A Seed of Love

Photo Credit: Leslie Daniels

A seed of love, when planted in the tiniest of hearts,  can grow to lead a life to that which happiness imparts. – Unknown 

It is important to recognize that one of the major tasks for a home teacher is to create an atmosphere in which real learning can occur. Such an atmosphere exists where the children are nurtured and supported to explore their own personal interests, as well as the world around them. As we are all well aware, this best happens where there is a warm, loving relationship between the child and the parent. 

Sharing love is like sharing a treasure. Whether it be through expressing warm thoughts towards one another, opening up and sharing feelings with each other, or just spending some pleasant moments together, it is the essence of the learning process. In a loving relationship, we also discover that communication becomes greatly enhanced. When communication comes from the heart, be it verbal or nonverbal, it allows the opportunity to better understand and accept the thoughts, ideas and actions that are shared with each other. This form of communication may come through a special hug, a quiet conversation, a wonder-filled nature walk, or even in the sharing of a favorite art exercise or baking activity. Whatever the form may be, grabbing these wonderful opportunities will truly aid in deepening the bond in our relationships. 

Photo Credit: Crawford Family

When we are sharing these treasured times together with our children, we are spending true quality time with them. Quality time certainly does not mean planning a special activity at a particular time, but rather means experiencing quality moments that are unscheduled and spontaneous. All of us, as parents, have had our children rush to us with enthusiasm and bright faces saying, “Come quickly! I have to show you something!” How do we respond to our children’s excitement? Do we reply, “In just a minute.” Or do we say, “Later, I’m really busy right now.” Or do we not even hear them because we are so absorbed into our own work? If we could just keep in mind that, when we give our complete attention to these unexpected and unplanned moments, we are also acknowledging how important they are and how wonderful it is to be a part of the joy in their lives. If for some reason, you can’t drop everything and attend to your child’s request at that very moment, you can still express your eagerness: “I can’t wait to see it! First, just let me _______ (finish making your sandwich, hang up the phone, take the sleeping baby to bed, etc.) and then I’ll come right away.” Of course, then you have to do that, as quickly as possible.

I once asked my sweet little seven year old friend, Anna, “What do you think of when you think of love?” She replied without any hesitation, “My family.” This immediate response would be the same answer for most children. Family plays a very integral part of life for the child, which is certainly another valid reason why family-centered education will flourish most in a healthy, happy environment.

As your family ventures through homeschooling, please remember to keep in your heart that when you clear time and space to focus completely on your child’s lessons, when you teach the lessons with personal interest and enjoyment, and when you introduce the new material with sensitivity towards your child’s skill level, you are sharing love that will provide not only a sense of fulfillment for your child, but will also give you great satisfaction for your own teaching endeavors.

Winter, Contraction and Frustration

Photo Credit: U.S. Dept. of the Interior

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them. For such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere, except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.” ~ Thomas Merton

For those who live in the northern hemisphere, the months of January and February bring us to a midpoint of the winter season. We find ourselves experiencing drastic changes in weather, along with different forms of personal attention and focus. It is a time of contraction, in which we turn inwardly and reflect within. Often times, this season can also initiate a sense of tiredness and discouragement. Even our children’s attitudes can begin to disintegrate, and the enthusiasm during the first few months of school starts to wear off.

Lawrence WilliamsSince 1986, I have had the great honor and privilege to know and work with Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams. Over the years, I have developed an amazing respect for his boundless wisdom and timeless energy in providing a quality education for homeschool families. I have also collected a plethora of articles written by Lawrence. So, “from the archives”, I have the pleasure of offering his timely article on:

Winter, Contraction and Frustration

Now that we are in a new year, and in the midst of winter, let’s stop for a moment to consider what effect this is having upon our children, the learning process, and us.

The learning process has two phases: expansion and contraction. These same phases are also apparent in the seasons of the year. The season in which we are presently immersed, winter, is the season when the forces of contraction are prevailing.

