Present madness

Ladies and gentlemen, do you suffer from . . . . PRESENT MADNESS?

Present madness is when you find yourself choosing, paying for, and possibly even being ecstatic about a gift, even though it is stupid and insane and nobody wants it. You do it because you’ve been caught up in the panic and hysteria of Christmas shopping, and after a certain point, your brain takes one look at your emotional state and decides it wanted no part of this, and leaves. So you end up paying too much money for something that is objectively garbage, but it presents itself to you as if it’s not only a good present, but the thing without which Christmas simply will not happen. 

If this has never happened to you, then please consider the following essay my gift to you, so that you may be happy in the life you have chosen. If what follows is familiar, then this is also your gift: The gift of knowing it’s not just you. 

Present madness happened to me when, as a newlywed, I ended up buying my new husband a heating pad from a drug store for Christmas, and was devastated when he very understandably didn’t like it, because it was a heating pad from a drug store

It happened to me back when I was single and had time to wander around a mall unimpeded, and yet somehow I ended up buying my younger brother a rubber steering wheel cover decorated with red and yellow flames. (My brother did not own a car.)

It happened to me last year, when I came within microns of pressing “order” for a pair of Harlem Globe Trotter Heelys for a child who not only never expressed an interest in Heelys, but doesn’t know who the Harlem Globe Trotters are and may not even know what basketball is.

And it came very close to happening this year, when we went to GameStop (ptui, ptui) a week before Christmas in search of a very specific item.

Before you judge us for what I’m about to relate, please remember that we had “finished shopping” weeks ago, and were smugly resting on our materialistic laurels, quietly sneering at those inferior parents who had squandered their Advent praying or serving the poor or whatever. We, being wise and prudent, had Christmas literally in the bag. We had ordered almost everything online, and let the goodies come to us, and honestly, most of the gifts were wholesome, thoughtful, and occasionally delightful. But, about a week before Christmas, we locked ourselves into our bedroom to make sure everything on our list was actually in our possession. 

Oh dear. It turned out two items we had ordered were still in transit, and expected Thursday (Christmas eve). One item had quietly changed its expected arrival date to March 25. One apparently hadn’t realized it was coming all the way from China, and in a panic, sent us a rather hostile email saying that there’s no way it would make it on time unless we coughed up an extra $40 in shipping, and we had to say yes or no two weeks ago, and it went to spam. And one was still meekly sitting in an Etsy cart, hoping and praying I’d actually order it. 

The lo, the twinkly world of Christmas joy became dark in our eyes. And so we succumbed to Present Madness.

We shouted something vague at the kids about being back soon, and we went to, uh, seven stores, looking to just pick up a few things to fill in the gaps in our carefully calibrated present list.

And we found nothing. Walmart, Target, Michael’s, the local toy store, the local comic store, even the retail wasteland known as TJ Maxx, but NOTHING.

To GameStop then we came, burning burning burning. 

If you’re not familiar with GameStop, it’s a sort of geeky gehenna that sells video games, used video games, and a horrifying array of spectacularly useless game-related merch. The rug smells funny, the air is bad, the employees are all shriveled monsters, and whoever sets the prices should go to prison. Last time I went to GameStop, many moons ago, I went to advocate for my gangly, curly-haired teenage son, who had somehow gotten himself embroiled in a complicated situation involving a box of special edition Sonic the Hedgehog breakfast cereal. I don’t ever want to talk about that. But the line was moving turrribly slowly, and I soon saw that the delay was being caused by a middle-aged woman with stooped shoulders and baggy eyes, who was passionately arguing for justice on behalf of her gangly, curly-headed teenage son. Something about reward points and the collectable My Hero Academia shoelaces he had ordered.

And I says to myself, I says, if I wanted to look in a mirror, I could do that in the comfort of my own home, and at least I could sit down. So I never went back, until last weekend, when we had nowhere else to turn and GameStop knew it.

My feet hurt so much, they were audibly whimpering.  My nose was running behind my mask, and I had to go to the bathroom. We hadn’t made a dent on our list at all, except that we had bought one thing that took care of one kid, but which shifted the balance of presents so that now a kid who had formerly been done suddenly needed a little extra present to even things up. Yes, I said “needed!” Don’t question me! I’ll cut you!

