I’m already obsessing about Advent

Ideas for creating a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar | erniebufflo.comI’m the first to gripe about “Christmas Creep” and how people keep trying to make Christmas happen before its time, which, in my opinion, should absolutely never be before the day after Thanksgiving. (Mostly because Thanksgiving is one of my favorites.) However, I spent the last week obsessively working on finishing the Advent calendar I started making for the girls in 2013. It was a bit more than I could achieve when the girls were one, but now that they’re three, not only do I have more time to craft, I really think they’ll enjoy incorporating this tradition and get something out of it. And I’m writing about it now because if you start soon, you’ve got time to make one before Advent starts, too. But not if you have two one-year-olds — take it from me and take it easy on yourself.

Celebrating Advent has always been part of my family and faith tradition, a way to focus on the “reason for the season” as my dad loves to say. Growing up we had an Advent wreath and candles, and I remember doing family devotionals sent home by our church. Through friends, I heard about the Jesse Tree tradition, which uses the whole “out of the stump of Jesse” prophecy from Isaiah to tell the story of Jesus’s family tree through ornaments and a tree. Each ornament corresponds to a Bible Story about one of the members of Jesus’ family tree, so each day leading up to Christmas, you take out an ornament and read the corresponding scripture. One friend even hosted a Jesse Tree ornament party a few years back, where everybody was assigned one ornament and made enough for everyone, so each guest left with a complete set but only had to make one type of ornament — fun and efficient!

Ideas for creating a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar | erniebufflo.com

Ideas for creating a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar | erniebufflo.com

Lots of people put the ornaments on their actual Christmas tree or on a smaller table-top tree that they use just for the Jesse Tree. I had seen many beautiful felt and fabric Advent calendars, so that’s what I had in mind. I love the idea of making a normal Advent calendar slightly more scriptural, so I started looking for Jesse Tree Advent calendars. I wanted to make something that my family could use for years to come and remember fondly, so I bought a kit from an Etsy seller that included patterns, instructions, and all the supplies. My kit was $60, but it looks like my seller is no longer selling the kits, just fully handmade calendars for $390. While I love my kit, I can’t imagine having paid nearly 400 bucks for a completed calendar, though I know that it’s worth that with all the painstaking work that goes into it. So painstaking, in fact, that I modified my calendar– I used puffy paint on the felt to make the ornaments instead of hand-sewing tiny layers and appliques, and I machine-sewed the body of the calendar. I have come to accept that I am just not a fan of embroidering. It’s beautiful, but tedious and frustrating.

Ideas for creating a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar | erniebufflo.com

 

Ideas for creating a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar | erniebufflo.com

Still, I didn’t want to write about finishing this beautiful thing for my family and then be like, sorry, folks, good luck to ya. I found a few felt Advent calendar patterns that I think you could fairly easily adapt into Jesse Trees by swapping out the ornaments, either by making these felt ornaments, by trying one of these other kits, or by buying a set of alreadymade Jesse Tree ornaments. There are also lots of free tutorials for making felt Jesse Tree ornaments online.

Is a Jesse tree part of your holiday tradition? Do you celebrate Advent in other ways?

my valentine tradition

let's get it onValentine’s Day is coming up, and I wanted to share what has become one of my favorite traditions. In need of both art for my bedroom wall and occasional cards for my husband, a few years ago, I started buying him fun handmade cards that, after exchanged and read, can be framed and hung up on our wall. Sometimes I make the cards/art myself, other times I buy from Etsy, but over time, many of these cards have become part of a gallery wall in our bedroom. One in particular that says “Let’s Get it On (I’ll just brush my teeth)” (by Linocut Boy, no longer available) hangs in our bathroom– I thought it was a funny joke on long-married romance. I like that these little pieces of our love story get to hang around and add beauty and sweetness to our days long after the holiday that necessitated their purchase.

In case you, too, are interested in frame-worthy Valentines, I decided to round up a few here. If you click each image, you will be taken to the card’s listing on Etsy, and each shop name is also a handy link to the shop itself.

by larkpress.
by echoletterpress.
by larkpress.

Continue reading “my valentine tradition”

simply having a wonderful Christmas time

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I know I’ve been singing the praises of toddlers a lot lately, but I gotta say, this was our best Christmas with our girls, yet. It’s the first one where they sort of knew something special was going on, and their joy and wonder have been a joy to behold. I think their favorite part of the whole season has been “kiss-mas wights,” and they love driving around, pointing out light displays according to whose side of the car they’re on– “ETTA SIDE! BEAR BEAR SIDE!” They also love turning on our Christmas tree and, though I worried they would constantly be messing with the ornaments, they actually play with them very sweetly and usually put them back– the lower 1/4 of our tree has seen a lot of rearranging.