The predominant effect of the contractive phase is the feeling of being closed in, and the feeling that nothing is moving. In terms of the learning process, we often feel that our children are not making any progress, and we begin to doubt our effectiveness as teachers. Of course, this closed in feeling is much more apparent in the extreme northern latitudes, where the temperature is much colder, and snow covers the ground for most of the year. However, even if we are living further south, we still experience this sensation, although its effect is modified somewhat, and it tends to become a more subtle inner experience, rather than an outer obstacle.

Another effect, which is most fascinating, is that during the contractive phase, things do not appear as they really are. The same thing is occurring in nature. If we didn’t know any better, and just arrived on this planet without an instruction manual (a familiar feeling?), we would look at the barren trees and the frozen ground and would suspect that everything was dead, with no chance of revival. However, since we’ve lived through many winters, we know that things are not as they appear. Underneath the surface of the earth wonderful things are happening and in a few months life will spring forth again, and everything will be green and growing profusely.

So the most important thing to remember while teaching children in the midst of the contraction of winter is that, while it looks as if nothing is happening, it is only because everything is happening under the surface. However bleak it may look, however hopeless your children’s progress may seem, however many times you feel as if you are totally frustrated, just remember that it is not really that way. Within your children, just as within nature, marvelous things are happening at this moment, and in a few months the growth that is occurring will become apparent, as we move into the phase of expansion, when all things become visible.

The best way to handle the contractive phase is to accept it as an opportunity, not an obstacle. There are many ideal learning experiences available at this time of year. Take advantage of them. Don’t stay indoors, trying to complete academic work with everyone irritable. Go outdoors and look for animal tracks in the snow. Even if you are living in a more temperate climate, and there is no snow, watch for the events that happen in nature only at this time of the year, such as various animal migrations. By cooperating gracefully and joyfully with the opportunities available within this cycle, you will be teaching your children one of the most valuable lessons in life: how to find opportunities within apparent limitations.

In Lawrence William’s book, The Heart of Learning, Chapter 7 offers additional information on “Rhythm and Learning: Expansion and Contraction”. If you haven’t read this chapter recently, it might be a good time to add it to your reading list.

Perspective and Process

reading photo

Photo by Hannah Westbeld

This is a guest post by Hannah Westbeld, a homeschooling mama of 3 who is active on Instagram as @myheartshomestead. She lives in Tennessee and her whole family loves using Oak Meadow curriculum, especially the math gnomes. Thanks, Hannah!

Sometimes I wish I could rewind time to bestow upon my earlier self the elusive gift of perspective. Having a healthy perspective is an incredibly powerful viewpoint that, once attained, can change our approach to almost every aspect of life. But in homeschooling particularly it is a tool unlike any other. It gives the parent, as the teacher, the ability to see and connect with their child’s unique learning abilities. It releases them from the constraints of mainstream educational standards and frees the child and the parent to learn together in a setting and at a pace that best suits their individual needs and interests, while allowing the process of education to unfold in a beautiful and natural way.

3 children reading together
Photo by Hannah Westbeld

A few weeks ago, my oldest son asked if he could read to me from his current favorite book. We snuggled up, side by side on the couch, his head resting on my shoulder, as he read his favorite passages aloud, one by one. I listened intently to his words, my mind flashing to images of the times we had spent together just like that in years past. The earliest images were, of course, reading to him when his little fingers couldn’t yet turn the pages of his favorite board books. I saw him as a toddler pointing to his favorite images in picture books, slowly mastering the pronunciation of words. I saw us side by side on the couch when he began kindergarten, staring down at the pages of our first book of reading lessons. I saw the tears of frustration and sadness on his cheeks over the following two years when he simply couldn’t master the art of reading. I felt the anxiety I placed on my own shoulders as I questioned what I was doing wrong and wondered if I was qualified for this important role in his life.