So we made the ultimate sacrifice and went to Game Stop, and we still didn’t find the thing we were looking for, because it’s Game Stop. We circled around and around to make sure the thing was not there, and it was not. But. What is this?  What is this amazing thing? It is so amazing! It is, and you’re not going to believe this! It is a Dragonball Z hot air popcorn maker that lights up! So cool! And we knew exactly who would want such a thing: A child who didn’t need any more Christmas presents. But it is on sale! And it is a limited edition! Or maybe it doesn’t light up, but is just orange! Hard to tell from the box! Only six left! And her birthday is in April, so we could pack it away and be ahead of the game! We’d have to be insane NOT to buy it! So we grabbed one and got into line, chortling to ourselves at what a wonderful present we had scored, and how much progress we were making, because look at us, buying something!

Luckily, it was GameStop, which means the line was moving slowly. As we waited, we had time to stop and reflect. And we realized that we were about to spend $30 on absolute garbage that would make zero people happy. So, get this, we put it back, and we left the store without buying anything.

Just this once, we triumphed over Present Madness.

Except then we went to Walmart and bought a Frozen II Karaoke machine and also a rose gold microphone at Aldi, in case we need it. We might need it! I’ll cut you!

Maybe you think this is an essay about how we learned our lesson about excessive materialism, and how, having renounced the Dragonball Z Air Popper and all its empty promises, we vowed to realign our hearts toward the Christchild, who was born in Bethlehem with only swaddling clothes to cover him and only a choir of angels to sing him to sleep, and that was enough. That was enough. 

But no. One of my sisters just mentioned on Facebook she’s eyeing a self-stirring mug they just put out at Walmart, and now I need to find my car keys. I honestly think the angels will still be singing when I get back. 

The O Antiphons reimagined: My interview with Sr. Ansgar Holmberg

Ansgar Holmberg, C.S.J., 86, didn’t paint her O Antiphon series to edify or instruct anyone. They were meant only for herself.

Ansgar (she likes to be called by her first name) has been with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 67 years, and although she has spent time teaching children and offering spiritual direction, she created these seven paintings over the course of three years as a personal way to contemplate Scripture.

“I had read what other people had said, but I decided to paint them for myself, for me to understand them better. That’s one of the ways I learn,” Ansgar said.

Now the seven paintings, done in brilliant gouache (a kind of opaque watercolor), are gathered in a small book, Praying the Advent Names of God, paired with poems composed by another sister in the community, Joan Mitchell, C.S.J.

The O Antiphons are a series of seven verses dating from the sixth century and prayed during vespers during the last week of Advent. Each antiphon is a name of Jesus taken from Scripture, and they are the basis for the popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Ansgar’s images are saturated with color and inhabit a strange space between iconography and myth. Ansgar said she did not set out to express a theological idea with her works; she simply followed her intuition.

“I didn’t have any rules or laws or requests put upon me, but it was my own expression of where I was at that time as I worked with these,” she said. “I put my own spin on it, and it went a bit more cosmic.”

Wisdom, for instance, is frequently portrayed in Western art with symbols like a lamp, a book or a female form enthroned; but in Ansgar’s conception, Wisdom is a figure descending fluidly from the heavens, grasping the sun in one hand, breathing out waters and engraving the bed of a riverbank with the other hand. Wisdom, Ansgar said, is proceeding from the womb of God.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: “O Wisdom” from Praying the Advent Names of God by Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ, and Joan Mitchell, CSJ, used with permission 

 

Hush, there’s a baby nearby!

Advent at the Fisher house includes singing, lighting of candles, opening a door on the Advent calendar, reading the passage from the calendar’s matching booklet, picking the appropriate homemade ornament and hanging it on the Jesse tree, looking up and reading the corresponding passage from scripture, and plucking the chocolate out of your own personal Advent calendar, if you haven’t already eaten them all, if you haven’t already brushed your teeth. Well, brush them again, then.

Fisher family Advent has, in short, transcended tradition and achieved rigmarole status. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m happy to be doing special things that we don’t do at any other time of year. It’s a nice combination of scripture and aesthetics and memorable lessons, perfect for children and adults alike. It wouldn’t really feel like Advent without it.

