Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Keeping Christ in Christmas: Celebrating the Golden Days

"I’m participating in the Keeping Christ in Christmas Blog Carnival, hosted by Raising (& Teaching) Little SaintsTruly Rich Mom and Arma Dei: Equipping Catholic Families. We'll be sharing different ways, tips, stories and real-life experiences that will help us focus on Jesus as the Reason for the Christmas season. Please scroll down to the end of the post to see the list of carnival entries.”

In a perfect world, I would cancel all outside activities during December.  My son would stay home from Catholic school and my daughter would skip her homeschool co-op.  I would eliminate sports practices and dance classes.  Instead, we would start each day by attending Mass and end each day with Advent vespers or by meditating on the Infancy Narratives.  Our days would be filled with reading good books, making  symbolic ornaments for our Christmas tree, visiting our parish's Adoration Chapel, helping at the food pantry, visiting with the elderly at a nursing home, baking cookies and other treats for family and friends, and creating meaningful homemade gifts for everyone on our list. 

Alas, I don't live in a perfect world.  I can't realistically pull my son from school and my daughter from co-op.  I can't eliminate all outside activities. In fact, I can't even skip secular activities like sports practices and dance classes. You see, my high-energy kids are happier and better behaved when they get a lot of physical activity--the strenuous physical activity that comes from swim team, soccer, basketball and ballet. Without that exercise, they would  be bouncing off the walls, bickering at each other and getting into mischief.  And I would be exhausted just trying to keep them out of trouble!

So I keep my sanity by continuing with our sports practices and dance classes.  The downside:  we are never home before 8 p.m. on a weekday night. When we do get  home, we only have time for a quick dinner, baths, homework and perhaps a chapter of Tabitha's Travels before bedtime. 

I constantly struggle with trying to put more spiritual meaning into December. But it's hard, very hard when we are home only a few hours each day, and that time is spent eating dinner, cleaning up, preparing for the next day and then getting ready for bed. 

So I asked myself:  how can I put Christ back into this season during the few hours we have together?  Well, we have to eat.  Could I do something to turn our meals into a time when we remember the true reason for the season? 

I read about the Golden Nights on Catholic Cuisine,  and discovered the ancient Benedictine monastery custom of praying the O Antiphons and enjoying special meals and gifts on the seven nights before Christmas Eve (December 17-23).  Hmm, I thought.  This would be the perfect way to turn our focus back to Jesus on the days leading up to Christmas. I asked myself:  could I do something like this, if I keep it super simple?  

I did a bit of research using the resources on Catholic Cuisine, Catholic Resources, Catholic Encyclopedia,  the USCCB website,  Women for Faith and FamilCatholic Icing and Family Feast and Feria. 
Maybe I could do it, if  I did a bit of preplanning yet still kept it simple. Thought I'd share my plan for those who are also looking for a simpler way to keep Christ in Christmas.  Even if you are reading this after December 17, you could still incorporate some of these ideas into the days leading up to Christmas.  You could deviate a bit from  the monastery custom and perhaps double up on days or pick the antiphons and symbols that would resonate most with your family. 

Basically, each day at dinner we will replace our usual prayer by saying the O Antiphon of the Day and the Magnificat.  If it's really late, we simply sing the appropriate verse of O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  We're using Jennifer Gregory Miller's O Antiphon Prayer Companion, which you can find here.   

December 17 
Theme:  O Sapienta/O Wisdom
Small Gift or Special Meal:  It was an especially late evening, so we ate out between dance class and sports practice.  While driving, I told them about the Antiphons and how we would be adapting the monastery custom for the next week. I mentioned that today's theme was "O Wisdom."   At the fast food restaurant,  I encouraged the kids to select something with eggs or tomatoes, which are known to be "brain food," or to have chicken, which has wings like the dove representing the Holy Spirit, also a symbol of wisdom.    At home, we pulled out the Prayer Companion and discussed Christ's messianic title of O Sapienta/O Wisdom.  I then gave the kids a package wrapped in gold paper. Inside, they found a gold tablecloth and matching napkins.  I explained that gold is traditionally the color associated with wisdom and knowledge.  I also mentioned that the next few nights are known as the Golden Nights, so we will use this gold tablecloth at each of our meals through December 23.