children reading together
Photo by Hannah Westbeld

But then I remembered how it felt as I allowed my own mind to change, grow, and adapt to his needs. I saw myself tucking away the lesson plans, gently wiping away his tears, and assuring him that I would read to him for as long as he needed. For the next several years I read to him and his younger siblings every chance I got. We lost ourselves in entire imaginative worlds, we discussed fairy tales, we read silly picture books. We read through novels. We stumbled across the power of phonograms and spent a few moments each day learning their sounds. And then one day he flawlessly read a street sign. Another day he read an entire paragraph of C.S. Lewis’ writing on his own. He began pulling familiar picture books from our bookshelves and reading them with an ease and excitement that stunned me. And then one day, not long ago, he read through his very first novel entirely on his own.

We’ve been on quite a journey together, he and I. Even though I look back wishing for better perspective when he first began Kindergarten, we were both given the gift of “the process” together. Together we learned what was best for him as an individual, and gifted each other one of life’s most beautiful things – perspective – and along with it the knowledge that learning is not defined by one moment or one grade level, but is, rather, a journey that occurs over the whole of our lifetime.

For the Love of Reading!

readers on the floor

Photo courtesy the Seeley-Love family

“The love of learning,
The sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books.”

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The winter season is my favorite time of year to curl up in my coziest reading chair by the warm fire and indulge in a good book. I have especially fond memories of snuggling in the oversized chair with my children and reading storybooks as the snowflakes fell softly outside the window. Perhaps this scenario is also familiar to you and your family.

When I hear the exciting news that a child has just begun learning how to read, it brings a great joy to my heart. This child has now entered a new realm of learning and a new way of discovering the world. Learning to read is like receiving a gift of a lifetime!

We are fortunate that our modern-day world makes books so readily available. There is a numerous assortment of amazing classics for children, including many Newbery and Caldecott Award winner and honor books. The American Library Association recently announced 2017’s Caldecott and Newbery Awards.

Each year the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) also creates a “Children’s Notable” list that identifies the best in children’s books, recordings, and videos.

I recently asked some of my local homeschool students to share the names of their favorite books. It was both entertaining and educational for the other children to hear which book titles were selected. Many were familiar favorites, while the new titles sparked interest in a desire to read some of these unfamiliar books. It was also delightful to listen to each child’s oral summary of their favorite book. We even discussed how our “favorite” books often change because there are so many unknown books that are just as fantastic as the ones that have already been read!

In Oak Meadow’s fourth grade syllabus, a suggested activity for Natalie Babbitt’s book, The Search for Delicious, offers doing a poll for the most delicious foods. It could be inspiring to poll the choices your children and their friends’ favorite books. We can even create a list of your children’s favorite books right here on the blog. My all-time favorite children’s book is Gwinna, beautifully illustrated and written by Barbara Berger. If you haven’t read this story to your children, I highly recommend it!

 

 

Embracing Winter

Meg's son, Ian, hanging a suncatcher on the tree

Meg's son, Ian, hanging a suncatcher on the tree

This is a special guest post by Oak Meadow K-6 teacher Meg Minehan.

Meg Minehan is an Oak Meadow teacher for grades K-6. She currently homeschools her own children using the Oak Meadow curriculum. Meg co-leads a monthly forest and fields program for preschoolers in Chester, Vermont. She embraces winter by cross country skiing and sweating in her woodfired sauna. 

Although all of us at Oak Meadow extol the benefits of getting children outside, we also recognize that getting young ones outdoors in winter can be quite challenging! Here are some helpful hints to help you and your children embrace these blustery, and for some of us, downright frigid days.

Perhaps most of you are familiar with the oft-quoted saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather…” Although my feelings about that quote can change depending on my mood, the wind speed, and the type of precipitation I am about to endure, it is important to acknowledge that wearing appropriate clothing in winter is a must. These past few weeks, you may have encountered temperatures that are too cold to be safe. Most days, however, can be safely enjoyed, if only for a short time, provided you and your children are clothed appropriately. But even after investing in or, better yet, inheriting quality outdoor clothing, how do you entice children and their caretakers to go outside?

