A dragon for Michaelmas

Happy Michaelmas: a day for talking about angels, symbolically slaying dragons, and (apparently) blowing the dust off one’s long-neglected blog. Phooooot. Michaelmas is a new one for me, but in the spirit of slowly embracing/incorporating more of the church year I thought we’d give it a go. So I made a dragon. And then we killed and ate it. Good times!

The recipe is pretty easy:

1. Start with whatever basic biscuit recipe you’ve memorized. You have memorized a biscuit recipe, haven’t you?

2. Add half a cup of sugar. Yum.

3. Increase the liquid and butter a bit to make up for the added half-cup of dry ingredient.

4. Oops, too much liquid. Better add some more flour.

5. Sprinkle sprinkle, stir stir, sprinkle sprinkle, stir stir, sprinkle sprinkle, stir stir, why the sam-hey is this not coming together?

6. Make a dragon shape anyway. Get dough all over your hands because it’s really too goopy to do this. Fend off design criticisms from the preschoolers.

7. Decorate with whatever you have on hand: dried fruit, in this case.

8. Pop that baby in the oven. When your husband peeks in and asks “That’s a dragon?” tell him yes.

9. When the timer goes off, realise you’ve burned the dried apricots but the centre still isn’t baked through. Cover with tinfoil and return to oven. Forget to reset your timer.

10. Pull when it seems done. Eat dinner and talk about angels and the great war in heaven. Say “after you’ve finished your dinner” about eighteen times.

11. Slay that sucker and dig in.

Simple Holy Week

It has been a long time since I have been able to celebrate Lent and Holy Week the way I might wish to. With Anselm and Perpetua so close in age I spent four and a half straight years pregnant and/or nursing, which puts fasting and such right out. (That enforced non-participation is not something to feel guilty about, but it did often feel strange.)

In the Holy Weeks since 2015 I have had a baby, and then a toddler and a baby, and then two toddlers, and now a toddler and a preschooler to wrangle. Holy Week services are inevitably scheduled during someone’s naptime or bedtime; our particular family situation means that if someone needs to stay home from church with the children, it’s me. That probably sounds like a complaint — it’s not, really, just a reflection of reality right now — but it also means that I can’t even remember the last time I made it to a Good Friday service.

It’s easy to read all of those wonderful liturgical parenting blogs and feel that my own efforts have fallen rather flat. But the point of Holy Week is not my efforts — it’s about nothing less than the immeasurable grace of God towards a sinful and desperately-loved humanity. And in these seasons with small children and scattered church attendance and ridiculously improvised celebrations at home… well, there is grace for that too.

Yesterday afternoon, Anselm and Perpetua helped me bake bread, marking its top with a cross (recipe). We talked about how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and instituted the first Lord’s Supper. Later they went to bed and I got to go to the Maundy Thursday service at our new church. We won’t be at home on Easter Sunday, so perhaps we will make empty tomb cookies tonight instead of on Saturday, assuming I find and unpack my mixer. (Note for those who would try them: I remember from last year that using a full cup of sugar is way too sweet. This year I’ll halve it.) And that’s how we’ll do it this year. Mostly at home, mostly simple, mostly expecting to meet with God in the chaos of family life and the stillness in between.

A blessed Easter Triduum to you and yours.

Advent & Christmas

It’s coming up on 10:30 pm on Christmas Eve as I sit down to write this post — I am just back from our church’s 8 pm service, and making our Christmas ready for the morning. There’s cider and cloved clementines in the crock pot, the stockings are stuffed and under the tree, the children are nestled all snug in their beds… probably not with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads — I’m not precisely sure what a sugarplum is, come to think of it — but asleep, anyway, which is the main thing! And I am listening to a broadcast of the wonderful St. Olaf Christmas Festival (which you can download for free from their page).

I’ve been meaning to write an Advent post since Advent started, which perhaps gives you a sense of what it’s been like for our family this year: joyous, but full. But I do want to highlight two books that have shaped Advent for me this year.

