What’s better than an Elf on the Shelf? Traditions from the heart.

Elf on shelf closeupWhen the hugely popular Elf on the Shelf hit the, er, shelves all those years ago, my kids started bugging me to get one for our house. I was — and have remained — firm in my refusal. Hey, I have no problem with YOU having one. Go for it! It’s just…well, the rosy-cheeked critter isn’t for me.

First of all, I was slightly irritated with having this fabricated tradition thrust upon me just because a bunch of people sat around a conference table and decided one mom’s fun idea was the New Christmas must-have. I like my traditions to be, you know, traditions. (I know, I know, all traditions start somewhere, but remember I’m just talking about how I feel. You are free to have different feelings.) I also get really tired of having these fads sweep through my house that my kids demand I spend money on. (And I don’t buy into those, either. Except the Rainbow Loom. I like the Loom. It reminds me of the thousands of hours I spent in my youth weaving friendship bracelets from embroidery floss. Good times.) I am really irritated by the have to. Well, I don’t want to.

Scary Elf on the Shelf

Another reason I’ve refused the Elf entry to my house, let alone any shelf on it, is the thing kind of freaks me out. It’s some kind of weird mashup between Chuckie and that clown from Poltergeist. I see an Elf on someone’s shelf and know that at any moment it’s going to POUNCE! With a meat cleaver! (This is why I never use the bathroom at a house with an Elf.)

Elf on the shelf

That’s right. You just go to bed now…

But more than anything else, I know myself and what I can handle as a parent. I knew that I would just drop the ball when it came to clever elving after the first few days of December. I mean, the Tooth Fairy has been known to not show up until a kid has eaten his breakfast. Or not at all. Not only am I not a Pinterest mom, I can barely get permission slips signed on time, never mind moving some doll hither and yon to entertain my kids and shame them into behaving well during the holiday season. This time of year is so busy and stressful, why create more by throwing the Elf into the mix? Christmas is supposed to be fun, not a pain.

The kids were okay with it after a while. “My Mom doesn’t like the Elf,” they’d say and I’d nod. Nope, not for me.

Then last year, this weird thing happened. I have this goofy Santa decoration that I think I picked up at CVS during a January half-price sale about 12 years ago. (It’s a nice IMG_5486decoration because it’s kid-friendly — meaning, when kid knocks it on the floor, Santa won’t break. I have a lot of that kind of thing.) I put the Santa in the upstairs bathroom because the room is very small and crowded and there’s not much you can do to decorate it for Christmas. And Santa wouldn’t break on the tile floor.

One night, we had another of our Elf discussions, and the little girls were a little bummed I wasn’t giving in. (Had they spent time trying to butter me up before they asked? I think they had.) After I tucked them in, I checked on the older two, reminding them to brush their teeth before getting into bed to read. There was much whispering and giggling between them and some sort of agreement was reached. Then they ran off to the bathroom.

The next day, Ellie came running downstairs, squealing with delight. “SANTA MOVED! HE’S IN OUR ROOM!” We all had to go and see. Sure enough, goofy Santa had relocated to the little girls’ dresser.

“We have a…a…SANTA ON THE SHELF!!!!”

And there was much rejoicing. Especially by the older two, who exchange half-smiles and a subtle fist-bump.

And I spent the rest of December moving that danged thing around the house. Every. Single. Night.

And now he’s back for more. Ellie couldn’t wait to get Santa out of the box. She writes him notes every day and he writes back. (Le sigh.) She loves Santa. Except — the other night she made me take him out of her room because “he’s giving me the creeps, Mommy.” This morning, she wanted to go downstairs to see where he’d moved to, but wouldn’t go by herself. ‘Cause of the creeps. (Can’t say I blame her.)


So, Santa on the Shelf is here to stay, I guess. He’s kind of a pain, a little demanding, mildly creepy. But he’s a tradition now — our tradition.  Which is what makes it better than any store-bought Elf.

The things we do to keep the magic alive for our kids.

That’s what I remind myself when helping Santa write his daily letter to my daughter, with his special handwriting, using his special pen.

At 5:30 a.m., because Santa forgot the night before.



