A Trotter Christmas: articles from years past plus favorite books and songs for Advent and beyond

We celebrated Thanksgiving as a family, our tree is up, and the new church year (Advent) starts tomorrow. I am in a merry mood and want to share our very best Christmas articles from the archives plus my very favorite Advent and Christmas songs, both relatively unknown ones and timeless, cherished ones. I hope you enjoy my “grown-up Christmas list.” ~Elizabeth

 

BLOG POSTS

When Singing “Joy to the World” Feels Too Hard by Elizabeth. If you’re mourning or grieving this Christmas, that’s OK. Skip the other posts and read this one instead.

A Christmas letter to parents, from a kid who doesn’t have any by Jonathan. More for the hurting among us, and a reminder of what Christmas is really all about.

The Tree That Tells Our Story by Elizabeth. Does your Christmas tree tell the story of your family. A post especially for Third Culture Kids and global nomads.

I Need a Silent Night by Elizabeth. Do you need some soul rest or some unrushing this Christmas season? If so, this one’s for you.

When God Paid for Christmas by Elizabeth. Still one of my very favorite Christmas stories. It was the year money was tight and God gave us Christmas anyway.

In Search of Christmas Spirit (or, an ode to Christmases past and present) by Elizabeth. About our first Christmas overseas. Also for Third Culture Kids and Global Nomads.

A Christmas Prayer by Jonathan. A beautiful prayer for the universal church of Jesus Christ.

He Unbreaks It by Elizabeth. This one looks back on Christmas from the perspective of Epiphany (Three Kings Day or the Twelfth Day of Christmas).

 

ADVENT SONGS

When I talk about “Advent,” I’m referring to the period of four weeks in which we prepare for Christmas. It memorializes the long wait for the Christ Child thousands of years ago and is reminiscent of our current wait for the return of our King. A lot of Advent songs have a minor sound, as there is longing and ache in the wait (and you know I love that minor sound).

Ready My Heart by Lois Shuford, performed by Steve Bell. I learned this song two years ago from a missionary friend who led it during a Christmas service. Short, but I think you will find the message and melody sticks around in your head and on your voice. Here are the lyrics.

Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel, translated from the Latin by John Mason Neale. This is an absolute favorite of mine. Don’t cheat yourself of the theology in this song — you really must sing all the verses (you can find them here). Musically speaking, our family favorite is Aaron Shust’s version.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, by Charles Wesley and Rowland Prichard and performed by Chris Tomlin. Another favorite pre-Christmas song of mine.

 

CHRISTMAS SONGS

Little Drummer Boy by Katherine Kennicott Davis and performed by Pentatonix. Every time I hear this song I am a puddle of tears. Every time, people. At least, every time since we were in the States three years ago and the preacher at our sending church mentioned it in a sermon and shed a new light on it for — specifically the “I have no gift to bring.” I’d always liked the song, but now I love the song. Now my children look at me a little cross-eyed whenever this song plays, and I can’t for the life of me explain in understandable terms why I cry so hard. I think it is just that at this stage of my life, I feel and know deeply that I have nothing to give the Savior — nothing in myself — but I will give what little I can. And the promise of the song is that God is pleased with us when we give what little we can. OK, no more philosophizing, just go experience the song. Again and again.

In the Bleak Midwinter by Gloucester Cathedral Choir.  A friend sent this to me last year. It may not be completely historically accurate (it wasn’t that cold in Bethlehem), but it’s metaphorically accurate and oh, isn’t it beautiful?

Who Would have Thought by Julie Meyer. A beautiful worship song, and I love it. There’s no listing of the lyrics anywhere, but here’s the back story to this song.

Do You Hear What I Hear by  Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker. I’ve loved this song vaguely since childhood, as my mom played a version of it. But it’s only been in the last couple years have I truly understood the message of the last verse.

Vicit Agnus Noster by Michael Card. Beautiful and — as is par for the course with a Card song — deeply theological.

Mary Did You Know by Mark Lowry, performed here by Kenny Rogers and Wynona Judd. A favorite from childhood.

Welcome to our World Chris Rice. A little off the beaten path, but good.

Canon by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  A family favorite.

Carol of the Bells by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Another family favorite.

Emmanuel God With Us by Amy Grant. The album this song comes from is a family favorite. Ethereal and prophetic.

For Unto Us a Child is Born, from Handel’s Messiah and sung by Amy Grant.