December 18 
Theme: O Adonai/Or Lord and Ruler
Small Gift or Special Meal: Stouffers Skillet Meal (ready in 15 minutes--yeah!)   For dessert, Milano Cookies decorated to look like the 10 Commandment tablets and fig newton cookies that were decorated to look like little Bibles. Here is a photo of the cookies:

  Here's a photo of our table:

On the side of the table I display a magnet board with the name of the day's antiphon, along with the artwork in Jennifer Gregory Miller's Prayer Companion. 

December 19
Theme: O Radix Jesse/O  Root of Jesse
Small Gift or Special Meal:  Since today's antiphon mentions roots, I made a crockpot beef stew with lots of root vegetables like carrots and potatoes.  Here's a photo of our beef stew simmering in the pot:

I also made poinsettia cookies for dessert.  This required a bit of pre-planning. A week ago, when I made our Christmas rolled sugar cookies, I cut out some simple shapes that I would use to put together the poinsettia cookies and our sunrise cookies (for another antiphon day).  To make the leaves for the poinsettia flower, I used a measuring cup to make medium sized circles and a football shaped cookie cutter  to resemble a poinsettia petal.  (After a few tries, I realized that if I bent the football cookie cutter a bit, it looked more like a petal.)  

 I decorated the petal shaped cookies with red frosting and sugar, and the round shaped cookies with yellow frosting. Then I assembled the pieces together on a plate to look like a poinsettia, like this:

 Here's a photo of our table:

December 20
Theme: O Clavis David/O Key of David
Small Gift or Special Meal: Basketball practice and Confessions tonight, so we will have these Crockpot Greek Chicken Pitas followed by Marie Callender's individual key lime pies which I picked up from our supermarket.  I also found some decorative keys at Joann's Craft Store a couple of weeks ago, which I will be tying to our napkins. The keys will then be used as ornaments for our Christmas tree.   A couple photos:

December 21
Theme: O Oriens/O Dayspring
Small Gift or Special Meal:  Friday is usually our day to eat eggs, so we will have "sunny-side up" eggs and waffles or pancakes cut/baked into sun shapes. Also, we will enjoy this Texas Sunrise drink from the Catholic cuisine website.  Sports practices are cancelled tonight (yeah!) so we will have a family movie night and watch one of our favorite holiday flicks, along with enjoying "sunrise" cookies (cookie dough cut in round shapes and long rectangles, then decorated with yellow frosting.  I'll share a photo soon!)  I've also planned a special gift for tonight--some battery lit candles that change color, which we will use for some of our upcoming holiday meals.  

Here's a photo of our Texas Sunrise drink and sun-shaped cookie dessert. 

December 22
Theme: O Rex Gentium/O King of Nations
Small Gift or Special Meal:  It's Saturday, and only one sports practice today (and no games or swim meets) so I have a bit more time to prepare a meal!  Since today's antiphon mentions a "cornerstone," I'll be serving individual meat loaves to represent cornerstones, along with mashed potatoes to represent the kingdom of heaven. For dessert, mini bundt cakes decorated to look like crowns.  After supper, our special activity will be to visit a "drive through" Nativity play at one of the churches in the area.

December 23
Theme: O Emmanuel/God With Us
Small Gift or Special Meal:  No outside activities today besides Mass!  It will be a family day to decorate the tree and finish getting ready for Christmas.  Our traditional Sunday dinner is usually pasta, so I'm looking for uniquely shaped pasta that might tie in with our theme.  It may be a stretch...but perhaps a mixture of angel hair pasta (to represent the angel's announcement to the shepherds) and campanelle pasta, which looks a bit like a lily, the flower that is used to symbolize both Joseph and Mary.

I'll add bread and wine since they symbolize the Eucharist and we will enjoy some Nativity shaped sugar cookies made along with the poinsettia cookies. For a special evening activity, I've wrapped up a nativity themed puzzle that we can start working on together. 

Want more ideas on how to keep Christ in Christmas?  Check out these great blogs!

