Sunday, December 25, 2011

Advent and Christmas 2011

"For just as lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be...." --Luke 17:24

A really good Advent sets up a really good Christmas, and we had a really good Advent this year. As we usually do, we set up the Christmas tree with a few strings of blue and purple lights (Advent colors), but nothing else. Actually, Jaybird had fun coloring and cutting out and hanging up Jesse Tree decorations, so for most of Advent our nearly-bare tree was decorated with those. In a nutshell, Jesse Tree symbols summarize salvation history leading up to the birth of Christ -- each symbol represents a different biblical story or episode.

We also lit the Advent wreath most nights; we sang a new verse of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" every week, until we were able to sing the first four verses reasonably well. Even little Alleluia Boy was singing along in his own way by the end! Of course, we have read the Scripture readings for the day from the lectionary for years, so that was good too -- hearing all those very hopeful, poetically beautiful readings from Isaiah over several weeks leading up to Christmas.

We went to confession as a family, Advent being a penitential season and all.

And on the day before Christmas Eve, the kids and I ran around town donating things. We saw this story in the Winona Daily News about the 600 families who received a free holiday basket from Winona Volunteer Services. Actually, a friend had driven past on the pickup day and then Facebooked about the line that stretched six blocks. Here's a picture from the Daily News:

That was the prompting we needed to head to the grocery store -- each child got to pick an item to donate. Mouse wanted to donate a 15-pound ham! I nixed that only because I wasn't sure whether they would accept perishable food, so she chose two jars of pickles instead. (Turns out the ham would've been okay -- oh well, next time!) Jaybird donated a bag of potatoes. And Bear donated a can of pineapple. We ran all that over to the food shelf, where it was weighed; we also dropped off a check. Then the kids got a five-minute tour of the food shelf. (Or as Mouse corrected: "Actually, we just stood around while you talked to the lady.") We found out that, indeed, nearly 1,000 families in our area rely on the food shelf once a month or more. That's nearly one in five families in this town. And that, frankly, is amazing.

We also donated a whole bunch of stuffed animals to another charity. Then it was off to Pizza Hut for a bit of a reward!

It was a buffet -- and this being Winona, that meant it was absolutely packed. But the kids enjoyed it anyway. The other thing we'd done in the week leading up to Christmas was to go through all their toys (again!) to organize them and to get rid of some of them. It was a lot of work (again), so the pizza out was well-deserved. By me especially. : )

That night we went down to La Crosse to see the Rotary Lights display in their park along the Mississippi River. This year, Alleluia Boy was properly impressed -- he kept looking around, wide-eyed, pointing out the "light, light!" We think he enjoyed it. And it was unseasonably warm and ice-free this year!

Bear's friend came along for the ride -- far left.

Christmas Eve morning, we decorated the tree with "real" lights and "real" Christmas decorations. It's a wonderful really feels like a turning point, like we've come out of this period of darkness and penance into this time of light and joy.

The kids watched "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on DVD in the afternoon -- their one and only Christmas special. I have a special place in my heart for that special, because of Linus's speech on the true meaning of Christmas -- the birth of the Christ child. It was fun to hear the kids all laughing like crazy at Snoopy's antics. Some things are just classic!

Also Christmas Eve afternoon, our next door neighbor came over for a small gift exchange and cookies and milk. I shouldn't say "small," since she is always VERY generous with gift certificates to the local book store and Godfather's Pizza.

Another Christmas tradition for our family is Christmas Eve dinner at the local Catholic Worker house. Dinner was great -- ham, turkey, stuffing, and lots of great sides, including a wonderful squash soup. People were a little subdued, for understandable reasons, but there was still a lot of camaraderie and laughter. Bear and I ate with a new guy who regaled us with wonderful and amazing stories of his 19 years working as a carpenter in the Alaska wilderness.

We eat there every week, of course, so many of the regulars have become good friends. I persuaded them to pose for a picture after dinner:

Then it was homeward to get dressed for "Midnight" Mass -- at 8 p.m. (which is good, 'cause we couldn't do any later!). The girls dressed in their Christmas dresses:

Mass was wonderful -- the high point of Christmas, as usual. Although...

...Christmas morning was pretty nice, too.

This little guy had no idea that it was Christmas, but squealed with delight on
seeing the "horsey" anyway.

There is a story about the little prayer book Mouse is holding. I actually "hid" this gift and a few other small religious items too well -- and ended up spending about an hour and a half searching for them on Christmas Eve night, meaning that I didn't actually get to bed until early Christmas Eve morning!

The kids enjoyed all of their many gifts, as you can see in the video below.

We took time out for a walk in the nearby Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge just to get out of the house and to enjoy the beautiful weather. Everyone was in good spirits.

Here is the video of Christmas morning:

One of the highlights of the season for me was listening to Brother Mann, president of Saint Mary's University, deliver some brief remarks before the SMU Christmas dinner. He offered one of the best reflections on the Christmas season that I have heard in a while. The Scripture quotation at the beginning of this post was part of his remarks. I was really struck at the imagery in this quote, especially in the way he connected it to the incarnation.

The Gospel of John gives us that wonderful image of the Christ child as a light in the darkness, but I also like this image of Christ as a bolt of lightning spanning the sky. It really captures just how radical the Incarnation of God is...because if you really are so crazy as to believe in a God whose love for humanity is so great that he becomes one of us in order to draw us to him, then the Incarnation changes everything, absolutely everything. Like a flash of lightning in the night, it lights up our world and our lives, so that we see them as they truly are...and that is a good thing.