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    Don’t be the White Witch (Thoughts on Advent and Christmas Traditions)

    December 16, 2015 by Brandy Vencel

    When it comes to Christmas traditions, the big rule of thumb is You Should Have Some. I haven’t written much recently about our family traditions, so it’s time. Much has remained the same, even as my children have gotten older. That is a sure sign of real traditions!

    I’m struck by all the posts and articles wandering about on the Internet arguing that Christmas ought to be simplified. I mean: yes. If Christmas is totally freaking you out, it needs to be simplified. The Incarnation is a great gift, and freaking out isn’t a necessary part of celebrating it.

    But also: I think it’s possible to overdo the simplifying. The Incarnation is a great gift, and it deserves its rightful honor. It deserves a party. It deserves cookies. It deserves hustle and bustle and (dare I say it?) gifts!

    There have been years when we got sick and our Advent and/or Christmas traditions were missed. Forced simplifying, we could call it. You know what? Christmas didn’t really feel like Christmas. I look back, and in those years it was always winter and never Christmas.

    Advent and Christmas without traditions is like Narnia under the White Witch.

    Don’t be the White Witch.

    Don't over simplify Christmas! Or: why traditioning is important.

    The solution, of course, is  livable traditions. A good tradition is one you can pull off every year (or, at least, most years).

    There are many possible traditions; here are some of ours:


    If you want to know about it, read this. DecemberTerm consists of turning our regular morning Circle Time into an Advent time. I love it, even on the days when we can only execute part of our plans.

    Evening Advent Readings (+ The Messiah)

    My husband does this, and I’m grateful for it. This year, we’re enjoying The Handel’s Messiah Family Advent Reader. I love, love, love it. We end the time with a little snippet of The Messiah from the accompanying CD.

    We don’t do the same book each year — last year, a Messiah study was incorporated into DecemberTerm, and my husband read aloud from a different book. So there are two traditions. One is Handel’s Messiah and the other is evening readings.

    Click here for other Advent resources.

    Christmas Picture Books

    As in: we read some. We have a huge box stored at the top of our closet, and we pull it down on the first day of Advent, and the kids spend the season poring over them again and again. Also, I read some aloud. Also, my husband reads some aloud.

    The end.

    I know that some families wrap them up and then let their children unwrap one per day. I greatly admire this, but I know myself too well. If I had to wrap them all, this would never happen. So: giant book box it is.

    Click here for Dawn’s amazing Christmas Picture Book tradition.

    Gingerbread House Party

    This is something Friend R. and I started doing with our children years and years ago. In fact, we just did this Saturday evening, and we were laughing about how we started when our children were way too young (meaning they required too much help for it to be enjoyable). We’ve tried making the gingerbread and icing from scratch (too much work). We’ve tried using graham crackers (the younger children weren’t coordinated enough, but it’ll work when they are older). The last couple years, we’ve used these lifesaving things called kits. We usually pick them up at Target.

    We make extra icing from scratch, and we provide extra candy to make sure there’s enough, but having the children construct a pre-fab house is much easier at this stage in the game. The older kids decorate them more elaborately, and the younger children can almost put them together on their own.

    Christmas Lights Tour

    We take the kids to look at the best light displays in town and often couple it with some hot chocolate from Starbucks as a treat. We are in mourning that there aren’t many good displays this year — not sure what will happen to this tradition.

    Homemade Christmas Ornaments

    Every year we make a bunch — a different type each year — and then we give them to friends and family. They make great hostess gifts, and also good gifts for people who “have everything” or “don’t need anything” (like great grandparents). This year, we’re making beaded wreaths similar to this tutorial. This makes for a nice handicraft on a rainy winter’s day.

    Baking Days and Cookie Trays

    We have some standard recipes, but this year it’s complicated by the gluten free diet. No matter. We’re still baking. On years when we have more time and energy, we’re elaborate. Other years, we only make our two favorite recipes. We load up festive paper plates with goodies, wrap them in cellophane, and then the children deliver them to neighbors, plus we drive around to drop a few off to others (like the aforementioned Friend R.).

