Advent & Christmastide

When I visualize the year, it’s a bit like a clock and the Christmas season is at the very top. Yes, Christmastide is the pinnacle of the year, but in the past I’ve been frustrated about how rushed and superficial it can feel. This year I really wanted to slow.things.down. and also to be more mindful of the liturgical seasons that under-gird our “secular” experience of the season.

We took our time with Advent, slowly constructing what would become the manger scene over the course of the four weeks. We built from the ground up, bringing in first stones, then plants, then animals, and finally humankind. The Blessed Virgin Mary slowly made her way along the Advent spiral, leaving tiny roses in her wake. You don’t need to explain these things to children—they are closer to the Mystery than are most of the adults around them. We did not get our Christmas tree.

We also celebrated the saints of Advent—St. Nicholas and St. Lucia—preparing special dishes and enjoying our little rituals that come around just once a year on their feast days. We made ornaments for the Christmas tree: Beautiful red felt roses, dried orange slices, and pepparkakor with white icing. Still, we did not get our Christmas tree.

The week before Christmas I started to worry that we had waited too long to get a tree. Then my husband’s parents pointed out that they had seen an ad in our local paper for a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm that was planning to be open through Christmas Eve. How wonderful! What a gift to us. On December 23rd, we finally got our Christmas tree (and met some adorable alpacas, too).

On Christmas Eve Day we decorated our tree with lights and the roses, oranges, and cookie ornaments we had made. When no one was looking, I slipped six red candles onto the ends of the branches. When we came home from Mass in the early evening, the whole family gathered by the tree and we lit the candles. The room filled with a warm glow. Zane said, “Mama, our tree has everything on it that you said it would.” We listened to Christmas music and the kids joked and played with each other. It truly was the pinnacle of my year, and a memory I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

On Christmas morning we opened our presents and Zane fed the birds (thanks, Lynn!). We headed out to spend the day with family. The Twelve Days of Christmas passed in a blur, as we celebrated the New Year and the kids went back to school. On Twelfth Night we mulled cider and enjoyed it that evening when we lit the candles on the tree for the last time. We toasted each other—waes hael—and watched the season slowly burn away.

Epiphany came and went and then the following weekend we took down the Christmas tree and put it outside. We left the homemade treats on the branches as little gifts for our furry friends. It didn’t take long for them to disappear—I guess squirrels like pepparkakor, too.

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Halloween 2018

This year we had a panda and a vampire. As usual, my mom did an amazing job on Zane’s costume, which was his second choice after first requesting to be a prehistoric sea scorpion . . . We suggested he choose something that was a) easier to make, and b) actually recognizable. Lillia assembled her own costume from stuff we had around the house and did her own makeup. Lillia chose not to go trick-or-treating this year, but she had a great time handing out candy at my parents’ house, and we had fun taking pictures out in the woods—she looks quite menacing, no?

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Lillia’s 15th Birthday

I can hardly believe it, but Lillia turned 15 this year! In just three short years she’ll be an adult. By this time next year she’ll probably have her driver’s license. The older my children get, the faster the time passes or seems to pass. It’s fascinating to watch Lillia’s life eclipse my most vivid memories from my own childhood—those of my teenage years.

Fifteen is a wonderful age. Lillia makes me laugh every day—really laugh, sometimes until I’m practically in tears. She is boisterous and full of life when she’s at her best. She has a compassionate heart and loves animals. She worries a lot about the state of the world and she struggles, like many of us do, to find her place in it. Whatever path she takes in life, it will certainly be an interesting, offbeat, absolutely unique one. We love you, Lillia! Happy Birthday!

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Angels Among Us

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. . . each soul is both a kingdom in itself
And part of some incorporating whole that
Feels and has a face and lets it live forever . . .
. . . an unseen presence
Tracing out the contours of a world erased . . .


—from “Falling Water” by John Koethe

The New England Aster is a lovely wildflower. Its scientific name, Aster novae-angliae, employs the latin root aster or star to gesture toward the frame of delicate petals that radiate from each golden face. Asters are blooming right now where I live, and probably inherited their common name—Michaelmas daisy—from a cousin that grows in Europe and blooms around the same time—that is, the Michaelmas season.

The Michaelmas daisy is startlingly beautiful to behold and yet its splendor so often goes unseen. Its colors are striking, and range from deep purple, to pink, to a glorious pale lavender. And, still, as often as not we walk—or drive—right past them. They flourish in thickets of weeds that gird disused industrial buildings, in clumps of foliage that spring up in abandoned lots, along the sunlit edges of highways and byways, concealed in out-of-the-way places where no one thinks to look for beauty. There they wait in the shadows of showier blooms, patiently growing taller as the summer months tick along, before they suddenly burst into color just as the growing year comes to an end. They are stars on Earth, the last glorious rays of warmth and light in a darkening world.

