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Sometimes there’s a little less water in the flower vase and a little more water in the crayon tray.

In the heat of the noon day sun, my five-year old, looking debonair in his chocolate fondue mustache, sighed and said, “Mama? I love Pentecost.”

At Mass today, Monsignor Zimmer invited us to look back and trace the tell-tale signs of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. I looked around me in the pew and I was surrounded by wiggly, distracted little people and thought, “Well, if that isn’t the Holy Spirit at work…”

Because I think if it were entirely up to me, my life would not be as rich and beautiful as it actually is when I’m looking at it properly. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for being involved. Please help open my heart to you and fill me with the fire of your love.

Happy Birthday, Church!


Super duper good news: it’s not even Advent yet! This little-known often-overlooked liturgical season which helps us prepare for Christmas only starts on November 30 and continues until December 24, the day before Christmas. So, for the perennially-late and forever-procrastinating sorts like me, we’ve got TIME. I usually get hit by the reality of the Advent a few days before it starts, if I’m lucky. My hint is usually that the rest of the world gets into full Christmas mode and I think Ha! The radio stations are playing Christmas music and the malls are shiny and decorated… it must be… Advent! But since the malls and the radio stations are getting started earlier and earlier, it means that I get a bit more time.

Time to do what?

Well, at Christmas we celebrate the birth of Christ. Advent is the period of waiting and preparing that happens beforehand. Sometimes called “little Lent,” it is a time that involves increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

For us, the prayer part of Advent has involved three very old yet simple traditions: lighting candles of an Advent wreath each night at dinner along with a little prayer, and hanging an ornament on a Jesse tree (usually at night before bedtime) along with a little Bible story, and setting out the Nativity scene (without Jesus, because… he’s not there yet.).

Basically, I need to buy/make a wreath and four candles, and find the Jesse tree ornaments and the nativity scene somewhere in storage. Seems so simple…

Advent wreath. Image by Andrea Schaufler.
This is what we’re going for.

This is usually what happens. No wreath. Candles don’t quite stay in candleholders. Fatter candles?

E for effort, I say. Also, I’ll need to hunt down the card that has the Advent prayers for when we’re lighting the candles of the wreath.

The ornaments of a Jesse Tree represent the descendants of Jesus form the Old and New Testaments. It’s such a great way to get familiar with the Bible characters and their stories.

We made these simple Internet-downloaded and kid-coloured ornaments a few years ago. I’m sure these are somewhere. Probably near the Nativity scenes. Behind the sleeping bags? Beside bathing suits and flip-flops?

OR you could make your own felt ornaments.

Or buy fancy ones from Etsy. At all price points. (from InspiredTraditions on Etsy)

Some kind people have put together the accompanying Bible readings to go along with each ornament here or here. Or sometimes we just use the Bible story books that we already have around. Or sometimes we just say, “This is Noah’s ark… ok, time for bed.”

It’s not yet Advent! There’s time!

Sometimes, it feels as if the world is saying Hurry up! Advent says, slow down. Although it seems as if the world is in full Deck the Halls mode, Advent says, let’s keep it simple. Although it takes some doing to guide the mood away from frazzled and stressed to calm and quiet, it really is worth it. Advent involves low-key and simple traditions that serve to gently turn our heads towards an empty manger, our hearts towards Someone who is coming again.

I am often tempted to turn Advent (and Christmas, for that matter) into a big Pinterest-worthy extravaganza. It usually doesn’t work. I suspect that the Holy Spirit is reminding me that, at its heart, Advent is about making room in my heart for Jesus who is coming. Making room implies less, not more. Less stuff, less things on the schedule. Less means that I might hear voice calling out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord! Make his paths straight!’

The Advent Wreath

[left] November 30; [right] December 1; Sigh. Candles don’t usually fit into candle-holders, right? For now, the only one that needs to be standing is the first week.

