Advice for a Simpler Christmas, Part Two

Ever have the feeling that Christmas has gotten just a bit out of hand? If you’re like me, you have the best of intentions: this year, I will slow down and focus on the real meaning of Christmas. Sometimes, though, life just gets in the way.

To help you (and me!) out, some of our authors sent in practical tips for simplifying your Christmas. (Check out last week’s post on the same topic!)

Bunn_Davis“For the first several years of our marriage, my wife and I were ‘required’ to spend our Christmases with family members who did not believe in God.  For them, the entire process revolved around a cultural event, and the holiday’s commercial side.  As a result of this, our desire to focus on something else has remained a core ingredient of the season.  And this ‘something else’ is the key.  What we have found is that to simply say, ‘no’ to commercialism isn’t enough.  There needs to be an alternative, some great and interesting project or date or event that is big enough, and fun enough, to make the absence of commercialism really not matter so much.  Each year now we plan on some big event that we can see as our Christmas.  This year, for the first time in twelve years, my mother has felt well enough to join us.  We are arranging for her and my sister and her husband and their two daughters to all come down and have a Christmas eve dinner in the Polish tradition.  My wife is first generation American, both her parents were Polish.  The Polish celebration is focused upon Wigilia, a twelve-course meal without meat.  It will take us two days, possibly three, to prepare.  And it is this preparation, as much as the event itself, that forms for us the Christmas season.”

Davis Bunn, author of The Patmos Deception

Nancy with little Aidan.

Nancy with little Aidan.

“On Christmas Day two years ago, our lives changed forever. God gave us the most wonderful Christmas gift, our first grandchild, Aidan Jackson Mehl. Almost a year later, my husband, Norman, and I sold our home in Wichita, Kansas and moved to Missouri so we could be near our son and daughter-in-law and be involved in Aidan’s life. Blending families has meant that many of our long-held Christmas traditions had to change. But we’ve discovered that traditions are all about family, so adjusting them so we can watch this wonderful little boy grow up isn’t painful at all. It’s a joy”

Nancy Mehl, author of Gathering Shadows

Austin_Lynn1“One holiday season when my children were young, I grew stressed as I saw Christmas and my book deadline rapidly approaching. I longed to create a perfect Hallmark Christmas with homemade cookies and gingerbread houses but I could see that I was going to have to simplify. I asked each family member to choose one holiday tradition that was special to them, and we would do it. Surprisingly, they chose simple, uncomplicated things like watching a favorite Christmas movie together or driving around to look at the neighbors’ lights. No one asked for cookies and gingerbread houses. It became our tradition to each choose one special activity to do—and they could choose a different one each year. In the end, keeping only a few special traditions made each one seem even more fun.”

Lynn Austin, author of Keepers of the Covenant

These blog posts are your official permission to stop. Slow down. Take a few moments to pray. Breathe a little. Cross a few things off your to-do list, not because you’ve completed them but because you don’t have to do everything.

I promise: Jesus will still feel sufficiently celebrated even if you don’t make all possible types of baked goods, attend every holiday party, or imitate each Advent tradition you’ve ever heard or read about.

At the end of the day, rehearsals and presents and decorations aside, the baby is still in the manger. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Emmanuel. God with us. Let’s keep it simple, because there is a beauty in that simplicity, and it has the power to change the world.

What is one thing that helps you focus on Jesus at Christmas time? (A song, a tradition, a verse?)

The Music of Christmas

If you listen closely around this time of year, you can almost always hear faint jingle bells or distant strains of Irving Berlin. There’s just something about music that creates atmosphere, stirs emotion, and teaches deep truths in a way that nothing else can. Some of our authors are on the blog today to share how these songs have been a part of their Christmases.

Also, we love this idea: take a clear glass ornament, remove the top, and fill with lines from your favorite carol (print from the Internet so you don't have to shred a hymnal!).

Also, we love this idea: take a clear glass ornament, remove the top, and fill with lines from your favorite carol (print from the Internet so you don’t have to shred a hymnal!).

Peterson, TracieHands down, Handel’s Messiah has always been an important part of my Christmas celebration and memories.  I was born into a musical family, so music was always important, but there was something about Handel’s music set to Scripture that touched me deep inside.  We had a local church that would have a community singalong of Handel’s Messiah each Christmas, and there were a couple of occasions that my mother and I attended.  It was an amazing time, and though most of us weren’t trained vocalists, it was some of the most beautiful music I’ve even known…and a wondrous time of worship.

