Anna Claus Holiday Must Haves

When you stop believing in Santa you get underwear.  –unknown

Okay, so I’m not really a member of the official Santa Claus family, but Christmas is my FAVORITE time of the year!  I am well versed in all the songs of the season, I know the “Code of Elves” verbatim and I’ve successfully completed several Christmas-themed Buzzfeed quizzes online.  So OBVIOUSLY I’m practically an adopted member of the Claus household!  As a self-appointed Christmas authority, I feel obligated to share these twelve little goodies with the planet to ensure you and yours experience your best Christmas yet!  In no particular order, I cheerfully present to you Anna Claus Holiday Must Haves…

  • Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris.  I read this collection of short, satirical (and politically incorrect) stories every December for many, many reasons.  Mostly because who doesn’t love the escapades of a grown man parading around Macy’s as an Elf, the unlikeliest Christmas Eve houseguest EVER and the snarkiest review of children’s Christmas pageants you’ll ever read?  Nothing gets me in the holiday mood quite like this fun (and funny) book.  Complete brain candy, it is good for continuous laughs.
  • Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas  If you love jazzy, upbeat Christmas music this album is for you!  The 60s style jazz offerings are traditional yet they possess that special “zing.”  CAUTION:  The “cool cat” vibe this album induces may cause scatting!  Wonderful background music for doing just about anything holiday-related.
  • Candy Canes  Nothing says Christmas like candy canes.  Sweet and pepperminty I try to consume as many as possible.  Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, it’s not unusual to find these tasty treats (and their tiny crumbs) in my purse, in my pockets or in my mouth!
  • IMG_2064Pandora’s Swingin’ Christmas Radio Station  This is the ONLY internet radio station I listen to during the holidays.  On the computer and on my phone this is my go-to background music for the holiday season.  Here you’ll find everything from the Rat Pack Christmas album and Louis Armstrong offerings to Michael Buble and everyone in between.
  • Santa Hat (Reindeer Antlers optional)  My all-time hat of choice, the Santa hat comes out right after Thanksgiving and lives among the coats all Christmas season long.  This year I’ve decided to add reindeer antlers to the list of approved December head-gear.  Very festive!
  • Starbucks Christmas Blend and Peet’s Holiday Blend Warm, sweet and spicy…this is what Christmas tastes like!  For a coffee lover like myself this is a terrific blend that gets the day going…also serves as the perfect addition to an evening dessert.  Would I like another cup?  Of course!
  • Nativity  Nativities set the scene for a Christ-centered holiday.  Our family nativity is my all-time favorite and I love to share the story about how we acquired such a unique set.  I also love visiting the homes of family and friends and seeing their nativity displays.  Most times it leads to another wonderful story as well.
  • Cookie Baking  I am probably guilty of too much cookie baking during this time of the year, but I love it!!!  I wish we could live off Christmas cookies, but I’m afraid of what we might look like if I got my wish.  Too many favorite cookies to name, I especially love making treats to give away to family and friends.
  • Hallmark Channel Christmas Movies  The Christmas season would not be complete without the Hallmark Channel!  Who can resist seeing all your favorite teen heartthrobs return in these fun and romantic Hallmark movies!  Nothing says it’s officially Christmas like the picture-perfect Christmas towns and tales of true love conquering all.  It’s the gift that keeps giving…round the clock with a new opportunity to spread a little holiday cheer every other hour!
  • Holiday Flicks  My all-time favorite is It’s a Wonderful Life, a classic with the lovable Donna Reed and her screen beau, Jimmy Stewart.  Watching the Charlie Brown Christmas is a must.  I also like to sprinkle in a little Christmas with the Kranks, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story and Elf among others.
  • Christmas Lights Tour This is a tradition that goes way, way back for me.  I can remember piling up in the car as a child and checking out the Christmas lights in my little hometown.  Today, we continue to take (drag) our children out to look at the lights.  This year we cranked our adventure up a notch with a Holiday Lights Scavenger Hunt.  Great fun!
  • Snow Never a guarantee, but snow really makes it all perfect.  It seems that whenever it snows the world seems to slow down a bit…offering us a moment to take in and savor everything around us.  The holidays typically fly by…I need a little snow to take it all in.

