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Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

I started this post during Advent, set it aside until a February revision, and I’m finally posting it now.  Maybe we can discuss this without the emotion of the season.

We don’t “do” Santa.  Calah of “Barefoot and Pregnant” has a lovely post up at Ignitum that could almost convince me otherwise, but our family is where we are, with no plans to shift.

Perhaps I don’t share Calah’s and G.K. Chesterton’s optimism about the good sense of the average person in equating Santa with happy magic and the beginnings of a search for a higher power.  Maybe I’ve heard too many sneers, “Christianity?  Yeah, I quit believing in that shortly after I quit believing in Santa and the Easter Bunny.  Grow up and get serious!”  It seems to me that Santa is more likely to be training to dismiss, not seek, a higher power.  And he’s a little too easy: by the time we get into the really serious sins, Santa isn’t taking us on his knee every year to remind us to stay out of drugs, be honest on your SAT’s, and avoid premarital sex.  Being corrected for errors becomes a childish thing; adults do whatever they feel is right, and anyone who dare say to an adult, “That isn’t the wisest or holiest choice,” gets shouted down as “judgmental”.  The serpent still whispers that growing up means making your own decisions about what is good or evil, with no regard to God, and we often fall for it.

Personally, I have a family member who adores Santa.  He has a huge collection of figures, some, I will admit, quite nice.  As a crafter, Santa is great; I gave this person two different nautical Santas and a somewhat medieval Santa that looked like the Ghost of Christmas Present setting up his feast hall in front of a shocked Scrooge.  You can project whatever you want on Santa.  Which, unfortunately, is precisely what this family member does: Santa is his tenuous connection to a rare spot of joy from his childhood, and, therefore, something of an object of worship.  He felt obliged to roll his eyes at my sprawling nativity scene with a, “I prefer a simple, small set,” but you should see the sprawl of his Santa collection.  If Santa’s ok to take up effort and space, shouldn’t Jesus be allowed at least equal treatment without derision?  I mean, we don’t call it “Santamass”, right?

The world, I have tried to explain to my children, is magical.  Watching birds and clouds and trees and our little lake, I told them, is incredible; the insane number of variables and coincidences that happened to make life possible here are mind boggling.  God made so many things that science can explain (or tries to), but that we normally just look at with awe.  The spread of the stars when you can see the Milky Way.  The rice and wheat sprouts first coming up in the spring.  The latest silly antic of the baby brother.  The huge list of “coincidences” that brought us all together as a family.

We don’t need to invent magic and pretend it’s real; we’re surrounded by wonder every day.  We so seek the new, the different, the fantastic, that we miss the wonder of the normal.  The question is whether or not we appreciate the wonder and magic we’re given, or go looking to invent new ones, somehow dissatisfied with, or even oblivious to, the gifts in front of us.

I’ve been a bit preoccupied this year, what with two weeks in China and a new member of the household.  (I know, excuses, excuses… I’m getting slack in my old age.)  I totally forgot about St. Nicholas Day.  We did, however, manage to be diligent about each child choosing and putting out a nativity figure or accessory each day.  The very pregnant Mary, perched on her donkey, guided by a somewhat anxious looking St. Joseph, moved a bit closer to the stable every day.  Past ordinary sheep and fields, chickens getting fed, olive pickers, buyers and sellers crowding the market place, women hurrying home with water, just lots of everyday life going on.

And, I will remind my children, the most incredible thing ever was revealed in Bethlehem that first Christmas night… and most people missed it.

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7 quick takes sm1 7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 108)

1.  Still looking for a place to stay… 

…like my 7 Quick Takes which I was all ready to post to Jen’s link list, except she isn’t doing them this week.  Darn it.

2.  Crash had a birthday.  He loves football.  Therefore, we had the Lambeau Field cake (Green Bay Packers).  Fondant is not fun, but it was a hit.  Yes, that’s him up on the jumbotron on the scoreboard.  And the Packers are playing the Vikings.  It isn’t Cake Boss, but Crash just about squealed, and that’s all a mom can ask for.

