Darkness, Our Friend

In 2004 I walked through what some people might call a dark night of the soul.

Our family of four returned to California from crushing disappointment in Michigan after a failed business attempt. I struggled to understand.

Was it a mistake? We were sure that God sent us there to embark on new adventure for our family and with Christian friends.

A song by Jeremy Camp came out around that time. The chorus was,

 

I still believe in your holiness. I still believe in your truth. I still believe in your holy Word. Even when don’t see. I still believe.

 

I remember cry-singing these words to God as I lay face down on the cold tile floor in my bathroom. I spoke the words, but my heart felt like the tile under face where my tears gathered.

That failure and discouragement shook my lifelong paradigm that A + B = C. We follow God’s leading he is supposed to prosper us. If we obey, he blesses. That is what the Bible says, isn’t it?

When we returned to the safety of our home state of California, I could not wait to escape that cold, dark place my soul had become. I clamored for the security that is found in the light.

I ran to the safety of what one of my favorite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor calls “solar Christianity”. It is the relentless effort to brighten every dark and scary part of our existence, not permitting any dank corner of doubt or confusion to remain.

The church we ended up in had clearly designated lines of demarcation between light and dark. We implemented formulas that we were told were based on biblical truth. Do “this” and “that” will happen. Believe and speak the truth and all will be well. Tell the devil to flee and he will.

It was just what I craved in those murky days. But in hindsight, I’m not sure it was what I really needed.

When Darkness Remains

Doesn’t biblical truth include not knowing why things happen the way they do? Is there room for confusion and doubt to linger in our hearts instead of rushing them out the door? Does darkness have something to teach us if we would just let it sit and stay for a while?

The disciples that followed and loved Jesus could not comprehend that the ministry of their Teacher included the darkest day in history, where he was violently beaten and then crucified. They believed he came to save the world, but they were unable to see how the night of his death could be a part of that plan of salvation.

The glory of light is only appreciated after the darkness of night. Even as morning dawned on Resurrection Sunday to find Jesus had conquered the darkness of Good Friday, some of the nighttime remained. His closest friends saw him and touched him, but still did not comprehend his purpose.

Jesus chose not to speed them through their confusion and disappointment just because they were uncomfortable. But when the time was right many weeks later in that upper room in Jerusalem, the first of countless hearts were illuminated by the Holy Spirit who Jesus promised would guide his followers into the truth and reveal God’s mysteries.

We think of night and darkness as sinister and creepy. We fear what can happen in places where we have no idea what is around the next corner or even hiding right beside us. When we find ourselves in those places, we eagerly, sometimes frantically, plead for dawn or strain to see the light at the end of the tunnel so that we can escape.

But darkness existed before light did. Not only that, God chose not to eliminate the darkness altogether when he created the world. All he did was separated it from the light. (Genesis 1:2-5)

Why is that? Could it be that the dark periods in our lives, the times of confusion and disappointment, are just as necessary for our growth and eternal well-being as the times when all is bright? Isn’t it in the darkness that our senses are heightened and more attuned?

Seeing the Unseen

I rise early every morning, around five o’clock most days. I hear Georgia the cat meowing at my door hoping I will play fetch with her. It is dark at that hour no matter the season, but it is my favorite time of day.

Getting out of bed I do not turn on the light. I sit up, feel for my glasses and my phone on the side table. I reach out for my glass of water, hoping not to knock it over. That kind of fumble would force me to switch on the lamp to assess the damage and clean up, effectively ending my husband’s peaceful rest.

My sense of touch, hearing and even sight are leveraged as I strain to see what I cannot see, listen for signs of undisturbed sleep from my husband as I feel my way to the door.

If we are wise, we will similarly engage our spiritual senses during times in our lives when we do not understand what in the world God is doing. Normally, we turn on the light as soon as we can find it. But if we will allow the darkness to stay a while, we might find just what we need, even if it is not what we expect.

God does not promise that we will find the answers we seek while we are enveloped by the night seasons in our lives. We will bump into things and cause spills that need to be sopped up. But he tells us that we can find something much more satisfying. Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most comforting scriptures in the Bible.

 “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Two verses later in Jeremiah 29:13 we read,

“You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”

If we will pray and seek him In the dark times of our lives, we will not necessarily find straightforward answers, but we will find him. And when we find him, the longing for answers fades as we are enveloped in the light of the presence of him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

The Promise of Everlasting Light

That’s what happened to the disciples. As they waited and prayed through their spiritual darkness, they were visited by tongues of fire resting on each of them. (Acts 2:1- 3) The Spirit of Light came to live in and with them, illuminating what was most important, transforming them into light bearers for our spiritually darkened world.

