Tragedy and Traditions

The following was written in Advent 2011 and posted at my friend Lacy’s blog.  That first post-fire Christmas still seems very close and this time of year still is a little painful for me.

Traditions.  We all have them.  Children demand them—“We did that last year—we have to do it again!” I was fortunate to grow up in a home where holiday traditions were carved in stone.  For 25 years I knew exactly where I would be and when and with whom on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Life intervened—divorce, marriages, kids, estrangements, death.  Even as my husband, five children, and I began to develop our own traditions, we always had to be a little more flexible—never knowing for sure who would host the Christmas dinner, or where we would gather with extended family to open presents.

When my oldest was only a baby I started a treasured Christmas Eve tradition of giving each child a Christmas book to unwrap and have read to them before bedtime.  Our collection of Christmas classics grew and grew, leading to additional Christmas story evenings, reading to the kids’ classes at school, even a Christmas bedtime story party for my youngest two and their classmates for several years.

Other favorite traditions centered around the decorations we collected over twenty-two years of marriage:  the nutcrackers which covered the piano, part of a collection originally started for my husband by my grandmother and continued in later years by my mother; my less-planned collections of Santas, including my favorite of Santa kneeling by the manger;  the crèche that belonged to my grandmother and then to my mother, still in its original box from a long defunct department store.

christmas santa
The kneeling Santa my sister gave me for Christmas 2011 to replace the one that was lost in the fire

Tragedy struck on Labor Day. Our house burned nearly to the ground.

The books are ashes. The piano is reduced to its metal innards. Here and there among the ruins you can spot a piece of some treasure, beyond repair. Fire doesn’t just destroy, it consumes.

Fireman nutcracker in the ruins

Several years ago our Christmas tree fell over right after we decorated it, crushing several irreplaceable ornaments, many of them heirlooms from my husband’s German grandfather. The children and I stood around the fallen tree and cried. Every year since as we hung the remaining and replacement ornaments we have remembered and missed the ones that were broken.

This loss is so much more immense that we haven’t even shed tears over it. To lose everything you own is indescribable. What will it be like this year, putting out new decorations in an unfamiliar house?  How will it feel not to hang any ornaments commemorating “our first Christmas together”—we had FIVE! or any “Baby’s First Christmas” balls or handmade (childmade) decorations that their makers looked sheepish about but continued to hang all the same?

We believe in celebrating Advent before we move on to Christmas, so we haven’t had to deal with decorating yet. We cling to the traditions we can, so we started the season by attending the Advent Workshop sponsored by our church, where we made an Advent wreath that we will light each evening as we listen to a special reading for the day.  We’ve begun to attend the holiday celebrations—the downtown tree lighting, the Fantasy of Trees—that we have gone to every year since we’ve had children.  The Christmas Parade, the Living Christmas Tree, the Nativity Pageant, and the Walk through Bethlehem will provide continuity with other Christmases.

At home we will put up new decorations. We’ve already collected quite a few –some from a Christmas thrift store, some from Target, many from family and friends.  The question of whether to try to replace missing items or do something altogether new is something we still don’t have an answer for—and that applies to other lost belongings, not just Christmas decorations. So far, it seems we know what we need to replace when the time comes. The nutcrackers, for example—they seem to be important to everyone and we’ve already bought a few, including two big ones to guard the front door.

We don’t really need decorations to remind us of the true spirit of Christmas this year anyway—we are surrounded by the proof that there really are people who “honor Christmas in [their] hearts and try to keep it all the year.” If Christmas is about love and giving, we’ve been experiencing it since the day our house burned, when the offers of assistance started pouring in, shortly followed by donations, clothing, toys, gift cards, and enough furniture to completely fill our new home.

We are planning a holiday open house the weekend before Christmas, so that all our family, friends, and even strangers who shared what they had with us can come celebrate with us and see how their generosity helped us make it through the past few months. Who knows?  Maybe it will become a tradition.

christmas house
Our new house at Christmastime

I’m sharing this post at the #WorthRevisit linkup–please visit the hosts’ blogs here and here to see other great posts!