Continue reading “simply having a wonderful Christmas time”

Santa, his reindeer…and a lion

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Can I admit to you all that I’ve got some ambivalence about the whole Santa thing? I grew up believing in Santa, so I have fond and happy memories of that tradition and don’t feel scarred in any way. But the way Santa is so wrapped up in want and consumerism and making Christmas all about Things, the way his story is centered not in Bethlehem, the locus of the Christmas story, but the North Pole, which has nothing to do with anything– it all seems to indicate to me that we’ve gotten a little off track about the whole Santa story.

So, I admit, I’ve kind of been deferring the decision of how Santa would figure in our family’s Christmas traditions. Last year, my kids basically had no idea it was Christmas, though they did enjoy opening presents, and the year before they were infant blobs. I haven’t had to really decide until now. Even this year felt kind of like another year in which I could wait to see how I felt about the whole thing. I figured we’d decorate the tree, make cookies, listen to Christmas music, go look at Christmas lights, play with our little Nativity, read Christmas stories, do our Advent calendar, and just generally live in a Santa-free bubble for one more year. And we’ve been doing all those things (minus the Advent calendar, which I still haven’t finished making).

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But it turns out, I can’t live in a Santa-free bubble anymore.. Continue reading “Santa, his reindeer…and a lion”

nativities and festivity

While I am a huge fan of Thanksgiving and staunchly oppose Christmas Creep, I am becoming more and more of a BIG GIANT CHRISTMAS CRAZY PERSON. A few years ago, I happened to be unemployed and childless at Christmas, so I went origami crazy and decorated our whole tree with handmade papercrafts. This year, I have toddlers, so when a kid-free day opened up during the week of Thanksgiving, I went ahead and put up the tree, BEFORE DECEMBER. Starting on December 1, our constant soundtrack has been my playlist of some 250 Christmas songs, much of which is hipsteriffic remakes of carols accompanied, I’m sure, by mustachioed dudes playing banjos, possibly while wearing vests, obtained free via Noisetrade. I’ve been working like an elf on homemade tree skirts, cinnamon ornaments, felt garlands, and lots of handmade presents.

Our tree, which was (gasp) up before Thanksgiving this year.
Our tree, which was (gasp) up before Thanksgiving this year.
I made this tree skirt, inspired by one I saw from The Land of Nod.
I made this tree skirt, inspired by one I saw from The Land of Nod.

But the surest sign that I’ve gone round the Christmas bend is the nativity.

Rachel Held Evans has a hilarious post today about the conundrum of a childless progressive couple trying to choose a nativity scene. Where to find a biblically accurate, fair trade, child safe nativity? It seems such a fraught decision. Pre-kids, the nativity I chose was a fair trade Peruvian one which features llamas. Perhaps not biblically accurate, but it makes me smile.

Post kids? Well… Enter the Little People. Here is our main nativity now:

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Yep. That’s a plastic, light-up, noise-making nativity, in the home of the lady whose rules for her kids’ toys include avoiding plastic and things that make noise. And I don’t care. I love the Little People Nativity. My kids can’t break it, they love to play with it, and when you press the Baby Jesus and he lights up (?!) and the whole thing plays Away in a Manger and Silent Night, well, my kids dance and sway and clap their hands and the entire thing becomes more than worth the $20 I spent on it in the Fisher Price Labor Day sale.

And can you spot my favorite part? Yep. The purple hippo. Strangely not included in the original set, my children decided the purple hippo from their bath toys really needed to be present at the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It kind of reminds me of the nativity scene lobsters from “Love Actually” and definitely reminds me of my sister, whose favorite Christmas song is “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” It makes me smile. How much has changed. How far I’ve come. But you know what, if they coulda, I’m sure the hippos would have followed a star all the way to Bethlehem too. They could have hung out with the lobsters.