They finally had clarity about what God’s plan was, even if they did not have answers to every question and solutions to every problem.

The Lord did not eliminate all darkness from believers at Pentecost and he leaves us marinating in ours sometimes as well. He finds our uncertainty, and even our suffering, useful for reasons we may never fully understand.

But he promises that one day, when he has completed all he has planned for the earth, he will eradicate the night, and everything will be illuminated. He will be our Light and the only one we need.

And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever”.

Revelation 22:5

Until that day, there are lessons to be learned as we grope and stumble in the night hours of our pilgrimage on earth.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me” – even the darkness is not dark to You, but the night shines like the day, for darkness is as light to You.

Psalm 139:11-12

So, we can walk on, even in the dark night of the soul, seeking to find and to know our loving God more deeply. To him our night is as bright as the day and he will guide us home.

 

Preschool Must-Have’s! Top Tips for Choosing the Right Preschool

Your kids are the most precious people in the world to you! At first, it’s hard to imagine giving them to a stranger to care for, isn’t it?

My first experience with preschool was traumatic! I don’t mean when I went to preschool, I mean when my first son did. I was a mess!

There he was, standing at the window waving goodbye while crying his eyes out. I plastered a smile on my face, waved back, got in my car and drove away. Then I let it all out and cried my eyes out, too!

He had a hard time there, so we moved him to another preschool that we were all very happy with. It was some work finding the right one, but it was worth it!

Where our children go to preschool is REALLY important! They are a critical time in their early development. Both positive and negative emotional experiences have lasting impact.

So, it pays to do our due diligence before we decide on preschool. There a lot of great ones out there but also some that aren’t so great.

Once you have a potential school picked out, I strongly suggest doing a classroom observation. A couple of hours or more would be great.

It’s true that a teacher might be on guard if you’re there, however, you can still get a sense of whether the children are happy and if the teacher has created a positive atmosphere.

 

“Must Have’s” for Any Preschool

DOWNLOAD MY FREE PRESCHOOL MUST-HAVE’S CHECKLIST!

Must Have’s – Preschool Teachers

Are they kind?

Are they patient?

Do they smile?

Do they use positive discipline and redirection instead of yelling, “Don’t!” or “Stop it!”?

Do they use positive verbal guidance instead of just demanding things from the children?

Do they get down on the child’s level when addressing them?

Do they listen to the child’s concerns and help them come up with solutions?

Do they use positive reinforcement of good behavior?

Will they allow observation?

Will they let you stay with your child for a while at first?

Must Have’s – Safety

Outlets covered or out of reach, all cleaning products in locked storage cabinets, no broken tiles or torn carpets that might cause tripping, temperature well controlled, exterior doors that children can’t unlock, bookcases and other climbable furniture bolted to walls or floor, clean sinks, surfaces and toys.

Must Have’s – the Classroom

Most preschool classrooms are organized into centers and a good preschool will have a combination of some or all of these, with variations, of course. I’ve offered examples of some of the equipment and toys that any preschool should have. They are also fantastic for your your home! As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Art Center

Table, easel, paints, paper, staplers, scissors, markers, crayons, glue, seasonal items for holidays, etc.

Music center

Rhythm sticks, cymbals, triangles, bells, drums, autoharp, scarves for movement to music

Science/Discovery Center

Plants, rocks, shells, magnifying glass, balance scales, aquarium, animal/insect cage, small appliances to take apart and explore.

Manipulative Center

Puzzles, open ended toys like Lego or other connecting bricks, collections like keys for sorting, buttons, matching games

Reading Center

Picture books, phonics, first readers, classics, nursery rhymes, books with themes such as colors, shapes, and numbers. (Visit my Usborne Books & More for great children’s books for your home or your child’s preschool!)

Block Center

Wooden unit blocks, hollow cardboard bricks, plus farm animals, small vehicles, etc. to go along with them. Rug for added fun and to keep the noise down.

Housekeeping Center

Child-sized sink, stove, refrigerator, cupboard, pretend foods, dishes, cups, cutlery, pots/pans, telephone, broom and dustpan.

Dramatic Play Center

Dress-up clothes, hats, mirror, dolls and doll beds, armoire/dresser, coat rack.

Other centers ideas: workbench, sand/water play, writing, computer.

Must Have’s – Outdoors

There should be at least 75 square feet of play area for each child surrounded by a sturdy fence. If there is a gate, it’s locked, and children are unable to get out. All equipment in working order with no hazardous areas.