But it would feel even more like Advent if I didn’t yell at everyone the whole time we were doing it. It would feel more like Advent if I focused less on reading the right Bible verse in the correct tone of voice, and focused more on being open to the word of God. If I lit a flame in the darkness and let that symbol speak to the kids’ hearts’ directly, rather than correcting them for pronouncing “Is-ra-el” wrong, or brooding in my heart that I’ve raised them all wrong, and we need to start doing scripture drills every night, and I need to start being a better mother so I will have better kids who do things better. 

If, in short, I prepared a way for the Lord for the sake of the Lord, rather than preparing for the sake of getting preparations done.

Shh, there’s a little baby nearby! 

That’s what I’m trying now to keep in mind. This thought, this image of a newborn nearby, helps make my Advent a little more like Advent. It makes everything a little gentler, a little quieter, a little more slow and thoughtful, just as if there were a tiny baby in the next room, someone I don’t want to disturb, someone I don’t want to grieve. Someone whose world I want to make warm and quiet, soft, welcoming, and kind.

I can’t always control what I have to do during the day, but I can control how I do it. For the sake of the baby nearby, I can take a breath and give a mild answer if someone insults me. For the sake of the baby, I can offer help to someone who’s struggling, rather than waiting for them to ask. I can warmly compliment someone for achieving something small. I can hush my tone of voice; I can apologize sincerely when I screw it up. I can try again without flagellating myself for my inevitable sins. I can skip the sarcastic remark; I can forego the conversation that will only lead to irritation. I can think of the baby nearby, think of the kind of world I want him to grow up in, and I can do what I can to make it a little softer. 

I can recognize that I have been noisy and quarrelsome, critical and demanding, and I can think of the baby nearby, and I can hush.

This is what works for me, since so much of my life has been dedicated to caring for babies. But what about you? What if you don’t have a baby in your life?

Oh, but you do.  You have someone helpless, someone in need, someone who needs patience, someone who is easily frightened or overwhelmed. Someone overlooked. Someone who is just starting out, someone who isn’t getting much done but could still use some praise. Someone whose world would be better if you decided to act out of love. 

The “baby” may look like a snotty teenager, an obnoxious co-worker, or a difficult parent. It may look like a pushy stranger on the sidewalk, or a rude cashier. It may look like a priest who’s disappointed you, or an internet troll who really is out to get you. It may look like someone who never thinks of what you need. 

Or it may even be yourself. We can be so extremely hard on themselves at this time of year, keeping up a constant interior litany of blame and reproach for not doing it right, telling ourselves terrible things that we’d never dream of saying about anyone else. 

This is what people are like: Needy and demanding, fussy and inconveniently fragile. Would we respond any differently if the people we encountered were new babies? Could we be a little more gentle?

What if you remembered that you, yourself, were a little baby once, and even though you can feed and care for yourself now, you still deserve to be treated with gentleness, even if only by yourself? 

At all times of the year, but especially at Advent: It’s always about the person closes to us – or, if you like, it’s all about the baby nearby. And this is how we serve the Person who, liturgically speaking, is nearby, about to be born. We tell our kids that Christmas is Baby Jesus’ birthday, and the kind of presents he wants is for us to be good to each other — and yes, to ourselves. Sometimes the best kind of goodness we can offer is just a little gentleness, a soft touch, a decision not to make noise. A little hush, for the sake of the baby. This is a good way to make way for the Lord: With gentleness.

It’s Advent. There’s a baby nearby. Hush, hush. 

[This essay has been modified excerpted from an essay first published in The Catholic Weekly in 2016.]

Image by Paul Goyette from Chicago, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

THIS IS NOT THE YEAR: A 2020 Advent song for people with good taste

As I walked out one evening
In the dark December air,
I saw my neighbors hanging lights
On trees and everywhere.
My first thought was to chide them
Because Advent’s barely here
But a passing angel thwapped my head
And whispered in my ear…

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

What’s for supper? Vol. 196: CAKE OR PIE?

Merry Christmas! Merry merry Christmas! I hope you are still celebrating the season by finding stray candy canes in the couch cushions, and I hope some of them are the good rainbow kind.

