Saturday, December 31, 2011


I've been mulling over how to close out this year on my blog. I considered doing a "best of" or most favorite posts from this year, but decided that was a little too tedious and redundant. I thought about reflecting on the end to one year and the fresh start of a new year, but that seemed too contrived. I contemplated previewing 2012, but I was bored with myself after composing two sentences. Browsing through old posts, I found this little gem, published back in March, and decided it was a most fitting way to close out this year - a small tribute.

My heart is always with the people I know who have lost someone they love during the holiday season, as well as with those whose hearts are still reeling from earlier loss. I offer this story at the close of the year as a reminder that life comes full circle, that endings can be the beginning of something new, that in continuing ritual and tradition, we can honor most fully those whom we love.

My mother’s finest tea cups, Royal Doulton bone china laced with delicate flowers, lay before us on the table. At age 8, I could hardly believe my luck – it was Christmas Eve; I was up past bedtime (too excited to sleep, anyway); I got to use the fancy cups and drink tea with way too much sugar and milk.Best of all, seated around the base of the softly glowing Christmas tree were two of my most favorite women: my mom and her mom, my beloved grandmother. A tradition was born.

Each subsequent year, I looked forward to the Ladies’ Tea on Christmas Eve almost as much as I looked forward to everything else – the cookie making, the gifts, the magic of the season. I loved shooing out the men in our lives – my dad and my brother Adam– this was for girls only, we’d exclaim. They acted indignant, but it was all for show.

We shared tea for years and years and years. Our time together, like the tea we shared, was delicious and warm, infused with love. In 1993, when I was a freshman in high school, things changed. My beloved grandma died in the earliest hours of Christmas Eve, before we’d had a chance to drink our tea. It was not unexpected, yet the grief and pain of losing her on such an important and significant day shattered my heart like the fine china we’d sipped from. There was no tea that year….

….or the next one, either. I was angry that my grandma died on Christmas Eve, because the magic of Christmas was gone. Her death created a permanent stain in our teacups, one that refused to lift despite repeated scrubbing. Eventually, though, the stain began to fade, and our tradition resumed…

Many Christmas Eves later, when Adam was home for a visit and my future husband, Jeff, was staying with us, our tea tradition took a turn for the worse. Throwing our good sense down the drain along with the steeped tea leaves, my mother and I – the only women in the house – foolishly decided to allow the men to join us for tea, but only if they promised to be on their best behavior. We should have known that trouble lay ahead when they turned their noses up at our Darjeeling blend, insisting that their “tea” was a two finger pour of Glenfiddich. Apparently scotch and sugar cookies make for a boisterous pairing, because the tea had scarcely been served before my mother and I made a beeline for the door, away from the peals of laughter coming from the men. We loved them dearly, yet they had no appreciation whatsoever for the dignified, classy nightcap on our Christmas Eve. They’ve not been invited back.

In 2006, Adam, his partner Linsey, and their son Hugo joined us for Christmas; my mom and I were thrilled to have another woman join us for tea. Linsey had heard about this tradition before, and arrived prepared… with a new blend of “tea,” this one more of the bubbly and spirited kind. We exchanged our Wedgwood for Waterford, rose leaf tea for sparkling rosé.Although I was well past my 21st birthday, I had the odd sensation of feeling like that eight year old again, experiencing my first grown up tea with the fine women in my life; the rosé proved to be a whole new kind of grown up tea.

Since Linsey’s tea with us those years ago, we’ve continued to faithfully set out the special Santa tea pot each year - but we’ve abandoned tea in favor of one variety or another of sparkling wine. Yet I sense that the eve is approaching, soon, when the tradition will change again, when we will go back to tea with way too much sugar and milk, for there are up-and-coming eight-year-olds in this house. I have no daughters, but I do have three very fine sons who will revel in the opportunity to sip tea on Christmas Eve with two of their favorite women ever – Mom and Grandma. Our time together promises to be delicious and warm, infused with love.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Time and Love

Homemade Gifts, Year 2: Aidan sewed and decorated a pillowcase for Leo; Aidan sewed a bear lovey for Pax. Leo drew many beautiful pictures, painted a canvas, cut out letters, and mod-podged his collage together. Pax spent several hours creating a gorgeous 2012 calendar for his older brothers, that they hung in their room. Aidan and Leo each made ceramic pottery gifts for us (Aidan made the vases and bowl; Leo, the plate). My mother made me owl pajama pants, and my father made us gorgeous mahogany coasters with inlaid pieces of oak. Jeff macraméd bracelets for each boy, and I knitted scarves for each of them...

