Monday, March 25, 2019

Celebrating Easter (with Baskets!)

You guys, I love Easter. The intense preparation of Lent is difficult and beautiful and lead me back to a place of deep joy at Easter.

Each year around this time, when I see people lamenting bunnies and dismissing the whole thing as pagan, I want to remind them of the beautiful Christian origins of this feast. This is the Feast of Feasts! Early Christians didn't keep this feast because they secretly didn't want to give up their pagan traditions - they had the greatest reason of all to celebrate. We, too, have every reason to celebrate this day with joy - even with eggs and baskets!

So, to encourage you to embrace this season, with Jesus, baskets, and all, I offer this little introduction to the Christian origins of Easter, with some pictures from my family's celebration of Pascha in recent years. Here we go!

1. "Easter" or "Pascha"
The word "Easter" derives from the old Germanic word for the month Easter usually fell in: Ēosturmōnaþ (our month of April). The month was named for the goddess Eostre, a germanic divinity, in the same way that many of our months are named for Roman gods. This connection to the goddess is dependent solely on a statement by Bede in the 8th century. But, don't let this vague connection worry you - the Christian celebration of Easter undoubtedly preceded the term. (Wikipedia: Easter Etymology)

Early Christians called the feast by the greek name for PassoverΠάσχα, that is Pascha, since the resurrection happened during the Passover weekend and the earliest Christians were Jews. (Wikipedia: Easter Etymology) The words can be used interchangeably. 

In 1 Corinthians, Paul calls Christ the passover lamb, πάσχα, "For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." We keep the feast anew because Christ fulfills the old!

Butter Lambs are a traditional Easter treat!

2. Beginnings
The Jewish Christians continued to celebrate Passover with the new Christian implications. A fully formed Christian celebration of Pascha is evidenced by the mid-2nd century by the Paschal homily of Melitos of Sardis: 

"This one is the passover of our salvation. This is the one who patiently endured many things in many people: This is the one who was murdered in Abel, and bound as a sacrifice in Isaac, and exiled in Jacob, and sold in Joseph, and exposed in Moses, and sacrificed in the lamb, and hunted down in David, and dishonored in the prophets. This is the one who became human in a virgin, who was hanged on the tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from among the dead, and who raised mankind up out of the grave below to the heights of heaven. This is the lamb that was slain. This is the lamb that was silent. This is the one who was born of Mary, that beautiful ewe-lamb. This is the one who was taken from the flock, and was dragged to sacrifice, and was killed in the evening, and was buried at night; the one who was not broken while on the tree, who did not see dissolution while in the earth, who rose up from the dead, and who raised up mankind from the grave below." (Wikipedia: Easter in the Early Church, and the Homily)

from the Holy Thursday reading of the Twelve Passion Gospels

3. Lent 
The term "lent" is derived from an old English term meaning spring. In Greek speaking countries it is called Μεγάλη Τεσσαρακοστή, which means "Great 40 days," patterned after our Lord's 40 day fast. It is still called "Great Lent" in English. (Wikipedia: Great Lent) Historically, the Lenten fast was a communal fast from meat, dairy, wine and oil to prepare both body and soul for communion with Christ. (Read more about "The True Nature of Fasting" in the Lenten Triodion.)

In the early church, new Christians prepared for their baptism on Easter with a period of fasting and prayer. This gradually developed into a 40 day fasting period and was adopted by the whole community in communion with the catechumens. The liturgical celebration of Lent varies in the East and West, but they all originated as a time of repentance and preparation for baptism. For Catholics, Ash Wednesday is 45 days before Easter, or 40 days if you don't count the Sundays. For Orthodox, Lent starts on Clean Monday, 48 days before Pascha, or 40 days plus Holy Week.  (Wikipedia: Lent)

In our church, Holy Week is an intense week of services, walking us through the final days of Christ's life. One of my favorite parts is on Friday morning when the children prepare the funeral bier with flowers like the myrrh-bearing women. Later that night we carry the funeral bier around the church, and re-enter the church by going under the bier, reminding us of our baptism and symbolizing our union with Christ in death. I also love Holy Saturday morning, when Christ's body is in the tomb: we have a little pre-celebration because even before the resurrection Christ is defeating death, harrowing Hades!

