She's makin' a list, checkin' it twice... (and talkin' religion)

This weekend our Christmas festivities will begin in earnest.

My brother, sister-in-law, and their three kids will arrive from Guelph, Ontario. My parents will arrive shortly thereafter from Nova Scotia. It's Christmas in Quebec for the Toews/Tougas family.

We are thrilled this year to host everyone in our large digs. A three bathroom house, plus a guesthouse enables us to comfortably fit everyone on a mattress or in a bed without anyone having to sleep in the living and hanging-out-together spaces.

A well-stocked kitchen, our favorite tool being the Saeco espresso maker (but there's also an Omega juicer for a healthier hit), plus extra fridge and freezer space will accommodate all the cooking, eating, and general kitchen merry making that is a part of Christmas.

We spend almost every Christmas with my parents but not very often do we get the privilege and joy of being with my brother's family.

I am so excited.

Our own family-of-five has a couple holiday traditions, the way we do things. Gifts and finger foods on Christmas Eve - I grew up opening gifts on Christmas Eve. Damien grew up with appetizer, finger foods on the menu.

Christmas morning we do stockings, a tradition started with my parents when I was a teenager.

Christmas, for the family I've created with Damien, is about having fun together, being with family, exchanging small gifts, eating foods reserved for feast days - turkey, special desserts, etc. and playing outdoors (skiing preferably).

As a Christian I am uncomfortable with trite phrases like Jesus is the Reason for The Season, and its derivatives, popular within Evangelical Christian culture (the branch of the family tree I identify most strongly with).

Family is my reason for the Christmas season. It's why I cook and gift and want it to snow. And it's why we give to others in our community or around the world, so they can be supported in loving relationship with their families.

Having said that, the Christian call and tradition to remember the birth of Christ at this particular time of year (I don't actually care how accurate the date is) provides a reflective season, a sacred space in our 21st century lives, to tell the ancient story of our faith, again, to our children.

I don't save this story telling for Christmas Eve, or Christmas morning. I prefer to unravel and remember the story of our faith through the whole month with a Jesse Tree inspired Advent tradition.

Sitting at the post-breakfast (lunch or maybe supper, whenever it works) table with my kids, we read portions of the Old Testament together; recounting ancient stories, that in the birth of Christ reveal their full richness and meaning, from an otherwise sometimes disturbing and violent narrative.

After all this telling and remembering, by the time the days of Christmas roll around we're pretty much done the faith-filled observances of the season. We're ready to party. Ready to celebrate a winter holiday with feasting and merry making.

Jesus in our reason for the season only in as much as he is the reason for our lives, and our faith in Him the foundation of our family life and values. Which means of course, he is The Reason for our season but I don't go around slinging slogans in February, July, or October so why would I do it in December? Nor do I expect Jesus to be the reason for the season for non-believers, why would he be?

Family is the focus of our actual Christmas celebrations. And it doesn't matter to me that pre-Christendom European pagan ritual is intricately woven into Christmas tradition.

This is the story of the church through time, we adapt to and adopt culture; for better, and sometimes, for worse. And our expressions of worship necessarily change through the centuries.

The only thing sacred is the Truth itself, the meaning of the story. Why was Jesus born? What does his birth, life, death and resurrection teach us? How then shall we live, in this light? The seasonal re-telling (or not) of his birth, Holy Day ritual, or holiday reveling, these are not the foundation of my faith, Jesus Emmanuel is.

And how we as individuals, and we the Church, celebrate and share Jesus Emmanuel with the world will look different in time, space and culture. And woe to us if those expressions are limited to December!

This week we listened to the Tim Curry audio performance of A Christmas Carol, a new-ish tradition in our family, about three years running now.

This is my absolute favorite performance of the classic. The kids have been sewing, painting, and drawing while we listen. Be still my Christmas-tradition-happy mama's heart. (If you follow @sparklypinkbling on Instagram you can see some of these creations.)