"Gifts of Time and Love are surely
the basic ingredients of a truly Merry Christmas."
-Peg Bracken

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas to You!

There is one part of Christmas this year that we did skip - again. Last year, we decided not to send out Christmas cards, and last year, it felt like a big stress reliever. This year, I didn't give cards a second thought, assumed I'd feel the same sigh of relief over not doing them - but I was wrong. Even when we staged a few "would-be Christmas Card Photos," (which, weirdly, I looove taking) I didn't feel any guilt over not sending them, nor any real desire to send them. It was only after it was far too late that I felt the pangs of regret. Perhaps a good and gentle reminder, again, why we don't skip Christmas.

And so, Friends, I offer instead this virtual Christmas card. I know that, in its virtual state, it will disappoint you just as much as a Nook or Kindle disappoints a true bibliophile - but it is heartfelt and sincere all the same, and it comes with a promise no hand-held device can ever make: next year, a lovely paper Christmas card will arrive in your snail mail box. I'm done with skipping Christmas cards.

"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

(^^I absolutely LOVE this photo, because it was taken a nanosecond before Leo goosed me!
I laugh every time I see it. Oh, and since you're wondering... those are reindeer
embroidered on Aidan's pants. )

Merry Christmas, You!
Anne, Jeff, Aidan, Leo, and Pax

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Doing Christmas

John Grisham wrote a novel, Skipping Christmas, some years ago. Have you read it?

I believe it was in the moments before leaving for our church's pageant last Sunday - searching for a lost shoe behind a stack of Christmas books; mentally rehearsing the list of stuff I had to remember to bring; stepping on pine needles in bare feet while avoiding a newly broken ornament; hollering at Aidan to bring his script along; cajoling Leo into rehearsing his line, one more time - when the thought flashed, in blinking lights, across the marquee of my mind's eye - what would it would be like if we could just skip all of this, one year?

Arriving to church 4 minutes late, I worried if I'd get a glare from the pageant director for being tardy. I felt the stress weighing down on me, could sense it among the many parents tittering about, trying to coax toddlers into sheep's clothing; attempting to get the wise men to stop being such... wise asses; persuading the angels not to hit each other with their stars-on-a-stick. It wasn't just the pageant - it was the realization I'd had that morning, that Christmas was just one week away - and yet the cookies weren't baked; scarves weren't knitted; gifts weren't wrapped; last-minute items were still on the "to buy" list.....and on and on. I felt panicked and paralyzed, all at once.

And then, the pageant began. It was a lovely pageant. Aidan, in his role of Joseph, delivered his lines confidently and proudly, looking important and in-charge next to his sweet friend, playing the part of Mary. Leo, acting as the Angel Gabriel, bellowed into the microphone, "Fear Not, Mary! God is with you!" And Pax, along with half a dozen other toddlers, played the part of the errant and wandering sheep quite beautifully, save for a short game of chase around the communion rails with none other than a pastor's son. As we smiled and laughed, I began to feel the burden lift from my shoulders as I watched our children deliver the story of Jesus's birth, happily and excitedly. Still, I was antsy to leave, to get home and start checking items off my endless list. I'd made a promise to the kids though, - that we'd stay to help decorate the tree in the sanctuary - and I groaned and moaned, knowing I had no choice but to honor it.

But then it happened - one of those moments in time that you remember for always, one of those moments when you are in "the zone," where you know how good it is, even as it is happening. So you drink deeply and thirstily and you are aware, so aware of every sound and smell and taste and sight and feeling, because you are present...

In the sanctuary, children unpacked and unwrapped large and ornate ornaments from boxes to hang on a towering and fragrant pine tree. Older kids lifted younger kids up to reach branches higher and higher. Grown-ups stood on ladders, adjusting the star on top and the white twinkling lights. In another corner, two men stood on ladders, taking down the huge advent wreath and replacing it with a large, pointed, brightly lit star. Three women dressed and undressed the altar, changing out the blues of advent for celebratory whites celebrating Jesus' birth. Two trumpets and the organist practiced "Joy to the World!" as Sunday School teachers moved out props from the pageant. Ushers mounted candle holders to the ends of each pew as the Pastor moved from one person to the next, answering questions, giving input, praising efforts. And I - I stood in the middle of it all, in the middle of the most beautiful chaos and most harmonious noise I've experienced. The finest Hollywood directors could not have orchestrated a better scene. And all I could think was - skip this? Are you kidding??