    Rugelach on Christmas Morning

    For many years, I loved making the gluten version of this, but needed an alternative for Daughter A. (who is gluten-free) and Son O. (who is sugar-free). I searched high and low for a good recipe, and ended up finding one on accident! It’s a long story, but the result is that I make a gluten-free sugar-free cutout cookie recipe but roll it up with cinnamon and nuts like I used to do my rugelach. It’s not sticky like a cinnamon roll, so it’s the most like real rugelach I’ve found. I serve it hot from the oven, smothered in Kerrygold butter. It’s perfect.

    Waiting for Baby Jesus

    It’s a little thing, but we set up our creche set on the first day of Advent (except when we have the stomach flu, as we did this year — in that case, it happens when it happens). Mary, Joseph, shepherd, animals — but no Jesus. He doesn’t arrive until Christmas morning.

    The three kings also arrive on Christmas morning, but in the library. They move a bit day by day until they end up at the creche set — just in time for Epiphany.

    Three Gifts

    Giving and receiving gifts is not the same thing as being materialistic

    I love our three gift tradition for a variety of reasons. First, it draws a parallel. We tell our children, “Jesus received three gifts. And so do you.” They get it.

    Having mental categories for the gifts is helpful: something to wear, something to enjoy, something to read. This allows for budget flexibility. Some years, the budget has been really tight, and “something to wear” was purchased at a second-hand sale for $3 (and was still awesome) and “something to read” was a used book for $0.50 (in great condition). It all still works. Make sense?

    Other years, we were able to afford to be more extravagant. (A Kindle, for example, can be a great “something to read.”)

    One other thought on this: yes, we want to avoid materialism. Sure. But giving and receiving gifts is not the same thing as being materialistic. God made the physical world and it is good. Jesus received lavish gifts, and then He in turn gave the ultimate lavish gift.

    Unspoiled children receiving an extravagant gift at Christmastime is a beautiful thing.

    It was Edmund who didn’t get a gift from Father Christmas, you remember — and he didn’t get it because he was in the company of the White Witch.

    Remembering the Holy Innocents

    December 28th, the third day of Christmas, is traditionally the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It’s a time to remember Herod’s slaying of the babies and toddlers. We do this very simply. I read aloud the pertinent passage from the Bible. We sing the Coventry Carol.

    Then I cry.

    Every time!

    Since I became a mother, I can’t make it through that song without crying.

    The children spend the rest of the day wondering why Mommy cried.



    We have varying levels of success with Epiphany. My dream is to have a big bonfire and roast marshmallows with friends. Practically, we seem to be sick on this day half the time. And then also our fire pit died last year.

    One year, we read aloud Twelfth Night, and that was something.

    Right now the plan is to Do Something.

    Undecorate the Tree and House

    We do this the day after Epiphany. Keeping the tree up (and the Christmas tunes humming) for all 12 days of Christmas keeps the party going in our hearts. I hate that Americans start the Christmas festivities before Thanksgiving but then tear the tree down before New Year’s. It’s a total cultural bummer.

    Go Forth and Tradition

    Yes, I nouned a verb. Do it. Traditions are awesome. They don’t have to be super expensive (driving around looking at lights is almost free; going to a Christmas concert at a local church is likely free; volunteering at a food bank is also free, etc.). They don’t have to be super time consuming (buy a kit instead of making from scratch). And you don’t have to start with a million traditions. Start with one or two and add as your children get older.

    Just don’t forget that traditioning is part of Christmas.

    Don’t be the White Witch.

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  • Reply Kim December 24, 2019 at 9:58 am

    Love this post so much! And I agree wholeheartedly that exchanging gifts doesn’t have to be about greed and materialism. My one wish is that folks would not complain about having to do Christmas things like buying and wrapping gifts, sending Christmas cards, etc. Seems kind of contrary to the generous spirit we’re supposed to have. If you’re overdoing it, of course, cut back, but don’t complain as if its somehow the recipient’s fault that you have to do this. Just my personal pet peeve…

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  • Reply Melissa December 22, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    Tana, if you’re still around, in the winter nights, keeping the tree up beyond Christmas day & turning on the lights at night is a wonderful vision of the light/dark themes.

