Tag: tradition

An Early American Christmas | Tomie dePaola

Before we get to today’s scheduled post, I have to say something a little awkward: I no longer recommend Ann Voskamp’s book, Unwrapping the Greatest Gift. This is due in large part to Voskamp’s writing style, which seemed passable when I read through the book alone but that fell apart when read aloud with our family, as it rendered each story so frustratingly abstract that even my husband and I had a hard time following her train of thought. We also began to suspect that there were some doctrinal soft spots lurking in the devotions, but because of the author’s writing style (about which I really am trying to be gracious), we found them hard to identify and therefore hard to discuss with our children.

I wanted so badly to love this book (did I mention the illustrations?), but we were only able to make it through four readings before reaching a unanimous decision to return the book and investigate our other options.

And now I find myself in the prickly position of having to retract a recommendation that I made—not once, but twice—here on the blog. I know now that it’s not enough to read through family devotionals on my own, especially if I find myself swayed by beautiful illustrations, but that they need to be read with my family before I so much as draft a post to share with you. If any of you bought the book on my recommendation and had an experience with it similar to mine, I’m so sorry!

Now, back to today’s post about a book that I have read dozens of times over the course of many years with my family and therefore can stand fully behind:


I don’t know what afternoons are like where you live, but up here in the Northwestern corner of the continental US, they are dark. Sometimes, they are cozy dark—”stay in and make hot chocolate” dark. But the rest of the time, they’re just drippy, dreary, dismal, ready-for-bed-at-5 o’clock dark. I have lived here my whole life and despite the fact that it happens this way every single year, I still cannot get used to parting ways with the sun at four in the afternoon.

But one side effect that I’m discovering for the first time this year is that it’s difficult to photograph one’s books on the front porch when the light outside is effectively that of dusk by 2 pm. The colors are weird, the shadows are weird, and the cat is cold enough to interrupt everything I do in the hopes that I might—just might—sit down so she can nest in my lap.

An Early American Christmas | Little Book, Big Story

Tomie dePaola turns that early darkness into something lovely in this passage from An Early American Christmas: “As the days grew shorter, the winds blew colder. Then the snow began to fly and December was here. Soon, soon it would be Christmas.” See? This only lasts until December 22—that is what I tell myself. And then: Christmas! And after that: more daylight!

An Early American Christmas introduces us to a small village in New Hampshire where celebrating Christmas is not a thing that is done, and to a family from Germany who moved to that village and brought their Christmas traditions with them.

“The Christmas family” celebrated the holiday with the sort of joy that simmered over the course of months as they prepared their home for the coming festivities: shaping bayberry candles, whittling nativity scenes, choosing their tree and baking sweets, as the year moved them closer and closer to Christmas. Tomie dePaola is the right sort of illustrator for a story like this, as he excels at depicting sequences: the grandmother and mother making candles moves from the top left of one page to the bottom right of the other, beginning with them picking bayberries and ending with the finished candles hanging to dry.

An Early American Christmas | Little Book, Big Story

He details the thoughtful creation of each piece of their family’s celebration in a way that stands in stark contrast to our highly marketed, factory-made gifts and decorations, and creates a sort of nostalgia (in me, at least) for a time when there was no option to purchase tacky decorations or token gifts: if you wanted something, you had to make it yourself. And if you wanted to give something to somebody else, you had to make it yourself.

(But whenever I start feeling this nostalgia for “the old times”—Lydia’s phrase—I remind myself of the state of medical care back then, with its leeches and blood letting and lack of anesthetic and bam! Contentment with my own point in history returns.)

An Early American Christmas | Little Book, Big Story

This is a slow-moving story filled with the anticipation and preparation before Christmas, and it captures beautifully how one family lived quietly among their neighbors and yet changed the ways of their village, until “one by one every household in the village became a Christmas family.”

I don’t know if this book is still in print, but it is available on Amazon for pretty reasonable prices. Also, for you local folks, there is a copy in our public library (that’s where I found this book in the first place).


