For the first time in my life I was having stomach/digestive problems, and the symptoms became so bothersome that, on the day after Christmas, I went to my doctor. A week later I returned for blood tests, an abdomen scan and a referral to a gastroenterologist, but nothing definitive was discovered.
"Maria," said my doctor finally. "I just think your body is out of whack."
I remember sitting there and just letting her words sink in. Could it be this simple? I thought back to the past couple of weeks in which I had hosted two dinner parties for 30-35 people; decorated every room in the house; set up three Christmas trees; shopped, wrapped, and mailed packages; cooked, baked, and entertained house guests. I had been busy, sure, but it was fun! I was organized! I had felt on top of things.
But my doctor's words forced me to be honest with myself, and the truth was I fell into an exhausted heap every evening, had problems dragging myself out of bed in the morning, ate on the run (and ate badly), prayed on the run (and prayed badly), and totally neglected my exercise routine.
My doctor was right. So I made some immediate changes, but the damage was such that it took a good three months before I felt like my normal self.
I learned my lesson, and I was determined not to go to that place again.
So this past Thanksgiving I did a lot of soul searching. I asked myself some hard questions. I thought of ways I could create a Little House on the Prairie Christmas instead of a Biltmore one. I thought about what I wanted the spirit of our home to feel like this Advent season.
And because I work better with a plan, I came up with one.
~Bring the decor "home" Is all this decorating for our benefit, or for others? The question got me thinking. So this year we are decorating in ways that are meaningful to our family. Inside, we will focus our decorating only in the family room/kitchen. This is the heart of our home. This is where we gather. This is where we pray, and laugh, and eat. This is where we will set up our Christmas tree.
Outside, the window wreaths and candles will go up, only because Joe and I discovered that the boys said this one of their favorite things about Christmas. They love coming home after dark to see the windows lit up, and we love it that this memory has already taken hold in their hearts.
~Decorate with purpose In bringing the decor "home", I also wanted it to reflect our faith. So the first thing we did was set up an Advent wreath to help us mirror the journey of the Magi as they followed the star, of Mary and Joseph as they traveled to Bethlehem, and of the shepherds as they left their fields to visit the Christ Child. Then, although I have many nativities, we are setting up only one. We will gather around it for nighttime prayers and, on Christmas Eve, we will read the story of the nativity and sing Silent Night.
~Music with meaning Secular songs are fine (who doesn't love Snoopy and the Red Baron or a round robin of Jingle Bells?), but I will be more conscious of playing sacred carols/hymns (especially at home) and of learning the stories behind some of them. For example, did you know the story behind this beloved carol?
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve in 1818, in a tiny village in the Austrian Alps, a Catholic priest named Joseph Mohr wrote some heartwarming words that he was hoping to use during the midnight Mass. Since the church pipe organ was broken and couldn’t be repaired in time, the church organist Franz Gruber wrote a simple tune, thereby setting Mohr’s words to music for a tenor, a bass, and two guitars. That very evening during midnight Mass, Silent Night was heard for the first time. It wasn’t until 1850 – almost 30 years later – that the poet and composer even knew that their song had traveled out of their remote village and that Silent Night had become one of the most beloved Christmas carols ever written.
~Food for thought Which for me, means no baking. What? No baking? Believe me, we receive plenty of goodies from our neighbors, and this time of year cookies, fudge bars, and Panettone will find a way into our home. So instead of baking, I will cook healthy, hearty meals. Stews, soups, homemade breads ... comfort foods which satisfy, relax, and make our house smell like a home.
~Shop from home Online shopping will keep me from going to a store during lunchtime or to the mall on weekends. It's hard to be spiritually focused when you're elbowing your way through a crowd, fighting traffic, or being bombarded with commercialism.
~Charity in action As a family, we will look for ways to give of ourselves ... both in big ways (cleaning out our closets and donating items to Catholic Social Services, working at the Soup Kitchen, visiting a family in need) and in small ones (bringing goodies to the workers at tree lots on Christmas Eve, leaving an extra tip for a harried waiter, offering the UPS man a cup of hot chocolate).
And this, quite simply, is our plan for celebrating the holidays.
We're keeping it simple.
We're making it sacred.