A few honorable mentions to my list:  holiday cards, cocoa, caroling and Christmas parades!  They don’t call it the most wonderful time of the year for nothing.  Wishing you the Merriest Christmas!

 

Bing Crosby is Slowly Killing Me (Did I Say That Out Loud?)

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…just like the ones I used to know….”  Bing Crosby, singer & actor

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right?  Exactly.

One of my favorite aspects of the Christmas season is the music.   Growing up, I recall the local radio station playing Christmas music solely on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  That meant that we had to get out our little boom box and cassette tapes and record as much of it as possible.  This served as “seed” music for the following Christmas.  And boy did we wear those cassette tapes out!  Today, it’s a different story.  Often times I hear Christmas music playing way before Thanksgiving…and I’m not the DJ orchestrating this holiday magic!  In shopping centers, restaurants, and even on the radio, the Christmas tunes are cranked up loud and proud early in the season.  I don’t mind really…and then again, maybe I do.

I mind because it seems that every year (without fail) one song seems to capture the season for me.  A Christmas song brain worm if you will.  On good years the song is something fun and light-hearted…a sweet ditty sung by Michael Buble, Mariah Carey or even that little cutie, Justin Beiber.  Other years, though, the song is something that stirs up a completely different (less cheery) feeling.  I don’t necessarily want to call it darker or deeper or even more soulful (yes, I know I’m talking about music and not coffee!) There’s just something about that one song that touches the most tender part of my heart…a melody that evokes such profound emotion that it almost always manifests itself in near tears (ok, occasionally one leaks out.)

In the past, these “other” songs were always familiar Christmas tunes…but for whatever reason, they took on a new flavor.  For example, a few years ago Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” could completely kill my yuletide joy.  Still, that makes sense, although I love, love Elvis, the title is “Blue Christmas.”  Other songs on this glum list include “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Josh Groban with its added military personnel audio (oh, the tears,) Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” with its resounding sad tale of lost love (more tears,) and need I say ANYTHING about those stupid “Christmas Shoes” by New Song?  Boo hoo hoo.  And then there’s the overwhelming “whoa” of “Please Come Home for Christmas” by Charles Brown…just to name a few. During these years, I can’t decide whether to avoid the song completely or just play it on repeat until the feelings subside (which doesn’t work by the way.)

Today, with the onset of digital music streaming, we can customize our own playlists in a matter of minutes.  This is awesome because who doesn’t like personalized stuff?  A “just-for-me” anything speaks to the most narcissistic part of our brains and makes us feel important and special.  I’m all down for that…I have a zillion custom playlists.  So basically, my game plan is to just avoid the song altogether.  (Avoidance is one of my favorite psychological strategies.)  Still, there are algorithms. And try as we might, people, we cannot escape them!  Now that Pandora (such a fitting name by the way) knows ALL of my Christmas music favorites (thanks to the thumbs-up-thumbs-down buttons) I am at her mercy and this year’s song has been a doozy!  A Christmas classic, a favorite among favorites, such a BASIC Christmas song that it is altogether inescapable…no matter where I turn.  I’m talking about the beloved holiday staple, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”  Yes, that’s the one breaking my heart this year (can I say that out loud?)

Who doesn’t love “White Christmas?”  I mean, I absolutely adore it!  It’s the best-selling Christmas song of all time!  But this year, whenever I hear it a sadness ensues.  It’s like I’m hearing this familiar tune with new ears.  I remember the song from childhood, fell in love with it AND Bing Crosby while watching the old black & white version of Holiday Inn…and the song was further impressed upon my heart when I discovered the movie of the same title a few years later.  Bing sings the song so effortlessly.  As I write this I can picture him at his piano…the debonair crooner drawing us in with this perfect song.  His voice so melodic and rich…all the casual sophistication of an American icon just pouring out of every single note.  Did I mention that I adore this song?  One can only imagine how surprised I was to find that this song, this tried and true favorite could cause me such grief.  It was like walking into a door…and I never saw it coming!