There have been many other, smaller moments when I've been so glad not to be skipping Christmas:

The parties! My, have we enjoyed the parties this year. Jeff and I even hired a babysitter for one and had a fabulous time at our party-date. I can't imagine skipping the parties.

In the midst of my angst about not finishing homemade Christmas gifts in time, I found myself asking, why do I do this to myself? Why didn't I start sooner? Why didn't I just buy stuff instead?... and then the gifts got finished, and wrapped, and each of them - the ones I made; the ones Jeff made; the ones each of the kids have made - are more beautiful and more perfect than I could have hoped for.... I can't imagine skipping homemade.

Stressed about needing to bake so many cookies (11 dozen in all - most of which will be distributed to the patients on the hospital floor where Jeff works), I wondered why on earth I thought it was a good idea to have Pax help me with the cookie prep. And then... I witnessed just why it was a good idea. He ran the hand mixer, cracked eggs, rolled dough, and sugared cookies like a seasoned chef.... I can't imagine skipping cookie baking with small boy.

Puzzled over the number of ornaments hanging up on our Advent calendar, Aidan, Leo, and I quickly realized what had happened: Pax had surreptitiously taken out the remaining ornaments from the calendar's pockets and hung them carefully on the lowest branch of the small advent tree - the only branch he could reach. We laughed and laughed and giggled some more over our mischievous little elf boy. I can't imagine skipping that kind of laughter.

Piling into our car after bath many evenings, we drive around the neighborhood, admiring the beautiful light displays in our cozy, sweet community. I can't imagine skipping the lights show.

In the end, as it is with Skipping Christmas, we realize that we cannot skip Christmas. And why would we want to? For when we are able to step back, let go of what doesn't matter, embrace what does matter, that is when we are Doing Christmas. We Do Christmas for each other. For our children, our community, our friends, and our family. Because of the joy we get from seeing each other's houses lit up in lights. From watching our children perform in the pageant. From celebrating at parties, swapping cookies, from time spent together making gifts, from laughing over mischief, from so many more moments that wouldn't - couldn't - possibly happen if we skipped Christmas.

Happy Doing.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dear Reader

Kate DiCamillo is the author of several highly acclaimed children's books (including The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and more.) One technique she uses as a writer is at first a little unnerving, the way she addresses the reader of her book - but I quickly grew fond of how her voice spoke to me, Dear Reader, as I read her well-crafted tales...

And so, Dear Reader, this post begins with an address to you:

I've gotten so much feedback from recent posts I've written, and I deeply appreciate all of it. From the small core of loyal readers who send me sweet emails now and again to the true strangers who took the time to send me a note - it means so much to me. Thank you.

"Mostly Boy" resulted in many readers sending me links to excellent essays on similar topics, so I've included them here:

This article comes from an excellent website, I love that this teacher speaks not only with authority and expertise, but also with humility and honesty in dealing with her own struggles and stereotypes. When I dream of changing the world through education, I dream of schools filled with teachers just like this one...

I liked this article too, because it spoke to the tremendous courage of parents who truly understood their child and who unfailingly demonstrated their unconditional love and acceptance.

This was a fun read, too, and a nice, light-hearted change from the heavier content of the first two articles.

And finally, here's another essay on Santa Claus (find my own thoughts here). I love how this writer connects Santa to all those people around them whose hearts are filled with joy - a beautiful testament to the power of the magic of Christmas.

...that is all for now, Dear Reader. But tune in soon for the ongoing tales of a karate-kicking Joseph, a mighty Angel Gabriel, and a wayward sheep, coursing and bleating his way in a short game of chase around the communion table....

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Small People, Small Places, Small Things

"Many small people, in many small places, do many small things,
that can alter the face of the world."
(Excerpt taken from the Berlin Wall, East Side)

...and it is the small people from this small place who are doing small things this season.