Homeschool Mosaics: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Joy: Keeping Christ in Christmas: Advent Interruptions
The Breadbox Letters: Interrupted by Glory
TwentyTuesdayAfternoons: Keeping Christ in Christmas/ The Season of Giving / A Wee Bit of Beach Holiday Angst
The Learning Basket: Staying With the Nativity Story
Tercets: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Rosary Mom: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Ate Maui: Hoping and Bringing Hope
Written By the Finger of God: 12 Traditions for Keeping Christ in Christmas
Dominique's Desk: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Felix at Fifty: What Jesus Wants for Christmas
Mommy Bares All: Birthday Cake for the Birthday Boy on Christmas Day
Between Now and Later: Keeping Christ in Christmas, I am trying...
Lique's Antics: Family Antics: Christmas Reflection
Life of Fortunate Chances: Our First Ever Christmas: Keeping Christ in Christmas
The Mommy Journey: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Roller Coaster Ride: How to Remind Your Kids of Jesus Christ This Christmas
Cymplified: Christ -Centered Christmas: Cymplified!
Mountain Grace: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Touring Kitty: Grown-up Christmas List
Mommy Chinkysoup for the Soul: A Very Special Christmas
City Girl, Country Home: Finding Jesus in a Flurry
Coffee Moments with Sam: Christmas Unwrapped: 5 Presents Our Kids Truly Deserve
Raising Lifelong Learners: Keeping Christ in Christmas
The Diary of a Sower: Keeping Christ in Christmas: Celebrating the Golden Days
Arma Dei: Equipping Catholic Families: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Raising (and Teaching) Little Saints: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Truly Rich Mom: The Greatest Gift of All This Christmas
Joy-Filled Family: CHRIST in Christmas
Blueberry 010: Keeping Christ in Christmas: Jesus is the Reason for the Season
Deeper Truth Blog: Keeping Christ in Christmas Carnival
Holy Ducklings: 10 Ways to Make Advent Special for Your Little Ducklings
Green Eggs and Moms: Keeping Christ in Christmas: Green Eggs & Moms Style!

(This list will be updated throughout the next couple of days, so check back for even more ideas!)

 I'm also participating in Annette's Waldorf Wednesday link-up at her Seasons of Joy blog.  Hop on over and check it out  


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Happy Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe!

One of my projects from a couple of years ago: Saints made from yogurt cups!

It's feast or famine here at The Diary of a Sower...or maybe I'm on a roll today with all these blog posts?  ;-)

It will be another late night supper since we don't get home until 7:30 p.m. from swim team practice.  But I figured at least we could have a Mexican inspired meal to commemorate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe!  I discovered a quick recipe for a Mexican Chicken Casserole.  If my family likes it, I'll share the recipe in the next couple of days. We will also be having a Mexican corn and tomato salad, tortilla chips and salsa, and a simple dessert like Mexican wedding cakes (or whatever I can find in the bakery at my grocery store!)

Or maybe we will skip the dessert and enjoy a mug of Mexican hot chocolate while we watch the CCC video on Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Wishing you and your family a happy feast day!

Follow up: Our Jesse-Tree inspired dinner

I apologize for my much-delayed posting of these photos from our Jesse-Tree inspired dinner on the first Sunday of Advent!  Time is flying by even more quickly than usual! 

I was inspired by Catholic Cuisine to create an afternoon tea based on the symbols and stories of the Jesse Tree.  However, soccer and swim practices and basketball games pushed our tea into dinner time!
My daughter and I served:

 Adam and Eve's apples and serpents (gummy worms), plus sparkling apple cider for drinks.

Abraham's star sandwiches (bread, cheese and salami cut with star-shaped cookie cutters)

 Mary's flowers cucumbers (I originally planned to shape them like roses using this tutorial), but my daughter was having so much fun laying the slices on the plate so they look like flowers, that I didn't have the heart to take them apart!)

 Moses' burning bush (broccoli with Catalina salad dressing)

 Tobias' fish crackers

 Noah's rainbow fruit platter

Elizabeth and Zechariah's Angel Wing Cookies (palmier biscuits purchased from Cost Plus World Market)

Creation Cookies (Keebler's Almond Crescent Cookies)

I didn't photograph these items, but we also served carrot sticks to represent the "root of Jesse," and pasta shells and white sauce ("John the Baptist's pasta").

