Being Thankful at Christmas

My wife’s family has a tradition before opening gifts. After the nativity story is read from Luke 2, we go around the circle and say something for which we are thankful.

Though the practice may be more traditional at Thanksgiving time, I like that we do it at Christmas. It is a nice balance to the fact that Christmas is not about the presents that we’re about to open, but a celebration of thankfulness for the best gift that was already given.

As we went around the room this year, my 4-year-old eldest daughter chimed in that she was thankful for Mommy and Daddy. It made me feel pretty great even if she did say it quietly and when someone else was already talking. But when it got to her actual turn, she changed her tune.

The_three_Magi_(Balthasar,_Caspar,_Melchior)“I’m thankful that everyone got me a present!” she shouted with glee.

Though she may have said that simply to be funny, I think it was a real thing for which she was thankful. I just hope she’s also still thankful for her mom and me.

By contrast, our 2-year-old daughter gave this answer to the question of what she is thankful for:

“Jesus.”

Maybe she was echoing other people who had said something similar. Maybe she was giving the stock “Sunday School” answer. Maybe it was a genuine answer and she’s just more spiritual than me. In any case, it was a good thing for which to be thankful.

I’m not trying to say that one of my kids gave the right answer and one of them didn’t. After all, I think it is great to be thankful for all things, including when we get presents. And I think there’s a real danger in echoing spiritual answers without fully understanding or believing them. It was just funny that the answers given by my kids spanned the spectrum of what we are told is the point of Christmas.

I’ll tell you what I’m thankful for. I’m thankful for my wife and for the opportunity to raise our kids together. I’m thankful for the insight into my own thoughts and motivations as reflected by the words and actions of my kids.

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and I hope that you are thankful too, whatever you got or didn’t get.

7 Ways to Make It Feel Like Christmas (Whether It Looks Like It or Not)

I’m not dreaming of a white Christmas. I really hate shoveling snow. So I’m not all that bothered with the unseasonably warm temperatures we’re experiencing in Michigan now. But it is a bit hard to feel like Christmas without snow.

Fear not. Here are 7 things that we can try together in order to recaptures some of that holiday spirit:

  1. Close the curtains (we don’t need the reminder that it isn’t white out there) and put on some Christmas music.
  2. DSC01436Adjust your thermostat and wear a warm sweater. The uglier and more Christmas-y, the better.
  3. Drink something festive: hot cocoa with a candy cane stir stick, mulled wine, or (if you must) eggnog (which is gross, not that I’m judging you).
  4. Watch a Christmas movie: White Christmas, A Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Home Alone (the original only, no sequels), and Elf are all acceptable choices.
  5. Make a miniature snowman out of marshmallows, pretzel sticks, and M&Ms. I’ve never done this, but it sounds like a lot of fun.
  6. Grab your nearest Holy Bible and read Luke 2 over and over until you can recite it by memory.
  7. Call a friend or family member if you aren’t capable of being with them in person.

Hope this helps. If you have other ideas to get into the Christmas spirit, leave them in the comments!

Merry Christmas Eve!

On the Origin of Stockings

stockingThere’s a couple of ways to go with this: the Christmas tradition and the origin of the word itself. I’ll do both.

The tradition of hanging stockings at Christmas has a few origin stories. The most popular one actually involves the historical Saint Nicholas, so we’ll go over that one first.

The story goes that Saint Nicholas happened upon a poor man with three beautiful daughters. The old man was concerned about his daughters’ welfare after he died since he was poor and couldn’t afford to marry any of them off to proper gentleman. If they couldn’t get married, they might become prostitutes. Saint Nicholas knew that the old man was too proud to accept charity, so in the cover of night, he threw three bags of gold into an open window of the poor man’s house. One of the bags of gold fell into a stocking set by the fire. In the morning, the poor man found the gold and his daughters were all able to get married.

In other regions, the stocking tradition is said to stem from Odin and the food that would be left for his 8-legged horse, Sleipnir, in the shoes of home’s occupants. Odin would take the carrots and hay and whatever and leave presents and candy in their place. But I don’t think I’d want to eat candy from a shoe that was just emptied of horse food.

So I’m going to believe that the stocking tradition came from St. Nick himself and his efforts to prevent pretty girls from becoming prostitutes, even though I’m a fan of Odin too. I’m just a sucker for a story that ends well.