    We have a special dinner on Epiphany – various Persian foods. It can be done rather simply, if you’re done with cooking/baking! Regardless of how much time you spend on it, though, it’s a nice reminder of the three kings from the East.

  • Reply Brandi December 6, 2018 at 7:36 am

    Feast of the Holy Innocents. If I am not mistaken, I did not before pick up that you were Catholic, Brandy. ❤️ I usually don’t pay too much attention to the specific Christian headings of the CM/classical blogs and podcast producers that I follow while I take from their springs of wisdom. We are all faithfully trying to serve Christ, He wants us to be unified, and we are a minority who leans on one another, anyway. However, I may have audibly Squeed! when I read “Feast of the Holy Innocents”! It, too, is an important day in our home.

    Good advice regarding the celebration of these seasons, as well.

  • Reply Tracy O. December 5, 2018 at 12:22 pm

    We try yearly to drive downtown Chicago to see the big tree, that’s a holdover from when I was a kid. A decade or so ago, we started an ornament tradition. We go to hobby lobby to get ornaments and each person picks one out that (hopefully) sums up the year for them. They might also just pick up something they like, it’s how my older daughter ended up with quite a few gaudy angels! 😀 They will take them when they move out.
    I have one married and out of the house now and he took his box of ornaments with and yes, he hangs that ugly robot on his tree every year. 🙂
    I did something new this year, we watched the live stream of the final dress rehearsal of the Colorado Ballet’s The Nutcracker. I threw my kids a surprise Christmas Party. Made an easy special lunch, with Christmas treats. Super low key and easy, I have a 5 month old in the house right now. I hope to make that a tradition. They loved it.
    Some years we make treats and go ding ding ditching to drop them at some friend’s and relative’s houses. The key is to drop them and get out of there without being noticed. Fun!

  • Reply Lucy Barr-hamilton December 3, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    If you’re still gluten-free?… my husband is gluten-dairy-egg free and I do better without gluten. Christmas threatens to be so disappointing with no wheat. This year I invented stollen flapjacks (in England flapjacks are chewy oat bars) using gluten-free oats, and added the things that would be in stollen, such as almonds, cardoman, cherries etc. The flavour of Christmas without the wheat! And the minimalist baker has some amazing raw food bakes which are deliciously sweet without all the terrible ingredients. I’m about to try their raw brownies!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 5, 2018 at 10:04 am

      Thanks for the tips! Our daughter is still gluten-free, yes — and also our son is still completely added-sugar free (including no maple syrup and no honey). So baking is still tricky, but totally worth it! ♥

  • Reply Cindy December 19, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    I love this! I wish I would have seen this post sooner – we are studying Handel this term and I would have loved to check out the book!! Maybe we’ll come back to him…around Christmas ;).

    I love your attitude throughout the post…so many posts floating around make Christians almost feel guilty for partaking in a traditional American Christmas; there’s another great article Tim Challies wrote called “Jesus Isn’t Threatened by Your Christmas Gifts” with the same tone.

    We love and look forward to our family traditions around the holiday season. Thanks for the great post and some great ideas to add into our mix.

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  • Reply Sarah December 19, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    I realized something this year: You cannot teach children to give joyfully without first giving to them. I think God hard-wired humans this way for a reason. And: A gift given with good intentions can still be viewed with contempt if the recipient has not learned how to receive. My prayer is for God’s peace and hope and happiness to the families out there who struggle with these things. Christ redeems all things!

  • Reply Lew December 19, 2015 at 5:39 am

    Agreeed, celebrating Christmas during Advent, and nothing during Christmas is a cultural bummer.

    Do you ever use gluten free rice crispies to make Christmas “cookies?” There are some cute ways to add color and holiday themes to rice crispie treats. I’m going to try rolos on gluten free pretzels this year, well see how it goes.