Celebrating Advent with a Jesse Tree

When most people are getting excited about Christmas, I am usually getting excited about Advent.  And outside of church, you don’t hear much about this special season, as people are so eager to rush straight into Christmas. When I was growing up my family always had an Advent Calendar (it’s a much more widespread custom these days and I hate seeing them called “Countdown to Christmas Calendars”).  I think much later we might have had an Advent Wreath too.  But most of the Advent celebrating I remember happened at my Catholic school, specifically the Jesse Tree ceremony that took place each morning after Mass.  It’s one of my most treasured memories.

Years ago I was part of a church committee that as I recall had to do with celebrating in the “domestic church” (i.e. the family).  The first project (it might have been the only project—it was a short-lived committee) that we did was to set up a display of Advent activities for the home.  The lady whose idea this was has gone on to host successful Advent workshops right before the season for around 13 years, which are well-attended and very popular—truly a highlight of the season for our family.  At the very first workshop I acquired some cut-out Jesse Tree ornaments and I sat down with my three (then!) kids to color them.  We treasured these ornaments for years (all the more as the kids grew because they were so obviously colored by little hands) and used them to have our own Jesse Tree ceremony at home.

Today I’d like to share with you the meaning of the Jesse Tree and how you can incorporate it into your Advent celebration. Who was Jesse?  He was the father of King David, and he’s usually considered to be at the top of Jesus’ genealogical tree.  So that’s where the tree part comes from.  The ornaments themselves tell the story of God’s Providence from Creation up to the coming of Jesus.  What you will need:

  • Jesse Tree clip art/scissors.There are many web sites that provide free Jesse Tree ornaments—some only needing to be cut out, others requiring you to color them.  Do a Google or a Pinterest search to find ones you like.
  • Markers/crayons or whatever else you want to decorate your ornaments with.I’m not crafty, so we used markers.
  • Hole punch and ribbon to make your ornaments ready for hanging.We used the curly Christmas wrapping ribbon.
  • A Bible to look up the verses that go with each ornament.If you don’t happen to own one, you can look this up online too!  Some ornaments may already have a verse written on the back.  You could do that, or you could plan to read the whole story each day, depending on the attention span of your kids!
  • A tree.At my grade school, we used a cedar tree that later became the school Christmas tree.  In our house, we used our Schefflera plant.  I’ve seen sites suggesting a paper tree pasted on a wall.  But I think the easiest and best for ornament hanging would be a nice dead branch with several twigs, which you could put in a bucket of sand or dirt or rocks.  Just do whatever is easiest—I like my projects low in stress!

We did our Jesse Tree ceremony every evening before dinner.  But you could also do it first thing each morning, or at bedtime.  Do whatever works for your family. Our kids took turns, and the child of the day held up the ornament, read the verse, and then hung it on the tree. Sometimes we had a little discussion to explain the context of the verse.  If your kids aren’t readers yet, you can read the verse.  Or you can just explain its importance:  e.g. Creation—God made the world; Adam and Eve – God made us and loves us; Fall of Man – people disobeyed God; et cetera. This is an easy project that serves two purposes:  reminding kids of the “reason for the season” while also helping them count down the days! Enjoy!

This post originally appeared on my friend Lacy’s blog.  Lacy is no longer blogging but you should check out the beautiful necklaces she is making!



My Forever Home

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You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.
– Maya Angelou 

You can’t go home again isn’t just metaphorical for many people.  The first home I ever knew–the married student housing apartments where I lived with my parents until I was four years old–was demolished not long ago to make way for intramural sports fields.  The last home I lived in was burned nearly to the ground, destroying almost everything we owned.

burned down house

At this time of year, hearts turn toward home, and I am no different–but I find myself longing for places that are no longer available.  I was fortunate to live in the same neighborhood for most of my childhood.  My closest cousins and my maternal grandparents lived there too, and my paternal grandmother lived across town.  Holidays followed a predictable, safe pattern:  Thanksgiving lunch at Mima’s and supper at Granny’s, then Christmas morning at Mima’s and Christmas afternoon at Granny’s.  That was the way it was for 22 years, until divorces and deaths intervened.   Until recently, one childhood house remained:  my mother had been living in her mother’s old house.  When she sold it earlier this year, the last link remaining to that childhood stability was gone.

As the oldest in my family of birth and the first one to have a family of my own, providing a home for the holidays has most often fallen to me, and I hope that my children have fond memories of those days even though the places and patterns have shifted over time.  My favorite adult holiday memories took place in the Victorian house where we lived for eight years.  Despite its somewhat decrepit condition, with its large formal spaces it was ideal for entertaining.  It was the house for which we collected not-quite-antique furniture, piece by piece, the one we decorated with portraits of our children and religious icons.  To me it was my dream house, and when we had to move out for financial reasons I was devastated.  No house has really felt like home to me since.

