The magic of Christmas is not in the presents, but in His presence. –Unknown
I’m just CRAZY about Christmas! I always have been. And somehow, I have managed to let both the secular and the sacred share space in my heart (with the tie going to the sacred, of course!) during this magical time of year. As a kid, I remember Christmas Eve worship and how I especially loved the nativity at my Mom’s house. I can recall that it was tucked away each year in its original box, every piece finding its place in the foam packaging. When my mother set it out…baby Jesus, Joseph, Mary and the gang all hung out in a miniature stable that my grandpa made. Examining each piece, I can still see the beautiful face of Mary and the baby Jesus…surrounded by hay…looking so heavenly and angelic. Both a baby and a Savior. The little set symbolizing an extraordinary and miraculous moment in time. Joseph looking so noble…the epitome of honor and faithfulness. There were farm animals, an angel, a shepherd boy, and the three wise men, of course. It was pretty wonderful.
So, it sort of surprises me that I never had a nativity of my own. Not when I went away to college, not when I took my first job in Arkansas, not when I moved to California, and not when I got married. In fact, I didn’t have a nativity until after my son, Sean, was a year old. It all happened in another magical moment at Hobby Lobby (seems that this store is the scene for many Spencer Family Christmas memories!)
After moving halfway across the country from California to Kansas, my mother-in-law, Sean and I found ourselves in the Hobby Lobby in Salina…for what I remember was a brief and snack-filled trip to do a little Christmas shopping (by the way, Cheez-Its make for great toddler payola…just saying!) Strolling through a craft warehouse with a 1 year old BOY is no easy task! So when it looked like Sean was going to leap out of the cart at any moment, Karen suggested that Sean help us pick out a nativity for our home. This was a genius idea because it gave my toddler a sense of purpose and I was just thrilled with the thought of having a nativity of my own. In record time, my excitement turned to worry as I remembered that something as fragile as a porcelain nativity probably wouldn’t last but a second in our house. Sean was just so hands-on about everything! In the back of my mind I had planned to buy him a Fisher Price Little People nativity set for Christmas. It was important to me that he understand the Christmas story…and at an age appropriate level. He already had a few Little People collections…the train set and the airport. Still, it couldn’t hurt to look at the nativities on display at the store.
It was pretty amazing…an entire aisle with nativities in every shape and size imaginable. My thoughts were racing…where would we put such a fragile item? Karen must have heard the wheels grinding in my head. After explaining my thoughts, she said, “Sean will pick out the one that he likes best…and we will teach him to care for it and look after it.” My heart was touched as I watched her talk with Sean about picking out a baby Jesus to take to his house. She reminded him that he would have to take extra special care of it! And asked him if he was ready to choose one. Sean beamed! From an early age, Sean could tell a story with his eyebrows (a talent he inherited from Grandma Karen.) One second the eyebrows would be arched high as he caught a glimpse of something intriguing. The next minute the eyebrows would be furrowed as he inspected his options. Sometimes just one eyebrow would lift as if he was thinking really hard. It was a wonderful little dance. When he finally picked one, all three of us knew this was the nativity for us. It was perfect. A chunky little wooden nativity…not too big and not too small. Sean touched each piece and seemed very delighted with the farm animals in this set. Since all the nativities were technically “on display” we found a store worker who immediately set out to find us a boxed set from the storage room. However, when she came back, she wasn’t carrying a box. Uh-oh. She explained that they hadn’t ordered many of this set and that they were sold out. She had also checked to see if getting one before Christmas was a possibility. It was not.
Karen is always cool as a cucumber in these sorts of situations. Clearly, THIS was the set that Sean wanted. She didn’t want to disappoint her grandson so she did what ANY grandmother would do. She asked if we could buy this very set. The store worker said that in any other situation she would love to sell it to us, except that this set had been GLUED to the foam board it rested upon. She pulled off one of the wise men to demonstrate. Stuck to his base was loads of navy blue paper and foam. Both Karen and the worker tried to pull it off. It was no easy task. Even if we pulled each piece from the board we would then have to pull off loads of paper scraps. The lady said that the pieces might not even stand correctly given the amount of glue left on the base. She obviously didn’t know who she was dealing with…Karen said she would work all that out later if we could just buy this nativity set. And so, it was settled.