An Early American Christmas
Tomie dePaola (1987)

An Origami Advent Calendar

Years ago, I went on an origami binge. I think the flu may have been partly responsible for the stretch of time that I spent on the couch, watching Arrested Development and folding boxes, but I can’t be sure. What I do know is that for years afterward, a good portion of our closet storage was dedicated to what boxes were left over after I used at least two dozen of them to package the chocolate truffles that were that year’s Christmas gifts.

Did you catch that? I had tons of boxes left over after I used about two dozen of them to package Christmas gifts. And that only accounts for the boxes: there were origami ornaments, too, stars and cubes and some awkward cranes, plus paper quilts made from folded squares. I am not one for moderation when it comes to meditative folded-paper arts, apparently.

So there the boxes were, tumbling out of corners of our closet when we tried to find dress shoes and fallen scarves, tucked away with remnants of other, past binges: the jewelry binge. The hand-illustrated card binge. (The great knitting binge of 2008-2012 was still on the horizon, as was the present day watercolor-painting binge.) I began to despair of ever finding uses for all of those boxes, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away—they were too lovely.

But then, inspiration struck rather forcefully one morning in late November, about six years ago. Mitch found me digging through the closet at 5 am, pulling out not only the boxes, but also the library-style date stamp (left over from making our wedding album), scraps of origami paper, plain white labels, and the backing for a picture frame that had long since lost its glass. He grumbled something and went back to sleep; I took myself off to the living room where I worked until he and Lydia woke up. I tackled the project again during every spare moment until the evening of the next day, when I had this to show for my hard work:

Our origami Advent calendar has been with us for almost seven years now and has aged with surprising grace, though it is looking well-loved (sorry, DEC 24!). It seems that every year, someone asks about it—how I made it, how others might make one, too—and because of that, I once posted a tutorial on my old blog, Two Blue Buttons. But that blog is now retired and that post went with it into retirement. And so, because some of you have also asked about our calendar, and because I am enjoying branching out this Advent from book reviews into some Advent-themed DIY projects, I decided to write about our calendar for you, too.

I realize that the odds are against you having all the same miscellaneous stuff in your closet that I did, so rather than give you a full tutorial here, I’ll give you some simple guidelines for making a similar calendar, with some helpful links below in the “Resources” section.

DIY Origami Advent Calendar | Little Book, Big Story

The most important pieces, obviously, are the boxes. Once you’ve folded twenty-five of them (as mentioned, I find that episodes of Arrested Development pair nicely with this sort of project), all you really need to do is label them and then glue them to a base of your choice, be it painted board, a canvas, some sort of fabric-wrapped thing—I painted a large piece of drawing paper and wrapped it around the remnants of the picture frame.

Finally, fill them with stuff. In the past, we’ve done scraps of paper with service ideas or small squares of chocolate, but then I hit on the idea of filling the boxes with the ornaments for our Jesse tree, which felt delightfully like solving two problems with the same answer.

If you decide to make one of your own, I would love to see pictures!

REsources

Origami instruction sheets can be terrifying, but there is a lovely tutorial (with photos) for folding origami boxes on Creativebug. (The paper I used wasn’t as big as theirs—mine measured something like 6×6″.)

You can find some of my favorite origami paper on Amazon. (As you can see, I used quite a few different kinds for my boxes, but this link is for the stuff with the pretty gold details.)

Those library stamps aren’t hard to come by either.

A Quick Guide to Jesse Tree Ornaments

It’s two weeks from now, and you’ve dropped by to borrow an egg. From the front door, where you stand chatting with me about the weather (weirdly clear, and the grass is crunchy with frost), you can see our kitchen table and on it, a jar full of gathered branches. If you squint, you can see a few small ornaments hanging from the very tips of the branches—our daughter’s preferred spot to hang them being as close to the end of the branch as possible, so that looking at the fragile globes suspended over our Formica-topped table gives you a sense of nervousness that you can’t immediately place.

Celebrating Advent with a Jesse Tree | Little Book, Big Story

Perhaps you think, That’s an odd centerpiece, as you pocket the egg and walk home.

