Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Our Family Traditions

Dear Friends,

Unless I was stirring up trouble and tormenting my sister, we were a nice quiet family. Christmas morning was the most exciting day of the year for us three kids, but our family ritual was so reverent it looked like something that Norman Rockwell would want to paint. We sat in a circle around the tree and one by one we took turns opening up one gift at a time. All attention was focused on the one whose turn it was and once the ooohs and aaahs were said and the commemorative photo was taken, we moved onto the next person. On one Christmas, we spent four hours opening gifts! We savored every moment and every gift. The family ritual, the filled stockings on the mantle, having breakfast with the grandparents, the ceremonial opening of the gifts. This was the right way to celebrate Christmas!

When I was a young man and engaged to an Italian girl, I was shocked at how her family did Christmas. First, they opened their gifts up on Christmas Eve which was just plain wrong to start with. Then it got downright violent. Their tradition was that the kids gathered in the hall at the edge of the living room. There was shouting and screaming and when the mother yelled “NOW!” they all rushed the tree. The brother pushed the little sister out of the way and she fell down. She got up and started slugging him as hard as she could. They were all grabbing gifts and as fast as they could they were ripping off the paper. As soon as a gift was unwrapped it got thrown into different pile. Sometimes in the chaos, you'd pick up a gift that wasn't yours but that didn't matter. You'd rip off the paper, and if it was a doll for little sister, you'd just toss it into her pile and grab another gift. There was laughing and shouting and gifts were getting kicked and stepped on. Any cards or sentiments on gift tags were not read and were immediately thrown in the trash pile. Tree ornaments were stepped on and the broken glass ground into the carpet. The year I witnessed this travesty and mayhem they called “Christmas,” there was so much struggling to get the gifts under the tree, the whole tree fell on them. It was irreverent, rude and chaotic to this Episcopal Church boy who had missed the Christmas Eve service to attend this family’s holiday havoc. The next morning, my now hung-over fiancee was so bored by my family Christmas tradition that she kept falling asleep. For weeks after, she and I argued over the “right way” to celebrate Christmas. For her family, it was the most fun they’d have all year! But before the next Christmas season, I broke off the engagement after she tried to kill me with a butcher knife, and I vowed to never again date a Sicilian girl from a New York mafia family.

One of the most wonderful things about family Christmas celebrations is that our family rituals are our’s alone. Your family traditions most likely have not looked like mine or hers. They looked like yours

But have you ever been curious about how others around the world celebrate Christmas? In Belgium, Christmas breakfast is a special sweet bread “Cougnou” that’s shaped like the baby Jesus. In Brazil, the poor families who can’t afford a tree use a dry tree branch and put cotton on it to simulate snow. At midnight In Finland, Christmas starts with a sauna. Dinner is traditionally boiled codfish or pickled salmon and herrings. In Germany, the children wait in the dining room until they hear the ringing of a bell and that’s when they rush into the living room to open their gifts. In Hungary, children go to a relative’s house and while they are gone, Jesus brings a tree and gifts to their house. 

In Portugal, the traditional dinner is salted, dry codfish with boiled potatoes. (I found many cultures that celebrate with salted, dried fish.) In Africa, the most important part of the Christmas church service is the love offering. It’s the birthday gift given to Jesus and each person comes up to the altar and lays down their love offering. On Christmas eve, children in Africa march up and down streets singing Christmas carols and shouting, “Christ is coming, Christ is coming, He is near!” In Bethlehem, the Christian homes are marked with a cross painted over the door and each house has a nativity scene that is handmade by a family member. 

In Russia, Christmas eve is a twelve course meal with each course in honor of one of the twelve apostles and it’s not Santa that brings gifts to Russian children it’s “Babushka.” Babushka means grandmother and the legend is that she declined to go with the Wise Men to visit Jesus because the weather was too cold. But when the Wise Men left, she regretted her decision and filled a basket of gifts for Jesus and hurried to try to catch up to the Wise Men. Ancient Babushka never found the Wise Men or Jesus and that’s why she visits each house leaving gifts for the children.

