Countdown Update: Lessons from Life and Kids

{I know we’re all still reeling from Friday’s awful tragedy, holding our own children close, and trying to move on with some holiday spirit for their sake. I thought I’d done all my crying about it on Friday…sitting next to MJ that evening at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas Concert, holding his little 5-year-old hand, I could not hold the tears back. Saturday morning I awoke thankful that Ellie reported she’d dreamed that Beffa had given her lots of little froggies (knowing that children in Newtown had not slept so soundly, some waking up to real nightmares.) But my mind moved on to other things as I went about teaching and other tasks.  But then I noticed flags at half-staff as I was running errands alone. Just then on the radio, a Newtown pastor interviewed on NPR reminded us that “Blessed are those who mourn“, so I allowed myself to weep again for all those families far away. That evening, out and about with the kids, Dustin showed me a sweet pic he’d taken of MJ and Ellie hugging each other, and I thought of the boy I’d heard about who had just been told the news that his sister would not be coming home. Before he began crying, he said, “But who am I going to play with?” The tears flowed again. The truth is we will all continue to grieve, especially us parents, especially because of the holidays. It is impossible not to think about it when we are surrounded by our own wonderfully energetic, light-hearted and precious children. And there is power in communal grief, in collective mourning. My prayer is that collective action will come out of this collective mourning as a tribute to the lives lost. But if you read my post on Friday, “Today IS the day!”, you know that I have joy-filled updates to share with you on my family’s own Christmas Countdown, and just maybe you’ll get few ideas or inspiration for the days ahead as you celebrate the lives of your own children this Christmas season!…}

If you’ve been reading my “Connect with Your Kids at Christmas” series, you know that one of the holiday traditions my little family enjoys is “Counting to Christmas”. Beginning on December 1st, the children discover a clue in their advent calendars that leads them to some sort of fun Christmas activity or surprise each day – sometimes big, sometimes small. It is a great way to capture the spirit of anticipation and magic, while still focusing on togetherness and incorporating a spirit of giving along the way. Here are some lessons I’ve been reminded of along the way so far this year:

  • It doesn’t take much! Really. That’s the main lesson that I am re-discovering in this “Counting to Christmas”.  If the intention is loving and fun, if you make the most of the anticipation and process, if you capitalize on the spirit of magic and imagination, then it doesn’t have to be a big deal to be a big treat. The product is often besides the point. The fun is in the discovery! Ellie (3) and MJ (5) love to find the clue in their calendars (learning to read their numbers 1-25), “reading” the clue with Mommy’s help (it is a good chance to practice some sight words), and finding the “surprise”. We went to see the “Twelve Days of Christmas” neighborhood display on Day #5 (though I wish I had thought of it for 12-12-12!), and I had forgotten how simple it was. The clue was the little storybook that we sang/read as review. A special bonus was that we rode with some new friends in their mini-van for some fun and fellowship. We sang “The Twelve Days of Christmas” along with John Denver and the Muppets, several times since I kept getting us lost. We actually parked and let the kids walk around to each house in their PJ’s . It was so simple- no flashing lights, no moving parts, no sound effects, and it was FREE  – but they LOVED it, and can’t wait to go back.

A Christmas Together

  • Another lesson that goes hand-in-hand with that one: If you need a break, keep it simple. A couple of days ago, Mommy had a cold, and was worn out after getting through both holiday programs at my pre-school, and my babysitter cancelled for the afternoon, so I pulled out the “stay-at-home” activity from my secret stash, Christmas window decals. I honestly couldn’t believe how thrilled they were. “Mommy, this is so awesome!”… “What a wonderful surprise!” (A couple of dollars for 10 minutes of harmony…they happily decorated the living room windows by the tree while I played Christmas carols on the piano.) Then I pulled out the movie “White Christmas” and we had popcorn and hot cocoa for supper before an early bed-time.

Just taking a few minutes to open Daddy’s box of train ornaments that he collected as a child made for another simple but special “event”.

Ellie discovered some angels in Daddy’s box, too.

  • Kids can be kids OUTSIDE!  When you have two children who struggle with the concept of “inside voice”, it can be exhausting to try to contain their energy and volume in indoor settings, eg. The Meyerson Symphony Center! And there is so much JOY to be found in nature where you can let them run wild!

Playing outside at “The Lakes”, and feeding the ducks. MJ also collected feathers for show and tell.

Ellie’s got JOY like a fountain!

We went to the Arboretum to meet Blitzen.

Ellie takes a break at the Arboretum.

