The Flawless Christmas Card

Parenting is the most competitive gig on the planet: who's kid is the smartest, the cutest, learned to read the earliest, has the most friends, is the best on the soccer team, watches the least amount of television, etc. and, nothing appears to convey those messages more than "the perfect Christmas family photo card." But I'd like to offer another thought, because that is definitely not the message that this flawed, very less than perfect Mom and family, is trying to convey when compiling our Christmas cards.

You see, Christmas just screams beauty. Everything in my world feels more beautiful around the Christmas season. I love the way my house looks and feels, the decorations, the lights, the sounds, and the smells of the season. It all leaves me incredibly giddy.  It's a massive celebration of Jesus' birth and I think it's a small, tiny glimpse of the beauty we will experience for eternity.

Along with Christmas beauty comes Christmas cards! It is one of my absolute favorite things about Christmas. Jon knows not to open a single Christmas card without me, so he usually just brings them in a huge stack and lets me go to town. The mailbox in the days before Christmas becomes my stalking ground for Christmas happiness- pictures, yearly highlights, handwritten letters, and family announcements. It's all happy and beautiful and for a moment highlights the resounding beauty that DOES reside in every single family regardless of difficulty or struggle. Sure some of the beauty people display via their Christmas card cheer, may be disingenuous, but maybe it isn't. So before you criticize and assume people are trying to be perfect, maybe just look at it from a different angle. We're all living life and not all of it is filled with beauty. And yes, there is beauty in the mess and the difficulty. We all know that way more than we're probably even willing to admit. We all know life, and marriage, and children, and families are far from perfect, and often come with great struggle. We all know our stories are laced with joy and sorrow alike. That's not what I'm talking about- I often post about the struggle of life, the craziness of raising kids, and the very not so perfect life we live. So at Christmas we desire to display the beauty that does exist among the chaos of every day life.
So that is why I torture my family, mainly my husband, with coordinating outfits, the perfect location, bribing children, and taking a million shots to get one where everyone is looking at the camera and at least sort of smiling.  Pictures mean a lot to me. They document life and that's one thing I think I do fairly well as a mom- document my kids lives. So for me, the Christmas card is very meaningful. It displays the beauty that is in our family. Once a year, it displays the grace of God in our lives and shows the love that runs through the fabric of our family unit.

So the next time you receive a "flawless Christmas card" in the mail, don't jump to the conclusion that they're trying to portray the "perfect family." Maybe instead, see it as the time of year to celebrate the beauty of families sticking together and walking in the daily grind of life as one. That, is true beauty and should be celebrated and displayed.

So without further ado, here's a picture of our Christmas Card of 2014. We did not send out cards to everyone this year because we chose to clamp down our Christmas budget. We sent them to a few non-internet family members and friends. If you normally receive a card from us, please don't be offended! We plan to fully resume the ginormous Christmas card list next year.

Dear Family & Friends,
2014 has been quite the year for us. Looking back, I can't believe all we crammed into one year. To kick-off 2014, Jon and I took a babymoon vacation to Jamaica. We left at just the right time as Indy was experiencing its coldest winter in decades. We had an awesome trip and had such a great time celebrating all the good that God has done in the life of our family over the last few years.

On March 28th Evie turned 3 years old! She continues to be a lover of babies, all things princess, and twirly dresses. She can be found at almost any moment of the day in her yellow "Belle" dress she got from Ethiopia ("because it twirls the best, Mama"), all while bouncing a baby on her hip. The detail with which she cares for her dolls is probably one of the sweetest things I have ever seen. Evie was promoted to Big Sister this year and takes this role very seriously. She is our more independent child, but certainly loves to snuggle. She loves bathroom humor, laughing, and playing with Mekonen. She took her first ballet class this year and almost exploded with excitement. She loves it more than I ever imagined.

On April 6th, the sweetest chaos we ever met arrived on the scene, at our schoolhouse, at 11:11am weighing 7 lbs 11 oz, and 20 inches long. We named her Penelope Mae after her Great-Grandma Penny Castro, and her Great-Grandma Nellie Mae Oren. Sweet chaos is a good descriptor for our little peanut as she has had quite the colicky start to her little life. We are praising the Lord that she started turning a corner around 6 months old and is no longer crying and fussing all the time. She still definitely has her moments where no ones sleeps and no one gets anything done. But we know, this too shall pass, and she'll be running behind her brother and sister in no-time. She is almost 9 months old and her personality is starting to show. She is starting to babble and it takes little effort to get her to smile and laugh. She's starting to stand independently now and we expect that she'll be walking and running before we know it.