Tracie Peterson, author of Steadfast Heart

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Sarah and her father.

I have a weakness for Christmas carols. I’ve been known to sing them at the top of my lungs while hiking (alone!) at just about any time of year. I have favorites—”The Cherry Tree Carol,” “I Wonder as I Wander,” “The Ballad of the Christmas Donkey”—but my VERY favorite is “Up on the Rooftop.” When we were kids, Dad would lead us in sing-alongs whenever we traveled around Christmas, and he’d make up verses for each of us. Something like: “Here comes the stocking of little Sally (his pet name for me), oh dear Santa what a tally, give her a dress that whirls and twirls, and then you can give her hair some curls.” We’d beg for verse after verse, throwing out the names of family, friends, and made-up acquaintances. And Dad always came through with a rhyme.

Sarah Thomas, author of Miracle in a Dry Season

Jagears_Melissa1My favorite Christmas song is Downhere’s “How Many Kings,” and if I’m playing a Christmas album it’s likely to be this one. I’ve always been fascinated by the Wise Men, which may be part of the reason why I wanted to start a new tradition with my family and start celebrating Epiphany since the Christmas season has morphed into nothing much more than a get-together with presents. I also think the reason why I love this song is that it goes beyond the wise men to sing of the ultimate romance—a divine King’s love for the undeserving.

Melissa Jagears, author of A Bride in Store

And, finally, a song recommended by one of our readers in last Thursday’s blog post, “Carol of the Bells.” (This is one of my favorite versions.)

Do you attend a special musical event around Christmas? If so, what is it?

How to Make a Book Tree and a Note from Beverly Lewis

It’s another week in our online BHP Christmas celebration! We have more holiday goodies for you, including some wonderful giveaways and a virtual greeting from Beverly Lewis. (I’m sure she’d love to give you all hugs in person too, but sadly, you’re all a little too spread out for that.)

How To Make a Book Christmas Tree

I'm really excited about this, if you couldn't tell.

I’m really excited about this, if you couldn’t tell.

First, choose your books. Red and green spines work well, but any color is fine, especially if you wrap them around with lights when you’re finished. Consider choosing your favorite books of 2014 for a place of honor.

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So is Erin, on our nonfiction marketing team.

Second, arrange books on a hard surface by stacking layers of similar thickness. A few hints: if you have hardcover books, make sure those are to the middle of the tree where they’ll balance out better. NOTE: It is way more stable to arrange the books in a circle, so spines are facing out on all sides. But we didn’t want you to not be able to see any of the the titles. Also, doing the cute little trunk base was totally worth the slight instability.

Third, adjust with care to balance out the books and generally make the sculpture look as tree-like as possible.

Fourth, decorate your tree. Be careful with heavy garlands, but light tinsel and ornaments work well. (We also used Christy award stickers, which just seemed to fit.) Don’t forget the tree topper!

Admire the final result…and it doubles as a way to recommend your favorite books to anyone who drops by!

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A Christmas Card from Beverly Lewis

Dear Readers,

What is it about time? As children we anticipated the arrival of our birthdays with what seemed to be near-endless waiting. The same was true Christmas, which just took forever to get here!

So much to do; so little time. Don’t we hear this said about our helter-skelter living? And what about “making time” for this or that? If time could be manufactured, would we actually spend time doing it?

“24/7” isn’t just an expression; it’s become our society’s mantra. Stuff… things…people…and issues all consume our time, whether they fit into our goal-oriented priorities or not. Then, of course, come the resolutions, as in New Year’s, every year. And when the attempts at more exercise, a better diet, proper rest, and more time for prayer and Scripture reading fall away around mid-February, we’re right back to marking time, filling up our time. And…lost in time.

Stop and think about this. What if we had only a few weeks left to live? Would we hurry up and live the way we thought we should have all along? Be more tender-hearted and caring? More generous and patient? Would we take time to tell someone about life everlasting, where mansions await those who belong to the Lord Jesus Christ? And where time will evaporate—be “no more.”

Time’s-a-wasting, I heard growing up. And it certainly is. Our youngest children, boy/girl twins, are all grown up, and as for Dave and me, the mirror certainly doesn’t lie. None of us are getting any younger. What we do for Christ, we must not delay or second guess.