On Holy Saturday, the priest throws basil and rose petals in victory throughout the church
as we celebrate the "Harrowing of Hades" in preparation for Easter.
On Saturday night, around midnight, the church is dark. Slowly, chanting a beautiful invitation to receive Christ's light, the priest brings one candle from the altar, and everyone lights their candle  and carries it outside and around again to the doors of the church, where we re-enter the church now full of light. We shout and sing Christ is risen in many languages! The fast is over and the celebration has begun. After the Liturgy, we have a big feast in the middle of the night, eating all the foods we've been fasting from. I love that all of our serious, hard work ends with full-hearted fun.

at the doors of the church on Great and Holy Pascha!
4. The date
Churches in the East and the West use the same ancient formula to calculate the date of Easter, but the East uses the old Julian Calendar as opposed to the new Gregorian calendar. So Eastern churches celebrate Pascha sometimes several weeks after Western Eastern, although occasionally they still fall on the same date. You can read the specifics of the calculations at the link. (Wikipedia: Easter computations) This year, Orthodox Easter is a week later! So after you celebrate Easter, you still have time to come see how we do Eastern Pascha. ;) 

beautiful Easter baskets at the front of the church during the Paschal Liturgy,
basil and rose petals still on the floor, the icon of the Resurrection

5. Easter Baskets 
Yes, easter baskets really do have a rich Christian history! They didn't start with the Easter Bunny. Early Christians fasted by eating simply and giving up meat, eggs, dairy, wine, and oil. So when Pascha arrived, they brought baskets full of these rich foods to the church to be blessed for the feast! After the Paschal Liturgy they feasted on these foods in a spirit of joy of the resurrection. (Wikipedia: Easter Egg Lenten Tradition and Easter BasketThis is the real meaning of fasting: to prepare ourselves to enter into the Eternal Feast. (Read more about fasting in the Lenten Triodion.)

We still keep this tradition! In our church, we bring our baskets filled with food and decorated with flowers and fancy cloth covers, to the front of the church during the Liturgy. At the very end, the priest blesses the baskets - and then we take them to the hall for the feast. Besides food for the church meal, our family includes foods to take home and enjoy throughout Bright Week as we continue to celebrate at home. In our basket, we included butter (now in the shape of a lamb!), eggs, chocolate for the kids, summer sausages and fancy cheeses.

my red eggs, ready to go to church!
6. Easter Eggs 
Eggs are certainly a sign of new life and spring, and this fits thoroughly with the themes of Passover and Easter, and has long been associated with Christian Easter. The egg reminds us of a stone, but, like Christ's tomb, it breaks open to reveal new life. (Wikipedia: Easter Egg)

Orthodox Christians traditionally dye their eggs deep red like the blood of Christ, which yields this new life. The tradition of red eggs comes from legends about St. Mary Magdalene, my patron saint. (Wikipedia: Easter Eggs Legends) One tells how Mary appeared before the Roman emperor, and, having given away all of her possessions to the poor, brought a humble egg as a gift. Offended by her simple gift, he rudely replied to her witness that Christ was risen from the dead, saying, "He is no more risen than that egg is red!" Immediately the egg turned red in her hand! (From A Children's Paradise of Saints

Printable Red Egg Poem

7. The Easter Bunny
Orthodox Christians don't have any bunnies in our traditions, although I might still eat a chocolate one! Wikipedia suggests the Easter Bunny was developed later by German Lutherans to reward good children much like Santa Claus. So, although this is one of the customs people are quick to call pagan, it's just a fun, folk tradition. (Wikipedia: Easter Bunny Association with Eostre) So play Easter Bunny if you want! Either way, its wonderful to treat the kids with baskets of their own on Easter morning, with chocolates, books, and toys.

A beeswax egg candle, Cadbury eggs, homemade donuts for breakfast;
 bunny (!) legos and new bibles were in the kids' Pascha baskets one year.