We spent the summer traveling to visit family, working on our 100 year old schoolhouse, and enjoying our kids. Jon planted a huge vegetable garden this year and I canned for the first time- green beans, tomatoes, soup, salsa, pickles, and grape jelly. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it and look forward to it next year. We (a.k.a. mostly Jon) continued caring for our egg laying chickens and this past fall raised 20 meat chickens that we had butchered just a few weeks ago. Who knows what other animals will show up in our yard this coming year! I'm hearing talk of pigs and turkeys, oh my!

In much sadder news, we lost our beloved golden retriever, Macy, this year. It was the one of the most heartbreaking things we've experienced, and way more devastating than I ever imagined it would be. Recovering from that was extremely difficult as pets truly are part of our families.

This fall, Mekonen started kindergarten and left me asking myself more than once, "where did the time go?" We are homeschooling and attending a classical co-op. Mekonen loves it. His favorite part of the week is going to school with his friends. We are blessed to walk this homeschooling year with some good friends and it has been so fun watching our boys go to school together. Homeschooling is genuinely my favorite part of our day. Watching Mekonen learn to read has been so much fun. We have found that he loves history, geography, and math. He's learned the 50 states and capitals, along with their location, the Presidents of the U.S., and is working through organizing what he has learned in history on a history timeline of world. I love that these things continue to fascinate him.  If you're wondering why we homeschool and what classical education is, check out my blog posts, here, and here. 

One of the things we loved most about 2014 is that all of my family came to visit us! The Bakers came this past summer on their way to moving to Wyoming, and my parents, and the Daniels family came for Thanksgiving. It was so much fun being able to host everyone.

On December 28th, Mekonen turned six years old! He is our extreme extrovert and is the most relationally driven person I have ever met. He might even surpass me. Haha! He loves any and every activity involving Daddy, loves Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Superheroes, and Legos. The highlights of his days are playing with friends and wrestling with Daddy. He played baseball on a team for the first time this year and seems to prefer baseball over soccer! An entirely new part of his person came out when Penelope was born and it is incredibly special. Mekonen has not only taken his baby sister's colic in stride, but has genuinely embraced his protector and care-giver role as big brother. He's constantly trying to soothe her, love on her, and do whatever he can to help. He takes his sibling leadership role seriously and we are excited to continue to watch that grow.

We thank you all for your love, support, and involvement in our lives. We don't take it for granted. We wish you a Merry Christmas and very happy and healthy 2015.

With much love, 
The Orens 


Santa Claus?

Santa Claus....every year he comes up, and every year we have conversations about it. Jon grew up with Santa and I did not, so we come from both sides of the story. I'm a great fan of make-believe, imagination, and fun, fanciful stories. Several weeks ago, Mekonen lost his first tooth and I got flack for telling him about the Tooth Fairy, and letting my kids walk the streets of Disney World thinking the characters were real, but not having my kids believe in Santa Claus. For me, there's a big difference in both of those scenarios, and many don't agree, and that is totally okay. But I know my kids....I have one extremely sensitive one, and one very logical one, and I have always felt a little unsettled in my heart about blurring the lines at Christmas when Jesus is supposed to be the focus. If Santa had been at a different time of the year, having nothing to do with Christmas, or Jesus' birth, maybe we would've been Santa believers in full. Who knows!

At Christmas time, there are two very prominent figures (and one culturally more prominent than the other), Santa and Jesus. I have felt very strongly about not wanting to blur the lines between real and pretend within those two people. I got criticized for being ridiculous, over the top, and the like. (Which in one sense is funny because why do others care if my kids believe in Santa or not)? But anyway, my concern was confusing the lines, and I saw the perfect example in a conversation with my 3 year old on Friday while we drove to the children's museum. Evie says from the backseat, "Mommy, if Santa Claus is pretend, is Jesus real?" Of course I responded that He absolutely is, that He is the reason everything and everyone exists, that He is God, etc, etc. Then she said, "well if Santa flying reindeer and bringing presents to all the kids is just pretend, did Jesus really die on the cross?" Oh my. Her little mind trying desperately to make connections and discern reality and truth. I mean when you think about it, I don't blame her. Santa Claus and Jesus aren't "seen," and their stories both display omnipotence and omnipresence, as well miraculous feats that seem impossible. So why wouldn't she question that? There's already the big job of wading through questions like that during this time of the year. We want our children to know the absolute solid truth about who Jesus is, and I don't want to add to that already existing job, by mixing Santa and Jesus too much at Christmas.

