“Today – it’s my favorite day!”

Christmas living room

I am taking down Christmas today and it is making me sad. I am sort of avoiding it, actually.  I love Christmas.  I love the whole season.  I re-read the cards we received, made notes of new addresses, saved photos, and then tossed them.  As I did, I prayed for everyone who remembered us with cards, everyone we sent cards to, and everyone we know that we no longer stay in touch with.  I try to do that with our decorations, too.  I pray as I put them away for another year.  To me, Santa is so much more than a guy in a red suit. He embodies the Saint himself, St. Nicholas of Myra.  And the lessons from St. Nicholas are supposed to stay with us all the year long, as well as the lessons we gain from the Birth of Our Savior. We are blessed to attend St. Nicolas of Myra parish, so the icon of St. Nicholas, and one of his relics, is always with us.  He was a Bishop and he loved the poor and he loved his community.  Those are attributes we should keep in mind more than just in December each year.

I love being Byzantine because our Vespers, our Orthros, and our prayers keep our calendar busy, as well as all the wonderful feasts throughout our liturgical year.  There is a term called, “Ordinary Time” for the days between the preparation of the Feasts on our calendar.  People often get this confused and think it means that our time is “ordinary,” as in mundane or rote.  Not at all! The term relates to the order of the days, and the way in which we count them.  As in numerals or ordinals; it has nothing to do with the character of the days, but rather the ways in which we keep track of the days between feasts.  So as you take down Christmas and feel like your home is just “ordinary” until the next feast (for most of America that would be Easter) take a moment to think about that.  We are counting, or keeping track of our days, until we fast and feast!

BVM Laundry

I read a great blog on FB today about the art of housekeeping.  In the article, the author talks about the mundane – laundry, chasing dust bunnies, folding clothes, picking up toys, cooking meal after meal.  Sometimes in the eyes of the world, those of us who stay home and keep a house have nothing to do.  We are the dross, the extra, of our culture because we are not gainfully supporting it by working outside of our homes.  We have a boring routine and our lives are the same, day in and day out.  I have SO much to say on that, but I want to share just a couple of thoughts.

My life truly began when I was married 29 years ago.  We conceived our first child soon after we were married and he was born just 10 months after our wedding. I really do not know what it is like to be married without children around me, without being a part of a family.  But I feel like I truly found myself as a wife and mother.  I feel like the life I led up until marriage and motherhood was all preparation.  My father used to question how I could be satisfied being at home. He thought I was wasting my intellect and my time.  And I have always felt sad for him because he thought that way.  Each moment, each experience I had in life, every tid-bit I learned up until I was a wife and mother, was just preparation for my true vocation in life. I have the intellectual chops to have become pretty much anything I had wanted to.  I changed my major so many times in college, and was there so long, they used to ask my if my student ID number was legit, because it was so ancient (true story).  I never managed to be able to complete an area of study, because my intellect would be drawn to something else and off I would go, changing my major again.  And I learned so many odd, fun facts, that I know a lot about quite a few subject areas, but have mastered none of them.  (The old adage, “Jack of all trades, master of none” totally applies to me!!).  And I learned that all of that knowledge was gained to impart to my children.  To share with them as they were growing and learning. I would not trade a moment in a career with the moment I saw a concept click in the mind of one of my sons.  I know why teachers teach and why they love sharing knowledge. It is just so magnified when you teach your own child.  And my father thought my time would be better spent becoming something (he wanted me to be a doctor) and did not understand how I could stay at home every day.  I loved, and quite often miss, the chaos of having your children at home all day and teaching them everything they need to become adults.  My older sons attended high school, but my youngest is staying home for high school and I am so glad.  Time is racing by and there will come a day not too distant, when I will be alone all day long.  (Hopefully I will have grand children that need some babysitting!!).  But my days as a homeschooling wife and mother are the most precious thing I have, and can share about my life.  It is my vocation, to be married and a mother, and I would not trade away a moment of that “mundane” for a boardroom, the hectic racing out of the house each day to be on time to yet another meeting, the long evenings when homework came after a crazy commute home and dinner being prepared on the fly, while throwing in a load of laundry.  I am a wife and mother who stays at home, and I am so very blessed.

