Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent: Free or Inexpensive Ideas for the Season

Typing the title for this blog post made me cringe.

“Free or Inexpensive Ideas for the Season”? Really?

How about the most free and most free-ing idea of all: 

We can take time with God today—right now!—and tell Him that we are tired of living a life that throws up barriers to our relationship with Him.  Even though nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39), we sure spend a lot of our time trying to get away from Him, trying to “manage” on our own, trying to convince ourselves that doing whatever we want is the real definition of “freedom.”  For a truly meaningful Advent “activity,” let’s just pray. 
Let’s bow our heads in the midst of rooms so full of clutter that it looks like a bomb has gone off (that’s not just my living room, I hope), and tell God that we are sorry for anything and everything that has gotten in the way of our relationship with Him. Let’s ask Him for the strength to turn away from our sins, for the courage to live our lives differently than we have been, and for the open-heartedness to make a place for God’s Spirit to live within us so we can have His power to live every new day. 

When John the Baptist fulfilled his role of preparing the way for the Lord, by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), and when Jesus came after proclaiming: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15), they were giving us the great message of Advent: The Savior is coming.  Turn away from your sins. Receive forgiveness and salvation.  Live as God’s beloved child!

So that, my readers, is my very best suggestion for a free activity that gets to the heart of the Advent season.

Now, for some of the ideas that I had originally planned for a post with the title, Free or Inexpensive Ideas for the Season!

I was keeping a running list of ideas, which I, of course, misplaced right before sitting down to write this post.  Here are a few that have come back to mind; I hope you'll add some to the list, as well!
  • Watch classic Christmas movies, with messages that are uplifting if not necessarily religious, such as Santa Claus is Coming to Town and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
  • Enjoy a mug of hot chocolate or warm apple cider as a family.
  • Get out the family stash of box games, and enjoy a cozy evening at home. 
  • Drive around the neighborhood to see all of the Christmas lights and decorations.

  • Find a Living Nativity being held near your home.
  • Sing lots of Christmas carols, and help your children learn the words to the meaningful songs of the season.
  • Attend Christmas Eve services wherever you have traveled for the holiday. 
  • Have an old-fashioned Christmas crafting session, cutting paper snowflakes or crafting candy canes from colorful beads and chenille stems.

  • Bake a bunch of Christmas cookies, brownies, or candy.  Deliver them to one of your neighbors to spread some Christmas cheer.  (It’s okay to enjoy a few yourself, too!)
  • Go Christmas caroling around your neighborhood with friends.  Decide on a few familiar carols to sing, and try to ring the bells of some of the older generation, who seem to be especially appreciative of the smallest carolers among us!
  • Read from the Gospel of Luke perhaps the most familiar account of Jesus’ birth, found in chapter 2 verses 1 through 21.
  • Offer the gift of your presence with someone who could use a little company—an elderly relative in a nursing home, a homebound friend, or a church member spending the holidays in the hospital. 
  • Offer another kind of "gift of time": offer to babysit for a friend’s children so she can have a much-needed “date night” with her husband; offer to pet sit for a friend going out of town for the holidays; offer some special service you are able to provide, like a free haircut, massage, or manicure, if you have such a talent; offer to write down an aging person’s memories to create a priceless keepsake for his family.

  • Combine the benefits of de-cluttering your home with the blessing of giving to people in need by making a concerted effort to collect all of the items in your house that you are no longer using and are no longer bringing you any joy.  Then, redistribute them appropriately: to the Media Free Store, to a clothing cupboard, to a home for women and children escaping abusive households, to Goodwill.

What other ideas can you add to this list—free and inexpensive ways to enjoy the holiday season with family and friends in meaningful ways? We've got a few more days until Christmas, and several days after before the new year arrives...let’s put our heads together, and share.

No matter where you go and what you do, I wish you all a most blessed Christmas!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent: These Are a Few of Our Favorite Things

In my recent blog posts, I have shared with you my vow to keep Christmas simple this year, and to focus on the true sense of joy and expectation of the Advent season.  As we enter week three of Advent, I thought I would share some of our family favorites that have helped us in our efforts to keep things simple and focused.