  • Often kids get MORE out of less. For the first day of December (a rare Saturday with Daddy OFF), we had considered 2 BIG events to start off the Christmas season – the Christmas parade in downtown Dallas, and seeing “The Nutcracker” ballet that evening. But we kept it simple instead. (Well, the tickets for “The Nutcracker” were sold out, and Daddy and the kids slept in, made pancakes, and played at home in their PJ’s on Saturday morning while Mommy was teaching.) Then, they went on one of their favorite “Daddy dates” together – to the first Saturday free “Home Depot” project for kids – they built and painted winter picture frames which will make a nice home-made “intentional” gift for someone we love. That evening, I put a little xmas lightbulb in the first pockets of their advent calendars as a clue for our evening family activity. We went back to Home Depot to let the kids each choose some holiday outdoor lights for our home. MJ chose some tacky icicles that change colors, and Ellie got some pretty little colorful lights that we put on a tree out front. And we also got a new family plug-in light-up pet – a little reindeer named “Shiney”. The children had fun “feeding” it acorns in the front yard. Save for the ugly extension cord hanging down in front of the front door, our entry way is looking quite festive, and the kids are so proud!
  • If you need a bigger break, skip a day. I’ve done this a couple of times, and just got lucky that they didn’t notice. But if they had, I would have come up with one of the simple tricks I have hidden in the closet. (Like the cardboard Christmas puzzles from the dollar store.)
  • When you try new things, sometimes you discover wonderful new traditions! Last Friday afternoon a mommy friend told me they were going to a nativity journey that was one of their favorite holiday traditions as a family. We had nothing specific planned, so we called Daddy and had him meet us there after work. It was great! The kids have asked to make it a new tradition….“The Joy of Sharing Christmas” Closer than driving to Waxahachie for their nativity, and this one had several well-done dramatic scenes (the favorite was the angel’s appearance to the shepherds), and real camels! It also ended with free Christmas cookies for the kids to decorate. They loved it! And though I was slightly concerned that the theology would not be in line with mine, it was pretty mainstream, and nothing that the kids picked up on at this point. It was so cool to see them rapt in attention as the Wisemen told their story, and as they sang “Away in a Manger” to the baby Jesus, held by Mary. And it was FREE.

Taking a peek at Jesus in the manger. I couldn’t help but notice Mary’s pink i-phone.

After cookies, MJ enjoyed drawing nativity pictures.

Last Sunday afternoon, when I realized that the nap was NOT happening, I rallied the kids and we headed for another new adventure: the Candlelight Christmas Event at Dallas Heritage Village (formerly Old City Park) in downtown Dallas, an event that’s been going on for 40 years.  It was magical – like stepping back in time to the 1860’s. Next year I can’t wait to go back with Daddy and stay longer, explore more. This year we stayed until Ellie’s meltdown by the cowboy’s campfire…and I’ll bring cash so we can buy goodies at the bake sale.

MJ and Ellie hammer away at old-fashioned tin ornaments.

MJ and Ellie string popcorn for a Christmas tree. (No microwaves here.)

We watched a woman spinning yarn, the wool from the sheeps there on the farm. We also saw a loom and heard the weasel go “pop”!

MJ stops to smell the roses outside an old homestead.

These cowboys were cooking chili and bread and pie over the campfire. We sat there to eat our chinese food from a food truck. (Or should I say “chuck wagon”.)

These ladies were busy cooking over the fire. They let us sample some molasses candy.

Looking at the chickens that provided the eggs for the ladies to make their cornbread.

Watching real blacksmiths at work. I got to tell them that their great-great-great grandfather Fritz who came to Texas from Germany was a blacksmith by trade.

Last night we discovered another new family tradition – eating downtown and walking around to look at the lights! There are so many sparkling “City Sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style!” around the Main Street area.  And we discovered the cool window displays at Neiman Marcus, and plan to take MJ back to explore the interactive crawl-through tunnels! (E’s not quite old or tall enough.) see details

We ate outside on the patio at The Iron Cactus, and the kids got to run around.

  • It’s good to take advantage of one-on-one TOGETHER moments. When my parents and I took the kids to the Arts District Tree Lighting, Ellie and I spent some special “Mommy and Me” time together. (The music near the stage was too loud and scared her, so we went for a walk, and watched from a distance.) I rarely get those special one on one moments with her, and we both enjoyed it. Until she had another meltdown, and had to be carried to the car, crying all the way home.

A passerby captured the rare moment for us. Me and my girl.

  • Kids can rise to the occasion: On Sunday, Dec.2nd, I cut out a little paper star to put in their calendars as the clue for a special Christmas event that morning. At our church, we were going to sit as a family and watch them hang the Moravian star up in the sanctuary! It was the first time we’ve ever sat through a worship service with both children, not taking them to childcare. We were so surprised at how well they did, sitting quietly coloring next to us, singing along to the hymns, watching their grandparents sing in the choir loft, and going forward with us for communion. It was so meaningful to us, and really represented one of the touchstone words for my vision of our holidays, “family“.