    Nice post. Thanks.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 19, 2015 at 7:14 am

      No! The rice crispie angle hadn’t even crossed my mind, but that might be just the ticket. Thank you! I’m baking on Monday, so this came just in time. 🙂

      • Reply Amanda December 16, 2016 at 9:38 pm

        Yes! Yes! And AMEN! Thank you for this. Getting ready for Baby Jesus takes time and effort, a little hustle and bustle, as you will. And there are so many Good Things to do along the way as we celebrate. We share many of the same. 🙂 (And I did have to LOL when you noted your verb-nouning. It made me want to chant a schoolyard tease… “Brandy nouned a ve-erb, Brandy nouned a ve-erb…” 😉 )

        • Reply Amanda December 16, 2016 at 9:41 pm

          Oh, and WinCo has a gf cookie mix by Hodgson-Mills that is (relatively) cheap and quite yummy. You just add your extras in to make whatever flavor cookie you want. Easy peasy.

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  • Reply Leanne December 19, 2015 at 3:33 am

    Thanks for this post – just what I needed – was like a word from the Lord. Merry Christmas

  • Reply Dacia December 17, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    Great post!

    A friend shared it and I probably wouldn’t have commented other than my daughter has recently had to be gluten-free (technically low-FODMAP), and missed treats of all kinds. I have a gluten-free Rugelach recipe in my America’s Test Kitchen How Can It Be Gluten Free 2 Cookbook. I haven’t made it, but everything I make from this cookbook has been so good that even gluten eaters love them.

    It takes a bit to get started making their flour blend, but you can order it all through Amazon and then you’ll be set. I weigh everything but they give cup measurements too.

    Gf Pantry items you may not have but need are (they recommend Bob’s Red Mill for pastry because it has the finest grind for flaky and light dough):

    Xanthan gum
    White rice flour
    Brown rice flour
    Potato starch
    Tapioca starch or flour
    Nonfat milk powder.

    If you email me I can send you pictures of the recipe.

    Good luck!

  • Reply Lisa of Hopewell December 17, 2015 at 10:58 am

    Excellent post. I’m off to investigate the Handle’s Messiah book. I tweeted this for you!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 17, 2015 at 2:15 pm

      Thanks, Lisa! I hope you find an affordable copy.

      I will tell you what I did: add it to my shopping cart and then save it for later. That way, every time I checked out on Amazon, I could price check it. Eventually, the price was below $10 and I bought it! 🙂

      • Reply Sharron December 22, 2015 at 5:29 am

        That is a great idea! Going to do that now.

  • Reply Kimberly Famolaro December 17, 2015 at 10:52 am

    One simple tradition that we have always had is that baby Jesus in his manger gets wrapped up differently every year and is ALWAYS the first gift unwrapped of Christmas morning as Jesus is truely the first gift of Christmas!!!!Then we pray as a family and Thank God for sending his son. Then the rest of gifts are opened 1 person at a time:)

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 17, 2015 at 2:04 pm

      Kimberly! I *love* that tradition. I might have to imitate you. ♥

    • Reply Sharron December 22, 2015 at 5:32 am

      Very cool! I think I need a different nativity. In ours, Mary is holding baby Jesus. It was made by my father for my grandmother, so it is very special, but maybe I need two. 😉

      • Reply Kelly December 22, 2015 at 6:40 am

        You can’t have too many nativities. 😉 I’m not sure how many we have, but they’re scattered around the house. One is a snow globe that plays O Little Town of Bethlehem, then there’s an all-one-piece terra cotta on that my son bought in Guatemala, and one with glass pieces that my husband bought the first year we were married, and a two-foot high statuette of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus that my MIL gave us several years ago . . .

        But a few years ago I bought a bigger set that came with a simple stable. At the beginning of the Advent I put the stable, the shepherd, and the barn animals on the mantle. Mary and Joseph travel from the north and arrive on Christmas Eve, then some time that night (or first thing in the morning if we’ve forgotten!) Baby Jesus is added. On Christmas Day the wise men set out, starting in the room that’s farthest to the East. My kids really enjoy moving the pieces a little bit each day.

    • Reply Lorry November 30, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      I ABSOLUTELY love ❤️ this idea!! Going to start tat tradition this year with my kids. Thanks!