The Son of God came to us earthlings at the right time and place. He continues to work His will and plan within the construct of time and space, yet is not confined by it. Mind-boggling? Yes, and incredibly miraculous, too.

The very best thing about Christmas at our house is that hushed and holy time on Christmas Eve, when the mantel is alight with dozens of candles, music from Messiah fills the air, gingerbread houses still uneaten are displayed on the hearth, and loving hands form a circle of thankfulness. Heartfelt gratitude for this Holy God in a human baby, our precious infant Savior. Irresistible in the manger, born for a Cross…for such a time as this!

May your Christmas Season abound with every spiritual blessing!

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Christmas Gift-Away Roundup, Part Two

Once again, I collected various contest from our authors in case you missed any.

Visit this site to win a copy of The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen, which just released last week (and be sure to watch the trailer while you’re there).

Here’s a big one: if you win, you’ll get one of our fiction books…or two…or every single fiction title Bethany House published this year! Enter here! (And check out our nonfiction giveaway as well.)

Regina Jennings will send you a personalized bookplate if you’re giving one of her books for Christmas! (Or giving a gift to yourself. That works too.)

Melissa Tagg’s free Christmas short story, “One December Night” is still available for you to read online or download to your e-reader. Be sure to check out this heartwarming tale of love and bravery during the holiday season.

It’s time to talk Christmas movies with Becky Wade and Melissa Tagg! They’re joining with other author friends to share their favorite Christmas films…and give away books!

Speaking of Christmas movies (or TV specials), what is your favorite?

Advice for a Simpler Christmas, Part One

Are you feeling just a little frantic this December? It’s a busy time of year, and with so much to do, it can be easy to be stressed during a season that’s supposed to be about “peace on earth.” Some of our authors are here to give practical advice on ways to slow down a bit this year at Christmas.

One of our decorations in the Bethany House library.

One of our decorations in the Bethany House library.

Mitchell_SiriIt’s always been difficult for me to enjoy Christmas because there’s just so much to do. When I found myself cooking the traditional batch of family candy all by myself one year, I began to think that maybe some of “our” Christmas traditions might not really be all that important to anyone else. My advice for a simpler Christmas? If it doesn’t give you joy and no one else in the family cares, then stop doing it! Eleven months’ worth of happy memories shouldn’t have to be crammed into one month every year.

Siri Mitchell, author of Love Comes Calling

CAMDEN_ElizabethI’ve often heard people suggest a halt to gift giving is a great way to simplify Christmas, although it is perhaps easier said than done. One easy gift solution for adult friends and family is to select an item from one of the many religious groups that sell homemade goods to generate revenue.  Handmade soaps, jam, candles, or candy make for inexpensive but still useful gifts, all while helping support the people who have given their lives to help lead our religious orders. I usually order a caseload of a single item, and then everyone on my list gets a jar of jam or a similar modest gift. If you don’t know of any religious groups that sell such products, Monastery Greetings is an online website hosting dozens of monasteries, convents, and seminaries which sell their homemade goodies. Happy shopping!

Elizabeth Camden, author of With Every Breath

Nathan Ham Photography|www.whataham.comOne way to keep the holidays simple is to decide upon one special event that will create a memory for the family to enjoy. Rather than rushing around and attempting to “do it all,” sit down and discuss some ideas with your family.  The event needs to vary depending upon the size and age of your family, but here are a few ideas: Have a family or special picture taken that will be treasured later in life; go to a Christmas play or musical that your family can enjoy together; go sledding or ice skating together if you live in a cold climate; drive around town and look at the variety of holiday decorations and then go out for a special meal; have the family help you make holiday treats so you’re creating memories as well as cookies—and if you can all decide upon someone to bless with those treats—all the better. Whatever you decide upon, make certain you find time to enjoy each other as you celebrate the birth of our Savior.

Judith Miller, author of The Brickmaker’s Bride

If you had to keep just one Christmas tradition, which would you pick?

Quiz: What Book Should Be On Your Gift List?

Here at Bethany House, we love to celebrate Christmas. Since we can’t invite you all to our decoration day (which is today…I’ll show you all pictures in a later post) or our annual Christmas potluck, I decided that we’d have to find other ways to invite our amazing readers to join in our celebration.