Look for a grassy area and a paved area, climbing equipment of the appropriate size, balls, hoops, ropes, sand/water play, garden, digging toys, ground level balance path/beam, play house, wheeled toys, messy art materials.

DOWNLOAD MY FREE PRESCHOOL MUST-HAVE’S CHECKLIST!

Follow Your Instincts

If you find a preschool that fits the criteria, great job! It might be worth a try. However, always follow your mom instincts. If you don’t feel good about it, even if it fits the basic criteria, move on!  There may be something out of whack that you can’t see.

When your child starts the new preschool, stay with them for a while, helping them adjust. If they cry when you leave, it’s normal.

However, if they continue crying long after you’ve gone or every time you leave them there for weeks, I’d consider taking them out. They might not be ready, or you just may need to try a different school like we did.

Remember, there is no rush!! Trust the instincts God gave you as a mom. Enjoy watching your child succeed in his new adventure!

You may want to read my post: 10 Things to Say to Preschoolers to Give Them Courage and Confidence. I tell you how to prepare your child for new adventures.

10 Things to Say to Preschoolers 1

Thanks for stopping by! Please like, share and pin if this information has been helpful to you!

4 Things Great Moms Do – Lessons from the Life of Mary

My second child was due on Christmas Eve. It made me feel kind of like Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Knowing how big and uncomfortable I would be during the whole month of December, I had all my Christmas shopping done by Thanksgiving (the first and only time that ever happened!).

After that was out of the way, I had time to ponder what it must have been like for that young girl two thousand years ago. Mary was expecting a child when she wasn’t married.

Scandalous. Miraculous.

Gabriel the archangel announced the coming of her baby, Jesus, and said that Mary was highly favored, blessed, chosen. Different from all the rest.

We only hear a few things about Mary’s life after Jesus was born. But they are enough to give us a glimpse into what kind of mother she became. The unique girl that God chose to be the mother of the Messiah must have some things to teach us about motherhood.

Here are four things that Mary did, and that we can do, to be great moms.

4 Things Great Moms Do

1. Provide a comforting presence in tough times

Your undivided, caring attention is what your children need most when times are tough for them. Put down the phone, stop everything, look into their eyes, give a hug. They need you really present with them, not just in the room.

We know Mary was a comforting presence at the cross when Jesus was dying (John 19:26).

A scene from the movie The Passion of the Christ shows us a couple of things that might also have taken place in Mary’s life as a mom.

In this scene, we watch Jesus carrying the cross down the narrow street in Jerusalem. He was struggling, in agony. Soldiers were trying to move him along with whips and the jeering crowd was yelling insults.

Jesus’ friends had abandoned him, except for a few that looked on sheepishly from a distance. Mary, grief-stricken, stood nearby trying not to watch her son drag himself to an early death.

As he’s straining to take each step, Jesus stumbles under the burden of the heavy cross. In that moment, we see a flashback from Mary’s perspective.

In the memory, Jesus is about two years old. He’s running along a dusty street in Nazareth and suddenly, he stumbles and falls.

A young mother at the time, Mary hurries to his side, like most mothers would. She lifts the crying toddler into her arms and rocks him reassuringly, saying, “I’m here”.

Now it’s Good Friday. Mary watches her grown son stagger and fall to the ground. His body is beaten and battered. He’s exhausted and weak.

Pushing through the chaos of the crowd, Mary rushes to his side, just as she did so many times when he was small. She crouches down next to him to comfort him. Once again, she whispers, “I’m here”.

I could relate to the profound distress Mary would have been feeling. I cried my eyes out the first time I watched that part of the movie! It’s what every loving mother feels when her children are enduring pain.

Even knowing ahead of time that being a mom means experiencing your child’s pain as they do, doesn’t diminish it. Mary was once told clearly and directly that she would suffer along with Jesus.

When she and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to be circumcised at eight days old, a prophet, Simeon had said to her,

“Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed – and a sword will pierce even your own soul – to the end that thoughts from many may be revealed”. (Luke 2: 34-35 NASB)

Our first instinct when our children are hurting is to make it all better. However, sometimes we can’t prevent their difficulties, nor should we.

We feel helpless, but it’s through difficulties that our children learn endurance, patience, independence, problem-solving and other valuable character traits that will prepare them for future challenges.

Most importantly, in hard seasons, our kids have the opportunity to trust God for themselves.

Even Jesus, the perfect Son of God, learned obedience through the things that he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)

Mary wasn’t supposed to prevent her son’s suffering and death on the cross, but she was there with her comforting presence. Maybe even whispering a quiet, “I’m here”. (John 19:25)

Your children need your warm, comforting presence more than anything when they are struggling and challenged.