For many children, a fresh snowstorm is usually a welcome invitation to play outdoors. There are the obvious tried-and-true activities, such as sledding, snowman making, snow fort building, snowshoeing, and skiing. Now that my children are older, ages 16, 13, and 10, these are some of their favorite activities. I no longer need to encourage them to go outdoors. In fact, usually I am calling them in, so we can get some of our Oak Meadow work done. When my children were young, however, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes they needed a hook, something to entice them to “get out and blow the stink off ye.” (quote courtesy of my father, Ed Minehan) Here are some ideas that worked, at least some of the time, for my family.

Fisher and Turkey Tracks/Photo Credit: Meg Minehan

Get Moving and Follow the Tracks: On the coldest days, the only option was to keep moving. Even getting out for a short hike or snowshoe was still worth it. To keep things interesting, we often went tracking. Because we live near the woods, this was, admittedly, pretty easy for us. But driving to a special trail adds a sense of adventure too. First, spend a little time familiarizing yourself with tracking patterns. Is the animal a straight walker, hopper, waddler, or bounder? Kids can practice walking in these styles as well. Next, examine the print of the animal’s foot. Notice the shape and size. Can you count the toes? Are their claws present? What other nearby animal signs or clues can you spot? To maximize child participation, I made each of my kids a laminated detective tracking card with pictures of the four patterns and common prints. I photocopied our cards from the Shelburne Farms Project Seasons book. There are many great tracking guides or cards available. We approached each tracking expedition like a mystery. As they got older, my children became more interested in the C.S.I. scene. They loved following the tracks and searching for evidence of last meals. Yes, sometimes the results were a little gruesome, but always exciting.

Curriculum Extensions: Keep in mind these snowy mysteries can lead to imaginative storytelling, story mapping, further research, and investigative writing projects. These activities can easily be integrated into science and language arts lessons. Talk to your Oak Meadow teacher about substituting assignments. We want you and your children to embrace winter too!

Trail Games: Simple trail games are another way to keep things interesting on a cold winter walk. One of my favorite games is Christmas Tree for a Mouse. I learned it from Rachel Carson’s Sense of Wonder. As we walked through the woods, we would look at various trees, gauge their relative sizes, and decide which animal would be perfectly suited to which tree. This can be a fun way to talk about the animals that live in your area. This game could be easily modified if Christmas trees aren’t part of your family’s traditions. Maybe you could find the tree with the best treehouse option for a mouse, a mink, or a bear. If you and your child are feeling really ambitious, you might even assist with the building process.

Photo Credit: Meg Minehan

Winter Art: Scavenger hunts and treasure walks were also a good way to build enthusiasm for a cold winter walk. After collecting simple treasures, such as pine needles, cones, and winter berries, we would put them in a mold with twine or raffia hangers, fill with water, and wait for them to freeze. We’ve used mini-bundt pans for wreaths, but silicone molds work even better. These lovely ornaments or sun catchers can be hung nearby. Quite often, however, I would encourage us to share our decorations with the birds and squirrels. Aha! Another “excuse” to get out for a walk.

Finally, on those days when everyone needs a little extra enticement, there is nothing like the promise of homemade hot chocolate and a favorite board game awaiting. Happy winter!

NOTE: Oak Meadow recently posted a great link on Facebook about following tracks: http://www.audubon.org/news/a-beginners-guide-reading-bird-tracks-snow

Knitting Suggestions

Photo Credit - Brooke Hampton

In through the front door
Running around the back
Out through the window
Off jumps jack.

In last week’s blog post, rhythmic handwork in Oak Meadow’s coursework for grades one through three was the main topic of discussion. This week, the K-8 Oak Meadow teachers teamed up and offered some suggestions and simple alternatives that will help to meet the “heart” of handwork, specifically in teaching the technique of knitting.

