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

 

 

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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. 

 

 

Ohhh, Christmas Tree!

The perfect Christmas tree? All Christmas trees are perfect!—Charles Barnard

THE Christmas tree:  Symbol of that oh so special holiday, proudly displayed each and every year in a place of prominence, carefully adorned with treasured and sentimental ornaments.  A recognized hallmark of the Christmas season and the BANE of my Decembers. As our family always opts for the “real” variety (instead of the plastic trees of my childhood,) it seems that somewhere along the way a war has been waged between the Spencer family and THE tree.  A battle that never fails to entertain and frustrate at the same time.  This year proved no different.

So may I present to you our annual Christmas tree adventure–in song form!  Oh yes, this year’s tree had us fooled…we REALLY thought this was THE perfect tree 🙂  Each family member convinced that we could avoid the typical end of the year evergreen hijinks.  Fools we were, this tree had our number from Day 1.

tree poem

THE tree on January 4, 2015.  A little scraggly....

THE tree on January 4, 2015. A little scraggly, still standing!

Still standing!  We made it through December and into 2015.  Sure, it’s a sight to be seen and my son is already begging me to “please, take it DOWN.”  No, son, not yet.  I promised my daughter I would try to have it down by the time her birthday rolls around (mid-January.)  In the meantime, I will sip coffee and watch our once majestic tree transform into a scraggly shrub, daily picking up the ornaments (aided in their fall by the dog no less,) placing lights back onto the branches and taking bets on just how crooked it will get before it tips over (again)…and then, maybe then, I will take it down.  I’m in no hurry.  The whole ordeal has practically become its own Christmas tradition…a tradition I secretly wouldn’t trade for anything in the world!  Ohhh, Christmas tree 🙂

Don’t measure the height of your Christmas tree.  Measure the abundance of the love present in your heart!  Have a blessed Christmas!–author unknown

“B” Christmas…or My Very Own Charlie Brown Christmas Special (starring ME!)

Bells will be ringing—the glad, glad news…oh what a Christmas to have the blues….

ASomething has been askew this Christmas.  I was sort of afraid to admit it until now since I proclaim this to be my favorite time of year.  It’s not that I’m without a loved one, it’s not that I have an insurmountable list of problems, worries or fears.  I’ve been trying to tell myself that it’s just the weather, but it sort of snowed the other day and that didn’t squelch the icky feeling.

I think if I’m really honest, I’ve missed Christmas–not in the “longing for” sense of the word, but more the “missed out” connotation of the word.  It’s a horrible feeling since Christmas is still two days away.  The dreadful feeling gave itself a name today–“B” Christmas, as in plan B.  (Remember that feeling in high school when you felt compelled to choose a B school, just in case you didn’t get into your college of choice or the time when you had to settle for your second favorite prom dress because your “friend” already snagged the one you were eyeballing!)  You know it’s not a bad thing…but it doesn’t feel all that great either.

I’ve been trying to hash out what went wrong…you know, analyze the variables and figure out what was different this year than in Christmas’ past.  Nerdy, but that’s how I work.  So, here’s what I’ve come up with:  the season actually began too early with Christmas cookies in October, followed by an unusually busy baking season, Halloween (the unofficial start to Christmas) came and went too quickly (and I didn’t take the kids trick-or-treating nor did we visit any pumpkin patches), outside commitments were plentiful, time-consuming and pressing (basketball practices, extra long soccer season, music concerts and church obligations), Thanksgiving was very structured and passed in a blink (I was super intentional this year about being grateful and in the moment…maybe too focused?), I planned too many homemade/handmade gift projects and of course, the mother of all sins…I stayed up way too late trying to make it all PERFECT!  I am guilty of trying to cram 48 hours into 24 hour days…but who isn’t?

In the end I paid for all of it.  I was tired, irritable, a time tyrant.  I spent all my waking hours in the kitchen and/or at the computer.  I planned each day out for maximum productivity and left out any creative and spontaneous time for fun.  Look, I’m not completely crazy…I had moments of being an on-the-ball mother, wife, church volunteer, and baker.  There were occasional moments to pause, but not enough moments to reflect or savor.  There were too many times I thought I wouldn’t get it all done, panic-stricken times when I was certain it wouldn’t come together, and way too many instances where I wondered why I had taken on so much followed by numerous vows to NEVER do any of this again!  I hate that the most.  The cold, hard fact is that I created this problem for myself.  If I had the Christmas blues I was the one standing there with sapphire color paint under my nails, smeared across my cheek and splotched all over my clothes.

In this “smurf-like” state I didn’t have many options–so I did what people with the blues generally do, I cried.  And wouldn’t you know it, I finally felt better.  It reminded me so much of the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  It’s filled with good intentions, projects and purpose.  Linus even recites scripture to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas.  Charlie Brown wants to be the director, the leader that the Peanuts gang is looking for.  He wants to be the guy who’s going to make this Christmas special.  He doesn’t just take on this project for the benefit of those in the Christmas program, he takes it on to better himself…because he believes this venture will raise his Christmas spirit.  Yet, despite his best efforts we all remember the part where Charlie Brown walks out–dejected, sad, depressed and dispirited after he is ridiculed for choosing a tiny, sad excuse for a tree.

But here’s the best part:  It seems like out of nowhere everyone seems to get it.  The Peanuts gang suddenly see the tree in a new light!  They find that part of themselves that connects with the heart of Christmas.  It happens in a blink and without reason and in that cheesy-manner that only comes from 1960’s Christmas specials, but it happens.  I don’t know if the show’s creators would ever say it, but I think that’s the moment when God stepped in.  And in my very own Charlie Brown Christmas special (starring ME!) after those sad, blues-filled tears fell, God stepped in for me as well.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a 1960’s Christmas special by any stretch of the imagination.  It didn’t happen in an instant, but it did happen.  Slowly the heart of Christmas filled my spirit and the holy day that I love so much, the season I call my favorite…started to come back to me.

As I finish up this blog it’s now the day after Christmas.  My eyes tear up at the thought of this joyous Christmas 2012 that I almost missed out on.  I thank God for the opportunity to worship and celebrate His Son’s birth on Christmas Eve with an unburdened heart.  I rejoice in spending Christmas day with my husband and children and without any agenda…in fact, we all stayed in our pajamas ALL DAY.  I am overjoyed to say that I consider this Christmas a blessing.  And while my house is a disaster, the pine needles are piling up under the tree like sand, and I’m staring down at least several days worth of Christmas decor to put away, I finally feel content.  I’m still listening to Christmas music.  My husband asked me how long I planned to keep playing it and I didn’t have an answer–I still have a lot of Christmas to make up for.

Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.” ― Peg Bracken