The candles of an Advent Wreath are a beautiful and quiet way to mark the days leading up to Christmas. Last year, we made a super cool Advent wreath made out of everyone’s hands traced and cut out of green paper. I had great hopes for making a similar one this year, every since the lady at the local religious goods store upsold me some Advent candles a full TWO WEEKS before the season started. I had so much time! Well, here we are, a week into Advent, and I believe we’ve cut out a grand total of five hands. Not quite enough to make a wreath. We may give up and try to purchase one. Or not. The kids are so awe-inspired by lit candles that they may not remember/notice that there was actually no wreath beneath them in 2013.

Given the baby crawling around enthusiastically foiling our craft attempts, this was a big accomplishment.

Sometimes, the prayer that we use when we light the Advent candle before saying Grace is not handy (read: lost) and we’ve adopted a new tradition of singing the refrain of O Come Divine Messiah. Short and sweet.

The Jesse Tree

They’re not lost!

Because our nine-year old is a gift, she’s taken it upon herself to keep this tradition going, despite her parents’ lack of involvement. (God gave her to us first because he thought we would need someone that came pre-parented as our first born.) On the first Sunday of Advent, we all read the Creation Story and ceremoniously placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil on the lowest branch of the Jesse Tree. Our evenings since then have been more than a little hectic and I noticed today that she’s put up the the next few symbols (Noah = the ark, Abraham = a tent, Isaac = a ram, Jacob = a ladder). The ladder symbol is on the tree but do the little kids remember who Jacob is? Probably not. Hopefully we will get a moment to address that at some point, before they leave home.

The Nativity Sets

The pretty one out of reach

The Toddler-friendly one on the living room floor

Both the ceramic Baby Jesus and the plastic one are hidden away. I hope I remember where I placed them in time for Christmas.

Here’s wishing you a calm and quiet Advent. Or even small bits of calm and quiet in Advent, whatever you can scrounge together during what can be an intensely busy time. We do what we can. God really does give us what we need when we need it and he has our families, yours and mine, in his loving heart.

Image from St. Clement Parish 2012 Summer Camp “Operation Overboard”

From the lovely folks at the parish office:

Once again this year St. Clement Parish is hosting a Summer Camp for Kids. Children ages 5 – 12 years old are invited to join us for fun, games, music, prayer and faith-based fun. The camp runs Monday to Friday, August 19 – 23, from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon. Registration Fee: $40 per child. Pick up an early registration form in the church lobby after Mass. Volunteers please call Susan Ciufo at the parish office.

Our kids always have a great time so make sure you remember to grab a registration form when you find yourself in the parish foyer.

Find the Fisher Price Nativity set. Check. Find Baby Jesus. Check. Hide Baby Jesus. Check.

Clear the top of the piano. Check. Dust the top of the piano. Check. Extract St. Joseph and Mama Mary and donkey from large creche box. Check. Fiddle with St. Joseph’s staff for too long and then give up. Check. Contemplate super glueing it to his hand…

Transfer dried arrangement in a vase from decoration duty to Jesse Tree duty. Check. Consider watering the limp plants…

Compare our humble colouring page download Jesse Tree ornaments to the fabulous ones that Susan from the parish office lent us. Check. Sigh. Internally celebrate the fact that we didn’t lose them since last Advent. Check.

Totally copy a great Advent wreath craft idea from a facebook friend. Check. Consider our collective level of table manners and consider laminating the whole thing. Check. Find candles. Nope. No luck. Schedule Advent-candle-hunting errand. Check.

Recycle all toy store flyers. Check, check and check.

From the bulletin:

It’s time to sign up the kids for Operation Overboard, our 3rd Annual St. Clement Summer Camp, Dare to Go Deep with God! Your children will plunge into God’s Word and discover stories of deep faith. August 20th to August 24th. 9:00 a.m. to Noon. Limited registration. $40 per child. Call the parish office or pick up a registration form after Mass.

My husband’s family has a neat little tradition of taking the balance of their Easter chocolate (or a great deal of it anyway), melting them, and having Pentecost Chocolate Fondue Extravaganza. We tried it this year, and despite our lack of fancy fondue equipment, it was a hit. We even found ourselves talking about the Holy Spirit! Fancy that.

We melted the chocolate using short, nervous stints in the microwave. Be careful not to burn it!

