Archives For December 2012

This is my last installment on Christmas traditions. We’ve covered some Faith-based traditions, some family and fun-based traditions. This time, it’s all about the food! And there are several reasons for that.

Food-based Traditions:

First of all,  I’m not talking about glutenous self-indulgence, but how we use food to celebrate as part of our traditions. The seven annual festivals of the Jewish people that we find in the Old Testament were marked with music and food that symbolized these as special times of rich celebration. These times all celebrated the goodness of God and His goodness to us.

Second, frankly, most of the meaningful conversations and celebrations in my home almost always centered around the kitchen table. It started at my great Aunt Marie’s Thanksgiving table, my Grandma Corl’s Christmas table, and later passed to my immediate family’s table for birthdays, graduations, and most other holidays. Laughter, music, story-telling and special foods all were a rich part of my family’s traditions. But Christmas was always the best.

So, it makes sense to us that the greatest celebration of the whole year would be the birthday of Jesus, the Savior of all mankind. Christmas should be the biggest birthday party of the year. The music of the season is sometimes reflective and sobering as we focus on the events of His humble birthday arrival in Bethlehem. Other songs are festive and fun, reflecting the “joy to the world” that knowing the Lord brings into a world filled with cares and concerns.

In keeping with the idea of the biggest birthday party of the year, there are foods that are reserved for the holidays that we just don’t make throughout the rest of the year. Sugary treats–like special raisin-filled cookies, snow balls covered in powdered sugar, Danish puffs on Christmas morning, eggnog on Christmas Eve, homemade and hand-dipped chocolates, a birthday cake for Jesus (especially when our children were younger) and yes, the proverbial fruitcake.

Now before you overreact, don’t think of the store-bought-sorry-excuse-for-a-fruitcake that all the late night comics love to make fun of–like David Letterman’s Top 10 Things you can do with a fruitcake. I’m talking about homemade fruitcake! This is the real deal, chucked full of a fruity goodness and a glorious reminder that the God who made our tongues to enjoy this scrumptious variety of delightful tastes is the One who makes beauty and goodness possible every day of our lives.

What makes it even more special is that we make all these delicious delights in our kitchen–together. Well, that’s where my wife shines. She loves feeding her family. And she’s learned how to include all of us in some aspects of making the Christmas foods together. For instance, my son is the peanut brittle specialist. I samples more than a few pieces of his first batch last night! Yum! My daughters roll out cookies and help dip the chocolates. These experiences not only teach them the traditions and skills of Christmas cooking, but they add to the fun and “togetherness” that is such an important part of the holiday celebrations. Every one participates where and when they can (as is age appropriate).

Growing up in central Pennsylvania and my wife in the Lancaster County area, our roots have Pennsylvania Dutch (really German, not Dutch like the Netherlands) influences. Thus, our traditional meal on New Year’s Day is pork smothered in sauerkraut and plopped in the middle of a pile of mashed potatoes. My grandmother said it was for good luck in the new year. Why “good luck” I’ll never get, but it sure tasted good then and still does.

These holiday treats serve as reminders that once every year we “bring out the best” and serve up a delightful banquet for the palate to enjoy as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the greatest man to ever walk the face of this planet. But they also serve as appetizers, anticipating the day when Jesus, who came the first time in humility to live and die as the sacrificial solution for our sin problem, will return some day as our King and will throw the greatest of all banquets–the Marriage Supper of the Lamb as a celebration for His second coming in glorious and triumphant power “to make all things new” (Rev. 21:3-5).

These are some of the foods we celebrate Christmas with. So, how about you? What are some of the special foods and why are they special to your family traditions? (Recipes are optional, but welcomed.)

Have a blessed Christmas celebrating with your family and friends.

Holiday Blues

Jeff Olson —  December 20, 2012 — Leave a comment

The holiday season is normally my favorite time of the year, but not so much this season. While much of the world celebrates the “most wonderful time of the year,” I’m often feeling blue, hurting inside over losing both of my parents this past year.

What I’m finding as I go through this first holiday season without Mom and Dad is that the things I’ve loved my entire life (Christmas music, decorations, family gatherings) are often painful triggers that remind me that my parents are gone.

Thanksgiving was rough. I cried as we drove over to a family member’s house for dinner and felt down throughout the day.

Christmas won’t be any easier. There will be no phone calls wishing each other Merry Christmas. No gifts to exchange. No “I love you’s.”

And when I’ve caught myself feeling festive and enjoying the season, I sometimes feel guilty. It feels “wrong” to be happy and to celebrate when they are not here.

Guilt tells me I should just be sad.

The truth is I am sad—for good reason. But I’m also happy. Though there are times I may need to feel one more than the other, God has been teaching me that it’s okay to feel both. Both can coexist in me.