3.  First rule of holiday cooking: if you haven’t gone through more than one box of butter, you aren’t trying hard enough. 🙂  I think I went through two boxes (four sticks each) making Thanksgiving dinner.  Thank goodness for butter sales around the holidays.

4.  In a random thought moment, it occured to me that there is another possible clue to Shakespeare’s Catholicity.  William and his wife had three children: Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet.  Hamnet, Judith’s twin, died young.  “Yeah, so what?” you’re saying.    Susanna’s story is in Daniel, chapter 13, and Judith has her own book.  But there’s one thing here: both Susanna and Judith are Old Testament  heroines… but only if you’re using a Catholic Bible.  Parts of Daniel and the book of Judith were among the sections of the Old Testament removed by Protestant reformers.  Did Shakespeare choose his daughters’ names as a bit of a poke in the eye to the anti-Catholic powers in charge of England at the time?

5.  The last few years of the blog, I’ve done Christmas carols or the O Antiphons (leading up to Christmas, the basis for “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.  I haven’t been that organized this year, but if you want some more Christmas content, please check under the categories tab in the right-hand column.

But don’t look for Santa: at the risk of being called a communist by Calah, I have to say we don’t do the fat guy in the red suit.  First off, isn’t Jesus good enough?  Secondly, I want my children to know that I do not lie to themEver.  When I have to explain transsubstantiation, miracles, and God becoming a baby to ultimately die on the cross for our sins, I don’t want the thought to even cross their little brains, “Gee, is Mommy lying again?  Is this just another ‘fun’ story that’s really a joke on gullible kids?”  Contrary to grandparents and random strangers, I don’t think our society is Christian enough anymore to assume that they’ll figure the whole thing out and turn out okay, either.  Our society shouts from every side that parents are clueless and not to be trusted.  I don’t intend to help that message along any.

6.  I just discovered that a friend doesn’t celebrate Christmas.  Of all the things you could argue against on a Biblical basis, Christmas doesn’t really seem to be one of them.  Angels (and more than enough of them), shepherds, magi with some very expensive gifts, the star… if that isn’t a celebration, I don’t know what is. 

I don’t think that the fact that most of our culture botches the whole thing by turning Christmas into a gift-getting feeding frenzy of materialism argues for Christians just giving up on the whole thing.  If we don’t redeem Christmas, it becomes a pointless orgy of materialism with some old guy bringing presents.  Sadly enough, St. Nicholas, the generous bishop of Myra famous for giving away his inheritance to the needy and slugging the heretic Arius, has been forgotten (via some ex-Catholic, now Protestant Dutch, who only remembered the “nice guy with presents” part because they no longer believed in bishops and wanted to forget the anti-heretic part) and turned into a shadow of his proper self.

If some ex-Christians started celebrating the multiplication of the loaves and fishes by “mysteriously” leaving people bread and fish, without any other acknowledgement of Jesus’ life and teachings, wouldn’t you think it was bizarre and totally missing the point of Jesus?

7.  I hope that you are sitting contentedly with your warm beverage of choice, enjoying the fact that your preparations are done, and marveling anew at the miracle of God-with-us, come at the Annunciation, and revealed at Christmas.

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For your amusement…

Since I’m not doing any real blogging tonight, you may also enjoy:

“A Social Network Christmas”

Hilarious, sweet, and well worth the time.  And before anyone gets in a snit, no, I do not think they’re making fun of the Gospel story at all.

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Full disclosure: I was offered and accepted a free copy of the book for the purposes of reviewing it on my blog.

Author Anthony DeStefano, who has written several adult Catholic books, including Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To, has expanded into children’s books.

Little Star is told as a father telling his son why they always place a star at the top of their Christmas tree.  Little Star, it turns out, is the smallest star in the heavens, totally ignored by the bigger and brighter stars.  A contest is looming, where the star that burns the brightest for the new King will get a reward.  When the long-promised King is born, the other stars are disappointed by his humble beginnings.  Only Little Star gets the message, and burns himself out to keep the baby warm that first night.  The sad son is reassured that Little Star is still with us, because he is remembered all around the world by being given the place of honor at the top of Christmas trees.