1.  Daily Devotions
I try to do a devotion with the girls each day before school.  This Advent season, we have occasionally turned to our usual resource, The Year Book of Devotions for Girls, but I have also been adapting materials from Margie J. Harding's The Christmas Countdown: Creating 25 Days of New Advent Traditions for Families.  We've contrasted how we get ready to celebrate Jesus with how John the Baptist prepared the way all those many years ago.  We read from Psalm 80, and talked about how long Israel had to wait for God to restore them. We talked about how Zechariah had to endure God's discipline for not believing the angel sent to give him the news that his wife would have a son, John. We talked about Mary as a role model for accepting the word of God.

Some days we simply read the words to a Christmas song, like "What Child Is This?" or a favorite Christmas book from when the girls were much younger, such as The Animals' Christmas Eve by Gail Wiersum or Patricia Pingry's The Story of Christmas.

My goal is to keep just a brief message about the true meaning of the season at the forefront of our minds as we go into a day that will load us up with images of Santa, toys, elves, and reindeer.

2.  Simple Decorations
I've taken it easy with the Christmas decorating this year, just putting up some key pieces that make the house feel festive, but not so much "stuff" that it feels overcrowded.
I found out that I can't get away with secretly buying new decorations; everyone noticed the two new pieces I couldn't resist from Target back in November--a happy fabric reindeer and the "joy" sign! They've become my new favorites, and I love how the sign refocuses all of our attention on JOY.
And I can't resist a few well-placed snowmen, even though snow is quite noticeably absent from our Advent season this year!

3.  The Girls' Favorites
Katy and Bayla have a few favorite ways to mark the days toward Christmas that they like to see come out of storage year after year.  
We call this "the puffy Advent calendar," and it wouldn't be Christmas around here without it.  Now that the girls are six and eight, they are much more amenable to taking turns pulling puffy characters out of the pockets and attaching them to the Velcro at the top. They know exactly what is coming up each day, and enjoy putting things in silly positions, like occasionally putting a cow up on the roof where the angel should be.
They also take turns changing numbers on our chalkboard countdown.  Simple and interactive--it doesn't get old with the toddler/ preschool/ elementary school set!
And we always bring out their favorite plastic nativity, purchased years ago to save our "nicer" sets from the curious hands of much-younger girls.  They can arrange and rearrange this to their heart's content.  As you can see, the three wise men are enjoying the shade of the stable, while baby Jesus and his folks hang out in front.  

4.  Manger Scenes and More Manger Scenes
I have a collection of nativity scenes; some years I put them all out, and some years, I select just a few.  No matter what, though, this full set from my sister is put on display:
For me, there is no better and easier way to stay focused on the "reason for the season" than these visual representations of the first Christmas story.
My husband has his own special nativity scene as well.  Now that the girls are older, they can move the pieces around on our favorite sets safely, so here you will see absolutely everyone, including the donkey and cow, crowded into the creche to get near the baby!

5. Christmas Books and Music
Another great and simple way to enjoy the Christmas spirit is to keep plenty of seasonal books and CDs on hand.  

One year, I tried this idea for celebrating Advent with our children: I wrapped up all of our Christmas books, and then let the girls unwrap a book for us to read each day.  Sounds great, right? Not only was it an environmental disaster (ridiculous numbers of trees were harmed in the creation of all that wrapping paper), but Christmas morning was actually anti-climactic for the girls, who had been unwrapping things all month!  

It's definitely better to keep it simple.  I stash the books in a box or basket every year, and they only see them during the month of December.  
Every year or two I try to add something new to our Christmas CD collection as well.  We have instrumental music, Celtic Christmas, kids' entertainers, "alternative" artists, and my favorite--a country Christmas album!  Light the candles, make some hot chocolate, and put on a Christmas CD, and we have instant holiday spirit around here.

EDIT:  6.  Our Church Angel Tree
I almost forgot a very important, very special part of what keeps us focused on the true spirit of Christmas each year! There is a huge Christmas tree at the front of our church sanctuary, and every year it is covered in paper angels.  Each angel has the name, gender, and age of a child, along with an idea or two of Christmas presents the child might enjoy.  These kids are part of our Second Time Around Parents (STAP) mission--they are children being raised by their grandparents in place of their parents.

Each year the girls and I select a set of three angels, and this year they were the perfect age to really participate in the selection of gifts for the girls whose angels we selected--a three-year-old, a five-year-old, and an eight-year-old.