Sean held the wise man in his hot little hands as we arranged the foam board and the glued down pieces across the shopping cart basket. There were quite a few stares, but we managed to check out and make it to the car. From the moment we got home Karen worked on releasing each character from the foam…carefully pulling off paper and glue. Her beautifully manicured nails probably got the raw end of the deal that day as she scraped and scraped. Each time she finished a piece she handed it to Sean. His eyebrows went to work again…doing their little dance as he checked out each one. He would show it to me and then go and show his Dad and then show me again. I think Sean had already had a bath and was tucked into bed before Karen had finished them all. It was truly a labor of love.
Sean played with the nativity all December long. Each day he would rearrange them and make sure the animals were “fed.” Since our set didn’t come in a box, we lovingly packed them away in an oversized shoe box after the holidays, unpacking them with great delight the next year and the year after that. Sean never seemed to tire of “playing” with the set. When Casey came along (and was old enough to follow her brother everywhere,) he explained the cast of characters to her. “This is baby Jesus…His mom’s name is Mary and His dad’s name is Joseph…,” and on down the line. These are the moments that live in a mother’s heart for eternity.
Today, the nativity makes its home in front of the fireplace each Christmas and it serves as the centerpiece of our Christmas Eve dinner table. I still love taking it out of the shoe box each and every year…a flood of memories spilling out with each “sticky” piece.
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go…. –Meredith Willson
You know the Christmas trees you see at the store? The pretty ones that they put in the windows and on display for everyone to gawk at and fawn over. The perfect ones that force you to stop in your tracks and make your mind ponder (just for a moment) if perhaps you’re really ready for a “grown-up” tree. The kind of tree that screams I have style AND taste. Yeah, I’ve seen those trees, too….
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of them. Not just at the stores, but on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest (the social media list goes on and on) and even in the homes of family members and friends. It seems to me that everyone has one of these beautifully accessorized trees. And this sort of thing stands out to me, not because I’m envious or jealous but more from a place of sheer admiration. You see, I LOVE Christmas trees…all kinds (and especially the Charlie Brown one,) but in my heart of hearts I always imagined that I, too, would have one of these special Christmas trees…a “magazine ready,” picture perfect tree.
My Mom has that kind of Christmas tree. I can remember the red apple tree, the blue and silver bulb tree, and the crystal snowflake tree, among others. I always assumed that would be my destiny–like mother, like daughter. In fact, I tried really hard to have one many moons ago. When I met my husband he had a Christmas tree in his living room…in May. Granted it was a mini TV top tree, but he had it on display for Memorial Day, I guess (oh, and a plush Thanksgiving turkey was placed next to it, too, probably to welcome the summer season.) I took this as a sign that he wasn’t much into decorating and eventually I filed it away as proof that I would be in charge of all holiday décor. So when we graduated from tiny, dorm apartment living and moved to a home in Salina, I figured this was my big break. I was going to do Christmas my way. I remember telling my Mom that I was going for a blue/white/silver snowman theme. She purchased ornaments to get me started and I began to gather all the “right” accessories as well. Our son, Sean, was just over a year old, and after photos with Santa one night, we came home to decorate the tree. And while I was strategizing and putting a final game plan together, Steve and Sean were already placing ornaments on the tree. What?
Turns out these ornaments were from Steve’s childhood along with a few others that his mother had passed down to us. (I’m still not sure where this box came from.) Sean looked thrilled as several of these ornaments were football related. And I remember stopping in my tracks and thinking that 49er red really didn’t go with my snowman theme…at all. Obviously, a “discussion” ensued. That Christmas the tree was properly adorned with blue/white/silver snowman themed items and EVERY ornament my husband had ever owned in his life. I figured I had lost the battle, but certainly not the war. There was always next year, and the year after that, and the one after that. The odds, however, were not in my favor.
Please don’t feel bad for me. It really wasn’t a make or break deal. I love Christmas and pretty much all things Christmas related. So we moved on and it wasn’t until Sean was in preschool that I finally got on board with the “all-things, everything” kind of Christmas tree. When that sweet-faced little boy brought me his first homemade ornament from school and proceeded to put it on the tree…well, my heart melted. He was so proud of himself. A little man contributing to a holiday that I loved so much. Sean would tell me in his tiny voice, “I made it for you.” So naturally every scribbled on, wadded up, half-glued, misshapen ornament made its way onto the tree–as it should. And when Casey came along, well her “contributions” went up right along side his.
