Friday, January 25, 2013

Parenting Unrehearsed: Family liturgies for Christmas and my mama's rule for feasting

— adj

(of a play, speech, etc) not having been practiced in advance

I might also add off-the-cuff, in no particular order, results may vary.  For six(ish) weeks I'll share here  -- off the top of my head -- a few practices we may have learned in our twenty-one years of parenting four children. 

Chapter 1:  Your Kids Were Supposed to Have Perfect Parents

Chapter 7:

Family liturgies for Christmastide to Epiphany

Why the word "liturgy" instead of "tradition"?

Liturgy is the embodiment of our worship -- the way we act out our response of love for God and each other.   I think it's fair to say that in the same way a sacramental life frames for us within the visible world the loving Presence of an invisible God, a liturgical life frames our visible actions as acts of  loveOn its own, the word "tradition" does not signify the motivation for our actions.  Liturgy -- understood in it's wholeness -- equals action formed of and for a life of loving worship.

Mostly, I want you to know that I chose the tagline "Family liturgies" with an intentional hope that you'd feel encouraged as you form practices of love and worship within your own family.   Our homes a place of worship, our liturgies an expression of love to the Good Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

My December mantra: Christmas is 12 days long!

For four years our family has been learning the daily and seasonal practices of the Church calendar, each one feeling more familiar, normal.  Each year we move further past an experimental knowledge of what living liturgically looks like to a more natural sense of what it feels like.  We begin to carry the prayers, the candles, the fasting and the feasting with a comfortable grasp rather than poking at them as something too other, too precious.

Legalism kills, but order brings life.  And so we're learning to order our days and seasons as a liturgy. We do our best with the truth we know -- pray together as often as possible, giggle at ourselves when we fall asleep on the couch watching Home Alone instead.  We revel in the permission to both feed the hungry homeless as well as the four children grazing at the refrigerator in our own kitchen.  We take delight in the pantry bulging with ingredients for the feast that arrives on Christmas Day.

As the Scriptures and the ancient creeds settle down into the crevices of our understanding we ask Jesus to help us see him on the street corner and in the big box store.  We do our best to purchase our gifts with fair trade vendors, independent artisans and sometimes we  add a few pennies to the Wal-Mart coffers, hoping the money will bless instead of curse.  

We try to go deep down to the roots of the season,  to understand the sayings of the ancient prophets, the early Church fathers, the poets and the hymnwriters from all eras.  We also belly laugh when once again Clark W. Griswold staples his Christmas lights to the roof.  We spend energy in finding the best gifts we can for the people we love.  We also spend a good bit of time pencilling in and handing out our own wish lists.  We do not feel guilt for our wants; instead, we revel in the sheer unneccessary delights of the season. 

In short: We do not take ourselves too seriously.  May I clarify that this is not always our reality? But it is always our hope.  To live out the glimpses of our truest selves spotted in the glow of Advent candlelight. We discover
 this is what it means to hope.

We do our best to live out the four long weeks of waiting for the Celebration, but we also sample  from the holiday already begun outside our front door. The closer we get to the first day of Christmas we shift our energies to full-out celebration, feasting, abundance. 

You'd think the celebrating part would be easier than the waiting.  Like all other spiritual practices, though, celebration comes with its own comforts and challenges.  How do we stay present to the feast without our underdeveloped senses dulling too quickly?  How do we keep a soft, pliable grasp on the delights of Christmas rather than trying to pin the legs of the thing down into some sort of worn-out wonder?

I don't know.  I've only just begun to ask the question.  

Choosing a New Mantra

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” (Dickens)
Each year we watch three or four versions of that great tale of the Scrooge who meets Christmas for the first time.  Like the four Gospel-writers, each version of Dicken's classic places certain parts of the story under the spotlight than the other versions. For example, this brief scene in my secret favorite version -- A Muppets' Christmas Carol. 

On his merry Christmas way to Bob Cratchit's house, laden with gifts of food, Ebenezer Scrooge crosses paths with the charity fundraisers he'd thrown out of his office the day before.  In this version  Michael Caine leans down to whisper in one gentlemen's ear his pledged contribution for the orphans.  In the manner only Muppets can, Bunsen and Beaker express their bug-eyed, fuzzy-head-scratching amazement.  

The scene doesn't end there.  Beaker, a character dispossessed of the ability to speak coherent English, shows his gratitude in the best way he knows.  With his disproportionately large hands he removes a festive red scarf from around his disproportionately long neck  and gives it to the surprised Scrooge.  In the brief close-up of Michael Caine's face we recognize another epiphany -- his gratitude for a second chance to keep Christmas well motivates him not only to gladly give gifts, but also to gladly receive.

"Thank you.  Thank you fifty times."

Gifts as sacrament

In my memory, the moment my brothers, sisters and I walked down the stairs toward the lit tree stands out above all other childhood delights. Like bath-robed, bed-headed little Ebenezers walking into the skirts of the rotund Ghost, we exclaimed astonishment at the abundance before us.  It always felt miraculous -- where the night before sat nothing,  now gloriously displayed something.  A very Grand Something.  We had little idea we were poor and each year our parents removed any hint of the stigma, wrought abundance from scarcity.