Hours of fun with the plastic, noise-making, non-historically-accurate but much-beloved Little People Nativity.
Hours of fun with the plastic, noise-making, non-historically-accurate but much-beloved Little People Nativity.

for veteran’s day: the veteran i’ve never met

I shared this story last year, and thought I’d share it again this year. Every time I look at the painting hanging over my piano, I think of the veteran I’ve never met:

Today, 11/11/11, is Veteran’s Day. I make no bones about the fact that I’m a pacifist, and as a result, Veteran’s Day is a bit problematic for me. I sometimes find the language surrounding it disturbing, and I’m leery of ever praising violence. I’m also leery of saying certain conflicts are about protecting “our” rights and freedoms when they really have nothing to do with our rights and freedoms at all, as is the case in our more recent wars and conflicts. Still, I have family currently serving in the military, and, like most Americans, I have a long family history of people serving in the military, and I am thankful for the sacrifices men and women in the armed forces make for our nation. I know we as a nation don’t take as good of care of our Veterans as we should, and I pray that we can do better. I also pray for a day when no one will need to take up arms in service of our nation.

That said, today, I wanted to write about a particular veteran. One I’ve never met.

My Great Uncle Albert, my father’s father’s brother, is something of a family legend. I’ve heard about him and my Pops growing up in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, where their mother ran a boarding house in the height of the town’s “Sin City” days. Mobsters, including Al Capone, spent time there, and the Milwaukee Brewers spent their spring training there. I’ve heard about how a mobster once saw them playing baseball with a stick, and bought them brand new bats with their names engraved on them. Another time, a Milwaukee Brewers player saw that they lacked a proper baseball and bought them an entire case of balls.

My Pops and Uncle Albert sold homemade newspapers to earn money to go to the movies. Then somehow, this boy from Arkansas found his way into some major Hollywood pictures himself. He appeared, uncredited, as a child actor in “Boys Town,” “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “A Star is Born,” “Tom Sawyer,” and “Nothing Sacred.” As a teenager, he lied about his age in order to join the Air Force and serve in World War II. He became a tail gunner, and he served until he was shot down in England, where he is buried.

After his death, his mother received a collection of his paintings from his painting teacher. She never even knew he was a painter.

I wish I could have known him. I’m sure he was a riot, and full of stories. Instead, I have stories others tell about him, and I have one of his paintings:

The man in this painting was my Great Uncle Albert's painting teacher.

I know Veteran’s Day is supposed to be for the living, and Memorial Day for the dead, but I wanted to share my Great Uncle today. Thank you to all Veterans. I look forward to a future where actors and painters can be actors and painters, not soldiers.

screw columbus and the day he sailed in on

BartolomedelascasasToday is Columbus day. I’m sure we all learned it in school: “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” That’s probably the only true part of the story we were told.

He didn’t do it to prove the world is round, as that was already pretty widely accepted at the time. He did it to find a sea-based trade route to China. And he didn’t “discover” America. A) The Natives technically discovered America first, and B) Even other explorers, like Leif Ericsson for example, got here first, and C) At best, he landed in The Americas, not North America. And even after he arrived in the Americas, he refused to believe he hadn’t actually reached Asia, despite his utter inability to find any of its great cities. And on top of all that, he was kind of a terrible person and a horrible racist, and his “discovery” unleashed all kinds of horrors on the so-called New World, with the men under his command raping and robbing the natives, and ultimately enslaving them. He even took natives back to Europe as a sort of “show and tell” (because of course, he didn’t think they were really human), and many of them didn’t even survive the voyage.

And before we excuse him based on the fact that tons of people of his time found his behavior, and the behavior allowed under his command, perfectly acceptable, I have to mention a guy truly worth celebrating today. Bartolome de las Casas. De las Casas was originally a participant in the system of exploitation that was quickly set up under Spanish rule in Hispaniola, but he later became a priest, and became convinced that this exploitation was contrary to his Christian faith. Now, this was truly unique, as everyone at the time was a Catholic, and here he was telling them that they were all wrong, and that they were understanding this Jesus guy all wrong. De las Casas became an advocate against slavery, and largely thanks to his work, Pope Paul III forbade slavery in 1537 (shocking how much earlier that happens than it did in the US), and Emperor Charles V followed suit in 1542.

Here are some of the horrors de las Casas saw in the New World that made him such an anti-slavery advocate:

The Spaniards did not content themselves with what the Indians gave them of their own free will, according to their ability, which was always too little to satisfy enormous appetites, for a Christian eats and consumes in one day an amount of food that would suffice to feed three houses inhabited by ten Indians for one month. (37)

The most powerful ruler of the islands had to see his own wife raped by a Christian officer. (37)

They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor the pregnant women nor the women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them, but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse. (37)

They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victims’ feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and his Twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. (37)

With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them around the victim’s neck, saying ‘Go now, carry the message,’ meaning, Take the news to the Indians who have fled to the mountains. (37)

It’s enough to make you sick at your stomach, right? What Columbus unleashed on the New World is not worthy of celebrating. He should not be made into a hero for children, because he was a corrupt man pursuing his own wealth at the expense of the lives and suffering of others. Instead, we should celebrate people like de las Casas, who came to realize what he was participating in was deeply deeply wrong, and took action that actually led to change. That’s so much more exciting and rare than a Columbus Day Sale.