Recently, we experimented with a new tradition in our family. It began in 2009, when I was desperate to do something - anything - to help some families who were really struggling that season. One family was consumed by grief; the other, drowning in worry. Their pain brought to mind the last Christmas season we had with my grandmother before her death on Christmas Eve; she had been under hospice care and living in our home for some weeks. Thinking of that Christmas season, I was flooded with a most wonderful memory - the night the carolers showed up on our doorstep. Two dozen members of our church came to our home and sang one carol after another. Their voices were beautiful, but the warmth, love, support, and cheer they provided were what we needed - and enjoyed - the most.

So in 2009, we caroled. I asked my playgroup friends (and all the kids, of course!) to go with me to one home. We carried bells and maracas and song sheets and sang every song we could think of. Another night, our little family of five traveled to the hospital for a private concert for a most receptive audience. Reflecting on those experiences, I realized that they were the most meaningful parts of that season. I was determined to do more.

In 2010, Jeff and I planned out four service projects for our family, corresponding with each week of Advent. One week, the boys drew lovely cards for four people from our church and our community who were in need of some tender loving care that year. One had just lost his beloved wife; another was unable to leave his house anymore and was struggling with loneliness and isolation.

The second week, we collected extra towels and blankets from the closet. We shopped for toiletries, the boys each contributing funds from his piggy bank to help with the cost. Once our bags were overflowing, we donated the goods to the day haven/shelter that takes care of so many homeless women and men in our community. The boys were wide-eyed but respectful and friendly to each of the grateful friends we met that day.

The third week, we selected a few brand-new toys and a handful of gently used board books to donate to a family our church was sponsoring that Christmas. Aidan and Leo were so careful in making sure to select toys they thought the little girl would love, and they delighted in getting to wrap the gifts.

The fourth week, we baked the communion bread for the worship services on Christmas Eve. The kids were very proud of their bread, pleased that it would feed the whole church.

This year, it began with a goat. I fell in love with the baby goat featured on the cover of the ELCA's Good Gifts catalog, and I knew I wanted one.... to go to a family in Africa. Jeff and I drafted a list of chores and dollar amounts that the kids could choose to do to earn money for our goat. I decorated a small box that served as our "goat kitty" (maaa-eow), and for two solid weeks, the kids worked hard - cheerfully, and diligently - to fill the box. [Amendment: only after I assured Leo that we would not, in fact, ever have the goat at our house.] Pax fed the kitties and helped unload the dishwasher. The older boys cleaned the basement, put away laundry, wiped down sinks and counters, dusted, and even raked leaves at my parents' house. On the date we'd designated as our deadline, we discovered we were $2 short. The kids hustled and bustled around the house, tidying and straightening, dusting and cleaning. We praised them for their hard work and their cheerful spirits; we finalized our purchase of the goat, and during dinner, we discussed what that goat might be doing that very minute, whether she was feeling excited or nervous to go meet her new family.

Inspired by the book I mentioned in a previous post, Jeff and I are excited about the microloan we are financing through . The website connects lenders to people all over the world for whom a tiny loan - $25 - could make all the difference to their families. The hardest part of lending the money was deciding whom to lend to, for every one of the bios we read came from very worthy and deserving people. Ultimately, we chose to sponsor a mother of three from Zimbabwe who will use her loan to purchase groundnuts which she'll use to make peanut butter.

Next week, we'll spend several days baking a variety of cookies that we'll package in cute bags and send to work with Jeff to give to his patients. If I find it hard to have a husband who has to work holidays (this year, we're lucky - he's off for Christmas Eve & Day) -- I can only imagine how much harder it is for the actual patients at the hospital.

And finally, we'll bake the bread again for our worship services on Christmas Eve. Our gifts are small. They come from the work of small hands, in this small place. But our gifts of service are among the most important gifts we can offer. I don't know about altering the face of the whole world, but our tradition of service has forever altered our little world. And hopefully, our gifts will change the world of a family in Africa, whose goat will provide milk, cheese, and eventually, kid goats; and our gift will change the world of one mom in Zimbabwe, using the profits of her harvest to send her children to school and to bring her family out of poverty.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gift of the Magic

It happened one chilly morning in mid-October, the moment when I knew I needed to have The Talk with my oldest son. We were sitting in the warm car, waiting for the school bus to arrive. I asked quite casually, "So what do you think you'll ask Santa for this year?"