I don’t seem to have done a food post last week, so before we get to Christmas ridiculousness, here are a few of the more notable things we had:

Harvest chicken salad, which I thought was delicious. 

It was greens with  . . . listen, I had kale for mine. I really like kale. I don’t know why people have to act like it’s going to refurbish your entire immune system, remove generational curses, and restore the childhood enamel to all your molars; but I also don’t know why people have to act like it’s some kind of undigestible, grotesque torture food. It’s just got a nice ribbony texture and a pleasant, slightly sweet flavor. It’s just a kind of salad guys, yeesh. Now if you want to talk about frisee lettuce, there is some nasty, bitter stuff that should not be ingested. Ptui. 

So over the kale, I had roasted chicken breast, bacon, chopped dates, chopped pecans, green apples, feta cheese, and a honey mustard dressing. Very tasty.

I like to fill the house with the heavenly aroma of frying bacon, and then chop it up for salad. It reminds the kids I have the power of life and death over them. 

I also made a meal that was sort of Thanksgiving But With Pork, with pork chops, stuffing, mashed butternut squash, and cranberry sauce. I always feel like Thanksgiving is so exhausting, I don’t fully appreciate the stuffing, so I wanted some more stuffing, with plenty of butter, mushrooms, onions, celery, and of course butter. Sidenote: Due to shoddy work ethics among textile workers, my pants are all tight. 

This was the day I launched into December’s rendition of that wonderful song “You People Don’t Appreciate What I Do For You,” which had enough choruses to last me right up until Christmas. I did shut up eventually, but I feel like I could start again at any moment. 

Oh, and Benny had a birthday party and I made her this Starfire cake, which pleased her:

For a snacktivity, I gave the party guests a bunch of fruits and veggies, soft cheeses, nutella, etc, and they made little bugs. These kids are 8 years old, which is apparently the perfect age for this activity. They had such a good time. 

As long as I’m dumping all the food pictures, at some point we had a snow day and seized the opportunity to make buckeyes:

We only had time to make the peanut butter balls and freeze them, to be dipped in melted chocolate later. We still have not dipped them in chocolate. They are still in the freezer. Many of my kids thought buckeyes are supposed to be eaten frozen, which will tell you how often we get to this stage and then stall out. 

Oh, I also made a ton of chocolate pretzel snacks for the kids’ school party. I have become completely resigned to the fact that I just don’t make good cookies, at all, so this is fine. You just put a Hershey’s Kiss on a pretzel, put it in the oven for a few minutes, and then press an M&M into it, then freeze it. 

I guess that’s really all we had that was interesting. There was some kind of stew I remember eating, but that was 400 years ago. Onward. Here’s what we had this week:

SATURDAY
Steak, chips

I misread the flyer and thought it was some kind of chuck roast on sale, so I planned sandwiches or whatever. To my delight, it turned out to be steak for $1.99 a pound! I bought so many pounds. Damien seasoned it heavily and broiled it in the oven. Corrie said, “The red part is the good part!” and I ogree. 

We all got to confession on Saturday, so that was a relief, although I must say that was the most misbegotten travesty of a confession line I’ve ever seen. Nobody knew where to go and everyone was being so terrible! In the confession line! Why can’t they just put a sign? 

SUNDAY
Ham, mashed potatoes, peas

This meal was half convenience, half wish fulfillment. Benny and Corrie consider this to be the ideal meal, and who can blame them? It was also very easy to set up ahead of time and eat when we got home late from the musical of A Christmas Carol, in which Moe was Bob Crachit. Moe did great. I’m not gonna lie, it was kind of a weird production. I did not expect the Ghost of Christmas Present to go into a razzle dazzle soft shoe number with a chorus line of sexy puddings, but, you know what, this paragraph is like a gift that you think is going to be a fun cool robot, but it’s actually a STEM kit that you have to put together yourself. Acting. Ham. You put it together, kid; Mama needs more coffee.

Sunday was also the first night of Hanukkah. We’ve been lighting the candles and saying the prayers, but have postponed latkes and other more elaborate fun until after Christmas. 

