Merry Christmas Gift Guide

Now, I am not one to start Christmasing early.  We celebrate Advent hard and save Christmas for its proper 12 days as much as possible in today’s world.  But part of having a peaceful Advent for me is doing my Christmas shopping in November.  If you want to get an early start too, I’ve got some ideas for you!

Many of the products below were created by folks I know, or were given to me to review in the past.  There are a few (very few!) affiliate links among them.  In many cases I have included links to my reviews so you can learn more.

Let’s start with Catholic gifts. 

I used to think my only option for Catholic gifts was the local Catholic book and gift shop.  It’s still a great option when I need something right away, but there is so much else out there, much of it handmade by Catholic artisans.

I love, love, love Pink Salt Riot products.  You cannot go wrong shopping for your favorite Catholic woman here!  My top recommendation is the design your own bracelet:I wear the one I created most days!

I also love my St. Peter bracelet from Kindred Forest Co.

Visit them for a wonderful product line geared toward helping you be friends with the saints!

I am crazy about SockReligious (especially the clever name!).  There are so many choices that I can’t pick a favorite.  Maybe these?

Stay Close to Christ is another source for all kinds of Catholic gifts, including these adorable tiny saints.  You can get one for free with your $10 purchase if you enter the code LESLIE at check out.

I found these and many other favorite Catholic products via the CatholicsOnline Directory.  Click on the logo to learn more.

The talent of the artisans listed is truly a gift from God and I have been blessed by the products I have purchased.

A couple of my favorite Etsy shops I discovered via Catholics Online are Saongjai (I have bought sturdy, beautiful rosaries there) and No Heart Untouched (love her style and my husband loves the coffee cup I bought for him!).

There are always books on my Christmas list

I’ve already written some posts on Christmas-themed children’s books.  And here’s a link to non-Christmas picture books I love.

The following are a few Catholic books I have reviewed and can recommend.  Links to purchase are in each post:



And here are links to a few that I have not reviewed:

Be Yourself: A Journal for Catholic Girls  (The boys’ version is coming out soon!)

The Gift of Invitation (this is one of a series of Stay Connected journals)

Becoming Holy, One Virtue at a Time (another of the above series, to pre-order)

Made for Greatness (a growth mindset journal for Catholic kids)

Now for a few secular options!

I love the ring I purchased from Mama’s Jewelry, which contains the birthstones of all my children.  There are lots of styles to choose from and they are surprisingly affordable!  

This is the best lipstick I have ever owned.  It’s no longer available from the seller in the linked review, but you can purchase it here.

This next one is a bit pricey, but Healtop health and wellness products are amazing.

Finally, for those-hard-to-shop-for-people-who-have-everything, visit Uncommon Goods.  Honestly,  I love almost everything they sell (especially the candles)!

Let me know in the comments if you found anything here for your Christmas list!

Crabpot Trees SPONSORED Review

Before I even give my usual disclaimer let me tell you that I LOVE LOVE LOVE my crabpot tree!

Yes, I received said tree for free in exchange for my honest review of it here, in my capacity as a blogger for National Family Guide.  But it’s not even stretching the truth a little bit to tell you that I love this thing and I would like to own many more of them.

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First of all, the details the company wants me to share: Crab Pot Christmas Trees are remarkable, perfectly shaped trees that are pre-lit, fold flat for storage, sparkle from EVERY angle and are easily set up. What makes these holiday trees so unique and the MUST HAVE of the season for home decor? Crab Pot Christmas Trees are made from the very durable PVC Coated Crab Pot Wire which withstands all that Mother Nature throws at it.

You can see the company’s pictures and their explanatory video on my first post here.  But let me tell you about my personal experience.

This thing comes folded flat in a triangular box.  It takes literally two minutes to set up, tops.  We set it on our front porch for instant festiveness.  It came with anchors for putting it out in the yard if we had wanted to do that.  I was a little worried it might blow over in the wind but it never did even though we have had strong winds and rain, too, and our porch does get wet when it rains.

I have one complaint only which is that the cord is a little short.  It would be perfect for an in-floor or in-ground outlet but we had to attach ours to another strand of lights to reach the wall plug.  No big deal but just one detail that could be improved upon.