Here are a few more close-ups of our dinner table:

This is the second themed Biblical themed meal my daughter and I have created.  I'm never sure how my husband will react.  He's a  "meat and potatoes" and "let's eat already" kind of person who doesn't really get into a lot of creative flourishes in his meals. But he seemed to enjoy this symbolic meal, which is encouraging me to try this more often!

A hands-on presentation about the Bishop of Myra for St. Nicholas Day

Every year on December 6, I give a presentation about the Bishop of Myra to my children and to my catechism classes.  This presentation uses a variety of small objects to tell the story of Nicholas' life.  It's always a popular presentation, so I thought I would share some information about it. My presentation has been adapted from the two suggested on the St. Nicholas Center website.  Every year I tailor it a bit, based on the ages/attention span/cognitive development of the children who are hearing the presentation.  You can find the presentation here and here on the St. Nicholas Center website.

The presentations above use cards, but I like use 3-D objects whenever possible.  These  are items I've collected over time or made with a few simple materials, including:

A underlay cut out of gold fabric in the shape of a miter, a bishop's miter made from felt, a sack of cold coins, a crozier made from a gold pipe cleaner, a small sack of seed (purchased from the miniature section of a hobby store), entwined wooden swords, a printed "Nicene Creed," a St. Nicholas prayer card, a miniature Dutch shoe made from porcelain (obtained on our surprise trip to Holland, Michigan a few years ago on St. Nicholas Eve), a small knitted stocking and a wooden tall-sail ship.   There is also a gold St. Nicholas figure that my children stamped out of air dry clay one year (they insist we keep it in the box!)

I store everything in a wooden box painted gold.  Right now it is plain; with time I hope to embellish it with a simple St. Nicholas prayer card or other emblem. 

A brief overview of my presentation:
I start the presentation by gently laying out a miter underlay made of gold fabric (you can see it on the photo above). Then I talk about Nicholas' life as a young boy and how he became a rich orphan after his parents died.  I describe how he decided to give his money to the poor, including money for a dowry (I put down the sack of coins). I emphasize how he tried to give away his money in secret.

I discuss how he later became a bishop (and set down the miter and crozier).

Then I discuss some of the legends that surround him, like the story about how Nicholas was able to convince a ship's captain to sell grain to him so the people wouldn't starve in a famine (putting down the sack of grain).  I lay down the swords and describe how Nicholas saved three men from execution and how he helped write the Nicene Creed that we say in church today.    I talk about how he is the patron saint of many different people, including children and sailors (then lay down the wooden ship).

We discuss how St. Nicholas is loved around the world.  I tell them that in some other countries, children receive small gifts on St. Nicholas' feast day of December 6  instead of Christmas.  We discuss how the children in the Netherlands leave out their shoes for St. Nicholas.  We talk about how this has evolved into our custom of hanging stockings for Santa Claus.

With time, I hope to develop the presentation even more, covering some of the other European traditions about St. Nicholas.  I would love to show them different images of St. Nicholas as he appears in different countries.

This is such rich, full work!  It's wonderful to see the children's eyes light up when they discover the connection between the Bishop of Myra and our present-day Santa Claus!

What St. Nicholas Brought 2012

A peek at what St. Nicholas tucked into my children's shoes on December 6:

My son received a candy cane, chocolate coins, a chocolate Santa, a book on St. Nicholas, 
and a Ukrainian St. Nicholas statue from the International Santa Claus collection.

My daughter received a candy cane, chocolate coins, a chocolate Santa, the book Kersti and St. Nicholas  
and a Ukrainian St. Nicholas statue from the International Santa Claus collection. 

I planned to turn the chocolate Santa's into bishops using these directions from the St. Nicholas Center website, but ran out of time.  Maybe the kids and I will do it as a craft together next year. 

Every year I try to give them a small "Bishop of Myra" gift.  I've given them a holy medal, a prayer card, a small icon for their bedroom, a hand puppet and ornaments for the Christmas tree.  Finding items that relate to the Christian saint (not the secular Santa-Claus type figure) can be challenging, but I've found several items in the St. Nicholas Center shop.   Orthodox Christian online gift stores sometimes have some things too, since the Bishop of Myra is especially revered in the Orthodox church. 