As you can imagine, after more than a decade of “contributions” amassed from school AND church, we now have quite a collection going. Add to it EVERY ornament we have ever received from relatives, friends, plus our church family, and it amounts to 7 boxes of Christmas knickknack goodies. Every year the tree is quite full (this may be an important factor when you consider the number of times the tree has fallen over the years,) but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Spencer Family Christmas tree is full of as many stories and memories as it is ornaments. This year the kids asked me if we really had to hang every last trinket from the boxes. I guess they thought that maybe the “bead ornament” (there really is no other name for it since it resembles absolutely NOTHING ever known to man) and the “paper Jesus candy cane” may have seen better days. “If there’s room on the tree, then there’s room for it,” was my constant reply. And while I think the “all-things, everything” kind of Christmas tree has roots in my husband’s Christmas tradition, he is the one who announces every year that “it looks like Christmas threw up in here!” At least he says it with a smile.
Our tree is still up (it’s New Year’s Day,) it’s leaning to the side as is its custom during the 12 Days of Christmas, and the ornaments are taking themselves down (with a mini thud!) The Christmas “spew” extends well beyond the tree to the fireplace mantel, hearth, the piano and into the dining room, and it will…for at least another week. Yes, it STILL looks like Christmas in here and everywhere we go…even if it’s the regurgitated type. Falalalala Lalalala!
I get obsessed with decorations and decorating the house. I keep it tasteful outside, but when you get inside it is a bit like Blackpool illuminations, I go BONKERS! –Johnny Vegas
Stay tuned for Christmas Trilogy, Part 3: The Sticky Nativity
BIG THANKS to those of you who have been following my blog, hymningandhaing.com. As my blog enters its fifth year, I am proud of the 83 posts I have penned to date and the positive feedback that I have received—it fuels my desire to write more! I am grateful for the fun comments, insights, post shares and encouraging words that you have offered throughout my blogging endeavor. I look forward to 2016 and all the writing opportunities it will bring!
Happy blog-iversary, hymningandhaing.com!!!
Memories are timeless treasures of the heart. -Unknown
Sometimes I think that we open some of our very best Christmas presents long before the big day arrives. For me, there’s something special about unpacking all the Christmas décor, ornaments, and trinkets that I’ve collected through the years. Every December we lug the boxes upstairs and like little kids open each with a sense of excitement–kind of like running in to an old friend or finding something that was once lost. My kids (even as a tween and teen) exclaim, “Remember this!” Or they’ll question me, “Why did you save that?” and “How long has this been in the family?” One of the things that touches my heart most are the tales behind these treasured keepsakes which leads me to my favorite comment, “Tell me the story about this one!” Then I get to share the story behind baby ornaments, school crafts from days gone by, or the Hallmark Yoda figurine that adorns the tree every year. It was actually this ornament (and all the hub bub about the recently released Star Wars movie) that led me to write this post as I chronicle three of my favorite Spencer Family Christmas stories.
Let me begin with the FACT that my mother-in-law is far more popular than I could ever hope to be. I think even complete strangers would nominate her homecoming queen should we ever find ourselves in high school again (despite the fact that we graduated in different decades and states!) From hello, people just love her. Actually, you don’t even have to speak to her to like her…I’ve witnessed countless strangers ask her for directions, information, and just start chatting with her without any prompting whatsoever. She just has one of those faces that says, “Let’s be lifelong friends.” It’s a rare gift (my husband has the same one,) and I just can’t help but sit back and marvel. This sort of thing comes in handy when you shop at Hobby Lobby…or at least that’s what I’ve concluded whenever Karen is around. And Hobby Lobby is the scene for this Christmas memory.
My daughter Casey was just a little, bitty thing at the time…probably 3 or 4ish. She didn’t mind sitting in shopping carts especially if grandma was “driving.” While I can’t recall why we went into Hobby Lobby that day (although I don’t think one has to have a specific reason for going into Hobby Lobby because who doesn’t LOVE that store?) There we were in the fabric section when my mother-in-law spotted these cute, matching, mother/daughter gingerbread aprons. Displayed on mannequins for all to see, they were just perfect for Casey and I. Karen pointed them out to me…suggesting that we really needed to have THOSE Christmas aprons. I agreed, but didn’t think much of it because the Christmas apron pattern was situated in such a way as to suggest that you had to make the aprons yourself (this is a craft store after all.) I believe Karen’s response was, “Nonsense,” as she took them off the mannequin and put them in the cart. We continued our shopping and eventually landed at the check out.
