Girls’ Book Club: “The Last Holiday Concert”

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The girls’ book club met this week, and it was all about Christmas as we talked about Andrew Clements’ The Last Holiday Concert
It’s a great story about a boy who ends up in charge of his middle school’s holiday concert just as the music teacher is laid off.  We had a great discussion about the teacher’s reaction to the news, the way that the teacher motivates his students and is ultimately inspired by them, and then about ways to bring hope and joy to others, since that ended up being the message chosen by the students for their program.

The girls each made brainstormed ideas for things to spread those particular messages around town, and then we chose a few common themes to put into action right away.

Book Club

We started off with a foam kit for making snowmen.  We decided to turn them into Christmas cards, and the girls wrote messages of hope on them.  Some were handwritten on the back, while others had foam-sticker messages right on the snowmen’s tummies.

Book Club

 

My Big Helper and My Little Man are passing out these cards to people as we’re out and about this month.  Grocery store clerks, restaurant wait staff, fellow shoppers – anybody might get a ‘Merry Christmas!” and be handed a snowman.  Most people seem pleasantly surprised, and some quite happy, to be handed a card.

Book Club

The girls also rolled out some gingerbread I had made ahead.  They took turns cutting out cookies and ornaments both.

Book Club

Then they wrapped the bottoms of a few pizza boxes with Christmas paper, a project that turned out to be much harder than expected.

Book Club

After baking the cookies, they painted them with happy messages in a white icing and filled the trays.  We delivered one tray to our local fire department and the other to the library we visit.  Both were met with happy smiles.

The gingerbread ornaments were decorated with simple white paint and red ribbons.  These, like the snowmen ornaments, we’re passing out to people we meet.

While time didn’t allow for putting together their own concert or Christmas performance, the girls did a great job of choosing activities that would spread hope to the people we meet this season.  I wish that we could have passed out their creations together, but time didn’t allow for that, either.  Instead, I heard lots of giggles as they learned to roll out the gingerbread, attempted to paint icing only where they wanted it, and tried to get snowman arms to stick only to snowman bodies. 

Book Club

They are many activities that you could do with Andrew Clements’ The Last Holiday Concert, and these are only a few.  If you’re a fan of Clements’ and his creative takes on school activities, you’ll love The Last Holiday Concert.

“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Ace Collins

Ace Collins

For Christians worldwide, the month of December is filled with joy and wonder as we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth. There is no other time of the year that can compare to the Christmas season for both the young and young at heart.

From December to New Year’s Eve, reawaken the wonder, joy, and magic that is Christmas with daily scripture and inspirational readings of stories behind popular Christmas traditions, carols, and movies. Enjoy a wealth of fun activities to help make the most of the season, including heartwarming holiday recipes and homemade gift ideas.

With this soon-to-be-cherished holiday devotional, best-selling author Ace Collins will capture your imagination and help to make each day of December more memorable and meaningful to you, and those you love, by shining a light on the real spirit of the season.
 
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is the perfect devotional for our family for this Advent season!  Each year we choose a plan for working our way through Advent.  One year we made our own Jesse tree and studied references to Jesus in his Old Testament family tree.  Another year we divided up the New Testament story and journaled it with words and drawings.
 
This year, though, we’ll be working our way through with Ace Collins’ new book, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.  I love the format of this book:  each day concludes a devotional reading with scripture, song lyrics and their backstory, and something to do, usually a recipe or crafty idea.  I love how a theme is woven through each day’s story, making a strong point and forcing the reader to consider some aspect of this Christmas season in a new way.  Collins makes a strong case for joy and for remembering the reason for the season – but he goes deeper than that.
 
I love the way that Collins explains the story behind so many of our favorite traditions.  By bringing to the forefront the reason why we sing certain songs, decorate with red and green, and so much more, it refreshes the spirit and makes the seasonal work lighter.  Honestly, over the past few years I’ve come to dread certain aspects of my former-favorite traditions, only because they create so much work in such a short period of time; but knowing the reason behind so many of them makes me look forward to them again.  Many things I’ve heard before, of course, but somehow Collins puts a unique spin on them that makes the ideas seem fresh and new. 
 
While The Most Wonderful Time of the Year isn’t specifically marketed for kids or for families, I think it will be perfect for mine.  The combination of history, scripture, and activity will be a great way for us to start our day during the Advent season.  I know that we won’t be making all of the cookies that he shares, but the specialty recipes will be fun to read nonetheless, and it might inspire us to try some new ones, too.  With our kids now ages nine and eleven, they’re old enough to understand the historical context and the scripture and to participate in the projects, too; in fact, they could do most of them independently.
 