Now, this is a children’s book, so I will give more weight to my kids’ opinions.  They like it a lot.  My oldest appreciated how Little Star sacrifices himself to help the baby Jesus stay warm.  The younger two seem to like the colorful pictures and simple story.  (The two-page spread of the Holy Family in the stable with the star light glittering through the window is particularly pretty.)  If your kids are younger (maybe ten and below), they will probably enjoy the book.

I have to preface my opinion by admitting that this is not my kind of book.  For example, in spite of a friend’s gushing recommendation, I couldn’t stand Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box.  (If you like RPE, and I know a lot of people do, go buy Little Star right away, because it’s right up your alley.)  I appreciate the long-standing traditions of the stable animals keeping the baby warm, the Little Drummer Boy, and all the rest of the extra-Biblical tradition, but I don’t like sentimentalism for its own sake.

For example, my kids and I all love The Christmas Donkey by T. William Taylor.  The illustrations are not high art, but they aren’t cutesy, either.  The donkey does not talk, but you see the Christmas story from his point of view, with a preface of how the donkey came up from Egypt in a caravan.  When the Holy Family has to flee Herod’s soldiers in the middle of the night, the donkey’s past painful experience in the cruel caravan comes in handy.  As Joseph cries out to God for guidance, not knowing which road to pick, the donkey takes off down the path home to his kind original master’s farm in Egypt.  It is faithful to the Gospel account (and, where it adds, it is entirely plausible) and avoids the tendency of being silly or cartoonish to get kids’ attention.

I wanted to like Little Star; I liked DeStefano’s Ten Questions.  But the other stars are rather mean-spirited, Little Star is too down-trodden, and I just couldn’t get over the whole talking star thing.  (Why do we have to anthropomorphize everything?)  Additionally, like many other families, we don’t put a star on top of our tree; we put an angel on top, so the ending doesn’t work.  And besides all that, the Christmas star’s function was to guide the Magi (who do not figure in the book at all), not to warm the stable.

Overall, Little Star might be a good addition to a stack of more Jesus-focused Christmas stories.  If you or your kids like cute stories and sweet illustrations, you may like the book.

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As previously mentioned, I’m into a very big nativity set.  Not as in “collecting many sets”, but as in a sprawling one that takes over a sizable chunk of the kitchen counter.

It starts out a little sparse...

I made most of the buildings out of salt dough or scrap wood and sticks from the yard.  The mountain is double-sided, with a cave for the shepherds on the back, and a large stable space on the front.  There’s also space for a couple of goats and a flat spot to stand an angel right above the stable.  Most of the “ground” is various pieces of fabric: burlap for the dirt of the town, various green bits for the countryside (including some worn-out pants legs), and a weird striped green from the remnant bin at the fabric store that’s being used as a plowed field.  Storage boxes that protect the buildings are used to make the hills.

Mary and Joseph (lower left) on the way through the countryside...

Years ago, in French class, as a comprehension exercise, we watched a news report on one town’s nativity scene.  Typical of the region (and also common in areas of Italy), the scene had an entire room of its own in the town hall.  Mountains stretched to the ceiling, bustling streets were crowded with people, bakers bring bread, weavers bring cloth, shepherds bring lambs, and, finally, at the end, was the stable and the Holy Family.  The idea was to make people think about what it would’ve been like to be there, in Bethlehem, all those years ago, and to remind us that Christ is still in our midst.  Traditionally, the figures of the townsfolk were all dressed in local costume of the time, while only the Holy Family was in more historically appropriate robes.  (If you’re familiar with Provencal santons, that’s what they are: figures originally meant for Nativity scenes.)

Finally, around the third week of Advent, they reach the stable.

Would you have noticed this poor baby, born in a corner of the inn’s stable?  What would you have brought as a gift?

A farmhouse, with an open upper level for eating and work. Wood was only used where absolutely necessary.