Victorian House

For the two years after that, we were renting a house that never felt comfortable or safe.  Part of that, I think, was because it was not really ours and we weren’t sure how long we would be able to stay there.  When it burned down, destroying everything, it was the completion of the loss that began with our move.

Since that happened four years ago, I feel I have been trying to regain a sense of home.  We are still renting, but we have plans to buy the house we have lived in since just a few weeks after the fire.  I have started gardening again, putting down literal roots.  But I struggle with decorating, acquiring knickknacks, hanging pictures, really committing.

house and garden

Almost everything in the house–right down to the dishes we eat from and the sheets on the beds–was given to us.  We are surrounded by reminders of the love of the people in our various communities every day.

And that’s part of what made me realize that to me, home has come to mean something other than a house.  When I think of home, I think of Knoxville, my hometown, where I have spent all but five years of my life, the place where I was married and where all my babies were born.  Whenever I return from a vacation, my heart feels a little lighter as soon as I cross the Tennessee line.  The road sign that reads Knoxville – 12 miles always lifts my spirits.  And probably the most welcoming sight in the world to me is the Knoxville skyline, with my own parish church at the very front, visible on the interstate as we drive through town.

IC from CP

My roots in this town are deep–my father’s people have lived in this area since the 1700s.  Even though my husband has only lived here 25 years, he has put down roots as well.  I may not know in what house we will be celebrating the holidays five or ten or twenty years from now, but I know the party will be in Knoxville, my forever home.

Home to Me

This post is part of the “Home to Me” blog hop, hosted by Julie Walsh of These Walls. During the two weeks from Friday, November 13 through Thanksgiving Day, more than a dozen bloggers will share about what the concept of “home” means to them. “Home” can been elusive or steady. It can be found in unexpected places. It is sought and cherished and mourned. It is wrapped up in the people we love. As we turn our minds and hearts toward home at the beginning of this holiday season, please visit the following blogs to explore where/what/who is “Home to Me.”

November 13 – Julie @ These Walls

November 14 – Leslie @ Life in Every Limb

November 15 – Ashley @ Narrative Heiress

November 16 – Rita @ Open Window

November 17 – Svenja, guest posting @ These Walls

November 18 – Anna @ The Heart’s Overflow

November 19 – Debbie @ Saints 365

November 20 – Melissa @ Stories My Children Are Tired of Hearing

November 21 – Amanda @ In Earthen Vessels

November 22 – Daja and Kristina @ The Provision Room

November 23 – Emily @ Raising Barnes

November 24 – Annie @ Catholic Wife, Catholic Life

November 25 – Nell @ Whole Parenting Family

November 26 – Geena @ Love the Harringtons


A Short Christmas Story

William, my big baby boy, is growing up, even though he doesn’t want to.  He’ll be 13 in March, he’s almost as tall as I am, he weighs 140 lbs., and he started middle school this year. [edit: he’s now a 16 year old high school sophomore, 6 ft., and about 220 lbs.!]
baby william
He’s not a fan of school, William.  He’s had some struggles, and only returned to formal schooling last year after spending several grades being taught at home.   Making friends with other kids is not his strong point.  And middle school is a particularly vicious place, where bullying is a favorite sport.
This one kid has been a thorn in William’s side most of the year.  The name-calling got so out of hand that both John and I spoke to the boy ourselves after school as well as alerting the principal.  And things improved.  But while he has turned it down a notch, this boy cannot seem to stay away from William.  It’s more irritation than bullying, in my opinion–this boy is much smaller and William is not intimidated, just annoyed.
At first William would come home and complain about how much he “hated” the boy and what “a jerk” he was.  But lately that’s changed.  He still complains, but he also talks about how “sad” and “pathetic” the boy is, how he never does any schoolwork, how he just lays his head down on his desk, how none of the teachers seem to like him much.  He says, “I wonder what his life is like?” and asks me, “Why do you think he acts this way?  What is the matter with him?”  He says he wants to be angry with him but he can’t help feeling sorry for him.
William and Mace
William loves to have conversations in the car on the short drive to school in the morning, and today he introduced the topic.  “What do you think,” he asked me, “Jesus would say about the way we celebrate His birthday?”  We both agreed that Jesus would be in favor of presents, although not materialism.  But that most of all he would like us to show love, especially to those most in need of it.    William recalled the Golden Rule, and then I reminded him about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies.  I suggested–only half serious, really–that he should say Merry Christmas to anyone who bothered him today.
But when William  got in the car this afternoon, he said that on the way out of school he went right up to the boy who has been bothering him, gave him a hug and wished him Merry Christmas.  A few minutes later, he said, the boy walked down to where William was waiting for me and said, “I can’t believe I am saying this, but Merry Christmas to you!” 🙂
William gazing

