Archive for Advent

Live Like a Saint: Saint Nicholas!

Note from the editor: Charisse put together this lovely spread for our winter issue of Tender Tidings, but we are still putting together the issue and St. Nicholas’ feast day is on Sunday. So we wanted to release her spread here so you would have time to use her ideas. God bless!

st nick

St. Nicholas, the patron and protector of children, is known for his generous spirit, compassionate heart, and natural humility. Born during the third century on what is now the southern coast of Turkey, Nicholas spent the early years of his life enjoying the temporal and spiritual blessings of his wealthy and devoutly Christian parents. After his parents’ death, the young Nicholas took Jesus’ words “sell what you own and give the money to the poor” to heart and used his whole inheritance to help the poor and suffering. Create a St. Nicholas gift box and mail it to a grandchild or godchild — or place some of the suggested items in your own children’s shoes to be found on the morning of December 6, St. Nicholas’ feast day.

Here are some ways your family can honor St. Nicholas in your home:

1. St. Nicholas card with candy “crozier” and hot chocolate

While still a young man, Nicholas was named Bishop of Myra. As bishop, he was known for his concern for children, the poor and needy, and sailors. He also suffered for his faith under the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Stir up a cup of hot chocolate with Bishop Nicholas’ candy cane “crozier” and reflect on the love and sacrifice of this heroic saint. Card image found at

2. Small toy and virtue card

Many legends surround St. Nicholas that attest to his love for children. Miraculous stories of boys being restored to life after a brutal attack, a kidnapped child being whisked back home, and children saved from an evil butcher highlight Nicholas’ concern for these small souls. Present each of your children with a small toy and corresponding “virtue card” to help care for their souls. (e.g. a small toy airplane with a card that reads “Charity: May you always lift others up with your words. ‘Your words have upheld the stumbler; you have strengthened his faltering knees.’ Job 4:4”)

3. Gold coins and/or orange

One story attributed to St. Nicholas’ generous heart tells of a man with three daughters. Unable to afford dowries for his daughters, the man worried that they would never marry. But, mysteriously, three bags of gold (or three gold balls) appeared, apparently tossed through an open window during the night. They landed inside shoes that were drying by the fire. Place oranges or chocolate coins in your children’s shoes to remind them of St. Nicholas’ secret and humble generosity.

Visit for more ideas for celebrating St Nicholas Day.

Have Yourself a Simple Little Christmas

I’m going to do it this year. I’m going to find one evening during Advent to sit on the couch with my husband and sip a mug of hot cocoa while watching It’s a Wonderful Life from start to finish.

I say it every year. I’m going to find time to savor the season, deepen my prayer life, nurture my family’s faith, and prepare our hearts for our Savior’s birth. But, all too often, I find myself in a flurry of shopping, wrapping, baking, Rosaryletter writing, and decorating. I put off preparing my heart in favor of preparing my house, my pantry, and the consumerism mentality that creeps into the minds of even the best of us.

As I was meditating on the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary the other day, I found them to be a fitting guide for how to better prepare for the season of preparation. Consider using the following points as meditations for your own Rosary prayer time, and allow Jesus and His Blessed Mother to lead you into a more meaningful, peaceful Advent.

 First Joyful Mystery:  The Annunciation

 “May it be done to me according to your word.” Luke 1:38

Now is the time to sit in prayer and ask our Lord and His Mother to show us how we should spend our Advent season. How can we say “yes” to God during this time of anticipation? Is there a particular virtue or aspect of our spiritual lives that our family, as a whole, needs to work on? How can we simplify the season and make more space for Christ in our hearts?

Second Joyful Mystery:  The Visitation

“And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:43

While I love to reconnect with friends and family over the holidays, I usually find my Christmas card list quite daunting. How can we simplify getting in touch with others, while, at the same time, making our contacts more meaningful? A shorter, more concise Christmas letter? Send a simple, handwritten card to fewer people? Forgo the letter writing altogether in favor of getting together in person with some loved ones we haven’t spoken with in a while?

Third Joyful Mystery:  The Birth of Christ

“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:7

I love sitting in a darkened room with only the twinkling lights of a pine-scented Christmas tree.  But, this year, I want to take an honest look at my Christmas home decor. Do I decorate too much and too early? Where is the focal point of my decor? Mary and Joseph were simply looking for a space on that first Christmas — a space for Jesus. Our family plans to use these weeks before Advent to declutter our existing stuff first, so we will have space to gradually add some meaningful decor during the season of Advent. Some of our favorites:  a Jesse tree, a creche (with an empty crib until Christmas Day), and a real, live Christmas tree that we cut as a family just before Christmas.

