Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Very Merry Christmas, Indeed!

There are several important men in my life whom I love very much. One of them is Santa Claus.

Do I believe that one man, dressed in a red suit with white fur trim, races around the globe with his team of reindeer, delivering gifts to every child? Do I believe he comes down the chimney to deliver the goods? Do I believe he makes a list, checks it twice, knows who's naughty and who's nice? I don't. But... I absolutely believe in Santa Claus. And here is why.

"Oh, a rocket ship!! Santa brought me a rocket ship! Oh, how did he know???" were the excited shouts that greeted us Christmas morn, when Aidan went in to find the rocket ship sitting in his chair, waiting for him. He was practically crying with happiness, because in a conversation with Jeff several days earlier, he said that Santa would not bring him a rocket ship since he hadn't told Santa about wanting a rocket this year. Next year, he decided, he would ask Santa to bring him one.

Aidan's reaction was probably my favorite moment of the morning. He was filled with complete joy and delight, due to a gift that we had given him, through the magic of Santa Claus. That rocket ship would not have meant nearly as much to him had the gift tag read "From Mom and Dad"; the magic was that it came from the larger-than-life Kris Kringle, the omnipotent being who knew what Aidan wanted without him having to ask for it. And there's the gift that Santa Claus offers to me - the ability to anonymously give to our children some of their greatest gifts, without them knowing the true source.

While thinking about Santa Claus on Christmas morning, I realized that, in a strange way, we are actually giving quite a few gifts to our children right now, ones that they don't recognize as gifts from us but will hopefully recognize them later - and here's what I mean:

"No, Aidan, you may not have just cookies for dinner. Yes, Leo, we do have to wear shoes and coats and hats in the 30 degree weather. We will definitely watch more television - tomorrow, not today. And could you find a different way to ask me to help you with cleaning up those toys, using nicer words?"

Much of parenting is about giving gifts that may not be fully appreciated or understood until many years later. These are the gifts we give to our children, perhaps not anonymously like we do with rocket ships, but certainly in a way that is not initially seen as a gift from us. Just as Aidan doesn't recognize that I am his Santa, he also doesn't recognize that I am doing a good thing by insisting on him eating well, sleeping often, and behaving nicely.

Was that Mommy you saw kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night? You bet it was.... right after she reminded her children that it's not polite to point and stare.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Highlights (and lowlights) of December...

We have had a lot of fun events this month, which has made the wait until Christmas Day both fast-paced (for mom and dad) and arduously slow (for Aidan and Leo). Despite the very large, quilt-like Advent calendar that hangs conspicuously in our family room, Aidan is always convinced that in two days it is Christmas.... (and finally, it really is only two days away)

Here are some of the highlights of our month:

*Jeff and I went to a holiday party at the Boar's Head, courtesy of the UVA transplant team. It was a lovely event, and a very nice date. It was fun to dress up, for once, and enjoy some good food, good wine, and even a little dancing. The best part was that, despite being a transplant party, we managed to leave with all of our parts intact!

*Our playgroup held its annual cookie and book exchange, and the cookies only seem to get better and better each year. The kids each received a wrapped book - from Santa Claus - who came to pay us a visit! (This year, Leo did not scream while sitting on his lap - because there was no way he'd go anywhere near his lap! Oh well.)

*Sitting with Santa for the Photo Opportunity actually was quite fun, and Leo reluctantly agreed to sit with Santa once Aidan offered to hold his hand. Aidan was like a "bright shiny penny" when he first approached Santa, but in the photograph, he looks pensive... entranced, perhaps? Leo looks resigned to his lot in life - encouraged, but never out-done, by his big brother.

*The four of us went to see "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" put on by a local theater group. While we made sure to cover all the finer points of watching a production (sitting politely, clapping at the end, not talking, etc.) but we failed to cover possible "special effects" that might be used. Thus, the ONLY thing Aidan now talks about whenever anyone mentions the play is that he did not like the cigar smoke in the bathroom from Gladys. He did not like the smoke. He did not like the smoke!!! Aidan has a real fear of fire, and I think we just made it ten times worse taking him to a show featuring the baby Jesus.... and cigar smoke.