But what about the origin of the word “stocking”? Where did that come from?

As it happens, we have trees to thank for stockings. The root of stocking is “stock”, which is an Old English word (stocu) for sleeve that is related to a very similar Old English word (stocc) for log or trunk. This is probably because legs look a bit like tree trunks. More so if you are an Ent from Lord of the Rings or Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. As root words go, “stock” also went on to be used in stockades, which as almost nothing to do with stockings, but now you know the connection.

So as we get closer to Christmas day, don’t forget to hang up your leg-sleeve so you can avoid a life of prostitution! Maybe you could even throw a carrot in there for good luck. If Odin’s 8-legged horse doesn’t want it, maybe Santa’s reindeer will.

Merry Christmas!

When Viking Gods & Christmas Mix: The Norse Mistletoe Origin

My family decorated our home for Christmas the other night, and my eldest daughter was puzzled when I handed her our Mistletoe holder.

“What is this?” she asked.

“That is mistletoe,” I responded. “And it’s a Christmas tradition to kiss people beneath it.”

“Why?” she asked.

And this is what I told her:

The vikings used to tell stories about their gods and heroes. The most popular god of all time was Baldur.

When Baldur began having troubling dreams about his mortality, his mother went to every living creature and asked them to never hurt her son. All of creation loved Baldur and agreed at once. But Baldur’s mom forgot to ask the mistletoe.

The Death of Baldur from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript.

The Death of Baldur from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript.

Being (nearly) invincible, it became a fun sport to lob axes, knives, and arrows at Baldur. He would laugh off each blow as none of it hurt him in the least.

In time, Baldur’s only real enemy, Loki, discovered his weakness. And so he crafted an arrow made of mistletoe and tricked Baldur’s blind brother Hodur into shooting at Baldur. The arrow killed the hero and mistletoe became a reminder to show love while we are alive, because no one lives forever.

There’s a lot more to the story about how the gods petitioned the keeper of Helheim (the world of the dead) to return Baldur to life and how Loki thwarted that plan too, but the part about the mistletoe ends there.

So what does this have to do with Christmas and kissing? I like to think that the mistletoe tradition was rolled into Christmas celebrations because of the similarity of their intent. Christmas, like the message of the Baldur’s mistletoe story, is a time to celebrate life. Christians are specifically celebrating the gift of Christ whose death brought life everlasting, but as this gift can only be accepted by the living, the same sense of urgency and awareness of mortality exists within both narratives.

I hope this new knowledge helps you appreciate the mistletoe a little more this year. Now get out there and greet each other with holy kisses!

That Elusive Christmas Spirit

when_my_heart_finds_christmasI must have been a sophomore in high school, because I think my brother was a freshman in college, leaving me alone in the house. It was a night without homework, but I had some chores to do. Feeling in the festive mood, I popped in Harry Connick Jr.’s When My Heart Finds Christmas CD and sang along as I did the dishes by hand. I couldn’t explain it, but I felt the Christmas spirit as strongly that night as I remembered from my earliest yuletide memories.

Strangely, that night wasn’t in December or anywhere near Christmas.

I think it was sometime in September. But that night felt like Christmas to me. The Christmas spirit is a fickle thing.

When I went to college, Christmas was still special, because it was something to come home for, but it was nothing compared to the joy and expectation of my youth. Then after college, when I joined the ranks of the toiling masses of retail workers, whatever was left of the Christmas spirit died.

Sure, Christmas was still a special time. My wife and I sharing our holidays as newlyweds, the challenge of finding just the right gift and seeing her face light up as she opened it. Christmas was certainly special, but the season no longer held the sustained tone of joy and impatience as it had when I was younger.

If anything, those first few Christmases were even less joyous for my wife. She also worked in retail, but being in management she worked longer hours and dealt with angrier people than I ever had to handle.

But then something happened. We had kids.

And now that they are old enough to understand the holidays a bit, I can see the Christmas spirit making a comeback in my house. It may be true that it’ll never be the same for me again, but watching my daughters’ light up with our tree is close. And that’s good enough for me.

