Saturday, December 23, 2017

Nativity Play Mat

This is desperate holiday attempt #2 to keep the toddler quiet-ish and in one place during services. This play mat went together pretty quickly, just cutting, gluing and hand-stitching. It doesn't have as many moving parts, but lots of pockets and several small toys that can move from place to place. 

based on the nativity icon

a baby sheep hide behinds a bush. The other sheep is tucked into a a pocket, but can be moved around.

The donkey is also a loose piece tucked into the large cave. My daughter likes these little plastic babies,
so there are a few extra babies in the cave!

The wise men's gifts are just shapes cut out of a cardboard box that already was yellow. They can sit in their arm's or in Mary's arms. A toy plastic camel is tucked behind a bush near the wise men.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Christ is Born Printables

Just playing around with some new printables today. Above is just a full page saying, "Christ is born." Below, the design is shrunk for gift labels or Christmas cards that would be nice on card stock.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Creed Zine

I made a little on page zine to help kids learn the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed. Grab the pic above and print to fill a page. Instructions for folding and cutting below. 

25 Day Advent Calendar with Windows

Its already December 5, but when my kids saw these old-fashioned advent calendars with the windows, they immediately wanted to make some. If you want to make some, too: The printable template (above, or two more below) has 25 windows (including the moon). Print two for each child on card stock. Color one of them, and on the other glue cut-out pictures from last year's Christmas cards or catalogues. The glued on pictures should be bigger than the window frames, but not overlapping any other windows. Next, number the windows and doors 1-25, and with an exacto knife, have an adult cut three sides of each one. Then glue the colored page over the glued-picture page, and there you go! Lots of pictures below, because I think this just turned out too cute. 

pictures cut from cards and catalogues

gluing them over the window template

finished inside
After coloring the outside picture, we cut three sides of every window and door
with an xacto knife. I cut from the front, but showing the back so you can see.

On inside picture, put glue all around edges and in some of the white space on
the inside. Then lay the colored outside picture on top, lining up corners carefully
and smooth it flat. 

Now you should be able to open the windows to see the pictures.


One child made the church doors be day 1 and 2, with an icon behind.

They liked lots of Christmas-y animal pictures.

And trees and lights.

Wise men, stars, shepherds and angels, too.

And cats in stockings.

Lots of Nativity scenes from our catalogues.

St. Lucia on day 13!

A variation. Don't cut out the windows and doors
on the back row of houses that are partially covered.

And one more, in case you want to make a calendar but skip the coloring.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Celebrating the Nativity

I grew up enjoying Christmas with family, special foods, and visits from Santa. It was always lovely and special, but it was a secular holiday. That might sound odd if you love nativity sets and midnight mass, but many Christians just don't celebrate religious holidays. Maybe they think Christmas trees are pagan, or that Christ wasn't born in winter, or wonder where the bible says you should celebrate Christmas? 

Now my family celebrates the birth of Christ without reservation. The beauty of the incarnation is that just as Mary held God in her arms, just as she pressed her cheek to His, we can know Christ dearly too. God is with us! What better reason to celebrate? If you're still a little unsure about it all, I've written out some explanations of the origins of what we do and why.

1. "Christmas" or "The Nativity According to the Flesh..."
The word "Christmas" is a shortened form of "Christ's Mass" from the Latin, meaning the celebration of the Eucharist (or the Divine Liturgy) on the feast of Christ. We officially call it, "The Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ" or just "Nativity" because we are celebrating the Incarnation: when Christ who was God before the ages became flesh for our sake.

So, the celebration of Christmas began as a church service. At our parish, the Christmas vigil begins late at night on Christmas Eve followed immediately by the Divine Liturgy. The timing means that we share in the Eucharist around midnight, welcoming Christ's birth. This makes a long, but joyful, service as we sing the canon, "Christ is born, glorify him!" and children fall asleep on the floor.  We break the fast together at church with sausage balls, spanakopita, chocolate, and other foods we've been missing, then hurry on to bed. When everyone wakes up the next morning, we enjoy the usual presents and time with family, and we rejoice to find the baby Christ in the manger.

2. Advent
We prepare for this service with a 40 day fast, which is called "The Nativity Fast" or "Philip's Fast" (because it begins after his feast day on November 14). More commonly in the West, it is called "Advent" meaning "coming" because the whole season is preparing us for the coming of Christ. (Western Christians have a shorter Advent beginning on December 1st.)

The 40 day fast began in imitation of Lent and Pascha (along with other liturgical parallels). In the early church, the big feasts like Pascha and Christmas were baptismal feasts. So the 40 day fasts were a time when the catechumens prepared for baptism, and the Church prepared to receive them, through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

So, we see both the preparation for baptism and for the coming of Christ in this season. While Lent is penitent, Advent is a joyful fast with fish and wine allowed on the weekends. Its also full of fun activities that prepare us for the coming of Christ like gift-making, keeping a Jesse Tree, or preparing a manger or nativity scene for Christ, as well as celebrations of a few special days like St. Nicholas Day and St. Lucia Day. We spend the whole season making ready, as one of my favorite hymns says,

"Make ready, O Bethlehem; for Eden hath been opened for all."

[A side note: American Thanksgiving falls within the fast, and obviously, that wasn't a consideration when they began the fast in ancient lands. But its a beautiful holiday, and so our bishops encourage Americans to relax the fast and celebrate by giving thanks.] 

3. Was Jesus really born on December 25th?
Even though the calendar is rooted in historical events, it is primarily liturgical. It doesn't depend upon his actual date of birth. One explanation for this date is that it is exactly 9 months from the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th, or the conception of Christ. This feast was celebrated very early, and its date was chosen in relation to the date of Christ's death because of the ancient concept of "integral age."