Meg Minehan: My suggestions are to first try finger knitting, the knitting mushroom, or the wooden knitting star. My children loved those “tools”, and the process was simple, repetitive and soothing (just like knitting should be). ​For what it’s worth, my son, Ian, didn’t really take to knitting when it was initially introduced in first grade. However, he picked it up again last year (at age 9) and loved it.

Michelle Menegaz: I agree that teaching knitting as an inexperienced teacher can be challenging. I suggest offering the “pre-knitting” activities and really encourage the home teacher to find a knitter to help them, if possible. Also, Sunny’s Mittens is a great book with a story that contains knitting directions right in the events of the tale. I would read a bit of this and knit along with the story. The child would also knit along, if interested. We would read a bit, knit a bit, stop and get our knitting sorted or show what the written directions in the story meant. Very satisfying!

Lesley Arnold: I highly recommend the DVD, The Art of Knitting 4 Kids . If a tutor isn’t available for knitting, then this video is great! Be sure to also check your library, for many libraries have knitting clubs.

Leslie Daniels: Another site that I absolutely adore and share with my Oak Meadow families is called “Knitted Bliss“. It includes story books to inspire future knitters for three different age groups: ages 2-4, ages 4-6 and ages 6-9. The title of each book is a joy in itself!

Meg Minehan: Shall I Knit You a Hat is one of our favorite Christmas books for 6-9 year olds!

Andy Kilroy: My friend Clare, a long-time kindergarten teacher, loves to take yarn into her classroom and just let her kids play with the yarn – wrap it, wind it, tie bows with it, braid it, touch it – just to get the feel of fabric/yarn on their skin. Then when it comes time to knit, they already have the awareness of yarn as a material. I taught my granddaughter to finger knit (she had never done it), and she was very excited at all the possibilities that opened for her! She has also enjoyed exploring loom knitting from kits. Long live fiber arts – let’s not give up on them!

Anna Logowitz: My micro-schoolers got a great start by making their own knitting needles. They sanded chopsticks smooth, and then glued wooden beads to the ends: nice and simple. It gave them a sense of ownership over their work before they began knitting, which also seemed to increase their frustration tolerance!

Handwork in Winter

knitting needles and yarn

Knitting

Hand (Unknown author)

Take my hand, imagine
What it will be someday
A hand that’s strong, a hand that’s kind
Is this what you forsee?

A hand that’s skilled, a hand that’s sure
A hand that someday may,
Take another little hand
and guide it on its way.

Oak Meadow’s kindergarten coursework introduces the art of finger knitting, the first-grade coursework introduces knitting with needles, and the second-grade coursework introduces crocheting. The main purpose of teaching children these creative, yet practical skills at this level of development is to refine and strengthen fine motor development and eye-hand coordination. It also aids in the preparation for learning math, reading and writing with more ease and less fatigue.

Sometimes a student will find these craft skills challenging to acquire. Perhaps it is because the home teacher does not know how to knit or crochet and finds it difficult to teach, or perhaps it is due to a child’s hands and fingers not nimble enough to handle working with yarn and/or needles. When the students are introduced to the handcraft at the beginning of the school year, it is often when they are still actively involved in outdoor play; therefore, learning this skill may be even more difficult for an active child to sit still for a time to master the skill. If you have experienced this with your own child and decided to set it aside, then the winter season may be the perfect time to reintroduce the suggested handwork. You might be surprised at the willingness and readiness in your child to try it again!

Photo Credit – Estelle Giannakopoulos

It’s important that that your child starts out with something comfortable, so if your child has never been introduced to finger knitting, you might try starting with the basics of finger knitting before working with needle knitting and crocheting. Taking time in developing the skill, even if it means knitting or crocheting only for a short time each day, is still providing the tools for healthy physiological development. Working alongside with your child, listening to quiet background music or a story tape, or even telling a handwork story to accompany the project could encourage more enthusiasm. Here’s a little video with a story that might help introduce finger knitting.