Please hear my heart....I am not condemning or criticizing, or anything of the sort, those families who do believe in Santa Claus. I know lots and lots of wonderful, godly, great parents who present Santa to their children as real. Their kids are just fine. I'm simply expressing our feelings on the issue and hoping to offer a grid for people to think through when it comes to deciding whether or not to include Santa as real in one's Christmas celebrations. I think the problem comes into play when we buy into so many cultural traditions and things without ever thinking them through.

So what do we do with Santa?

We've used a little system written about by Justin Holcomb about how to wisely think through cultural practices. When we come across a cultural practice and we have to decide whether to participate or not, he suggests the 3 R's. Reject, Receive, or Redeem.

But before we dive into the three R's, it's important to remember, that we as parents must research for ourselves. We can't just piggy back the practices, beliefs, and methodologies of those around us (Christian or not). It's our responsibility as Christians not to be clueless about the history or origins of the cultural practices we so easily reject or receive, without thought, simply because our church, family, or friends do such things. God has equipped us with the ability to think and discern and we should use that wisely.

So there are three things Christians do in regards to Santa Claus.
1. Reject Santa- have no association with anything Santa. He is often demonized and even declared "sinful" in this category.
2. Receive Santa- fully accept everything Santa, portray him as fully truth, partake in all the "this is real" Santa activities, while reinforcing "his realness."
3. Redeem Santa- talk about Santa Claus for who he was, tell the truth as the truth, and the imaginary as the imaginary, and allow our kids to have fun with the fanciful imagination and enjoy this aspect of the holiday season for what it is

We've chosen to redeem Santa. We talk about how the story of Santa Claus as we know it today came to be. Because the truth is, there is some truth to the story of Santa, but obviously a lot of make-believe too. We want our children to understand that Santa Claus is a mix of real and make-believe. Here are some parts of the real story of Nicholas.

Some ancient records reveal that Nicholas was born to a wealthy family and was raised a devout Christian. His parents died tragically when he was young and he spent much of his wealth taking care of the poor which involved giving gifts to children and sometimes filling stockings of presents for them. One record shares that he helped save three sisters from a life of prostitution by paying their wedding dowry that their family was too poor to pay.

He was a Christian leader who became the Bishop of the port city Myra that the apostle Paul visited in the book of Acts in the Bible. He also was part of the Council of Nicaea that defended the diety of Jesus Christ in A.D. 325 (I thought that was fascinating. I didn't know that at all!)

He was canonized as a saint after he died on December 6, 343 and St. Nicholas' holiday was celebrated by giving gifts. This eventually became synonymous with Christmas since they were celebrated within a few weeks of each other.

Other folklore of the time became entwined with St. Nicholas and is where it is said we got the fanciful stories of going down the chimney, flying reindeer, and delivering presents to all the children of the world in one night. And what fun stories! And that's what we tell our kids! We tell them the true story of the man St. Nicholas and have fun with the pretend stories. We read the Night Before Christmas, we have a few Santa ornaments on our tree, and we visit the children's museum to participate in all the Christmas activities, which always includes sitting on Santa's lap for the classic childhood Santa picture. 
(I cannot believe Penelope didn't absolutely freak out)
No, I don't believe our children are missing out on childhood, as a few have argued with me. We talk about the truth and majesty of God sending His Son Jesus to rescue the world, and how that deserves a celebration even bigger than we can make it at Christmas. We also talk about and enjoy some of the cultural practices of our day that happen around Christmas as well. We are not against make-believe and allowing our kids to believe in certain things that aren't real. We just want to do that outside the context of mixing spiritual truths and make-believe. 
(and how cute is she with her two front teeth)