The first is Susan H. Swetnam’s book Season of Little Sacraments: Christmas Commotion, Advent Grace. I read it toward the beginning of December and it was a lovely little invitation into the season. Swetnam  takes the reader through a series of short vignettes from her own life, looking at her personal Advent traditions as well as the graces she has found therein. It’s a sweet book, and a quick read. One theme that it highlighted for me was that of patience; I’ve been thinking a lot about the patience of Mary, waiting out those nine long months between the Annunciation and Christ’s Nativity. And I’ve been learning a practical lesson about patience — and perhaps one about hubris — after getting about 90% through my Christmas stocking before realizing that I’d done it all wrong and had to rip everything out and start over (this had me feeling more like Penelope un-weaving her tapestry every night than like gracious Mary!).

The other book I haven’t finished yet, not quite, but I’m going to talk about it anyway: Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Man Born to be King, which is a play cycle depicting the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth, in twelve radio plays which were originally broadcast on the BBC in monthly installments during WWII. I am a huge Sayers fan — I wrote my masters thesis on some of her theology — and these plays have only increased my admiration for her capabilities as both theologian and dramatist. The first play, “Kings in Judea,” covers the time period from the visit of the Magi to Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt, with a retrospective section for the shepherds’ story as well. It’s a beautiful play. C. S. Lewis read The Man Born to be King every year in Lent; I think I will be reading at least “Kings of Judea” every year in Advent. Here’s a little bit of dialogue from the Magi’s visit with Herod the Great:

HEROD: Twelve days. (musingly) In the House of the Lion — the Lion of Judah — the House of David. It may be so. Bethlehem is called the City of David — did you know that? And the Scriptures speak of Bethlehem. Priest and king. Have you calculated his horoscope? What sort of man will this be that is born to be King of the Jews?

MELCHIOR: Prouder than Caesar, more humble than his slave; his kingdom shall stretch from the sun’s setting to the sun’s rising, higher than the heavens, deeper than the grave, and narrow as the human heart.

CASPAR: He shall offer sacrifice in Jerusalem, and have his temples in Rome and in Byzantium, and he himself shall be both sacrifice and priest.

HEROD: You speak mysteries. Tell me this; will he be a warrior king?

BALTHAZAR: The greatest of warriors; yet he shall be called the Prince of Peace. He will be victor and victim in all his wars, and will make his triumph in defeat. And when wars are over, he will rule his people in love.

Amen and amen.

So this is the end of Advent. Tomorrow we will wake up into the fullness of Christmastide: stockings and presents, church and family, carols and feasts and all the rest of it — but above all, to the celebration of the one who came as King not just in Judea, as Herod feared, but in all the world and for all eternity.

A merry and blessed Christmas to you and yours!

Hallowe’en and All Saints

Sometimes I mostly write a post and then forget about it. Rescued from my drafts folder, an account of some of our Fall:

This year we took the kids out trick-or-treating for the first time! We had previously let the holiday pass by unremarked — not out of any particular objection to Hallowe’en, but just because it seemed a lot of work for kids who were to small to get much out of it (or even eat candy, for that matter).

Anyway, our glorious run of non-participation came to an end this year as Anselm was old enough to clue in to the fact that something called Hallowe’en a) existed and b) looked like fun. Fortunately for me, neither of them has yet realised that children usually get to pick their own costumes, so I was able to (enthusiastically) inform them of what their costumes would be, after I looked around and figured out something I thought I could make relatively easily and cheaply.

Behold, a scarecrow and a bird:

For Anselm’s costume, I cut down an old shirt that my husband was getting rid of anyway, bought a cowboy hat at Party City, and the rest is just strips of yellow felt cut into fringes and glued to the insides of his shirt. The fringes around his ankles are just safety-pinned together with a regular pair of jeans over them.

For Perpetua, I started with a blue t-shirt a few sizes too big for her (I wanted both costumes to fit over a couple of inside layers for warmth), and cut and glued teardrop-shaped felt onto it for her front plumage. I measured her from the middle of her neck down to her wrists and cut two large wings for the back that would be long enough to come down and cover her hands; those were also just glue-gunned in place, as were the little wrist cuffs. The headpiece was all felt: a wide band with two cartoon-eyeball-shaped projections at the front, white and brown felt glued to that to make the actual eyes, and yellow felt cut like a slightly rounded triangle and then folded and glued to more or less look like a beak. I also glued blue feathers sticking up from the inside of the headband — you can just see a few of them in this picture on the sides.