Turns out that I shouldn’t be surprised at all with the heartbreaking aspect of “White Christmas.”  It’s nostalgic.  Wistful.  There’s a sense of longing…and hope.  A wartime favorite, “White Christmas” was the song American soldiers clung to following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  It was a staple on Armed Forces Radio as soldiers tuned in while stationed overseas during World War II.  For many, on the war front and at home, the lyrics told of bygone days and easier times…a reminder of a “normal” that they hoped to reclaim.  For the songwriter, Irving Berlin, the lyrics were much deeper as many believe he wrote the song during a bout of extreme homesickness.  Still, other music historians claim the song was actually written to memorialize Berlin’s infant son who is said to have died on Christmas Day. Given this history, the song certainly takes on a different significance and gains a depth that I wasn’t aware of before.

For these reasons (and so many more) Bing Crosby is slowly killing me…at least he is this Christmas.  And while at first this slow, figurative death was limited to “White Christmas” it has moved far beyond.  Now, it’s EVERY Bing Crosby Christmas song…and there’s no way to avoid it.  I immediately recognize his voice and something just gets caught in my throat.  My heart sinks a little.  My eyes get damp in the corners.  I can’t explain it.  I’ve been jokingly (and seriously) blaming everything on hormones lately, but really I know it’s something more.  It’s me.  It’s today.  It’s nostalgia.  It’s dreaming.  It’s gratitude.  It’s a brokenness.  It’s hope.  It’s this present time and place.  It’s perfect and imperfect all at the same time.  It’s Christmas…just listen.

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15

 

 

 

Dollar Store Jesus

“Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.” Psalm 31:24

The Holy Spirit spoke to me while putting away Christmas decorations last year.  “Leave this one out,” it urged, “Place it some place where you will see it.  Leave it some where so you won’t forget.”  This Divine nudge prompted me to leave the Dollar Store Jesus on the shelf in the dining room.

dollar-tree-jesusAt first, it felt odd.  Really odd.  Not a lick of glittery, sparkly Christmas décor around and there sat the clumsily painted baby Jesus.  A gift to my son from several years back.  A tradition really, as I always try to purchase a little something for the kiddos to remind them of the true Reason for the season.  Mostly I buy ornaments, but when the children were very young I wanted them to have a “hands on” experience with Jesus.  The Dollar Store is perfect for gifts like this…it was a cost-effective way to teach the children to be careful with breakables while allowing them to touch, feel, and hold an item so precious.  If it broke, no problem.  We would carefully glue it back together or (as is prone to happen with little boys) we would sweep up the pieces.  I wanted them to know that Jesus was always within reach and as a result various Dollar Store Jesus figurines would live among other toys, on their bedroom night stands or carried in a backpack to preschool show-and-tell…all December long.  The collection grew larger each year with a few duplicates after Casey was born (whatever Sean had, Casey had to have, too) and then back in the box they would go.  Until now….

Over the past year, this Dollar Store Jesus has lived among various other holiday decorations, next to the kiddos’ photographs, by the clock, near the plants, and on the piano.  I laugh to myself every time I place Him in a new “home.”  Will anyone notice?  (They did.) Will anyone care?  (This is yet to be determined.)  Regardless, I know He’s there…reminding me.  EVERY DAY JESUS.

Peace on earth will come to stay, when we live Christmas every day.  -Helen Steiner Rice

Graduation Speeches Are So Long (But Maybe It’s a Good Thing)

Under all speech that is good for anything, there is a silence that is better….  –Thomas Carlyle

Let me start by saying that I have mad respect for public speakers.  It takes a great deal of time, thought, composure, and courage to share your ideas and perspectives with audiences both large and small.  It is no easy feat to step up and out into this arena, which is probably why public speaking is high on the list of our “greatest fears.”  It’s one of those occurrences where we are typically happier on the receiving end and offer pity to the “poor soul” up front with a microphone.  Often times though, it’s equally uncomfortable for both parties…and yet this is exactly where many of us will find ourselves this graduation season.

