Christmas preparations, secular and sacred

Our family has a dual heritage when it comes to Christmas preparations. There’s a combination of the sacred and the secular because my hubby and I came from those two backgrounds. Christmas was always a special time when we were children, but for different reasons, and celebrated in different ways.

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When Advent begins, along with the nativity figures, our decorations come out, lights are strung and a tree goes up. Christian friends might wonder how we can put energy into all the secular preparations and still focus enough on the anticipation of such a holy season, but somehow we do.

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Last night, for the umpteenth time, we watched the movie, “Miracle on 34th Street“.  “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” will probably be next, along with “It’s a Wonderful Life“, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and assorted other television specials. Years ago we watched these with our children. Now we’re on our own and we still watch them.

Soon I’ll turn my attention to a bit of baking. Not a lot, since there aren’t many of us to eat it, but we need a few of the annual goodies, like Shortbread, Melting Moments and Peanut Butter Snowballs. We’ll also be caroling to shut-ins, finding delight in the children’s Sunday School Pageant, singing a Cantata with our choir, and of course attending all the special Christmas worship services.

There’s a little magic and a lot of mystery associated with Christmas, and we experience both, in ways that are meaningful to us. I doubt that God minds our strange muddle of traditions. We still meet Him at the manger.

What are some of the meaningful traditions you’ll experience again this Christmas? In your writing, have you allowed your characters to establish traditions?

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Finding new gems among the old

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Just dead leaves, right? The fall leftovers of a clematis vine that I haven’t managed to trim away yet. Nothing special to look at. But look closer…
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Frosted Leaf.

Maybe look even closer…

(Consider clicking on photos for a more detailed look)

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Frosted Wood

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It’s nothing more than frost. But among the old, brown and curling leaves there are glimpses of something new and beautiful. You won’t see it if you aren’t looking carefully.

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In writing, I discard a lot of words — words I’ve struggled to create in sentences sometimes days in the writing. My method of discarding is to copy and paste them into a new blank document before deleting the originals. I may never use them, or perhaps I will, but in a different part of the story, or in an altogether different manuscript when I suddenly see them in a fresh way. Sometimes they might end up being the perfect gem in a new setting.

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In Advent, the old crumbles away as we look toward the newness of a hope reborn and of a peace that is ours because of God’s promise. There is to be a precious remaking of life itself, revealed in the stripping away of the past. If we look closely, we will see a new creation!

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So if anyone is in Christ,
there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new!

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NRSV)
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Blame everything on the weather!

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Streaks of clouds in pre-sunset peach and charcoal-purple cut through a cerulean sky. The weather is changing. There’s been intermittent light rain interspersed with brief sunny breaks through much of the past few days, but flurries are in today’s forecast.

I don’t fuss over the weather. There’s a saying here on the west coast, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Some folks also say, “If you can’t see the mountains, it’s raining. If you can, it’s going to rain.” The more optimistic of us point to how green everything is, thanks to the rain.

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My mood isn’t affected, whatever the colour of the sky. There are people whose mood is, and some who even experience S.A.D. — Seasonal Affective Disorder — during low light seasons. I tend to forget that it’s a very real, clinical disorder, and I can sometimes be insensitive to those who complain about the weather, or display negativity, discouragement and depression because of it.

During November’s NaNoWriMo my project was to rewrite the ending of a recently completed manuscript. As I rushed headlong through the words, instead of resolving my protagonist’s dilemmas, I ended up heaping more upon her. Nothing seems to go right for her, and I’ve realized a lot of the time it’s because of her negative perspective. The story happens between November and February. I’m beginning to wonder if she has S.A.D. That would explain a lot, but it complicates the plot.

The story is taking off in a direction I didn’t intend, and I’m not sure I like this feeling of losing control.

If you’re a writer, are you always in control of your story and its characters? What happens when your control slips away?

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Transitioning from Thanksgiving into Advent

 

 

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Sunlight filtered through the trees last weekend as we neared the spot where we would see the eagles. It was more of a stroll than a hike to get there, as the trail meandered through the woods toward the Chehalis River.

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Later we crossed over a stream via a log bridge and wandered back along an easier path that paralleled a golf course. It was a gorgeous day — a day that filled us with thankfulness for the beauty of our surroundings.

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But thankfulness is more than expressing appreciation for what we have. It involves a response to Him who is the giver of all we have and are.

This weekend many will be transferring attention from Thanksgiving to Advent. We begin the annual time of preparation, readying ourselves to receive again the Gift beyond imagining… God among us, the Creator and Saviour of the world. But truly, there shouldn’t be a transitioning from one celebration to another. We need to carry our thanksgiving on through and into Christmas.