The other things I must face, in reflecting on the article I read, is that mound of laundry, the piles of papers I need to organize in my “office,” (I used quotes because my office is a mess and really can’t be called an ‘office;’ it’s more like a paper-storage area!) the endless dust bunnies moving around the corners of my hallway, the stupid stain I can’t seem to get out of the corner of my shower, the windows that need washing, the dishes that need to be put away, the dinner that needs to be planned.  All of these things are a part of my every day.  (And in addition to those mundane things, I also assist my youngest son in gaining knowledge through homeschooling). Each day I need to pull up my socks and charge into it.  And for some reason, I just could not find the motivation.  Until I read that article.  The author reminded me that the home is truly where our hearts are. She reflected that she had such fond memories of the sameness of her grandmother’s home. She would feel sad if furniture had been moved, or wallpaper had changed.  And I thought about that.  I loved the smell of my great-grandma’s house and the ticking of the clock on her mantle, the cherry tomatoes growing in the backyard, and the same tablecloth always on her dining room table.  I loved the smell of my grandmother’s house (the daughter of my great-grandma) and knew where every, single thing was in that house. She never kept us out of any cupboard or drawer as kids.  She even had a drawer of chewing gum and mints, but we had to ask to get into that one. I fondly remember the clothes wringer sitting next to her modern washer. I loved watching her wring the clothes out. Then she would pile them in her laundry basket and we would walk past her famous “Johnny Weismuller” swimming pool (he played Tarzan on the old TV show and afterward designed swimming pools) and out to the far back yard, where we would use wooden clothes pins to hang the laundry. The sound of her laundry cart is one of the sounds I will always miss.  Her mother’s mantle clock I loved? I own it and love the sound, still. I loved the sameness of their homes.  I loved that I could snuggle down in that same “eiderdown” comforter when I spent the night there.  I loved helping her cook and clean, and I use many of her pots and pans still, as well as a couple of her dishtowels!  And I thought of all of that today, and I realized I need to put that same love into trudging out through the ice on my front porch to move a load of laundry into the dryer. I need to apply that same love to chasing stains and dust bunnies, and finally organizing my “office,” because those are ways I express myself and my love for my family.

I have started to keep some “sameness” in our home for our grandchildren. My oldest grandson practically runs to the drawer I save for him in the kitchen, with all my plastic baking tools in it. He also has this box of wood samples my husband played with as a child, that were given to him by his grandfather.  He also knows what cupboards he can’t go into, but he still tries.  My sons are floored I allow him to play in the pots and pans and even encourage drum-playing with them.  Ha-Ha!  I’m the grandma now, not the mom, and I can enjoy the noise for the joy that shows on my grandson’s face.  But more importantly, I am sharing my love for him through banging on pots and pans, that drawer always having my cooking things in it, the same table, the same blankets thrown over the back of the couch…this is how I share my love with the next generation.  We rock and sing together; we cuddle and I am praying these times will become his memories of his time with his grandma.  My little grand daughter is only a couple of months old, but I talk to her about the fun times we will have baking cookies and making cakes…girlie-stuff! My husband is planning on sharing his love of woodworking with his grandchildren. These are all ways we share our love with our family.

cow walking down road

We used to live on a dairy when our sons were pre-school aged.  The dairy was not convenient to get to, and if you did not know how to get to it, you would not have known it was even there.  It was behind a horse ranch, down a long, dirt road.  But we used to get all sorts of visitors.  Friends would come to just sit and gaze out the kitchen window.  Once, a friend and I were drinking some tea and happened to notice a cow walking down our dirt road.  We did a double-take.  Someone had left a gate open and the cows were out! A quick call to the milking barn and there were milkers chasing them down our road.  What an afternoon!  But our home was never empty.  I loved those days.  I learned to cook from scratch and always had something cooking. I used to can fruits, vegetables, make my own jams, and at least two loaves of bread a day.  The smells were welcoming.  For Christmas, I got a “Sentsy” candle holder from my daughter-in-law.  Yesterday I burned some vanilla wax in it.  My husband told me he hated that scent because he kept looking for sugar cookies! Ha-Ha!  The scents of our home, as well as the things we have around us, say “Welcome” to our friends.  And I am re-learning that.  Today’s article has helped me re-focus after 29 years of doing this.  I had become complacent and jaded.  But now, along with our new liturgical year, I am setting goals for myself. I am going to attack my vocation as a wife and mother, and renew my dedication to it.  Sometimes we all need a kick-start in life and this article really has been good for me. I hope that if you read this, it will help you get yourselves motivated for this wonderful opportunity we have – today!  There’s a great cartoon of Winnie-the-Poo and Rabbit.  Rabbit asks, “What day is it?”  And Poo answers, “It’s today, my favorite day.”  And so today, my favorite day, I am tackling taking down Christmas and I put a citrus/mango scent in my “Sentsy” candle to rev things up a bit, even if it is still all ice and snow outside!