Any other type of activity that includes repetition and rhythm in movement will work well, too! If you have already re-visited the suggested Oak Meadow projects and discover they are still frustrating or uninteresting to your child, then keep in mind that developing fine motor control, no matter what the activity, should be the main focus of the student. Perhaps knitting with a fork or with a spool might be excellent substitutes.

Other craft activities that offer rhythm and repetition include beading, weaving, sewing by hand, lacing cards, stringing popcorn and cranberries (including for the winter bird residents), and building patterns with various materials. Be creative and work with something that creates enjoyment, for it is the joy of the process that furthers the healthy development.

Reflections on Educational Nourishment

Credit Photo: U.S. Dept. of the Interior

“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a unique calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint – and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service.”   ~ Oprah Winfrey

The new year provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon “personal visions.” For many, it is a time to turn our thoughts to New Year’s resolutions!

I reflect and think about the coming months, knowing I can shape and reshape my everyday life, which in turn, creates my future. I view encouragement as a big role in helping to unfold the true self. It is a time for us as teachers, parents, and children to take a moment to look back at where the past year has taken us, and to look forward and consider what we wish to keep or change.

When I home schooled my children, I took advantage of this more introspective time of year. I thought about my children’s education, and how it was progressing. Regarding practical matters, I would do a check-in with the time frame of our enrollment schedule. How many lessons have been completed up to now, and how much time is left in the school year? Are we staying on track? I would also determine what areas might need more review before the objectives could be accomplished.

Most importantly, I would take the time to assess my children’s well being. I would determine what changes and modifications might need to be made in the curriculum that would provide more educational nourishment. Without this sustenance, the joy of learning can diminish. Children develop their own unique abilities, and it is invaluable that we support their individuality. Providing the essential guidance to tap into their own creative selves aids in their ability to fully experience the quality of life.

Even for parents and home teachers, it is essential to find and express our creative sides where we can share our gifts with the world. In the final social studies lesson in the second grade curriculum, the theme revolves around “Many People, One World.” We are all so varied and diverse in this world in which we live. How do you express the creativity that nourishes you, and helps make the world a better place for all? Perhaps you paint, write poetry, compose or play music. Or possibly you help with community services or visit an elderly neighbor once a week. My list is BIG. My nourishment comes from spending quality time with my family, taking my canine pals for daily walks in the woods, and creatively working with children and their families in an educational setting. Helping friends and neighbors, along with providing services in the community are high on the priority list, too.

Nature Craft: Pine Cone Christmas Trees

Christmas Tree Pinecones

Christmas Tree Pinecones

Editor’s note: We are thrilled to welcome Veronica Dantzler to our team! She will be sharing original, recycled- and nature-based crafts with us, full of color, creativity and fun. You can follow her on instagram here.

Christmas tree pinecone ornaments on tree

Pine Cone Christmas Trees 

Materials:
Pine cones

Optional materials:
Paint (tempera is great)
Pom poms
Holly berries or any berries that grow in your area (I’m honestly not sure what ours are called but they grow every winter and they are a beautiful red. Editor’s Note: We caution against using bittersweet berries, as this is a very invasive plant and moving berries spreads it, especially in New England)
Clay
Beads
Yarn
Ornament hooks
Glue gun

There are so many things you can create with a pine cone. I have grown to absolutely love them! This craft requires no glue because of the awesomeness of these natural pods.  Simply decide which option
you want to make, gather your supplies and decorate! Push in pom poms, holly berries, lace, some beads and wrap – pushing the beads in as you go to make beautiful homemade ornaments.  You can paint them green for Christmas tree pine cones, white for snow covered trees or leave them natural.

White pinecone trees with berries
White “snow-covered” trees with berries

They are all beautiful and an easy craft to set up for your family. We made ours into ornaments by either using a glue gun to attach an ornament hook or by tying a piece of yarn to the top.  We also used them to make a centerpiece by sticking them into a piece of clay (to help them stand) and sprinkling some glitter to make them sparkle and shine.  The options are limitless!