We love this tree and would buy more of them.  They are having a sale right now if you want to get your own–check out their site right here!

Putting Christ in Christmas

When our first child was a baby, 25 years ago, I had very specific ideas about Christmas that went along with my ideas about being a perfect mother.

From time to time when I was a child, my mother would suggest we should cut back on Christmas gift giving and concentrate instead on the true meaning of Christmas.  At which point we kids would raise a chorus of protests.  (Never happened, naturally.)

I thought to conquer materialism on the front end, by buying just a few well-chosen presents.  And that first year, it worked.  Between us and Santa, baby Emily received about $50 worth of well-chosen gifts.  My memories of that Christmas are idyllic:  Christmas dishes displayed in the china cabinet, Celtic Christmas music in the background, a baby in red velvet eating apple cinnamon bread, Midnight Mass, a day spent showing off Emily to adoring family members.

emily-christmas-baby

Of course it escalated from there.  And I didn’t count on extended family who didn’t want to get with the program.  Eventually several relatives who wanted the kids to get lots of presents but didn’t know what to buy them started sending me so much money I could hardly figure out how to spend it all, resulting in a veritable mountain of gifts under our tree each year.

That’s not to say that we ever left Christ out of Christmas. Presents were important, no doubt, but I don’t think our kids have ever forgotten the reason for the season.

The way we keep Advent has a lot to do with this, I think.  Two weeks before Christmas, the only signs of the season apparent are our Advent wreath and a few other candles here and there.  Our preparations build slowly–the other decorations will go up next weekend, probably, and the tree just a few days before Christmas.  We hold off on hosting any sort of gatherings until just a few days before Christmas or ideally even afterwards, waiting to start celebrating until the Guest of honor has arrived!

Religious decorations are given pride of place in our home.  Yes, we have Santas and trees, but my favorite Santa shows that he knows his proper place in the celebration.

christmas-santa

Christmas really begins for us on Christmas Eve, when we attend Mass as a family.  Not Midnight Mass, which doesn’t work for us at this point, but an evening Mass which we traditionally follow with a dinner out before coming home to one of my favorite Christmas rituals.

Every Christmas Eve, each child gets one present to open and it is always a Christmas book.  So the last thing the kids do before going to bed to talk and dream of Santa and presents is listen to me reading them Christmas stories, both the new ones and old favorites, most of which relate to the true meaning of Christmas.

Christmas Day is all presents and dinner and family and more presents, but one way we avoid having it turn into a materialistic free-for-all is that in our family presents are opened one at a time, youngest to oldest, until everyone finishes.  The kids are excited to see the happiness of the other members of the family upon opening gifts.  We do this in the morning and then we do it all again after dinner with the extended family–almost twenty people taking turns.  It takes HOURS.  It teaches patience.  And in the exchange of gifts and the love they represent we commemorate God’s gift of Christ to us, always recalling that God Himself is Love.

This post is part of the Siena Sisters’ CWBN Blog Hop.  You can read other posts by clicking here.

 

 

How to Celebrate Advent When Everyone Thinks It’s Already Christmas

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No joke, y’all, I started seeing houses with their Christmas lights up just after Halloween.  Is it any wonder that there will be Christmas trees lying on the curb by Christmas night, tossed out by people who have celebrated themselves out before the guest of honor even arrived?

But the reality is, that’s the world we live in, and being all sanctimonious about it (IT’s NOT EVEN ADVENT YET!!) isn’t going to help.  We could shut ourselves away from the world and refuse to participate, but that’s not much fun, is it?  The Christmas concerts and television specials, the tree lightings, the pageants and parades–they will all be over after Christmas Day.

So how to reconcile what the world teaches with what the Church teaches?  How do we keep Advent when the world says it’s already Christmas?  (And how do we celebrate Christmas when the world says it’s over?  Perhaps I will post on that at the proper time!)