Fourth Joyful Mystery:  The Presentation

“They took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” Luke 2:22

What gifts does my family bring to Christmas Day? Do we always end up buying too much for our kids? Does the focus become more, more, more of the perfect presents? How can we simplify and limit our gift-giving this year? Can we give fewer, more meaningful gifts? Can we use some of our family gift-giving money to give to a needy family in our community instead? How can we give more of ourselves in the spirit of the infant that personifies Love?

Fifth Joyful Mystery:  Finding Jesus in the Temple

“Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Luke 3:48

I love gathering with my family in one place, all of my children happy and accounted for! And nothing seems to accomplish this more effectively than a delicious, home-cooked meal, or a freshly-baked plate of Christmas cookies. All too often, though, meal preparation ends in frustration with cries of hunger, tears of impatience, and someone covered from head to toe in flour! This is the scenario that plays out when I don’t allow time for the little hands that want to help.

How can I make the extra holiday baking and cooking less stressful this year?   Can I sit down now and create a holiday menu plan and stock my pantry with the required non-perishables? What can I make now and freeze for later? Can I focus on the virtue of patience, and allow my children to help in the kitchen? Can I accept less than perfect cookies in favor of finding a more loving relationship with my family members?

Most importantly, I hope to make intentional, prayerful decisions as I choose how my family and I spend our time and resources this Advent. I pray that Jesus finds the space He is looking for in our hearts and home.

“Would You Like a Side of Joy with Your Advent?”

“I realized this year I was ‘serving up’ Advent to my family and friends like I was a waitress — watching them dine, but never participating in the feast.”

This week we, as a Church, rejoice with grateful wonder, “Christ is near.”  But last weekend I awoke on the morning of the annual Advent Tea that I host for my daughter’s Little Flowers Catholic girls club and I thought, UGH.  Now, mind you, this event has always been my idea.  I love doing it.  I take out my special dishes, use all the pink and pretty I have at my disposal, and make those girls and their mommies feel precious and pampered.   So why on that morning, did I feel so completely, utterly Advented out?  Pooped even?

177292304Well, after Thanksgiving this year — a late Thanksgiving, right?  am I right? — it was like a non-stop race through several projects and commitments.  Boom, boom.  Like fires to extinguish, even though I was a little grateful they were there.  But then Advent was in the mix. SLAM.  A little sweet brick in my face.  Ow.

As I lay in bed that morning before our annual tea, I realized that this year I was “serving up” Advent to my family and friends like I was a waitress —  watching them dine, but never participating in the feast.  I was working hard to create just the right experience for those I love, but I was feeling spiritually detached.

My experience is surely familiar to other parents.  As we enter the last days of Advent, I want to share some thoughts on how we parents can love our children generously while balancing our need for spiritual nourishment.

Remember the Why

Rather than going through the motions of Advent, truly reflect on what it all means for you personally.   If we do all the right things for our family, but forget why we’re doing it, we’ve lost something valuable.  Acting out of duty is great, but acting from a disposition of love and generosity is even better.  Jesus wants our hearts.

Now, at this point, you might expect me to say that Jesus wasn’t born for the pretty in my tea party.  Oh, but I think he was.  Of course he was.  He was born to show us that the entire spectrum our human senses are fantastic and even a sign of the Holy if we allow it.  The problem was that I was trying so hard to force those girls to experience the Transcendent in Advent that I forgot who I was in the story of salvation.  That morning before the Advent Tea, I honestly just wanted to “get through it” on some level.  I wasn’t really in the mood for company and, after several days of neglect, my house was a mess.  I was not in a good place.  But I remembered why I love these Advent Teas so much: not so that I could show off a shiny floor, but so that I could open my home to human love and Divine Joy.

Never Forget the Who

I also forgot who Jesus is to me personally.  In my perhaps understandable desire to make everything “just so” for my human guests, I forgot the reality of my Great Guest.  Grounding my family culture in the liturgical calendar has been one of the giant breakthroughs in my own parenting.  But I can easily forget that I need one-on-one time with my friend, Jesus; that he loves me enough to wait for me to meet him all alone, by myself — just little ol’ me.

We parents need to pray.  Not only in those family prayers, which are so precious to him, but private prayer as well.  Busy parents may think there’s no way they can find time to pray, but consider your day and when it’s most quiet — and seize those minutes.  The big point I want to bring home for my loved ones is that their Savior is near.  He is here, in our midst, ready to love us, in our current reality, however broken or imperfect.  He only asks for our trust, our yes.