Persecution and Perspective

It’s that time of year again!  Yes, it’s time for the annual “War on Christmas,” when all we faithful Christians must endure the pain of being wished “Happy Holidays” and seeing retailers advertising “Holiday Sales” and let’s not forget all those evil people taking Christ out of Christmas and replacing him with an X!
I could write several blog posts on this topic, but this morning I just want to provide a few points for your consideration.

  • Nobody can take Christ out of YOUR Christmas, no matter what they say or do.
  • Holiday = Holy Day.  So Christians still win on that one.
  • X = Christ. YES IT DOES.  If you don’t believe me, read this.
  • This is what an actual war on Christians looks like:”According to the U.S. Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Christ . . .    Christians in North Korea face the risk of detention in the prison camps, severe torture and, in some cases, execution for practicing their religious beliefs . . . Catholic and Orthodox groups in Syria say the anti-government rebels have committed “awful acts” against Christians, including beheadings, rapes and murders of pregnant women . . . In August 2013, Egypt faced what has been called the the worst anti-Christian violence in seven centuries: 38 churches were destroyed, 23 vandalized; 58 homes were burned and looted and 85 shops, 16 pharmacies and 3 hotels were demolished; 6 Christians were killed in the violence and 7 were kidnapped . . . [In Pakistan] two suicide bombers exploded shrapnel laden vests outside All Saints’ Church in the old city of Peshawar. Choir members and children attending Sunday school were among 81 people killed. The attack left 120 people wounded, with 10 of them in critical condition . . . . Four Christians in Iran will get 80 lashes each this month for drinking wine during a communion service . . .  An average of 100 Christians around the world are killed each month for their faith.”  If you can stand it, you can read the rest here.
  • If you still feel persecuted, take heart!  Here’s what the Scriptures have to say to you:

    John 15:18  “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” 

    2 Timothy 3:12  “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

    1 Peter 4:12-14  “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. “

    1 Peter 3:14 “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled”

    Romans 12:17-21 “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

     Matthew 5:44 “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

    I’ll just leave you with this.  What would Jesus do?  Seriously?  This is the guy who gave us a NEW commandment, to love one another as He loved us, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to forgive seventy time seven.  Do you really think He would want us feeling and spreading ill will on His birthday over the way people extend greetings at this time of year?  

O Come O Come Emmanuel . . .

I made my first Holy Communion during Advent 1974, and that was the processional song. It’s the first time I remember hearing it–at any rate it’s when I learned the words–and so hearing it this time of year has a little bit of extra significance for me!
Besides which, I love Advent. As anyone who has followed this blog knows, because I’ve said so a lot! And although I haven’t set out an Advent wreath as yet, and may or may not manage a Jesse Tree, I won’t be decorating the house for Christmas for at least two weeks, as our family savors this waiting time of year.
advent wreath
Since I have written on this topic so much in the past, I thought I would collect them all right here for those who are interested.
Christmastime Is Here . . . NOT
One Year Later
So This Is Christmas
Signs of the Season
Signs of the Season II
Countdown to Christmas
More Advent Memories
How to Celebrate Advent When Everyone Thinks It’s Already Christmas
Advent Traditions My Family Loves
Celebrating Advent with a Jesse Tree
That Time I Did Not Advent Right
Advent Memories
Tragedy and Traditions
And as a bonus, enjoy this rendition of O Come O Come Emmanuel:

If you celebrate Advent, tell me about it in the comments!

We're a Little Bit Pagan . . .