We each have something different to offer, and it is not always the gift itself, but the giving in faith that is the important thing.  We read this recently in the Gospel about the widow’s mite; she gave what little she had, in the faith that God would do something with her tiny gift and also continue to support her.  This is also the lesson in Tommie diPaola’s The Legend of the Poinsettia, a lovely book describing a girl’s prayerful offering of weeds when she had nothing else to donate on Christmas Eve.  She gave in faith, and the plain weeds suddenly blazed at their tips with gorgeous red flowers.  Great book.

The magi, in their tent, sit down to a meal.

Wow, I thought; what a cool idea.  What a great way to focus your celebration of Christmas on Jesus.

The marketplace gets crowded.

 I am indebted to Mrs. O at A Fine Mess for posting this great video about the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.  I had seen it before, but it never really registered that it is gradually getting bigger nor that the building changed drastically each year.  Very cool.

A close-up of the standing loom (notice the shed stick and weights) on the farmhouse roof (for all you fiber-arts people out there).

 Very useful for this level of detail (my husband usually mutters something about “obsessiveness”) is the book People of the Bible: Life and Customs by Silvia Gastaldi and Claire Musatti.  (Yes, the loom works; I wove about six inches of fabric on it, just to roll it up on the top beam.)

Finally, on Christmas Eve, the angels are hung from the arch over the mountain.

Every day of Advent, each child gets to pick out a figure to put out (until we run out of figures).  My kids think it’s a hugely big deal when the baby Jesus finally gets put out in the stable.

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The last CCD class before Christmas break, back when the DH and I were teaching 9th graders, I wrote this title on the blackboard.  This, I told the ninth graders, is our topic for tonight.

“Things that stink?” one girl asked, a bit amused and perplexed.  Other students giggled.

No, it’s about Christmas, I told them.  This became one of several nights in CCD when they all had that look on their faces that said, “That’s it.  She’s really lost it this time.  Should we bolt out the door now, or wait to see what happens?”  (They tried to mess with me, so I generally smiled and messed with them back.  Like the time I brought the CD of the rapping priest.  Or the Maronite chant music, which most Westerners would assume was Arabic/Islamic music.)

Cow slobber and poopy diapers.

The incredible, awesome, all powerful, all knowing God of the entire Creation becomes a tiny baby.  Aww, how cute and sweet is that?  Awesome, man!

Born in a stable.  In an occupied country.  To not-quite-married parents (Luke says they were betrothed, which was legally binding, but not quite marriage, yet).

Born to be placed in a food trough for animals.

Hmm.  On second thought, not quite so cute… but much more awe-inspiring and humbling.

I don’t care how the card companies like to make it look.  Or the people who design stained glass windows.  They tend to thrive on lovely art, not harsh reality.  So, we usually get the nicest, brightest, cleanest stable ever, surpassing even Martha Stewart’s.  Which is almost certainly not what it was.

Cows, I pointed out to the CCD students, do not have good table manners, leading to the exasperated expression, “Did I raise you in a barn!?!?”  Our moms didn’t mean it as a compliment to our good manners.

Hence, cow slobber enters the Christmas story.  Yes, the stable would have been made beautiful in a sense by the holy event taking place in it.  Yes, I would assume Joseph grabbed some fresh hay before tucking the baby in, but the fact remains, the trough had probably seen its share of slobber, and nary a steam-cleaner or bottle of disinfectant in sight.  Not exactly an “appropriate” throne for the King of Kings.

However, reading a commentary recently (I unfortunately forgot where I heard or read this; if you saw it, let me know, because I hate to use someone’s idea without attributing it to them), the point was made that the manger was, in fact, the perfect throne.

Jesus gave himself to us in the Eucharist, as the Bread of Life.  Sin turns us over to our passions, our animal instincts.  So, maybe the manger (from the French: manger, to eat) was yet another instance of God’s foreshadowing: here is the food, placed before animals, worthy of worship.  Just in case anybody missed the point, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the “city of bread”.

