Now, will this approach keep the pounds off? Who knows? I just think it's more satisfying (and I suspect, maybe healthier?) than a day of binging followed by several days of guilt and austerity.

So far so good with the bathroom scale. I sure felt better on Thursday evening. And I've had a ball each day since then, wondering "What can I make today to keep Thanksgiving going?" That's a spiritual question in addition to a culinary one.

Would love to hear your tips for getting through the holidays without digging out your fat pants...

Beyond Black Thursday--If Not Shopping, Then What?

We've been kvetching about this on Facebook all morning. Yes, it's come to this:

Black Thursday? Stores to open even earlier on Thanksgiving.

Big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and Sears are opening their doors at 8 p.m. Thursday — just as Thanksgiving dinner tables are being cleared in many homes. Target will follow suit at 9 p.m., enticing shoppers out of their homes during the final football game of the day.

Target employees have started a petition to “save Thanksgiving,” and Wal-Mart workers say they are gearing up for protests on Black Friday.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Anthony Hardwick, a former Target employee who led protest efforts last year. “We’re getting rid of Thanksgiving dinner, and for what? For a $300 flat-screen TV?”

[But] “Stores are tapping into something that is very real — there is demand for this,” said Adam ­Hanft, a brand strategist for ­Hanft Projects in New York. “The reality is, people start to get cabin fever after awhile. They’re fighting about politics. They want to get out and do something.”

Oh my heavens!

Apparently there are people who have no idea how to extricate themselves from an argument with Aunt Edna about the Kenyan usurper in the White House, or cut short Nephew Chip's jeremiads against the drug war, other than to go shopping.

What a failure of imagination!

What an opportunity for Blue Room readers, who are so very creative!

What could a family do together on Thanksgiving weekend besides buy stuff?

Share in comments. Here are five humble suggestions to get you started:

  1. Go for a walk.
  2. Do the National Day of Listening. Do not ask about Obama or the drug war.
  3. Find a place that serves meals to the homeless. Go there. Do that.
  4. Bake cookies for a fire house or police precinct.
  5. Rake a neighbor's leaves. Heck, rake your own leaves.

Take it away in comments, loveys!

Dear Moms: I Stink at Valentine's Day... But That Works Out Well for You

Last night I posted a link to these cute paper toys (PDF template) on Facebook and said I wanted to make one for each of the kids and have them at their places at breakfast this morning.

That piece of paper is still sitting on the printer.

Have you ever met someone who just rubs you the wrong way and you can't figure out why? On paper, the two of you should get along great. You have similar likes, similar temperaments. Other people you know and respect absolutely adore her. But you just... grate on one another.

I have that relationship with Valentine's Day.

I know people who don't like Christmas, or who want to run and hide on Mother's Day. Today is my why-do-we-need-to-do-this day. (Thank you XKCD.)

Except for the chocolate. I love the chocolate. But chocolate is not a sometimes food in our house. It is my sacramental meal for oh, pretty much all of Ordinary Time.

I am grateful to have love in my life in many abundant forms. And I appreciate those who have repurposed the day, like my friend Jan, who calls this "agape day" (agape is a Greek word meaning self-giving love). Jan encourages people to practice random acts of kindness today. I'm also a big fan of the Vagina Monologues and its accompanying activism.

Unfortunately, when you have little kids that stuff gets supplanted by the cultural expectation of buying cards, followed by riding kids' butts to get them filled out in time for the Big Exchange in Which Everyone Gets A Card, followed by the Festival of Furtive Recycling.

Call me a V-Grinch, but I'd rather spend my precious butt-riding time teaching my kid her multiplication tables. (Oh eights, why do you plague us so?)

Last year we waited too long to get Caroline's cards, and by the time we got to the store, they were completely sold out. So we went home and printed some cards off the internet, which is fine except that a) we don't own card stock and b) we have a black and white printer.

Saddest valentines ever.