The whole idea causes my mind to take a stroll down memory lane.  First, as a sixth grader giving a pseudo-valedictorian speech to my classmates as we prepared to advance to junior high.  I can remember pouring my thoughts onto a few sheets of wide-rule notebook paper…the usual platitudes intermixed with memories of sixth grade antics.  I can recall wearing my hair up (an attempt to look more sophisticated, I’m sure,) donning a flowery dress and trying very hard to speak slowly and clearly.  My palms were sweaty and I hardly recognized my own voice over the loud-speaker.  The event venue, a school gymnasium, seemed extra cavernous and despite the dozens of parents and family members in the audience…there were moments where I felt like I was all alone.  Time passed so slowly…each second its own eternity.  The whole speech couldn’t have been more than seven or eight minutes and while it concluded with applause, I always wondered if maybe they were just happy that it was done?  I know I was.

Twenty plus years later, I can still see the faces of those who spoke at my high school graduation ceremony, but what they said is a complete blur.  Classmates, community leaders, administrators…their mouths were moving, but I have no idea what they spoke of that day.  What I can clearly remember are my sunglasses:  mirrored wannabe wayfarers.  We wore our graduation caps toward the back of our heads to accommodate our extra-large mall bangs and adding sunglasses (and not disturbing the bobby pins) was not easy.  It was an extraordinary, bright, sunshiny day (I remember that)…and I NEEDED those sunglasses.  Gathering in a long line, I remember looking at the faces all around me and realizing I didn’t know everyone’s names (a sad fact that weighs on my heart today.)  Obviously, it was loud as we paraded onto the football field with music and cheering family and friends in the background, but as soon as the ceremony began I was lost in my own thoughts.  Deliberately taking in the moment, I was convinced that I would never experience anything like this again.  I looked for my family in the stands.  I smiled at my best friends.  I scoped out a cute boy.  I looked at the sky…a lot.  This day could never be duplicated and in some ways both the world and time stood still.  There was a charge in the atmosphere (one that would eventually lead to a thunderstorm and tornado warning that night.)  And while the message was lost on me, I silently prayed that the valedictorian would just keep talking.  That didn’t happen.  And in a blink of an eye, I found myself preparing for yet another graduation.

There’s a tradition at the University of Kansas…maybe it’s more lore than tradition…that advises students not to walk through the Campanile until graduation day.  Those who choose not to heed this advice, “risk” not graduating at all.  (In my mind, I equate it with dropping the “spirit stick,” like in the movie Bring It On.) If you know me, you know I wouldn’t dream of breaking tradition.  While the landmark is one of my favorite places on the campus, I vowed to not pass through it until that special day.  So, when it arrived, I was ecstatic.  The opportunity to walk through its doors was symbolic in countless ways…a memory that I truly treasure.  (I secretly relive the moment every time we visit the campus.)

Me and Kimberly at Graduation 1997The forecast called for yet another extraordinary, bright and sunshiny graduation day.  (Newsflash:  It’s also very humid in Lawrence, Kansas.)  Thinking ahead, I decided to wear a red tank top and a pair of cut off jean shorts under my graduation gown.  Not your typical graduation attire…oh well.  I had a paper fish on the top of my cap (so that my grandmother could pick me out of the “sea of students” making their way down the hill.)  I wore comfortable brown sandals as we walked in a procession according to major.  (If I close my eyes, I’m practically there all over.)  As you can imagine, a large university has an especially long ceremony.  There were many, many speakers that day.  We took our seats under the hot sun and fanned ourselves with the graduation handout.  I remember thinking (again) that I would never experience anything like this.  I looked for my family in the stands (futile with this many people around.)  I smiled at my friends and remembered that the cute boy in my life at the time was sitting in the audience.  And, of course, I couldn’t resist looking up at the sky.