So that morning before the Advent Tea I might have spent the hours scrubbing my (very dirty) floor and making everything picture perfect for those precious girls and their mommies, all of whom I love so.  But I realized Jesus was calling me to prayer, calling me to sit a while with him in his arms.  So I prayed.  I prayed for a long time before I even got out of bed because I knew once I walked out my bedroom door, the excitement of the day would be flooding my home and carry me away (not in a bad way, but in a way that would make it hard for me to STOP and reflect).

My little and big girl guests arrived for the tea — dirty floors, dishes in the sink, little sandwiches still to be cut.  My physical home was not quite ready, but that morning it was more important that I was ready — that my heart was ready — and after my time in prayer and reflection, I think I was — at least more than I was a few hours beforehand.  We had a wonderful time.  The girls had their pretty and we moms connected.  One mom announced her pregnancy and we all cheered!  Toward the end of the party, my friend Angela and I led the little girls in a craft in my family room, and what do you know, the other mommies cleaned my kitchen!

I put my feet up that night and knitted some slippers for Dominic while watching a movie with my family, thinking of the arms of Jesus, so big and powerful.  So near.  I hope for the rest of Advent I feel less like a waitress and more like a child of God.  He has invited me, I know.  I just need to figure out hour by hour how to live the invitation.  Pray for me.

Photo credit:  Nomadsoul1 (

Creating a Yes Environment

It’s almost toddler time at our house again.  Faith is nine months old and already exhibiting traits of a true Tierney toddler.  I expect that very soon, no cabinet door will be left unopened, no “childproof” bottle will truly be safe, and no countertops will be left unscaled.

Charisse's busy baby

Charisse’s busy baby

My children have always been of the inquisitive, into everything all of the time to the extreme variety, and impending toddlerhood always brings a sense of urgency–a sense of needing to childproof everything swiftly and securely.

My goal is to create a “yes environment” for my toddler–a home in which she can freely explore without fear of injury or a constantly hovering mother.  A home where she can pick up anything within her reach to look at, feel, and even taste.  A home where instead of a constant barrage of no’s, she hears, “Yes!  Please explore, learn, and grow to your fullest potential!”

Now, this type of environment isn’t always entirely possible to achieve in a home full of Lego building, Polly Pocket playing older siblings.  But we do our best.  We do our best to keep all that could harm her out of her line of vision, and to be vigilant about what might be inadvertently left within temptation’s reach.

And when I do find her sitting quietly, Lego figure in hand, poised to meet its demise in her open mouth?  Instead of a panicked “No!”, I simply divert her attention to something else.  Something suitable for her.  Something that is a resounding “Yes!”

So, too, are we called to divert our hearts to all things good and holy during these final days of Advent.  We have entered the O Antiphon days.  The days in which we should feel a sense of urgency to make sure our hearts are swept clean, ready to embrace the fullness of God’s grace at the glorious Christmas Mass.  The Mass where the Salvation story is laid before our very eyes, as we gaze upon the babe in the crèche while consuming the flesh and blood that died to save us.

Create a “yes environment” in your heart during these last few days of delightful anticipation.  Receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation with your family. Recite the O Antiphons each night and reflect on our history and how desperately we need a Savior.  Remember to take time out from the busyness of Christmas preparations for daily prayer and family time.  Look forward to receiving Our Lord in His great gift of Holy Communion at Christmas Mass.  Guard your heart against Satan’s lies with the power of the Rosary, holy water, and spiritual reading.  This is real freedom–when the bad is shackled so the good can overflow with the abundance of an authentically joyful life.

Create a heart in which God can say, “Yes!  Please explore, learn, and grow to your fullest potential!”  Create a heart that is so full of good, there is no room for evil–a heart that is truly prepared to behold the miracle of the birth of Christ.

To learn more about the O Antiphons:

Helping Our Children Encounter Christ During Advent

An Advent tea party at the Cameron-Smith home

An Advent tea party at the Cameron-Smith home

In his Monday homily last week, Pope Francis urged us to “encounter Christ” during Advent and to allow Christ to encounter us as well.  I’ve been thinking about how I can help my children to this end.  I have to accept my role as a servant in facilitating this encounter, especially if it includes allowing Christ to encounter my children in their uniqueness — in their personal reality.  They are each so very different, and each developmental stage brings new opportunities for cultivating in our children a personal experience of the authentic and living Christ.  Especially for my very young children, I may get off on the wrong foot if I assume they will encounter Christ like I do, by the same means.