Our family participates in many treasured Christmas traditions in the community, even though they start in November.  We can’t control how the rest of the world celebrates.  But we can control HOW and WHAT our family celebrates this time of year.  Here’s what we do:

  • We remove the harvest/fall decorations, and leave the mantel bare except for candles.
  • We wait much longer than everyone else to decorate for Christmas, putting up most of our decorations ten days or so before and the tree only a few days before.
  • We play special Advent music.
  • We attend our parish’s annual Advent Workshop.
  • With varying degrees of success from year to year we have an Advent wreath, a Jesse Tree, and Advent Calendars.

advent wreath

If you are just getting started with the idea of keeping Advent, start small.  Pick one activity and make sure you do it every day.  Kicking yourself for not doing a better job of celebrating Advent is probably not productive.  Last year was a rough one for me in this area, so I am resolving now to be more intentional about Advent this year, even as we continue to take part in the early Christmas revelry around us.

I love Advent, and have written a lot of posts on the topic.  In addition to those I linked above, check out the links below for more:

Advent Memories

Tragedy and Traditions

Christmastime Is Here–Not!

This post is part of the the Siena Sisters Monthly Blog Hop.  This month’s theme is Keeping Advent, Advent.  You can read the rest of the entries here.

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50 Years: A Birthday Story

So I haven’t blogged for a long time.  Because birthdays.  Most specifically, this year was my husband’s 50th birthday, which he had been anticipating for some time.  We had a special party, and I thought I would share some pictures of the big event.

We had a great turnout–about 100 people–and even the staff at Deadbeat Pete’s said it was the best party they had ever attended!

Instead of using a traditional guest book, I created a questionnaire for the guests to fill out and enlisted the help of DJ John Rutherford (who was amazing) to make sure everyone remembered.  I’m going to gather them up into a binder along with all the cards John received.  I know he will enjoy reading them over again and again.

guest book page

I also created a hashtag for the event and printed up cards to put on all the tables.  This was not as successful as I don’t think a lot of people who came are as active on social media as I am.  🙂  However, many people did upload their pictures to the Facebook Event page!

#Happy50JTS

 

I used Canva to create both of those, as well as the invitation, which we disseminated with a Facebook Event page, an Evite, and even by hand. 🙂

You're Invited

To make sure that people didn’t forget our upcoming event, I posted several pictures each day of John from birth up to the present, which he said made him feel very loved!  The one below might be my favorite:

JohnS.6

John said this one of him and Emily (who shares his birthday and turned 25 this year) was his:

john emmy baby smile

Besides food and drink and cake and dancing, of course a milestone birthday demands toasts.   To finish this post, I want to share with you what I said about John.  It was a pleasure and an honor to get to stand up in front of everyone to sing his praises.

First of all, I would like to thank everyone on John’s behalf for coming to help him celebrate tonight.  It means a lot to him that so many people turned up for this milestone.

John was 19 when I met him—he was delivering mail at our dorm, and my roommate, who was in the same French class, introduced us.  For an entire year, we called him John Paul, because that was what he was going by in French class and we thought it was his real name!  I wrote about meeting him in my diary, saying that he was “a very funny guy.”

John didn’t wear suits every day back then, but he was certainly more dressed up than almost everyone else, and we formed the opinion that he came from a well-to-do family.  We never would have guessed that his father had been a steel-mill worker and that his mother was a waitress, and that he was the first person in his family to attend college.

As we got to know John, he shared with us that his father had died when he was 18.  By the time he spoke of this, it had been about two years since it happened, which seemed like a long time back then.  But of course it wasn’t very long at all, and he was still reeling from the effects of that loss.  His dad was 49, and that’s why reaching this 50th birthday has always been a big deal to John.

Anyone who knows John can tell he is a natural leader.  He has held numerous leadership positions starting in high school.  When I met him, his plan for his life included joining the Foreign Service, living a bachelor lifestyle until the age of 30 or so, running for political office, and never having any kids!

Like most of us, John’s life took a different path from the one he envisioned back then.  Instead of being in the public eye, his choices have led him to be instead an unsung hero, someone whose life is centered around faith, family, and making the world a better place.  The kind of hero who uses his many talents to help the less fortunate, whose job representing indigent parents and neglected children is more vocation than career, who always puts his family ahead of his work, who worries more about helping his clients than getting them to pay their legal fees.