But if you came back two weeks after that, with a plate of homemade Christmas cookies for us (you are the kindest and most sharing neighbor), you’d find those branches covered in ornaments—twenty-five of them, more or less evenly distributed over the branches. And you would sit at the table with us and drink tea (because we’re nice neighbors, too), and as we talked, you’d notice that each of those ornaments has a picture on it: a sheaf of wheat, an ark, a scribble meant to be a snake. You would put down your tea and look at them closely. You’d finally ask, “What is this?”

And I would say, “Oh! That’s our Jesse tree.”

To Make Or Buy? A Guide to Jesse Tree Ornaments | Little Book, Big Story

But now, let’s say that you want to make a Jesse tree of your own. How would you go about it? Assembling the tree itself is pretty straightforward—we use the process as an excuse to lightly prune the lilac beside our porch—but collecting the Jesse tree ornaments is a bit more challenging. You need twenty-five different ornaments, after all, each of them printed with a specific image. Would you purchase the ornaments pre-made? Could you make them yourself? (Would you even want to?)

Here are your answers, in short: yes, yes, and possibly, I suppose, but that depends on what sort of person you are, whether you’d rather spend time or money on this project, and if the thought of making twenty-five of anything makes the back of your neck feel unpleasantly ticklish.

So. Let’s explore your options, shall we?

To Make

I now have two separate sets of Jesse tree ornaments (one to accompany The Advent Jesse Tree, the other to accompany a different book that didn’t work out for us), and I made each set for under $10 and in what amounts to roughly one hour, spread out over the course of a few days. (There were small children involved, after all.)

DIY Jesse Tree ornaments (with instructions!) | Little Book, Big Story

For the set on top, I used air-dry clay and Sharpie markers. The process is quick and meditative: shape the clay into 25 balls, smoosh them into discs, and use a bamboo skewer to make the holes. After the clay has dried thoroughly (and not a moment before! I learned that lesson the hard way), draw the symbols recommended in your book on the front of the disc; number the back (you’ll thank yourself later). Run twine, string, or ornament hooks through the holes and voila! The season is officially begun!

DIY Jesse Tree ornaments, made with air-dry clay and Sharpie markers (post includes instructions) | Little Book, Big Story

For the set on the bottom, my original set, the process is even easier. I bought a package of those tiny ornaments at a craft store for under $5 and decorated them with a gold paint pen. (Note: you can find my tutorial for that origami Advent calendar here.)

DIY Jesse Tree Ornaments | Little Book, Big Story

And now you know how you’ll be spending your weekend.

To Buy

But for those of you who would rather not spend your weekend drawing tiny pictures on round bulbs, there are other options. These ones will cost you more in money than time, but they’re beautiful and they will probably last longer than my ornaments will. The one thing you have to watch out for, though, is that some sets are designed to go with a certain book. Make sure you double check the symbols before purchasing.

For a customizable option, take a peek at these beauties from the Etsy shop Jesse Tree Treasures. You can customize your order by choosing from 60 possible images for your ornaments. That way, you can ensure that your set matches whichever book your family follows (for the record: I love this idea):

Jesse Tree ornaments from Jesse Tree Treasures | Little Book, Big Story

And then there is the gourmet, deluxe, extra-fancy set from the Etsy shop Baby Whatnots. This listing includes a full set of handmade ornaments, as well as a copy of Unwrapping the Greatest Gift (we weren’t, for the record, crazy about that book) and all the goods you could want to make your very own Jesse Tree (except branches—you’re on your own for those):

Jesse Tree Ornaments from Baby Whatnots | Little Book, Big Story


And now that your research is done, you can start thinking about those cookies. (We like chocolate, if that helps. And sprinkles.)

The Advent Jesse Tree | Dean Lambert Smith

If it seems like I’m getting an absurdly early start on reviewing Christmas books, I apologize. Please consider it a kindness to you, because I love finding new Christmas books and traditions but loathe finding them on December 21 and having to try to remember them by November of the next year. I wanted to give you a head start.


I love Advent. The hymns and prayers of quiet expectation create a counterpoint to the holiday noise of stores, streets and schedules. The sense that the season isn’t now, not yet, but is on its way, lends our home a building suspense, one that is marked out daily by our favorite Advent celebration: the Jesse Tree.