Everyone got to have a little bowl of fruit and marshmallows, plus their own little ramekin of melted chocolate.

Pentecost-inspired chocolate-covered fruit success!

On Monday mornings, our kids and I have been trying out something new: daily Mass. At 8 o’clock in the morning, instead of heading out the corner to wait for the school bus, we pile into the van and drive to St. Clement for the 8:15 Mass. By the time the Mass ends, we have just enough time to drive to school for 9am to drop-off the school-agers. Because it’s shorter, my kids call it a “little Mass.”

Super nice people
The regulars at daily Mass are very sweet. This is particularly good since I travel with a bunch of kids who may or may not be very quiet or behaved. We have our days. Everyone is very forgiving of our antics and help us herd in and out of the Communion line. Fellow parishoners have even helped me with wanderers, throwers of stuffed animals and droppers of hymnals.

A pew all to yourself
I love empty pews – more room for the diaper bag, the coats, the kids, me.

A good view
Because the sight lines are fantastic and the kids are more relaxed, I’m finding it’s a great time for them to see and experience and learn more about the Mass. It also provides extra practice time for things like sitting nicely and being quiet, genuflecting to Jesus the Tabernacle, bowing to the altar, and getting blessed during Communion.

Getting to go
When one of kids say “Mama, why do we have to something or another,” I automatically respond, “We don’t have to, we get to!” I know eh, what a mom thing to say. Well, this mom is getting to go to an extra little daily Mass once a week. It’s been surprisingly painless and possible. It’s been surprisingly pleasant. I think it might become a welcome part of starting the week.

Images from the Stations of the Cross by Sister Marie Claire Naidu, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Bangalore, India

Going through each of the Stations in a simple way allows our kids to get familiar with the story of Jesus’ passion and death. This Lent, we’re trying to use this one from the Vatican website. Sitting together with the screen visible to everyone, we do this:

  • Someone who can read announces the station, e.g. “Ninth station, Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem”
  • My husband or I read the little Gospel passage near the beginning of each station. (It’s in italics.) We simplify, shorten or skip this part altogether depending on everyone’s attention span.
  • Someone gets a turn singing: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.(2X)
  • On to the next station…

While we’re going through it, there are many, many whys to answer. Our two-year old and three-year old wander in and out quietly, sometimes stopping to look at the pictures. Mostly everyone is quiet and thoughtful. The pictures are powerful and give everyone food for thought.

With younger kids, I imagine that one can simplify even further by just looking at and naming each station. Or with older kids, one could also join in at the parish every Friday at 7pm as they do the Stations of the Cross, followed by Confessions. Either way, bringing the little ones along on our Lenten journey helps the entire family prepare for the celebration of Easter together.

Our first Jesse Tree! and our not-so-wreathy Advent Wreath…

Like I mentioned in a previous post, we’ve never tried to have a Jesse Tree during Advent. But since we got our act together, our family is enjoying this new tradition. We downloaded a set of colouring pages and the kids set out to colouring, cutting, affixing string. This worked out really well since this is what they enjoy doing left to their own devices anyway. (If your kids or you are not the colouring, cutting, affixing string-types, the Internet offers a wealth of ready-made ornaments in exchange for your hard-earned money.) Each evening we read about a person from the Old Testament and hang up their ornament. Having a children’s Bible or Bible stories is handy.

But without further ado, ten reasons why I’m now a Jesse Tree fan:

10. Now the kids* know who Isaac was. Actually, they were more interested in what a ram is. Curly horns? Fascinating!
9. Now the kids know who Sarah was, and that she had a baby named Isaac, who was Jacob’s daddy, who was Joseph’s daddy… Joseph, the guy with the technicolour dream coat?? Yes! He’s the one! It’s all coming together…
8. Now the kids know who Abraham was, and that God promised him that he would be the father of a great nation that numbered like the stars!
7. Now the kids know who Noah was. Well, I guess everyone knew about Noah from before. But now they really know about Noah.
6. Now the kids know who Adam and Eve were.
5. Now the kids know what the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was. (Try to say that three times fast.)
4. Now the kids know the story of Creation.
3. We got some exercise hunting around the neighbourhood for dead branches.
2. It takes the attention away from our not so “wreathy” Advent Wreath (Candles? Yes. Wreath? Not so much. It’s a Minimalist Advent Wreath, kids! Mama, what does “Minimalist” mean?)
1. And the number one reason why I’m a Jesse Tree fan: I don’t hear “Why don’t we have a Christmas tree yet?” so much. We do have a tree! A Jesse tree!