If you, too, like to change up your devotional reading during Advent or just want to know more about the historical traditions connected with our faith, be sure to check out The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
 
 
I received a free copy of this book from LitFuse Publicity.  All opinions are my own.

Our Christmas Family Date 2015

Every year our family takes a day just before Christmas to spend together.  We never do the exact same thing twice, but we do enjoy lights, decorations, and a meal out together.  This year we decided to go further afield than ever before and head to Charlotte – a city the kids had never visited.

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Our trip to Charlotte was prompted by our Big Helper’s love for American Girl.  This company recently opened a store in a big mall just south of Charlotte, and we hadn’t made it there yet.  While we didn’t plan to do any major shopping, we thought she’d love checking out the store, restaurant, and the wide variety of products available.

She did.  We spent about three hours wandering through the store, dreaming about what it must be like to play with such fancy toys.

In the end, our Big Helper picked out a cute new outfit for her Julie doll, complete with boots in the same style as her own, and then we headed out.

Our Christmas Family Date 2015 @ A Nest in the Rocks

We stopped at a nearby train station and purchased tickets for a ride into the city.  The kids had never ridden on a Subway or Metro before, and they were quite excited by the experience.  I found it interesting the way that the train started out far above ground at our station, but then went up and down as we traveled.  Fortunately, unlike in some bigger cities, the train felt very safe and wasn’t crowded.

Our Christmas Family Date 2015 @ A Nest in the Rocks

The kids were excited to see tall buildings as soon as we arrived, but I enjoyed the Christmas decorations even more.  This was my first visit to this city during the Christmas season, and the many parks were all decorated beautifully.

Our Christmas Family Date 2015 @ A Nest in the Rocks

Having snacked our way through lunch because of our lengthy American Girl stay, we soon headed to Ri Ra for dinner, an old Irish pub.  We’ve loved our visits to Tir na nog in Raleigh and were sad to hear of their closing, so we were hoping for another authentic Irish experience.  Our Big Helper ordered shepherd’s pie, and we were all happy to help her finish this huge portion.  Their food was excellent and the atmosphere fun.  It made for a great meal out.

Our Christmas Family Date 2015 @ A Nest in the RocksBack on the street, we headed out to look at more lights.  It was so foggy that many of the tallest buildings were hidden from view at the top.

Our Christmas Family Date 2015 @ A Nest in the Rocks

We had hoped to visit a few museums, but we got there just as they were closing.  We hadn’t expected to hang out in the AG store for so long!  Nevertheless, there were beautiful decorations just outside all of them.

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While I would never want to live in a city, they can be really fun to visit for a short while.  We thoroughly enjoyed this chance to see lights and decorations on a scale that doesn’t exist in our small town. 

After that, we headed back to the train station and back to our car.  We debated about possibilities at this point, but in the end IKEA won out.  The kids had never been, had heard exciting things about it, and so we went there to admire furniture and examine the creativity that went into such unusual designs.  The kids came home with all sorts of new ideas for how to build things, and we liked seeing them so enthused about something that was new to them.

Christmas Family Date Day 2015 was a long one, but it was great.  Exploring new places and seeing new things is always exciting, but when everything is covered in tinsel and lights it’s even better. 

What are some of your family holiday traditions?

 

 

Recycling Christmas Cards: Praying through the New Year

Recycling Christmas Cards: Praying Through the New Year @ A Nest in the Rocks

I love getting Christmas cards.  We excitedly check the mailbox each day, and then tape up all the cards on a door in the kitchen.  We look at them as we walk past all through December – and then comes January.  What can be done with all of these beautiful cards, many of which show pictures of our friends and family?

So a few years ago we started putting all of these special cards into a basket.  (You could also hole-punch them and put them on a ring.)  We store the basket on our kitchen table, and then each day at breakfast we take turns choosing one card from the basket.  We pray for the family on the card, and then we put that card in the back of the basket.  We continue working our way through the basket throughout the year, praying for everyone who has sent us a Christmas card.

At the end of the year, we go back through the basket one more time, all at one sitting, and choose some cards to keep for sentimental reasons and others to save for art projects. 

What do you do with your Christmas cards?