  • Reply Kimberly Famolaro December 17, 2015 at 10:39 am

    Thank you Kendra for your zeal for the faith! I am always inspired by your sharing as I too have a large family. This is one of those years where we were forced to simplify:(. In all my years of mothering have never had those little bugs that rhyme with rice…..I have 9 kids and 7 of us were hit:( been a little busy. Looking forward to the King coming with squeaky clean house and hair wink wink!!Merry Christmas and thank you so much for being a part of my journey somehow! I thank God for your witness!!!

  • Reply Jennifer December 17, 2015 at 9:51 am

    Thank you for sharing your traditions. I was raised celebrating a very secularized form of Christmas, so Advent and the anticipation and celebration of the coming of baby Jesus is all new to me. I asked God for a renewal of both my mind and heart this year in regards to this season, and as I’m reading and researching the true meaning and celebrations of this time, he is answering that prayer.

  • Reply Kelly December 17, 2015 at 8:56 am

    We’ve been celebrating Advent for maybe 12 years now, so we’ve been slowly building our traditions. I know the phrase “instant tradition” is an oxymoron, but I learned something very ancient and traditional last year, so we added it to our evening prayers during Advent, and it’s so beautiful that we’ll be doing it forever — singing the verses of O Come, O Come Emmanuel as antiphons before and after singing the Magnificat on the last eight days before Christmas Eve. You sing one verse each night, beginning with “O come thou Wisdom” on the 17th and ending on the 23rd with what’s normally considered the first verse. I can give more details if anyone’s interested.

  • Reply Chantelle December 16, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    My gosh this is a post so full of all-kinds-of-awesomeness that it deserves several re-reads…and then a forward to sisters and mother-in-law. Thank you!!!

  • Reply Virginia Lee December 16, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    It looks like we have many of the same traditions. Except for Rugelach. I’m going to have to look that one up. Cause I’m thinking innards, and I’m doubting y’all are eating intestines for your Christmas and Easter meals. =)

    What you said about Epiphany pretty much holds true here as well. Our Wise Men arrive in our nativity scene and we read the pertinent part of the Bible, all lovely. But I always wish we were having a celebration with family and friends. Maybe it will happen one year.

    We also celebrate St Stephen’s Day by reading the Bible, listening to Good King Wenceslas, and this year I bought a picture book that Jeanne recommended to go with.

    I think when you celebrate Advent and all 12 days of Christmas it spreads the traditions out. Maybe that’s why it does not feel overwhelming? Instead it feels wonderful!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 16, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      Okay, I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I think you’re right. When Christmas lasts 12 days, you’re not cramming it all in. True! Plus, it isn’t like every day of the 12 days is a total party with Mom working her tail off. Did you see the post at Like Mother Like Daughter about the 12 Days of Christmas? Totally my style. I mean, they even have Reading Day. 😉

      • Reply Virginia Lee December 16, 2015 at 4:03 pm

        Too funny. I went to Celeste’s blog after reading your post. She links to that exact Like Mother Like Daughter post, so I just got done reading it. Yes, Reading Day, sign me up!!

      • Reply Amy December 17, 2015 at 8:25 am

        Spreading it out is the main reason I’m so excited to finally do twelve days of Christmas. Before Christmas was such a let down, but this year we are going to space it out, including the gifts from relatives, because I think they will be better appreciated that way. I might add some of your activities to our list, there are a few I have written down that I’m not sure we can pull off this year.

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  • Reply Cassidy December 16, 2015 at 10:12 am

    YES! I love this post. We are super tight around here, but I love the idea of the Three Gifts. I love that you put suggestions for those on a sparse (*ahem* nonexistent) budget. Advent and Christmas are about traditions. Also – I am a Catholic convert. I never realized how wonderful Christmas can be until I started actually celebrating it for the full 12 days. I had always celebrated a more secular Christmas. Tree down quickly after Christmas. Never again! We started not turning on any lights until we get back from Christmas Vigil Mass. So lovely! So much anticipation. Afterall – we’re waiting on the light of the world to be born 🙂 I decorate slowly throughout Advent now. One doesn’t prepare for a baby overnight. Love, love, love this post. <3

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 16, 2015 at 2:37 pm

      I decorate slowly throughout Advent now. One doesn’t prepare for a baby overnight.