(Also in the “cool foreshadowing” category is the fact that most stables in that region are caves, since wood is scarce, and a damp cave would’ve been fine for animals, if not fit for people.  And Jesus was buried in a tomb cut out of the rock.  In the first cave, Mary wraps Jesus in bands of swaddling cloth, traditional for infants at the time.  In the second cave, Mary helps wrap Jesus in bands of burial cloth.  And, just in case anyone missed those hints that the Messiah had come to die, the wise men show up bringing some really weird baby shower gifts, including myrrh, used to prepare bodies for burial.)

Poopy diapers, the second half of my title, should be a fairly obvious part of the story, but, again, we seem to kind of ignore it. 

There are some traditions (small “t”, not official big “T” ones) within the Catholic Church which say Mary just sort of had a vision of the Christ child, then reached out and took him in her arms.  Apparently, these stemmed from interpretations of mystics’ visions and the idea that, because Mary was conceived without sin, she was not subject to Eve’s punishment of “I [God] will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children…”  (Gen 3:16, RSV), and therefore gave birth without pain, which must have meant she didn’t give birth the normal way.  I would argue that Genesis does not say that there would have been no pain whatsoever without sin, only that it would have been much, much milder.  So, while it is theologically defensible to argue that Mary had relatively minor pain, I do not think it can be argued from that that she did not give birth like everyone else does.

Besides, the Bible and the Church have been pretty clear that, yes, Mary carried the Second Person of the Trinity in her womb for nine months.  What happens at the end of the nine months may not fit our ideas of “cute”, but birth is one of the normal parts of being human (sin is not; sin is an introduced defect).  Skipping that would be like saying that Jesus skipped being hungry, tired, etc., all the messiness of being human.

He could have made things easier for Himself, as the devil suggested in the temptation in the desert, when he mocked Jesus and dared him to turn the rocks into bread to feed his hunger.  But He didn’t.  As St. Paul tells us, Jesus was tempted in every way that we were, but did not sin.  He came to live our experience, not to understand us (He’s God.  He didn’t need to live it to understand our reality), but so that we would understand His love for us.  He didn’t take shortcuts, or else we could all say, “Sure, He didn’t sin, because He got to skip the hard stuff in life.  I don’t get that, so my sin is inevitable.”  No, Jesus came to prove that human nature was perfectable, that instructing us to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat 5:48) was not just an exercise in futility.

So, I think it is safe to assume that that lovely Divine Child had poopy diapers.  And maybe even the occasional diaper rash.

And that’s profoundly awesome.

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Merry Christmas!

I had this lovely post all planned, with tons of shots of my frequently-mentioned nativity set.

Obviously, this is not that post.

Why?  Because it’s… oh, good grief!  It’s 3:14 am on Christmas morning.  The kids were wonderful at midnight mass (one hour of waiting (because if you aren’t there early, you won’t be sitting), half an hour of choir concert, one hour of mass).  And then they were hyper afterwards, so we let them watch the Gospel choir on the Glenn Beck Christmas special (like that was going to make them sleepy!).  And then they all had to be tucked in.  And I had to re-load the dishwasher for the third time today.  And load Christmas stockings.

Before mass, when I was theoretically going to have time to finish my planned post, I made a Christmas stocking for Crash, loaded the dishwasher, cleaned up dinner, folded cloth diapers, started cinnamon rolls for tomorrow morning, and conducted a bonfire, complete with catechesis on the theme “Jesus as the Light of the world”.  Of course, then I smelled like smoke, so a shower before mass was not optional.

Thus, no long post.

I’m having a lovely Christmas, but I really ought to be asleep, so I’ll be brief.  This shot is from my nativity set.  I made the little fire: battery-operated fake tea light, surrounded by salt dough bricks, topped off by carefully arranged twigs to hide some of the view of the plastic flame.  It even flickers.  And the tea light isn’t glued in; it just fits into the arrangement, so it’s easy to swap them out when the battery dies.  They’re in the stable, which, as is traditional and historical, is a cave.  More photos and how-to ideas in a day or two.

I pray you are all having a wonderful, fun, relaxing, prayerful Christmas.  God bless!

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