Christmas tree pinecone centerpieces or placecards
Christmas tree pinecone centerpieces or placecards

Pinecones take paint fantastically. Tempera paint works wonderfully. Paint if you desire. We painted our holly berry ornament white so that the red would pop and we painted one of our forest trees green, spread some glue and sprinkled some glitter.  Let dry before you add your  pom pom or berry “bulbs”.

Bead-and-yarn "garland" on a pinecone Christmas tree
Bead-and-yarn “garland” on a pinecone Christmas tree

Pick your decor.

Pinecone tree centerpiece
We used pom poms on the green tree and we made clay balls for the other two trees in that set.

White Berry Ornament
We simply pushed in our berries to make our white tree ornament and added a hook.

Yarn- and Bead-wrapped Ornament
Tie a piece of yarn to the top of the pine cone (or glue it down with a glue gun) and thread some beads and wrap pushing the beads into the pine cone as you go.

Enjoy!

Favorite Holiday Traditions (Shared by Oak Meadow K-8 Teachers)

Photo Credit: Michelle Menegaz

If I only had one holiday tradition that I could carry out, it would be quality time with my family and friends every year! I asked my colleagues to send in their favorite holiday traditions, and the responses were fantastic. I would like to share their stories that prove family time is the true joy of the season.

Kay Gibson: I love the idea of sharing traditions.  I tend to celebrate the season.  I usually go to a solstice gathering where we have a bonfire and lots of good hot food and drinks.  Hot apple cider and a warm bowl of chili in the glow of a fire is a great tradition for me.  It is especially fun when there is snow on the ground, as it brings more light into the darkest part of the year (here in the northern hemisphere). 

Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:6KolaceCookies.jpg

Sarah Antel: Foods connected to my family’s heritage have always been important and taken a center stage especially at the holidays. Growing up and into present time, Hungarian lekvar cookie dough was rolled out on my great grandmother’s wooden board, systematically cut, filled with prune butter, rolled around the filling, and baked. At some point during my childhood, Christmas Eve dinner consisted of Polish peirogies, shrimp, and a light mushroom soup. I’ve continued this tradition in my own home on Christmas Eve. And now that Sicilian traditions are also a part of our life, Christmas Day includes an abundance of seafood, eggplant parmesan, and Italian wedding soup.

Photo Credit: Meg Minehan

Meg Minehan: Our family has a few favorite holiday traditions. Ever since my kids were quite young, we have decorated a tree for the animals. We create edible ornaments, such as birdseed and peanut butter pine cones and popcorn cranberry garlands. We choose a spruce, pine or balsam fir that is “just right.” It is especially fun during a snowy December when we can go back a few days later and inspect the visitors tracks!

Another favorite tradition we’ve incorporated in more recent years is our family, homemade gift exchange. We draw names, and the only rule is you must make the gift. These gifts are simple and fun. Sometimes treats are concocted in the kitchen or treasures are created with wood scraps, paper, or yarn.  It is amazing how much thought goes into these presents. One year my son made his oldest sister a rustic birdhouse because he knows how much she loves birds. 

Of course, food is always a part of our holiday gatherings. Even though most of the year we try to limit ourselves to more wholesome treats, this time of year, we bring out the white flour and colored, sanding sugar for holiday cutout cookies. These are in addition to the other traditions… i.e. Santa, our Christmas tree, etc.

Photo Credit: Andy Kilroy

Andy Kilroy: Our family does advent calendars, but a little differently. In Denmark, there are little elves called Julen. These little guys wear big red hats and the night of November 30 creep into the house and put chocolate on the calendars, which are embroidered and hung up on the wall. They then go and help themselves to sugar in the sugar bowls or canister leaving tiny footprints in the sugar they spill. In the morning of December 1, the children wake up and fly down the steps and discover 24 pieces of chocolate hung on the calendars – one for each day before Christmas to count down to the big day. Here is a picture of the calendar I made years ago for my son. 

