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.
The record of post drafts here on my blog dashboard tells me that on January 14, 2016, I was working on a new installment in my occasional series of book recommendations, These Farmhouse Bookshelves.
I never finished that post, and I didn’t read anything for a month.
I want to finish that post, but I can’t finish it seamlessly. Everything is before and after for us right now, and so much in our lives is sorting itself out around that dividing line. I feel such compassion for our before selves. They are innocent and unseeing, and it hurts to think of all that they didn’t yet know.
Still, if I could go to them and give them some message it wouldn’t be anything earth shattering or even all that original. It would be only the well-known words from Frederick Buechner:
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
When I began this post, my before self was still waiting for snow to fall at Maplehurst. This has been the mildest and strangest winter anyone around here can remember. Three feet of snow fell while I was with family in Hawaii, but now I have seen the tops of the daffodils emerging a full month early.
With no snow outside, Elsa and I enjoyed Snow by Cynthia Rylant. Actually, I may have read it to myself a few times after Elsa fled my lap. It’s that good.
It captures everything I love about snow and hits that perfect blend of truth, poetry, and accessibility. I am often frustrated with the more self-consciously beautiful or poetic picture books because they aren’t concrete enough to grab my child’s attention.
If you’ve ever read a book to a three-year-old you know they can’t hear the line “the snow looks like ice cream” without interrupting, “Where’s the ice cream? Where, where?”
Poetry that doesn’t rely only on direct metaphors is a great thing in a picture book. Is the best snow the snow that comes in the night or the snow that sends you home from school? There is poetry in that question even a three-year-old can understand.
My before self had also begun reading a great new book called To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming, and Community by Lisa Graham McMinn.
A book about “eating with more intention, compassion, and gratitude,” I would recommend this book to everyone who enjoys Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, or Fred Bahnson’s Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith.
The illustrations and recipes that accompany each chapter are delightful and there are discussion questions that would make this book perfect for a book club. This book is full of rich spiritual wisdom and well-researched information, but it is a lot of fun to read, too.
A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about family and friendship.
I had just returned from a reunion with my parents, siblings, and our (many) children at my parent’s home in Kansas City. I wrote about how hard it is to live far from family and to see them so infrequently. I wrote about that emptiness, and I wrote about the special ways God fills that emptiness.
Now my after self knows that was the last time I would see my brother-in-law Shawn. Soon after that visit, my sister and her family moved to Hawaii.
Of course, that small blog post means so much more to me now, but I might not even have remembered it if a book had not been waiting for me when I returned home from Hawaii.
The Gift of Friendship: Stories That Celebrate the Beauty of Shared Moments, edited by writer and photographer Dawn Camp, is a collection of reflections by Christian bloggers. Dawn has gathered meditations on friendship by bloggers like Lisa-Jo Baker, Tsh Oxenreider, Jennifer Dukes Lee, and many others.
My post is there, too.
And I have yet one more reason to believe that though the future is, mercifully, hidden from us, it is never hidden from God.
You are each invited to an online book club for my book Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons.
Hosted by writer and editor extraordinaire, Laura Brown of the website Makes You Mom, the discussions will take place each Wednesday during the month of March.
Makes You Mom is a literary website that celebrates motherhood and welcomes anyone whose life has been shaped by a mom.
I will show up occasionally to answer questions, but I will not listen in or interfere in the discussion. Laura and I want everyone who participates to feel free to ask their hardest questions.
You can find more information about the book club here.
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.
The weather here in our corner of Pennsylvania is soggy rather than snowy, but our stack of Christmas books is helping to set the mood.
If you’re looking to start your own collection, or maybe writing a list for the library, here are a few of our favorites.
(this post contains affiliate links)
Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl Buck is a beautiful picture-book edition of a classic.
Buck, who won both the Nobel and the Pulitzer, originally published this story in 1955. It’s a very simple story of an adolescent boy’s gift to his hardworking, farmer father on Christmas Day. Even my young children are inspired by this story, but it’s a tale that gets better and means more the older you are.
Little One, We Knew You’d Come by Sally Lloyd-Jones appears to be out of print, but it is really worth seeking out. This one may be my favorite Christmas book.
The illustrations tell a straightforward story about the birth of Christ (though their beauty is anything but typical or generic), but it’s the sweetness and lyricism of the text that makes this story something bigger and more beautiful than it first appears to be.
Little one, we knew you’d come. We hoped. We dreamed. We watched for you.
It can be hard for us to fully grasp the longing of creation for Christ or even to understand what it means to long for our King’s return during this Advent season, but many of us know what it is to long for a baby. The words of this book tell that story so many of us know intimately, that story of “our miracle child, our dreams come true.”
This book makes the perfect gift for new moms, or anyone familiar with the special love we have for a long-anticipated child, no matter the time of year.
This Advent the kids and I are reading a new book at bedtime. It’s The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder, the philosopher and writer of Sophie’s World (a novel I remember loving in college).
Translated from the Norwegian, this is a strange but wonderful tale within a tale about a magic Advent calendar and an odd pilgrimage back through history to the Bethlehem of Christ’s birth. The story is divided up according to the twenty-four windows of an Advent calendar so it’s ideal for nightly reading.
My paperback copy is high quality and lovely to look at, but there are quite a few typos and a handful of places where the translation seems a little awkward. Still, as a read-aloud capable of keeping the attention of a six, nine, and twelve-year-old at Christmastime, it seems just about perfect.
It isn’t a devotional book, and yet Gaarder’s philosophical observations (quite a few spoken by the “wise man” Caspar) have given even me a few mysteries to ponder. We haven’t finished it yet, so I can’t vouch for where the whole narrative is heading, but I do know we are headed to Bethlehem. I’m eager to discover what Gaarder has in store for us there.
If you only have time for a short Advent read this morning, may I suggest my latest post at Grace Table? Titled “The Irrational Hospitality of Advent,” you can find it right here.
Peace be with you, friends.
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.
“you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls”
We have arrived at those muddy, brown days between winter and spring. When I cross the yard to the chicken coop, it feels as if I am walking on a sponge. We have had a few warmer days and a few sunnier days, but it is not yet clear to me if the damage of this winter can be undone.
Somehow I find it harder to believe in spring the closer it comes.
My daughter is learning about the Holocaust in school. Every afternoon she shows me some newly acquired fact, as if she half believes that this time, this time, I will contradict her teacher. I will say, No, no, it wasn’t as bad as that. Instead, I only ever say yes. Yes, it’s true.
Here is what she does not say: How do you go on living in a world where such things have happened? Still happen?
Here is what I do not say: I don’t know.
As a writer, I pick up the pieces. Even the ugly, broken pieces. I arrange them and rearrange them, and I search for hidden meaning. I find patterns, and they always say the same thing. They say, Look! Here is something beautiful. Here is good news.
Except that recently, I can’t seem to find the pattern. The broken pieces remain only broken pieces.
They are so many. They are so sharp.
Because it is Lent, we begin each Sunday service with The Decalogue rather than a hymn. We hear the list of God’s ten commands, and they are like stones that form a wall that enclose a garden.
Gardens grow best within the shelter of a wall, but we have torn down the wall with our own hands.
Perhaps we must first listen to the bad news if we hope ever to hear the good.
Perhaps it is sorrow for all the broken pieces and all the tumbled stones that gives us courage to stand up. To rise up, leave the sackcloth and ashes, and go searching for our new name.