A few years ago I discovered the "International Santa Claus Collection" on eBay and I've been slowly purchasing international St. Nicholas figures to give to the kids' each year for their own collections.  Although some of the figures in the set are secular (like Pere Noel from France and Joulupukki from Lapland), some are based on the Christian saint, like this Bishop Nicholas of Myra from Ukraine.  I believe the set was made manufactured in 1993 by the International Resourcing Services, Inc., and sold through large department stores.  Here are a couple of close-up shots of the figure:

I think they are discontinued, but I've found them inexpensively on eBay.  Sometimes Amazon has them, too.

I also try to give each child a book about Bishop Nicholas.  As the years have gone by, this has become more challenging!  This year's books include:

A Cloud of Witnesses: The Life of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker by  Neno Seco; published by St. Nectarios Press in 1994.  This is a small 24 page book with lovely yet simple illustrations.  It includes the music and lyrics to "A Hymn to St. Nicholas," which is a Carpatho-Russian Hymn song by children on St. Nicholas Day.  I purchased my copy from Orthodox publisher  Light & Life Publishing

The second book, purchased for my daughter, is titled Kersti and Saint Nicholas.  If I can't find an appropriate faith based book on the saint, I try to at least find one that will emphasize simpler traditions and customs based around St. Nicholas, or books that show how St. Nicholas Day is celebrated in other countries. Kersti and St. Nicholas is a reprint of a 1940 book written by Dutch author and illustrator Hilda Van Stockum, who wrote the Newbery award winning book A Day on Skates.   It's a book about a mischievous six year old who worries that she won't be visited by St. Nicholas so she sets off on an adventure.  It has simple yet beautiful illustrations. It also portrays a nice depiction of  a large family's life in Holland long ago.  I purchased my copy on Amazon. 

I follow quite a few blogs and have loved reading about how all of you celebrated St. Nicholas Day!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Jesse Tea for First Day of Advent

 I was looking for something different and fun for my family to do for the first day of Advent when I ran across this article on Catholic Cuisine. It suggests holding a tea party for Advent, based on the figures and symbols in the Jesse Tree.  Because I'm doing a couple of "Jesse tree" themed activities this holiday season, this fit in perfectly with my plans. 

So my daughter and I will be doing some light cooking and food prepping while my husband and son are at a soccer game tomorrow.  When they come home, they will be treated to a "Jesse Tree Feast!" 

We will be using some of the ideas from the Catholic Cuisine article above, in addition to those on the Cottage Blessings website. 

I'll post more information and photos in a couple of days.  But I wanted to share a printable that I've been working on today:  little signs that we will use to mark our various food items.  I've uploaded the basic printable on Google Docs, in case anyone else would like to use them for their own Jesse Tea!  You can print these out on cardstock and attach them to a skewer.  I'll be attaching mine to some old manila folders to create table tents. (I have some old manila folders that need to be repurposed.)

These are basic little signs with just words.  As you will see when I post photos later, each of my signs also has a symbol on it, which matches the symbol of our Jesse tree ornament.  We use Anne E. Neuberger's Advent Stories and Activities: Meeting Jesus Through The Jesse Tree book to tell our Advent stories each night, and our symbols are copies of those in the book.  But I would suggest that you use copies of  the symbols on your own Jesse tree.  It helps reinforce the concepts better if you consistently use the same symbols to represent Abraham, Moses, Elizabeth and the other figures in the Jesse Tree. (Hope that makes sense!)

I am finishing another project related to our Jesse Tree--a project that would be perfect both for families and catechism classes. I'll be posting that hopefully in the next couple of days.

Advent to Epiphany Planner 2012

Last year, I created an Advent to Epiphany Planner to help me keep track of the numerous feast days in December and January.  I also wanted to create a planner that my daughter and I could use during the week to schedule our homeschooling lessons.  I try to do a little reading, math and writing everyday, then devote some time to fun activities like baking, doing holiday crafts, etc.  The planner helps me track these things, in addition to schedule fun activities like field trips to see holiday displays, watch our favorite holiday movies, etc. You can read more about the planner at this post.

I thought others might like to use this resource, so I uploaded a 2012 version into Google Docs, which you can get here.  The first two pages are a basic template without any dates.  The pages after that are dated and note saint feast days, solemnities, etc.

Please let me know if you use it!  I also welcome any suggestions for changes for next year.