Ready or not the seasons are shifting.
Of course, we know in our heads that all time moves at the same speed, but our hearts simply will go on beating to some other, more mysterious, rhythm.
Sometimes the gap between those two experiences of time feels like a chasm. We stand on the edge, our hearts out of sync with the calendar, and we fear we will tumble, head over heels, into emptiness. But there are other days. Like Advent days. Then the gap between head-time and heart-time becomes a sacred place and a welcome retreat.
In the last November chapter of Roots and Sky, I wrote this:
I believe in sacred time. We may live in a world of Sunday-morning soccer games, Sunday-afternoon birthday parties, and twenty-four-hour shopping, but I believe there are days when eternity floods our time-bound existence. Days like a cup that runneth over. I also know that without some effort on my part, all time tends to look exactly the same, whether or not it is the same. Advent is beginning, and I want to set aside the days. To mark them off and probe their depths.
The primary way I do that, alone and together with my husband and children, is through books. If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know that my archives are full of book recommendations for Advent and Christmas. I recently updated the page ( These Farmhouse Bookshelves) where you can explore all those links.
However, with Advent beginning on Sunday, and the first of December only days away, I thought a little roundup was in order. Here are several new-to-me titles and a shelf-full of old favorites.
And, for those of you who can’t think of Advent until after you’ve eaten your Thanksgiving turkey, here is my latest post at Grace Table. It’s a reflection on grief and gratitude and includes a recipe for the prettiest dish I placed on my holiday table last year. Enjoy!
My friend Kris Camealy has just published a beautiful new Advent devotional, Come, Lord Jesus: The Weight of Waiting. I read an advance copy months ago, but I am looking forward to reading it again, more slowly and prayerfully, through the month of December.
I have forgotten now who recommended to me Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by Sarah Arthur. I’ve only skimmed the pages, but these words from the book jacket have me eager to dive in: “Readers are invited to experience Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany in its raw strangeness, stripped of sentiment ….” Those words remind me of Madeleine L’Engle’s description of Advent as The Irrational Season (another favorite book for this season).
Two devotionals I have always appreciated in the past are God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas from Paraclete Press and Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, a collection that includes selections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, and many others
During Advent, we aim to light the candles in our Advent wreath and read a special devotional each evening together. I say aim because, of course, there are nights when I call the whole thing off because all four of the kids insist on fighting over the candle snuffer. I have also learned (the hard way) not to expect my children to sit still for nightly readings without also giving them freshly-sharpened colored pencils and a Christmas coloring book like the Christmas Around the World Coloring Book by Dover.
Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas by Ann Voskamp has been a great companion to our Jesse Tree, but it would make an ideal daily devotional for a family even if you do not decorate a Jesse Tree. This is a substantial book with gorgeous illustrations. The language is rich and poetic enough to capture the attention of my older kids, but the readings are brief and linked to familiar Bible stories, so it works for younger children, too. If you only have very young children, I recommend using The Jesus Storybook Bible for your Advent devotions. There are exactly twenty-four stories from the beginning through to the wise men visiting the infant Jesus, making it perfect for introducing small children to the bigger story of Jesus’s birth during the month of December.
For years, I gave my children a new Advent or Christmas-themed picture book each Sunday of Advent. We now have an impressive collection, though I picked up most of the books during the year for twenty-five cents at a local thrift store. This does mean that our collection is less, well, curated than I might like. But a picture book we all love this time of year is Astrid Lindgren’s Christmas in Noisy Village. This is a delightfully simple description of Christmas celebrations on three Swedish farms packed with young children.
Last year, we read a strange little novel called The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. You may know Sophie’s World, also written by this former professor of philosophy from Norway. Some of the strangeness may come from Gaarder’s philosophical bent, and some of it may simply be the little things that can be lost in translation, but the result is a curious, compelling Advent mystery that my kids and I both loved. The story follows the opening of a magical Advent calendar, and so it is already divided into chapters readymade for daily Advent reading. The central mystery involves a journey back through history to the very day and place of the Christ Child’s birth. It reads like following a thread back to that particular momentous day, and the result is that I felt much more solidly connected to the very first Christmas as an actual historical event.