Christmas traditions, yesterday and today


Tree at parents’ house, 2011

It’s around 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and for the first time in my entire life I am not celebrating with my family. I’m not at my parents’ house, where right now my brothers and their families, my sister and her boyfriend, my parents and their dachshund, Max, are hanging out. I don’t know what they’re doing. Probably the cousins are running around, playing games or watching TV or doing crafts before the 4 p.m. mass, while the adults sit in the family room, where a fire blazes in the wood stove, chatting with each other about this or that. There might be snacks already, but it might be to early for Mom’s pizza rustica and my sister-in-law Trish’s sausage pastry rolls and whatever else anyone prepared. I know there’s probably not spinach dip, because I am the one who usually makes that, and I’m not there.

For the first time in 11 years — their entire childhood — my kids are not going to sing carols or exchange homemade cookies with their cousins. My kids won’t get tucked in together in the upstairs room, wishing for sleep to come as fastasthis so Christmas morning will come as soon as possible.

When Ray and I decided to not export our Christmas this year — for the first time in forever — I knew things would be a little strange. Frankly, it was a huge relief to not to shop online and ship all the gifts out of state, to not spend Christmas Eve feverishly wrapping everything, to not have to pack and drive three hours and live out of a suitcase for a few days. I was really excited to start some new traditions in our house for a change. For the kids to creep down our own stairs on Christmas morning and peer around the corner to see what Santa may have been up to while they slept.


And we are. Joanna and I just mixed up a batch of sugar cookie dough and are waiting for it to chill before we cut and bake. Although I don’t have a piano, and for the first time ever won’t be accompanying the carols, I did strum my guitar the other day and feel reasonably sure I can provide a little background for our singing later.

It’s a little strange. Change always is, I guess. New traditions don’t just spring up, fully formed and familiar-feeling. They come from years of tending and feeding, and the strongest ones are the ones that stay. This year, right now, I’m feeling peaceful and right about staying home for Christmas.

But I miss my family — the noise, the stress, the chaos, the annoyance, the laughter, the song — I miss all of that. I sure do.


Do you have any change to spare?

On Christmas morning, Mom and I took the kids to mass at her church, the parish in which I grew up. The kids and I don’t get to church very much these days, for a lot of reasons (which may or may not be the topic of some future post here in A Mom’s World), but one reason is that I’ve never found another Catholic church that comes close to being like St. Jerome.

So I do look forward to going to church whenever I’m back home. Aside from the recent changes to the prayers (darn it), the place never changes and I find that comforting, even if I’m not a fan of the organist or the vocalist who sings in that annoying impossible-to-understand churchy warble. (During the responsorial psalm, Cooper leaned across his sister and stage-whispered: “What is she saying?” I just shrugged and pretended to mouth the right words.) The interior of St. Jerome is warm and welcoming, soft woods and easy lights, open and unfussy, a throwback to the 1970s. There is nothing cold or imperious about it. It’s the kind of place you’d imagine a pair of guitar-playing folk singers might lead the congregation in singing “The Prayer of St. Francis” — which is exactly what they did when I was a child in those peace-seeking 1970s.

So, while it’s different today in some ways, it’s still part of homecoming, my return to the church where I was married and in which all of my children were baptized, all events long after I’d moved away from the town.

This year’s Christmas mass had an interesting twist. Father David, the pastor, who is pretty forward-thinking in a lot of ways, decided to not give a homily. Instead, he shared, on a big screen, this video:

The 10-minute movie is compelling and beautiful, following a homeless man as he begs for change, which he then gives to others in need. I watched it with Joanna on my lap, whispering in her ear when she didn’t understand what was going on. At points I got teary and hugged Joanna tighter. Though unorthodox in nature (showing a video at church!!), the message was clear: this was the meaning of Christmas.

The other day I found the video on YouTube and watched it again. I was still moved by it. However, I read through the comments and was amazed by how many people just didn’t get it. They found it unrealistic (a homeless man would never give away money — he’d buy himself food! Or alcohol! That’s why he’s homeless in the first place!) and unbelievable (no one just gets hired for a job off the street like that!).

I guess those were the people who missed the point. The video is not supposed to be a documentary, a true-to-life rendition of actual events. It’s a narrative presenting a greater message, hopefully inspiring the viewers to do what the homeless man did — give to others in need. Spark a small change in the world.

