Monday, December 29, 2008

Essay on Giving

I've been pondering giving a lot through the Christmas season and especially now that Christmas is over. I wanted to blog about this to get my thoughts out of my head and written down--helps to solidify what one is thinking. I'm a transparent person, so I'm going to share with you something that I've dealt with heavily this Christmas: a bad attitude. Now, I know I'm not alone and I know that millions of people become Scrooge's at Christmas. Interesting, isn't it, that the holidays--a time of supposed peace and goodwill toward others--turns into an ugly, grumpy, and awful time for some. I'm not naming names, but I know some folks who would rather be hung upside-down by their toe nails, than get into the "Christmas spirit."

Why is this?

Like I said, I even faced some Bah humbug type attitudes myself, this Christmas, and I am usually so excited and thrilled with the holiday time. I think part of it is people get sick of the consumerism that is so rampant in our culture. *Buy* this, you *need* that, I *want* this, my kids *must* have that. Yeah, that can really rub folks the wrong way. Then again, no one is putting a gun to anyone's head making you spend X amount of money or buy a million useless things.

But if I'm honest, some negative attitudes creeped into my thought life this Christmas. I hate to admit it, but I even resented some of the present buying I had to do. <-----If you look carefully in that last sentence, you will see what I have now identified as the crux of the whole problem. No, it's not the resented part. Look closer. It's the tail end of the sentence....the "I had to do" part. That pesky little obligation bug can sneak in and rob one of all the Christmas joy they ever had. My husband is a very wise man. As I struggled and hemmed and hawed this Christmas he repeatedly and rightly told me that if I'm buying presents for someone or groups of someone's purely out of obligation, then it would be better for me not to buy anything at all. I fussed at him that he doesn't understand, he doesn't get it, he has an easy time saying that as he's not the designated one in the family to buy all these gifts. And yet, he is and was right. See, the thing is that one will never, ever, ever, ever be a good gift giver, and enjoy Christmas, until one truly cares and loves the giftee. I want to go into this deeper, so bear with me. Think back to when you were a kid. The particulars of how you celebrated Christmas (i.e. Santa/Santa is evil; opening gifts on Christmas Eve vs. Day; etc.) isn't important. Just think back to how awesome it was to open presents from loved ones....and to receive really awesome gifts. Maybe it was *just* what you wanted or a special thing someone made for you or maybe it was something that you totally never dreamed your parents could afford or would get you. How great was that? I know in my memories of Christmases past, I think back to waking up on Christmas morning with my brother Jason and seeing all the shiny new things laid out by my mom just so. I remember getting new clothes and girly things like jewelry and toys to play with that me and my brother just could not believe (like the nintendo way back when they first came out!). I remember saying over and over "thank you so much" to my parents and hugging their necks thinking how awesome it was that they loved us this much to give us all this awesome stuff. Now, right here, you may be tempted to go down that familiar path of stuff=excess/evil/too much/insert bad characteristic. Please don't do that yet...hear me out!

True, stuff doesn't equal love. True, kids can have wonderful Christmases without loads of "stuff." True, sometimes stuff gets in the way of the "true meaning of Christmas." But sometimes gifts are really a blessing. Sometimes all that stuff is a wonderful way to show someone you love them or care for them. Sometimes that someone may not even *gasp* deserve it (do any of us deserve anything?). What better way to follow Christ's example than to bestow on them something they don't deserve? I mean, isn't that the whole root reason we give gifts at Christmas time anyway?? To commemorate the ultimate gift of our Savior's incarnation on earth and ultimate redemption of man? Gifts are getting a bad rap (no pun intended) and unknowingly, I've been party to that, but no longer!

I'm know I'm getting long-winded here, but there is more. When Jason and I first got married, I was so against the typical American celebration of Christmas. Believe it or not, I even fought him over putting up a Christmas tree! I have since mellowed out quite a bit from those over-zealous days, thanks again to very wise counsel from my dear husband. ***disclaimer: if you convictionally do not put up a tree or celebrate Christmas in the way that most Americans do, that's your business and I do not sit in judgement.

Anyway, I had all these ideas about how to celebrate Christmas that I thought were super spiritual or right. And truth be told, it is still something we ponder as a family often. We were discussing this very thing with our friend Neal the other does one celebrate and honor the birth of Christ and really let that take precedence and also balance the cultural norms of our day? It is difficult, no doubt about it, and Neal had some great ideas, such as serving, as a family, at a mission or giving some of our own treasured things to a family in need. He also mentioned the whole planning aspect of gift giving and how that really makes a difference in one's approach to celebrating Christmas. Ultimately, I think it all goes back to attitude. Which leads me back to me and my sour one during parts of this Christmas.