Changing the World, One Candy Cane at a Time

Changing the World, One Candy Cane at a Time @ A Nest in the Rocks

When we’re young we think we can change the world.  We plan to join the Peace Corps, stop world hunger, end poverty, and write the Great American Novel.  We think that we have all the answers needed to exact change on our hurting world.

Maybe we don’t.  But maybe we do.

Every year our family spends a day out and about together just before Christmas.  This began as a way for us to serve in some sort of missional capacity, while also having some quality time together.  This tradition has become very meaningful for us – but it isn’t always easy to plan.

We live in a super small town, and some opportunities are rare.  We want to serve a meal at a shelter at some point, but that’s permanently scheduled here.  Usually I come across an opportunity while scouring the local news sites, but nothing popped out this year.  We always look for people who might be able to use a Blessing Bag, but we wanted to do more than that.

So … we bought a few boxes of candy canes and printed out “The Legend of the Candy Cane” on small tags.  We cut and taped the two together and filled a bag with candy telling about Jesus, and then we headed out.

Changing the World, One Candy Cane at a Time @ A Nest in the Rocks

Our first stop was to a small, liberal-minded town with a fun new park.  We hiked and had boat races in the river before heading to a locally-owned restaurant for lunch.  The kids handed out candy canes liberally and watched the wait staff beam with delight with each candy. 

Changing the World, One Candy Cane at a Time @ A Nest in the Rocks

When we left that town, we headed to nearby Chapel Hill, where we stopped in at the Carolina Inn to see the Gingerbread House competition.  As we left, the kids handed out candy to each of the valets and doormen – and one was so excited that he asked the kids to wait for a minute while he ran – literally – into this fancy hotel.  After a few minutes, he returned with cookies from the Inn’s snack shop.  Bubbling over with a warm chocolate cookie in hand, both kids wanted to know why this young man – perhaps a teenager or a student at UNC – would be so moved that he would run to purchase snacks for them.

This gave us all the opportunity to talk about people in service positions – those people whose work is invaluable but often goes unnoticed.  People like bus drivers, janitors, cashiers, etc.   They do important work, but how often do we take the time to thank them for it?  We discussed the importance of serving others, as Jesus said to do, and the importance of recognizing others doing so.

Changing the World, One Candy Cane at a Time @ A Nest in the RocksLater we ended up at Bass Pro Shop.  The kids love to visit the Winter Wonderland display – and this reindeer needed his photo taken!  Before leaving, each kid passed out candy canes to several of the cashiers and customer service representatives.  All of them immediately asked for the child’s name and reached out to shake his/her hand.  This might not seem like a big deal, and it’s not much of one for my gregarious Big Helper, but for my quieter Little Man, this is huge. 

See, to give any of these people a candy cane, we first had to approach them – out of the blue, with no prompting, and usually no interaction first.  The kids walked up to each person and offered the candy with a simple “Merry Christmas,” and it was always well received – but it was a ‘cold call,’ so to speak.  My Little Man was really scared to do this at first, but he gained confidence throughout the day, and by our last stop, he was eager to pass them out.

And the staff at Chick Fil-A was happy to receive them – so much that when the kids tried to trade in their toys for ice cream, it was up-sized to a much larger portion than the one usually given to the kids.  And the woman who was cleaning the lobby while we ate?  She talked up a storm from the time she accepted her candy cane until we walked out the door.  She smiled and chattered and cleaned, no longer the Invisible Woman.

Will our simple candy canes end world hunger or kick off the beginning of world peace?  No, but they did prompt a lot of smiles.  They caused people to pay forward these simple acts of kindness.  They made my kids search for people in need of a bit of kindness, and the excitement they received in return gave them the confidence to try again – and will make it easier to perform a random act of kindness later.  Since each tag told the symbolic story of the candy cane, which is all about the salvation offered by Jesus, dozens of people read this message, because the very first thing that each person did was to read the tag. 

Candy canes may not cause any cease fires, but they could change someone’s outlook, and thus, his life.  Passing out this candy certainly made a difference to our family – and who knows how it might affect our kids as they grow, or the candy recipients in the future?

How do you teach your kids to give?

DIY Simple Nativity

DIY Simple Nativity @ A Nest in the Rocks

A few years ago, when My Little Man was a preschooler, we made this nativity together.  Its construction requires only a few materials, but that translated to a very independent – and exciting! – project for him.

Every year since, this nativity takes center stage on our kitchen table, and My Little Man loves moving it around and talking about how it was made.  I’m amazed that he still remembers, because he was quite small, but he’s excited to put it out each December.