2. Hope in God, not in outcomes

Optimism is the expectation of positive life circumstances. For instance, an optimistic person expects to avoid things like life-threatening diseases, serious accidents, etc.

None of us wants to suffer and we especially don’t want our children to suffer. However, life is difficult and bad things happen. That’s why we need hope, not just optimism.

Hope is trust in the fact that the love of God holds fast regardless of our tough situations.

God rules the world with benevolence and is watching carefully to work all things together for the good of those who love him and are his. (Romans 8:28)

If we are simply optimistic, challenges can derail us. If we’re truly hopeful in God’s care and concern no matter the situation, nothing can.

Mary was a hopeful, young girl and trusted God when she heard the fantastic messages about Jesus’ future. Gabriel said,

“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” (Luke 1:32-33 NASB)

Did Mary expect that Jesus would reign on a physical throne in Jerusalem? Most of his followers did. What a disappointment for those whose optimistic expectations weren’t met.

From what we can tell, Mary, was not angry at God or let down when Jesus didn’t reign on a physical throne in Jerusalem.

From the very beginning, we read that she trusted God for even the most unbelievable thing – that a virgin could bear a child.

It’s evident that she trusted God for the rest of the story as well, even when things seemed bleak. After Jesus died, he rose again and is reigning on a heavenly throne. Her hope in God’s word and his love was rewarded.

We naturally have positive expectations for great futures for our kids – and we should. However, life doesn’t go the way we desire, how will we respond?

If we hope in God’s love and his good plan, we have a rock-solid foundation. Despite any of the challenges that we and our children will face in life – sickness, accidents, relationship trouble – this foundation will never crumble.

3. Listen and learn

Several years ago, when I was going through a particularly tough time, one of my sons sent me a song called, “Believe Me Now” by Steven Curtis Chapman.

It’s a song that reminds us that we can believe God’s promises no matter what. It was exactly the reminder I needed at that moment. It touched my heart deeply and changed my perspective from fear to faith.

Jesus was Mary’s son, but also her Teacher.

Once when Jesus was teaching a large crowd, someone told him that his mother and brothers were outside trying to get in. Instead of bringing them front and center, Jesus said,

“My mother and brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:19-21)

In our culture that sounds harsh but was it? Maybe Mary had begun to understand that Jesus was born for a mission that was far beyond her family.

He was her savior as well as her son. The Bible tells us that she was a believer in Jesus as Messiah with the rest of the disciples. (Acts 1:14)

Even small children can say and do things that teach us important lessons. If we’ll humble ourselves and listen, God can use them to give us encouragement, insight and comfort.

Our children might even grow up to be people who change the world with their unique gifting and calling. We can be the first in line to benefit from all they will offer.

4. Let go a little at a time

The moment your child is born you have to start letting go.

It’s not that obvious during the first few years since our kids are so dependent on us. But once they start to venture out into the world, even if it’s only to preschool, we face a challenge.

We have to trust that they will be all right in the care of others. We have to trust that we have given them the tools to navigate on their own.

One day they are learning how to tie their own shoes. Blink and you’re giving them the car keys. Blink again and they’re moving out!

Each step is a challenge for them and for us.

When the angel Gabriel came to Mary with the baby announcement, she knew Jesus would be like no other child ever conceived. However, she still had to learn day by day that his calling and mission superseded his role as her son.

When Jesus was twelve, he stayed behind by himself in the temple at Jerusalem after the feast. His parents frantically searched for days for him after they realized he was missing from the traveling caravan.

When they found him, he was surprised that they didn’t know where he would be. He had to be in his Father’s house. (Luke 2:41-50) He was on a mission from God.

Mary had to let go.

About ten years later, Jesus told the listening crown that whoever hears his words and does them are his family, not just those he grew up with. (Luke 8:19-21)

Mary had to let go.

On that dark Good Friday, Mary’s first-born was fulfilling the purpose for his life which was announced by Gabriel decades before.

He was dragging his cross up to a lonely hill. He was dying, just as he planned.

Mary had to let go.

Our children are gifts from God, but they don’t really belong to us. They belong to God and he has a reason for their lives above and beyond the blessing they bring to our families.

They have a mission from God.

Mary Mindset

Mary was the most important mother who ever walked the face of the earth. Yet, in many ways, she was a mother just like us. She felt the same love, joy, fears, concerns and helplessness that we all do.

Mary learned to mother well. She’s a strong, loving, faithful example that we can look to for guidance on our own journey of motherhood.

