Christmas is many things, but convenient isn’t one of them.
Especially if you are the one who bakes the traditional
cookies, the it-wouldn’t-be-Christmas-without-them-mom! cookies, while running
the bedding for the guest room through the laundry, while keeping an eye on a
child’s letter writing to Santa, while affixing a gift tag to the wrapped book
another child will take to the fourth-grade holiday party, the same holiday
party for which you remembered to buy the book but have only just now realized
you forgot to buy the apple cider.
“But, Mom, I don’t want to bring apple cider. I want to
bring Shirley Temples! Can you buy the stuff for Shirley Temples? And can you
come to my party and make them?”
A feast is a beautiful thing, but a feast is no convenient thing.
It is a regular thing, however.
Every twelve months here it is again, reminding us of things we might otherwise forget:
Children like peppermint candy canes and gingerbread cookie men more in theory than practice.
The Christmas story is as concerned with what happened, one day, long ago, as it is with what will happen, one day. Perhaps soon?
Christ has died.
Christ has risen.
Christ will come
Childhood is brief, time is swift, and it will always feel like we are putting up the twinkle lights five minutes after we last took them down. Despite how we sometimes feel on a lazy summer afternoon, we are not drifting in a sea of endless time.
We are waiting. Eyes wide open. We are hoping. Hearts cracked open.
We are waiting and we are hoping for the return of our king.
And hope like that is no convenient thing.
Hope like that is an earthquake.
… the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.Romans 13: 11, 12
We are rounding the bend. We are nearing the end.
These sacred days will soon reach their fulfillment.
With Christmas on the near horizon, I am so pleased to offer you this Advent story from my friend and fellow writer, Bonnie O’Neil.
The memories come flooding back to me, as they do on many a cold, dark December night. Flashes of a night, just like this one, many years ago. I was younger then, bright-eyed, full of hopes and big dreams.
The streets are deserted, save for my husband and me. I hear the click-clack of my soles on the cobblestones and press forward, click-clack, steady on. My feet, I cannot see. All is belly, swollen with the joy of life inside of me.
The wind howls. I wrap my garments tighter around me.
I reach out for his arm to steady me as I go. My feet falter on the uneven stones; his strong arm upholds me. It is just the two of us in this foreign land. There will be no mother by my side as I prepare to deliver my first-born child.
Inhaling the cold December air, I exhale the promise of all things new and wonderful. My warm breath hangs in the air, luminous against the cold dark night, and I sigh with relief that the child lies safe and warm inside me tonight.
Mystery, all is mystery and wonder. It is just days, hours perhaps, before I step into the vast unknown and begin the mysterious journey of motherhood. All is wonder. What will this child become? What kind of mother will I grow to be? There is much to ponder; there will be much to treasure in my heart.
I don’t think I fully appreciated Mary and her journey of faith until I was expecting a child of my own. All is Nativity in December, so when you are awaiting your own Christmas baby, I suppose it is natural to stop and reflect on the wonder not just of the incarnation of the Christ child, but also of the faith of the young woman who said yes to becoming His mother.
She was a teenager; I was 30. But that doesn’t mean I knew any more than she did about babies. In fact, she probably knew more! Her cobblestones graced the streets of Bethlehem, far from her Nazareth home; my stones lined the streets of medieval Paris, where my husband and I were living, farther still from any family or close friends. I can feel her aloneness.
There is no fighting the loss of control. It is too late for that now. I sense her acceptance of “what is”.
Her story was, of course, far more faith-stretching than mine. By faith, she accepted that the impossible would become possible as the Son of God became incarnate within her very womb. By faith, she accepted a life of ridicule and judgment as all manner of false conclusions were drawn about her. By faith, she accepted that her child’s life was truly in her heavenly Father’s hands.
No matter how old we are or how long we have been trying to walk by faith, we all still have times when we feel like Mary. Alone. Vulnerable. Insignificant. Unqualified to accomplish a small thing, let alone a big thing. And how like our God to come in those moments and ask the big thing of us.
To say yes to God often involves saying no to myself. No to my in-the-moment need for retribution or recognition. To choose the Mary way is to choose the self-emptying way. It requires nothing less than the intentional surrendering of my will so that I may hear the voice of the Father calling to me.
It is the daily invitation to echo the cry of the God-Man, not my will but yours be done.
To embrace the mystery of Christmas is to accept the mystery of the unknown. It is to throw off the burden of needing control and easy answers and choosing instead to entrust our lives to God’s loving hands. It is to choose a life of outrageous faith amidst a world that says it will only believe once it truly understands. It is to declare with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.”
In this Advent season, we can all be carriers of the Christ child. We choose every day whom we will serve – the Lord and others, or ourselves. May we, like Mary, choose the mystery of a faith-filled life.
Bonnie O’Neil is a gifted writer, speaker, and Bible teacher. She lives in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, on the edge of bucolic Chester County, and is the mother of three mostly-raised children. She is passionate about helping others experience the God of love, finding a cure for type 1 diabetes, filling her senses with beauty, and exploring all things France.