This activity each year has helped them understand some difficult realities about the world, and builds their desire to find ways to make the holiday brighter for children who are not so very different from them.


What are some of the simple but special things that keep you and your family focused on the true spirit of Christmas this time of year?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent: Simplifying the Holidays

I mentioned in my last blog post that I would be trying again this year to capture the true meaning and spirit of Christmas for my family this Advent season, resisting the world’s best efforts to catch me up in the whirlwind of materialism, consumerism, and holiday stress.

I’ve been jotting down tips, ideas, and strategies from all sort of resources that I’ve run across over the past month or so, and I thought I would share what I consider the top 5 ideas for keeping the holidays simple.  

For me, simplicity feels like the key to keeping my focus on Christ this Christmas.

My top 5 Ideas for Keeping the Holidays Simple

1. Prayer
Whenever I try to do something new, it makes sense for me to start with prayer. I can talk to God about what I'm working on, and ask for His blessing, strength, and guidance to see me through.  
During Advent, I am looking for God-honoring ways to participate in the season. I want to prioritize the activities and experiences that will allow me and my family to enjoy the hope, peace, love, and joy of Christmas. For me, especially, I am looking for a sense of peace:
  • I intend to participate in the shopping and the wrapping and the gift-exchanging, but I don’t want that to become the sum-total of my Christmas efforts and memories. 
  • I take my children to activities like Breakfast with Santa at their school, but I want them to understand the spiritual meaning of the holiday without getting bogged down by the secular trappings. 
  • I am decorating, and volunteering, and baking, and traveling, but I want to do these things for the joy they bring to me and my family, and not out of a rushed sense of obligation. 

I can bring all of these things to God in prayer; He knows my heart, and I believe without reservation that when I bring these kinds of God-honoring concerns before Him, He blesses me with His grace. 

When Jesus explains to his disciples that they will receive the Holy Spirit after he is no longer living among them, he tells them: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14: 27). This is one of the promises I am happy to claim this Advent season!

2. Reality-checks
I don’t know where I read this, but I love it: “Don’t try to be some kind of Christmas superhero.”
I’m not as prone to this temptation as some people are: I’m not a big holiday entertainer; we don’t go “all-out” on the outdoor Christmas lights and lawn decorations; I don’t worry about whether my gifts cost as much as what anyone else has spent. Overall, I don’t see myself as a big “keeping up with the Joneses” type.  But I think it’s a very real problem for a lot of people.  

We do well to limit ourselves—not doing things just because we think we “should,” just because someone else tried it on Pinterest, or everyone else seems to have a picture of it posted on Facebook.  If we do the things that truly bring ourselves and our family joy, then we will hit the mark this holiday season. As soon as we try to be someone we are not, we are likely to miss that mark every time.

Here’s another aspect of reality checks: I think sometimes we indulge in unrealistic expectations about the holidays. We want it to be a magical time of year. We try to ensure that every moment will be a lasting memory of unspeakable delight for our children. We think that THIS will be the year the extended family will get together without arguing.  

But this isn’t our first rodeo.  The lights short out, the cookies burn, the kids put each other in a headlock, our great uncle gets drunk and tells lewd jokes.  I don’t know what it will be for you...I just know it is likely to be SOMETHING! 

Hope springs eternal, but we do well to adjust our expectations and seek the realistic blessings of our personal homes, families, and situations. We just can’t wear ourselves out trying to make something unrealistic happen this time around.

3. Basic health and wellness tips
If you read most any magazine that covers topics of health and wellness, then this list of ideas will look very familiar. The challenge is putting the ideas into practice! These strategies are probably more helpful at the holidays than any other time of the year: 
  • Get enough sleep! We know what we as individuals need, and we can tell when we aren’t getting it.  Sometimes an afternoon power nap of about 20 minutes will do a world of good if we’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to take one!
  • Drink a lot of water.
  • Don't forget to breathe! Most of us aren't breathing in nearly deeply enough.
  • Be careful about drinking too much alcohol. The holidays can be a time when we start a little earlier than usual, pay less attention to how much we are drinking, and/or drink a little extra to ease the holiday stress. We are much healthier when we pay attention to what we are doing, and exercise good judgment and limits.
  • Balance holiday indulgences with healthy snacks.
  • Take time to exercise, or at least stretch a little.
  • Get outside for some fresh air.  At least look out the window once in a while!
  • Give yourself a grown-up time-out. Many of the ideas here are good for our time-outs: a brief walk, some deep breaths, a cup of tea, a stretch, a little music.
  • Take time out for a laugh—a joke with a friend, a stand-up routine on TV, or a silly meme or YouTube video.
  • Enjoy the moment you are in. We don’t need to borrow trouble worrying too much about what comes next. “Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).