There are no exact rules to follow as we grieve the loss of those we love, let alone go through the first holiday season without them. We each have to figure out our own way. For me, giving myself permission to experience both sadness and joy has been a part of finding my way through this season of grief.

During the last few weeks Tim has asked us to consider traditions, specifically Christmas and holiday traditions. He described these traditions as anchors—present practices that remind us of a shared story. Traditions communicate belonging. They remind us of our place in history. They show us where we have been and situate us within history’s unfolding story.

Traditions can be fun or somber. They can be new or ancient. Traditions can also vary in their scope. Traditions can be personal, familial, geographical, cultural, or religious. But whatever their designation, most traditions situate us within a tribe; a group of insiders that share a common story.

But what happens when tragedy hijacks our stories? We were reminded this weekend that we live in a world where evil and suffering exist.

Friday morning was just another day for the students, parents, and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Life was normal. They lived in a safe place where evil was real but distant. Horrific acts happened, but they did not happen in Newtown. But at 9:30 a.m. the world changed forever. Evil marched into Sandy Hook Elementary School. Shots rang out. And in a few short moments just over 2 dozen families were forever altered. By 10 a.m. on Friday morning these families became part of an unwilling tribe of mourners.

What happens when tragedy and evil hijack our stories, pull up our anchors, and pollute our traditions? When these kinds of events take place, they shock and sadden outsiders and threaten to completely tear apart insiders. They leave all of us groping for answers to nagging questions: Why my child? Who would do something like this? Could anything have been done to prevent it? How could a good God allow this to happen?

For those who find themselves in this newly formed tribe of sufferers, family traditions will never be the same. The unopened presents under the tree only serve as a heart-wrenching reminder that their stories have been forever altered.

At times like this, our hearts break as we watch the pain and struggle of others. We sympathize as best as we can but very few of us will ever know pain and sorrow like this. And let’s be honest, none of us really want to know how they feel. We all want to remain sympathizers and outsiders because none of us ever want to experience their pain.

In times of intense suffering, sympathizers often wonder what they can do to help. We want to offer hope; we want to soothe the pain. But what can we do?

Here are just a few things we can do for those who belong to this or another tribe of sufferers:

  • Acknowledge that there are things we just don’t know.
  • Listen to and tell their stories.
  • Live the hope of resurrection.

Here is the hard truth: We don’t know why God allowed the tragedy in Newtown to happen. Yes, we live in a fallen world. Yes, evil is real. And yes, sometimes human beings visit terrible evil upon one another.

But we don’t know why God allowed the Sandy Hook shooting to take place. And while the truths about sin, death, and the fall might bring us some measure of understanding in the abstract, they often fall flat when gripped by tragic loss and inconsolable grief.

When we acknowledge that there are things we just don’t know, we accept our place as finite creatures. But we must not stop there. Redemptive love demands that we look events like these full in the face, for within them we see our Savior’s heart and our desperate need for Him. In this one event, we see both the depths of human depravity and the heights of redemptive love.

Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung began the day as an anonymous principle of a small elementary school in Connecticut. By 9:30 a.m. she had showed us what Jesus looks like. She stood in harm’s way, dying a martyr’s death, for her students. She lived the incarnation, and her sacrifice provides us with an anchor within the midst of terror and grief.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 NIV). This is why the actions of Dawn Hochsprung and her colleague Vicki Soto resonate so deeply with us. There is something noble, right, and just when a person sacrifices themselves for another. The events of last Friday remind us that we live in a fallen world where evil and injustice not only exist but at times seem to triumph. The actions of these heroes move us so deeply because they reflect the story of God’s love manifested in Christ toward all humanity.

In recent days, many have offered ideas about why God was not at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday. Some have guessed that he abandoned all those precious little ones because we have pushed him out of our society. I could not disagree more. I think God was there. He was there standing in harm’s way—just as He was 2,000 years ago. When Vicki Soto was shot trying to protect her students, He was shot too. Anytime redemptive love shows up, the spirit of God is present.

Today we mourn, but as followers of Christ we mourn with hope. We mourn because of senseless violence and reckless evil but have hope because Jesus has conquered death and presently rules and reigns. We have hope because we know that, even though evil seems to have won on Friday, evil will not ultimately win. We mourn the loss of so many lives and so much potential. Our hearts go out to the families and friends in their grief. But we are reminded even in the midst of Friday’s great tragedy that light is greater than darkness, that good will conquer evil, and that resurrection hope is more powerful than the steely hands of death.

This past Friday, many stories were hijacked by evil, but even in the midst of this horrific scene God continues to write the story of courage, grace, and love—a story He started some 2,000 years ago.