It’s the butterfly effect. What you do every day has consequences, big and small, positive or negative. You can yell at your child, or speak with kindness, even when you’re angry or frustrated. You can tailgate the slower driver in front of you when you’re in a hurry to make the train to work or you can back off. You can avert your eyes and walk past the bedraggled woman sitting on the street corner or you can drop a penny in her cup. Who knows what your act of kindness will inspire the receiver to do?

Even when you have nothing, you still have something to offer.  What you choose to offer (something or nothing, good or bad) is entirely up to you. But I guarantee that whatever you give — or don’t — has meaning, and effect.

The video starts and ends with a penny dropped into a cup — the bit of change symbolizes the small things we can do that can add up to create a big difference.

So, buddy, can you spare a dime?

Um, yes, Virginia, about that whole Santa thing…

I was really hoping to put off the conversation. Like, for another five or ten years. But here it was.

Last night, a while after all the kids had been tucked in bed, Cooper came downstairs and sat next to me. He didn’t say anything for a minute, just rubbed his eyes. I could tell something was on his mind — his face was serious, his body slouchy, his fingers twining. I zipped through a mental list of what it could be — an issue with a friend? An issue with a bully? Something about school or the report card that just came home? A dozen worst-case scenarios whizzed through my head, a flip-book of fear.

There was only one way to find out. “What’s up, buddy?” I asked him. “You look worried about something.”

He nodded, sighed, looked around. I knew he was gathering the right words to express the intense idea that was weighing him down. Finally, this: “I don’t know…it’s just that…Mom, do you believe in Santa?”

OMG. Worse than I thought.

Cooper fixed his blue eyes on my face, searching. I hoped my panic wasn’t obvious.

First: stall tactics. Get him talking. “Why do you ask? Did something happen?”

Kids at school, of course, spreading rumors that it was actually the parents who put presents under the tree. Others vehemently disagreed, standing up for Santa. He didn’t know what to think. “I’m worried that I’ll get teased,” he confessed. For believing? I wondered. Then he went on, “By the kids who believe in Santa. Also, if I say I don’t believe, and I’m wrong, I won’t get any presents.”

I had to restrain my fingers from doing a quick Google search: TELLING YOUR KID THE TRUTH ABOUT CHRISTMAS. THE BIG SANTA LIE. 

The whole thing caught me totally off guard. I had always thought Mitzi — ever beyond her years — would be the one to first question Santa. But while she desperately longs to zoom ahead into the world of teenagers, she wholly believes in magic and fairies and mermaids and a world that exists just beyond our human eyes. No Santa? For her, that would be like saying Harry Potter couldn’t exist. Still, I always figured she’d raise questions, as she always does, that challenge everything her parents say.

I never thought Cooper would be the skeptic.

And now, what could I say? I never wanted to lie to my kids, not when asked point-blank. Then, I realized, he hadn’t asked me if Santa was real, just whether I believed. So, borrowing heavily from movies like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, I talked about the magic of the Christmas season, how miracles seem to happen more at this time of year than at any other. About how Christmas reminds us to be a little kinder, a little more generous, a little more focused on other people who share the world with us. About light and love and hope and how I believed in these things. How you could consider Santa as a symbol, a reminder, of these things.

I’m not sure he bought it. And I don’t think I actually answered his question.

Cooper is a sensitive soul. He’s often the peacemaker among his three sisters, and the first one to silently give some extra hugs and love to someone who seems to be having a bad day. Even playing football — this was his first year at the sport — where he was pretty skilled at tackling, he always helped up the kid he just knocked over, patting the opponent’s back. It’s just his way, to recognize injustice and want to right the wrongs, because he seems to really believe in goodness.

How could I lie to him?

I couldn’t. So I sidestepped. And was a little relieved he didn’t ask the point-blank questions: Is Santa real? Do parents put the presents under the tree? Why did you make all that up all these years only to have me believe the lie and now my heart is shattered?

In the end, he was satisfied. We had a few quiet minutes together to share our thoughts about the real meaning of Christmas, and maybe that’s all he wanted. It’s excruciating to witness childhood innocence begin its slow and inevitable slipping away. Last night I saw the first signs that Cooper, just a couple of months away from turning 9, is closer to growing up than I wanted to believe.