      I LOVE that, Cassidy! ♥

  • Reply Tana December 16, 2015 at 8:14 am

    On the tree thing, seeing the gifts gather underneath the tree is part of the anticipation (sorry, but YES, it goes with Advent and thus goes up during Advent). After the gifts are opened, there really is no longer a point in having the tree. So we take it down before New Year’s. Convince me of the worth of a tree with nothing under it and I will be happy to reconsider. #stillhunguponthatone

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 16, 2015 at 8:35 am

      Ha ha! You got me laughing. LOVE your hashtag! 😉 Admittedly, we have a New Year’s Eve baby here and *her* gifts get piled under the tree after the Christmas gifts have been unwrapped.

      But really: the point is to have some traditions, not to have *my* traditions. 🙂

  • Reply Angie Strobel December 16, 2015 at 8:02 am

    Thank you so much for this post! I really needed it. And the quote from Chesterton is fabulous. We are in the process of selling our home and have to be out by January 15th, so I’m having to be careful and not stress everyone out right here at Christmas and make an effort to keep up our traditions. Ironically, my three youngest girls are in a community production of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, so your post is really hitting home!

    Thank you for your wisdom and insight!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 16, 2015 at 8:39 am

      Ooh! A Narnia production during the winter sounds just perfect to me. 🙂

      Moving at this time of year must be very difficult!

  • Reply Camille December 16, 2015 at 7:48 am

    Yes. Yes. 100x yes. 🙂

  • Reply Sharron December 16, 2015 at 6:03 am

    First of all, love the title! Thank you for this encouragement! Our financial situation this year is dismal and has really put my “Christmas spirit” to the test. Couple that with more food allergies having been diagnosed for 10yo and most days have found me in the bedroom crying. I really needed to read this!! Thank you!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 16, 2015 at 6:13 am

      Oh, Sharron! Food allergies are the WORST when it comes to holidays! I will pray for you. For me, it makes it easy to have the baking on autopilot — always using the same recipes, and only deciding *how many* to use this year, you know? So the gluten thing this year — totally throwing me {and my baking budget!} off kilter. I get it.

  • Reply Sara McD December 16, 2015 at 5:40 am

    bah…. OK, I won’t do it. But I feel it. I LOVE the Incarnation – that ALMIGHTY GOD humbled himself to take on human flesh and be born of a human woman. WHAT! Who would do that? I love God’s rescue plan. I love that he knew us before the foundation of the earth. I love that we get to see his plan in action and get to BE a part of his plan in action.

    And every year we celebrate how we can. It usually means repeating some of the things we’ve done for years and I guess that makes them traditions but the PRESSURE of “we have to do things the same way at the same time” is just too much for me. My kids saying, “When are we going to…?” makes me feel like a Christmas failure.

    So I make an effort to not think of those “traditions” as things we must do and to approach them as things that we usually do and if we don’t get to them there will probably be another Christmas next year.

    It probably amounts to the same actions, but the attitude behind it is important for my happiness, and not to be too dramatic, but also for my mental health.

    But I’ll be praying over what you’ve written here. I don’t want to compare our traditions and take on things that God would not have us do, but maybe I need to see more of the party in this shebang.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 16, 2015 at 6:08 am

      I think that you’re right — it’s the party behind it, the celebrating. Maybe more than anything, we want them to remember that warmth of Christmas? Just the general feeling that the time was set apart — that it was fun and special?

      I totally get the resistance to doing things the same way each year. I honestly feel that way about the rugelach. I don’t like putting it together on Christmas Eve when I’d rather do other things. But the children associate it with Christmas and Easter, and when we sit down to eat it on those days, I’m glad I did it, you know?

      This reminds me of something Chesterton wrote:

      Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

      I try to remind myself that my children aren’t tired of it all yet. 🙂

      • Reply Sara McD December 16, 2015 at 6:33 am

        Yes, I see what you mean. 🙂

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