Aidan gave me a long, sideways glance as Leo began brainstorming a list of possible ideas. "I know why you are asking us," Aidan said to me. I ignored him, wondering where on earth he was going with this line of thinking. "I know why you're asking about Santa," he repeated. I continued to ignore him, pretending to give my undivided attention to Leo's list, when I heard him mutter, "It's because YOU are the one who buys the Santa gifts." He said it with a tiny hint of anger, and a whole lot of curiosity in his voice, as if he were testing out the theory aloud.

I looked at him sharply and said, "You better watch what you say." He ignored me and said to Leo, "Hey Leo, I know why Mom wants to know what we want Santa to bring us." "Aidan," I said to him pointedly, giving him my Mad Mama look - "You had better be careful what you say."

Leo was blissfully unaware of the conversation between Aidan and me; he was engrossed in a conversation with himself about the possibility of a Real Robot being delivered by Santa.

Aidan looked at me and said, with a hint of defiance, "I know what I want Santa to bring me. I want him to bring me a picture of Rudolph. Because then I'll know for sure."

The bus pulled up and Aidan took off, leaving me to mull over our conversation during much of the day. I had to laugh at the cleverness of his request for a photo - until I realized that Google images plus Photoshop plus a little bit of magic might just yield one awfully realistic Rudolph....

Later that afternoon, I pulled Aidan aside. For The Talk.

"Aidan, I want to tell you a couple of things about Santa Claus. I want you to know that if you have decided not to believe in Santa Claus anymore, that's okay. But I want you to know some things. First, I want to share a story with you from when I was a girl growing up in Grandma and Grandpa's house with Uncle Adam. Do you know how we put out beer and cookies for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer every year on Christmas Eve? Your Uncle Adam and I did the very same thing when we were living with Grandma and Grandpa, even when we were big kids home from college. Every single year, I have laid out cookies for Santa - and then you came along, and you took over for me.

I also want you to know that the best gift that my older brother ever gave me at Christmas was that he let me believe in Santa Claus for as long as I wanted to. He never questioned whether or not Santa Claus was real, he never tried to convince me that he wasn't, and he never teased me or made fun of me for believing in Santa. It was the greatest gift, and I admire him so much for being such a wonderful and kind older brother.

Now I want to tell you what I love the most about Santa. Santa Claus is magic. One year, we had a very sad thing happen in our family. My grandmother died, on Christmas Eve, and it was such a sad Christmas for us. On Christmas night, something magical happened. There was no snow in the forecast, and the sky was very clear and bright. Suddenly, it started to snow - and snow - and snow! We couldn't believe it. Grandpa and Uncle Adam and I went for a long walk in the snow that night, and we kept looking up at the snow-filled sky, dragging our boots to make patterns in the snow, and laughing, because it was so magical. We never expected the snow - and there it was.

Another year, more recently, some other kind of magic happened on Christmas. The father in a family that we know had lost his job, and the mom and dad had no idea how they would buy food that month, let alone Christmas presents. One day, the mom went out to the mailbox - and discovered that someone had sent them a very large gift card for Target. To this day, the family has no idea where that card came from, but not only did they have plenty of food that month, they also had some presents under the tree, too. It felt like magic, to receive such a wonderful gift, especially when they didn't know quite where it came from.

And so, Aidan, I want you to think about these things. I want you to know that I believe in the magic of Santa, because wonderful things happen at this time of year, and often we don't know how they happened or where they came from. And I want you to remember the gift my brother gave me, and I want you to think about if you might want to be the same kind of brother to Pax and Leo that Uncle Adam is to me."

Many weeks later, Aidan and I were shopping at the mall, just the two of us, when we happened upon Jolly Old Saint Nick. Aidan was delighted at the chance for a private conversation with Santa, and was grinning with excitement. Santa invited him to come sit on his lap, but Aidan replied, "No thank you, I gotta bring my brothers back so we can all sit with you together!"

And my final defense of Santa (for I've written about him before, here) is that while the focus in our family will always remain on the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we will forever make room on our mantel for the stockings, as well. Jesus and Santa are not mutually exclusive. Grace, hope, love, light in dark places, peace, joy -- God is our Provider. But the sense of magic, the anonymous giving - those come from Santa.