By Easter Sunday, our prayer corner has accumulated blessed palms from Palm Sunday and red flowers from the funeral Lamentations of Holy Friday; we have flower petals from Holy Saturday's harrowing of Hades, and holy fire from our Easter candles. There are red eggs and a butter lamb next to the children's easter baskets on our breakfast table, and our genuine joy spills out everywhere like kid's confetti eggs. More than just remembering Christ's death and resurrection, we have celebrated at every step how it renews the world and fills it with the light of the kingdom.

So, don't worry. The thoroughly Christian roots of this feast are rich enough that you can easily celebrate with joy. (And with baskets!) Don't miss out on this Feast of feasts for fear of bunnies or pagans. Instead, let's celebrate it with prayer, struggle and beauty, with fun and food, singing and shouting "Christ is risen!" because, truly, He is risen. 

Our prayer corner last year with a palm cross, red carnations from the Lamentations,
Easter tulips, and our paschal candle. I forgot to bring home the flowers and basil!

Our breakfast table last year with creamy coffee and hard-boiled eggs; butter lamb and brioche bread; kids egg decorations from Lazarus Saturday and confetti eggs; our memory verse stone from the Paschal gospel and my beeswax egg candle

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Gratitude Journals

My gratitude Journals are here! The finish is so nice, and I'm so pleased I definitely prefer the weight of the year long journals over the smaller 90 day journals, but you do you. If you want to support St. Nicholas, in addition to buying some journals, you can add us as your Amazon Smile charity with this link: 

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Gratitude Journals

My kids and I have found a lot of joy and comfort in writing good things from the day at bed time. Many people find this practice helpful if they can do it regularly, and what's more motivational than a tidy journal dedicated to the discipline? I'm offering a series of Gratitude Journals with prompts from our Orthodox tradition, including scriptures, prayers, and sayings. There are four 90 Day journals, and a variety of different covers for One Year journals.

90 Day Journals



One Year



I made these for our needs, and I hope you'll enjoy them, too. The thumbnails look a little fuzzy here, but they look nice in person.  Proceeds will go to St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Mission in Jackson, TN. You can also support the work of our mission parish here.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

St. Haralambos Day! (with a printable zine)

Martyrs, admittedly, aren't the easiest saints to introduce to little ones, even joyful ones like St. Haralambos. So I made a little zine to tell a simple version of his life. The illustrations are adapted from the comic I made several years ago, which is now printed in this little book: "How to Start a Mission Church" (along with several other stories about mission life).  If you'd like a copy, proceeds go to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. We're also very grateful if you would like to support St. Nicholas on fundly.  The Zine jpg and printing instructions are below.

How to Start a Mission Church (i.e. The Grace of God) and other stories about St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

a Joyful, Cake-Table, Name-day celebration!

Grab the image above and print the zine on one page at 100% (not "scale to fit"). Folding instructions are below or check out these instructions. I love these tiny little books. :)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Happy New Year, 2019!

1/2 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 eggs
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup warm milk
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons blanched slivered almonds
1 tablespoon white sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, and grease a 8 inch round cake pan. Cream the butter and sugar together, then stir in the flour and mix until mealy. Add the eggs, baking powder and milk, mixing well. Then combine the lemon juice and baking soda, stir into the batter. Pour into the prepared cake pan.

Bake for 40 minutes in the preheated oven, until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes then flip onto cooling rack. Add the coin(s) to the bottom while cooling. (Put on a lazy susan and spin so you don't know where it is.) Once cool, flip right side up onto a plate and decorate with sugar and almonds.

Things we did differently this year:
1. We used multiple coins, and that was more fun. There was still one special winner - the buffalo nickel.
2. The coins sink to the bottom while baking, so you might as well just put it in after its baked. That also keeps them from getting messy.
4. We should cut all the slices first, and decide who gets which slice, before serving. This prevents spoiling the surprise.

5. I put the coins in a bag at the back of the napkin drawer for next year. (I keep forgetting.


Monday, December 31, 2018

Daily Journal Printable

Here's a quick daily journal printable for the new year. I'm trying to cultivate gratitude and an appreciation for my daily activities, so I made this one line daily journal for me. But then I thought my kids might find them beneficial, too. I kept them very simple because anything daily has to be doable! 