Thankfully, God began to speak to me regarding this issue, right before Christmas. He's still showing me stuff, and believe me, I'm ever grateful! The reason it was so wonderful to open those presents from loved ones? Because it was a gift given out of love. It all boils down to this: a person will never have true joy at Christmas time until he or she first has the joy that comes from knowing Christ and second has the joy in *giving* to others.

It is a selfless thing.

A selfish person will be angry the he has to dip into his savings to give obligatory gifts to his friends/family/coworkers or whatever. A selfish person will be resentful when she thinks of all the work she has to do to cook and clean for visitors coming in her home. A selfish person will think of every possible way to spend as absolutely little as possible for someone--not because he/she is frugal or struggling financially, but because he/she wants to keep more $$ for himself. Before you get all huffy about this point, let me clarify. I'm as big of a thrifter as Mrs. Tightwad Gazette herself, and there is nothing, I mean absolutely nothing wrong with homemade or baked gifts (I sure made a lot myself!), but if a person has plenty of money, but is simply stingy and selfish, then yeah, that's what I'm talking about. It all goes back to attitude. A gift can be homemade, free, cost little or cost a lot, but if the attitude is resentment, anger, or the ever present obligation....then that gift is in vain.

So God began to reveal to me that I had a self problem. It wasn't about the money, either, as about half our gifts were homemade and more in the "labor of love" category. I had a self problem that is only remedied by realizing that God freely gave to me--an undeserving, unworthy recipient--knowing that there is absolutely no possible way for me to EVER reciprocate. Which brings me to the next lesson on giving:

Reciprocation is not the example Christ set for us.

If one is giving a gift because he/she thinks someone will reciprocate in like fashion, then one is missing the mark. Christ coming to earth, Christ becoming sin and being punished for our salvation, can never, ever be reciprocated. If you somehow believe you can give enough back to God in thanksgiving or whatever, to somehow earn your salvation....well, email me. We have some talkin' to do. :) It's the same for gift giving. A gift given in expectation of a gift received will be given in vain and will not be joyfully given. This "reciprocation" idea robs people (myself at times included) of joy at Christmas.

So God is teaching me that instead of looking at my gift list with a selfish, obligatory, or reciprocal attitude, I should look at it as an awesome opportunity to bless those on it. My gifts could be free, homemade, cost a little or a lot. As long as I am giving them as a response to the ultimate example of Christ's love, and as an act of blessing these individuals, then I will have true JOY at Christmas time.

Thinking back to those gifts you have opened from a loved one....think about a person that you know that is just really good at getting gifts. Someone who always seems to get just what you wanted or something you could really use or something that just puts a smile on your face. I'm not talking about the person who throws a gift at you that is clearly a result of his/her "duty" and is so totally not something you could ever use or would ever want...I'm talking about the person who you know deep down has no thought of you even being able to "return the favor." The person who smiles from somewhere inside at the knowledge that you are loved and that they are happy to be blessing you. I used to think these people were somehow talented at gift giving and I was somehow lacking that talent. I used to say things like, "I'm just not good at gift giving" or "so and so is just such a good gift giver." And I used to think that simply having lots of money on hand made one a "good" gift giver . We know this isn't true as some of the stingiest folks are those with gobs of money. Ever seen the statistics on those who donate? Yeah, usually the lower economic class. Interesting, isn't it?

But I realized this Christmas that those people are not especially gifted (again no pun intended, hahaha) or talented or endowed some special "gift" ability. No, they just *get* gift giving. They are selfless people. They really love the folks they are giving to. They actually *think* about the person and spend time considering what that person might actually like or be blessed by receiving. I aspire to be like these wonderful, selfless people.

One final point to conclude this hugely long essay on giving, lol. How to respond to gifts given? Thinking again to the ultimate example of Christ, and knowing there is nothing we can do to reciprocate this precious gift, the best way to receive a gift--including our lives in Christ--is to relish in the pleasure of knowing Him, and likewise, simply enjoy the gift/s given by others. This has been a hard concept for me to grasp over the years that I've been married. See, many times I would be stressed when Aunt Linda would give us $100 for Christmas, or Uncle Joe that I didn't get any present for, would give our entire family really nice gifts. I would think "oh no, they got us a gift and I didn't do anything! What are they gonna think? Next year I'll get them a really nice gift." Etc., unto infinity. I would stress myself out thinking about these things and actually feel bad and miss the point completely that Aunt Linda or Uncle Joe were simply wanting to bless our family. The best way to love them and receive those gifts, was to enjoy them! And let them know just how much we enjoyed them. It's slowly starting to sink in. Now some folks do not give in the spirit of Aunt Linda and Uncle Joe, true, but you know what I mean.