Gift Guide Quiz

We’ll start with a quiz that will help you find some great suggestions for what to put under the tree for someone on your list. (I took this quiz with a friend in mind, and one of the suggestions I got was a book I had already bought for her for her birthday, which she loved. So clearly it’s scientific and accurate.)

If you’re looking for a gift for someone else, take the quiz with that person in mind. If, say, you want to strongly hint to a family member about a gift that would be best with your name on the tag, answer as yourself. Because no one can have too many books, right?

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A Christmas Story

One December NightNo, not the movie. Something better and even more exciting! Click here to read “One December Night,” Melissa Tagg’s Christmas short story, featuring a heroine who had me from the moment we learn that “she’d fallen for Gilbert Blythe the first time she read Anne of Green Gables at age nine.” (Anyone else out there?)

“One December Night” is an e-short companion to Melissa Tagg’s Here to Stay, which also has a few Christmas scenes (including the annual Whisper Shore snowball fight that I really wish I could make a tradition where I live). And the ebook is on sale for $1.99 from today until Sunday, December 7th!

Christmas Gift-Aways Round-Up

Many of our authors are providing contests and giveaways during this season, so I assembled all the links to make entering easier than hiding presents from your inquisitive oldest child. Most don’t require anything more complicated than signing up for a newsletter or commenting on a blog post. Enjoy!

Anne Mateer will wrap and send a fun gift package to a recipient of your choosing if you win this giveaway.

On the Suspense Sisters blog, Nancy Mehl is sharing a Christmas memory and giving away a copy of Gathering Shadows.

“Give the Gift of Books” and enter Jody Hedlund’s giveaway.

You could win a Kindle courtesy of Kate Breslin by signing up for her newsletter.

Regina Jennings and four other author friends are writing lovely holiday letters from their protagonists and giving you a chance to enter to win a fresh evergreen wreath.

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Now, a question for you, readers: what is your favorite holiday song or carol? (I might feature it in a future Bethany House Christmas post!)

Merry Christmas!

There is something beautiful and beloved about the account of the birth of Christ in Luke chapter 2. I can hear the old King James words in my grandfather’s voice, reading from the big, worn Bible, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…”

But as much as I love the familiar lilt of those words, my favorite version of the Christmas story is in the gospel of John.

But…there is no Christmas story in John, you may be thinking. And you’d technically be right. But what about this one:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcomeit…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:1-5, 14

There it is. The light in the darkness, God making his dwelling among us. It’s the reason we celebrate, the reason we remember, the reason we tell stories and sing songs and love one another: Jesus, who came to bring life and light. And the darkness has not–and will not–overcome it.

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Merry Christmas from Bethany House. May you and your family spend this day in celebration of that perfect light.

The Light of Christmas: Lisa Wingate

Oftentimes, the things we hold most dear in the present are those that are in some way tied to the past. As a kid who moved around a lot growing up, one who lived in that Wonder Years generation when family life was changing fast, I treasured the routines that were the same from year to year. Holidays always brought those touchstones—the snow globe with Santa in the middle; the wind-up music box with the three wise men standing, oddly enough, in front of a fully-decorated Christmas tree; the scratched-up glass ornaments my parents had brought home from Germany, where I was born. Opening that big Christmas box each year and bringing out my old favorites was magical. I loved sitting in front of the nativity set, imagining Mary and Joseph traveling along on a far-away, cold, dark night, seeking shelter.

When I gazed into the nativity, I imagined what it must have been like, how worried Mary and Joseph must have been when they couldn’t find shelter, how frightening and disappointing it must have been to give birth to a first child in a stable among oxen and sheep. Contemplating the reality of that night was, for me, a way of seeking the true light of Christmas, the miracle of a savior born in the humblest of circumstances.

As a mom, I’ve found myself in charge of forming and keeping the family traditions that (hopefully) slow down our busy family and help us to stare into the nativity and contemplate the wonder of it. Though I’m loathe to admit it, my husband and children do not always find these family traditions as important as I do. These days, I’m thinking maybe I need to find the Nativity App for iPad.

But one of the traditions we all love, one that focuses us and quiets us each Christmas Eve, is a trip to this beautiful old pioneer church for a candlelight service.

oldrockchurch Continue reading

Christmas with Grandma: Julianna Deering

Some of my very best childhood memories are about times I spent at my grandparents’ house. My mother’s parents, as well as all but one of her siblings and their kids, lived in the Dallas area when I was growing up, and we saw each other for almost every holiday and during the summer. Most of the time we spent together, we were at Grandma’s house.

