Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Greetings

I love getting the mail this time of year. Even if I rarely hear from someone, I always love to receive their wishes for a Merry Christmas. I always say a prayer for them. What do I do with my Christmas cards? I hang a long string between two ceiling hooks and put the bifolding cards over the string.

I tape up the picture postcards on the sides of a cabinet. Those cards will stay there all year long. Friends like to peruse the pictures and ask who so-and-so’s kids belong to. Many of the friends who send me cards have large families. Typically they will take a picture at home, where everyone looks happy and natural, rather than posed. The pictures bear witness all year to a culture of life. On the First Sunday of Advent, I take down the old pictures to make room for the new. The pictures will ultimately wind up in our family photo albums.

After January 6, I will take down the greeting cards, wrap them in a string, and put them away. One day I will do something with them. Perhaps I will make myself a Christmas craft room, collaged with Christmas cards. I can take my grandchildren in there and talk about all the traditions we have built for Advent and Christmas.

Now it is time for me to wish my readers a Merry Christmas. I am taking a break from the computer while the children are on vacation from school. Thank you for reading, and please come back in the New Year!

“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord…
Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Luke 2:11,14

Pictured above:
"Annunciation, Birth of Jesus and Adoration of the Shepherds"
Nicola Pisano, 1260, Marble
Baptistry, Pisa

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Complaining at Christmas Time

Okay, we all know we are supposed to be full of good cheer this month, but I am sure all of we moms lose patience at least once with all we have to do. So I am going to take this opportunity to gripe publicly. But I promise I have a point and will end on a positive note.

We just read the Old Testament story about how God sent vipers to punish his people for griping in the wilderness. Moses had to put up a bronze serpent so that all who looked on it would not die of their bites. I am reminded of this as I look behind my computer chair at our Jesse tree with the symbol of the bronze snake.

I hate shopping. I mean, I really, really hate shopping. Especially at times like this when stores are a mob, and I am only there to meet a necessity.

My daughter needed a new winter coat, so I found myself on a long line at Kohl’s today with my single purchase and my toddler standing up in her stroller and whining. The lady behind me on the line had a sleeping pre-schooler in a stroller, whom she kept absent-mindedly pushing into my legs. It took every ounce of restraint I could summon to keep myself from spinning around and say, “Do you really think you are going to get to the cash register any faster by smashing your child into my legs?” A few times she left the child there to go a few yards away and look at another sale item. I took that opportunity to inch away and position myself so the next nudge would annoy a little less.

The upside to my ordeal was that I received a real bargain on the needed coat. The cashier was surprised that I had waited on the line for only one item. Upon ringing up the coat, I remarked that it was only computed as 25% off rather than the 60% advertised. A nearby manager, desperately trying to manage the long line, told the cashier to give it to me at 60% off. He calculated it on his cell phone while I quickly worked out the math problem on a scrap piece of paper. When I got home and looked at the circular, I saw that “athletic” coats were excluded from the sale and so, indeed, this had worked to my advantage.

My daughter happened to have a difficult time with her math homework tonight and I promised I had a surprise for her after she had completed it. This helped out with her attitude a bit, and she was very happy with her new coat.

Last time I was in a complaining mood, my husband commented, “It could be worse. We could have been borne in the Middle Ages during the Black Plague.” Having read about that ordeal in Kristen Lavransdatter, I quieted myself and tried to look for a silver lining somewhere.

And there always is. A good friend of ours is about to be shipped off for Navy Reserve Boot Camp, a few days before Christmas. What was his family doing tonight? Personally delivering food, clothing, and Christmas gifts to needy families on Eastern Long Island. (They run a website called Help for Long Island.) Now that is inspiring.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Phillipians 4:8

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Tonight I reach a bloggers’ milestone: 100 posts. As I keep to a simple theme and yet try not to be redundant, it is always a challenge to try to see and say things from a different perspective. And yet every day is new, with its share of blessings and challenges as we walk the pilgrim’s walk toward salvation. The mothers’ tasks are at once the same and ever-changing, like a river. With Christ in our hearts we can take advantage of every moment to live for Him, and to teach our children to do the same.

Tonight we went to the Sat. evening mass, as we are expecting a big snowstorm tonight. Later, after dinner, we waited outside as the local fire department sent round its Santa Claus parade. Then, with candy canes in hand, we read Isaiah 11 as part of our Jesse Tree tradition for Advent. One of the most beautiful images of the Bible is contained therein:
“The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.”(verse 6b)

Pictured above: “A Jesse Tree”, by Girolamo Genga, c. 1535, National Gallery, London.

How do I find appropriate art to go with the Bible verses I quote?
I recommend the web site “Bible Art: Resources for Catholic Educators”.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers

Before my review I must make a confession. I purchased “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers”, by Maria Augusta Trapp, for my ten-year-old daughter as a Christmas present. My two older daughters are going to be in our church production of “The Sound of Music”, so I thought the story as well as some original recordings from the family would inspire them.