The passage of time in our lives has changed the traditions of our own childhood. We may think back to long-ago Christmases with fond, loving memories or we may be glad that our family circumstances are different today. Family members, rituals and traditions change with the seasons of life and yet, what has remained the same over our lifetime and over the past 2000 years is the unchanging, immutable Jesus Christ. That’s why, no matter what our Christmas day tradition looks like, perhaps we should stop to take a deep breath and just ponder the wonder of it all. “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.” Luke 2:20 The shepherds praised God for the birth of Jesus and we too give thanks and praise to our Almighty Father for the redeeming gift of His only Begotten Son. Amen?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Empty Manger

Dear Friends,

So when the blonde love of my life told me her birthday would be on a Tuesday, she asked if I would be available to spend the previous week with her to celebrate. I said, “Hey Babe! Of course! It's your birthday! It's all about you!” 

And honestly, I really did have good intentions of spending that time with her. But that was before I found out that my favorite outlet stores in Camarillo were having huge annual sales that week. It really was incredible! Everything at every store was deeply discounted up to 70% off! And Best Buy was having some unbelievable sales on laptops that I couldn’t pass up. So, I had to tell her that due to the unfortunate timing of these fantastic sales, I was going to be pretty busy in the weeks before her birthday. I was sure she'd understand...

She asked if we could at least spend the day before her birthday together – the day we call “Birthday Eve.” I told her I couldn't because I was going to be throwing a big birthday celebration party on Tuesday and that meant on Monday I needed to just focus on decorating the house and baking cookies. We were having a ton of relatives and friends over for the big day and I had so much to do to get ready! I was sure she’d understand...

When I told her that, she got really excited that I was having a big party for her birthday! That made me feel a little guilty because I had been putting off telling her the bad news. I had to tell her that with all of our family and friends that I had invited, there would be no room for her. She was shocked. Angry. She was crying. She said, “I’m the birthday girl! How can you have a party and not invite me !!” 

Perhaps I was just a little insensitive when I said, “Get real, woman!! The birthday is just the reason to throw the party! They just come for the food and the fun! They love the birthday gift exchange! No one cares if you’re there!” Once she calmed down, I was sure she’d understand...

She then asked if she could just maybe hang out  with me the day after her birthday so that she could spend some time with me. But I had to tell her that on Wednesday morning I was probably going to be burned out and exhausted. I told her that I needed to clean up after her birthday party and put things away. I also explained to her that Macy’s and Target were having their huge clearance sale events on Wednesday and I really wanted to be there when the stores opened. I was sure she’d understand...

Okay. By now of course, you’ve all figured out that none of that really happened and it was a completely fictitious story. If I ever did treat her like that on her birthday, I can only imagine what her response would be and hope that you’d all be nice enough to visit me in the hospital during my recovery period. But in reality, that story illustrates how some of us celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ.

It seems that as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are dried and put away, a bell sounds and the Christmas race is on. Recent surveys show that Christmas is the sixth most stressful life event up there with divorce, death, moving and changing jobs. December is the most stressful month for families. High expectations for the perfect gifts, baking, cooking, decorations, parties and will Aunt Eunice drink too much of the "enhanced" eggnog again? Jingle Bells and jangled nerves. Dashing toward Christmas day in a one horse open sleigh. Then finally, it's Christmas! It's show-time!! We did it! And we never notice that in our perfectly hand-crafted, decorated Christmas, the guest of honor is missing. We've left someOne behind.

2000 years ago there was no room for Jesus at the inn. Today many of us have become so caught up in the excessiveness of the Christmas holiday that there’s no room for Jesus in our own Christmas celebration. Wrapped presents are packed under the tree and our “manger” is empty. But Jesus knows we’re really just too busy during Christmas time to spend some time with Him. I’m sure He’d understand... Doesn’t He?

..and that's why we need Advent. The word Advent means “One who comes” and it's a season of hope and anticipation. As Advent heralds the coming King, the focus of the entire season is on Jesus. We celebrate His first Advent and the expectation of His second Advent when He will come again in power and glory. The season of Advent keeps Christ at the center of our Christmas festivities as we bake, decorate and shop. Advent reminds us that at the heart of Christmas is God incarnate – the Child in the manger.  Will you be spending any time with Him this year?