I am a mother well-acquainted with the fears and anxieties of raising a son with a potentially life-threatening medical condition, and Bonnie’s wisdom, born of hard experience, has become a special gift to me. I can say of her what she has written here about Mary: “By faith, she accepted that her child’s life was truly in her heavenly Father’s hands.” With Bonnie’s encouragement, I am doing the same.
Already a consistent blogger, Bonnie has plans to begin writing out the lessons she has learned during her years of raising a medically vulnerable child. I encourage you to sign up here to receive those upcoming blog posts by email.
Recently, I found myself digging around in the archives of this blog. I was looking for something particular – I no longer remember what – but I stumbled on this post from last December. I wrote it for Solstice, the longest night of the year. It would be one of the last posts I would write before Shawn’s death in January.
I have lately been remembering last year’s Christmas celebration. In my memory, those were the last innocent, happy days. Days when we had not yet known sorrow. Days when we had not yet seen the almost unbearable glory of God.
I was shocked to reread this post and realize I was grieving last December, too. Smaller sorrows, perhaps, but sorrows still. The words I wrote last December do not simply remain true; they are more true.
Strangely, they are also giving me more hope. Through some trick of faulty memory, I had placed the happy days in the past. I had forgotten that the greatest happiness – the most complete joy – is still ahead of us. We have not yet arrived.
But we are nearer. And every door of grief and suffering through which we pass brings us nearer still.
The best days may be yet to come, but in December I remember how much gladness is ours today. This was true for me last December. This is still true today.
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 following post contains affiliate links)
If you know me, then you’ll have guessed that the “all new” in the title of this post does not, in fact, refer to newly released books. In fact, once I went looking for links online, I realized that almost every single book I wanted to tell you about is out of print.
But don’t let that deter you! Fortunately, the internet makes searching for and purchasing used books very easy. You can follow the amazon links below, or you can search Abe Books or Powells. You could also do what I do: keep a list of authors to look for the next time you visit a used bookstore or thrift store.
So, what do I mean by all new? I mean that these are some of our favorite seasonal books, but I have never mentioned them on the blog before. You can find all of the Advent and Christmas books I have already recommended over here on one handy page.
Why so many books? Who has time for reading during this, one of the busiest months of the year? I love what Sarah Arthur has to say in Light Upon Light:
So the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction. And it is this season, of any, when we are least likely to pick up a book and read. Who has time for that? But it is a Word that has come to us, and words that tell the story of that Word from generation to generation.
First, lest you imagine that picture books are only for children, I recommend Lisbeth Zwerger’s version of The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Zwerger is a prize-winning illustrator from Vienna. Her art is strange but lovely and is the perfect thoughtful foil for the disturbing whimsy and intelligence of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original Nutcracker tale. While I have shared this long picture book with my older children, I think this book would make a wonderful gift for any adult who appreciates art and literature.
The next book I’ll mention couldn’t be more different than Zwerger’s, but it is a new favorite in our house. Christmas For 10 by Cathryn Falwell is a counting Christmas book featuring multiple generations of an African-American family. My four-year-old loves it because she can count along, my older kids are drawn into it because of the bright cut-paper illustrations, and I love it for its depiction of ordinary Christmas fun like stringing popcorn and filling gift baskets. I am also grateful to have a Christmas book featuring a non-white family. Unfortunately, this is still very rare in Christmas picture books.
The Christmas Party by Adrienne Adams is more than a little unexpected (a Christmas book about a family of Easter egg-painting rabbits??), but it is a thrift store gem. I had never heard of Adrienne Adams before I picked up a used copy of this book, but her illustrations are so appealing.
And though I picked this one up for the pictures, the story is wonderful, too. It’s a bit of a Christmas coming-of-age tale, as the rabbit children turn the tables on their hardworking parents by surprising them with a memorable outdoor Christmas party. Adams’ illustrations of an egg-decorated Christmas tree and rabbit families sledding a snowy hill under a full moon are equally memorable.
Christmas in the Country by Cynthia Rylant is my favorite kind of picture book. It is almost like a picture-book version of a literary memoir: Rylant’s recollection of a country Christmas from her childhood is spare and straightforward, yet the small memories seem to add up to so much more than is at first apparent. I could read this one over and over.
My children, on the other hand, much prefer The Worst Person’s Christmas by James Stevenson. I wasn’t even planning to mention this story of a truly awful Christmas curmudgeon, except that my kids have begged for it every night this week. When I refused to read it one more time, my oldest decided that she would read it out loud instead. Three pages in and my boys were howling.
Fortunately, the horrifying behavior of “the worst person in the world” can’t persist against the unrelenting cheer and kindness of his neighbors. His insults may be horrifying (to me) and hilarious (to my children), but the story has a sweet ending.
If you need a break from the picture books, I’ve been enjoying Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope. These Victorian short stories offer the best of an old-fashioned British Christmas with the usual concerns of nineteenth-century literature. These are stories of roast beef, plum pudding, property, and humorous misunderstandings neatly resolved by the end of Christmas Day.
I’ve always enjoyed classic British murder mysteries from the 1930s. A Christmas Party: A Seasonal Murder Mystery by Georgette Heyer is wickedly fun and clever. I recommend reading it near a roaring country house fire. However, I found that a small kitchen woodstove will do in a pinch.
Happy reading and blessed Advent.
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.