So I lied, just a little. I hope he’ll forgive me, when the time comes, and I’ll be able to explain the Santa thing in a way that he understands.

And, maybe for just one more Christmas, that childhood magic will continue.

Holiday cards — boogers and all

For a lot of us, right now is the most wonderful time of the year — Christmas carols playing on iTunes ’round-the-clock, hours spent bedecking the house from ceiling to floor with greenery and shiny baubles, evenings passed by watching favorite holiday movies while snuggling with those you love the most.

Then it comes. The inevitable hiccup in the season, the one thing that can send you running for the adults-only egg nog faster than you can say “down with the Whos!”.

Posing the kids for the Christmas card.

It’s like herding cats, but with a lot more hissing and clawing.

First, one kid complains that another is standing too close. Then someone steps on someone else’s foot. Bunny ears are hovered over the unsuspecting first-rowers. An elbow is jabbed into the tummy of the bunny ear maker. A hair pull, a finger poke, a ripple of scowls.

Someone bursts into tears and can’t focus her camera.

Mommy retreats in search of a tissue and kids scatter.

Another holiday card effort bites the dust.

This is what happens, every year.

Possibly you are someone who doesn’t leave this to the last minute of the holiday season.  Maybe you are one of those amazing parents who is able to snap dozens of photos of your kids — all together, all smiling, all sparkly-clean with cover-model teeth and well-accessoriezed outfits — over summer vacation or while picking pumpkins or at a family gathering earlier in the year.

I am not one of those people.

My children are notoriously rebellious when it comes to getting their picture taken as a group. Oh, individually, they love it — mugging for the camera, they pose like models on a fashion shoot. I can even photograph them in pairs, and, on a good day, trios.

But all four? Together? All smiling? Fat chance.

So, every year I send out holiday photo cards with a collage of individual shots of each child, and every year I get dozens of cards featuring lovely full-family or all-children pictures.

I am jealous.

For once, I’d like to take that group picture, if not for the holiday card, then just for posterity, so when we all look back on our family photos in 20 years, we won’t think, “Gee, weren’t we ever together?”

Of course it’s not a big deal. The people on the receiving end of my holiday cards don’t give a whit about the perfection of the pose — they delight in the way the kids have grown and changed, the way each child’s individuality is increasingly evident in the contours of his or her face.  Also, thanks to Facebook and other social media, most of them have seen pictures of my kids throughout the year. A fancy new picture of them at the holidays is really redundant more than anything else.

Every year when I express my angst over the failed holiday card pose, a dear friend reminds me that the outtakes — the so-called disaster shots — are the best pictures of all. And, looking back, I know he’s right.

The failed Christmas card attempts include pictures from the beach — sand-covered kids licking dripping ice cream pops — and in front of the Christmas tree — the silly poses with eyeballs rolling, monster faces growling, tongues thrusting — and in the backyard during autumn — scarlet cheeks, runny noses, mouths howling with drooly laughter. And a thousand in between. There is not a portrait-worthy pose among them.

Still, looking through these “failed” shots, I see my children. They are messy and boogery and crafty and creative and always, always, on the move. Their insides are alight with energy and enthusiasm and they don’t have time to stand still long enough to pose for a Christmas card picture.

In these outtakes, they are alive and real. They are themselves.

And that’s what the holiday card should present to the world.  A snapshot of a moment in time, with all its failures and foibles and awkwardness and yet-to-bes and mess. Because that’s who people are, really. Each of us, a dorky work in progress.

Today I accomplished the impossible — after the usual griping and grousing and tantruming, I managed to take a very nice picture of four rosy-cheeked children in winter fleeces, set against a backdrop of bare trees and pre-snow winterland. If you’re on my mailing list, you’ll get your own copy.

I’m glad to have a nice picture to hang on my wall. If only as evidence that, you know, my kids were sometimes tidy and well behaved. With sparkly white teeth and all of that.

Because Moms like that sort of thing, from time to time.