MONDAY
Pizza

So at some point in December, I promised two of my daughters that I’d take them out dress shopping. On Monday, I remembered about one of them. (I didn’t remember the other one until we were getting ready for Christmas Mass and she reminded me that I never did take her dress shopping. She also reminded me that she had reminded me several times throughout the month. I am sorry. I am sorry about many things.) So we went to . . . .seven stores. And found a dress! It was a nice dress. Damien made the pizzas, and they were good. 

I think it was Monday that we did a final gift reconciliation survey and discovered that we had screwed the pooch and given one kid something that was on her sister’s list. So Damien did the one thing he swore he wouldn’t do this year: He went to GameStop. Greater love hath etc. etc. It all worked out in the end.

Also on Tuesday we finally got the tree lights up. We started putting lights up before Thanksgiving, because it’s so freaking dark and nobody likes that. I’ve been gradually adding strands, and by Christmas eve, the general theme was “LOOKIT ALL THE LIGHTS.” 

TUESDAY
Deli sandwiches, fries, shrimp cocktail, White Russians

At some point during the day, I had decided it was Very Important to have new homemade decorations for the tree, so I sliced up a bunch of lemons and clementines and put them in a 170 oven to dry for several hours.

Promising, right? They smelled great, and I ran out to the store for miscellaneous whatnot and also the food items for the St. Vincent de Paul giving tree that I had completely forgotten about. I also lost the tags, so I grabbed a big bunch of stuff that I would have wanted when I was poor. I also for some reason promised Corrie a new dress, which we miraculously found at Walmart. It was a ridiculous Anna dress with a little tulle cape and she looked both regal and puffy, which she does every day. So of course I forgot the citrus slices were in the oven, and most of them burned, especially the lemons.

This is why you come to this site: So I can go, “Look at my burned lemons!” and you can go, “This is why I come to this site.” I did salvage a few of the orange slices and made some dubious items with embroidery thread, ribbons, beads, and star anise. 

Sometimes you finish stuff just so you can say you freaking finished something for once.

That evening, we decorated the tree. Actually Damien told me to go lie down, and the kids decorated the tree while singing “Monster Mash.” Works for me. We went to the 10 PM Mass (they don’t have midnight Mass in our area), and to be honest I spent most of it crying because apparently that’s what I do now. Here we are with our goons:

Yes, this is the best picture of the lot. No, Corrie was not sleepy. FAR FROM IT.

But we did pack them off to bed eventually and did all the final preparations

and then collapsed. 

WEDNESDAY
CHRISTMAS!

Our traditional Christmas breakfast is eight pounds of bacon, dozens and dozens of cinnamon buns, grapes and cherries, eggnog, and orange juice. 

I made Pioneer Woman’s cinnamon rolls earlier in the week and froze them, then defrosted them overnight in the fridge. I made so many rolls that I baked the second batch for lunch and made some more juice and we started all over again. 

For dinner . . . Well.  We have been ordering a pu pu platter for 15 from the restaurant down the road for something like 11 years. Never any problem. But hours after we placed this year’s order, shortly before we were supposed to pick it up, they called us and said there had been some miscommunication between the front desk and the kitchen and they couldn’t accommodate us! Hate speech!!!  They said that they could only take orders for pu pu platters for five. Damien asked if three of us could call and order pu pu platters for five, and the poor woman mumbled that it was “a gray area.” I have no idea what kind of big trouble was going on in that little Chinese restaurant, but we shook the dust from our feet and heroically called the other Chinese restaurant down the other street, and ordered a pu pu platter for 15. I think we squeaked in just under the wire. When we came in to pick up the food, half the staff was close to hysteria, and the other half was all in. A family came in after us and the waitress screamed, “NO! NO COME IN! NO ROOM!” and flapped a stack of styrofoam takeout trays at them until they ran away.

But we were the lucky ones, and we collected our fragrant bags and left. It turns out this particular restaurant doesn’t consider egg rolls to be part of a pu pu platter, but it was still good. This meal fills my heart with gratitude for a family that would really, truly rather have Chinese takeout than an elaborate homemade feast. 