Which brings me to my last linked song, Hallelujah Chorus. You really need to listen to Handel’s Messiah in its fullness, but for many this chorus is synonymous with Christmas and with the entire work. Something to remember about this chorus, though, is that you have to sit two-thirds of the way through the program to get to this triumphant song. Victory always involves waiting. For me this song represents the “now and not yet” reality of the kingdom, and though I cry over the beautiful partial fulfillment of these words, I still cry in longing of the full and final redemption of this world.

Other favorite carols of mine (though I’ve hardly ever met a carol I didn’t like):

  • What Child is This? (oh look, another minor song, for which you really must sing all the verses)
  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (yes, more minor, and more gospel reminders)
  • It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (for a full effect, all the verses are necessary)
  • Oh Holy Night (in which I break my minor streak, and in which you must also sing all the verses)
  • Hark the Herald Angels Sing (again, all the verses)
  • Of course I also love Silent Night and The First Noel — but you have to sing all the verses to those too.
  • And finally, people, I love Joy to the World, but for goodness sakes, WAIT to sing it till Christmas morning. You must absolutely must wait for the joy. Otherwise it’s silliness. And when you sing it on Christmas morning, you gotta sing all 4 verses, people, all four verses.

Share your favorite songs in the comments.

 

BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS AND THE CHURCH YEAR

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. I grew up on this story, and this year I decided to read it aloud to our kids. Plus, we are going to see an international high school production of the play next week!

The Circle of Seasons by Kimberlee Conway Ireton. I am relatively new to the church year, and this book walked me through it this past year. Kimberlee’s prose is friendly, fresh, and rooted. I continue to rave about several sections, including Easter and the Transfiguration. You really do need the paperback version, though, as it’s an all year by-my-side type of book. Kindle won’t cut it here.

Sounding the Seasons by Malcolm Guite. Walking through the church year with Kimberlee was so good that I knew I wanted to walk through it with someone else (but I’ve got Kimberlee’s book near so I can grab it when I want to). I’d been exposed to Guite’s poems (sonnets, really) and read enough of them on his website that I knew Guite was just the teacher I needed to walk me through the church year this year. The book is a cycle of 70 sonnets for the church year. I was going to wait until the first day of Advent (first day of the church year) to crack open the poems, but I cheated and read the prologue out loud (the only way poetry is supposed to be read of course) last week and then immediately burst into tears. I thought, this is going to be a good year.

The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle. I enjoy Madeleine’s (rambling) prose and plan to read this book alongside Malcolm’s. It’s arranged by section of the church year, just like Kimberlee’s.

Share your favorite church year resources in the comments.

 

FAVORITE FAMILY CHRISTMAS MOVIES

The Muppet Christmas Carol. A classic, and a family favorite. This story always gets me in the Christmas mood. This year I’m going to go further than the movie and read the actual book. Probably out loud and in a British accent.

The Nativity Story. I don’t care if you think this version is not historically accurate enough, it is emotive and beautiful and true to the spirit of the story.

It’s a Wonderful Life. This is an absolute Hunzinger family favorite. We watched it every Christmas Eve growing up, and waited till our Christmas Eve showing to crack open the big flavored popcorn tin under the tree. But you must watch it in black and white. It’s silly to watch it in color.

My kids and I also enjoy Elf and White Christmas (a family favorite on Jonathan’s side).

Share your favorite Christmas movies in the comments.

When God Paid for Christmas {Velvet Ashes}

Elizabeth is over at Velvet Ashes today . . .

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Money was so tight my freshman year in college that my family cancelled Christmas. We were struggling financially, and the three jobs my dad was working afforded him only four hours of sleep a night — with too little monetary margin to waste on presents.

When my parents told us there wouldn’t be any presents that year, my two younger sisters and I were unruffled. We were completely fine with a low-key Christmas. We’d each saved up a little bit of money to spend on Mom and Dad and each other, and that would be the extent of our gift-giving. But after all, presents aren’t what Christmas is all about, and we could still celebrate in our usual way.

Which is exactly what we did. We cracked open the special popcorn tin that was reserved for Christmas Eve. We munched away at the three different flavors of popcorn as we watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” –another one of our Christmas Eve traditions. Then, in a deviation from the norm (and because we weren’t planning to wake up early to open presents) my sisters and I stayed up late into the night, past midnight in fact, laughing and joking and giggling over who-knows-what.

Finish reading this post here.