The bonus side for us moms?  I found these flowerpots at The Dollar Tree as a package set and I had all of the other materials on hand – making this a very affordable and memorable project.

Want to make your own simple nativity set?  Here’s how!

You’ll need:

  • 3 small flowerpots
  • scraps of cloth
  • scraps of a neutral-colored yarn, like tan, brown, or cream
  • glue
  • scissors
  • 3 small balls, like bouncy balls or ping pong balls
  • a piece of balled-up paper

Here’s what you do:

  1. Flip two flowerpots upside down.  These will be Mary and Joseph.
  2. Wrap the three balls in the yarn.
  3. Glue one ball each to the bottom of the upside-down flowerpots.  These will be the heads of Mary and Joseph.
  4. Choose scraps of cloth to wrap around Mary and Joseph and more to cover their ‘heads.’
  5. Put the balled-up paper in the bottom of the third pot.
  6. Wrap the last ball in yarn.
  7. Swaddle the yarn-covered ball in cloth.
  8. Place the swaddled baby Jesus in the ‘manger.’

There you go!  A super simple nativity that your children will remember for years – but will take only minutes to make.

Do you have a favorite Nativity?

 

Christmas Tour 2014

Christmas Tour 2014 @ A Nest in the Rocks

Welcome to the Nest!  I love decorating for Christmas with my family.  A few years ago, though, I was completely overwhelmed with small children, a demanding holiday party schedule, and too much baking, decorating, and wrapping expectations – all put on me by me.  I spent a few years trying to figure out how to simplify it all so that the ‘stuff’ was meaningful and fun for everybody (me included) and this is what emerged. 

The fireplace is my favorite part of our living room.  It’s very traditional and is fun to decorate.  My husband builds fires for me on the coldest nights of the year, and so I snapped this picture to show you the best of the best.  Normally, the four stockings are spread out on the hangers, but we move them so they don’t singe on fireplace nights.  And the pictures?  Yes, they’re all crooked.  I can’t hang anything straight to save my life.  My Big Helper is good at that, and soon she’ll be tall enough to take over that task.  Until then, I’ll keep adjusting.

Christmas Tour 2014 @ A Nest in the Rocks

Our tree is the fullest, fattest tree we could find in town, although not the most shapely.  It’s decorated with ornaments that have been passed down through my husband’s and my family, as well as the ones that we’ve collected and made ourselves.  Each one reminds us of someone or something important.  We have white lights on the tree, and it’s topped by an angel to remind us of that special angelic announcement after Jesus’ birth.  (My Big Helper especially likes the way that she turns colors when turned on.)

The entire tree is standing on a platform made of a full sheet of plywood placed on three short sawhorses my grandfather made years ago.  It’s covered in white cotton and surrounded by red cloth, and on it we arrange our Christmas village each year.  I nearly stopped this tradition when the kids were small because it’s a lot of work, but it’s also beautiful.  We love pulling out the buildings and the decorations and inventing stories to go with each.  “The mail man must go over here because he has a package for the kid in that house.  The cow should go outside the fence near the barn because she got loose and is running away!”  While there’s no deep meaning for this, other than tradition, it reminds me of that:  family.  Of watching the houses and the cars as a small child and being in awe of the lights coming from within each one.  I still turn on all the lights each evening and again early in the morning, while I read and study my Bible by the light of these decorations.  It feels peaceful and expectant to me.

Christmas Tour 2014 @ A Nest in the Rocks

When my husband and I were first married, I bought this ceramic nativity set.  While not especially historic, it is heavy and detailed, and the kids and I set it out and arrange it each December.  I’ll put Jesus in the scene early Christmas morning, and the kids always run and cheer his ‘arrival.’

We display the nativity on my great-grandmother’s sewing machine.  Papa bought it for Grandma for Christmas back in 1933, and it’s a special piece in our house – as is the bell also on it, which belonged to another great-grandmother who used it to call her students to class.  With these important people gone, I use these pieces of their lives to tell their stories, much as we use the nativity to tell part of Jesus’ story.

Christmas Tour 2014 @ A Nest in the Rocks

When My Little Man was small, we made this simple nativity together. It’s made out of three small flowerpots, a golf ball, and some scraps of yarn.  I don’t know that he remembers making it anymore, but he knows that he did, and he proudly arranges it on the table each year. 

Behind this nativity is our advent wreath.  Though not traditionally green, the carved wood is beautiful, and it’s tall height allows it to function as our light at dinner on special Advent evenings. 