My friend Leticia Velasquez raved about the book, saying it had served as a great inspiration in her own writing career. (I suspect we can look to her for even more insight into this book if she reviews it on one of her blogs.) So as I was about to wrap the book, I opened up to “The Chapter Before the First”, and by the end of the first paragraph I knew I had to read this book myself before Christmas.

First I must say that readers will be surprised by the creative liberties taken in the making of the movie “The Sound of Music”. Maria never really runs away, for example; nor did she dress the children in curtain material. I always wonder why truth must be taken liberties with, to be made more interesting. There is enough in the family’s true drama to fill more volumes than the 312 pages of carefully chosen moments in Maria’s written memoire.

The Story embodies so much that this blog is about. The Divine Gift of Motherhood was one that Maria was at first afraid to choose. But, like the Holy Mother Mary (how aptly named is Maria!), once she discovered that this is God’s Will, she humbly accepts and embraces this calling.

The children and captain captured her heart, and her theirs. Life is made up of Saints’ Feast Days, Birthdays, and Advent, with some normal days in-between. Maria brings the beauty and wonder back into these celebrations for a family that has recently been made motherless. The descriptions of the European Catholic traditions of Advent alone make this book a must-read for those mothers who wish to keep Christ in Christmas.

The once well-to-do family loses everything when they choose following principles over serving Hitler’s Regime. Thus their poor condition as refugees literally forces them into singing for the public, the gift that ultimately made them famous. How concert after concert came at the last minute to keep them out of debt is a tale of faith lived and rewarded.

Maria’s determination to learn the English language is a story in itself. She copies the Americans on the boat and in consequence misuses idiomatic speech in hilarious ways.

The miracle of a baby born despite Maria’s bad kidneys (and a doctor’s stern warning) comes shortly after the family lands in America. She writes the baby “had not been exactly planned for that very moment, and as far as being wanted is concerned, I would have gladly said many times, ‘Oh, won’t you please be so kind as to wait for just six months.’ Yes, many times on the flight, on the boat, on the bus, on the stage. But thousands of years ago God assured us – it’s in the Book – ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways My ways.’ So if there is any planning to be done, why don’t we let Him do it?”

The Trapp Family truly is a light shining on a hill. They show us how it is truly possible to “live in the world, not of the world”, as the Gospel calls us to do. Despite the American music managers’ original rejection of the Trapp Family due to Maria’s lack of “sex appeal”, she (after a trip to the book store in search of the definition) wins their backing. The family insists on keeping to their costume dress, which is both economical and practical.

A family lodge is built in Vermont, and a Trapp Family Music Camp set up in summertime. The little girls are taken out of boarding school and homeschooled, giving them the precious time needed to sing, practice their musical instruments, and enjoy the outdoors. The family takes on a huge effort to collect and bring food, clothing, and other necessities to their fellow suffering Austrians.

A nice section talks about how courtship could and should be; and even this is managed despite the American way of “going steady”. Nice families flock to the Trapp Family Music Camp, and the children make friends with those who share their values; some find their soul mates as well.

The last section is a moving tribute to the family as they were and have become. You will have to read it to see how it turns out.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

O Little Chocolate House

One tradition I have maintained since childhood is that of making chocolate houses at Christmas. I used to make these with my mother. We would go to the candy store at every major holiday and purchase about ten pounds of dark chocolate and five pounds of white. I still have most of the molds for Christmas Easter, and St. Valentine’s Day. One year, my freshman year of high school, I made 66 chocolate houses and sold them around the neighborhood. My mother was then pregnant with my little brother and the smell of all those houses in the dining room would follow her wherever she went.

Now my own children are old enough to help with the chocolate making. Sure, they make a mess, and the ones made as gifts are made solely by me, but it is a fun family activity that one day they will each become skillful at.

To make the house pictured above, you will need:
1 pound of dark chocolate melting bisques (from a candy store – not the kind you find in the grocery store)
1 house mold
a double boiler
confectioners’ sugar for “snow” icing
almond extract (vanilla will make the icing turn yellow)
large multi-colored candy non-pareils
cake icing bag and tip

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler. You put enough water in the bottom pot so that the top pot is sitting in the hot water. Let the water come to a simmer but not a full boil. You do not want the water to get into the chocolate. Put the chocolate in the top pot and slowly mix with a spoon until the chocolate is smooth with no lumps.

Remove the pot to a trivet. Using a large spoon, fill the parts of the house with chocolate. Gently tap the mold to make sure the chocolate is flat on top. Refrigerate until the chocolate is totally solid. Gently remove the pieces from the mold. You can turn the mold upside down and gently tap it until they come out.

If a piece breaks, you can “glue” it together with the hot chocolate from the pot. Now stand up one piece of the house. Use a knife to apply hot chocolate to a seam and hold together to the next part of the house until they are “glued” together. Continue until all the pieces are melded together. You may have enough chocolate leftover for a mold of lollipops, or you can dip some pretzels or nuts to use up whatever is sticking to the pot. If you try to eat it all you will get a tummy-ache. (I know from experience.)