*All the moms in playgroup had their big night out at our favorite restaurant, Bang. We exchanged ornaments, funny stories, lots of laughter, and friendship. I say this a lot about the group, but it seems to become truer and truer - we started out as moms who got together for the enjoyment of our kids, and now we're friends who get together for the enjoyment of each other.

*Aidan's Preschool party was very sweet and more fun than anyone expected, really. Jeff and my parents all came to the party. The kids were very excited and so happy. Each class performed a song for the group, outfitted with hats corresponding to their song. Aidan wore reindeer antlers and sang "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and looked as proud as he could be. He was "in his element" at the party, excited to talk to his teachers and introduce us to his friends.

*Aidan and Leo enjoyed decorating a Gingerbread house with Grandma and Grandpa. Leo mostly enjoyed decorating the inside of his mouth with the candies, but the end result is still very cute.

*Tonight, we're headed to my parents' house for a little caroling-and-cookie thing. Our church music director has pledged to play "any song in any key," so I can't wait to hear how she performs one of Aidan's million made up versions of the classics - I'm coaching him on requesting one of his "originals."

*We're looking forward to a "tapas dinner" before church on Christmas Eve. I am playing my flute and singing during the service, and Aidan will be dressed as an angel as part of the gospel reading. We'll leave cookies and beer for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer. And we'll hope, beyond all hope, that our children will be "nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums dance in their heads".... instead of the more likely version - being unable, unwilling to sleep for a single minute due to uncontainable excitement...

Overall, this Christmas season has been relatively stress-free and very happy. The enthusiasm of my children, especially Aidan, is positively infectious. I vividly remember how magical the time before - and during - Christmas felt to me as a child, and I do hope it feels the same for them. I appreciate, though, the difficulty that many people face at Christmastime. It can be a difficult time, for sure, with sadness and worries and disappointments clouding the time that is supposed to feel most joyous. Maybe, though, that is why I feel particularly grateful to be able to enjoy this season with these people, my family.

Merry Christmas to all! May you find peace and joy... and some delicious cookies, too.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Zo Zo

Well, I think I've gone a little overboard on telling our cat that she is bad. Zoe is about a year and a half old and gets into trouble all the time. She gets yelled at a lot. She gets called "bad cat" a lot. In fact, Aidan chants "bady cat bady cat" over and over, just because it's fun to say, I guess, and maybe because he hears it often.

Leo does not exactly dislike Zoe, but he does not really like her, either. He calls her "Zo Zo" and calls the other cat, Alice, the same thing - Zo Zo. He gets upset if Zoe is in his room or near his crib. He gets upset when she jumps on the counter, when she sniffs the couch, when she does basically anything besides sleep. He likes to feed her, but gets upset if she chooses a different bowl than the one he's given her. He tries so hard to snap at her with his fingers, the way Jeff and Aidan do with her when she's doing something bad (like scratching the furniture).

A few days ago, Zoe climbed the curtains using her claws and caused the whole curtain and rod to fall to the ground. I was pretty annoyed about that. I might have yelled at her for it.

The next day, Leo brought a book to me that had been chewed on by the cat. He kept pointing to the bite marks as if to ask, "What the heck is this?" I told him that the cat, Alice, had chewed on the book. (She likes the tannins used in paperbacks). He made an angry face and said "Zo Zo!!!" I corrected him, told him that it was Alice, not Zoe.

We went downstairs and he pointed at the curtain that Zoe had torn down the day before. He kept pointing at it and saying "Zo Zo!! Zo Zo!!" I said "Yes, Zoe knocked that curtain down yesterday."

...and then we were upstairs, and he was using the squirter to squirt water all over the bathroom floor. I had given him the squirter to use on the doors or on his toy train, but not on the floor. I scolded him a little and gave him a towel to clean it up. He pointed to the water on the floor and said "Zo Zo!!!" I thought it was a little strange that he said that....