John is generous to a fault.  Everyone in this room knows that they can count on John to do anything asked of him, even when it’s personally inconvenient.  He is the kind of friend that anyone would like to have.   

Today it’s time for us to sing songs about the unsung hero, or at least to toast him.   So let’s raise our glasses and I will finish this with an Irish Toast:  “I have known many, and liked not a few, but loved only one and this toast is to you.”

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Jake, our oldest son, toasting his dad.

 

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Teddy, the middle son (and middle child), adding some humor to his toast

Signs of the Season: An Advent Workshop

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Lorelei and William as Star Boy and the Virgin Mary at the Advent Workshop

Since it first launched in 2001, my family has attended the Signs of the Season Advent Workshop at our parish every year–even when Lorelei was only ten days old!  This annual event, founded and conducted by Dorothy Romines, has always been an integral part of our Christmas preparations.

This year, Dorothy and the parish CCD program joined forces and held the workshop on Sunday morning during class time.  Lorelei was one of the few non-CCD kids to attend, and she enjoyed it as always.

A few years ago I wrote an article for The East Tennessee Catholic about the workshop.  I’m sharing it in a revised form here.

Last month Dorothy Romines conducted her annual Advent workshop at Immaculate Conception Church in Knoxville, sharing years of research about Advent customs around the world. But her interest in the subject began many decades ago.

As a young woman she attended Webster College in St. Louis, where her aunt was the mother superior and her sister was in the convent. She recalls the sisters celebrating St. Lucy’s feast on Dec. 13 by bringing hot chocolate and sweet rolls to the students’ rooms early in the morning, singing as they came, “like angels floating down the halls.”

Mrs. Romines shared the St. Lucy custom with her children, one boy and four girls. They had Advent calendars too, and she recalls making Nativity sets and O Antiphon decorations with them. Today her children carry on some of those customs with her 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. And after 28 years of teaching elementary school, Mrs. Romines now teaches the children—and adults—of Immaculate Conception Parish about Advent.

Mrs. Romines had been a member of IC off and on over the years, returning for good when she retired about 20 years ago. Five years later she had the idea of beginning an Advent workshop, “Signs of the Season,” for the children of the parish. The project started small, with $100 from the adult-faith-formation team. It quickly became one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the year, with 50 or more people attending, including adults who enjoy learning about Advent and making crafts.

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Over the years Mrs. Romines has presented Advent customs ranging from the Mexican piñata and posada to the Polish oplatki (Christmas wafer). Participating children have made Nativity sets from a variety of materials, corn-husk angels and turnip candle holders from the Celtic tradition, a variety of Christmas tree ornaments, and always Advent wreaths.

Mrs. Romines provides handouts for home celebrations, including blessings and readings for use with the Advent wreath and Jesse tree ornaments to make at home. The event has also included dinner, singing, and some impromptu dramatic productions.

Lorelei participates in a play at last year's workshop
Lorelei participating in a play in the 2011 Worshop

Already planning for next year’s “Signs of the Season,” Mrs. Romines says she is pleased by the popularity of the workshop, which she puts on with the help of the Immaculate Conception women’s group and other helpers, including her great-niece Nora Connelly who has provided music, and her late brother George Willard, who documented the event with photographs.

“It’s something I love to do,” she said, citing the O Antiphons and the St. Lucy custom as favorites. “I love the sense of cooperation with the parish community, and I hope families will benefit by learning some Advent customs.”

Here’s a link to an article on the Workshop that appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel in 2010 if you’d like to read more about it. 

Advent Memories

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Three of my kids in front of the statue of the Blessed Mother at St. Joseph School

I’m a Catholic school veteran—16 years all told.    I sent my three oldest children to the same parochial grade school I attended.  Catholic schools have Religion class every day along with Math, English, and Social Studies, and that’s great—but what’s even better are the little ways in which faith is part of EVERY class, the way that it can be talked about or brought to life at any moment.  Even more than actual religious education, this to me is the gift and the value of attending a Catholic school.

At this holy time of year—and by “time of year” I mean Advent, not Christmas—my thoughts always turn to early December mornings at St. Joseph School.  The whole school went to Mass every morning—our sanctuary revealed by the opening of a curtain, our pews a cafeteria full of folding chairs.  And afterwards we filed out—all 200 of us—and gathered in the front hall of the school.