How can we create the kind of emotional, spiritual, and physical environment that best allows that encounter to unfold naturally?  Here are a few tips for helping your young children encounter Christ this Advent season:

Children Encounter Christ Through LOVE

It’s not that doctrinal truths are unimportant or irrelevant for young kids, but they must experience these truths through love if we want them to come alive — if we want them to factor in our kids choices and lives long term.  This means we must love our children unconditionally, because we are the models of the kind of love they will internalize.  Children who are ignored or mistreated can never internalize the mercy and tenderness Jesus feels for them.  Even when they stumble and fail, Christ adores them.  Can our own love reflect this Christ-love better, even while we try to steer them on the right path?

This also means that we should announce to our child God’s love for her and make that love as concrete and inviting as possible.   So when we set up our nativity set this Advent, we can emphasize how much God must love her that he sent this precious little baby to come into the world just for her – so that she could know him and love him. We can emphasize the reality of Christ’s early life with his family – how he lived with Mary and Joseph in a family just like she lives in her own family; that he did chores, learned to read, said prayers, fed his animals, just like she does; that he understands what makes her sad and angry because he felt all those things when he was a child.

Children Encounter Christ Through PLAY

Advent in the Cameron-smith home

Advent in the Cameron-smith home

Children experience God in a private, emotional way and they also experience God through the descriptions they hear about God in catechetical instruction and Bible stories.  Play is where those two very real experiences come together for children.  Play helps them make sense of what they’ve experienced emotionally and intellectually.  Playing with Christ during Advent can include stories and hands-on play.  Read engaging, beautifully illustrated stories about the nativity and early life of Jesus during Advent.  Allow your child freedom to explore these stories through art, drama, or just good ol’ table talk.

Include lots of hands-on experiences – a Jesse Tree, Advent wreath, Advent Calendar, and nativity set.  Permit your child to engage with these religious objects, especially your nativity set, because this is where the story of Christmas really comes to life for kids.  Some families have heirloom nativities which are too precious for little hands to bonk around, but consider having a second “play nativity.”  My family found a very affordable felted nativity set and my children spend all of Advent moving the pieces around our house as Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem!

Children Encounter Christ Through PRAYER

We want our children to develop a personal relationship with Christ in which Christ understands her and cares for her in specific, unique circumstances.  Little children are open to developing a friendship with Jesus, and this includes chatting with him in prayer.  If your child doesn’t pray much, try starting during Advent.  You can start with communal prayer.  Create a prayer plan for your family, but recognize that children don’t pray like grown-ups.  When we impose our own prayer styles on our kids, we risk extinguishing their authentic experience of God.  I’m not suggesting that we don’t teach them the great prayers of our Faith.  We do.  But sometimes we get out of their way, we listen, and we learn from them.  When you give your child emotional space to pray, he will tend to pray in short bursts, sometimes incoherently.  This is okay.  You will also notice a collapsing of the transcendent and nearness of God in your child’s language. (“You are the most beautiful thing in the world!  Look, I think you are like Harold my goldfish!”)  This is also okay.  Just listen and affirm your child in his experience.

So, let’s bring our children to Jesus this Advent and let them sit a while on his lap.  Have a blessed Advent!

Keeping Christ in Christmas (and in our hearts)

Christina KolbEditor’s Note:  Please welcome our new staff writer, Christina Kolb!  Christina lives in Chicago with her wonderful husband, Kevin, and two-year-old son.  They are very excited to be expecting another child next May.  She holds a degree in English and Sociology from the University of Illinois, and worked for a Catholic organization as a Translation Coordinator before deciding to become a stay-at-home mom.  She also trained professionally as a pastry chef, and loves to cook, bake, and write, and combines all of these while blogging at But I’m Hungry.

At this time of year, you hear a lot of things about “the magic of the season”.  I’ve even heard many people say, “We don’t celebrate the religious holiday, but we give gifts and play Santa, because there is something so magical about Christmas for children.”

91572037And it’s true.  Something about Christmas inspires awe, excitement, and joy in even the Scrooge-iest adult.  For children, it must seem like magic.  But as more and more people lose sight of what Christmas is about, and cloak the holiday in trappings that make it more about gifts and parties than the birth of Christ and our Father’s great love for us, the more the magic of Christmas loses its meaning.  How, in this commercial world, can we keep the true spirit of Christmas alive in our homes and families?