The famous Serenity Prayer fits this “Mary mindset” perfectly.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as he did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that he will make all things right

if I surrender to his will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with him
forever in the next.

-Reinhold Niebuhr

I would love to hear the lessons you’ve learned as a mother. Please comment below.

If this post has been helpful, please share!

5 Simple Steps to Cutting Your Holiday Stress

Is Holiday Stress Inevitable?

The holidays can be stressful! And they’re starting earlier and earlier every year, like in September, have you noticed?

That means that the stress can start earlier as well.

I searched the internet for “holiday stress” to find advice. The articles I came across were more about what to do once you’re already stressed out, rather than how to avoid the stress in the first place. But it doesn’t’ have to be that way!

We can reduce the holiday stress by doing a few simple things before the holidays run us over!

Some simple preparation and focusing on what’s most important will go a long way to preventing that anxiety from taking the joy out of the season!

5 Steps to Cutting Holiday Stress

5 Simple Steps To Cutting Your Holiday Stress:

Step #1 → Remember the Reason for the Season

Whether you’re celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas or some other special day, remember why. It’s not really about gifts, parties or food!

Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on Christmas. He was born over 2000 years ago in an ordinary stable in a small town and laid in the animals’ feeding trough to sleep. Though he was King of Kings, he came as a humble child.

This scene of peace is meant to point us to the Savior of the world. We celebrate his birth because of what his coming to earth meant for the world – salvation. Not just at Christmas, but always.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:1)

Whichever reason for the season means the most to you, if you keep it in the forefront of your mind, the stress of the season is less likely to overwhelm.

Step #2 → Schedule Family Times First

Schedule dates for your own family traditions and gatherings before committing to other holiday events. That way, it’s less likely these cherished family events don’t get pushed out by a company party you have to attend or a church volunteering commitment.

Your children will treasure these special family times forever!

You might also be interested in my 20 Fun and Meaningful Holiday Family Traditions for some ideas for memories you can create.

Step #3 → Schedule Outside Events After Family Events

  • Make sure everyone in the family is aware of the schedule, so you don’t overbook and stress out!
  • Post a physical calendar in a common location, so it’s in plain view every day.

I found a fun calendar that’s also super practical: Sandra Boynton’s Mom’s Family Calendar.

The days are in horizontal lines, instead of little squares, giving plenty of room to add everyone’s important happenings!

Click here for a closer look!

Mom’s Family Wall Calendar 2019 – $9.98

Here are some of the activities that you might need to add to your calendar during the holidays:

  • Parties with friends
  • School productions
  • School parties
  • Special religious services
  • Volunteering
  • Work-related parties
  • Vacation days
  • Extended family gatherings and more!

Step #4 → Prepare Meals Ahead and Freeze Them for Busy Nights

Make a double batch of dinner for several nights and freeze half. Then all you have to do is defrost!

If you really want to get ahead, make a couple of weeks or a month’s worth and glide right through the holidays!

Here’s a super popular cookbook that takes it to that next level. You can see more here.

Not Your Mother's Make-Ahead and Freeze Cookbook Revised and Expanded Edition by [Fisher, Jessica]
Not Your Mother’s Make-Ahead and Freeze Cookbook

Step #5 → Give Yourself a Break!

Add relaxation, rest and rejuvenation into your schedule.

  • Schedule time that isn’t focused on the season. Not everything has to be holiday-themed! Take a break.
  • Exercise. It’s a stress-reducer, especially if you can get outside and enjoy the fresh air and beauty around you at the same time.
  • Don’t trade sleep for tasks. Your body needs good rest to replenish its stores of energy. Pare down the schedule if it’s interfering.
  • Eat well. We sometimes grab what’s in front of us when we’re busy and it’s usually not that healthy. Keep fresh fruits, veggies and nuts around for energy-giving snacks.
  • Relax. Get a quick 15-minute shoulder and neck massage while you’re at the mall or schedule and hour! Or, click here to treat yourself to one of these so the gift just keeps giving! My son gave me one of these neck massagers this year and it’s an oasis of relaxation!

Massagers for Neck and Back with Heat  $64.95

  • Remind yourself that you’re not in a competition. In many ways, our culture has manufactured the stress of the holidays. You don’t have to participate in the race!
  • Accept that you can’t do it all. It’s just not humanly possible to accomplish everything on the to-do list before Christmas. It’s OK!
  • Enjoy! laugh and have fun as much as you can. If your kids are small, ignore their tantrums (they get stressed, too) an focus on the wonder.

Hope these 5 Simple Steps To Cutting Stress Out of Your Holidays have helped you!

If so, would you please share this post? Thank you!