campanileEverything moved in slow motion.  The audience’s applause were my only signal that one speaker had finished and/or another speaker was being introduced.  They just kept going…probably offering up similar platitudes to the speech I gave way back in sixth grade.  “Reach for the stars, believe in yourself, this isn’t the end…it’s only the beginning,” at least that’s what I imagine they said.  Honestly, though, I have no idea.  Another motivational speech in one ear and out the other.  But what I do know for sure is that the sky was the best shade of blue that day.  The breeze was satisfying in a way that you can only appreciate when you’re wearing the color black in the heat.  Joy and relief abounded in every direction.  And while most of my classmates could hardly sit still, I remember thinking that I wanted to stay there forever.  I regret that I didn’t take more pictures back then…although I am grateful that we didn’t have the distraction of smartphones.  And just like that, it was over.  The speeches stopped and real life began again…a new chapter.  I threw my cap (paper fish and all) high into the afternoon sky and never bothered to retrieve it.  I congratulated the eight-year old girl inside of me for accomplishing her goal of graduating college and securing her “dream” job.  And just like in the movies, I had a hard time leaving that day.  There were several glances back over my shoulder.  Last looks.

Fast forward all these years later and I now find myself attending these same type of events.  I see students waiting (some anxiously, others joyfully,) parents reacting emotionally, spectators sitting impatiently, and speakers searching for new and interesting ways to connect with the audience…to say something worthwhile and meaningful.  Maybe even something unforgettable.  Having done some public speaking in my adult life, I feel a little guilty when someone approaches the podium.  Guilty that I didn’t pay attention back then…knowing all too well how much work actually goes into preparing such a speech.  Yet today I finally realize that maybe the graduation messages of my yesterdays were not actually lost on me.  Perhaps, delivered in that moment was the exact message that I needed to hear after all.  When the speaker took his/her place at the podium I was invited to sit, to pause, to reflect and to savor.  It was an opportunity to take a deep breath and fully absorb the moment…each participant processing the occasion in their own unique way. Graduation and commencement, (often used interchangeably) in truth speak to two different ideas…one an ending and the other a beginning.  And I can’t think of a better way to mark the importance of that moment than by fully taking in the present.

Congratulations, graduates.

Listen to me; be silent, and I will teach you wisdom.  Job 33:33

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I STILL Make My Kids’ Beds

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.  –Admiral William H. McRaven

I am the mother of two kiddos…a tween girl and a teen boy and I STILL make their beds. Not every day (as if that makes the whole thing better,) but practically every day.  This revelation is something that I rarely talk about and a topic that makes me a little uncomfortable sharing.  At first glance, it probably sounds like I’m some sort of Martha Stewart control freak or worse yet–a mother who coddles her kids too much.  I can hear it now, “She STILL makes their beds?  Really?  Wow.  How old are they?”  On more than one occasion I’ve been accused of not letting them grow up, trying to make them permanent dependents, permitting/encouraging laziness and impeding their emotional development.  Ouch!  An unmade bed is a pet peeve for a lot of people.  I get it.  Honestly, I know it’s a little (or a lot) quirky, but I really don’t plan on stopping anytime soon…and I have my reasons.

I’m a creature of habit.  When the children were little, I would use the time that I spent in their bedrooms as an opportunity to pray for them.  Nothing fancy or formal…just a few quick words.  Praises for the good days and prayers for strength on the tough ones.  And while we have prayed with the kiddos at bedtime ever since they were teeny tiny, I quickly discovered how much I think about my children when they’re away from home.  When my son went off to school I missed him terribly.  It was just preschool and just a few hours a day, but I wondered how he was doing?  What he was doing?  If he was okay? And on and on.  Instead of spinning in this cycle of worry, I decided to get pro-active and purposefully pray for his day while I made his bed.  And I never stopped.  When my daughter came along, I added her to the daily ritual.  In the five minutes it takes to make a bed I would pray for his/her well-being, his/her character, his/her faith development, those in their classrooms, their teachers, their circle of friends, etc.  I prayed offensively and defensively.  Some days I give thanks and other times I find myself on my knees (things sure get complicated as they grow up!)  But most importantly, I pray regularly.