I have to admit that it was pretty funny watching the cashier search the aprons for the price tag, but what was even better was the look on her face when Karen explained how she got the aprons. I imagine that it’s a pretty rare occurrence when someone takes a sample product off a mannequin and then proceeds to try to purchase it. The cashier explained that sample items are not for sale…they are SAMPLE items. Karen wasn’t deterred in the least. She asked the cashier to get someone from the fabric section to come to the check out stand so we could discuss the purchase of THOSE aprons further. I’m pretty sure at this point we were holding up the check out line, but still we waited. Finally, someone came up. She agreed with the cashier that the aprons were samples and not for sale which led to a conversation about what actually happens to the samples at Hobby Lobby when they are no longer needed. It was interesting…typically the items are returned to the person who made them, stowed away for display at a later date, or just given away to someone who works at the store. Karen reiterated that she would like to purchase them as a Christmas gift for me and my daughter…telling about her visit to Kansas from California, my love for baking, and Casey’s fondness for Rachael Ray (but that’s another blog.) Clearly, Karen had won over the woman from the sewing department and a few seconds later we were exchanging phone numbers and my mother-in-law had arranged for the store to call me (after Christmas) to pick up the aprons when they were no longer needed. They agreed the aprons could be purchased for $5 each and all I had to do was keep a hold of this little piece of paper until the pick up date arrived. SCORE!
In the back of my mind, I wondered if they would really call. I mean, Karen had already returned to California, no money had changed hands at that point, and the note from the store (scrawled on the back of a receipt) hardly seemed like a binding contract. Yet, there it was…a few days after Christmas…a message on the phone from Hobby Lobby saying that I could come and pick up the aprons from the sewing counter in the store. Well, Casey and I hot-footed it over there and sure enough, THOSE Christmas aprons were right there waiting. They were even cuter than I remembered and Casey was so excited! We proceeded to the check out full of smiles…and then….
The cashier (the same one from our previous visit to the store with Karen,) looked at the aprons and frowned. FROWNED. She looked at me said, “You can’t have these.” I was taken aback as she explained that she couldn’t possibly sell these aprons to me because the sweetest woman from California had come to the store before Christmas and she wanted to buy them for her granddaughter and daughter-in-law. She repeated the whole encounter to me and I couldn’t help but laugh…which threw her off a bit. I pulled out the little note and told her that I was with Karen that day. I wish I could have captured her smile! She was so delighted that we were going to have THOSE aprons after all! She said she remembered my mother-in-law very well and although she didn’t recognize me (surprise?) she didn’t think she had the heart to sell them to anybody else after meeting Karen that December day. Karen had used her “gift” to secure a truly, special gift for Casey and I.
Every year at Christmas time we pull THOSE aprons out–our cookie baking wouldn’t be the same without them! This year when Casey put hers on we realized just how tiny the apron really is. Casey is 10 now and while the apron still fits it’s clear to see that she’s not a preschooler any more, but that same sweet smile spreads across her face when she wears it. THOSE Christmas aprons have become a part of our family’s Christmas tradition and I love to tell the story.