See also:  20 Fun and Meaningful Holiday Family Traditions

I’d love to hear some of the ways you cut stress during holidays in the comments below.

20 Fun and Meaningful Christmas Traditions

One of the best things about the Christmas season is the memorable things we do year after year. Our Christmas traditions.

Large and expensive or small and free, it doesn’t matter. They are meaningful because they’re shared with those we love.

We count on our Christmas family traditions to bring us together with those who mean the most to us.

When my first son was small, we started the tradition of fixing hot cocoa, bundling up and driving around looking at the Christmas lights and decorations in our city.

I can still see the little redhead in his car seat in the back, pointing in awe while taking an occasional sip of his lukewarm cocoa from his sippy cup.

When our second son arrived, he joined in. His first word was “light”, which came out more like “ight” and he, too, marveled at the “ights” at Christmas.

Truth be told, a couple of decades later, we’re still doing the drive. I make the cocoa or we go to the local coffee shop and get it. Either way, it’s a tradition. We’re just waiting for the next generation to join in.

Because I love Christmas family traditions, I thought I’d offer a few ideas in case you’d like to start some of your own or add some more to your list!

20 Fun and Meaningful Christmas Traditions

20 Christmas Traditions

#1- Cut your own Christmas tree and then go to a great family restaurant

When I was a kid, we lived not far from hundreds of tree farms. After we’d choose our tree, we’d eat dinner at a restaurant called Negri’s. It’s an old school Italian restaurant which has been in operation since 1943.

What wow’d me as a child was that they serve 1/2 ducks. Plus you also got minestrone, a mixed green salad, antipasto, ravioli, salami and French bread. My Italian genes (20% according to Ancestry) were in heaven!

The warm memory of those incredible meals after choosing the perfect tree is one of my best childhood memories.

#2 – DIY Christmas decorations party

Invite the neighbors and have a DIY decorations party. Even the littlest ones can join in with a little preparation!

Check out this fun felt wall hanging Christmas tree with ornaments and gifts that the children stick on themselves! So adorable! You can get a closer look here.

Felt Christmas Tree with 30 Ornaments $15.99

#3 – Hang lights in each child’s bedroom

Kids love having their own rooms decorated for the season.

Aren’t these star curtain lights fun?! Accent lights add a warm ambience to any room and they’re so much easier than hanging outdoor lights if you just want that festive feeling!

Plus, they are perfect to keep up all year! Check them out here.

Twinkle Star 12 Stars 138 LED Curtain String Lights, Window Curtain Lights with 8 Flashing Modes Decoration Christmas, Wedding, Party, Home, Patio Lawn, Warm White
Twinkle Star Window Curtain Lights $22.99

#4 – Cuddle up for a Christmas movie night with popcorn (to string or eat!)

Before you could buy movies for home use, we’d have to wait all year to watch our favorite Christmas movies. Hard to believe!

Now they’re just a click away on Amazon Prime Video.  Here are my favorites (click to download):

Elf

The Santa Claus 

The Polar Express

A Charlie Brown Christmas

And of course, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Be the first to get the new “Illumination Presents: Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” by PREORDERING!

Click here for details.

Illumination Presents: Dr. Seuss' The Grinch
Illumination Presents: Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch DVD $19.99

#5 – Wrap gifts together add one thing you appreciate about the recipient on the tag

We normally wrap a gift and write the simple “To” and “From” tag without much thought. How about adding one thing you appreciate about the recipient?

#6 – Christmas light display drive – with hot chocolate in hand

This is one of my favorite traditions that never expires! My 22 year old still comes with us after doing it for his whole life!

Get your hot chocolate and find the most beautiful displays in your neighborhood.

Here’s a great homemade hot chocolate recipe from Martha Stewart. It’s yummy!

#7 – Go to the movie theater as a family (the best movies come out this time of year)

Some of the very best family movies are released at the holidays. Gather the clan and enjoy the show!

#8 – Watch a live production of The Nutcracker ballet and have tea after

There’s nothing like a live performance of any play, opera or ballet! The Nutcracker is blessed with an incomparable musical score as well. Take the kids and then go have a spot of tea afterwards!

#9 – Ice skate outdoors in the big city nearest you

It doesn’t really get icy in San Francisco, the largest city near us, but every year they form an ice rink downtown for skating. You can skate in relatively warm weather (in the 50’s) around here!

There’s something about going into the city at the holidays with the big department stores all decked out that makes for a memorable experience! Even if you don’t skate, it’s a worthwhile outing.