Christmas day was just wonderful. Everyone was happy, everyone was nice, everyone got along. It was great. The worst thing that happened was that one kid got a Godzilla toy that he already had, but luckily his parents are so insane, they had a spare Godzilla present in their bedroom just in case, to save the day. Here is a bit of Christmas morning, in which we fulfilled the sacred ancient ritual of Cake or Pie? (You will want the sound on.)

I could explain it, but I don’t think you’d come away knowing any more than you do right now. It’s my favorite part of Christmas morning. 

THURSDAY
There were many, many leftovers from the day before, so I made a pot of rice and Damien picked up some egg rolls and sushi from the supermarket and we did it all again. 

FRIDAY

I honestly don’t know what we’re having for supper today. We do have some crackers and mascarpone, smoked salmon, and caviar that I somehow thought we’d have room for on Christmas day, but we did not. We’re still drowning in cinnamon buns, and I vastly overestimated how much eggnog twelve people could ingest.

It’s a good thing that, as Catholics, we understand that the main point of Christmas is eating. I think we nailed it. 

Ooh, maybe we’ll have latkes tonight. 

Mary and Jesus our castle entire: Mary the fireplace, Jesus the fire. 

Merry Christmas, my dears! We’re headed off to Mass in a few hours and will pray for you all. 

Here’s a good poem which, as far as I can tell, is by Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli. It’s from Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith. The image is Mary Panagia (“All-Holy”) icon from Cyprus via Needpix.

Thanks for reading, thanks for commenting, thanks for laughing at my stupid jokes, thanks for getting mad when I say stupid things. I loves you all, but Jesus loves you more. 

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Body of Christ, from Mary’s body;
Blood of Christ, from Mary’s blood.

Jesus the bread, Mary the yeast;
Mary the kitchen, Jesus the feast.

Mary the Mother by whom we are fed;
Mary the oven, Jesus the bread.

Mary the soil, Jesus the vine;
Mary the wine maker, Jesus the wine.

Jesus the Tree of Life, Mary the sod;
Mary our God-bearer, Jesus our God.

Mary the silkworm, Jesus the silk;
Mary the nurse, Jesus the milk.

Mary the stem, Jesus the flower;
Mary the stairway, Jesus the tower.

Mary and Jesus, our castle entire;
Mary the fireplace, Jesus the fire.

Mary God’s ink, Jesus God’s name;
Mary the burning bush, Jesus the flame.

Mary the paper, Jesus the Word;
Mary the nest, Jesus the bird.

Mary the artery, Jesus the blood;
Mary the floodgate, Jesus the flood.

Mary and Jesus, our riches untold;
Mary the gold mine, Jesus the gold.

 

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Juggling, jargon, and the golden ball

Last week, I read Tomie dePaola’s wonderful story, The Clown of God, to my faith formation class. (If you don’t own the book, you can hear and see it read aloud in this video.)

Before I read the book, I prepped the class a bit. It happened to be my daughter’s birthday, as well as the last class before Christmas, so we talked about birthdays and presents. To my relief, they all knew that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.

And what present does Jesus want for his birthday? We established that he probably doesn’t want a Hot Wheels Ultimate Gator Car Wash play set, and he probably doesn’t want a Barbie Sparkle Lights Mermaid.  So what does he want?

Most of them were baffled. Then a few hands shot up.

“Love!”  said one kid. I smiled and nodded, and wrote that down on the white board.

“Community,” said another. “Respect, service, compassion.”

He laid the words out flatly, like a card dealer mechanically snapping cards out on a table. He had clearly heard them a thousand times before, and knew how to say the thing the teacher wants you to say: Jesus wants us to love one another. Jesus likes community. Jesus likes service. Some of these kids are barely in contact with anything religious, but others have been in Catholic school since they were tiny, and at the tender age of eight, they are full to the brim with jargon.

So I read them the book. The story goes like this . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

 

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Image: Detail from illustration from Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God

Meaningful Christmas traditions and how to wrangle them

I’ve tried various esoteric practices involving veiled candles, bits of straw, paper chains, acts of service, gift lotteries, medieval anagrams, and every other kind of overachieving cultural what-have-you that caught my eye while I was desperate to make everything Meaningful For The Children.