It is in the kitchen where the warmth of shared memories, laughter and life create a recipe that spans the generations. -unknown
Stay tuned for Christmas Trilogy, Part 2: Deck the Halls with Christmas Spew, Falalalala Lalalala
Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. —Ellen Goodman
When it comes to holidays, I like to go full-out! I love traditions…the habits and rituals that create memories (both good and bad, but especially MEANINGFUL) and serve to connect families and friends to the past, present and the future. Equally as important, I enjoy sharing where, why and how the traditions came about. So for the last month, my family has endured all of my favorite stories about Halloweens past. I share these little gems, not just for myself (okay, maybe just for myself) but also as a way to join together my childhood experiences, a little history, some faith/religion and finally…to secretly instill some expectations and wisdom upon my kiddos. And you thought I just hung out in my kitchen baking cookies all day :)
Seriously, I think one of the most effective tools in parenting (and a number of other categories) is the personal testimony. That’s why I like telling Sean and Casey all about my Halloween adventures–successes and epic fails (age appropriate, of course.) Everything from what costumes we donned (not ashamed to admit that I was Bat Girl more than once) to trick or treating in the neighborhood to visiting my great grandmother’s house (for peanuts and apples) to haunted houses and everything in between. We compare and contrast classroom parties, popular candy (then and now), real (and not so real) ghost stories all while asking questions and googling Halloween history. Together we’ve learned a lot! And the payoff comes when the kiddos are just as invested in the traditions as I am :)
I would say that I get my love of Halloween from my Dad. He was the first adult (outside of teachers) that I can remember dressing up for Halloween on a regular basis. Dad likes his costumes to be scary, and while that’s not my cup of tea, I have many memories of his gory masks and spooky get-ups. He would help us carve pumpkins and Mom would work on roasting the pumpkin seeds. At the time, pumpkin patches weren’t a part of our Halloween experience…but we looked forward to the carving nonetheless. We didn’t use fancy stencils or patterns and our primitive carving tools could have easily sent one of us to the ER (fortunately it never came to that!) Today, my family looks forward to our annual trip to “the patch” (which my son tells me doesn’t sound quite right) and choosing our own pumpkins from a giant field of orange and green. Over the years, I have amassed a great deal of pumpkin carving supplies and we make an event out of the whole thing…complete with spooky music courtesy of Pandora. This year we added hot dogs and s’mores to the occasion. It’s one of my favorite days of the year (and someday I will master those pumpkin seeds, too!)
The traditions go way beyond the pumpkin patch and the carving. We decorate the house, reminisce over old Halloween photos and spend countless hours discussing, shopping and creating Halloween costumes. The costumes have become one of our best-loved parts of the season. Fortunately, my kids aren’t into scary and with a little imagination and planning, they’ve managed to come up with some pretty creative costumes over the years. And while I’ve quietly lobbied for the “family” costume, I am afraid that ship has sailed. For some years, however, I was able to finagle the kiddos into coordinated costumes, but my luck eventually ran out there, too :(. Oh well. There’s plenty of fun in sharing stories about past costumes, who we went trick or treating with (family or friends,) where we were living at the time and surprisingly no one ever seems to mention the candy.
Typically we watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” once (sometimes twice) each October and I marvel at the questions the kids come up with. When they were younger, they needed help with the character’s names and who was related to whom. Now they ask why Lucy is so mean, how come Charlie Brown can’t get a break, and what Snoopy’s role as the Red Baron is really all about. This year I had to explain that bobbing for apples was a real thing and we discussed some of the reasons why that tradition didn’t carry on (gross.) We marvel at Schroeder’s piano playing skills, discuss party invite etiquette and basically feel bad for Linus.
As the children have grown older, Halloween has included a faith dialogue as well. We talk about the early history of the holiday…a time when pagan superstitions and overall fear fueled the observance. Picture a people who warily watched the seasons change and anxiously retreated into a time of the year when no crops grew, the weather was particularly harsh and their survival depended upon the work that had been done in the warmer months. Harvest really was a reason to celebrate as they prepared for months of cold and uncertainty. Can you imagine how they were compelled to turn to a number of gods for protection and provision? Warding off evil lent itself to carving scary faces on gourds and trees and displaying these items on their doorsteps. And what about trick or treating? A custom that spans ancient beliefs, religious practices and morphed into a “pseudo-war” between the haves and have-nots before becoming the family friendly outing that we now know.
It’s November 1st and costumes lie crumpled up on the floor, candy wrappers dot the tabletops, and tired looking eyes stare up at me. And while the whole Halloween adventure culminates in one day, I realize that it’s not the holiday itself that means so much to me–it’s actually the whole season. We’ve been gearing up, preparing for, talking about and making plans for a whole month. Through it all we’ve carved out special (additional!) time together…outside of mealtimes and the occasional quiet evening. We’ve cooked and baked together. We’ve shopped together. We’ve attended school parties together. We’ve enjoyed nature together. And it feels good. I know these seasons are fleeting. Before long, their Halloween plans won’t include me. The kids are growing up so fast and that probably scares me more than any creepy costume on Halloween. For now I hold onto the imagination and creativity of the season. I look forward to the cooler temperatures and the rustling of leaves and my mind wanders (unafraid) to the approaching season that seems to draw us closer (even if it only is for warmth :) ) The traditions abound and yes, I can still taste the caramel apples that sweeten this already favored season.
There is a child in every one of us who is still a trick-or-treater looking for a brightly-lit front porch. ~Robert Brault