Meanwhile the mothers in my neighborhood like to attach candy and homemade crafts to their kids' cards, or provide thoughtful gifts for the teachers, or have their kids make all of the valentines from scratch. Last year Margaret was even invited to a Valentine's Day party. I am baffled, and awed by all this having-it-togetherness.

The only reason my kids even have valentines this year is because their great grandmother bought them some when we visited her a couple of weeks ago. Thankfully the girls got them addressed while I was gone last week. But this morning James began to cry at the thought of giving his Chuck the Dump Truck cards away, and did I mention he was expected to sign them as a preschool "literacy activity"?

I am generally a proponent of literacy. Except that James hasn't decided if we wants to be right or left handed, so it takes him about ten minutes to write his name (times 14), and he needs at least an 8x5 sheet of paper to get all the letters to fit. So I signed his name on some leftover princess and Snoopy cards from the girls' stash, and will be the mom of the kid who makes all the other kids look like geniuses because he didn't even try to write his name, not once.

And let's be perfectly honest---parenting does have that component to it, does it not? The sidewise glance over one's shoulder. The casual reconnaissance to discern which mutiplication table your kids' friends are currently mastering. (Again with the lamentable eights!) The sigh of relief that at least you're doing something right because what kind of mom can't even sew the dang patches on a Brownie sash?

So I'm working on embracing my ineptness on Valentine's Day, and seeing it as a ministry. We all need to feel like we're doing well sometimes, because so much of parenting is like playing whack-a-mole with our bare hands because the mallet walked off a long time ago.

So if my mediocrity on this day allows someone else to say, "I so don't have my s*** together, but at least I can poke a lollipop through a perforated hole on the Rapunzel card"... then I'm happy. It's a service I provide to the sisterhood.

Link Love: Thanksgiving Edition

Just a couple of items before the weekend: ~


Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- Slate

The iconic Civil War anthem was written 150 years ago. Interesting piece, but I especially related to this:

Frequently, she experienced these visions [i.e. writings] while in bed, perhaps the only place where—as the mother of six children—she could snatch a moment of quiet reflection. She had grown used to scribbling notes in barely sufficient light, so as not to wake the baby invariably sleeping beside her.

As my deadline looms, Robert and I have a short getaway planned together this weekend, Sunday we put up Christmas decorations, and Monday is Jamesy's 4th birthday. So Julia---YOU GO GIRL. I can relate.


Happy Evacuation Day! -- The Daily Show

The holiday we should be celebrating this weekend, according to a cutely nervous but still hilarious Sarah Vowell. (Sorry I'm having trouble embedding the video---follow the link above.)

Reverb #10: Wisdom

December 10: Wisdom. What was the wisest decision you made this year, and how did it play out? It's so hard to know the impact of our decisions. I'm with David Wilcox. He introduces his song "Hold It Up to the Light" by talking about the "thousand little decisions" that get us where we are. We focus on the big roads diverged in a yellow wood, but what about the tiny calibrations along the way?

I made some big decisions this year, including the decision to say no to some things that allowed me to say yes to some other stuff. But the decision that has brought the most happiness is the decision to convert our dining room into a study/craft room that we call the blue room, which is where this blog gets its name. You can read about it here.

Here's the thing about me. I like the idea of creative space and messiness in which experimentation can happen and projects can grow, but I don't like clutter. At all. I can put that positively and say that I desire outward order because it helps me have inner peace. (Thank you Gretchen Rubin.) But really, I'm just anal. So the blue room is perfect because it can stay untidy... because it's supposed to. Then when I need to get away from the dried Play-Doh pebbles on the floor or hole-punch confetti, I have the uncluttered living room as an escape.

Right now our table has various materials on it from our Christmas projects, as well as a kit for a gingerbread village that we'll get to. It's a happy jumble.

We wondered how we would do without a formal dining room. Thanksgiving was our first time to try that out since the room was transformed back in January. It's a bit of a loss, to be sure---the kitchen table is smaller, and it's not quite as lovely to have a nice dinner with the pots and pans crusting over in full view---but it went fine. What is gained is much better than what was lost.