Mix a tablespoon or so of water and a capful of almond extract into a bowl of confectioners’ sugar. When it is the right consistency, put the icing into the cake icing bag with icing tip. Cover the “seams”, especially at the top of the roof, and wherever else you want “snow”, with icing. You can also “glue” candy canes and other candies on with the icing. Line the top of the house with non-pareil “Christmas lights”.

This makes a perfect housegift to bring to a Christmas party or to any chocolate-loving friend!

I also make lovely chocolate-covered cherries - but I ate them all before I could take a picture.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

St. Nicholas: From Austria to Long Island

How lovely that it should snow here on Long Island on the vigil of the Feast of Saint Nicholas! It also snowed lightly on the First Sunday of Advent. I do believe this is a sign of special blessings to come this Christmas.

I have been entranced with my current reading of “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers”, by Maria Augusta Trapp. (A review will soon follow.) My timing in reading this wonderful story could not have been better, as Maria seems to mark the events of her life by its closeness to Advent. The First Sunday of Advent was a time looked to with great excitement. The family would light the first Advent candle and from then on meet nightly under the Advent Wreath, which was hung from the ceiling in the family room.

Austrian children were not visited by Santa Claus. Rather, all the children of God wrote a letter to the Christ Child on the first Sunday in Advent. They asked for their secret wishes and made a personal promise to the Christ Child. They put the letter on the window sill and hoped it would be taken. Good children’s letters were taken faster but naughty children were kept waiting a few nights.

On the vigil of the Feast of Saint Nikolaus (Dec. 6), Saint Nikolaus would visit, dressed in his Bishop’s vestments and mitre. He was followed by the Krampus, a black devil. Nikolaus asked the children questions from the catechism. He mentioned all the sins that had been committed throughout the year. Naughty children must promise to mend their ways or the Krampus would threaten to take them away. The good Saint would never allow this to happen and always believed the children’s promises.

The Christ Child and his angels came down from heaven on Christmas Eve to personally deliver gifts to his children.

Tonight Saint Nicholas will come to fill my children’s stockings. We are late writing our letters, as I have just discovered this beautiful tradition, but my intention is for the children to put them into their stockings before bed.

Another nice tradition I discovered this week was that of the Advent Prayer Bead Box. Each child has his or her own box. Each time the child does a good deed he receives a bead to put in his box. On Christmas Eve she puts the box under the tree as her gift to the Christ Child.

After all, Christ gave himself as the ultimate gift to us. Christmas is not a time to ask what he can do for us, but to thank him for himself and ask what we can do for him.

Above: Gentile da Fabriano's 15th century painting,
"Saint Nicholas Saves a Ship from Sinking,"

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Kicking Off Advent: Our Christmas and Jesse Trees

Today being the first Sunday of Advent, we had an activity-filled weekend kicking off this wonderful season. My husband went out for a freshly cut fir tree while I took out all the boxes of ornaments from the garage. I had de-cluttered and polished the furniture right before Thanksgiving so that all wooden surfaces would be prepared for decorating.

It is always great fun for the children to look out the living room window and see the minivan pull into the driveway with a tree tied to the top. This year we had the added wonder of our toddler, who took a while to get used to the idea of a tree’s being inside the house. The dog has been through ten years of this, and makes herself quite at home under the tree as soon as it is up.

It is always aggravating trying to get the tree into the stand, and several attempts are usually required before the screws are in at the right angles all around. This time, we had trouble getting the trunk to touch the bottom of the base because there were very low branches in the way. We got out the tree saw and my husband took off several small boughs that were impeding our progress.

Not wanting to waste any of this quality fir, I had my ten-year-old put the loose branches into a large vase. They were enough to form their own little tree, and we put it in a separate room as our very first Jesse Tree.

The Jesse Tree represents the Family Tree of Jesus. Starting with the first Sunday of December, each day has a symbol representing an important event from the Fall to the Incarnation. There is a scripture to meditate on each day in preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas.This year, we have been invited to join some homeschooling friends in an Advent Jesse Tree Ornament Swap. There are a total of 28 symbols, the maximum number of days in Advent. This year there are only 23 days; so only 23 symbols will be used. Ideally, 28 families would pick one symbol and make 28 of one ornament. They get together, also bringing desserts to share, and swap ornaments so that each family goes home with a complete set of ornaments for their Jesse Tree. I thought this was a wonderful idea, which can easily be adapted for use in schools, churches, and other groups. (For instructions on making a Jesse Tree, go to this article in The Catholic Register.)

It snowed this morning, the first of the season, so the children had a wonderful time frolicking outside. The baby quickly tired out, and during her nap my husband and I got the outdoor lights up. We also discovered that we had forgotten to turn the tree to show its “good side”; so all the ornaments were removed and replaced after we were happy with the new placement of the tree.

We finished making our ornaments for the swap, and turned to making Christmas cutout cookies. Meanwhile a beef rump round was roasting for a lovely dinner to celebrate this first Sunday of Advent.

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned…
For to us a child is born,
To us a Son is given,
And the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Isaiah 9:2-6

We are currently reading "Christ in Christmas: A Family Advent Celebration", by James C. Dobson, Charles R. Swindoll, James Montgomery Boice, and R.C. Sproul