This is a question that I’ve found myself asking repeatedly this year.  As my son becomes more aware of what’s going on, I’m asking myself what kind of message I’m sending in the way we celebrate.  How do I strike the balance between all-out consumerism and stingy asceticism?

For a while I toyed with the idea that we should really try to keep gifts to a minimum.   The piles of gifts last year, while fun, seem to become the focus of the holiday at times.  I admit, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I often think of preparations in terms of buying and making gifts for everyone.  That cannot be what God wants for us to be doing while we prepare our hearts for the birth of his son.  But then I took a step back and remembered Christmases from my childhood.  Part of the memory was the glee and delight I felt when I beheld those piles of presents under the tree, the sheer excitement and anticipation at guessing what the boxes contained.  As a child, I wasn’t able to make the connection between the excitement and anticipation for the gifts and the anticipation we feel for the birth of Christ on Christmas, but I sure do now.  I still have that feeling of joyful expectation when I think of Christmas, and now I’m able to understand the symbolism of these physical gifts and the gift God gave us in his son.  I want my kids to have that, too.  And besides, gifts are supposed to show our children in a very concrete way what it’s like to get a gift just because you are loved and cherished.  What a great opportunity to explain to kids that this is exactly the kind of gift God gave us when he sent us his Son.

Ok, the gifts stay.

What about the endless parade of get-togethers, Santa photo ops, and parties?  Can those go?  Well, certainly, some could.  But frankly, what better way is there to celebrate God’s love for us than to spend time with the people he has blessed us with — our friends and family?    I can’t imagine going without our annual cookie-baking day with my husband’s family, or not singing German carols with my family on Christmas Eve.  And the visits with friends who are back in town for the holiday are such a joy.  To take away these special times would certainly be beside the point.

The decorations?  Can the decorations go?  Well, maybe the snowman window clings, sure.  But part of what I love about Christmas is that there is so much symbolism in the ways we celebrate and decorate our homes.  Christmas trees are meant to symbolize the hope for everlasting life through Christ.  That’s pretty powerful stuff.  And lighting the advent wreath was a tradition that I remember so fondly from my childhood, and another great opportunity to explain advent.  The lights on our houses symbolize Christ as the light of the world.  Our nativity set, a hand-me-down from my grandma, brings me so much joy every time I see it, and reminds us every time we look at it of what it is we are celebrating.  Nope, the decorations are staying.

As my mental list of things I could do to ensure my family truly keeps Christ in Christmas dwindled and all my options were shot down, I guess I had an epiphany. (Catholic Christmas pun! Ha!)  It’s not about the things we do to celebrate.  It’s about the heart that we celebrate with.  It’s celebrating while knowing in our hearts who all of it is for.  It’s decorating a tree with our kids, while explaining to them what the Christmas tree is meant to symbolize.  It’s buying gifts for a our loved ones, keeping in mind that our gifts to them are meant to be a mirror of God’s immense love gifted to us — and telling our kids that.  And yes, that does mean that our gifts are meant to be personal and special — not necessarily expensive.  It means going to and hosting parties with friends and family — and doing so with the spirit of joy and thanksgiving for the people God has put in our lives.

Basically, it means getting excited about Christmas the way we did as children.  If our hearts are full of joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth, I know that this spirit will fill the hearts of our kids, too.  We do not have to work so hard to keep everything out; we just have to allow God to stay in.  That is the magic of Christmas, to me: When we do everything in the spirit of love, God shows his love for us, and our families, in amazing ways.

Waiting in Expectation Like a Child

“When we are secretly cynical, we will not receive a thing, not a crumb of Light and we will cement our cynicism in place for another year.”

Advent is a time of waiting, waiting in the dark.  In Canada, it is cold and it is also the darkest time of the year, so the image of lighting one candle each week is powerful. The flames are hot and bright, the exact opposite to the weather, to the physical reality that we see around us in our daily lives. If we are open and humble, the flames of the Advent candles shine as a beacon of hope in the darkness, symbols of the Light of lightthe world who will come on Christmas morning.

But how do we wait?

Do we wait stoically or with joy? Do we wait like a child, a child who trusts that his daddy will keep His promises or have life’s disappointments left us jaded and closed off to any spiritual surprises? Come to think of it, how many of us actually expect anything to happen to us on Christmas morning? When we are secretly cynical, we will not receive a thing, not a crumb of Light and we will cement our cynicism in place for another year.