What traditions are a part of your Thanksgiving-into-Christmas preparations?

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“Thanks be to God for his indescribable Gift.”

2 Corinthians 9:15

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It’s just a Nativity set, isn’t it?

Crude black grease pencil numbers mark the underside of the painted clay manger bearing the Baby Jesus.  They say 79 cents. That was its price back in the mid-1970s when it was purchased in the now non-existent Woodward’s Department Story along with the other figures joining the Babe in our family’s first crèche.

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Budget constraints governed the choice then, but long after we could have afforded to replace them with better quality, we didn’t. We grew accustomed to them – each year carefully unwrapping the familiar figures and setting them into the shelter made by my hubby from a handful of leftover cedar shakes.

I didn’t particularly care for the look of them but after so many years there was a certain loyalty at stake. I admired other nativity sets – one particular ‘other’ – but couldn’t justify buying a second set when the original had nothing wrong with it.

Forty-some years later my wonderful hubby decided the time had come to indulge my dream, and last year for Christmas he bought me the Willow Tree Nativity set.

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Just as in home decorating, clothing styles or vehicle choices, people’s tastes will differ here. We are attracted to things for many reasons. I love the simplicity of the figures in this set… the hand sculpted look and the emotions they evoke, as I visualize that Bethlehem scene over two thousand years ago.

In art there are many different interpretations of the manger scene. There are some… um, unique ones, too, as discovered by youth pastor Mark Oestreicher who has now expanded his collection from last year’s twenty-seven to this year’s impressive forty-two of what he calls “the worst nativity sets”.

Our old set doesn’t qualify for his collection. It’s old fashioned, but typical. We still have it, although we didn’t unpack it this year. I’m not sure what we’ll do with it since it has earned its place as one of our many Christmas treasures and I can’t quite give it up.

Christmas is all about the arrival of Jesus the Christ into our messy world. However simple or elaborate, nativity sets are not meant to take their place in our homes as just another Christmas decoration. While we shouldn’t need miniature figures to remind us of the Love-made-incarnate that came to us that night long ago, they do give us something to focus on when we tend to slide past his birthday celebration into mere social activities.

Come to think of it, it couldn’t hurt to have a set in every room of our house. Maybe I should go unpack the other one.

Is a nativity set part of your family’s Christmas traditions?

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I’m taking a blogging break for the next couple weeks. I’ll still be around and will turn up online periodically, but in addition to my writing I want to take extra time to focus on family activities and the significance of the Christmas season.  In the meantime, consider this quote from Max Lucado:

 “Off to one side sits a group of shepherds. They sit silently on the floor, perhaps perplexed, perhaps in awe, no doubt in amazement. Their night watch had been interrupted by an explosion of light from heaven and a symphony of angels. God goes to those who have time to hear him — and so on this cloudless night he went to simple shepherds.” *

May he come to you this Christmas.

(* Max Lucado in “The Arrival” from Christmas Stories for the Heart)

 

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The new and the old

Our decorating is pretty well done. There’s a pot I want to fill with evergreens, but it can wait another day or two. Today I decided it was time to make a start on Christmas baking. Other than the fruitcakes traditionally made and stashed away in early November, there are only a few stale chocolate chip cookies in the house.

Out came the old familiar recipes. Peanut butter snowballs? Mmm, love them! I could eat them like candy. Oh, but they require chilling and rolling into balls; then there’s icing to make, dipping, more rolling in cocoanut. No, not today. Shortbread? My hubby loves shortbread but his favourite is the old Scottish style, kneaded until the dough cracks, pressed into a pan and chilled, followed by long, slow baking. Did I say kneading? Not the way my wrists are today, thank you.

Ah, perhaps the newer alternative — whipped shortbread. Apparently more serious bakers than I am have known about this recipe for years, but I was first introduced to it a few years ago when my son made a batch. Just put the five ingredients together and let the mixer do all the work. Drop spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet and pop them into the oven. That’s my kind of recipe. Newer isn’t always better, but, besides the ease of making, I like the tender, melt-in-your-mouth goodness of these buttery morsels. And if it means the difference between shortbread or no shortbread, my hubby is enthusiastic about them, too.

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With a mug of tea in one hand and a shortbread cookie in the other, I sat down to admire the decorated tree. There are a few new ornaments on it this year — I can never resist anything to do with snowflakes — but it’s the beloved old ones that always draw my gaze first.

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There are a couple that have been on every tree since I was born (I mentioned one of them in this post last year), and there are a handful that once adorned my parents’, my inlaws’ and my grandparents’ trees. This fragile bird  is one of those treasures. It’s special not so much because it’s old, although it is — possibly a hundred years old — but because of its history. It has witnessed generations of our family from its perch on various branches. Gatherings with family and friends, laughter, meals shared, gifts opened… “if it could talk, what stories might it tell?”