I remember one year worrying so hard about materialism that I told the kids that one of their presents would be the opportunity to choose a gift for a poor child, and donate it. It wasn’t a bad idea . . . for the older kids. The younger kids, predictably, misunderstood horribly, and it was bloody awful. I only hope they’re so young, they don’t remember the year Mama apparently told them they could pick a toy for themselves and then forced them to dump it into a box and walk away for no reason at all. AT CHRISTMAS.

So. We don’t do that anymore. Through the decades, here is what I have learned about Christmas family traditions . . . 

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly

Let’s treat retail and service workers like human beings

This year, I have three kids working in retail. One is at a giant arts and crafts store chain, one is at a deli counter in a supermarket, and one is at a popular coffee shop.

One has had potato salad thrown at her. One has had her teeth insulted. And one just started his new job yesterday, so nothing bad happened yet, but his last job was at an old-fashioned candy shop, and you’d be amazed to see how spectacularly nasty people can be when they’re surrounded by jars of brightly colored sugar.

When my kids get home from work, they often dejected and bitter about the interactions they had with customers. These are decent, competent kids who really make an effort to do what is expected of them; but just because they’re behind a cash register or have an apron on, so many customers allow themselves to vent their spleen and call them names, insult their intelligence, blame them for things they can’t possibly control, or just treat them with disgust, rolling their eyes, sighing noisily, flapping their hands with disdain. I know it’s only going to get worse as it gets closer to Christmas. If Christmas shopping is a beast, they all work right in the heart of that beast. 

Customers are stressed out and overwhelmed by all the shopping and planning that needs to get done (or at least, that they’ve convinced themselves needs to get done). I’ve been there! When lots of people are depending on you to fulfill their expectations, it’s hard to keep perspective.

But really. Everyone. When is it ever more important to keep your perspective? If you’re not going to treat strangers well when you’re preparing for the birth of Christ, then when are you going to treat strangers well? The day after Christmas? The day after that? Maybe on your death bed?

Let’s all make a resolve to get this right, this year. Lots of people working retail and service jobs just got hired, and are just learning the ropes right when it’s busiest and everyone is at their most demanding.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
Image by Pedro Serapio from Pixabay

25+ gifts our 10 kids loved! The 2019 Christmas list

Back by popular demand! It’s the 2019 list of Christmas presents our ten kids loved. I’ve been doing these lists every December since 2014. We actually own everything I recommend, so browse around and be inspired or horrified, as the case may be. I’ll include links to previous lists at the end. 

I’m not an Amazon Associate anymore, but if you’re ordering through Amazon, please consider going through this link and supporting my kids’ charter school through the Amazon Smiles program

Prices are about what we paid, but they may change over time. The list is a bit shorter than usual because we’ve been trying to shop more locally, which means I don’t have a tidy little list of past orders to refer to.

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An attractive little set. Seal letters and envelopes with your initial. Works as expected. 
 
Scratch away the black coating with wooden styluses to reveal colors or shimmering glitter underneath. Kids’ hands get a bit smudgy after using several of these, but they are pretty self-contained otherwise. Sheets come in sturdy little boxes. A big enough supply so you don’t have to stress out that they’re wasting them on scribbles.
 

3. Harry Potter Gryffindor Robe, about $40

For those kids who are still, still, still into Harry Potter. A comfy robe, very Harry Potter, holds up with lots of wear. Other houses available, of course.

4. Sorry We’re Dead Retail Store Sign, about $8

For that one kid to hang on her bedroom door. 

5. Lizard leash with wings, $8.99

For them as has bearded dragons. If you’re thinking of getting a pet, you could do worse than a bearded dragon, by the way. They require a large tank and heating elements and fresh food like crickets, but once you buy the supplies, these guys are pretty cheap and easy to maintain. They are surprisingly charming, and have a lot of personality. Our bearded dragon is much smarter than our cat. 

6. Multi-tool Swiss Army pocket knife, about $20

A good little knife. Cool translucent cover, comes in several colors besides this blue. 

7. Naruto Uzumaki Jacket

Quite snazzy. We have some rabid Naruto fans. This is not a costume, but a real jacket, albeit not the warmest one in the world. 