Such a splendid and rich audio experience. My favorite parts give me goosebumps as I savor Dicken's language and the power of words and story to speak Christmas truth through a mid-19th century ghost story. And when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, a new man, I'm not ashamed to say, I cried.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!

It's not called a classic for nothing.

A new "classic" in our home is for Damien to find a new multi-player computer/iPad video game he and the kids can play together during Christmas week. It's a perfect fit. They game. I read.

My parents are bringing me, from their neighbor's personal library, the book The Long Way Home. A highly valued treasure unavailable through the local library till about mid-spring.

Celine has been sewing, ensconced in her studio attic bedroom. (I know. Talk about the best set up ever for an introverted, seamstress fabric-artist fifteen year old.)

Her handmade creations have become somewhat legendary in our family. A recipient of a made-by-Celine creation is a lucky individual. Laurent still talks about his 10th birthday gift from Celine, a cardboard castle set up on the table, the first thing he saw when coming downstairs for breakfast.

Having never required our kids to give gifts to each other, either handmade or store-bought (and I've never supplied funds or gifts for them to give each other) their gift giving is completely self-motivated, from the heart, and somewhat random.

We don't have a "you must give something to everyone" mentality in our home, or that gifts must be equal in a value. But somehow it all works out. There are always presents-a-plenty for everyone under the tree.

A rather swift and unexpected improvement in our financial situation - a change of fortunes, literally, has enabled the outfitting of skiing and snowboarding, once again, for this winter.

Skis, boots, and bindings have been arriving through the door all month, sourced from the local ski shop and Ebay, and the pay-it-forward goodness of hand-me-downs. Damien has been mounting bindings and tuning skis. Now all we need is more snow!

We give small Christmas gifts to our kids and save the big expenditures for outfitting them for family fun in the outdoors. And this year the focus is definitely on fun.

Earlier this month, in anticipation of eight or so days of hosting seven extra people, I emailed a holiday itinerary and kitchen schedule to our guests - what to expect this Christmas at the Tougas family residence.

Come prepared to play outside. Brings skates if you have them. There will be media and video games. Here's your sleeping arrangements. Prepare a contribution - a poem, a skit, a story, a song - for Christmas Eve. What can everybody eat and not eat? That kind of thing.

My brother's family are strict gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, paleo-ish, plant-based eaters (it's complicated, there's a bunch of sensitivities and food reactions, which I totally get). My mom is a holistic nutritionist kitchen goddess. And our family is somewhere between the two. My Dad adds the spice, he's making the BBQ meats.

This week it was time to revisit the itinerary I sent and get planning the meals and food our family is responsible for.

The itinerary laid out the food plans so everyone knows to expect.

Breakfasts. Fend for yourself, except for Christmas morning brunch.

Lunch. Usually a meal salad or large vegetable-based dish with our collective crew.

Midday snack. Six active kids in the house, gotta have a snack plan.

Supper, divided into main dish and side dish, both contributed by a different family.

Dessert. Pretty healthy with our crew but a birthday and Christmas Day will call for something a bit more extravagant. Thank goodness for Nana/Nutritionist/Kitchen Goddess, as desserts are not my specialty!

Four times a day, not including breakfast, food needs to be coming out of the kitchen to feed twelve hungry people. And there is no way I'm doing all that, nor would anyone expect me to!

So I made a meal rotation schedule.

On any given day, a family (Mom & Dad, my brother's family, or our family) is responsible for approximately 2 food blocks. Lunch and a supper side or maybe snack and the supper main dish. That kind of thing.

Everyone will contribute dishes to Christmas Eve, Christmas Brunch and Christmas Dinner.

This week I looked at what blocks had been assigned (by me) to our family and made a spreadsheet for myself with neat boxes, the grey ones corresponding to meals I am responsible for.

Schedule geek that I am, these little grey boxes with their thin black borders make me inordinately happy. I paraded my handiwork before my family who politely affirmed my joy, "looks good Mom". All they care is that food will be coming out of the kitchen at regular intervals, they are not completely thrilled that they will be helping to cook it. (Insert maniacal mother laugh here.)