Each year on Christmas we tasted the best of a wealth not measured at the cash register but in the creative genius of our mother and father.  Everything was gift and everything given as an affirmation of their delight in us.  

We learned to follow their footsteps, selecting with care just the right trinkets to express our love for our siblings, parents, friends.  Each December when I walk through the grocery store, past the specialty box sets of cheese and sausages the I recall the year I stumbled on the genius plan of piecing together  my very own, less-expensive cheese and cracker and beef stick combination plate for my Hickory Farms-loving brother.  I marvelled then at my own ability to render abundance from scarcity.

Brian and I mark the timeline of our dating relationship by the gifts we gave each other each Christmas.  The first year he made me mix tapes and without embarrassment watched me open them in front of three generations of family gathered in my grandparents' basement.  The year -- further along in our commitment to each other -- I found a perfect winter coat for him at Montgomery Wards and (to this day) could barely contain my excitement at being able to afford such a warm and nurturing gift for this boy-man I adored.  I hoped that as his older siblings and their spouses watched him open the gift, they'd understand that I fully planned on joining their ranks in the not too distant future.

Shame-free gifting

In all those years together not every gift exchange concluded with a happy ending.  One year we laugh about (now) -- another Christmas gathering in my grandparents' basement --  Brian again handed me a gift in front of the rest of family.  I unwrapped the paper to discover the very same delicate glass swans that only a few days earlier I'd mocked when Brian and I were walking through the mall together.  He'd asked my opinion; never suspecting he was guaging my response, I'd told him I thought they were ugly.    For years afterward the fragile pair of birds sat center-stage on my bedroom dresser until one day something fell on them and they shattered.  It was an accident, I swear.

Another year in the middle of his family gathering, as a new Murphy bride, I'd  misunderstood my role in the family's tradition of drawing names and duplicated a gift for one brother-in-law while missing completely the brother-in-law whose name I'd actually drawn.  It's funny to me now that would have caused me so much shame; in the moment, however, mortified would not be too strong a word.

Sadly, through the years of my growing up into adulthood the feeling of shame entrenched itself into my gift-receiving instincts.  Where once I'd received gifts with  unguarded delight, I began instead -- especially with unexpected gifts -- to feel threatened, unworthy, obligated.

Kindness felt dangerous.  My receiving-goodness wires got mixed up with my receiving-badness wires and I couldn't always tell the difference between the two.  I built up walls of shame and vigilant self-protection over the raw wounds opened by abuse. 

When Jesus told us to come to him as little children, he must have been imagining the way children openly, delightedly, innocently receive gifts.  Children do not question their place as ones worthy of receiving gifts.  Children boldly believe the beauty of unearned kindness.

Jesus, Himself, showed us how to receive gifts well.  Picture him, feet covered with Mary's perfume, delighting in the scent of her costly gift. She shamelessly -- and extravagently -- gave; Jesus shamelessly received.  Judas' super-spiritual nagging that Mary wasted an opportunity to give to the poor couldn't even ruin the moment. Maybe Jesus had learned the joy of receiving all those years earlier when men from another country filled his mother's living room with abundance.

Practice gift giving and receiving

It seems that in my lifetime people have changed their opinions about Christmas gift giving.  Maybe Charlie Brown started it, bemoaning commercialism?  We join his melancholy lament in our house; we also guard against extreme measures that might on the surface seem wise, even spiritual. Christ taught us to give our possessions to the poor, yes, but He was no pious ascetic, shunning feasts and merrymaking.

Jesus excelled at both giving and receiving gifts.  Haven't we been told our future reconciliation with Jesus unveils the greatest Gift Exchange in History?  He gives us a new Heaven and a New Earth, we give Him all glory, laud, and honor -- and crowns?  No matter how spiritual it might seem, fostering guilty consciences by limiting our enjoyment of Christmas does not make us more like Christ.  There is a time for fasting; Christmas is not that time.

"While we feast we savor."  

My mother created a rule for feasting years ago. As a family, often we'd be invited into other people's homes for mouth-watering meals, but one too many times the dinner conversation revolved around the fattening, unhealthy qualities we consumed. Like each dish spooned onto our plate came with heaped with sides of shame and guilt.  This is no way to feast, friends.

Keeping in mind that legalism kills but order brings life to our family celebrations, Brian and I keep my mother's rule close to heart:  While we feast we savor.  At Christmas, we savor gifts.  The ones we give and the ones we receive.

What is the healthy middle ground, then, between gluttony and savoring?  How do we quantify the beauty of excess?  Certainly, budget matters, stewardship matters, the needs of the poor in our community matter.