(* By “the kids” I mean everyone three and up. Ok, maybe five and up.)

So there you have it, folks: ten good reasons to try this Jesse Tree thing! And more and more reasons every day! Really, when else will you have an excuse to work in Abraham into daily normal conversation? Although we’re trying our best to keep up with the daily ornaments, I’m sure life will throw some curve balls and we might miss a few (or a lot), but so far the experience has been highly positive and this tradition seems like a keeper.

St. Clement Church all in red, during the recent Volunteer Appreciation Night. Photo by Azure Blue Photography

It’s already Wednesday! Here’s my pre-Advent to-do list:

1. Pray

This helps me remember that preparing for the birthday of our Lord does not consist (primarily) of running around like a chicken with its head cut off. A grumpy chicken with its head cut off. I need to fight for those minutes of peace and quiet when I can sit with just God, humbly asking Him to help keep me focused On What Matters. He can do greater things in those minutes than I can.

2. Find/buy an Advent wreath, three purple candles and pink candle

Having an Advent wreath is a simple yet powerful tradition that we find really creates a mood of peaceful expectation (as different from, say, a trip to Toys’R’Us). It’s a daily chance at a time when we’re all together (usually dinner works well) to stop and remember Who we’re waiting for. And something about candles mesmerizes little kids. I’ve posted the short prayer that we use as we light the appropriate candle(s) each night and Father Zimmer has shared a blessing for the wreath:

Family Blessing of an Advent Wreath
God of hope and love, we praise you for sending Jesus your Son,
to save us from our sins and to be light in our darkness.
Bless us as we gather in his name,
and bless this wreath as a sign of your unending love
and of Jesus’ presence among us.
Keep us watchful in prayer as we await his return in glory.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen!

3. Find the toy Nativity set and hide baby Jesus

Here’s our great toy one. I can’t wait until our two-year old gets introduced to it this year (I’m sure he doesn’t remember last year). We’ll see how well it can withstand the current set of little hands. Baby Jesus makes His appearance on Christmas morning.

4. Situate the wise men and the three kings somewhere far away in the house (ready for their “journey”)

5. Read about Jesse trees

Jesse Tree stained glass window, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Having a Jesse tree is an Advent tradition that we’ve never tried before. As far as I can tell, it involves a simple tree which slowly gets decorated with ornaments that represent characters or stories from the Old Testament. Here’s a nifty chart with all the ornaments descriptions.

“Making a Jesse Tree helps us understand that many people lived before Jesus was born. They waited for him, just as we wait for his birthday now. These people were good, holy people and have interesting stories! We will read a story and think of a symbol to make, something that will remind of the person. Then we will hang that symbol on the tree, and read another story.”
Our Sunday Visitor, About the Jesse Tree

The ornaments can be as simple as cut-out colour pages or as fancy as these ones. You could also get inspired by the beautiful stained glass one from the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (see above). I need to read more about it and see how we will make this tradition our own. I will keep you posted.

What are some of your family’s Advent traditions?

From Father Zimmer in this week’s bulletin:

October is the Month of the Rosary. Repetition and use is the best way for children to learn this wonderful meditation prayer. We challenge parents to pray a decade of the Rosary (Our Father, ten Hail Marys & Glory be) each and every day. Remember to connect the Rosary prayers with one of the Mysteries (Joyful, Sorrowful, Luminous or Glorious). Why not give each child a personal Rosary as a special October gift?

Great idea from Father Zimmer:

Did you ever think of bringing your kids to 8:15 morning Mass during the Summer months? It’s a good way to get them up, dressed and moving and develops good habits which will last them a lifetime. As an alternative, bring the whole family to the 7:00 p.m. Mass on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. The family that prays together stays together.