After so many years, this daily practice hasn’t changed much.  Some days I sing hymns as I go about straightening up their rooms.  I mostly pray silently, but occasionally I pray out loud.  The family dog even gets in on the action.  She frequently comes into the room and guards the door…she knows the routine and has become something of a prayer partner.  This past week I have been in earnest prayer for one of my kiddos and decided to write about my prayer pattern.  What’s been reinforced to me lately is that praying includes a lot of listening, too.  And I am grateful for that.  What started out as a personal antidote to worry and stress has proven itself time and time again as a recipe for peace and assurance…and I thought it was worth sharing with my fellow parents in the trenches.

Someday my kids will make their own beds (and in case you’re wondering, YES, they know how.)  But for the time being, I’m happy to straighten sheets, tidy up pillows and simply pray.

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.  1 Thessalonians 5:16

 

Christmas Trilogy, Part 3: The Sticky Nativity

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.

FullSizeRender (5)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.

IMG_3354Karen 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.

IMG_2682Sean 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.

–Christina Rossetti

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Trilogy, Part 2: Deck the Halls with Christmas Spew, Falalalala Lalalala

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….

Mom's Christmas tree 2015

My Mom’s Christmas tree display 2015.

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?

IMG_3328Turns 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.

ornamentsAs 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.

Merry Christmas 2015 wideOur 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

Christmas Trilogy, Episode 1: THOSE Christmas Aprons

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.

Casey wearing one of THOSE Christmas aprons before cookie baking in 2012.

Casey wearing one of THOSE Christmas aprons before cookie baking in 2012.

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!

Grandma Karen and Casey wearing THOSE Christmas aprons while making holiday rice krispy treats!

Grandma Karen and Casey wearing THOSE Christmas aprons while making holiday rice krispy treats!

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

 

 

I Can Still Taste the Caramel Apples (aka Why I LOVE Halloween!)

Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. —Ellen Goodman

10690117_715990488490123_92735026534026743_nWhen 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 🙂

10616209_716894205066418_4160538980628630829_nI 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.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-history-of-trick-or-treating-is-weirder-than-you-thought-79408373/?no-ist

10700574_718765481545957_3257901382160519510_oIt’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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Losing Our Easter Booth (and Our “P.I.G.” Status)

When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go. –Alexandra Stoddard

Never, EVER, did I think I would be writing about a midwest BBQ chain and Easter Sunday.  Yet, here I am.  This goes to show two things…first, that the cliché holds true (again):  Never say never.  And second. that convenient, tasty, family style BBQ is perfectly acceptable as a go-to meal for ANY holiday or celebration (and in our family’s case, especially religious ones!)

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Easter Lunch 2013

For the past six years we have “dined” at Famous Dave’s on Easter Sunday.  Okay, I know it’s not fine dining.  Yes, I am aware that they are a paper napkin establishment (gasp!) And I understand that French fries are not typical Easter dinner fare.  (Glad we got all that out of the way 🙂 )  Still, I think Famous Dave’s is just as good a place as any to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.  It’s a Spencer family tradition that’s often met with puzzling looks, stammering comments and even a little pity.  But that’s okay.  We like Famous Dave’s and we especially like the reason we ended up there in the first place (insert sappy background music here….)

In 2009, my husband was called to lead what I will politely label a “broken” church.  You see the pastor had decided to leave our denomination and he additionally took the congregation with him.  For whatever reasons, all that was left were about a dozen people, loads of tech equipment and a lot of questions.  This clearly would not be easy.  And, did I mention this was Steve’s first senior pastor appointment?  Despite the best efforts of many, the prayers of many more and the sheer broken-heartedness of the situation, a decision was made to close down the church.  All of this took place in a matter of weeks.  It was one of the saddest things I have ever witnessed.  So here’s the worst part…the last worship celebration for this now defunct church would be on Easter Sunday.  (I can hardly type these words!)  CLOSING A CHURCH ON EASTER.  (There really should be a law against such a thing!)  I could barely stomach the idea.  I thought of the church members who stayed behind.  Those who wanted to restructure and carry on.  And all those who put their heart and soul into trying to make this church a healthy, functioning place of worship.  But it wasn’t meant to be.

