Holiday Traditions

‘Twas three days before Christmas, and all through the house, the children were laughing along with her spouse.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, with hopes that the cat would not steal them from there.

I have been thinking about traditions- which ones we’ve kept, which ones we have let slip away. The old me (the younger me?) would have lamented this hard. After all, traditions are meant to be kept, right? If I let that tradition go, I must be cheating my family out of joy/peace/faith/connection/etc. I don’t think that way any more. A tradition is a tool, not an heirloom. They may be passed down to us from generations past, or made from fresh cloth, but they are only the means to an end.

The traditions we are keeping this year:

  • singing O Come O Come Emmanuel for our Advent grace (c. 2007)
  • a family Christmas alphabet of gratitude (c. 1996)
  • putting up the Christmas decorations Thanksgiving weekend (c. generations)
  • reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever together (c. 2005)
  • visiting the Botanic Gardens Blossoms of Light (c. 2021)
  • a sibling gift exchange (c. 2016)
  • church on Christmas Eve (c. generations)
  • Sam’s making Aunt Jen’s coffee cake on Christmas morning (c. 2000)
  • our Christmas movie marathon (c. 2020)

We let lots of other traditions go: Nutcrackers, elaborate cookie exchanges, the singalong Messiah, so many crafts, Jingle Bell Runs, new pajamas on Christmas Eve, a million different Advent calendars, gingerbread houses, traveling… they may or may not come back in the future. But this year, for right now, these traditions are the tools that are serving us.

Do you have a new favorite holiday tradition, or one you have let go?

Advent: it’s not too late to make room

It’s been a few years since I wrote a post on how I love the church year and how it loves me back. I used to post every year on our Advent traditions, and what I loved about Lent and Ordinary Time. But then some of my posts had the opposite effect of what I’d wanted. I shared a practice that was life-giving for me, and it was making other people feel bad.  That had to stop.

But, as a perpetual optimist, I’m back this year to try again.  I want to share a few things I love about the Advent, which began yesterday. Happy New (Church) Year.


Advent is about waiting and making room. It is a season for contemplation. I need more of all three of those in my life, so it’s no wonder Advent is my favorite season.


There are a million and one resources out there to enrich your Advent, but I’m not here to talk about those today.  I don’t want to add anything to your burden, because Advent is about waiting to receive.  Making room. Advent isn’t asking you to do more, or be more.

“Mom, that Prepare sign is really freaking me out.” — child

Advent is asking us to rest in a place of waiting.  Waiting on God to fix what’s broken. (Not my strength. I’m more of a Sarah kind of gal.)

Anyway, I’m here to tell you that it’s not too late. Even if you don’t have any candles, or can’t find your Advent wreath (or don’t have one), or if the broken light is the second one in the string and none of them will light, or you are too overwhelmed to dig any of your decorations out of the basement, or they all went down with your house in a fire, and your kids refuse to snuggle on the couch to listen to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever even though we do it every year but now they think they’re too old for it…

Even if all of that is true, it’s not too late. You don’t need to do anything. Because Advent is about the promise that God is going to show up in the flesh to take care of everything. It’s not going to look like what we expected, and that’s all right, too. Our job is just to make room to see what the Incarnation really looks like.

Grateful: Thanksgiving, 2018

Lots of blessings to count this year. Here are just a few from my list, not in any order other than ease of pulling the photos.  I am grateful:

+ to live in a place that recognizes the importance of open space


+ for the days I remember to make getting outside a priority, and the friends who encourage me to do so


+ for artists and their work, especially work that tells truth and shows me kindness and beauty that is stronger than the evil around us

Members of the original Broadway cast of 'Come From Away.' Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Members of the original Broadway cast of ‘Come From Away.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

+ friends from far away, and poetry


+ having this nutty crew all together for a week:


I am grateful for you, friend.  May you have time to count your blessings this week.

Looking forward to Advent

I hate Halloween.  I’m like a Halloween Grinch.