A second theory is that the date was chosen to replace the pagan feast of the Unconquered Sun as an opportunity to introduce pagans to the true Son. The hymns illustrate this beautifully, "For by it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a Star to adore You, The Sun of Righteousness, and to know You, the Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You!" (Source) Christmas lights are similarly reminders of Christ, the true light.

Some Christians are scandalized that the early church may have replaced a pagan holiday with a Christian one. I must ask, then, how is it better for us to take a clearly Christian holiday and secularize it? Either way, the purpose of the celebration is theological, not necessarily historical, and show the church finding ways to redeem the time. (Source)

[Many Orthodox Christians still use the Julian calendar which differs by 13 days. So, they celebrate the Nativity on January 7th, but the reasoning is the same.]

4. Why We Have Religious Holidays 
So why do we have any holidays? Is that in the bible? The Jews had a rich liturgical calendar and Jewish Christians initially continued to keep those feasts (see, for example, Acts 12:320:1627:9). The Jewish Passover was clearly imbued with new meaning in Christ's resurrection (I Cor. 5:7), and became a distinctly Christian feast by the 2nd century. During the persecutions of the early church, local communities commemorated the martyrs with celebrations on the anniversary of their death. In the 4th century, with the legalization of Christianity, feasts celebrating occasions in the earthly life of Christ became popular especially on the supposed historical sites of the events, and this is when the feast of the Nativity arose. (Source) The remembrance of these holy days were the beginning of the liturgical calendar, which developed somewhat organically as the church deemed what was instructive and beneficial to the ongoing life of the church.

Its interesting that Christ himself celebrated Hannukah (John 10:22ff), a holiday which commemorated an important event in the community, but was not commanded with the other feasts in the Old Testament. If Christ only followed explicit biblical commands, he wouldn't have gone to the temple for that feast. But the life of faith is richer than mere law-keeping, its the sanctification of all things. In the same way, the church calendar is the celebration of God's saving work within time.

The liturgical calendar is like the most beautiful church school curriculum, worship plan, and memorial service combined. In the course of a year, the average liturgical Christian will learn theology by singing the hymns of the feasts; she will hear how the Old Testament is fulfilled by Christ through the scripture readings; see the many ways that the light of Christ can be shown in our lives by hearing the lives of the saints; and grow in understanding of all of Christ's saving work through his incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection. More on the liturgical calendar here.

5. The 12 Days of Christmas
While most Americans start celebrating Christmas sometime in November (or before), Orthodox Christians fast to prepare for this feast. But, not to worry, when the feast arrives, we celebrate for 12 days! Since Christmas and Theophany were linked from the beginning, the 12 days between them became the festal period, full of caroling, food, and decorations. So you don't have to take your tree down until January 6! (Fr. Andrew has a more detailed and humorous take on the length of Christmas here.)


6. St. Nicholas and Stockings
We can't leave out St. Nick!  He is known for his generosity, especially in the story of St. Nicholas tossing gold coins through the window into stockings (or shoes) of three poor maidens. Because this great saint is remembered during Advent, he became associated with Christmas.

The Puritans who came to America opposed religious holidays, and so they celebrated a secular version of Christmas. Later, when other colonists brought over traditions of St. Nicholas celebrations, he was gradually secularized and mixed into the American Christmas celebration. Clement C. Moore's classic poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" solidified the new image of the secret, gift-giving elf, instead of a bishop. Source

Even though many Americans don't think of the ancient Bishop of Myra, they still put out stockings and he still fills them! Orthodox families incorporate St. Nicholas (or Santa) into their celebrations in many different ways, but the Church remembers him on his own feast day on December 6. Its worth learning about this historical saint and incorporating his feast day into your celebrations!

We leave our shoes out for St. Nicholas on the evening of
December 5 with carrots for his donkey!

So, don't worry about the historical accuracy of the December 25th; you can keep celebrating into January; and yes, Virginia, there is a St. Nicholas. May your Christmas be filled with with anticipation, joy, and thanksgiving because truly God is with us! Christ is born!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nativity Fast Calendar (40 Day Advent) Printable (with magnets!)

I'm using my Advent Calendar from last year again, but I fancied it up a wee bit. Its included below, and you can still just print one page for your fridge and x off the days if you want. The second page has a baby you can paste on now or on Christmas, or just leave it out. Easy.

But if you want to make it reusable, you can laminate it (or use contact paper, like me).

And if you want to make some fun magnets to go with it, you can laminate the figures, too, and stick magnets on the back.

You could also try printing them on cardstock, or draw a cave and paste all the figures into the picture. Use them however you want. :)

So here's what I did:

Print both pages. Put contact paper on the front and back of each.

Cut out all the figures. Cut a slit on the black line of the manger if you want to put
the baby in the manger (otherwise you can just put the baby on the manger).

After cutting my slit, my baby kept slipping through, so I just taped a
piece of paper over the slit on the back. This baby doesn't have a magnet, so it
sits in the manger. If you put a magnet on the baby, you don't really need to cover the slit.

We had stick on magnets, so I stuck them on the back of my figures. The circles are
for moving along down the path toward Christmas.

And here it is all on the fridge. A little extra work, but we can reuse it for next year.
I'm using the star to count the days, but you could also use the little
circle with Mary and the Donkey if you prefer.

The extra figures are just around it on the fridge for fun.
You should be able to grab these images and drag them to your
desktop to print full size pages. If it seems too small, try dragging the image to
another tab, and then saving it to the desktop.