When Singing “Joy to the World” Feels Too Hard {A Life Overseas}

Elizabeth is over at A Life Overseas today. . . .

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Sadness has found me this Christmas season. I bear sadness over the brokenness in the world, and I bear sadness over the brokenness in my own life. So I mourn. And I grieve. Then, as I am currently in the United States for a short visit, I look around at America’s intensely commercialized version of Christmas, and I wish I could ignore it altogether.

That’s why this week, in an effort to fight my Scrooginess, I set aside time to bake Christmas cookies with my mom and my daughters. It’s why I pulled out the scissors and construction paper to make Christmas crafts. And it’s why I sat down at the piano to play Christmas carols. I knew I needed to ground myself in some ancient theology and lose myself in some minor keys.

Because I couldn’t play “Joy to the World.” Not now, not yet. It’s always been one of my favorites, but it’s too happy right now. It’s too early for glory and joy, too soon for triumph and victory.

Read the rest of the post here.

A Christmas letter to parents, from a kid who doesn’t have any

by Jonathan | 

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Your kids aren’t going to remember what you get them for Christmas. They’re just not.

At least I don’t.

My mother died when I was a teen, my dad when I was in my early twenties. And when I think of the holiday seasons with them, I remember them. I don’t remember their gifts.

I remember my mom stomping down snow and scattering bird seeds to feed the menagerie of winged color that knew where to find a good meal.

I remember slow evenings around rock and wood and fire.

I remember egg nog, sipped slowly, and luminaries of sand and wax.

I remember Christmas Eve walks with family, sometimes comfortable and sometimes minus twenty.

I remember their love, not their presents.

Remember, the one with the most toys does not win.

Your kids don’t need more stuff. They need you.

To put it bluntly, there will come a Christmas without you. Hopefully, it’ll come much later, but it might come sooner. That’s not a morbid thought, it’s a centering thought. Your kids will always have stuff. They will not always have you.

So hug them. Read to them.
For Christ’s sake, be silly with them and show them that joy exists outside of presents.

Dance with your children and make memories. Watch Elf together and belly laugh. Schedule some down time. Block it out on your calendar because it’s important. Say no to something so you can say yes to something better.

Pause long enough this holiday season to cuddle with your little one. Or listen to your big kid. Don’t spend so much time watching football with your kids that you never play football with them.

Remember: it’s not about stuff. It never was, and it never will be.

Please, don’t give your children something so cheap as things. Stuff never connects people in meaningful ways. In fact, it seems to have the opposite effect, isolating the user: “I play with my stuff and you play with yours.”

Stuff fills our hands, making it harder to touch another person’s soul.

Stuff fills our ears, blocking out the heart-cries of the near ones.

Stuff fills our eyes all the way to the periphery, keeping us from seeing the tremendous value in the people right here.

Remember, the best memories are not made of money. The best memories are made of people and places. If you have money, spend it on memories. If you don’t have money, that’s ok too, because money’s certainly not a prerequisite for memories.

Remember, for this Christmas and the ones to come, the gifts won’t be remembered. Your presence will. Or your absence. Both of my parents are absent now; I can’t change that and neither can they. But while they still could, they gave me memories. And I do remember.

I remember my mother’s last Christmas. She was sick and we all knew it. That last Christmas morning, she sat on the couch and held a large stuffed bear and watched her children. And she smiled.

And that smile remains one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received.

He Unbreaks It

by Elizabeth

The Twelve Days of Christmas are past; it is Epiphany. Today — the day we commemorate the Wise Men’s visit to Baby Jesus — is our official farewell to the Christmas season. But can I linger on the Christmas story just a little bit longer? Because I’m not quite ready to say goodbye.

I’m amazed by the sheer number of times Heaven enters our world in the events leading up to and surrounding the birth of Christ. First the angel Gabriel, who stands in the very presence of God, appears to Zechariah, foretelling the birth of a son – a prophet — to a barren woman.

Then Gabriel appears to Mary with a message unlike any other, announcing a calling unlike any other: she will give birth to the Son of the Most High. She has been chosen to mother the Messiah, to carry the One whose Kingdom will never end. Of one thing this young Virgin is certain: the God we serve is the God of the Impossible.

And when Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s home and the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, causing her to prophesy over Mary, oh, it just takes my breath away. For here in this moment, God trusts not an angel but a fallen human being to deliver confirmation that Mary isn’t crazy, that she isn’t alone, and that the Child within her truly is special.