This year, our readaloud chapter book is Winterfrost by Michelle Houts. We are one chapter in, and the kids are already hooked by this tale of Christmas magic on an isolated Danish farm.
Though our seasonal books have spilled over from shelves to piles on the windowsills, I have added one more new book to our Advent collection this year. It is Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season by Heidi Haverkamp. Designed for small group discussion, I think this one will also work well for families, especially if you plan to read it alongside The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
I’d love to hear about your own favorite Advent and Christmas books in the comments.
Each December I think it will be different. This will be the year I shake my winter melancholy. This will be the year my delight grows day by day. These are days of ornaments and sugar cookies and twinkling lights. Aren’t they supposed to be happy?
But this year is much like every other year. The ornaments shatter, the cookies crumble, and those new LED bulbs cast a cold-hearted glow.
More than ten years ago, I spent a few December days watching my friend’s little girl. My friend was in the hospital laboring to deliver a baby boy whose heart had already stopped beating. Over the weekend, I took care of another little girl who has no idea her parent’s hearts are broken.
All weekend, in the background, Over the Rhine was singing, “If we make it through December we’ll be fine.”
This was going to be the year I would look on the bright side, but I have just about accepted that there is no bright side in December. Only darkness and the pin-prick lights on the Christmas tree, and tonight is the longest night.
At one in the morning on the fourth Sunday of Advent, my friend’s little girl threw up. When I found her, she was crying, and her beautiful curly hair was smeared with vomit. While I bathed her and toweled her dry, I thought two things: Why is this happening tonight? and Thank you, Jesus, that I can do this for my friend.
This is what we do in December. We bake sugar cookies, and we scrub vomit from the sheets. We cry for our friends and we cry for ourselves, and we hand out bars of chocolate tied with red and green bows. We make toasts to the new year, and we wonder how we’ll ever survive another one.
We pray come, Lord Jesus, come, and we remember that he already has and that he’s seen it all before. The vomit and the death. The good food and the hunger. The love and the loss.
I don’t know if I’m angry, or tired, or simply sad, but I will keep baking cookies. I will continue hanging ornaments, and I will make my husband climb up on the barn roof to secure a lighted star.
Because somehow despite it all (or because of it?) I still believe that there is a God up there in heaven who has made us this promise: “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
We live somewhere between the promise and its ultimate fulfillment. It is a land where tears drop onto festive wrapping paper. A place dusted with cookie crumbs and peppermints. It is empty stockings hung by the fire, and it is our hope, perhaps a little shaky and unsure, that one day we will wake and those stockings will be full.
But it isn’t only a one-day hope. Perhaps if we make it through December we will be fine, but I don’t want to be fine. I want more than that. I want better than that.
I want gladness.
Gladness like the taste of sugar cookies and candy canes and the cinnamon rolls I make every Christmas morning.
Gladness like the face of a child when snow finally does fall.
Gladness like every bright, sweet gift that comes to us only in December.
I wrote this Advent reflection two years ago. My daughter is twelve now, but she still asks difficult questions. I still have no easy answers.
When I began writing these Advent reflections, I had a very general structure in mind. The whole series would move, I thought, from dark to light, from ordinary to extraordinary, from dust and dirt to starlight.
Oh, the best laid plans.
Instead, I have consulted this writing plan each morning and discovered my own emptiness. No words. No stories. No ideas. Which is a desperate place and a very good place to find oneself. It has led me to frantic prayer and constant listening. Finding no stories in the plan, I have listened hard for any hint of story in my day.
Often, I have found my stories in my daughter’s difficult observations.
Yesterday, she said, “I think it must be the worst thing in the world to have a child who dies.”