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Grandma came from a time when women did not usually hold jobs, especially after they were married, but you could never say that Grandma didn’t work. She was raised on a small Texas farm, very close to where I live now, where they had few conveniences and manual labor was the order of the day. I don’t remember ever thinking about it much when I was growing up, but now I look back and wonder how in the world she ever got everything done.

She never drove a car, not even once, so if she needed something from the store when Grandpa was at work, she walked. She didn’t have a washing machine or dryer until she was in her late sixties, but she did all the family laundry herself. Her house was always neat and tidy, except for when we twelve cousins got together and made a shambles of the place. Except for the mowing, she did all the yard work, including raising and crossbreeding prizewinning irises, along with an abundance of other flowers. She never had a microwave, and frozen dinners and pretty much any kind of pre-made food were taboo in her opinion, so she cooked everything from scratch, and there was always a feast on the table. And that was just on an average day.

Dodson 2At Christmas, there were usually thirty to forty people to feed and entertain. We always had two tables set up: the “big table” for the grown-ups and the older kids, and the “little table” for the younger ones. Of course we were all crammed together in Grandma’s dining room around a mountain of delicious food, usually roast turkey with gravy and corn-bread dressing, a variety of vegetables and casseroles and, best of all, homemade candies and pies with Grandma’s lighter-than-air crust. Continue reading

The Christmas I Prayed to Get Sick: Melissa Tagg

I have no idea why this is the first story that comes to mind almost every time someone asks me about my favorite Christmas memory. I mean, you’d think I’d be more inclined to talk about the annual Christmas Eve candlelight service we always attended. Or fun and cozy family gatherings. Or at least the year I got a Cabbage Patch Big Wheel tricycle. (All the 80s/90s kids remember those, right?)

Christmas memories

But no, whenever I get the “What’s your favorite Christmas memory?” question, I inevitably start thinking about…puke.

I know, I know. Gross. But here’s the story:

One Christmas when I was eleven or twelve, my youngest sister got really sick. She’s ten years younger than me, so she was just a little one then. She was sick enough that it scared me half to death. I had a big imagination anyway, so watching her struggle set my mind going all kinds of ridiculous directions. And I remember so incredibly clearly, in my fear, praying this prayer:

Pleeeeease, God, help Nicole get better and make me sick instead.

Now, here’s the point when we all take a mental step back and wonder just what I was thinking during that prayer. I mean, I obviously believed God was powerful enough to help my sister get well. So uh…why I didn’t I just stop the prayer there?

Dunno. But for whatever reason, my tween-age brain apparently thought that there was more chance of her getting better if the sickness transferred to someone else. So that’s what I prayed.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Within twenty-four hours, Nicole was out of bed, playing and going strong. And I…was throwing up.

But this is what else I remember about that experience: I remember being stuck in bed, an early Christmas present in my lap—a book, of course—with the infamous puke bowl beside me. And I remember feeling so…happy. Continue reading

Memories of Christmas: Mary Connealy

I have this wonderful Christmas memory of practicing with my brother and sisters—practicing sneaking past my mom and dad’s bed. (They weren’t in it. It was daytime.) My brother and one sister played the roles of Mom and Dad and lay down in bed with their eyes closed and listened. Then one of my sisters and I—three of us slept in the bedroom past theirs—would tiptoe past while “Mom and Dad” listened for creaking floorboards. I’ll back up and set this up just a little.

First, it’s important to know that Mom and Dad could have put a stop to this if they’d wanted to, but they probably thought it was fun. Either that or they were just too nice. But every Christmas morning, all my growing-up years, my brothers and sisters and I would get up crazy early in the morning and open our presents. I have no idea how early. I have a sneaking suspicion we were getting up almost the instant my mom and dad went to bed.

Instead of growling at us to get back to bed, my parents would just come out and watch and enjoy the madness and let us tear into the gifts. There was no order to it. None of the lovely “taking turns” I hear about in some families. Nope, we just launched ourselves onto the tree, tossing presents to each other, ripping them open when we found one with our own name on it. It was chaos.

This went on until we got the tree utterly stripped. Then we played and talked and just generally had the time of our lives for who knows how long before going back to bed.

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I’m the one farthest left…close to Santa. I’m almost five.

Continue reading