Image result for grinch

And I especially hate that Halloween falls during my birthday month (yes, I’m that annoying person who wants the whole month to be about me), so that all of October as I’m admiring the gorgeous fall colors, giant plastic pumpkins and creepy skeletons keep intruding.  There’s a giant plastic spider in a polyester web over an exam room at work that made one of my young patients scream the other day, and I knew just how he felt.

This is what I love about October.

And this, too.

The one thing I like about Halloween is that it tells me Advent is almost here.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Thanksgiving and especially Christ the King Sunday (the last Sunday before Advent, this year on November 20).  But I especially love Advent. It’s a season of contemplation and prayer.

I love that the Giant Retail Machine has not figured out how to turn Advent into a commercial enterprise.

In a fit of pique about a particularly icky lawn ornament I saw the other day, I came home and pulled out our Advent books, just to see if there were any gaps I wanted to fill in.  (There were.  I ordered a few new-to-us books.)

If you don’t have any Advent traditions, or want to know what the Advent fuss is all about, let me recommend a few of my favorite Advent resources.


For advance planning and ideas for how to meditate and celebrate at home, I recommend Let Us Keep the Feast, edited by Jessica Snell. For each of the church seasons, it provides a collection of resources, including an introduction to the season, an explanation of the calendar, information on seasonal traditions- old, new and international, seasonal recipes, suggestions for how to celebrate with the very young, ways to serve beyond the home, selected readings, music and prayers. (I wrote the section on Ordinary Time, but that isn’t my favorite one.)  The book is available from Doulos Resources, or Amazon, both in electronic, pdf and paperback forms.

Elizabeth Foss has an Advent devotional called Comfort and Joy that looks beautiful (though I haven’t tried it.)  She also has some lovely book lists I’ve used to shape our collection of special books we read during Advent.

In past years we have enjoyed Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Jesse Tree, which we’ve read as an Advent family devotion.  This year, I think we’ll be back to Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas.

Do you have an Advent resource to recommend as we look ahead (past Halloween)? Please share in the comments.

SQT: Epiphany


One: I rearranged the living room furniture for Epiphany.  Hooray!  The piano is back in the living room, but now there’s no room for the tall bookcase that holds the  phone charging station and the cookbooks.  This is what comes of the extra windows I demanded when the house was being built.  But I gotta say, I love windows.

Two: And then I had this blank wall that was just crying for art and beauty.  The photo, by Frank Anello, was taken in Myanmar (Burma). It’s a Kachin mom and baby, and I love it.  I bought it at a fund-raiser for the refugee-support organization we volunteer with.

Three: Owen said to me the other day (right before he had to leave for his once a week school), “So, what are the benefits of micro loans?”  And my loving, motherly response was, “What, did you forget to do your economics homework over break?”  No, he genuinely wanted to know about micro loans and if we could start a micro loan program.

Do any of you have experience with international micro finance?  I don’t think we’re up for beginning our own international relief organization, but my kids are really excited about raising $500 for a micro loan organization.  Anyone have an experience with an organization that gives micro loans with success?

Four: Obviously my camera is working again.  The new phone had to be replaced, so after I reloaded all the things I hadn’t backed up onto new phone #1, I had to do it all again with #2.  #firstworldproblem

Five: I spend two days over New Year’s weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.  A friend and I met for a weekend of reflection and prayer.  We woke up on Sunday and saw Ben Carson’s campaign bus in the hotel parking lot, and I realized I had some items I wanted to discuss with him.  Alas, they pulled out just as we were going down for breakfast.

Six: But I found this awesome cheese shop in Des Moines and ate the world’s best grilled cheese sandwich (with a little rosemary ham and fig jam).


(Somehow my photo has as much chocolate as cheese in it. I don’t know how that happened.  Must be the new camera…)

Seven: The Epiphany service was lovely.  And our church started a Wednesday night class for the season of Epiphany, “A Christian Ending to Life.”  I will be presenting a session about getting straight answers from the medical community about how much time we have and implications of treatment choices, and how to communicate our end of life wishes to our treatment team and families.  That shouldn’t take more than an hour, right?

For more Seven Quick Takes, go to This Ain’t the Lyceum.