You could sum up the measure we've formed over the years this way:

                                                  Source: via Tamara on Pinterest

We add a fifth category:  1 THING THEY MAKE

Benefits for a Gift-Giving Rule

  • We have four children; practically a Gift-Giving Rule helps us stay on track, keeping equal not only the dollar amount, but also the actual number of gifts per child. 
  • I am a sucker when it comes to impulsive gift-buying the week before Christmas.  The retailers easily prey on insecure mom in me, convincing me with their boxed sets and heart-tugging advertisements that I NEED to buy MORE gifts in order for Christmas to be perfect.  The Gift-Giving Rule provides a much-needed boundary for me in those weak, impulse-spending days.
  • The Gift-Giving Rule keeps Brian and me honest about what our kids actually want rather than what we want.  For example, the rule "1 Thing They READ" keeps me from spending the entire gift budget for books. (Still, I find ways to cheat.  As long as I find them second-hand and wrap them together in a stack, can five books count as one?)
  • The best reason for a Gift-Giving Rule?  Rules are made to be broken.  We aren't militant about this sort of measurement for gifting, but we are grateful for the life-giving order the list provides us for an activity that so many declare dreadful each December.

12 Ways to Practice 12 Days of Christmas

  1. Savor gifts.  Make opening gifts last as long as possible on Christmas morning. Choose other times during the 12 days to give gifts.  Perhaps you could save one gift per person to open on Epiphany?  This year we ate a special meal together on Epiphany and chose gifts for a global mission.
  2. Make time to stay home.  Read, watch movies, play games, take naps, take walks in the neighborhood.  In our house, we're especially fond of the tradition of wearing pajamas all day as often as possible during Christmas.
  3. Get outside.  Take a road trip.  Hike a nearby trail. Go skiing, sled-riding, ice-skating.  This year we piled together in the van for the hour and a half trip to enjoy San Antonio's river walk.  We were rewarded with a crisp, clear Texas night and a round yellow moon.
  4. Savor food.  In our house we don't do any Christmas baking until Christmas Eve day.  This started out of necessity when my kids were little and it was easier to bake all in one day when Daddy was home, but I've kept the tradition as a way to build anticipation.  When December 25 arrives we've only just begun to enjoy the sweet and savory treats of the season.
  5. Extend your family.  The last two years we've missed our extended family something terrible at Christmas.  We're hoping that will change in 2013; at the same time we're glad we've had the opportunity to experience Christmas without family nearby.  With twelve whole days to celebrate, we enjoyed spending a few of them with other people who were alone.  
  6. Sing Christmas carols.  The Anglican worship service sings only Advent-themed carols during the month of December.  We try to follow suit at home. Although -- I'm not gonna lie -- long about December 2 this year I caught Brian singing "Santa, Baby" in the kitchen one morning!  The Sunday after Christmas our worship pastor plans a Lessons and Carols service leading us, in his words, in a last gasp of Christmas.  With the frenetic pace of December, don't you love the idea of Christmas caroling at a nursing home or around an elderly friend's old upright piano during the last week of Christmas?
  7. Throw a New  Year's bash.  More friends, more feasting, more game-playing, more music.  Savor the excess.
  8. Go shopping.  Really.  I'm serious.  Retailers aren't trying to pull your heartstrings, they're trying to sell you stuff cheap. Meet a girlfriend, drive to the specialty shops you always want to linger in, or send your family out to the mall with their Christmas gift cards while you stay home and take a nap.   Really. I'm not kidding.
  9. Follow light like the journeying magi.  Find every possible way to savor the beauty of light during the darkest time of the year.  Light candles, build a fire, sit in the dark and look at your lit tree, visit a holiday light show in town, take a bath by candlelight, go outside and look at the stars.  
  10. Send Christmas cards or Thank You cards.  When I was growing up my mother always sent her annual family newsletter at New Year's.  Makes sense, right?  This year I set up a card-writing station on our dining table so that throughout the week we'd all take turns writing thank you-cards.
  11. Borrow the tradition of Boxing Day.  Sounds sort of like a medieval version of Undercover Boss.  Or the servant's ball at Downton Abbey.  However you choose to interpret the meaning of this tradition, find a way to notice those you take for granted, give to those who rarely receive, serve the servers.  One of the best opportunities we have for this sort of service here in Austin is to volunteer a Sunday morning at Church Under the Bridge, a ministry to Austin's homeless.  We help set up tables, serve breakfast, mingle and listen to their stories.
  12. Stay firmly rooted in the Incarnation story.  Keep reading after the manger, celebrate the magi's arrival, pray the words of Simeon and Anna in the temple.  Notice the characters, ask the Father of Jesus to make you worshipers like the very first who bowed in adoration to His son.  Pray a blessing over your house, pray for the fame of the Christ-child to reach every people group across the globe the same way it reached across the desert that first Christmas.

May we keep Christmas well all through the year!

Next time on Parenting Unrehearsed (sometime in February 2013): 
  • Family liturgies: Birthday celebrations
  • Why we gave our son a new name for his 21st birthday
  • Practice Storytelling

I love to hear from you!  For example, what are some ways you've both learned and taught healthy practices of gifting and Christmas?  Also, please feel free to share the sorts of questions you've been asking about parenting.


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*Thank you to the lovely Lindsey from Lindsey Davern Photography for capturing the hilarious -- and unrehearsed -- family photo I'm using for this series.*

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