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Advent Abundance

Dear Friends,

It's beginning to feel like Advent. A cold December chill permeates the house. The ground outside still wet from recent rains. Trees and plants washed of the urban soot and dust are once again bright and colorful. I step outside and the cold air penetrates the nostrils with a sharp crispness. The rising sun paints the clouds with a brilliant orange. I pray the Advent prayer prayed by the ancient church, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus Come!”

The change of seasons means something different to each one of us. When the Winter chill signals the start of this new season, I think of soup. Sam’s Club has a three pound bag of Broccoli, Carrots and Cauliflower. Perfect. On a Saturday afternoon, a cube and a half of unsalted butter is melted in a ten quart soup pot. Sweet Onions are diced and sauteed. Garlic Cloves are squeezed directly into the buttery Onions and immediately release their flavors. The Flour is whisked in and cooked for just a minute. Then three quarts of Organic Chicken Broth  are slowly whisked into the Flour until there are no more lumps. A cup and a half of White Wine is stirred in and now full heat is applied to bring the liquid to a boil. I stir it occasionally while I inspect the bag of veggies. Everything is fresh so nothing needs to be trimmed or discarded. The whole bag is dumped in. A tablespoon of Celery Salt, or instead, a tablespoon of Old Bay Seasoning is added and the soup is brought back up to a slow boil. The flame is now reduced to its lowest setting and the soup gently simmers until the veggies are soft but not mushy. Now it’s time to get out my industrial-sized immersion blender and the five quarts of soup are blended until it becomes thick and creamy. This will now feed your hungry family of fifteen people at dinner or feed two people for a week.

Many of us today know bread only as the device that’s used to convey the bacon cheese burger from the plate to the mouth, but for much of human history, bread was the staple in our diets. In the beginning there was bread. Genesis 3:19 In ancient biblical times, meat was reserved for feasts, bread was the primary food in their day-to-day lives and all other foods were the “side dishes.” Bread was considered a gift from God, by whose blessing the grain grows and it was used as an offering at Pentecost. Leviticus 23:16-17 Bread was baked on an iron or ceramic plate in a “tannur”-an earthenware oven. I use a ceramic plate in a Frigidaire oven but many thousands of years later it’s the same recipe: flour, yeast, salt and water.

That Sunday morning, I prepare bread dough seasoned with Italian herbs. After the first rise, it's folded and put in the refrigerator to develop the flavors. That afternoon, the  dough is taken out and patted down to about an inch thick. Sitting on the counter in the warmth of the afternoon sun, the yeast does its magic and it rises again. The dough is dimpled, coated with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and slid onto a pizza stone in a 550̊ oven. The soup has also been developing more flavor overnight in the refrigerator and it's now being reheated. The scent of the baking bread is overwhelming and when the golden brown loaf comes out of the oven, the soup is now steaming hot. There is no finer gourmet meal on a chilly Advent Sunday afternoon.

Then I come across this painting by Henry Tanner called THE THANKFUL POOR and I’m captivated by it. An older white-haired man with strong work-hardened forearms and hands. His teenaged grandson. A table set for two. Only one chair in the house; the boy sits on a stool.  What happened to his parents? His grandmother? A clean but well-worn tablecloth. Empty plates. A small loaf of bread between them and little else. Both heads bowed. Eyes closed. In my mind I can hear them thanking God for His blessings and an abundant life in Christ Jesus. 

I research the artist and find that Henry Tanner is considered the greatest African-American artist of all time. His mother had grown up as a child-slave and his father was a minister. I discover that Tanner is known for his biblical paintings and religious art. THE THANKFUL POOR was painted in 1894 and poignantly captures the deep faith that allowed families to experience an abundant life in Jesus in the midst of their poverty.

This painting discomforts me. I look around my house and see too many things. Cupboards of dishes never used. A walk-in pantry with shelves to the ceiling filled with food ingredients. When I sit down to eat, my plate is filled with food. This Advent my thoughts are drawn to others so much more needful than I have ever been. I look again at the grandfather and the young boy and see that, despite their impoverishment, their faith has filled them with the wealth of God’s abundance and wonder if perhaps they are richer than I will ever be. I think about this as I eat my simple but abundant meal of bread and soup...Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus Come!

(My Advent Soup and Bread Recipes are HERE)