Much work went into that final worship celebration.  First, there was the cleaning.  Since worship would be held in the church’s youth building, couches had to be moved, chairs brought in and EVERYTHING had to be wiped down.  The sound system was reconfigured, light bulbs were replaced and a small room was readied to serve as a nursery.  A sweet woman who had hoped for a different outcome for her church set aside her sorrow and assembled Easter baskets for any children who would arrive on Sunday morning.  With just a few musicians, songs were selected to praise a newly risen King.  My husband crafted a sermon of hope and promise…in the midst of all of the responsibilities of closing a church.  It was a sad and rainy morning.  I felt like God was weeping right along with us.

But if you know how the Easter story ends…then you know that there are no limits to what our Great Creator can do!  As worship came to a close, the sun and the SON broke through!  The rain moved out and although we closed the doors on that final worship celebration, what we didn’t know was that God was already opening another.  It was almost three o’clock in the afternoon when we left the church parking lot that day.  Our children, ages 7 and 4 at the time, were tired and hungry.  In the midst of all that was going on we neglected to make lunch plans…and that’s how we ended up at Famous Dave’s.

The restaurant was practically empty.  The lunch crowd was gone, the wait staff looked spent and here walks in this family of four…dressed in now wrinkled Easter wear, tired and clearly saddened.  We crawled into what would be called our Easter booth…to be honest, while we always sat in a booth on these occasions it wasn’t the same booth every time–and that was okay.  Steve ordered ribs, I ordered the baked potato with chili and the kiddos put in their request for chicken strips and fries.  Then we waited.  Not just for food, but for everything.  We honestly didn’t know where we would land…although we knew it would be another church, most likely in another town.  And yet somehow, in that little booth our spirits lifted.  The children made us laugh and we counted our blessings.  We were together and life was in fact GOOD!  There was safety and warmth in those comfy, red seats.  The little kids’ menus reminded us that at Famous Dave’s we’re all P.I.G.s…Pretty Important Guests!  I liked the thought of that and when the meal arrived, we prayed.  The food tasted extra delicious that day, too–satisfying in a way that I cannot explain.  An afternoon at Famous Dave’s was just what we needed.

Obviously, we kept going back.  Steve was appointed to a new church in a nearby suburb and our Easter lunch plans practically wrote themselves.  After a busy Holy Week and all its activities, we found a sanctuary at the east side’s Famous Dave’s restaurant.  The pig-themed decorations, the fishing signs and decals, and those red colored booths–we loved it all!  I have several photos of our kids in their cute, little Easter outfits posing with their Daddy for our annual Easter pic.  Good times.  Blessed times.  Necessary times…but as you can guess, “the times they are a-changing” (thanks, Bob Dylan.)  Famous Dave’s closed this past fall…and the Spencer family DID NOT find out about it until January 😦

Holy Week has arrived again and the question on everyone’s mind is “where are we going to eat Easter lunch?”  I don’t have any answers.  I have tried to coordinate just how long it will take us to drive to the nearest Famous Dave’s (too long unfortunately.)  I’ve looked into dining at other BBQ establishments.  I’ve tried to sell myself on the idea of having Mexican food on Easter (it’s not working.)  I’ve even thought about preparing and cooking a meal myself (and if you know me, then you know this is a desperate thought!)  The reality is we’ve lost our Easter booth, but we certainly haven’t lost Easter and all its promises.  So tonight as I type this, I still have no clue what we will be doing for lunch.  Somehow, though, I’ve gone past worry and fret to a place of “wait and see.”  Not a flippant, inactive state, but rather an active, hopeful resolve.  My husband and kids are not with me in this place.  They want answers and our P.I.G. status back!  But please, don’t feel bad for us…because I so clearly remember a gray, downcast day not so long ago when the sun and the SON came out.  It’s Easter, everyone, and we KNOW how the story ends.  I’m not sure if the booths will be red, but I know that wherever we end up we’ll be fed (in more ways than one)…and it WILL certainly be good!

Praying that the Holy Spirit moves you to worship this Easter Sunday and that you experience the hope and renewal that Christ Jesus offers to us each and every day.  Amen.