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Many homes have heritage items — if not ornaments displayed on a tree, then perhaps other things on a shelf or in a cabinet. I don’t think of ours as valuable from a monetary perspective, but they’re significant family heirlooms. When I wrap them up for another season of storage, there are slips of paper noting their origins that go in with them because it occurred to me one year that if nobody else knows about them, their history will end with my husband and me.

The main character in my last novel is eccentric enough to keep an album with photos and an explanation about everything she values. I call her eccentric because she has no children or close relatives to peruse her albums or care about her possessions after she’s gone! But this little quirk tells the reader something about her personality. As long as they aren’t overdone quirks and idiosyncrasies can be useful in defining our characters.

My expanding waistline is going to define me if I don’t stop munching on these cookies!

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What methods do you use to make your characters memorable? Are family heirlooms of significance in any of your stories? Do you have any special Christmas treasures? Oh, and what’s your favourite Christmas cookie?

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“In every conceivable manner,
the family is a link to our past, a bridge to our future”

Alex Haley

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“In each family a story is playing itself out,
and each family’s story embodies its hope and despair.”

Auguste Napier

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Candles & Greenery, Magic & Mystery

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Candles and greenery are turning up everywhere. Sunday being the first Sunday in Advent – and part of the first weekend in December – we began our Christmas preparations… at least a few initial ones.

We put up our tree. I know it’s early, but I’m like a little child when it comes to Christmas. I can hardly wait!

DSC08996Saturday evening our church held its annual Christmas turkey dinner and the mood was set. There were candles at every table.

Then in church Sunday morning we lit the first candle on the Advent wreath – the “Candle of Hope” – and we sang:

You are the Hope living in us
You are the Rock in whom we trust
You are the light
shining for all the world to see…

Jesus, our hope,
living for all who will receive…

Lord we believe *

Our children come from muddled parents. My upbringing didn’t include faith or church attendance and Christmas was a secular celebration. My hubby’s father was a Presbyterian minister and in their household the holiness of Christmas was important. Our children grew up with a heritage that included a little of everything that both of us found meaningful from our backgrounds, and it’s a wonder they ever found their way through the magic and the mystery!

But they did… all the way through to their own solid Christian faith. (Obviously it wasn’t of our doing but the hand of God on their lives.)

Christmas can be celebrated in the silence of an unadorned stable, the holiness of our churches or amid the twinkling lights, greenery and decorations of our homes. The important thing is that we acknowledge the Christ of Christmas, the Hope of the nations, the Light of the world, and during this season of Advent prepare again for the significance of his coming.

As I write this, I’m squinting at the lights on our tree and setting my sights on him.

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* Hope of the Nations – Brian Doerksen

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In his name the nations will put their hope.

Matthew 12:21 – NIV

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We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.

Psalm 33:20 – NIV

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But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,
I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me.

Micah 7:7 – NIV

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It’s coming: a new month… a new season… a time of preparation

Yesterday was the last Sunday of the church year. Next Sunday we begin again. Advent – advenio, “to come to” – is a four week period when we prepare for the coming of the Christ. We prepare for his birth at Christmas, his coming into our lives, and his eventual Second Coming.

For many, this preparation also means getting organized for the December 25th celebration… gift purchases, food preparation, home decoration. My hubby has put up outside Christmas lights already, although he won’t turn them on until this weekend. I can hardly wait! I love the special holiday lights that sparkle through December nights. But none of them can equal the glory of God’s light.

This was sunrise a couple weeks ago while we were at our Cariboo cabin.

I began my NaNoWriMo month of writing there, pulling out my laptop every morning soon after dawn when the men left for their day of hunting. Without my usual daily distractions I accumulated words in excess of the daily average and returned home to post over 18,000 words on Day #10. Since then… well, let’s just say I haven’t quite maintained that average.

November 30th, and its conclusion of NaNoWriMo, is creeping steadily closer. I may or may not complete 50,000 words by then, but I will have made significant progress on the first draft of a new novel. I will be ready to change my focus from intense writing to a more normal pace which will give me time to also concentrate on Advent.

I love all the different preparations that will come with the new month. The house will have evergreen boughs and twinkling lights, and the fragrance of sugar cookies and shortbread. There will be family and friends visiting, special music playing, and wrapped presents under a tree. I hope there will be a little snow, too, although I know better than to count on it.

And there will also be time — time to ponder the coming miracle of God’s personal Christmas gift to the world, to me. Oh, the wonder of it!

What’s your favourite part of this season of preparation?

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