The night itself was a success; we went out after dinner, and they got totally tuckered out after the first two blocks. Little legs get tired! We carried them home, sorted the candy, and that was that. Except, of course, right after Hallowe’en comes All Saints, so we were still celebrating the next day!

Our All Saints was very simple: I put a tablecloth on the table (nothing says “special dinner” like digging out a tablecloth, amirite?), made pan de muerto, and we talked a bit about the saints. Oh, and ate a bunch of candy from the night before, of course. The end.

I used this recipe for pan de muerto again, with a few adjustments. I was able to get my hands on some aniseed this year (last year I left it out), which added a really lovely flavour. I cut the recipe in half to get a more manageable size for our family of four, and I decided to skip the glaze. Last year the glaze tasted good, but it made the whole loaf crazy-sticky, which made it hard to cut and even harder to get off little fingers. The bread is sweet enough on its own, really. I forgot to get a picture of the loaf after it was baked, but here are my crossed bones during the second rise:

And that was that.

One of the most satisfying things to me as we build our family and liturgical traditions was realising that nothing has to be extravagant to be special. Simple works very well, as long as simple is different from our regular days. I look forward to continuing these traditions as our children age — even if it means that they will get to choose their own costumes one day!

Weekend Reading: Get your Advent on!

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. Advent Hymns & Carols (One Per Day) (TheHomelyHours.com)

Would you like to learn some more Advent hymns and carols? Now you can. Playlist included.

2. Observing Advent (GenerousOrthodoxy.org)

Maybe the first thing that needs to be said is that Advent, more than any other season of the church year, is countercultural. Lent and Holy Week are supremely countercultural also, but our culture is accustomed to Lent, in at least some respects: the hot-cross buns, the ashes, the rush to church in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday after Mardi Gras, the palms. During Lent, the crowds on Fifth Avenue in New York take no notice of the Lenten array in the churches because they aren’t expecting anything. But when a tourist steps into St Thomas Fifth Avenue on the week before Christmas and sees no display of red poinsettias, it’s an outrage. The purpose of this withholding is to teach us that, in the birth of our Savior, we have received something that is beyond our deserving, beyond our preparations, beyond our human potential, beyond our expectations–that comes to us, in the words of beloved carols, in a “silent night,” in the “dark streets,” “in the bleak midwinter,” in “such a world as this,” to “save us all from Satan’s power.”

3. Angels of Advent (First Things)

We’re so familiar with this Christmas scene that we don’t realize how unique it is. Among the saints of Israel, only Jacob saw what those shepherds saw, the hosts of heaven, and Jacob didn’t hear them sing. In the old covenant, angelic hosts stayed put in heaven, worshipping at the heavenly throne. With the birth of Jesus, heaven comes to earth. As they sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Luke 2:14).

4. The Jesse Tree

This is one of my posts from last year — an introduction to an Advent practice we started in 2017. It may be too late to make your own Jesse Tree ornaments for this year (Advent starts tomorrow, you know!) but there are loads of printables you can find online. We found that it worked pretty well for us last year, and I’m looking forward to trying it again with kids who are a year older and a self who’s a little less frazzled and more experienced!

Mute Sunday

Sunday began shortly before six this morning, when Anselm bounded into our bedroom and announced that it was time to give me his mother’s day card. And then Perpetua wanted to give me her card, of course, because she wants to do whatever her big brother does, and then presents, and then we all rolled out of bed for the usual Sunday morning half-routine half-chaos that eventually sees us out the door on our way to church. It seems to have gotten lush and green around here overnight, and the fog this morning made our ten-minute drive enchanting. Perpetua sang “Jesus loves me” most of the way there (tunelessly, but with gusto) while Anselm anxiously corrected her on all the words she pronounced wrong. All in all, it was a pretty typical morning.

Except for this: I couldn’t speak. We went away this past week and I managed to leave my voice back at the beach. Well, I can whisper. Sort of. It’s more of a croak. In effect, I’m voiceless — which is a strange sort of thing to be when you’re driving to church. Our liturgy is pretty participatory: there’s a fair bit of moving around, and a lot of singing and praying and formal responses to things. And while losing my voice doesn’t affect my ability to sit, kneel, stand, or cross myself, it did pretty well limit my physical participation in the service to those things.