2015’s 30 Hour Famine

This was the third year our youth group participated in World Vision’s 30 hour famine.  The 30 hour famine is a program developed for youth groups to fast from food for 30 hours to raise money to feed hungry children around the world.  It’s a great program on multiple levels.


It teaches kids about hunger.

Prior to the 30 hour famine, my kids’ biggest food-related issue was that I expected them to eat vegetables.  During the fast, they can drink juice and water, but they actually get a taste (just a taste) of what it’s like to go to bed hungry. What it feels like to have your energy wane because they’re hungry.



They also have an opportunity to learn about the impact of hunger and poverty around the world.  World Vision’s program includes Tribe, a survivor-type game youth groups can adapt for their own needs.  It has thoughtful and fun games that teach about hunger, education, water security, economic independence, and inadequate access to health care. This year’s Tribe focused on Ethiopia, and we learned some really cool facts about Ethiopia’s history and culture.



Finally, the kids have a chance to make a difference.  Instead of leaving kids with a lot sad statistics, World Vision invites them to raise money for their programming around the world.  They also encourage youth groups to engage in a local project to alleviate hunger in their own areas.

Our service time for the past two years has been packing non-perishables to be given out at a food bank near our church.  The director gives us a brief talk about the breadth of neighbors in our area who need food assistance.  The kids also have a chance to imagine what their own meals would look like if their pantry had in it only the staples we packed that day.


Obviously, I’m not a youth pastor, but I didn’t have to be to adapt this program to our small church.  I couldn’t have run it without the parents who participated, but I think we all learned something new. World Vision has two weekends when large numbers of students around the country participate.  This February weekend worked well for us because Lent is a traditional time for fasting.  Last year, we participated in the April weekend, but the first year we chose our own date in July.  If you’re looking for a flexible project for your youth, I highly recommend the 30 hour famine.

Wrapping up some love

I spent rest time this afternoon wrapping up books.  Not just any books. Christmas books.

My friend Christine gave us one of her favorite Christmas books before my oldest was even born– it must have right after I told her I was pregnant.  And with that gift, she started us down a road of piecing together our Christmas book library.  Little by little, year by year, we have added to the collection.  It seems frivolous, to have a box of books we only read in December, but it was the box we missed most last year when all our Christmas ornaments and decorations (and books!) were in storage.

Yesterday at church, my friend Gabs was asking my about our Advent wreath.  (It’s this one, in case you’re looking for it.)  But we use our books as a type of Advent observance, too.  Slowing down, gathering on the couch, unwrapping a book each night, and snuggling together to read.

So today I hauled the box of Christmas books off the shelf in the basement and began wrapping them.  The plan (alas, if I could only stick to the plan!) is to open one each night and snuggle together as we read.  I know just which ones my kids will look for, weighing the books in their hands and trying to see through the paper.  (How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever are two of their favorites.  I will be especially happy when we unwrap A Child is Born and The Shoemaker’s Dream.)  This year I’m adding a few more I’ve been looking for: a version of the Christmas Carol that’s been out of print, and The Baker’s Dozen.  Most of the books I have bought used, and we have imagined them in older, now grown-up hands before us.  The first few years I bought blindly and found some lemons, but now I am picky.

Like Mother Like Daughter, Modern Mrs. Darcy and Elizabeth Foss have lovely lists of Christmas books, but I’ll share here a few that didn’t make it onto theirs:

The Shoemaker’s Dream (Schell/Kasuya)- a shoemaker encounters Christ (no elves involved)

Silver Packages (Rylant/Soentpiet)- an Appalachian boy who receives a life-changing gift from the Christmas train

The Oxford Book of Christmas Poems (ed. Harrison & Stuart-Clark)- poems for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, as well as winter.





The Feast of All Saints

Happy All Saints to you!  This is one of my favorite Church feasts, though not one I celebrated until recently.

I love all sorts of things about All Saints’ Day.  I love that Halloween (my least favorite “holiday”) is past and people are going to take the skeletons and tombstones  out of their lawns.  I love remembering the cloud of witnesses who have gone before.  I love to celebrate the fellowship of the saints we have with us today.