This just in from the parish bulletin.

We are pleased to introduce a Childrens’ Choir to the parish in September 2011. Open to boys and girls enrolled at St. Clement School or registered in the parish. Grades 3 – 6. Children will sing at one Mass per month (10:00 a.m.) and perform at Christmas & Spring Concerts. Practices in the parish hall. Tuesday afternoons from 4:00 to 5:15 p.m.. $30 annual fee (covers choral gown, sheet music & booklet). Start date: Tuesday, September 13th. Registration packages available in the church late August & early September.

Great fun at Baobab Blast Camp, St. Clement Parish’s 2010 summer camp.

Mark your calendars, folks. I’m very excited to announce that St. Clement Parish is going to host their second annual summer camp! Here are the details from the bulletin:

St. Clement Parish will host another summer camp this year from August 22nd to August 26th. Monday to Friday. 9:00 a.m. to Noon. Cost is $30.00 per child. Our theme this year will be St. Clement Country Fair. Through the example of Jesus and His parables children will grow The Fruit of the Spirit and cultivate a crop of love, joy, peace, patience and kindness. Enrolment numbers are limited. Watch for early registration news in the bulletin.

Tableaux Stations of the Cross at St. Clement Parish, 2010. Photograph by Azure Blue Photography.

From the parish bulletin: This Friday, April 15th, students from St. Clement Catholic School will present the Stations of the Cross in Tableaux form. They will make their first presentation for the school community at 9:30 in the morning. They invite all parishioners to pray the stations with them on Friday evening at 7:00 p.m. Special thanks to Susan Ciufo for her co-ordination of this dramatic event.

We went to the Tableaux Stations last year with the kids and it was a great experience. I highly recommend it. Seeing the older kids act out the story really brought the Passion to life for the little ones in a memorable way. And, if your kids are at all like mine, they’ll have the song Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom on repeat for a surprisingly long time.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which starts of the season of Lent. Today we had Reese Puffs cereal for breakfast and are likely going to have pancakes for dinner. And dessert?

Daughter: Are we having dessert today?
Me: I don’t know yet.
Daughter: God knows.

Does anyone remember Lent?
We’ve been ramping up the Lent-themed conversations during meals in the last few days. Our oldest daughter, who is six, reported that her teacher had reminded them all to “give up something for Lent”. I asked her why and she shrugged and said she wasn’t sure. Sigh. Then, our four-year old gushed, “Lent? I LOVE Lent!” and everyone turned to her perplexed. “‘Cause after Lent, it’s EASTER!” Easter: memorable, Lent: not so much. Which, in my mind says, chocolate: memorable, giving up chocolate: not so much.

We’re going to try and work on the Our Father with the little ones who can talk. The oldest can already say it, so we’ll focus on the meaning of the prayer bit by bit. The one-year old is learning to blow a kiss to Jesus (three skills: blowing, kissing, finding Jesus). Is forty days enough? Probably not, but we gotta start small.

We’ll also try to follow along with this online Stations of the Cross on Fridays. Last year, the version that we end up saying out loud was much simpler than the text on the site. We’ll see how it goes this year.

Prayer cards from loved ones who have passed away have somehow collected themselves on the side of our fridge. They serve as a reminder for our family to say a quick May they rest in peace or Jesus, please take care of them.

The family candy bag, source of all things wonderful, will vanish into thin air. Friday meals will become meatless and simple. My challenge will be to post meatless Friday recipes for you for each Friday of Lent. Suggestions and comments are most welcome.

Fortunately, everyone’s piggy bank has a big rubber stopper at the bottom. This means that we don’t have to sacrifice the family of pigs in order to give to the poor box. Meanwhile, my husband and I need to sit down and take a good, hard look at our “piggy banks” and pray about our ShareLife contribution.

Please feel free to share the Lenten practices that you do with your family.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” – Matthew 25:35-26

Without a bit of gentle redirection, we tend to focus mostly on our own needs and concerns. Growing in generosity, like any other virtue, takes daily practice – small steps. As parents, we can help our children recognize real suffering, like sickness or loneliness, in the people God puts in their sphere (sometimes, right in their homes!). We can help them realize that it is within their capacities to give great joy and comfort, even when they are still very small. Here are some suggestions on small things that can help little kids discover those in need around them, and what they can do to help. (And hey, adults can do these things, too.)