As we wait, secretly longing for the dark, empty places within us to be flooded with His light, we should look to our children to teach us how to wait for the Christ Child to be born anew in our hearts. They trust and believe the words of both their earthly and heavenly fathers. Think a young child, eyes twinkling, barely able to sit still and contain his excitement because he knows that hid dad will never give him a stone instead of a loaf of bread. Yet as the child waits, he also enjoys even the strike of a match, delights in a single flame of the Advent candle because he is open and enjoys simple pleasures. No wonder Jesus tells us,

“I assure you,” He said, “unless you are converted and become like children, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven…” Matthew 18:4

In fact, why don’t we all humble ourselves and ask for the faith of a child as we wait this Advent?

Has God surprised you with special blessings at Christmas? Can you take a leap of faith and ask your Father in heaven for the bread of His Presence, knowing He will not give you a stone?

The Scent of Christ


Our family has begun our Advent preparations.  The Advent wreath sits on our table with candles waiting to be lit, our Mary figurine is flanked by two glass angels in remembrance of the Annunciation, and our Jesse Tree and Nativity stable will soon be displayed, empty and waiting to be filled with the miracle of Jesus.

advent 2013 pic 1

In her book, Walking With Purpose, Lisa Brenninkmeyer shares one of her daily prayers:

“That my home will be filled with the unmistakable scent of Christ.  May it be calm, not chaotic.”

Advent, especially, is a time to create a calm space for Christ.  A simple Advent wreath, a sparse Nativity scene, and a bare Jesse Tree all remind us that we are waiting for the only one who can truly fill our hearts–the only one who can truly bring us peace and joy.

advent 2013 pic 3

I find that when I create space for Christ, He creates space for me.  He seems to multiply my time in direct proportion to the amount of time I spend focused on Him.  The same effect can bless your family as you center your family time around Him.  No matter how busy you feel this Advent season take a few minutes each day to come together as a family and encourage one another in your preparations for the miracle of Christmas.  Light some candles, create a sense of peace, and lift up your hearts to God.

The Jesse Tree is a special way of bringing your family together each evening through Sacred Scripture and reflection on Jesus’ lineage.  We see how God’s plan of salvation always existed, and we are reminded of His infinite wisdom and love.  And, of course, my children love counting down the days to Christmas by placing a symbol of each Bible story on a branch of the tree.

Charisse with her family Jesse Tree

Charisse with her family Jesse Tree

Think about ways you can create space this Advent season.  Like the ornaments on the Jesse Tree, let Christmas decorations gradually fill your home as your hearts turn more toward Christ.  Fill your home with the scent of Christ and allow the anticipation to build into a truly joyful Christmas Day with memories that will far outlast the shiny packages under the tree.


Both of the following websites provide wonderful family Advent activities, as well as instructions and templates for the Jesse Tree.

Have Yourself a Family-Centered Christmas

year of faith photo

All parents want to give their children a loving, family-centered Christmas, but it’s increasingly difficult in a consumer culture and a marketing machine that targets younger and younger consumers every year.  What can we do to resist the cultural pressure in favor of creating a simple but meaningful Christmas for our children?  I explored this issue yesterday with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life.  You can listen to the entire show here.

158781054I don’t think anyone would argue that Christmas has become much too commercialized.  Several years ago I read a book called Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson.  It really opened my eyes to the way marketing and advertising professionals have hijacked Christmas, turning it into a 5-month spiral into debt and empty expectation.  Historically gift-giving at Christmas was modest and simple.  Children usually received small, sentimental gifts — often hand-made.  They would not expect mounds of sparkly wrapped presents under their Christmas tree.  Giving gifts to adults was of minor significance.  Now some spouses are expecting cars on Christmas morning.  Profit-making companies would have us believe that joy = big gifts and that the most generous person is the one who gives the fanciest, most impressive gift.  Many people run themselves into debt every December because they feel obligated to purchase more gifts for their children than they can afford.  They fear their children will feel deprived in some way or feel less loved if we don’t give them what they want.  This is a big, fat lie, and we know it.

Not only are we not obligated to buy in such a frenzy, but our children will not think we love them less.  At least hopefully not.  If they do, well, we have bigger problems than an awful credit card bill.  But does that mean we should only give our child a homemade corncob doll for Christmas?  Surely not.  (Although, my daughter Claire would love to have a corncob doll like Laura Ingalls!)  We won’t ruin our child’s soul if we purchase some special gifts that we know he’ll enjoy.  While I’ve reduced the amount of money I spend at Christmas and tried to increase our family’s appreciation for the real meaning of Christmas, I do enjoy giving my children gifts.  I love thinking about what they might appreciate.   Heck, Philip and I love playing with our kids’ toys on Christmas morning!  As the Popcaks pointed on the show, giving gifts at Christmas is symbolic of the gift God gave to the world in the infant Jesus.  Giving gifts can be a true joy and a sign of Christian generosity, but we should never feel we need to spend more than we can manage or that we have some obligation to give somebody a gift if we don’t care to give one.