All quotes come from Bartolome de las Casas’ “The Devastation of the Indies” in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume A.

thanksgiving is better than christmas

Image by Gary Villet via the Google LIFE photo archive, under a Creative Commons license.

Every year Bill O’Reilly goes to war against those he believes are “at war against Christmas.” You know what I’m talking about– he, and a lot of others, get really irritated that greeters at WalMart and cashiers at the mall say things like “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” preferably with the emphasis on CHRISTmas.  As if there aren’t other people in this country celebrating other holidays at that time.  But what really galls me is, O’Reilly is entirely missing the point. The problem isn’t WalMart greeters and mall cashiers, it’s WalMart and the mall.  Christmas has become a disgusting celebration of consumerism.

According to Advent Conspiracy, Americans spend around $450 BILLION on Christmas each year. According to Bread for the World, the basic health and nutrition needs of the world’s poorest people could be solved for $13 billion per year. There’s just something stomach churning about using a holiday to celebrate the birth of a king who was born in poverty and preached about concern for the poor more than any other issue being used to fuel a $450 billion industry when a tiny fraction of that could feed and care for the world’s poorest people.

And of course, I sit here typing this as a total hypocrite.  I’ve tried to convince our families to do without gifts, in order to focus on time together and giving to charity, and yet so far, all I’ve been able to do is encourage caps on gift spending, hopefully leaving us with more money to give to charity.  So, in large part, most of the hoopla surrounding Christmas seems to me to be at war with the values of the man it celebrates, and yet I feel powerless to stop it.

So instead, I focus on Thanksgiving.  I think sharing meals was a pretty common theme in the life of Jesus, and I believe something special happens when we gather around a table with people, even our dysfunctional families.  I also think gratitude is a key component of a truly examined life.  In some ways, I think Thanksgiving is a more truly spiritual holiday than Christmas, in terms of how we celebrate it in this country– it’s about spending time with family, sharing a meal, and being thankful.  Sure, it can be taken to gluttonous extremes, but it can also be a beautiful celebration.  And maybe if we do it right, if we really take time to be thankful and realize we have all we need, that we are truly blessed, we will be able to keep our priorities in order when it comes to celebrating Christmas.  I can only hope.

 

 

Note: I am, of course, aware that Thanksgiving, like almost everything in the history of Western Civilization, has a backstory full of violence, bigotry, theft, and oppression.  I hope that by reclaiming that holiday as one of gratitude and love, and perhaps even sorrow for what happened in the past, we can try to make sure such things don’t happen in the future.

the best Christmas present ever?

Image via Flickr user Muffet under a Creative Commons License.

I swear I’m not a Grinch.

Yeah, this is another one of those posts where I have to begin with a disclaimer assuring my readers that I really, really don’t hate Christmas. Here are some things I’m looking forward to over the next month: baking cookies with my mom and little sister, spending time with my littlest sister, drinking Russian Tea, staring at Christmas trees in dark rooms, taking a trip to downtown Hot Springs AR in order to see Christmas lights and a giant gingerbread house, the local prosthetic shop that has the best Christmas window displays ever, reading “The Gift of the Magi” and “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” nativity sets, advent wreaths, making gingerbread houses that involve hot glue guns, playing board games with family, seeing our niece, meeting a brand new baby cousin, watching “Elf,” Christmas Eve church service, seeing some snow in Colorado, watching my dad tear up while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” having semi-shouted conversations with my hard-of-hearing grandmother, hugging necks, and kissing cheeks.  There is a lot to love about Christmas.

You may notice that I didn’t mention gifts anywhere in that list.  Because when I start to think about all the things that make Christmas special to me, most of them are free.  They are not about things. They are about love.  And yet, every single year, starting around Halloween, loved ones start demanding wish lists, the expectation to buy Things begins to mount, and I begin to get overwhelmed and stressed and wonder why we’re really doing all this.  My dad loves to say that Jesus is the Reason for the Season (I swear he’s not one of those types to get worked up about the “War on Christmas,” he just really likes to remind us, Tiny Tim style, what it’s all about), and yet, as I venture out into stores, I don’t see Jesus anywhere, and not just because the greeters say “Happy Holidays,” because really, only jerks have a problem with that.