I am a writer, and I abhor a platitude, an easy answer. The cliché we use to bypass actual thought. Even so, it can be tempting to fall back on those things when we are faced with the unanswerable and the terrible. But I have learned a few things from writing and from reading, and I have learned a few things mothering this daughter.
I fight the pull of the pretty, easy answer and say nothing but “Yes, yes, I know.”
She is only ten, but she already understands love’s terrible shadow. She knows intuitively, without ever being taught, that great love rips us open. Leaves us wounded and bleeding.
I have no good answers for these kinds of questions. I have no band-aid for this degree of pain. Today, I do not even have much of a story. Sometimes, the world looks darker and more ordinary the closer we get to Christmas. Sometimes, there is no perfect, timely trajectory from Advent waiting to Christmas fulfillment.
But if I have no story, I do have this one thing to share with you. A vision of sorts.
After our conversation, I kept seeing a picture in my mind. It was my daughter, so full of difficult questions and a grief too old for her years, and she was wearing the angel costume we once found at a thrift store. It is white and shimmery, and the padded, embroidered wings are gold.
I kept seeing her sad eyes against the white glow of the angel’s dress, and I realized, I think for the first time, how much our Christmas gift was heaven’s loss.
I realized how vast an emptiness the Prince of Heaven left behind him when he poured himself into Mary’s womb.
I looked into angel eyes, and they seemed to say, “We have lost him. We have said goodbye. How long till he returns to us?”
I can’t erase love’s dark shadow, and I’m not sure I would if I could. But I know that the parent heart of God has known it all already. He has passed by a heavenly chamber and found it empty. Heart-breakingly empty. And I know he suffered that pain for love.
And yet, the emptiness of heaven at the moment of incarnation is as much good news as the emptiness of the tomb.
This is the good news of God-with-us. This is the good news of our restoration.
This is the comfort of believing God sees our emptiness, our pain and says, “Yes, yes, I know.”
I wrote a version of this post last year for the website Deeper Story. It feels even more true this year.
I am standing in the yard with a rake in my hands when I feel the circle of the year begin to tie itself up with a neatly finished knot.
Since moving to this old farmhouse on the hill, my late November chores are always the same. Chopping up the great drifts of fallen maple leaves with the mower. Cleaning out the brittle tomato vines and the slimy, still-green nasturtiums from the vegetable garden. Covering each raised bed with a winter blanket of chopped leaves.
I tear the blackened cords of morning glory and moonflower from the porch, scattering the seeds of next summer’s flowers in the process. Our compost bins overflow.
I circle the fruit trees in our tiny orchard with deer fencing. I mound the roses with wood chips.
The year is dying. The trees and shrubs prepare to sleep. And every wheelbarrow load of mulch underscores the end of our year’s work.
My friend and I meet each week in the local, big-chain coffee shop. December was still weeks away when I walked in to find that our familiar corner table now sat beneath dangling paper bells. And was it snowing in there? I am sure it was snowing glitter.
It felt so deeply wrong but also festive, and I wondered if I had become a thirty-seven-year-old curmudgeon.
I’m not the bah-humbug type. I don’t begrudge anyone their seasonal fun. But it was clear to me, sitting in a coffee shop that shone like red tin foil, that my heart, mind, and soul were tuned to some other rhythm.
It was still November, and I was not ready for Christmas feasting. The old, dying year hadn’t yet been laid to rest.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world …”
I’ve known those words since childhood. But I think that it is only now, having watched the year circle this hilltop a few times, that I feel the rift, small but growing, that lies between me and long familiar patterns.
It turns out there is a difference between the earth and the world. One is a circle, a globe if you will, shaped by the shifting tides of work and rest. The other is also a circle, but it is more like a hamster’s wheel jangling away beneath twenty-four-hour floodlights.
I am increasingly out of sync with the world. I am longing to inherit the earth.
December blows in on a polar wind. We mark this month’s progress with a circle of candles. Sunday after Sunday there is more light by which to see.