oranment storage

Theophany is the Holy Day we just celebrated.  In that special holiday, we commemorate Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan.  We also remember Saint John the Forerunner, who Baptized Our Lord.  And baptism ties in so perfectly to my post today on keeping a home.  Chasing the stains, the dust bunnies, and the laundry all have to do with keeping ourselves and our homes clean – as in washing.  I love the photo I used above of a piece of art depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, doing laundry while the Christ Child played at Her feet.  We need to constantly be on guard to ward off the evil one, and one way we can do that is to keep order about us.  We can “clean house” in our homes, and in our hearts, every day.  I can opt to just close the door on the chaos that is my office, or I can face whatever demon is keeping me from diving in there and cleaning it up, organizing it, and keeping it that way.  What do we not want to face when we allow the dust bunnies to win?  When we pile the laundry and dishes?  When  we allow our homes to reflect the chaos that lives in our hearts and minds?  How do we find the peace, the clarity of mind, and the simple joys of keeping a home?  I think we find it in the seasons of faith we live in.  Today I have to face that Christmas and all the things that go along with it are well and truly over.  We closed out the season, liturgically, by the feast of Theophany.  This feast is often discussed as the feast when God chose to acknowledge His Son by speaking and the Holy Spirit coming as a dove to rest above Christ.  It is when God declared, “This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” (Matthew 17:5).

Theophany

So we have our faith showing us God in His Son, being cleansed of, not His sins, but our sins, in the Jordan River.  He submitted to being baptized to show each of us that we need to be cleansed, over and over again.  Yes, we are baptized and our lives become Christ’s.  But over and over again, we allow the world to get us grimy and stained, we are tripped up and we fall. We need to seek forgiveness and cleansing each time we fall.  And as a housewife, I can apply that to my home. I keep a constant vigil over my family.  I keep constant prayer for them as they go about their lives each day. I show glory to God in applying myself to my vocation – I school my son and I keep a clean, tidy house (well, I try!!).  God is smiling as we apply ourselves and learn His many lessons for us.  As I see the mess in my office, I reminded of my soul and the need I have to clean it out, air it out, and straighten it up.  And it makes me look forward through these ordinal days, until we welcome the Great Fast. 

Today? It’s my favorite day!

Home office

“…being God from all eternity.”

Snow cabinThis is the season I love the best.  I love winter and I love Christmas.  We were married on December 29th because I wanted to have our wedding and subsequent anniversaries around this time of year. I had always dreamed of a winter wedding, complete with white fur muffs, a horse-drawn sleigh, and wearing red in my wedding outfit.  I loved having a candle-lit, winter wedding.  I love the cold weather, the snow, the lights on people’s houses, the tree with all the ornaments that tell of our lifetimes in them, the smell of Christmas baking, the Christmas music my husband plays continually from Thanksgiving Day onward, seeing friends we haven’t seen in a long time, enjoying the joy of gifts given and received.  I especially love Christmas Eve Vespers and staying out late and seeing all the lights, drinking hot cocoa and splurging on Christmas cookies.  I love making Gingerbread Houses, a fairly new tradition my daughter-in-law brought to our family.  I love baking during Christmas.  I was never much of a holiday cook but since I married into this family, I learned so many delicious holiday treats.  I love preparing the stockings even for our grown and married children.  This year we get to add three stockings of our grandchildren.  I love the prep and the running around and the chaos of it all.  There are days I just sigh in contentment.  All of it, Christmas; I just love it.