Dennis Moles
Bible Teacher/Content Developer

In my previous post, I covered some faith-based traditions that my wife and I have celebrated in our home over the past 35 Christmas holiday seasons together. Some are from her home, some are from my home, and the rest we borrowed from friends, extended family, and books we’d read about making Christmas a joyous celebration for the whole family.

I put these traditions under two additional categories: family-based and fun-based traditions.

Family-Based Traditions

In our family, we give gifts to each other to remind us of the greatest gift of all, Jesus. But gift giving can become a major distraction from God’s greatest gift to us. However, while my wife and I decided that we wanted to give gifts within the family, we were concerned that we and our children not get sucked into the commercialized materialistic deluge of Christmas gifts on Christmas morning. In our efforts to address the pitfalls that gift giving can bring, we adopted a tradition from my wife’s family of a 9-day Christmas celebration starting on Christmas Eve and ending on New Year’s Day. My wife spent part of her childhood in a predominantly Jewish New England neighborhood. It was the 8-day festival of lights, Hanukkah, that inspired her parents’ decision to spread out the holiday to give more time for celebration, reflection, and taking advantage of after-Christmas sales on a limited budget.

The week of celebration made our time together more manageable and meaningful. The focus wasn’t all on one day, which can be overwhelming. Because we live in the Midwest and our extended families are spread all up and down the Eastern US (from Maine to Alabama), gifts from extended family were parceled out to one per day throughout the week. It may have been something as small as a book or matchbox car. Phone calls were made to thank family for their gifts but more to reconnect and chat than anything. There were several gifts on Christmas day but no overwhelming gift dump.

Finding the right gift for someone can be an exercise in sheer consumerism. Or it can be a reminder of how God knows our hearts and delights in giving “good gifts” to His children (Matt. 7:11). We try not to focus on the gifts, but to delight in giving “good gifts” throughout the year that are symbolized by the gifts we give at Christmas.

Fun-Based Traditions

One of the fun traditions my kids have enjoyed (and, truth be told, so have I) is the reading of the timeless poem The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. I memorized it for a sixth grade Christmas play and started reciting it to my kids just prior to bedtime on Christmas Eve when they were just little tikes. I’d act it out with different voices and whistles, and add a few Jacksonian modifications of my own. It was fun for all.

I later learned that the author was a renowned professor of Oriental and Greek Literature who was most proud of his great work A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language. However, it was his venture into the wonder of make-believe with a whimsical poem written for his children’s entertainment in 1814 that he is best known. A theologian and a whimsical poet! Now that’s a winning combination in my book. We discovered that the poem, presented as make-believe and not as fact, added a delightful sparkle and playful wonder to our Christmas.

Another fun tradition is singing. We sing a lot of Christmas carols around the holidays. But The Twelve Days of Christmas has become a favorite in our home.  Not only is it a fun song to sing in a round with many participating voices, but it’s also fraught with history that’s eluded most of us. That’s where Ace Collins has been very helpful. We’ve enjoyed exploring his two volumes, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas and Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. They have been informative and delightful resources that add context, history, and enjoyment to many of the cherished songs and traditions surrounding our Christmas celebrations.

Christmas movies have also become a tradition over the years. Our video library includes favorites such as Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas that I grew up watching with my family. But there are newer movies that we’ve included over time. Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express and Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story are now favorites. The Nativity Story has been especially beneficial in helping us visualize what that first Christmas Day was like for the young Jewish couple chosen to introduce the Savior into the world.

These are some of the fun Christmas traditions our family has enjoyed throughout the years. They’ve worked for us. Feel free to borrow some to see what works for you. No matter what you do, I encourage you to be intentional about creating some traditions for your family that provide familiar anchor points for the generations that follow.

Now it’s your turn to share. What are some family-based or fun-based Christmas traditions you’ve found meaningful in your family as you were growing up or that you’ve started in your family as a parent? Let’s learn and be encouraged by one another to celebrate the richness of Jesus’ birth and the hope of restoration that He brings.

Tradition has become a much maligned and co-opted word in our polarized and politicized culture. Traditional families, traditional marriages, and traditional values are thrown around so much that traditions are often seen as suspect, a throwback to a bygone era that has minimal value in this modern world.

What are traditions? Do they have any real meaning?

Traditions are anchors. When I’m river fishing from a boat, I toss out a couple anchors to hold me steady on a particular hot spot, otherwise I’d quickly be washed downstream by the current. And that’s what traditions do. They are anchor points that provide perspective.

Traditions are repeated patterns, or customs, that help us remember our place in the ongoing story that we’re a part of. They are familiar practices handed down from one generation to the next that provide a sense of meaning and belonging in a family, a community of faith, or an ethnic group. They remind us where we came from and who we are, both of which can provide perspective that helps us focus on where we’re going.