2013 Holiday Gift Guide for Teen Readers

I rarely emerge from my office at work, especially during the holiday season. There’s too great a chance that I’ll be stopped by a customer and asked a question for which I have no good answer. That’s the problem with working off the floor at a bookstore, I’m mostly oblivious when it comes to knowing things like product location and which book is Karen Kingsbury’s latest. I could probably solve that by visiting the sales floor more often, but again, that raises the chance that I’ll be asked a question by a customer. It’s a vicious cycle of ignorance, but I’m pretty happy inside of it.

That is, until I get thrown under the bus by my coworkers. It’s happened twice in the last week that one of my coworkers has called me out to the sales floor to help a customer with a product recommendation. Fortunately, the customers in question were trying to find books for their teenagers and my coworker knows that I read a lot of YA Fiction. In each instance, I was able to guide the customers to some products that might suite their needs.

I’d like to do the same for you. Here are my book recommendations for 2013.

For fans of the Hunger Games or Divergent

9781441261021The Staff and the Sword Series by Patrick Carr – Although getting into this series took me a few chapters, it wasn’t long before I was hooked. The first two books (A Cast of Stones & The Hero’s Lot) are available now and book three (A Draw of Kings) comes out sometime this Spring. Fans of the fast-paced, weapon-filled, society-on-the-brink-of-revolution genre will appreciate the struggles of Errol Stone as he tries to navigate each new threat, be it from foe or friend.

For fans of the Hobbit or Chronicles of Narnia

edge-bookThe Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson – First and foremost, Andrew Peterson is a gifted storyteller. Whether it comes through in his prolific musical career or his youth fiction, Peterson’s ability to incite mirth as well as sadness ranks him among the greats in fantasy literature. The first three books are out now, with the final installment coming this Spring.

For college-bound readers

4981 168668Catch-22 by Joseph Heller or Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – These books won’t be for everyone. To be honest, less than half the people to whom I have recommended them actually appreciate the message or the tenor of the writing. But these are classics for a reason. They are anti-war books that transcend specific grievances against military debacles and cause the reader to ask the age-old question central to growing up: Have I been sold a lie? These titles get to the core of what it means to be independent, so I’ll keep on recommending them to people. Because, whether you like them or not, they will make you grow up.

For a bit of Christmas fun

Hhogfatherbookogfather by Terry Pratchett – Things are a little different in the Discworld. For one thing, the world is flat and propels through space on the backs four elephants standing atop a giant turtle. For another, there is no Santa Claus. There is the Hogfather. And things are about to get messy when an “uncommonly psychotic member of the Assassin’s Guild” vows to kill the spirit of Hogswatchnight (Christmas) himself. This novel features some of my favorite characters (Death and his granddaughter Susan) in a clever and fun take on most wonderful time of the year.

As for recommendations for fans of books like Twilight and the like, I recommend reading better books. Hope this short list is helpful!

10 Ways to Avoid Friends & Family This Holiday Season

Peace on earth, goodwill toward men, and obligatory gatherings of distant relatives and former friends. Yes, the holidays are upon us.

So what do you do when you get invited to a holiday gathering that it would please you to avoid? Here are ten ideas:

  1. Get a seasonal job that requires you to work all the time. The upside of this plan is that you get a few extra dollars to spend on Lego sets for yourself. The downside is that you’ll be working so much, you won’t have time to assemble said Lego sets. Also, there are very few places that require you to work on Christmas. Consider becoming a doctor or a gas station attendant.
  2. Have a baby. Seriously, you can blame anything on the fact that you are sleep-deprived or concerned for the newborn’s welfare and no one can question you. Of course, this one would have required a bit of planning in order to time it right.
  3. Claim that you already have a holiday gathering happening that day. As long as you keep your social circles separate, no one will find out the truth. But be sure to maintain radio silence during the event in question, lest it come to light that you never had plans in the first place.
  4. Move far away from everyone you know or like. Clean and simple.
  5. Have an embarrassing injury that lands you in the hospital during the duration of the gathering. The injury should be the type where potential visitors will understand that you’d rather have a bit of privacy than surprise guests.
  6. Change your religion frequently. If no one can remember which holidays you celebrate, they’ll avoid inviting you so as not to offend you. And if they still invite you, just claim that you don’t celebrate that one.
  7. Witness a crime. If you can make it into the Witness Protection Program, you are obligated by law to have no contact with family or friends.
  8. Western Michigan University Distinguished Alumni and actor Tim Allen was only selling drugs to avoid a holiday party. Probably.