Joseph is visited in a dream that both confirms the Virgin Birth and ensures that the Babe’s birthplace will be in Bethlehem, just as the Scriptures promise. I’m not one to put too much stock in our night dreams, so I’m thankful Mary’s husband takes heed of his.

And then there were the shepherds, night-shift-workers minding their own business. Non-essential players all – until they hear the host of Heaven, that is. Nudged onto the stage of the Nativity, they travel to the city of David, where their arrival on the stable’s doorstep confirms to Mary and Joseph yet again the specialness of this Child.

Joseph and Mary, good Jewish parents that they are, dedicate their son at the Temple. And God confirms His word once more, this time through a praying woman and a dying man. The identity of God’s Son is revealed to Simeon and Anna, bolstering both the freshly-minted parents and the elderly faithfuls: this is the beauty of the gift of prophecy.

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I’m overwhelmed by the lengths God went to in order to confirm His Word and the coming of His Son. Over and over again, He speaks. Mary certainly had many things to treasure in her heart, to remind herself that she was indeed NOT crazy. But the part about the Christmas story I cherish so very much is what we celebrate today – God’s inclusion of pagans in His redemption story.

These pagans, these Wise Men from the East, were not of the family of Israel. These Magi, these star-gazers, placed their trust in the sky. But God speaks their language: He gives them a sign in their beloved sky. And when their faith leads them to seek and find the Promised Child, they worship Him. God rewards their sacrifices with another sign, this time a dream to send them safely on their way back home. I absolutely love this about God, that He invites ALL people to be part of His story, to be part of His family, to receive His salvation.

Epiphany means “to make manifest.” And today, we rejoice in this Epiphany. We rejoice that God makes Himself known not only to Israelites but also to Gentiles like the Wise Men — to a Gentile like myself. We rejoice that from the very beginning, God wanted communion with every single person He created – and that when He made Himself manifest to Abraham, it was to bless all families on earth. His covenant was not only meant to set Abraham apart, it was meant to draw all people to Him.

So on this day, we honor the heart of the Father, a heart that beats with longing for us.

For all of us.

This world He made, we broke it.

But He unbreaks it.

He unbreaks it, through a tiny Baby.

He unbreaks it, one recaptured soul at a time.

All people may come — praying saints, dirty shepherds, unexpected pagans from afar.

His will is for all to hear His voice, to see His star.

His will is for all to turn toward Him, to journey to Him.

His desire is for the nations.

Glory be to God.

The Tree That Tells Our Story {A Life Overseas}

Elizabeth is over at A Life Overseas today. . .

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My parents came to Cambodia to celebrate the American version of Thanksgiving with us, and they stayed for the traditional setting up of the Christmas tree. After we finished stringing the lights and hanging the ornaments, and the youngest child had placed the heirloom angel from my husband’s childhood on top, we all sat down to admire the tree.

Then all of us, from the sixty-year old Grandpa, right on down to the four-year old baby of the family, shared what we love about Christmas. When we got to my mom, she said, “I love putting the ornaments on the tree because they tell the story of our family.”

It’s true. As a military wife, she can remember both the year she added each ornament, and the place we lived at that time. The ornaments on her tree tell the story of my family of origin, from a newly wedded couple in El Paso, Texas, to brand new parents in Fort Knox, Kentucky, to a growing family in West Germany, and later a university campus in South Dakota and the Kansas Army post at Fort Riley.

You can read the rest of the post here.

A Christmas Prayer {A Life Overseas}

Jonathan recently posted on A Life Overseas. Read the whole post here.

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“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose,

and we have come to worship him.”

The Star of Bethlehem had a point, an important point. But the star was not the point.

The star fulfilled its role of leading across cultures and religious paradigms, down dusty roads and around a paranoid prince, to the Child. He was the Point, this Son, and he shone brighter. He, the Child-King, deserved adoration from all peoples, in all languages, for all of time.

And the Church, like the star, has a point. But the Church is not the point. Jesus is.

The star inspired a journey, away from comfort and the great “known.” So may the Church.

The star led through danger and politically dicey situations. So has the Church, historically, and so does the Church, presently.

The star challenged prejudice, inviting outsiders in. So may the Church.

The star incited worship, but not of itself. So may the Church.

As we celebrate the incarnation of Hope, 

the birth of the Lamb who was slain before the foundations of the world, 

let us pray for the Church, his glorious Bride, who waits expectantly for his return

and the restoration of all things.

Read the rest of the post here.

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