I loosely group holiday traditions—those surrounding the winter trilogy of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations—into four categories: faith-based, family-based, fun-based, and food-based traditions. And while there are no set rules as to how to do traditions, here are some ideas that my wife and I have found meaningful as we raised our kids.

Faith-Based Traditions

As Christian parents, our desire is to pass along our faith to our children in the everyday activities of life. Holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, provide a special occasion to remember, reflect, worship, and tell how the story of Jesus impacts the way we celebrate the holiday seasons. We’ve tried to be intentional and flexible about handing down traditions that symbolize core biblical truths.

When our children were younger, we used tools such as Advent calendars to help them focus on the reality that Christmas is not merely about sparkling decorations, delicious foods, delightful gifts, and fun family gatherings but primarily about remembering and celebrating the most important Person’s birthday of the year. We read the Old Testament promises about the coming Messiah and sang songs about His coming.

As they got older, at the suggestion of some friends who were further down the parenting path, I made an advent wreath from a Styrofoam ring with room for 25 tapered candles. Each day we progressively lit another candle until on Christmas Eve all 25 candles were ablaze. What a sight! Of course the kids loved it (it involved fire!) and enjoyed lighting and extinguishing the candles each evening (under strict parental supervision, of course, and a fire extinguisher close by :-)). But the progressive glory and accumulating light from the candles was a vivid reminder of the anticipated glorious coming of the great King under the cover of a dark wintery night in a humble stable so long ago.

We also found a book that told the stories behind all the favorite Christmas songs we hear and sing throughout the holiday season. It provided the “back story” that even we as parents never really knew. It’s still a favorite part of our Christmas tradition each year.

Reading the Christmas story on Christmas Eve is one of the highlights of our celebration. For us, Christmas Eve begins at 6:00 p.m. Often we begin with attending a early Christmas Eve service at our church. Afterward, we eat dinner (Chinese takeout—more about that later). We light the Advent candles. We read the Christmas story—usually from Luke’s gospel (2:1-20). We sing Christmas carols, allowing everyone to pick some of their favorites. We pray together, thanking God for sending His perfect Gift, His only Son, to show us how much He loved us (John 3:16).

Christmas Eve is not a time to rush through these preliminaries to get to the main event—the gifts we give to each other. This is a precious moment, a sacred space set aside to savor the true wonder of Christmas: that the infinite God of the universe chose to confine Himself in the body of a helpless baby who grew to be a man to show us all what God looks like in a man suit!

These are some of the traditions that have helped us as a family focus on what’s most important at this special time of year. But as I mentioned earlier, I’m sure that many of you have your own deeply meaningful traditions that help you focus on the One who is the reason for the season. So it’s your turn to share your traditions so that we can all benefit. And, who knows, I just may start a new tradition in my home based on some of your suggestions.

I’ll share some additional traditions in my next post.

Merry Christmas!

It’s the holiday season. And the season seems to be expanding more and more each year. Stores small and large seem to be decked out earlier every year, with merchants trying to exploit the insatiable demands of holiday shoppers with dwindling discretionary income to spend.

But what’s the holiday season all about? From Thanksgiving through Christmas, this “most wonderful time of the year” has been hijacked by anyone trying to make a buck, hoping to make it into the black before the end of the year.

So, in an attempt to help all of us focus on the spirit of the holidays here at HelpForMyLife.org, we want to focus on some of the unique joys and heartaches, traditions and challenges, as well as opportunities that we hope will help all of us return to a more Jesus-centered focus at this “most wonderful time of the year.” After all, it’s His birthday that is being celebrated around the world.

We’ll be talking about traditions that we’ve found helpful and will give you some ideas that may challenge you to be more intentional in your celebrations this year. And we hope that will make the holidays more meaningful for you and your family.

First holidays celebrated with someone new—a spouse, a baby, a community—can be delightful and fraught with meaning. The newness can bring an intoxicating sparkle of wild-eyed discovery back into a holiday celebration that has become simply predictable or “ho-hum.”

On the other hand, first holidays celebrated without someone special—such as after a divorce or the loss of a spouse, child, parent, or dear friend—produce deep struggles with the ambivalent feelings of being torn over the heartache during a season made for celebration with precious loved ones.

Decisions regarding what traditions will or won’t be celebrated, to travel or not to travel on the holidays, and ways of avoiding getting sucked into the commercialization trap while balancing the desire to be a generous giver will be some of the topics we’ll discuss over the next 4 weeks.

So come and join in the discussion—” ‘Tis the season for sharing.”