MJ rose to the occasion pretty well at his first symphony concert! it was hard for him not to sing along sometimes…

  • Why not use this “Countdown” for some ulterior motives?  I’ve discovered that a good motivator for getting the kids to do their morning chores so we can get “out the door and in the car” to school/ work on time, is to tell them that they can get their clue out of the calendar WHEN they are all ready! One Monday morning the clue said, “Go look in the green stocking in the play room.” I had hidden some little houses and characters for our “winter village” there for the kids to arrange. (MJ got to do it, but Ellie was throwing a tantrum about socks or something seemingly insignificant.)
  • Sometimes it’s good for me to lower my expectations. (They never knew what they were anyway.) December 4th was National Cookie Day! When I picked the kids up at school, I told them I had a special Christmas “Story, Snack, and Snuggle” prepared for them. And after they did their “chores” (“shoes on the shoe shelf, potty, wash hands“), they could check their calendars for a clue. The clue told them to look in the wooden Rudolph basket by the tree. There was a package of Pepperidge Farm Christmas Chessman cookies – you know, with the little Christmas pictures on them? Nothing fancy – no icing, no home-made cookies as I’d had in mind, but they were so excited! We had fun looking at the different designs, snuggled on the couch with Christmas music playing in the background. And after reading a couple of Christmas books, we played “guess the Christmas shape” on each other’s hands – wreath, tree, candy cane, etc., getting our inspiration from the cookies.
  • Kids like to learn new and interesting things from you. Whether it’s hearing you explain the origin of Christmas stockings or conjecture about how many wise people there really were, young children are primed to wonder and learn. On Dec. 6th, I taught mine about St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6th, over breakfast. I looked it up, and read to them from the encyclopedia. St. Nicholas was a real man who was known to share money with needy children long ago. To remember him, children in Germany leave their shoes outside their bedroom doors, and they discover coins in them the next morning! (My children really enjoyed this new old ritual.) Since it’s a “giving” day, it was perfect for our “Penny Walk” at North Park mall. The kids loved delivering coins from their own ziplock baggie banks to the red Salvation Army buckets, and they also got to enjoy some live music and dancing. (We love a good NO-shopping trip to the mall at this time of year!)
  • Making the children part of the giving encourages them to be givers.  (Kinda like I teach parents of babies in my music classes that you move babies so that they learn how to move – clapping, waving, etc.) Continuing in the spirit of “giving” (one of my 3 words guiding my season with the kids, see my post on this tip), the children discovered 2 “angel” cards hanging on our tree as a clue one day: one for a boy and one for a girl – a needy brother and sister for whom we were going to buy gifts. That was the special Christmas activity for the day – buying gifts for others. My kids really seem to be motivated by the fact that I call them my little “Christmas elves” who help to spread joy and cheer to others at Christmas. We went to Target (or as MJ calls it, “that store with the red circles.”) I did involve a little incentive – The deal was I would buy them each one little thing if they cooperated for the shopping. Ellie got to make the choices for the girl, and MJ the boy. Other than the fact that we almost had a meltdown because Ellie wanted to buy Valerie shoes of a different size because she liked a different number better, our trip was successful, and the kids were excited about how much the children would enjoy their Christmas gifts. (Mommy went back later to finish up alone.)
  • Good friends add good fun! Last Saturday, we had our family carriage ride to look at some Christmas lights in Highland Park. That afternoon, I got a message from my dear friend Melanie from Nashville. She was in town for a conference, but their evening meeting had been cancelled…could she hang out with us? YES! We squeezed “Aunt Melanie” into the carriage, and had even more fun caroling and “laughing all the way“! 

waiting to board our carriage

Merry Christmas, Beffa and GareBear!

  • Kids come up with their own great activities given enough down-time. Yesterday MJ had fun decorating a bunch of presents for us (really they were just things he found around the house, but it’s the thought that counts.) He also made Christmas cards for all of his friends at school – what a sweet, creative kid!

It will be fun to discover what “gifts” he re-gifted.

  • Some of the magic happens when you’re present for the unplanned moments…when your intention to communicate love through presence means you linger longer, share a smile or secret, notice them, do something goofy, stop and smell a rose together. When you change your plans to stay and play at home, when you make a detour to try a new adventure together, when you are open to “good tidings” all around!

I was picking up the kids at Mom and Dad’s so we took a minute to do the Advent calendar. It’s the one mom made when I was a kid.

And the moment is over…

Monday we woke up to a surprise SNOW! The kids bundled up and played outside before school, licking it straight off the leaves!

Here’s hoping you feel lots of LOVE and MAGIC this season. I’m wishing you and yours many “good tidings” of great JOY! May you be part of the “Christmas Spirit” that spreads that joy and love to all.