In conclusion, I'm really, genuinely looking forward to next Christmas. I know it isn't even January yet, but I am! I'm excited to think about the people on my Christmas list and what would be a real blessing to them. I'm excited that God is teaching me more and more self sacrifice--something I'm sure I will be learning 'til the day I die. I'm excited that next Christmas I can put into real practice some of these lessons. I'm excited that instead of being a slave to a negative attitude, I've been freed by the ultimate sacrifice of God to have real JOY at Christmas and to experience the peace and goodwill toward others that Christmas represents.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Simply having a wonderful ChristmasTime

(I could not resist this Playmobil Nativity set on clearance at Target yesterday)
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas

This Christmas was different, no doubt about it....we had 75 degree weather on Christmas Day, a huge Christmas Eve family party, and not one but TWO Christmas trees. The kids have had a blast celebrating this holiday with cousins, grandparents, and Aunts and Uncles galore and so have we enjoyed actually having quite the selection of family parties and visits this December. But it has also been a bit sad for me. I miss the snow of the Northeast and the frigid temperatures (yes, even those). I miss sitting by the fire and drinking hot cocoa and trying to stay warm. But mostly, I miss my dear, dear friends from the past almost 8 years we spent living away from MS. There is nothing quite like having a white Christmas, or walking on 5th Avenue in Manhattan seeing all the lights and Christmas displays. I'll never forget freezing my tail off one particular crazy December, waiting for.ever in the freezing cold for the lighting of the Rockerfeller Christmas Tree. That's another post for another day. Heh. Anyhow, I guess Christmas reminds me most of all our dear friends that were like family in both NY and RI. I'm an emotional sort of gal, so just pardon me for waxing nostagic while I think of Christmases past.

Here's the Christmas tree in all it's glory:

The kids talked me into getting this ginormous tree based on the fact that our living room has cathedral ceilings and can fit a huge tree. Me being a complete and total sucker when it comes to the kids, of course, said yes. The very nice man at Lowes even tied this bad boy right to van--climbed up on top and everything. I tipped him well. See, Jason was working and would not have time to help us get the tree for several days and me and the children just couldn't wait.

I love decorating a Christmas tree. I mean, I LOVE it. When Jason and I first got married I thought that he would have as much love as I did in decorating the tree, but quickly discovered that while he enjoyed looking at the completed results, he really didn't get into it like I did. So that has been my job every year and with the addition of each child, it gets more and more fun! This year, Hayden came over and helped since this tree was especially large. As you can see, I don't have a "theme" tree or any special way to decorate's way more fun to let the kids put the ornaments on and go for it! We were married 6 weeks before Christmas in 1999 and one sweet, dear lady from our church knew that we had zero Christmas ornaments and zero $$ for said Christmas ornaments, so she loaded us up with about 10 boxes of plain glass ball ornaments she had lying around. Do you know that those have become my favorite ornaments? We love to deck the tree with all the glass balls we can. Yes, we lose a few every year, but they are cheap enough to be easily replaced.
We also have a collection of German ornaments that have come from my brother David while he served in the military there over the past few years. These are also treasured and fun to see each year.
Another thing I love about our tree are the homemade paper cones with chocolates in them. As I said earlier, I have no rhyme or reason to tree decorating. I'm of a mind to hang everything you can on a tree. So one year ( I think 3 years ago) I got the idea to get pretty craft paper and make victorian-like paper cones with ribbon and fill with chocolate to hang on the tree. These cones have held up well and are so fun for the kids to see mysteriously filling through the holidays. I just love it! I have been known to save little tiny sheer present bags with drawstrings and hang those on the tree the next year with presents in them. Don't tell anybody how crazy I am! I guess I just love the fun of "finding" goodies in the tree.

I love the smell of Christmas greens. I have candles scented in these wonderful Christmas smells, but nothing really beats the true scent of a Christmas tree and greenery. I don't like the fake stuff, either. We tried an artificial tree for two years and it felt so...well, artificial. I know, I know....real trees are dangerous and definitely not cost effective, but I just. can't. help. it. I love a real tree. I love to make boughs and garland and wreaths out of real greenery. This year I discovered that Lowes and Home Depot collect the trimmings from trees they sell and "shape" and let you take them for free. Score! So I loaded up a van full twice to decorate the house. It was fun. I am by no means an expert at this, but there is something so nice about seeing your own handmade decorations hanging on doors and mantels, etc. It makes me think of the way things must've been done in olden times.

This is the "kid's Tree"--We hang out mostly in the den and sadly, the big tree was in the Living room. So.....not much time was spent enjoying the big tree. I decided late into the season that we needed a tree for the den and the kid's really wanted to decorate one all by themselves. Trees like this go on sale for $5 at walmart about a week before Christmas.

This is a picture of the children right before Christmas. I love my kids so much. There is just nothing that compares to being a mother and having these beautiful children in my life---I'm so incredibly blessed by them.