It feels strange to stand in a pew and just listen when everyone around you is singing. It feels strange to listen to the scripture readings without joining the rest of the congregation in the “thanks be to God!” afterwards. It feels strange to kneel to pray without being able to complete the congregational halves of the set versicles and responses.

But what surprised me about going to church without speaking was that it also felt beautiful. Not being able to sing or speak meant that I was able to listen in a new way, without hearing my own voice at the forefront. I could hear the rumble of a hundred-plus voices praying the Lord’s prayer together. I could hear the full force of the congregation’s voices soaring to “Tell Out, My Soul, the Greatness of the Lord!” And it reminded me of one of the beauties of corporate worship, which is precisely that it is corporate: it’s not just about me and God, but it’s about me, and you, and him, and her, and them, and us, and God. It’s about the whole family of believers. Not to mention the great cloud of witnesses and the angelic hosts! And on the days when I can’t sing or speak or pray out loud, it’s the songs and prayers of the great family that lift me up. Perhaps I should stand voiceless in church more often.

And then there was Easter

Clergy families around the world are heaving deep sighs this afternoon: We made it through Holy Week. Phew!

This year I made hot cross buns for our Easter morning breakfast, from this recipe (foodnetwork.com). They came out very well, though I will note that the dough was so sticky that it was almost impossible to work with when it came time to knead. Next year I will increase the flour by half a cup or so and see if that does the trick. They tasted just as they ought, and I am especially pleased with getting the icing right. Often I have trouble hitting the right consistency without going over, so this time I added my liquids a quarter-teaspoon at a time. That was a bit tedious, but it definitely paid off!

We also made “resurrection cookies,” sometimes called “empty tomb cookies,” though much better known just as meringue! The idea is that you recount the story of the crucifixion as you make the meringue cookies, giving each ingredient a symbolic interpretation. They get put into a warm oven overnight (which you seal up with masking tape to represent the seal on Jesus’s tomb), and when you get them out the next morning the cookies are hollow like the empty tomb — at least, that’s the idea.

This is the recipe I used for these, and they came out terribly. I mean, they’re passable as meringues, but they didn’t hollow out at all, or even set in the middle. They are also cloyingly sweet — almost inedible even to my (very) sweet tooth. Next year I will have to just use my regular recipe, which has less than half the sugar called for here, and I will leave the oven on for 10 minutes or so once the cookies are in before turning it off. I like the concept; the kids were pretty engaged; the only problem was the recipe.

Culinary adventures aside, it’s been a lovely Easter. We went to the church egg hunt yesterday (where a good time was had by all), the service this morning was beautiful, the choir played an excellent April Fools joke by coming in with Joy to the World after the intro to the Hallelujah Chorus (which we did sing properly afterwards, I hasten to assure you), everyone ate way too much sugar, and then we had simultaneous meltdowns circa 3 pm. As one does.

A blessed Easter to you and yours. He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

A hymn for Good Friday

Ah, holy Jesus, how has thou offended, that we to judge thee have in hate pretended? By foes derided, by thine own rejected, O most afflicted!

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; thy death of anguish, and thy bitter passion, for my salvation.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered; the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered. For our atonement, while we nothing heeded, God interceded.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I will adore thee, and will ever pray thee: think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving.

Johann Heermann (1630) / Johann Cruger (1899)

The Christmas that was

Twelfth night and Epiphany have come and gone, which means that Christmas is officially over for us. Yesterday we took down all of the decorations and got everything packed up and off to the storage room — and though the tree corner of the living room looks remarkably bare, it is also nice to have things all squared away.

This year I thought we’d try another experiment in our liturgical living project, which was to have a crack at celebrating all twelve days of Christmas. Now, when  we went into Christmas my plan wasn’t much more developed than that — which is definitely something to work on for this coming year, now that I have a better idea of the sorts of things we can do/manage. But my main idea was to have one special treat or activity per day, which we very nearly did. I think we missed a day or two — see: the lack of pre-planning — but on the whole I will still judge the experiment a success.