#10 – Join the local church for Christmas caroling or have your own sing-along

It’s so much fun surprising your neighbors with Christmas carols wafting down the street. This time of year most folks will answer their doors. I’ve even been invited inside! Lots of fun for the whole family.

 

The holidays can be stressful along with all the fun!

Check out this post:

5 Simple Steps to Cutting Your Holiday Stress

 

#11 – Volunteer at a toy drive distribution or wrapping

When the fire department holds toy drives, they often need help wrapping the gifts.  Why not join in? This is an easy activity and it connects us to our community.

#12 – Serve meals at the local homeless shelter

Serving food to those who have less than we do is wonderful to do with the older children in your house. It will teach them service and gratitude.

There is nothing like getting a little more persona with those that we sometimes just pass by on the street corner.

#13 – Read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol is the quintessential, classic Christmas story that everyone should read (besides seeing the movie)!

It gives us the lessons of appreciating what we have, those who love us and teaches us about the blessings of generosity.

This edition of A Christmas Carol is just released and includes holiday recipes from some favorite chefs:

Giada de Laurentiis, Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, and Trisha Yearwood!

Click here to get a closer look.

Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol: A Book-to-Table Classic (Puffin Plated)
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: A Book-to-Table Classic Hardcover $16.09

#14 – Read the Christmas story together on Christmas eve

Here’s a favorite Usborne Nativity Flap Book to give kids 3+ an introduction to the Nativity, the birth of Christ.

Click Here to see this title.

See many more books in for every age and interest at my bookshop: www.blaircottagebooks.com.

Picture of Nativity Flap Book

#15 – Go to the grocery store together, choose non-perishable foods and drop them off at your local food bank

Children love to make their own choices and what better than to have them choose food to give to others this year?

Even a three-year-old can choose food for those in need. Buy canned goods, rice, beans and other staples.

#16 – Camp out under the Christmas tree

Since camping is out of the question during the winter months, why not haul out the sleeping bags and camp out under the Christmas tree one night?

The twinkling lights will act like night lights to make it feel safe. If the younger ones get scared, they can always crawl into their cozy beds.

#17- Set up a nativity scene and talk about each piece

Purchase a nativity set with the stable, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the animals and shepherds.

Set up the scene and discuss the significance of each piece for a lesson in the true meaning of Christmas. This set I found is one of the loveliest I’ve seen.

It will be treasured for years to come with its 16 detailed figures and stable and even the gold, frankincense and myrrh!

Click here for details.

Deluxe Edition 16 Piece 10 Inch Christmas Nativity Set with Real Frankincense Gold and Myrrh.

#18 – Take a photo with Santa – with the entire family

Why should the kids get all the fun? As long as you’re all waiting in that long line, you might as well get in the picture.

Besides, it’s one way to be sure you get your yearly family portrait!

#19 – Listen to a live performance of Handel’s Messiah

Anyone who has been to hear Handel’s Messiah will attest to the heavenly experience it is.

A bit long for younger children (under eight), but it is a unique opportunity for older children to hear classical music at its finest with the spirit of Advent theme.

Local choirs usually put on a performance during December.

#20 – Attend a Christmas Eve or other service at a different place of worship than your own

I have clear memories of our midnight mass on Christmas eve at our Catholic church in the neighborhood where I grew up.

It was the only time I ever stayed up that late! Which meant it was a special occasion, for sure.

There was a hush over the congregation as the priest read the gospel story of Jesus’ birth.

We now attend a church that is much different, but occasionally I like to visit somewhere different and be reminded that there are many ways to worship.


Whatever your Christmas traditions, may they bring your family closer together, give them a sense of community and teach them more about their faith.

Please share this post if it’s been helpful to you!  

I’d love to hear about your own family traditions in the comments below!

How to Be Free to Be You This Thanksgiving

My bloodline is filled with men and women who lived and breathed their passion and determination to be free.

They didn’t just complain about their state of affairs, like I’ve been known to do, they nearly moved heaven and earth to change them.

William Bradford, of Plymouth Colony fame, came to our continent on the Mayflower in 1620 after suffering religious persecution in England. You know the story.

If you’d like to read the book William Bradford wrote  called Of Plymouth Plantation, you can purchase by clicking HERE. It is the primary historical document from that time.

Those early colonists must have been driven, not only by the desire to escape persecution, but a primal drive to live without any restraint, out from under tyranny.

To say it was tough in Plymouth Colony is an understatement.  Many of those who survived the treacherous sea voyage didn’t last much longer than that.

William Bradford’s wife was one who didn’t make it.