Celebrating Advent with a Jesse Tree | Little Book, Big Story

Here is the Jesse Tree in a nutshell: you start with twenty-five ornaments, each decorated with a particular symbol (I made mine with cheap ornaments from Michael’s and a gold paint pen). You gather a bunch of bare branches and stick them in a jar. Pinterest will tell you to spray paint your branches and nestle them into a twine-wrapped, be-ribboned jar, but ignore Pinterest. Pinterest is crazy. Bare branches in a Mason jar work fine.

Now, for every night of Advent, read a passage from The Advent Jesse Tree, and put the corresponding ornament on your makeshift tree. Got it? Those are the mechanics of the celebration.

Celebrating Advent with a Jesse Tree | Little Book, Big Story

But the heart of it is in the readings, each of which draw a different story from the Bible to its final conclusion: Jesus. You begin in Genesis and read on to Jesus’s birth (with a peek forward into Revelation), stopping at the end of each story to remember who the story is really about. Abraham? Noah? Ruth? No. Jesus.

This book also includes hymns for each night, and questions for your children. There are readings for children and readings for adults, so you can customize this for your family. The hanging of ornaments is a simple routine (and a good one for the littlest hands), but it anchors our Advent in Scripture and reminds us that the heart of the holiday hubbub is not family, food or gifts, but the Giver of all of those good things.

Every night we are drawn back to the manger to rejoice in the work that God has done over centuries, thousands of years, in bringing his plan into effect: He came down as a child, made Himself—the Creator of everything—small, so that we could be magnified in him.

That is worth waiting for. That is worth remembering. That is worth celebrating.

Celebrating Advent with a Jesse Tree | Little Book, Big Story

Read More About The Jesse Tree

For more ideas on how to make (or where to buy) Jesse tree ornaments, read my post, “A Quick Guide to Jesse Tree Ornaments.” You can also read more about our family’s Advent traditions in the post “Advent: What It Is and Why We Love It.”


The Advent Jesse Tree
Dean Lambert Smith (2011)

The Story of Easter | Aileen Fisher

We like to give books for every possible occasion. In fact, we like to buy books for every possible occasion. Or really, I should drop the pretense and say that I like to buy books for everything, all the time, but now I find sneaky ways to do it.

For example, we (alright, I) give each of our daughters a hand-chosen, excellent book every birthday, Christmas and Easter. But now, I also sneak a holiday-appropriate book onto the kitchen table each Sunday of Lent and Advent. Sometimes, I unveil a new book, but more often than not it’s an old favorite, smuggled down from the attic and presented for rediscovery. Either way, it gives us the opportunity to prepare for the coming holiday book by book, and to savor each addition to our library before introducing another. And so our library grows.

The Story of Easter | Little Book, Big Story

One of the first books to hit the table was Aileen Fisher’s The Story of Easter. For a minimally researched Amazon buy, it delivers admirably, and has quickly become one of the first books to reappear each Lent.

Now you might think, like I did, that “the story” the title refers to is that of Holy Week. But you (like me) would be mistaken. The Story of Easter refers to the story of Easter, with all its varied traditions. Fisher begins with Jesus, his death and resurrection, and goes on to give the history behind our many different Easter traditions, even delving into other cultures to do show where the bunny, eggs and pastels come from. She even introduced us to some traditions that we hadn’t yet met, like walks after church and the idea of intentionally wearing something new on Easter morning.

The Story of Easter | Little Book, Big Story

Fisher’s telling is clear and illuminating (for adults as well as children), and helps equip families with Easter’s back story without losing sight of its primary plot line.

Stefano Vitale’s artwork, too, is illuminating. Vitale deftly portrays everything from Jesus’s walk through Jerusalem to Eastern European egg designs to a modern day family in a style that is brings ancient art to mind while utilizing a gorgeous, modern palette.

The Story of Easter | Little Book, Big Story

But the fun doesn’t stop there! In addition to the story, the history and the illustrations, The Story of Easter also includes a recipe for hot cross buns and an Easter activity or two. This book has become my go-to book for explaining not only what we celebrate on Easter, but how we celebrate it, and why Easter can look so different from family to family.


The Story of Easter
Aileen Fisher, Stefano Vitale (1998)