I think the significant difference in Catholic homes should be in the emphasis we place on Advent and the experiences we offer our children.  What do we talk about during Advent?  What do we hear our kids talking about?  If discussions primarily revolve around gifts – specifically, what the kids want for Christmas – then our focus might need a little adjusting.  Children may begin absorbing the cultural message that all their wildest dreams will be fulfilled on Christmas morning as long as they have the right parents.  The Christmas machine mentality is a lie anyway.  Even if our kids received all the toys and gaming units they could imagine for Christmas, they would be disappointed in the end.  They’d feel a little let down and empty after playing with those toys for a while.

That’s because joy ≠ big gifts.  The only true joy is found in union with God and communion with family and friends.  It might sound a little corny but it’s true.  God created us through love and for love; we will only find fulfillment in giving and receiving love.  If generosity is working for the good of the other, then generosity toward our children means we must be prudent and on guard during Advent and Christmas.  Let’s not let the Marketing Machine sidetrack us from what God wants us to experience with our children.

I think children can become addicted to the anticipation they feel when they see the ads and commercials with fancy, bright toys.  They think, if I had that toy, I would be as happy as that perfectly coifed, grinning kid in the commercial.  The Christmas-morning-dream-come-true message is surely irresistible for kids, unless we resist it ourselves through our example and by committing ourselves to creating something different for our babies.  Over the years, as I’ve gained confidence as a mother and received the grace of deepening faith, I can see that I’ve focused far less on material gifts at Christmas and more on the anticipation of meaningful family activities and traditions.

In our home, we don’t dive into Advent or Christmas on the first day of Advent.  We open the season gently.  We take out our Jesse Tree on the first day of Advent, but no other décor.  As the weeks unfold, more décor appears, and I try to make some of it with the kids.  When we bring out the Nativity Set (around the second week of Advent), we don’t take out all the pieces at once. We only put out Mary and the Angel Gabriel.  As the days pass and the story of the nativity unfolds, we bring out the appropriate pieces.  The set is not only for display; I allow the children to play with it. It’s made of lovely felted wool and the small children enjoy holding the pieces. We move Mary with Joseph around the house as they make their way to Bethlehem.  My children all love this tradition and feel more connected to the events of the nativity when they experience this way.

We have special music, books, and movies that only appear during Advent.  Some of these selections are like old friends whom we greet fondly every year.  My smallest children love the stories The Clown of God and Merry Christmas, Strega Nona both by Tomie DePaola.  We always watch the Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life on the evening of Christmas Day.  Even though we know the entire script by heart by now, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without the long-suffering George Bailey and Clarence his guardian angel.

Every year for many years now we’ve planned a Boxing Day Outing.  (Boxing Day is the day after Christmas in England where my husband grew up.)  We talk with the children early in Advent about what they’d like to do on Boxing Day.  It’s usually something modest, like a trip to the zoo, a museum, a movie a theater, or a hike.  But a few times we’ve gone on an overnight trip somewhere.  Our kids are always looking forward to the day after Christmas because we do something special together.

These traditions give our children a different kind of anticipation from the one materialism offers.  They are looking forward to moments of loving connection with family; they experience the intoxicating joy of experiencing familiar smells and hearing familiar sounds.  When those old books come out, when the familiar ornaments shimmer on the tree, when Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas,” they experience again something that brought them enjoyment many times before.   They are anticipating their own histories in a way.

I did something new this year that has really brought the spirit of the season home for us.  I asked the children to think of a gift they’ve received from God, and then in some way to give that gift back to Jesus for his birthday.  For example, my son Dominic said that God has given him the gift of courage, as he’s very brave about climbing and doing physically daring things. However, even though I teach the class, he becomes very unsettled during CCD, because it’s a large and loud class.  Sometimes he cries because he becomes so overwhelmed.  So Dominic said he would give Jesus the gift of courage and try to be extra strong during CCD.  He even told his class about it.

This year I also involved my children in my own gift-giving plans.  Considering what another person might enjoy and then finding a way to get it without going over my budget is something I never really shared much with them.  My daughter Claire and son Dominic went with me when I selected the gifts for their cousins.  They enjoyed helping me pick them out and talking about what sort of things Maddie and Olivia like to do.  This attention to the experience and feelings of another person is an important aspect of empathy.  Not only did we find some nifty gifts for my nieces, but I enjoyed this special time with my two middle children.