4.  Honest Assessments
When we think about the things that occupy our holiday season, and ask ourselves some honest questions, we can make important decisions that can return the spirit and meaning of the season to our lives.  
For example, I realize that every year, the one thing that causes me Christmas stress is trying to get a good family photo, create a card to order online, and then get it sent out to the people on my Christmas list.  So I am trying something new this year: I am not sending any Christmas cards at all.  I have let myself off the hook from the one Christmas task that makes me feel anxious.  As I noted in a Facebook status: If the earth doesn’t shift on its axis and I don’t bring about the end of the world by my negligence, then I will decide next year if I will resume the tradition or decide that dropping cards was the best decision I’ve ever made. 

It doesn’t hurt to try something new to see what we think about it, either by adding a new tradition or shedding one that doesn’t seem to improve our holiday experience. 

In the same vein, we can ask ourselves:
  • Do I have to attend (or host!) so many parties?
  • Do I have to buy so many gifts for so many people?
  • Do I have to make so many appetizers? So many side dishes? So many desserts?
  • Do I have to make sure my wrapping paper is themed or color-coordinated?
  • Do I have to put up ALL of the decorations from all 3 (or 5 or 15) tubs in the attic?

What would happen if we said “no” to some holiday invitations or commitments? Could we have each family member pick one favorite tradition or activity, and only do those few things this year? Could we try to do something new with gift-giving so we don’t all feel rushed/ baffled by what to buy/ worried about our finances?

I’ll take gift-giving as an example to go into in more detail.  I have read so many options for handling gift-giving in new ways to alleviate some of the stress it tends to cause. Check out all of these options, and see if there might not be something fun that your family or friends could try new this year to determine how you like it, and if you want it to “stick”:
  • Rather than everyone buying gifts for everyone, adults could buy gifts for children only.
  • Your family could organize a Secret Santa exchange so that each person gets a gift for one other person.
  • Your family could play a fun holiday gift-giving game where everyone brings a wrapped present that cost a certain modest amount of money to place at the center of the room. Then everyone draws a number and waits for their number to be called to select a gift. You’ve probably played a version of this at White Elephant parties; I’m sure a more comprehensive set of instructions can be found online!
  • Reduce/ reuse/ recycle.  Have a book swap. Or a decoration swap. Or a cookie swap.
  • Set up an exchange where everyone hand-makes a gift, or has a dollar-store gift exchange, or purchases something that supports local farmers or artisans, or creates a food-related gift in a reusable container (like a casserole dish from a thrift shop), including the recipe.
  • Consider giving experiences rather than things: trips or memberships to the zoo or a local museum, classes in hobbies of interest, car washes, restaurant vouchers, massage gift certificates, movie tickets, bowling passes.
  • Create “coupon” gifts promising to complete chores around the house or helpful errands.  These are often created by children for their parents, but I can think of plenty of chore coupons I would love for my husband to give me so that I could redeem them through the year!

If we talk to our extended families about some of these idea, we may discover that they welcome a change of tradition, especially when it simplifies this aspect of the holidays for everyone involved.

5.  Free and Inexpensive Experiences
I’ll devote my next blog post to developing this idea…stay tuned!
This topic is probably like so many other topics: we know what we want to do, and even what we probably ought to do, but getting around to doing it is another matter.  Feeling stressed at the holidays is almost a habit...for some people, I think it's some sort of badge of honor! 

But there is nothing in feelings of stress or anxiety, in worries about budgets and debts, in concerns about materialism and consumerism that helps us prepare our hearts for a celebration of Christ's coming into our world, for remembering and honoring God's amazing act of mercy and grace on our behalf, for experiencing and sharing the hope, peace, joy, and love of the season with our families and our wider communities.

If you could do ONE THING to ease the stress and anxiety of the season and to simplify the holidays for you and your family, what would that one thing be?

Now, go do it!
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