By Renée Gotcher
Last week in My Tango with Traditions, I shared my struggle with establishing and maintaining family Christmas traditions over the years since becoming a mom — and my resolve to change that this year. As a family, we decided which previous traditions were keepers, and what we wanted to do differently this year. Here’s a recap of our first week, where we kicked off a new “Homeschooling Christmas” schedule and took part in some great traditions, both old and new.
Cutting Down the Christmas Tree – a Keeper!
Living in Durango for a few years was a special experience for my outdoors-loving family. One tradition that we were introduced to while living there was hiking into the forest to find and chop down the family Christmas tree. Our state abounds with areas where it’s not only easy to find a beautiful and unique Christmas tree, it’s beneficial to remove them. Plus the experience of hiking into the woods together, discovering that “perfect” tree, watching Dad cut it down and haul it back to the truck, then get it home, shape it to our living room, and decorate it — all in one day — is such a wonderful family project.
Last year, having moved back to “the city,” we discovered it would be quite a bit more challenging to maintain this tradition. Permits are limited and sell out fast in prime areas, the designated areas are many more miles away, and many areas are picked over so heavily, it’s harder to find that perfect tree.
We made a compromise by trying a local Christmas tree farm instead, and after a disappointing two hours trying to locate a decent-looking tree among a barren field of misfits (for $40 or more, mind you), we ended up buying a “fresh cut Colorado” tree at a local nursery — and paying more than we’d ever paid! At least it was beautiful, but at the end of the day, the girls were disappointed and we parents were frustrated with the whole experience.
This year we planned ahead and got the scoop on what it would take to cut down our own tree again. It still wasn’t going to be easy: We had to drive more than 12o miles round trip to the closest location, and we still weren’t sure what we’d find there. But after helping our good friends find their perfect tree while visiting them in Durango for Thanksgiving, it was a must-do.
Because of an impending snow storm, we woke up early last Wednesday morning and headed south to the Woodland Park designated area after picking up our $10 permit at the forest ranger’s station in Colorado Springs. We were happy to learn there was a newly opened cutting area available and decided immediately to check it out first. Turns out lots of others had the same idea, and we found the little dirt parking lot filled with other cars and families.
However, after a little bit of hiking farther into the woods, and passing up a few potentials, we found our tree. And with a few swings of the ax (no chainsaws allowed), the tree was cleanly cut and ready to haul back to the truck. The girls couldn’t wait to take it home and start decorating.
For just $10, a few hours of drive time, a short hike and an adventurous spirit, the Christmas Tree cutting tradition was revived: Mission accomplished!
The Jesse Tree – New!
Besides decorating the freshly cut Christmas Tree once we got home, we prepared for a new tradition: A Jesse Tree devotional time and ornament-making project. To prepare, we took branches clipped out from our Christmas tree as we were shaping it to fit in our living room and assembled a new “tree” with them.
Although I’m familiar with different ways families celebrate Advent, the Jesse Tree is something I had never heard of before, and I’m not sure why — it seems to be pretty popular! If you also haven’t heard of a Jesse Tree, it is meant to represent the family tree, or genealogy, of Jesus Christ, and tells the story of God’s salvation plan, beginning with creation and continuing through the Old Testament, to the coming of the Messiah. A quick scan of some of my favorite homeschooling blogs made it easy to learn about and find a variety of tips on how to do one, as well as a few other Christmas tradition ideas I wanted to try.
The Jesse Tree devotional I selected to go with our tree-making project was a free eBook, “A Jesse Tree Journey,” from Ann Voskamp and Nancy Rodden. Although this devotional started on November 29, we started with Day One on December 1 and I’ll catch us up at some point. So far, we’ve started each day with the devotional reading, a little discussion and prayer, followed by the ornament-making project.
To keep things simple for our first year, the girls are coloring in pictures I printed out from another eBook. Each girl has selected her own background shape & paper color/print for the ornament that each day’s colored drawings will be glued on to. That way all the ornaments are different even though the drawings are the same.