What I see, from the top of this hill, is an earth gone to sleep. While the world spins itself out in dizzy circles of consumption, the earth recognizes that its work is done. New things, like new years, begin with sleep (which is to say, surrender), and winter is a season for rest.
I like to think that this is what it looks like to store up treasure in heaven. The trees know they need only wait. A few more months, and heaven will return every good thing we have lost. That is the meaning of spring.
The world knows little of Advent and will be, I fear, all worn out by the evening of December 25. The traditional twelve days are too many when the feast began in mid-November.
But the earth has one sermon that has never lost its power.
When spring returns, even the weary world rejoices.
Books are a year-round pleasure in this house.
I always have a bedside pile (okay, tower) of books I am currently reading, and I read aloud to my children (yes, even my twelve-year-old) nearly every day. But something happens to my book love when we feed the last of the porch pumpkins to the chickens and go in search of our Advent wreath.
It becomes an obsession.
Perhaps it’s the early darkness and cold and all those hours to fill indoors. Perhaps it’s the discipline of Advent observance. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of Christmas. Maybe it’s because I am buying so many books to give as gifts. Or, maybe it is for every one of these reasons.
However I account for it, our December days are marked by the turning of pages.
During Advent, my reading takes on a heightened focus. I don’t read anything “just because.” For instance, this is the month when I reread Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher.
I think of this novel, set in snowy Scotland in the days leading up to Christmas, as my version of those sentimental holiday movies so many enjoy this time of year. It’s a great, warm, afghan of a novel, but it’s made of high-quality Scottish wool. Nothing cheap or slap-dash here. Pilcher’s story is full of love and sentiment but never sentimental. I am always so glad to pick it up again.
One of our favorite recent read-alouds would make a great stocking stuffer (it really is just the right size! and price!). It’s The Children of Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren, of Pippi Longstocking fame.
I bought this book after enjoying her picture book Christmas in Noisy Village (Picture Puffin) for years. The Children of Noisy Village features the same children but describes their activities not only at Christmas but all through the year on a traditional Swedish farm. It’s a chapter book, but the chapters are brief. It’s pretty much an ideal bedtime read.
I think anything Scandinavian is perfect for the Christmas season, but I am recommending this book because my two sons, one a reluctant reader and the other a reluctant reader and reluctant listener, both adored it. The storytelling is simple and so true to childhood. It’s all about food and games, special celebrations and traditions, childish friendships and milestones as momentous as being given the responsibility for shopping at the village store entirely on your own.
We finished the book weeks ago, but when my nine-year-old quoted one of the lines from the book last night at dinner, the boys and I were practically rolling on the floor with laughter.
I love to read through a daily Advent book and usually alternate between Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas and God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (Readers Edition). But there are so many wonderful, possibilities for a daily devotion. This would be the perfect time of year to begin one of my favorite books, Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season (The Crosswicks Journal, Book 3).
The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name has exactly twenty-four stories from Old Testament beginning to the birth of Jesus and makes ideal Advent reading with small children. I have also enjoyed Ann Voskamp’s beautifully illustrated Advent devotional Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas with my older kids.
I know that for many, December begins with a Christmas tree. We won’t cut down our tree for a few weeks yet, but our anticipation begins when I pull out our collection of Christmas storybooks. I’ll gather those books from a shelf in the third floor-closet on Sunday afternoon (something that will require at least four trips up and down those narrow, old stairs) and tell you about a few of them next Saturday.
If you have small children or grandchildren, Advent is the perfect time of year to begin a Christmas picture book collection. I’ve included amazon affiliate links in this post, but one of my favorite sources for beautiful, meaningful holiday books is Chinaberry.
When my kids were small, I began buying two or three Christmas books each year (I found many of them at our local thrift store) and that collection is now my very favorite thing to pull out each year. Better even than the familiar tree ornaments made with macaroni and glitter.
Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is one of our favorite family books no matter the season. Over the summer, our family visited the original Wilder homestead in Malone, NY. I recently wrote about that visit (and so much more) for Art House America. You can read all about my harvest of memory right here.