Did y’all ever think about how WEIRD Christmas is?  I don’t mean what we are celebrating, of course–I know you know that.  Maybe what I really should be asking is did y’all ever think about how weird communal traditions are in general, or if weird isn’t the right word, how . . . PRIMITIVE.
I mean, look how we all go kind of crazy this time of year, and all the wacky (if you really think about it) things we do!  Chopping down trees and bringing them inside our houses and decorating them.  Festooning our homes with lights inside and out.  Singing certain songs.  Eating certain foods.  And more or less all of us, no matter how different we are, observing very similar customs.
And we all take it so seriously, too.  It’s not the kind of thing most of us would ever opt out of.  It’s like, I don’t know, we are afraid the sun won’t return and the days won’t grow longer again if we don’t do these things. 🙂
I’ve always said it was an awesomely strategic PR move on the part of the Church to co-opt the trappings of the primitive pagan festivals for use in religious celebrations.  You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, right?  And I wonder, if things hadn’t happened that way, if the Church had instead forbidden people to engage in the old ways at all, what would have risen up in their place.
Because there has to be something inside of us, don’t you think, something more than mere custom or habit, that NEEDS these kind of communal celebrations?  Surely they could not continue, could not mean so much, seem so crucial, if there wasn’t more to it than that?
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Countdown to Christmas

That’s what they call some of the calendars in stores this time of year, and it irritates me.  Of course, Advent doesn’t always correspond exactly to the dates on the calendar, but it’s an Advent Calendar all the same!
I remember the first one I ever had–a Nativity scene with child-like characters.  It was pop-up and had movable parts.  I do have an incredible memory for everything that happened before I had kids but that’s not why I remember it–it’s because we saved it and continued to hang it year after year.

It looked a lot like this.
It looked a lot like this.

My sisters and I were largely responsible for decorating our house at Christmas time, and at some point we decided that our large dining room would look more festive with every single Advent Calendar we’d ever had displayed on one wall.  Although originally we’d get one and take turns opening the doors, eventually we started getting two or even three, so there were a lot of them.
I recall several Tasha Tudor versions (my mother’s favorite), one featuring Benji (remember that movie?), a Muppet one (“Hope Santy-Poo is good to you,” quoth Miss Piggy), the Legend of the Robin, ‘Twas the Night before Christmas, the Nutcracker Suite, and many more.  We were so excited about our calendars, which we opened each morning before we left for school.  We looked forward with great anticipation to what the big secret would be under the 24th door.  This sometimes caused a problem when our cousins got the same calendar we had, because they were the kind of kids who peeked (we would NEVER EVER peek) and then they would tell us what was under that last door.
We had this one for sure.
We had this one for sure.

My first year at college, my roommate and I were determined to be festive.  We festooned our rooms with Christmas lights and put up a manger scene that I brought from home at Thanksgiving.  And since exams ran so late that we were at school until Advent was almost over, we wanted an Advent calendar.  Yes, my roommate and her family had this tradition as well, but with a twist–they always had chocolate calendars, which at that point I had never even heard of!  So we went out to Wisconsin Avenue and went shopping, and managed to find one.  I can’t remember now whether we continued that custom for the next three years.
Of course when my kids were old enough I started getting Advent Calendars for them.  There was no question of sharing–everyone had his own.  I haven’t always been successful with this tradition, though.  I never seemed to have it before Advent started, so we’d end up having to open several days at once when I finally got one.  Or there were years I waited so long that there was none to be had–or really hideous ones that I would normally have scorned.  And although I wanted to save them, either they weren’t as sturdy or my kids are rougher because some of them didn’t make it to the following year!
Sadly, at some point I found the old Advent Calendars from my childhood, which no one was displaying anymore, and decided they would make a nice addition to display with ours, which at that time we plastered all over the walls of our den.  So now ALL of them are gone.
I got the jump on this year by buying one on sale AFTER Christmas (because I forgot to get one until too late last year!).  But then Lorelei and William saw chocolate ones at the grocery store and wanted one of those.  So this year we have two, and they can alternate calendars each day.  It warms my heart to see their excitement and enjoyment and takes me back to a simpler time in my own life.

Signs of the Season II

And one last link on the Advent Workshop, this one from the Knoxville News Sentinel.  William was quoted in this story!  Can you tell I really, really liked the Advent Workshop?  So much so that I never missed one, even though one year that meant I showed up with a newborn Lorelei less than two weeks after giving birth.

Lorelei as Mary and William as Start-boy at the Workshop in 2010
Lorelei as Mary and William as Star-boy at the Workshop in 2010