All Saints is Moriah’s baptism anniversary, so we always have a little party.

There is just a month left in the Church year.  Still time to finish strong.  This final month is all about finishing: appreciating the fellowship of believers across centuries, realizing the abundance of blessings God has given us at Thanksgiving, and celebrating Christ the King and his eternal Kingdom.


Wondering how to finish strong when the stores have already pulled out their Christmas decorations and shopping countdowns are posted everywhere you look?  I have a few suggestions:

For All Saints’ Day: take time today to celebrate a loved one who has died. That might mean pulling out your grandmother’s tea pot, or resurrecting your aunt’s recipe for cornbread or pierogies.  Reading your grandfather’s favorite verse. Watching your dad’s favorite movie.  For us it will mean planting bulbs in the garden in honor of my friend Jerry who died last spring. They will come up in the spring and remind us of his vibrant, abundant life.

We’re singing my favorite hymn tomorrow in church: For All the Saints.

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,

who thee by faith before the world confessed,

thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

There was a time during medical school and residency when I was so tired I used to weep at those words– I was so jealous of their rest– but now I can sing joy and an appropriate sense of longing.

For Thanksgiving:

Set the tone for a month gratitude by starting to count your blessings now.  Wrap a shoebox in paper, cut a hole in the lid, and encourage your family to write down or draw a blessing they are thankful for from the year. On Thanksgiving, open the box and read them aloud.


For Christ the King Sunday:

C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle is a great read-aloud for this month leading up to this Sunday.

Likewise, bringing the Kingdom in daily ways– serving our neighbors, a canned or coat food drive– are ways to honor the Kingship of Christ.

In honor of All Saints’ Day, Let Us Keep the Feast: The Complete Year is being released today. That link is to the paperback, but it’s also available as an ebook or pdf through Doulos Resources or Amazon. It’s full of resources for a celebration of the church year and ways to see God in your daily walk.  (Jessica is hosting a giveaway of the book here!)

If you have a special way you celebrate the saints in your life, please share in the comments.

LUKTF: Pentecost and Ordinary Time

Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost.  Normally we spend our day celebrating the Spirit’s empowerment of the Church and Owen’s baptism anniversary.  This year, since we were traveling, we will celebrate Owen’s baptism on Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost).

Pentecost dinner, 2010

We’re heading into the part of the Church year that is often forgotten.  It’s much easier to celebrate a holiday than a season, and Ordinary Time (from Trinity Sunday till Advent) is quite a long season.  Yet for me, it’s the time when each day becomes holy and I find myself growing like a garden.

My chapter of Let Us Keep the Feast: Pentecost and Ordinary Time, is out.  Here’s the link to order from the publisher, and here’s the link from Amazon.  It’s meant to be an encouragement to live your time as sacred—all of it, even the ordinary moments.  In the fall, the full set of booklets will be released as a book.  I’ll keep you posted.


Let Us Keep the Feast: Holy Week and Easter

I am such a creature of the world that it’s hard for me to think of Easter as a season.  Like Christmas, the commercial lead-in of chocolate bunnies and dyed-egg wreaths lasts so long that once the decorations go on clearance on that Monday, I’m ready to pack it all away.


Not this year.  This year, I need every reminder that Christ is risen.  I need the Alleluia on my mantle.  I need to soak in the reality that Jesus has conquered the tomb—his, my friend’s, and even mine. (I haven’t bought an urn for myself, but I’ll confess that death has been on my mind.)

If you, like me, struggle to know what it would look like to celebrate a season of Easter, you will enjoy Let Us Keep the Feast: Holy Week and Easter.  To quote Lindsay Marshall’s chapter on Easter, “In short, it is roughly six weeks of unbridled, unfettered, unfiltered joy: praise and thanksgiving to our mighty Savior, and ecstatic celebration of the hope we have in His victory over death.”

My friend’s recent funeral was a union of many parts of his life: Michigan youth camp, inner-city health ministry, and trainer of physicians in Afghanistan.  We were all there, celebrating Christ’s victory together.  That’s Easter to me.