Figuring out how to print these front and back was the hardest part - lucky you if your printer is helpful. It looks out of order because its meant to be printed front and back, then folded in half for a little book. I like to sew the book instead of staple because it opens more neatly - here's a sewn book tutorial.  Printable is embedded below.

Happy new year!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Caves, Midwives, and Sarcophagi in the Nativity Scene

We've grown as used to the cozy, hay-filled stable and bouncy baby Jesus in Nativity scenes as we have the discussions that follow about where animals were really kept in ancient Palestine. I love all of these conversations that look for ever-deeper understanding of the birth of Christ. So my little contribution is a look at the slightly different nativity scene we find in Orthodox icons. Icons aren't like photographs. They don't show a single moment but the whole story - so don't worry about the  early arrival of the magi. They also don't attempt to show exactly what things looked like, but instead they reveal the light of Christ in events. So, with that in mind, here are just three of the unique elements you'll find in the icon of the Nativity.

First, you might notice some characters who aren't usually present in most creches: the midwives. Primarily, the midwives speak to the total, vulnerable humanity of Christ. He was born, received, washed and swaddled by those faithful women who have assisted in births since the beginning of time. We're reminded of those brave midwives who defied Pharaoh and saved Moses and the other slave children in Egypt. God saw their reception of these little ones and blessed them with their own families. Here, too, we suppose these midwives who received the infant Christ didn't yet understand the divine-human family that God ushered in with this birth.  Nevertheless, the women faithfully set about their work, washing the child Christ. I can't help but notice that the basin resembles a baptismal font, and so in the icon this first birth points ahead to that second birth. As they wash this baby boy, we expect the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice of the Father who reminds us this is his son.

If we zoom out, we see that icons show the scene somewhere totally different - in a cave. Perhaps homes were carved out of caves and rock, but the icon points to something further up and further in. We recently took our kids to visit a large cave, and their legs shook as we descended deep into the darkness. Caves can be scary. They are the darkest places within the earth, places of hiding and burial. Yet even in this deep darkness the light of Christ came to earth.

But in fact, if you look at many icons, this cave is familiar. We see a similar rock formation in the icon of the Transfiguration, a time when Christ shines his light into the world more explicitly. This cave also looks like the one the women approached mournfully to anoint the Lord after his death. But on that occasion, they find once again Christ revealed to be God, risen from the dead. In Vespers before the Nativity, we sing about the response of all of creation to God's great gift of himself to us. We know the shepherds, the wise men, and even the little drummer boy bring gifts to Christ, but in this song, the earth itself offers to hold and welcome God into its inner places:
What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, Who for our sakes hast appeared on the earth as a man? Every creature which Thou hast made offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a song; The heavens, their star; The wise men, their gifts; The shepherds, their wonder; The earth, its cave; The wilderness; the manger; And we offer Thee a virgin mother. - Vespers Stichera

And finally if we look back to the swaddled baby in the cave, we don't see a rosy cheeked child - with arms spread and the little cloth gently and strategically draped across him - like the one in the little set in my living room. I love that baby. A real human child that was snuggled by his mother. But here we see a baby swaddled tightly as in grave clothes and laid in a stone manger that looks more like ancient sarcophagi than a wooden basket overflowing with straw. We've seen this before, too, in that familiar cave. The icon shows us the baby prepared for his work ahead, the divine economy of his life as the suffering servant who will be laid in a tomb. The icon anticipates Christ's death with both somberness and hopefulness. For his death reminds us that he doesn't die as men do, but will overcome death once and for all. We sing,
"I behold a strange and wonderful mystery: the cave is heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne, and the manger a noble place in which hath lain Christ the uncontained God. Let us, therefore, praise and magnify Him." -  9th ode of the 1st canon of the Nativity
Ultimately icons as invitations to prayer. So, let the icon of the Nativity cultivate in you a prayer to welcome Christ into our humanity, like the faithful midwives; welcome him into your own inner places that need to be filled with the light of Christ; giving thanks for God's coming to be with us in death and life.