Here were some of our day’s activities:

  • Making a gingerbread house. We did this on Boxing Day and it went surprisingly smoothly considering that half of us are less than four years old. There was only a moderate amount of swearing, when I was trying to get the [expletive deleted] roof to stay on.
  • Writing thank-you cards. This was Dec 27th’s activity, and I was excited because Anselm has recently started writing his name. Of course, he refused to do it on any of the cards, so several of our recipients just got a half-hearted crayon line or two on his side of the page. Well, it’s the thought that counts, right? (The thought being mine, of course.)
  • We took a trip to a local Fire museum, which had many old and wonderful fire engines from the horse- and man-drawn days of bucket brigades etc. I would love to go back sometime without the kids so that I can read all the plaques. It had a kids’ discovery room with a real engine from the 1930s that we could climb around on, and a model train garden running for the holidays with many local landmarks to spot.
  • We ate the gingerbread house. That counts.
  • We took a whole-family trip to the library, which was special for the kids because usually Daddy is at work when we go.
  • I took the kids to a local indoor playground that had a lot of bounce houses, crazy slides, and the like. It was a huge hit; next time, though, I’d try to bring either my husband or a friend and so have a 1:1 adult:child ratio, because I definitely lost Anselm more than once.
  • My mom came to visit for a day on the way through to her mother’s. The kids were thrilled to see Nana, and my husband and I were thrilled to go out on an actual date to see The Last Jedi.
  • We went with my mom to visit my grandmother for a morning. She is 95 and lives in a wonderful retirement home about an hour and a half away from us. The kids warmed up well and had a very nice visit with great-grandmama, and of course were made pets of by all of the other residents.
  • We had a special feast for Twelfth Night, i.e. I put the tablecloth on and told the kids it was a special feast. Also there were cookies.

There were a few things I had thought of but that we didn’t get to, and there are other things that we did that I can’t, at this moment, quite remember. (Again, I can’t emphasize enough how last-minute all this was.) But even though the adults ran out of steam around halfway through, it was actually really lovely to celebrate Christmas as a season instead of just a day. It can feel so anti-climactic to have the whole long build-up of Advent and then have Christmas be over in just a day or two — this was a much more natural rhythm in many ways. Perhaps there is wisdom in the church’s historical patterns of fasts and feasts — who’d’ve thunk it!

The Jesse Tree

As part of our live-more-liturgically experiment, I thought that we would do a Jesse Tree during Advent this year. What is a Jesse Tree, you ask? Good question. I read a lot of Catholic mom blogs, and a lot of them seem to do Jesse Trees, but not many of them explain what it is. So I will explain.

Essentially, it is this: you make (or buy) a set of Christmas tree ornaments, one for each day in December. Each one has a picture and a scripture reference on it, and together they tell the salvation history narrative, from creation to Jesus’s birth. Every day, you read the scripture or tell the story of that day’s ornament, and put it up. (The name refers to Jesus as the shoot growing from the root of Jesse in Isaiah 11 and has a long history in Christian art.) The ornaments can go on your Christmas tree if you’ve put it up, or on a small purpose-built tree/stand/something that can go on a dining room table or wherever is handy. We’re putting them on our tree.

Now, there are ways to make this more or less complicated. Some sets have auxiliary ornaments that can be used if it’s a longer Advent, or omitted if shorter like this year. I decided just to go with days in December, on account of them always being the same; nothing extra to keep track of is good by me. Some years we’ll start a little before Advent, or a little ways in to it, but that’s no big deal. I made the ornaments* just with pen and pencil crayon on card stock, which then got cut out, laminated (this step is fun), and strung. Very cheap, very simple, and hopefully very durable!

*If you google around, there are many different templates, lists of ornaments, etc. available. I found one with designs I mostly liked to copy, and when I wasn’t keen on what they used I would just look up other examples until I found something that worked.

So far I am willing to call this a success for us. Every night after dinner Anselm and Perpetua each get to eat a chocolate out of their advent calendar, and while they’re eating I show them the ornament and tell the story that goes with it. Then Anselm will pick one of us to help him put it up on the tree — high up out of Perpetua’s reach. And that’s it, really. Our tree just has lights and these ornaments on it; we’ll put on the rest of the decorations just before Christmas. Perpetua is still a bit young to be tracking with it, but Anselm is very excited to see which ornament is revealed every night, and it’s really helping him internalise the stories of the grand sweep of scripture. I certainly hope that the Jesse Tree becomes a long-lasting family tradition.