Snow fence lightsIt was brought to my attention that I started sharing Christmas-themed posts and photos before Halloween.  I am not sure about the October date, but I do know I started before Thanksgiving.  It is my first season living in the Arctic Circle and I can tell you that weather definitely had an affect on me.  Up here, people try to hang the lights on their houses and fences, front yards, and outside trees prior to the first snow. It makes sense.  We were a little late, and with the help of our older son, hung our lights after the first serious snowfall (we got 6″ overnight) and it turned out to be a fun experience! The older sibling dumped loads of snow off the eaves onto his younger brother, as he carried the string of lights for his big-brother up on the ladder.  The oldest brought his dad a cigar and the two of them smoked cigars in the snow (it started to snow while they were half-way through) and they had a lot of fun.  We have since received a couple of feet of snow, and our Christmas lights glow through the snow accumulating on the roof.  It is pretty.  Because the house lights were up, we brought in all our decorations the following Monday and put up our tree and completely decorated our house.  My husband came home and just smiled.  Another tradition this far north is to keep house lights up until Spring and the days lengthen a little bit.  The basic decor is taken down, but the lights remain to keep our spirits up in these long days of dark.  And maybe I started a little early, but all this snow and minus temps just got me excited for the season, seeking some joy and happiness through decorating for it; I also was beginning to prepare for Christmas in my heart.  A friend also reminded me that I used to decorate my homes all in red and green, it was wasted in Southern California, and perhaps I was always meant to dwell in the Arctic!  She may be right, because I don’t like hot weather, the beach or sand, and I love wearing coats, sweaters, boots, and living in all this snow!

sit with you lordThe season of winter and Christmas is also a very interior or prayerful time for me.  We are indoors a lot, it is dark a lot of the time, and it brings with it a sensual experience of warm fires, gentle lights, and the quiet of the winter terrain, all buried in deep snows.  I have found myself contemplating the whys and wherefores of Christmas and the traditions that go with it.  And I have also been chatting with various people about Santa Claus, and other winter traditions.  For me, I find that matters of faith, tenets of faith, all germinate in reality.  The story of the Wise Men; the birth of Christ; the slaughtering of the Holy Innocents; the Crucifixion and Resurrection…these all had their start in truth and historical occurrences.  There are those who poo-poo the whole December 25th date and the fact that the “Church” stole the date from the pagans of the early centuries; the fact that pagans had trees indoors for far different purposes; the “wise men” were not all that wise, nor were there just three of them…on and on it goes.  I know that; I was blessed with studying Biblical Archeology as my minor in college.  I know what we have physical evidence for, and what is real and what is hysterical – or historical – and what is not.  And I acknowledge those who love just Santa Claus (made jolly and friendly by the early Coca Cola ads in the 20s), the Tooth Fairy (recently made famous again by “the Rock” in a movie), and the Easter Bunny (whose fame was resurrected in the movie, “HOP,” and which I just watched today with my grandson), and they do not want to know where those traditions come from. I will agree to just enjoy those “Hollywood” versions of the truth, but all the while knowing there is so much more to it.

I choose, however, to understand, celebrate, and share the historical roots of the things we believe in.  Our parish here is St. Nicholas of Myra.  It is the only Byzantine parish in the area and the diocese exempts our parish from the pre-Christmas Fast on the Feast of St. Nicholas, which we celebrate this Friday, December 6th.  I have invited my son and daughter-in-law to attend, so my grandson can be exposed to this story surrounding Christmas.  It’s wonderful to share these traditions with our families.  St. Nicholas has been real for my husband and myself at least all of our marriage. There were many Christmases where we were in such dire straits that we should not have been able to provide gifts for our sons; St. Nicholas always interceded for us and Christmas was always a joy for our children.  In Russia, St. Nicholas is the patron of the family and we took him as our family patron many years ago.  St. Nicholas exemplifies giving and his determination to help families in trouble is one of the many reasons he is a Saint of the Church.  (http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/fatherchristmas.shtml). Regardless of which story you have heard, or have not heard, Bishop Nicholas of Myra (now Turkey) was a Saint who later became a legend, and whose legend we keep each Christmastime.  I love St. Nicholas and I love keeping his memory alive.  This year, our youngest son remarked that he knows there is no Santa Claus and that we are the giver of the gifts.  But he also said he likes believing in things at Christmas, so he’s choosing to still cling to Santa, and enjoys the stories of St. Nicholas.  All of those heroes in our children’s lives are actually Saints, making their way into modern culture. A little twisted and turned to meet modern culture where it is, but they are present nonetheless.