So far this has been a really fun and educational tradition. We’re having some great discussions about the subjects of each day’s devotion, and the Jesse Tree itself is shaping up to be a beautiful addition to our Christmas decor. It was also a resourceful use of Christmas tree clippings (we used the rest for our Christmas wreath, see below). The girls are enjoying it so much, they even asked to do it immediately upon returning home from a sleepover on Sunday afternoon. And now that I’ve discovered there are so many ways we can vary this project from year to year — using different devotionals and making new ornaments — I’m excited to keep this one going!
The Christmas Wreath – a Keeper!
Although I aspire to be a creative homemaker, I’m no Martha Stewart — and anyone who’s known me for a long time would agree! But some years back when I became a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) mom for the first time, I learned how to make a fresh Christmas wreath with local trimmings as one of the MOPS craft projects. We were living in Portland, Oregon at the time, and I was so proud of that first wreath, made with my own two hands (and lots of guidance from my Martha-esque MOPS pal Shelby), that I took this picture of it before taking it down in January so that I wouldn’t forget “how” I did it (ha ha). This was definitely something I wanted to do again!
However, after a few years of being able to make them with ease through MOPS, I found that it would take a little more planning, supply purchasing, and organization if I wanted to keep this tradition up on my own. Thankfully, the girls were getting older too, and it wasn’t long before I was able to include them in this creative and resourceful Christmas tradition.
Cutting down our own Christmas tree helps with supplies — there are always vibrant green branches left over during that process. And living in Colorado, where pine cones are abundantly available in our own backyard, also helps! This year, the girls were skilled enough to clip left-over branches into usable trimmings and assemble most of the wreath base on their own. So while it’s a little more rustic and a little less Martha than years past, this year’s fresh wreath is one we are all especially proud of and really enjoyed making together!
A Family Fun Christmas Countdown – New!
Until this year, the countdown to Christmas has been as simple as a snowman on the mantle with interchangeable blocks that are updated daily to keep us “on track” for Christmas Day. The Jesse Tree is a countdown of its own that is new this year and helps us stay focused on celebrating Jesus’ birth. But another Christmas countdown idea that I really liked comes from Life as MOM blogger Jessica Fisher: It’s a daily countdown that includes a “surprise” family activity for each day.
What I loved about this idea was that it incorporated two things my girls love — opening “gifts” and surprises — with memorable Christmas fun. The activity for each day is tucked away in a numbered envelope, to be opened and enjoyed on that day only. Each activity is also something the entire family can participate in.
Although I was all set to use the predesigned printable cards provided on Jessica’s blog to save myself time and effort (and maintain the spirit of “simple” this year), the editor in me couldn’t help but want to edit these options and customize the entire countdown to my family’s favorite Christmas activities, as well as new ones I discovered that were happening around town. So I did!
So far, the countdown has been extremely exciting for the girls and it’s also kept me from “skipping out” on a little bit of Christmas fun on busy days. I tried to orchestrate the order of activities to take into account our existing schedule (in other words, no complicated crafts on a day we have Awana or another homeschool group activity), and that has made it a lot easier to keep up with. One thing I didn’t account for was snow days: This past Saturday, we had to skip the Santa pancake breakfast in town (which was on that day’s card) because it had snowed more than six inches overnight and was still blizzard-like as we looked out the window that morning. So we improvised and had a pancake (which turned into waffles) breakfast of our own.
Week One Summary
Our first week on a “Homeschooling Christmas” schedule included a few traditions, old and new, along with some core schoolwork each day (such as math, reading and spelling). What I’ve observed so far is that we’re actually getting a lot more done preparing for Christmas than we have in past years while still having “school” each day — even our Christmas cards are out earlier this year! The best part is the girls feel like they are already on Christmas vacation — a little more PJ time and a lot of Christmas fun intertwined with lessons and learning. And that’s what homeschooling is all about!
Here’s a look at our first week in pictures:
How have the first seven days of December been for you and your family? What traditions are you maintaining, and are you trying anything new? Are you working Christmas into your daily school activities or keeping a traditional school schedule until your Christmas “break” arrives? Let us know, we’d love to hear what you are up to!
— Renée Gotcher is an entrepreneur, writer, wife & home-educating mother of three daughters: Audrey, Claire and Elise. Renée was homeschooled during her last two years of high school and started homeschooling in 2010. She currently resides in Castle Rock, Colorado.