Lesley Arnold: When my kids were little we invited all their friends and parents to our house for a production of “The Night Before Christmas”. Our friend, a music teacher, interspersed the show with Christmas songs we all sang. Each family brought a present (in secret) wrapped with their own child’s name on it. (We tried to have it be a small gift so none were “outdone” by someone else’s gift.) I read “The Night Before Christmas” and my husband and friends acted out the poem. It was a big production with costumes and all! We even had a tiny sleigh and reindeer that we made and put on a pulley across the ceiling. The big event, though, was Santa Claus arriving. We put a picture of a fireplace in a doorway and he arrived through that! My father played Santa Claus and no one even knew it was him. In his big bag were all the presents for the kids. He called out each name and they came up and got their present. What a celebration it was! We still talk about my oldest daughter playing the sugar plum fairy at age 4! A wonderful event and the memory is the best gift!

Anna Logowitz: My sister and I were always in charge of choosing what color Chanukah candles we wanted for each night, and as we got older we also learned how to melt the ends so that they would stay upright in some of our shakier menorahs. The family menorah was simple dark metal, but over the years we accumulated two more. Our Aunt Nancy died when I was 9, and she had a flat little menorah, which became my sister’s and is now with me. My parents also went on a trip and brought back a beautiful one from an art school fair that branched like a tree and had birds sitting in it. We came up with different candle patterns, new ones each night, and watched to see which candles would last the longest.

My mother grew up Christian, and she repurposed two of her family’s traditions for us: Christmas cake became Good Luck Cake, to be eaten on the new year, and every year we made cookies – using Jewish and secular cookie cutters and a lot of very colorful homemade icing – to take to a party that we had with two other couples who had all been in a mixed marriage group with my parents before we were born. We ate them for dessert after latkes and corned beef, over a very large game a dreidel. That party is still going on after 35 years, I believe. 

We usually managed to do at least one special thing every night, whether it was being out and about or doing something at home, and we would always pick one night to do Chanukah full out, i.e. make latkes, which are a lot of work and leave the house smelling like oil and onions for days! I used to love to go to school the next day with the smell still in my clothes, because it meant that this was a special time of year. 

Photo Credit: Michelle Menegaz

Michelle Menegaz: We have started a new tradition based on an old one. Every year we had the most beautiful poignant Advent Spiral celebrations in a beautiful round healing sound temple. We used our own apples, drilled holes for candles and made a spiral of greens, stones, shells, small wooden animals, wild berries of winter, etc. Along the path, we placed large golden yellow paper stars. Children would walk alone (if old enough) into the center of the spiral, light their apple candle from the lit pillar in the middle, and then walk back out, placing their apple on one of the stars. We had quiet singing and music as they traversed this highly symbolic journey of traveling through the dark to find light at the center of it all, then bringing their light back out to the world.

Over the years my growing daughter got tired of this and we got tired of the huge effort of making it. For a few years, there was nothing and it felt sad. Last year, we had an impromptu gathering of about 7 teen girls, some of whom helped me create a huge labyrinth of greens outside in the snow atop our pasture hill. We had a campfire down below and when it was dark and the mood was right, each girl trudged up the hill, took up an unlit beeswax tea light in a pint mason jar, walked the snowy path between the greens, and lit their candle from the same pillar in the middle. Those waiting sang songs of light and joy. They headed back out and nestled their jar amongst the greens, and cavorted down the hill. There was more laughter, more shouting, more action, more unbridled LIFE so it had a different tone. But every single girl thanked me profusely and said it was the best thing they had done in a long time and that they missed this sort of thing. We will be doing this again this Solstice!

So, review the essence of what you treasure about your traditions and see if you can bring that to meet your growing children, even the young adult ones, in a new way that feeds them still.

We will love to hear from you! What are your favorite holiday traditions?