I remember mornings as darker in those days.  Certainly they were colder, and with wall radiators providing the only heat we shivered in our red cardigans.  But what happened on those Advent mornings was a source of light and warmth to me.

There was—still is—a little elevated area next to the office, full of rocks (that we were forbidden to play with and always did), with a statue of the Blessed Virgin in the middle.  During the Advent season, Mary was joined by a tree, a cedar tree I believe, that served as a Jesse Tree during Advent and, briefly, as a Christmas tree right before the winter break.

Jesse was King David’s father, and Jesus was descended (by adoption) from David’s line.  The Jesse Tree custom involves the hanging of a different ornament on the tree each day, and the reading of a Bible verse.  The ornaments and verses tell the story of Jesus’ ancestors and foreshadow the coming Messiah.  The way I remember it, the first one every year was a stump, and the verse was something like, “A new root springs from the stump of Jesse.”

One of the big girls (in my memory they are adults, even though now I realize they were just little girls, eighth graders) would hold up the felt ornaments for all of us to see as the verse was read.  Then Sister Janice (our principal) would start one of the Advent songs—The King of Glory, On Jordan’s Bank, or O Come O Come Emmanuel.   We all knew them by heart.  And we’d walk slowly back to our classrooms, singing as we went.

I don’t know how everyone else felt about it, but to me it was magical.  I looked forward to it every year.   So when my three big kids were little, we cut out and colored our own Jesse Tree ornaments.  For many years, we hung an ornament on my favorite house plant each evening before supper.  We lost the ornaments when our house burned down, but Lorelei and William willingly colored a new set  so that we could continue the tradition for years to come.

This post originally appeared on my friend Lacy’s blog.  If you are looking for Christmas gifts, you should check out her handmade necklaces here.

 

Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar

Twenty-five years ago today, which would have been a Thursday night, John and friends were having a bachelor party (and the less said about that the better!) while my friends and I celebrated more sedately at the family home of one of my bridesmaids.  We were married two days later, on August 12, 1989, which means that we are marking our silver anniversary this week.
Yes, we have been married for a quarter of a century.  It sounds even longer when you put it that way, but no matter how you put it, it is an accomplishment, and nowadays it seems like a rare one.  John and I both have definite ideas about the importance of marriage and commitment and what has to be done to maintain that, and luckily those are issues we agree about strongly.  I told John I would probably be writing a “marriage tips” blog post some time this week, and asked him for his input, and I didn’t disagree with anything he said.
Sometimes it seems like it’s been more like half a century, and sometimes it feels like we were married yesterday.  No one going in truly understands what “for better, for worse,” really means.  Like everyone, we’ve had joy and sorrow, bitter arguments and harmonious agreement.  There have been long stretches when we couldn’t stand each other, when love was something we DID, not something we FELT.
You love your kids unconditionally from the moment of their birth.  That’s biology.  Loving the person you are married to is a decision and a commitment that you must renew every day.  You might know that intellectually when you get married, especially if you’ve been lucky enough to undergo some kind of marriage preparation, but you can’t and won’t understand what that’s like until you are in the middle of it.
I vividly remember saying to John, when we had been dating all of six months, that it didn’t seem like enough just to SAY “I love you,” anymore:  I wanted to LIVE it.  That’s what marriage is, and we didn’t know how hard, or how rewarding, it would be.  Those romantic early days were wonderful.  I love remembering them.  And I’m happy to say that we still like romance and spending time together and that spark has never gone out.  But love sustained and nurtured over twenty-five years is  stronger and richer and deeper and profound in ways we could not have understood back then.
John and I were only 22 and 23 when we took this life-altering step, when we yoked ourselves together forever.  We were young and we didn’t know a lot of things but we knew that we believed in marriage and that no matter what happened we would not break the vows we made.
Just see how young we were:
Wedding Couple
And we were surrounded by friends who were just as young, almost all of whom are still important parts of our lives:
wedding group 1
wedding group 3
wedding group 2
The Entire Wedding Party
And of course by family, many of whom are gone now:
wedding group 4
Emily and I were talking yesterday about why Catholic wedding ceremonies are supposed to take place inside a church.  I’ve been to some lovely outdoor weddings but as I sat this morning at Mass I was thinking how grateful I was that I still attend church every Sunday in the building where my parents were married, where I was baptized, were we were married, where four of our kids were baptized and two have been confirmed.  That’s a blessing.
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wedding bride
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We haven’t decided yet exactly how we will celebrate on Tuesday.  There probably won’t be dancing:
wedding couple 5
wedding kids
But there may be cake!
wedding cake
 