This next set of pictures is cousin Hayden and cookie baking night. We had a Blast! Hayden was lamenting the fact that flour kept getting all over his "good" shirt, so I found him a child's apron, which led to finding a child's play chef hat. He is quite the baker and rolled, cut, and loaded up cookie sheets faster than I could retrieve them from the oven. We turned up the Christmas music really loud and danced the whole way through, too. It was such a fun night!

So this next set of pictures is the Christmas Eve party, aka Kid Bash 08! I wish I had taken pictures of the total MOUNTAIN of presents, but I was busy in the kitchen. We had so much food, I'm sure 100 people could have eaten. Thanks to a kind family in our church, we had a wonderful honey baked ham that I didn't have to worry about cooking. It was delicious. We also had every sort of cheesy goodness casserole, rice casseroles, dips, spreads, you know....the same stuff you probable had. It was all so good and fun to be around Jason's family this Christmas. The tv vascilated between "A Christmas Story" and "It's A Wonderful Life," both my favorites.

I thought I lost Judder there for a moment in all the chaos of present opening. But we found him. Here he is on his new truck. The next picture is him playing with a top that was baby Reese's present. He's a present snatcher.

Mason playing with the playmobil

Emmy playing with Dori's dollhouse. I think she stayed in there most of the night. :)

Noah and Kelsey

Jason making Reese cry, lol.

Christmas morning came TOO early. Like 5:45am early. I am the one who usually sets everything up and fills stockings, so I waited patiently for the kids to fall asleep. This process took a lot longer than usual because the children were wired from our Christmas party. It took even longer, because Dori kept coughing and gagging and sputtering and so had to get up every 30 minutes to go to the bathroom. Let's just say it was a long night. I think she finally made it to bed and got to sleep around 1am. Whew. I won't say what time I finally hit the sack. Christmas morning they all piled in bed with us (except Judson) and were as excited as you can imagine.
I don't have many Christmas morning pictures, because the truth is I was so delirious and sleepy from the night before that I forgot to take much. I actually think these pictures were taken by Jason....I don't really remember, lol, such a haze.

This is Micah playing the new Wii. He fell on the floor in dramatic fashion when he realized we had gotten one for them. Papa Neal is to thank for that!

More weapons for James

James couldn't take anymore by about 4pm. So funny, he's cuddled up with his light saber.

I made these Native American dress up shirts. The kids wanted some they had seen in a catalogue so badly, but they were super expensive. I had so much fun making these and it was so easy. One pack of brown t shirts, a hot glue gun, some beads and ribbon and scissors was all it took and Micah wore his all day on Christmas. The boys both got bows and arrows and a quiver to go with these.

We had a good Christmas. Still enjoying the time together and looking forward to New Years festivities.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dori's musical 8th Birthday party

Every year at about this time, I start to get into the so called "Christmas Spirit" and actually enjoy all the parties, festivities, baking, etc., etc. It takes me this long because that is when I've completed Dori's birthday party. See, December is my most stressful time of year. Dori's birthday is Dec. 7th, Jason's is exactly a week later on the 13th, plus there is Christmas.

This year Dori really wanted a big throw down since we are now living near family. Of course, I was all for this...wanting to give to my child the wonderful experience of having grandparents at a birthday celebration. So....she chose music as her theme (how could I ever deny that??) and we had a good ole' time.

I lament the fact that no one captured a shot of the AWESOME guitarist we had, Stephen Mcneill. When Dori told me she wanted a "Music Party" I knew we had to have live music. Stephen is a friend from church and we play together on the worship band, and I'm forever grateful he was able to play for us and make the whole night that much more awesome. If you are in the area and need a guitarist, get in touch with Stephen! He will be worth it. You can check out his band, Philedelphia here for contact info. I just listened to some of their music and it's very good. Check 'em out! Plus, he has a really cool wife and brand new baby, Ella. Just love that name.

While it was a wee bit...uhm...crazy with all the kids, screaming, squealing, laughing, running, and all that a party entails, it was worth every bit of *crazy* to hear Dori say at the end of the night that it was "the best Birthday she ever had." I can only imagine. I never was able to have both sets of grandparents together for a party when I was younger. I'm so glad we were able to pull this off for my baby girl. Now if I could just turn back the clock a few years....

Aunt Amanda got this beautiful cake for Dori. I love the staff at the bottom!

We turned the office into a craft room for the girls. They made ornaments and other Christmas-y creations
This was one of the gifts Dori recieved. It's a ceiling tile turned into a bulletin board. What a cute idea!

I had cake duty...Noah ice cream. Noah is very serious about his jobs. Ha!

This is Jason's grandfather. We call him "Big Daddy." I love the hat he is wearing...reminds me of my Dad.

This is Papa Neal and Judson. Judson got punch in his bottle. It was a good day for him, lol.