Ah, but the outtakes from today were hard to say no to. Joanna’s growly, grumpy face in the first few shots. Mitzi’s pre-teen meltdown evidenced by puffy, red-rimmed eyes.  Ellie’s glittery-eyed, gap-toothed shouting of the words “Merry Christmas”, followed by an off-camera, surprisingly strong right jab to her sister’s side after a snide comment. Cooper’s head-shaking, shoulder-shrugging resign in the face of sisterly drama.

This is who they are — who we are — right now, December 2011.  Sometimes perfectly in place, sometimes not.

Kind of just like the rest of humanity.

Which is also kind of the message of the holiday season we are in the midst of celebrating — how we love each other not despite the flaws, but because of them. Cherishing each other for the totally perfect imperfect selves we are, always on our way to being something better, ever improving.

We send holiday cards to share the love we feel for others, born from the love we feel for ourselves.

Boogers and all.

Fire up your holiday spirit!

You might be tired of this medley by a capella group, Straight No Chaser (who originally performed together at Indiana University back in the ’90s).  Too bad.  Here it is again.  It’s a fun song sure to get even the Grinchiest of grouches in the holiday spirit!

Definitely check out the band’s web site, if only to read the unlikely success story this group of ten guys had a decade after they stopped singing together in college. Maybe it’ll inspire you to dust off that trumpet from marching band?  

Happy Friday!

Forget the toys! Books rock!

Tick, tick, tick…only days are left for you to finish your Christmas shopping!  If I had my way, everyone would only get books as gifts, so hie thee to a bookstore — preferably your local independent — and consider these titles for your little ones:

Princess Peepers adores her glasses — at least, until the other princesses at school make fun of her.  So she takes off her glasses to prove she doesn’t need them, which of course leads to all kinds of hilarious trouble.  Her biggest challenge?  Getting ready in time for the ball to dance with the prince!  The spunky, bespectacled princess prevails and changes the definition of cool.  This book is a surprising divergence from the usual princess tales, and little girls who adore fancy, sparkly heroes (whether they wear glasses or not) will cheer for Peepers.  (written by Pam Calvert, illustrated by Tuesday Mourning, Marshall Cavendish, 2008)

Mean girls are everywhere, even in elementary school.  In Two of a Kind, author Jacqui Robbins skillfully captures the dynamics between two pairs of best friends — mean, snobby Melanie and Kayla, and kind, eager Anna and Julisa.  When Anna is accepted into the exclusive friendship, she is secretly thrilled, even though she’s sad to leave Julisa behind.   Soon, however, the nastiness of her new friends becomes too much, and she realizes that she was happier with her true friend.  The honest writing never feels didactic, pulling readers into a timeless conflict of playground bullies and their victims.  Illustrator Matt Phelan deliciously captures body language and facial expressions (I love the way the mean girls are so, well, evil, despite their perfect, matching outfits).  (Atheneum, 2009)

In a lovely seasonal tale, Christmas Eve Blizzard (Sylvan Dell, 2005) tells the story of Nicholas, who rescues a cardinal trapped in the snow.  Ignoring the usual holiday fun of wrapping presents or decorating the tree, Nicholas, with the help of his grandfather, focuses instead on caring for the bird, and his efforts yield surprising results.  Written by Andrea Vlahakis, this is a nostalgic, heart-warming tale best read while cuddled under a thick quilt in front of a blazing fire — or wherever your most special reading place is.  As with their other titles, this Sylvan Dell book includes a “Creative Minds” section, which offers information and activities based on the story.  (Illustrations by Emanuel Schongut)

This book made me the hero of Cooper’s first grade class when I read it aloud a few weeks ago.  I mean, the title alone set them into peals of laughter!  How could it not?  While reading this hilarious book by James Stevenson, kids will delight in conspiring with the little pig, Freddy Faffnaffer, to disobey his boss, the grumpy crocodile Mr. Frimdimpny, during the telling of three separate tales.  All the while, readers have discovered Mr. Frimdimpny’s deepest secret — and they get to help put Mr. Frimdimpny in his place by book’s end.  The text is more suitable for older kids, though — the humor is probably a little sophisticated for preschoolers, though they will undoubtedly appreciate the wonderful illustrations. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004)

(Edited to add author links.  Der.)