As the name suggests, the Michaelmas daisy blooms simultaneously with the Church’s annual celebration of angels. Today is the Feast of Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Archangels (or St. Michael and All Angels), also known as Michaelmas (pron. Mick-el-mas). It is one of my favorite feast days of the Church year. We are so often preoccupied with human endeavors, and it’s wonderful to take a whole day and remember that we’re not alone down here. More than ever, we need the angels’ guidance and protection—St. Michael, ora pro nobis (pray for us)!

Like the Michaelmas daisy hiding in plain sight the angels also are hidden from us, though their work is visible in our lives if we look for it. St. Jerome, in his commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew, wrote, ” . . . How great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it.” It is reassuring to know that despite the strife, devastating loneliness, frustration, disappointment, and anguish that seems to accompany modern life, there are heavenly beings watching over us and aiding us in our struggles.

Even if we can’t see something, can we be sure it doesn’t exist? Does the Michaelmas daisy not bloom in spite of our disregard for it? We might someday catch a glimpse of an angel—perhaps in the same way we might see the flash of purple petals on a hillside in early autumn as we drive by—but not be quite sure just exactly what it was that we saw. Once I learned to see the Michaelmas daisy, I could see them everywhere. Perhaps the same is true of angels; we simply need to learn how to see them.

Yes, I believe that angels are among us—do you?

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Rosh Hashanah

For it is customary on the first day of Rosh Ha’shanah
to cast a stone into the depths of the sea,
to weep and pray to weep no more.


—from “For I Will Consider Your Dog Molly” by David Lehman

Lillia has Jewish ancestors on her father’s side of the family, and for the past few years she has been learning about both the religion and culture her forbears. She has come to strongly identify with this facet of her heritage and this year she wanted to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Since I’m not Jewish, this is all new territory for me, but I’ve never met a holiday or family celebration I didn’t like so I was totally on board. I let Lillia take the lead and offered my assistance where needed.

I had previously given Lillia a copy of The Family Treasury of Jewish Holidays, written by Malka Drucker and illustrated by Nancy Patz. This is a beautiful book that offers stories, recipes, and ideas for celebrating the feasts, festivals, and holy days of the Jewish year, much like books of the same type that I use when preparing to celebrate throughout the Christian year. Based on ideas from Drucker’s book, as well as suggestions we found online, we developed a feast menu consisting of challah, apples dipped in honey, a chickpea tagine, and honey cake. Sweet foods, especially those made with honey, traditionally are eaten at Rosh Hashanah in the hopes that the coming year will be sweet and happy.

The best part of the day (for me) was making the challah with Lillia (recipe follows photos). Because I’m not a world-class baker, we used the bread machine to make the dough, and then Lillia shaped it into a beautiful braided loaf. She was really proud of herself, and it was a special mother-daughter bonding moment for us. I know sometimes Lillia probably wishes we shared the same religion, and I do wish I could be more of a mentor for her in that regard. But, at the end of the day I think the important thing is that we are finding ways to celebrate together and to bridge the gaps—in our faith traditions and our relationship—with family, food, and love.

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Bread Machine Challah Bread

Ingredients:

1 c warm water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c honey
1 whole egg + 1 egg yolk, beaten
2 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
4 2/3 c bread flour
1 1/4 tsp bread machine yeast
1 egg, beaten (for egg wash)

Directions:

1. Add ingredients to bread machine pan in the following order: Water, salt, oil, honey, whole egg, and egg yolk. Add flour on top, but do not stir. Make a small well in the flour and add yeast.

2. Place pan in bread machine, select “dough” cycle, and start machine.

3. When cycle is finished, remove dough from machine and place on floured surface. Divide into three equal parts and roll into ropes approximately 12-15 inches long.

4. Arrange ropes in three parallel lines—close but not touching—and pinch the ropes together on one end to secure. Braid ropes together as you would hair and pinch the other end to close. Tuck the ends under to finish the loaf.

5. Place loaf on greased pan and cover with greased plastic wrap or tinfoil. Allow to rise until doubled in size (time varies). When doubled, brush top of loaf with egg wash.

6. Bake at 350 degrees until bread is cooked through and top is a chestnut brown color, about 35 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Enjoy!