 

It’s either very comfortable, or just so fabulous you don’t care if it’s uncomfortable, not sure which. Not to be worn at Stations of the Cross, but good for every other last possible waking moment, including *sigh* school picture day. 
 
 
 
 
It’s still not clear to me why the kid wanted this so desperately, but she sure loves it. A smallish purse on a long chain, with an inside section you can remove from the outer, cut-out layer. 
 
 
 
Clever product for people who can’t leave their jigsaw puzzles lying around. It has an inflatable tube on one end of the felt mat. Roll it up and secure it with rubber bands, and your puzzle is safe from cats, toddlers, etc. I was skeptical, but it really works. 
 
11. A few nice puzzles:
 
 
 
 
 
 
Can you believe this is the first time we have bought Snap Circuits? They are just as much fun as everyone promised. Hours of fascination putting together all kinds of projects that really work, without welding. For ages 8 and up. 
 
 
 
Two game modes. Works well for parties, or you can play solo. Just like you remember: Very bright and very loud. Caveat emptor. 
 
 
 

Easy to learn, a little weird and crude, lots of laughing. You have to draw cards that say things like “see the future” (so you can look at the top three cards) or “potato cat” (they explained it to me, but I forget) until you choose an exploding kitten card, which has to be defused. Trip up your opponents and prepare yourself for the exploding kitten card. Good party game. 

15. Ukulele bundle, about $85

 
 
 
One hipster fad I fully endorse. It turns out a ukulele really is easy to learn to play, and it’s small enough to bring with you. Very pleasant to hear the gentle music wafting through bedroom walls. According to the seller, this “concert” size is the size “recommended for most adults & children age 9 & up.” Comes with case, strap, picks, tuner, and an instructional video. 
 
 
 
 

Lots of variety, great for learning. Opens flat (also comes in digital format).

Just as described! We had a kid who was really into making little beaded lizards for a while, and this kept her busy. Sturdy storage box, but note there is only one lid for all the compartments, so be careful!
 
 
 
 
Fun little set. My 13-year-old got a lot of use out of it. A generous supply of glitter stuff. The tattoos last for a few days, but are easy to clean off when you’re ready. 
 
 
Generous size (3.5×5 feet). My then-six-year-old made this almost entirely on her own with no trouble, and found it very satisfying. 
 
 
 
Lots of fun, great for tournaments. Brings together characters from all different Nintendo games, and you can also design your own Mii fighter with their own moves and voices and clothes. One of my kids fights with an axe-wielding Abraham Lincoln. 
 
 
You need two, so they can fight with each other! Or help each other down off horses, or hand each other grapes. Great present for an aspiring artist. 
 
 
 
This is what my daughter, THE PUBLISHED ILLUSTRATOR, recommends as a good starter set. 
 
 
eeBoo games are hands-down the best games for little kids. In this one, you spread a cheery red picnic blanket and start spinning the spinner to collect food. You win when you’ve collected all the elements of a perfect picnic meal. The pieces are bright and sturdy and the spinner works well. My then-three-year-old adored this game, and the older kids didn’t mind playing with her. 
 
 
 
This is just cute as all get out. The color is somewhat brighter than it looks in this picture. Glossy and solid, sturdy enough to hold up under some living room rodeo action.  Kids love having their own special chairs. (It also comes in brown, pink, blue, and white.) Very well made for the price. You do have to assemble it, but it wasn’t difficult.
 
 
 
Just a pretty headband for your little flower. Comes in many different colors. 
 
 
 

This is just an awesome, basic sewing machine that makes sewing as easy as it can possibly be. It has dozens and dozens of cool stitches, it’s easy to thread (with instructions printed right on the machine), and it takes a beating and keeps on sewing. Comes with hard case and many accessories. I showed my teenagers how to use this machine in about 15 minutes, and away they went. 

If you want to spend less (or more!), you really can’t go wrong with Brother.

 
***
 
And that’s it! Happy shopping. Here are my lists from previous years. I haven’t checked through to make sure all the links work, but at least you can find some ideas. 
 
The 2018 list (50 presents)
 
The 2017 list (50 presents)
 
The 2016 list (50 presents)
 
The 2015 list (25 presents under $50)
 
The 2014 list (50 presents)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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