Write letters to people who live far-away. Left to their own devices, some of my kids will colour, cut, glue or “write” for the entire day. This creative energy can be channeled by pointing out that Grandma or Auntie Sue would love to receive an envelope of their work. Who doesn’t love receiving mail?

Make birthday cards. It’s good for a little person to think about birthdays that are not their own. This also helps them appreciate everyone’s efforts when their birthday rolls around.

Pray for the sick. At bedtime prayers (or at any other time), a simple “God bless Great Grandma who’s really not feeling well” brings a little person closer, not only to God, but to Great Grandma as well.

Pray for random intentions. “Daddy’s dressed all fancy because he has an interview today, so don’t forget to God bless Daddy today sometime” or “Karen (the bus driver) works really hard driving you each day, and sometimes the kids on the bus act like crazy monkeys, let’s ask God to bless Karen.”

Start with low-effort sharing. Asking a child to share a not-so-beloved teddy bear is easier than asking them to share their Super Favourite Bestest Friend in the Whole World teddy bear. Every once in a while, help your child choose one or two toys for boys and girls who don’t have any. “Arranging” small success in sharing builds generosity slowly and works better than demanding heroic sacrifice right from the start.

Keep someone company. Before disappearing into the recesses of the toy room, a little person can spend a few minutes sitting with the baby on the living room rug, building towers meant for enthusiastic demolition, or with Grandpa, telling him all about how school went. It takes a bit of coaxing, but I find that they ultimately see how little effort it takes to make someone a bit happier.

Mother Teresa says, “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”

Through no fault of their own, people who love my children are asking them what they would like for Christmas. It is the conversation topic du jour. What would you like for Christmas? What are you asking Santa for? Did you write your Santa letter yet? Not that there is anything wrong with relatives and friends expressing their love through gifts (and conducting some research to ensure maximum impact upon opening). But the constant focus on presents makes it pretty tough for little kids to understand the true depth and beauty of this time of year.

Stopping the Gimme-gimme-gimme train takes more than just forbidding children from obsessing about presents during the Christmas season.

Mama: You are forbidden from obsessing about presents during the Christmas season. Now put away that Toys R U catalog.
Child: Ok, mama.

Nope. It just doesn’t seem to work that way. But my husband and I have hatched a plot with the hope to instill a deeper understanding of the season of Advent and Christmas in our children. Here are the details:

Step 1: Minimize Exposure to Advertising
Some key things need to be in place for our plan to work: hardly any TV, no trips to the mall, no catalogs lying around. This way, they aren’t bombarded by advertising. Unless this is the case, Step 2 and 3 may not stand a chance.

Step 2: Back to Basics
When we talk about Christmas, we usually refer to it by its original and child-friendly name: Jesus’ birthday. I find that our children are Birthday Experts. They know what birthdays are all about. Birthdays involves presents and cards for the birthday boy or girl. Talking about Christmas this way sets up Step 3.

Step 3: The Gift
What are we going to get Jesus for His birthday? This is the big family project. Each day (or when we remember), at the end of the day, the kids try and remember the good things they’ve done for other people, or the sacrifices they’ve made. We ask the kids to write (or draw) their efforts. We’re going to try and collect them all together and address them to Jesus for his birthday. We’re hoping that this family project displaces some of the energy that we spend trying to figure out what presents we’d like to receive. Hopefully, it focuses our family towards what Jesus would want for his birthday. It creates a daily activity (or conversation, at least) that has (so far) captured their imagination and holds their attention. I’ll keep you posted.

Many families I know do something similar, or have other beautiful Advent traditions that help get us ready for Jesus. I would love to hear what your family does.

What is this?

Here a volunteer parishoner at St. Clement shares her personal experiences as her young family tries to keep the Catholic faith alive in their homes, living out the promises of their Baptism. Thank you for stopping in and be sure to share some of your stories as well!