I have wanted to share a guest post from my friend Laura for a long time. That I am finally able to do that, and on Christmas Eve, is one more good gift of a season that is full of them.
Laura is a dear friend. She is also a writer of rare talent. I sit up and take notice whenever I read something of hers.
Read the following reflection and then search out her gem of a book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories, and you will understand why.
After an evening meeting last spring, I turned on my phone and saw messages from my daughter. She wanted to Skype. The last time she asked, two years earlier, it was to announce her engagement. I figured this had to be job or baby. I drove home through the silent night with a sense of wonder, hope, anticipation. I tried not to speed.
Once I got to the desk and logged on, we chatted for a moment. Then she said, “We have some news,” and slid a grainy black and white image up into the frame.
The church tribe I grew up in didn’t observe the liturgical year. I knew Christmas carols from school music time and TV. Advent was a countdown calendar, a surprise picture or bit of chocolate behind each day’s cardboard doorflaps.
This past Sunday — same tribe, decades later — we sang some carols. The lyrics are projected on big screens, but not the notes. When we got to the chorus of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” as I sang the alto “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a” (which has six fewer o- than the melody), I had a passing thought: How do I know this harmony so well?
Not from singing. In the little church where my daughter grew up, Advent culminated in a Christmas Eve service. We are both flutists, and for several years we played a duet. We’d test-driven several carols and hymns at home, and settled on that one, precisely because it was enjoyable, more musically interesting, to play the glorias.
She took the melody. I tried to keep my volume a degree lower than hers, to support but not overpower. There’s a kind of communication between musicians, part keen listening, part familiarity, part intuition. There’s a way that music memory gets in your body. More than once, someone came up to us afterwards with tears in her eyes and told us we somehow sounded like one flute playing harmony.
At the end of the service, someone would dim the lights and we’d assemble ourselves in a circle around the sanctuary, holding our little white candles with their little paper skirts. One light. Two. Silent night, we sang as we shared the flame. Holy night. All was calm. And eventually, all was bright.
I didn’t cry when I met him. I expected to. But it was such a calm moment. I had just arrived in their bright corner apartment. She went in the bedroom, where his daddy was changing his diaper, and I sat down in the living room. Then she brought him out, so relaxed, already so at ease with him, and introduced him. I stood, the way you would to meet anyone for the first time, and introduced myself. I sang “Happy One Week Old to You,” softly, and stroked his sweet head.
“Would you like to hold him?”
The answer will always be yes.
I have nothing profound to say about Advent. No neat way to swaddle up this series. I’ve been in churches where it was the focus of worship for four weeks, and churches where it’s not on the radar and some people have never heard of it. I’ve taken and eaten the daily morsel of chocolate in years when I went into a church only to attend a friend’s wedding.
But I know something about waiting. Don’t we all?
I know the story never gets old, that story of the most powerful force in the universe coming to earth to be with us, to be one of us, starting out helpless and needy and soft and beautiful, just as every one of us did.
I held and beheld that baby boy over the next few days, for hours and hours. Talked to him. Sang to him. Soothed him when he fussed, which was hardly at all. Studied his surprisingly expressive face.
His mama was studying him one afternoon, on the sofa with her knees drawn up, cradling him on her thighs. It’s still amazing to me that we made him, and he grew inside me and then I pushed him out, she said.
Do you ever look at him, I asked, and wonder what he’ll like, and what he’ll be good at, and who he’ll become?
Her heart swelled, and the overflow, you could practically see it rising in her chest and spilling out her eyes. She just nodded. The wave swamped me too.
Let earth receive her king.
Laura Lynn Brown vanquishes errors and makes the rough places plain as a copy editor at a daily newspaper. Her writing has appeared in Slate, the Iowa Review, Art House America and the High Calling, and she is an editor at The Curator. Her book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories was published in 2013 by Abingdon Press. More of her work can be read at her website, lauralynnbrown.com, and her one-year daily gratitude journal, Daylilies.