That disastrous first year was followed by many more like it, interspersed with some that were relatively calm by comparison. The Thanksgiving celebration was in gratitude to God and their new friends, the native Americans, for the bountiful harvest in 1621 which followed their first year of sickness, hunger and death.

William Bradford
William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth, was one of 53 who survived the first winter in the New World and my 13th great grandfather.

I marvel at those colonists’ fortitude, grit, tenacity and dedication to what they believed God wanted them to do in this utterly, literally foreign land.

Find freedom.

A part of it, I’m sure, was just that they had no choice but to make it work.  Returning to England was not an option.

They were devoted to establishing a community where they could worship, work and raise their families in liberty.  Out from under the thumb of a dictatorial leader.

William Bradford is my 13th great grandfather.

As I follow the long line down our family tree to me, I find many others like him who sacrificed everything to follow their callings, their hopes, their dreams.

There was something in them, as I think there is in all of us, that screams out for freedom.

Not screaming in rebellion against God or the law of the land.  But for freedom to be who they were born to be.

We are all on this quest to one degree or another. This year I’ve finally found a place of more acceptance of myself, but I still have a long way to go.

Like the Pilgrims, I think we all long for the freedom to express the convictions and values that mean the most to us, such as freedom of religion, justice, integrity, faithfulness and hard work.

It’s usually not difficult expressing ideas that are historically in the mainstream. When we know that there are at least a few people who agree with us, it’s strengthening and emboldening.

On an another level, closer to home than our general opinions on politics or that bad call the referee made against our team on the last play, I believe we are also created to manifest those things that make us uniquely us.

Things like our tastes, preferences, gifts, talents, desires, hopes and dreams.

However, these personal aspects of ourselves are much harder to reveal to the world – at least they have been for me.

If you go deeper, below the surface, into that place where I stand alone as an individual, unlike anyone else, it can be scary and intimidating for me to expose the unique traits that make up the whole picture of who I am.

This year I started to explore that deeper part of myself and discovered a lot.

I realized that not unlike my ancestor William Bradford, I have been living under a tyranny of sorts.  Under a thumb of pressure and expectation from inside and out.

Some of it is just bad mental programming. Some is self-imposed.

At a very young age I developed what I call “survival thought patterns” that taught me to hide my true self.

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For as far back as I can remember, I didn’t feel that my opinions were valued.  I was not truly “seen” by certain important people in my life.

 

If I were to express a thought or a contrary opinion, I was bullied into shutting up or agreeing, or both.

Even as a very small child, I remember having something important to share and being laughed at, misunderstood or ignored.

My reaction to that would sometimes be to get angry because of my frustration at not being taken seriously. Not being heard. That reaction was met with angry punishment.

So, I learned to hide my true self.

I became a chronic underachiever, afraid to express my gifts for fear that they would be minimized, disdained or worse, ignored.

This year I’ve discovered these things and more about my past.

I’ve looked at the difficulty that I had processing my childhood challenges from a different perspective. I see the fallout and how the lifelong, negative, self-critical thought patterns were birthed back then.

It has been enlightening and life-changing and now, I’m ready to move on!

“I’m coming out!” as the song says, and I’m excited.

It’s not that I’m about to start showing off or flaunting anything. I’m not going crazy with it here!

I have no desire to show “the world out there” that I’m actually quite special.

It’s not about getting back at those who could have shown appreciation for my uniqueness when I was an innocent child.

All it is is this: I’m looking forward to becoming the ME God made me to be.

The me that likes to live outside the box, against the flow of current culture.

The me who is the introvert that craves solitude but also loves people.

The girl who is smart and capable and caring.

The lifelong student who loves to learn and enjoys a challenge (even when it’s scary), and has done a bunch of different stuff in her life because of that.

This freedom means breaking off and casting away the old, useless, debilitating armor that I no longer require.

Free Happy Woman Enjoying Nature. Beauty Girl Outdoor. Freedom c

It’s deprogramming my brain from the limiting thought patterns and reprogramming it with eternal ones.

Thoughts that say that I accept and believe that I have intrinsic value.

Value that is not based on performance or obedience to a tyrant for whom good enough never is.

I deeply, in my heart, accept that I am indescribably precious and treasured just because of the beautiful, gifted, unique daughter of God that I am.

There is no more comparison of myself to others, no evaluation, no self-critique.

Just acceptance of what was and what is and anticipation of what can be.

I have a new freedom this Thanksgiving and I’m grateful.  What’s true about me is true about you. I hope you find your freedom, too!

 

 

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Here are a couple of the books that have helped me tremendously on this journey and I highly recommend them!

Charles L. Whitfield, M.D., Healing the Child Within

Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame

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