 
 
 

2013 in 13 Photos

Linking up today with House Unseen, Life Unscripted’s awesome 2013 in 13 Photos!
Photo 1:  January.  Immaculate Conception Church.  I take a picture every Sunday and sign in on FourSquare.  I’m the Mayor!

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Photo 2: February.  John’s birthday cake.  My own secret recipe, and symbolic of the many cakes I bake at that time of year . . . which is coming right up!
strawberry cake
Photo 3: March.  Cinnamon rolls for Easter, a lifelong tradition.
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Photo 3: April.  Lorelei’s First Communion, and the beginning of the craziness that was April and May.
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Photo 5: May.  Emily’s graduation from Spring Hill College, which was preceded by Teddy’s from high school.
Emily, Jake, and Teddy 2
Photo 6: June.  John’s 25th Reunion, and a fun weekend away alone for us.
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Photo 7: July.  Zinnias in my garden.  It was my first year back to serious gardening in a long time and I loved it.
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Photo 8: August.  Dropping Teddy off at Notre Dame.
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Photo 9: September.  The beginning of our relationship with our spider friend.
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Photo 10: October.  Lorelei at Dollywood.  We had a lot of fun there this year with our season passes.
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Photo 11: November.  Obligatory cute cat picture.  Mr. Kimutis and Mace engage in some brotherly love.
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Photo 12: December.  Lorelei bonds with her cousin Sophie.  We had a wonderful time seeing Sophie again and meeting her four little sisters.
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Photo 13:  Merry Christmas.
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It All Boils Down to This

It’s New Years Day and y’all know what that means, right?  Black-eyed peas and greens, at least for us Southerners.

new years peas
As long as I can remember, my mother forced us to eat at least one bite of black-eyed peas each New Years Day, “For luck,” she said.  Later I learned that greens are also required, if you want to make money in the new year.  And who doesn’t want that, right?

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Luckily in this house a majority (read:  everyone but the little people) like either the peas, the greens, or both.

I’d never realized until this year that this tradition is strictly a Southern one.  I looked up its origin this afternoon while I was cooking and learned that it started post-Civil War, when supposedly those affected by Sherman’s March to the Sea were left with precious little to eat except for the black-eyed peas which the Union soldiers (who called them “cow peas”) assumed were only good for fodder for the Southerners’ long-gone cattle.  The erstwhile Confederates grew strong again on this minimalist yet healthy diet, and the foods eventually morphed from a generic “new beginnings” meal to one symbolizing future luck and prosperity.

As I perhaps have mentioned, I am an English major so I found additional meaning in today’s meal.

Just look at these collard greens, y’all.

new years greens
I don’t know if you can tell but that’s a LOT of greens. (And for only .99 at Kroger, too!)  It’s three enormous bunches which were too big for the plastic produce bag and took up the entire bottom shelf of my refrigerator.  It probably took me an hour to wash and rip them up so I could cook them.  The picture of them in the pan?  That was less than half of them.

Yet after ten minutes cooking, we were left with this:

new years greens 3
Yes, that’s what they boiled down to.  So that’s the source of that saying! I thought, cleverly, to myself.

But I also really did think, and announcedto my husband, that I am going to try to apply the lesson of the greens to any situations (I won’t say problems yet) that arise this year.  Whatever big tangled things I have to deal with, I’m going to envision them as a big mess of greens that haven’t been cooked yet.  I’m going to know in advance that really there’s just a little kernel at the heart of whatever it is that I really have to deal with.  Before I get all worked up and confused and overwhelmed, I’m going to think about what it all boils down to.

Happy 2014 to you!