... and then a little while later, while we were in the basement, I put it all together in my head. He pointed to my shirtsleeve where it is permanently stained with red paint. He pointed at it, looked at me and said "Zo Zo!!!"

Everything that is bad must mean Zoe did it, or contributed to it - at least in his head. He is overgeneralizing the concept of Bad Cat to include anything that is bad - downed curtains and chewed up books, understandably by the cats. But a mess of water and paint stains?

Finally, today, Leo licked a toy cup from his play kitchen and got some little piece of fuzz in his mouth. He stuck his tongue out and scraped it off, then showed me his finger and said "Zo Zo!" I asked him, "Zoe was in your mouth?!!" He affirmed, "Zo Zo!" and pointed at his finger again.

I'm envisioning I could really use this to my advantage in the future. "Zo Zo" could become our code word for "knock it off, that is behavior I do not accept, please behave more kindly, respectfully, quietly, [insert desired adverb here]" and it would sure save me some time and effort. "Leo, I find that quite Zo Zo. Aidan, no Zo Zo....."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Countdown till Christmas on the Literacy Farm...

One of the many wonderful things about having a family of your very own is developing your own, new traditions. One such tradition that we began last year (or maybe the year before?) is one I hope will last even beyond my children have traditionally outgrown its format...

Before December 1 of each year, I wrap 25 books related to the season - the Christmas story, told and retold a myriad of ways; Santa stories; and some winter/snowman stories to fill in the rest. I put the books in a large basket by the Christmas tree, and wait for the countdown to begin. On December 1, we begin the countdown by unwrapping one of the books, chosen at random, and reading it. Each day a new book is unwrapped (the kids alternate - Aidan opens on odd days, Leo, on evens) and a new story is enjoyed. The stories are even more delightful, because they've been hidden away for so long. The kids get to open something every day, which helps avoid the tearing-paper frenzy come Christmas morning. And this year, instead of opening the book in the morning the same time we do our traditional Advent calendar, we wait until evening, until Jeff returns home and we're snuggled next to the tree to enjoy the story together....

A few of our most favorite children's Christmas books:
Christmas Cookies: Bite Size Holiday Lessons by Rosenthal and Dyer- a delicious book filled with richly detailed vocabulary like "anticipation" and "hope" and "tradition" in a way that is totally understandable to a preschooler
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Wojciechowski and Lynch - a beautifully illustrated, deeply moving book about the grumpy widower, who is a carpenter, who helps to replace the beloved and lost nativity of a widow and her son.
The Sweet Smell of Christmas by P. Scarry- my personal favorite book that I read as a child - the story of the Bear family's anticipation of the arrival of Christmas day, with scratch-n-sniff stickers to invoke visceral responses in its readers....
The Night Before the Night Before Christmas - by Wing and Lester - moms will definitely appreciate this cute, rhyming story about a family who is at a total loss on how to prepare for Christmas when Mom gets the flu.... and how, of course, it all works out in the end.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Nighmare Before Christmas.....

I will admit from the start - my head was filled with visions of grandeur this year. I was thinking what a breeze, what a delight, what a joy it would be to decorate this year! I envisioned Aidan, a very capable 4 1/2 year old, listening attentively and carefully to every direction I might give. I dreamed that Leo, moving beyond the stage of putting everything into his mouth, might even allow us to hang the bulbs and more delicate ornaments this year...

Clearly, I was delusional. If I know one thing for absolute certainty, it is this: decorating with children is not fun. People who say so are either lying, or are not telling the truth. Or have not ever decorated with children. Case in point:

As is our tradition, we picked out our tree the day after Thanksgiving and dug out all the decorations to transform our home into a Christmas wonderland. (Never mind the seemingly endless complication of our mid-summer flood, which forced us to relocate many of our decorations to our.... "storage facility." Never mind that the snow people and window lights are still MIA, and that it took exorbitant amount of effort to locate the tree skirt and kids' books. But never mind all that.)