Pinterest and I have been getting reacquainted with each other after a long absence. As everyone else already knows, Pinterest is a great tool for storing recipe ideas and I've updated my board completely with categories that represent the way I approach menu planning and meal prep. Love that.

I've also been clearing out the digital clutter and setting up new boards to take me into 2015. The first year for me, in many years, that I've done significant end-of-year self evaluation (breakdown, burn out and post-hike rebuilding will do that to a person) and have very specific goals, and a personal agenda and vision going into the New Year.

I'm hoping to use Pinterest a bit more in my planning and dreaming.

The kids and I have been on school break since my birthday week. As has been the case for every year I've been homeschooling, there is just too much going on in December to focus on studies. Too much sewing. Too much painting and drawing.

Rounds of Settlers of Catan. Gifts to be made. Shopping and extra "I need to go the bead store Mom" type errands. Last Friday morning was a field trip to a local fossil collector's home which inspired a fossil search of our own. And then, "Where's the microscope slides? I'm looking for micro-organisms in the water we collected at the beach."

With all this going on, there's just no time for lessons, which no one minds at all.

Saturday night is our neighbors annual Christmas party. Our neighbor has been flooding the rink the kids and I helped him set up last month. We finally have freezing temperatures again that will keep the ice.

It's a potluck, I'm taking this salad which I discovered last week and love. This will be the third time in two weeks that I've prepared it.

Sunday night is the church Christmas concert. The first we've been a part of for many, many years. Brienne wanted to be involved and with only one car we've all be been making the 45 minute drive to church an hour earlier on Sunday mornings for practice. She's very excited.

There's a banquet first. I think people might dress up for this. Thank goodness I picked up the Calvin Klien sweater dress at le Baluchon last month. Together with my wine-colored silk scarf, some handmade dangly earrings my sister-in-law gave me Christmas' ago, and the black low-heeled Rockports I've had since student teaching when I was pregnant with Celine some sixteen years back, I can pull something off. Maybe I'll go all out and even borrow the girls' makeup.

The kimchi is fermenting for next week's Bibimbap feast on my brother's birthday, two days before Christmas. The few gifts we're giving are still unwrapped in my closet, more should be arriving in the mail any day.

Yesterday, snow finally started falling again. I went skiing in the afternoon and I will go again today.

This morning I need to finish my food planning, and I need to make lotion soon, a favorite gift requested by my Dad. Tomorrow we'll clean the house before heading to the neighbors party.

Christmas, just around the corner.

« My heart lives here
Ringing in the New Year »
  • Lisa Zahn

    Lisa Zahn on Dec. 19, 2014, 3:49 p.m.

    I love the way you state your feelings about Christmas, as a Christian. It's perfect and real, and I thank you for sharing and being a breath of fresh air in the season.

    Merry, Merry to you and yours!



  • Sarah M

    Sarah M on Dec. 19, 2014, 9:28 p.m.

    I can feel the exhuberence in your post! God bless you all, Tougas family, and have a wonderful + Merry christmas with your family! Sarah M


    • renee

      renee on Dec. 19, 2014, 9:54 p.m.

      I am excited! It's been a rough couple months and then breakthrough and joy and a family celebration. I am very thankful.


  • Lor

    Lor on Dec. 20, 2014, 1:47 p.m.

    Merry Christmas to you all!  It sounds like it will be wonderful, and I'm glad to hear the joy in your voice.  


  • Cat

    Cat on Dec. 21, 2014, 2:15 a.m.

    Thanks.  The salad was delicious.  I'm am looking at more incorporating more meal salads in our diet and having just returned to vegetarianism this was a great dish to take to a barbeque - normally not renowned for being vegetarian friendly occasions.


  • Emily Crofts

    Emily Crofts on Dec. 23, 2014, 2:02 a.m.

    I love and look forward to everything you so heartfully share, Renee. I respect and value your honest, true, wise voice. YOU are a gift in so many of our lives.

    Wishing the Tougas family every happiness this Christmas season.

    xo Emily


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