I think these family experiences and traditions are anchors in my children’s lives.  They make this season rich and meaningful for them.  Of course, opening a few gifts on Christmas morning, and enjoying them while my annual Christmas morning sticky buns are baking, can also be one of those traditions.  I can’t help smiling when I hear the laughter and squeals of delight as my children open their gifts.  I love the chaos of wrapping paper flying everywhere and watching how my children explore one another’s gifts.  I just don’t want the message of the gift of the Incarnation to be drowned out by the Great Marketing Machine or by the insidious siren call of greed.  Hopefully with God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit my family will continue to make progress!

I hope you and your families enjoy a blessed and joyous Christmas Day!

Image Credit: Fasphotographic on

The Art of Waiting

“I just can’t wait!” seems to be the phrase of the season in our house right now.  The number of Advent wreath candles left to be lit and the number of Jesse Tree ornaments left to put up are carefully calculated every day.  Questions like, “But how long is 18 more days?”  are asked frequently as my youngest children still struggle to grasp the concept of time.

I remember feeling as they do once upon a time.  I remember gazing into the lights of our Christmas tree, imagining all of the wonderful things that would appear underneath it the night before Christmas.  I remember feeling that the waiting seemed unbearable, and that there was nothing as exciting or worthwhile as that moment when I first laid eyes on all of the childhood delights that magically appeared while I restlessly slept.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself wanting to slow time more often than rush it.  As my children grow, I sometimes suddenly have a vision of a house with no toys underfoot and no little feet and voices constantly filling our home with life and joy.  I know every phase of life will bring with it new and different pleasures, but that doesn’t lessen the pain that pricks my heart at the thought of leaving these younger years of our family behind.

I can’t deny that there are days when I can’t wait for my husband to get home, days when I can’t wait for my toddler to outgrow the into-everything-all-the-time phase, days when I can’t wait for my daughter to permanently leave her temper tantrums behind.  But it is in those moments that I have to stop, take a breath, and realize that it is by waiting that I find opportunity to grow closest to God.  It is by waiting that I seek the love and generosity I need to meet my husband at the door with a kiss and a smile, even while dinner is burning on the stove, my two year old is doing something he shouldn’t be in the bathroom, and my six year old is begging for some unreasonable request to be fulfilled.  It is by waiting that I seek the patience I need to pick up the contents from the same cupboard my toddler emptied five times already that morning.  It is by waiting that I seek the kindness and gentleness I need to effectively and sympathetically handle my child’s emotional meltdowns.  It is by waiting that I demonstrate my faith that all of these pieces of my life are also pieces of God’s plan for me, and that I will experience the fruits of these difficult moments when He knows my heart has been formed properly to receive them.

Perhaps this is why Mary responded with an unhesitant and certain “Yes” when she was asked to bear God’s Son.  The world needed saving.  Not saving through a flash of light, clap of thunder, and immediate conversion of all, but saving through a gentle and humble heart.  A heart willing to wait with faith and patience to witness the fullness of God’s plan.  A heart that waited nine months to give birth and 30 more years to fully understand what her child’s mission was on earth.  A heart that waited for her Son to die as it slowly tore in two with every physical pain that He endured.  By His stripes we were healed, and by His mother’s faithful waiting we were inspired.

What valuable lessons we fail to learn when we are too impatient to wait!

Sometimes I fear my prayers are in vain, that some problems in our culture are almost too big even for God.  I grow impatient and wonder why God doesn’t just fix this right now!  That’s when I look to Mary’s “yes” and realize that my timing is not God’s.  My obligation is to faithfully say “yes” to a devout prayer life and Catholic lifestyle, even though I don’t know if some of those prayers will be answered during my lifetime.

Some of today’s problems may not be resolved until judgment day, but I find hope in the fact that waiting with complete trust in God’s omnipotent wisdom will ensure that the part I play in His plan is one that will lead me to Him when my final day arrives.

Spend some time this Advent learning the art of peacefully waiting in the comfort of God’s embrace.  Leave behind excessive shopping, baking, and decorating to reflect on the joy that Mary must have felt with each passing day of her pregnancy.  Enjoy every moment, whether it brings pleasure or pain, as an opportunity to grow closer to God and receive His great gift of faith.  We may not know what tomorrow will bring, but the Incarnation is proof that the best things in both this life and the next truly are worth waiting for.