Aidan was simply beside himself with excitement. He even said so. As I frantically tried to unpack each Nutcracker before he could dig the next one out himself (dropping it on the floor in the process) I tried very hard to keep my tone light as I patiently explained why, exactly, the Nutcrackers couldn't actually crack the acorns he found outside... the steel nuts he has from Grandpa's workshop.... and why the solider Nutcracker would actually never do any harm with his sword....

I threw the Nutcrackers up on the shelves in a haphazard manner - at least they were now out of the kids' reach - and bolted in to rescue the glittery faux fruit-embellished wreath that I painstakingly made the year Aidan was born (when I had free time! And didn't even know how much free time I had!!) from Leo's fingers. Leo, undeterred by the abnormally large size of the apple, not to mention the large pieces of glitter covering the fruit, was beside himself that I would not allow him to actually eat the apple. (What was that I was saying about not putting stuff in his mouth?)

Next, I tore through the carefully wrapped tissue paper, seeking each piece to the many nativity sets we have, grabbing the baby Jesus out of grubby hands and rescuing headpieces of the three wise men. I threw them into the china cabinet and locked the paneled door, only pausing long enough to make sure each Jesus was with his Mary.

Finally, onto the tree. And actually, we got off to a very fun start. I love unwrapping each ornament, reminiscing about where it came from or who gave it to me or to us. I have many ornaments from my childhood (although not nearly as many as my brother has - second child syndrome and all) and we have continued the tradition of collecting ornaments on each family vacation we have, starting with our honeymoon in Bar Harbor. And then there are a few ornaments, some of which are Jeff's, a few of which are mine, that are hideously ugly, and yet we each refuse to part with them. We love to harass each other about them, even encouraging the kids to handle them in the hopes that they will break and therefore need to be pitched.... but they are oddly indestructable.

However, as all tree decorating eventually goes, things started to get out of hand. The allure of hanging ornaments was lost, along with at least two ornament casualties. Then Aidan got a hold of the angel tree topper, and alternately tried to balance her on his head while announcing "Caps for Sale!" and playing air guitar with the small lute she holds in her arms with very loud, rock-style gusto. (He somehow manages to get the ear piercing twang of the strings just right.)

Leo, meanwhile, invented a game of his own. He found a small horn ornament of Jeff's, and was blowing loudly on the tiny mouthpiece, trying to play it. Then he would bring it to Jeff, who would hang it up, and the next minute Leo had un-decorated it and was playing it again. It only really turned into a game when Jeff actually tried to hide it from Leo each time.... yet Leo found it each time, and eventually refused to let Jeff hang it at all. He traipsed around with it until dinnertime.

Did I mention that by this point the tree skirt had been found, and Zoe, our kitty, views this tree skirt as her arch-enemy and attacks it every chance she gets? And that this really, really upsets Leo, who yells at the top of his lungs "Zo Zo!! ZO ZO!!!" each time she does this?

Weary and utterly spent, I gave up on the rest. I made a list of what else needed to be done, and checked it twice. As I sat by myself in the living room, filled with a beautiful tree but many empty boxes and unfinished decorating, I marveled at what I was thinking earlier, envisioning my Hallmark-commercial-decking-the-halls bit. But then, from the other room, I heard Aidan delighting in arranging his own nativity set, describing each person and animal to Leo. He told Leo all about the angel Gabriel, and even mentioned that this was where Leo got his middle name. Leo had gotten his hands on a small reindeer that plays "Jingle Bell Rock" over and over when you press on his hoof, and he was absolutely smitten. Aidan kept looking at the advent calendar and marveling at how "soon" it is until Christmas day. Leo learned to say "Mary" and "Ho Ho Ho!" and kept pointing at the lights and signing "light!" And the visions of grandeur returned. And I felt like it was all worth it again, all the aggravation and frustration, just to see what joy the chaos had brought to each of them, to see the transformation of the magic that Christmas can bring.

"Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time." Laura Ingalls Wilder