Nativity_htmIn many Christian cultures, we celebrate Christmas until the 6th of January, or in the west, Epiphany (in the east, it is the Baptism of the Lord, or the Theophany).  In the west the different feasts were all celebrated together, and is where the tradition of the 12 Days of Christmas come from.  In the East, as these feasts began to separate themselves, the Byzantine and Orthodox chose to celebrate the Theophany, or Baptism of the Lord, on the same date the west celebrates Epiphany.  Interestingly enough, the term “Epiphany” is defined as a revelation.  We can all have epiphanies when we learn something new or gain an awareness of something we never knew before.  The Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of Christ to the world, and started with the 1st of the 12 Days of Christmas when Mary accepted the Word of God and proclaimed her great fiat of, “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38).  The Epiphany continues through the Birth of Christ, the visitation of the Magi, and the Baptism of the Lord.  Most people in western countries use the day to celebrate the Gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child and often have parties called, “Little Christmas,” where they give one another gifts (some families have adopted this date as their major Christmas celebration, keeping December 25th more as a reflective day and a day to celebrate the Birth of Christ). In the East, we celebrate the Theophany, or the Baptism of the Lord.  Theophany means: “the manifestation of God to man; the sensible sign by which the presence of God is revealed.” It is when Christ was Baptized and His Kingship made known to man through His Father’s recognition in his declaration of “This is my beloved son” and of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Both of the terms, Epiphany and Theophany, are words explaining the revelation of God to His People; to each of us.

Baptism-of-Christ-theophany-icon-444-200x300“At Your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was revealed, for the Father’s voice bore witness to You by calling You His beloved son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of these words. O Christ God, who have appeared to us and enlightened the world, glory to You!” (Kontakion of the Theophany).

So much surrounds us during this Christmas season.  I don’t understand why we need to limit ourselves to specific times; artificial dates.  Some people will only decorate for Christmas between the day after Thanksgiving, and then take everything down by December 26th.  In the seasonal feasting and fasting cycle of the Church, the preparation for the Feast is almost as important as the Feast itself. We in the East began our preparation for Christmas on the 15th of November, with the Feast of St. Philip.  It is often called, “Philip’s Fast,” or the “Apostle’s Fast,” but is commonly called the “Pre-Christmas Fast.”  In the Melkite tradition, this is when we begin singing the Kontakian of the Preparation:

“Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth to the Eternal Word of God in an ineffable manner. Rejoice, therefore, O universe, when you hear this news, and glorify with the angels and the shepherds Him who shall appear as a newborn Babe, being God from all eternity.”

We’ve been preparing for the Birth of Christ since November 15th, and have been since the Council of Constantinople in 1166 AD.  Prior to that, the worldwide Church celebrated different dates, requiring daily attendance at Church for services and prayers, with moderate fasting.  After 1166, the tradition we now keep was begun in earnest.  So for at least the last 900 years in Christianity, the Preparation for Christmas began on the 15th of November.  This year, I opted to keep the tradition of the Preparation alive by decorating my home, to coincide with our fasting and liturgical year.

snowy tree.lights

The other interesting side-note to this is that our Liturgical traditions allow us to keep our Christmas decor up from November 15th through January 6th.  It is a good thing we use a fake tree! Up here it seems we tend to celebrate Halloween and run straight into Christmas, with a brief respite at a little family dinner – Thanksgiving – in between. Thanksgiving, to me, is like the practice run for cooking Christmas dinner!  It’s also a great day for Football on TV!  And this year, our Parish celebrated Divine Liturgy with a potluck afterward; it was nice to celebrate as a parish family.  Recently, my feelings were pretty stepped on and I was criticized for this early Christmas thing, and after thinking about it, and now posting about it, I feel sort of justified in keeping the traditions of my faith, even if public pressure is to downplay it.  I will celebrate through fasting and preparation, decoration and cooking, gift giving and singing of Christmas songs, putting my tree up and hanging lights, from November through January, at the least.  And in our tradition, you don’t party until AFTER the Feast…so true Christmas parties are from December 25th through Theophany on January 6th. It works perfectly for someone who decorates year round in red and green colors, collects antique Santas from around the world, loves the snow, and lives where people keep their Christmas lights up until Spring.  Maybe I was meant to live in the Arctic all along!

back lit blue trees.snow