    Western Michigan University Distinguished Alumni and actor Tim Allen was only selling drugs to avoid a holiday party. Probably.

    Commit a crime. Why stand around waiting for someone to commit a crime when you can take the matter into your own hands? Jail is just as good a reason for missing awkward parties as the Witness Protection Program.

  9. Develop very specific allergies. “Are there going to be peanuts or people who might have touched a dog, cat, or chinchilla at this party? Oh, there are? Darn! If I come, I could die. I wouldn’t want that on your conscience.”
  10. Abandon personal hygiene. No one is going to invite you to a party if you smell like Death’s pet skunk. Plus you’ll save time and money by not bathing. Easy!

And there you have it. Merry Christmas!

Unless you recently changed your religion. In which case, Happy Whatever!

The Year Our Christmas Tree Rescued Bigfoot

Baker Book House has Christmas decorations up in the store. And while die-hard Thanksgiving fans will decry the early jump on Christmas as one thing less to be thankful for, retail stores like Baker like to get into the Christmas spirit a bit earlier than the average Joe.

And so I happened upon one of my co-workers methodically removing lights from a pre-lit Christmas tree.

“Never get a pre-lit tree,” said she. “If one bulb goes out, you lose a quarter of lights on your tree.”

“My wife and I have a pre-lit tree,” I responded. “In fact, we have a dead section of lights on our tree. It happened the first Christmas that we had our dog. The bad news is that he got a bit of a shock and we lost a string of lights. The good news is that he hasn’t messed with any Christmas tree since then.”

“Sounds like a mixed blessing,” said my co-worker.

Artist's MS-Paint Rendering

Artist’s MS-Paint Rendering

“It worked out even better for our hamster, Bigfoot. Shortly after my dog learned to respect Christmas, Bigfoot escaped his cage while my wife and I were at work. We found him that night in the only safe place in the house: directly beneath the Christmas tree.”

And so I think of Bigfoot whenever we put up our tree. We fill in the bit of dark space with a string of lights and we thank the Lord all over again for the time that our dog got shocked.

Now we just have to find something less potentially lethal to get our toddler daughters to leave the tree alone.

The Origin of Bah Humbug!

scroogebluray1It’s Christmas time, and that makes everyone happy… well, everyone except the Scrooges among us. And when one of those Scrooges says “Bah Humbug!” to you, don’t you wonder what they are really saying? Well, have no fear. We’ll dive in to this question together. (Yesterday’s usage of the phrase was in reference to the text adventure game by the name of Humbug. We’re talking about something a bit older here.)

Everyone knows the line. Ebenezer Scrooge made it famous. But “Bah Humbug!” existed before Dickens. According to the 1911 Classic Encyclopedia, based on the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the term dates back to the mid-1700s:

According to the New English Dictionary, Ferdinando Killigrew’s The Universal Jester, which contains the word in its sub-title “a choice collection of many conceits … bonmots and humbugs,” was published in 1754, not, as is often stated, in 1735-1740. The principal passage in reference to the introduction of the word occurs in The Student, 1750-1751, ii. 41, where it is called “a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion.”

But even then, the origin is unclear. It had apparently been popular already and was synonymous with a hoax or a sham. The Encyclopedia goes on to say:

The origin appears to have been unknown at that date. Skeat connects it (Etym. Diet. 1898) with “hum,” to murmur applause, hence flatter, trick, cajole, and “bug,” bogey, spectre, the word thus meaning a false alarm. Many fanciful conjectures have been made, e.g. from Irish uim-bog, soft copper, worthless as opposed to sterling money; from “Hamburg,” as the centre from which false coins came into England during the Napoleonic wars; and from the Italian uomo bugiardo, lying man.

And so there are many possibilities on where the phrase came from, but each points back to a meaning of deception. Which makes sense in the way that Scrooge used it in A Christmas Carol, as he thought that Christmas itself was a hoax or deception. In fact, this is not the only literary use of the phrase, as the venerable Wizard of Oz declares himself to be “just a humbug.”

So now you know. Though there are many possible sources for this phrase that was “very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion”, there was only one primary meaning. And through time and many versions of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, many have forgotten that the phrase meant anything at all, simply associating it was a bad attitude about Christmas. But not you. You know the truth.

So the next time some Scrooge says “Bah Humbug!” to you, just smile and tell them that Christmas is no hoax.