Just getting out to holiday shop is stressful, the opposite of peace and joy and goodwill to all people.  Drivers act like jerks, everyone’s in a hurry, stores are crowded and clerks are testy.  Money is tight, no one knows what they want, we don’t know what to buy, and yet we feel pressured to buy buy buy, give give give.

And it’s not that I don’t love giving a thoughtful gift. I do. I’ve been known to agonize over birthday gifts, and I really do enjoy giving them, mostly because with birthdays I only have to focus on one present and can make it something really special and thoughtful and expressive of love and care.  But Christmas really just becomes overwhelming– no one has the time to buy unique and special thoughtful gifts for every single person on their list, at least, no one I know does. And so even people like me, otherwise completely committed to buying local and fair trade, end up hitting outlet malls and completely forsaking our values in order to get gifts for everyone we’re expected to buy for.

And so I’m left wondering why we do it.  Just getting to spend time with family and loved ones is a gift, a huge one.  We don’t need any THING beyond that.  Why can’t we just celebrate that we have time together, that we have so many blessings, that we are not in need? If we weren’t pressured to buy buy buy, give give give, we could give to charity and then just enjoy each other’s company.

I’ve tried for two years now to convince the rest of my family of my vision of a gift-free Christmas. It hasn’t worked.  So I’ve made a decision.  Next Halloween I’m going to make an announcement.  I’m going to say: Dear family members, I love you so very much.   I love Christmas, and I love celebrating Jesus’ birth with you.  Because of my deep love for Christmas and all that it means, we will not be participating in gifts for anyone who is not a child.  We hope to focus on spending time together, making memories, and donating time and money to charity.  We hope that you will respect this decision, and encourage you to join us in our pursuit of a pared-down but more deeply meaningful holiday, though we will respect and love your choice if you don’t. We love you and we want to focus on our love for each other and our love for Christ this year.

I’m getting excited just thinking about it. Perhaps a gift-free Christmas could be the second-best Christmas present ever.

a holiday gift for you

Garnishing the Russian Tea with cinnamon sticks and orange slices would be a good idea! Image via Flickr user thedabble under a Creative Commons license.

In my “nightmares before Christmas” post, I mentioned Russian Tea, which is a holiday tradition in my family.   I served it at last year’s Thanksgiving Potluck, and our friends all demanded the recipe.  When I announced this year’s Thanksgiving Potluck, people wanted to know if I’d be serving the Russian Tea again, pretty please please please.  I should say first off that Russian Tea is not, as far as I know, actually Russian.  My family is not Russian, and the roots of this recipe as far as I know them, are to vaguely English/Irish folk in rural Arkansas.  My Memaw made this tea every Thanksgiving and Christmas that I remember, serving it from a big commercial-type percolator that always kept it a little too hot– I’ve scalded my tongue almost every holiday, because I can never wait for it to cool.  It was only later, as an adult, that I emailed my mother for the Russian Tea recipe and learned that it was originally supposed to be spiked with booze.  Which may be the real reason it goes over so well at our potlucks.

So, my holiday gift to my readers, thanks to a comment from reader bluebears, is the recipe for this yummy beverage.  Think of it as a spiced, citrusy cider alternative, and spike it with either dark rum or bourbon.

Russian Tea

Boil 4 cups water and steep 4 regular-sized tea bags.  Add to that mixture in a large stock pot 1½ cups sugar, 2½ cups pineapple juice, 1½ cups orange juice (frozen concentrate, not diluted), 6 Tsp. fresh lemon juice, 8 whole cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks, and 8 cups water.  Bring to a boil, serve warm, add dark rum or bourbon as desired.

Easy double batch:
Boil 8 cups water with 8 tea bags, add 1 large can pineapple juice, 1 family size frozen OJ, and 12 Tsp. lemon juice, 2 cups sugar, 16 whole cloves, 4 cinnamon sticks, and 16 cups water.

I made mine in crock pots for my potluck, which worked fine and kept it warm, but this recipe usually works best in a really large stock pot.  I like to keep leftover tea in pitchers in the fridge to make individually microwaved cups throughout the holiday.  Oh, and you might want to add the alcohol to each cup at time of serving to keep the uh, buzz-inducing-part, from getting cooked out.