There you have it – you’ve now seen the biggest part of our Christmas decorating.  Do you decorate for Christmas?  How?

5 Ways to Celebrate Advent as a Family

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Years ago, when the kids were really, really small, I taught preschool – and although I’m certified to teach that, I had never worked a in traditional preschool, and I didn’t have the usual bag of tricks to use.

So when Christmas rolled around, I wanted to give the kids something that they could use to prepare themselves for Christmas – something kid-friendly.

Something that was not gluing cotton balls on Santa’s beard.

I wanted something more meaningful than that, but I couldn’t find anything – and so my pastor helped me write an Advent plan for preschoolers.

Since then, our Advent journey has changed a lot.  We don’t do the same thing every year, although much of what we do happens as a whole family, and many things have become traditions that we all look forward to.

5 Ways to Celebrate Advent as a Family

However we’re celebrating, I’m trying to make sure that we don’t lose sight of Jesus as the reason for all of the hubbub and commotion.

So, in random order, here’s how we’ll be celebrating Advent this year:

  • The kids and I are going to use the Scripture Advent Journal each morning after breakfast.  I gave the first page to them yesterday, along with a large package of Melk the Christmas Monkey will be making an appearance in our house this year.  He’s not going to be a daily guest, as the season is just too busy for that – but the great thing about the Melk program is that it’s flexible.  We can incorporate Melk with some things that we already do, and we can make it as involved as we want it to be – and each activity points to Jesus.  I can’t wait until the day that we make a wreath!  My Big Helper loves to decorate, and she’ll love learning about the meaning behind that tradition.
  • We light Advent candles.  Once each week during Advent, on a night when we’re staying at home all evening, we begin dinner with the Advent wreath.  My husband reads a portion of scripture, and then I light the appropriate candles.  We talk about what each candle symbolizes and what the scripture means while we …
  • Eat dinner by candlelight.  We turn off all of the lights in the kitchen, light a few tapers on the table, and eat by the light of those and the Advent wreath alone.  On non-wreath nights, we eat by the light of the tapers.  It creates a cozy hush around the table, discourages eye-wandering and mail-reading (you can find something to read wherever you go in our house if you’re not picky) and reminds us that this night, this time, this season – it’s all special.  It reminds us that Jesus is our Light.  It’s all leading up to something wonderful and miraculous, and it builds our anticipation.
  • We’ll go on our annual Christmas Family Date Day.  About a week before Christmas, my husband will take the day off from work, and we’ll head out altogether.  We’ll first tackle some sort of mission project to spread some Christmas cheer – delivering cards to a nursing home, taking stuffed animals to the fire station – whatever need we’ve found this year.  Then we head out of town to enjoy a day together.  We usually have a nice dinner somewhere, and then do something fun, like seeing a Christmas movie or going ice skating.  If we head into any stores, we actively look for shopping carts not in cart returns that need to get put away.  Maybe moms with their hands full, or people with mobility problems, or just carts endangering vehicles – we’ll try to help them all get the carts put away safely.  We end the day by driving around and looking at Christmas lights.

 Do you celebrate Advent?  What does it look like at your house?

 

 So … the Crayola Twistables thing might seem random, but it’s not.  I’m working on a new Bible project for kids, and Twistables are the perfect medium for this – they apply smoothly, you can read through them, and they blend and layer well.  I wanted my kids to have a set in preparation for that, and getting them now worked well for us.  More about that to come – but in the meantime, if you’ve never tried Twistables, they’re definitely worth checking out.

Advent Resources: “Jesus, The Light of the World”

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Do you use something during the weeks leading up to Christmas to help focus your attention on Jesus?

Jesus: Light of the World, Praying the Scriptures through Advent

Candace Crabtree has written a fabulous book to help you examine the role of Jesus as the light of the world.  The book takes an unusual form – that of devotion merged with prayer journal – which leaves your use of it wide open.

How?

Each day’s reading has three sections: scripture, devotion, and a place to journal your prayers.  The scripture is straight from the Bible and each reading is about light.  The devotional section is full of questions to ponder and information to digest.  The journaling section is just that – a lined, blank page for you to write out your thoughts and prayers.

What makes this so special?  Several things.

We decorate with lights and celebrate Jesus as the ‘Reason for the Season,’ calling Him the ‘Light of the World,’ but nowhere else have I seen anything that focuses so completely and Biblically on what that really means.  I love this perspective on a character and role of Jesus, and its uniqueness should definitely garner attention.

The format of this journal makes it extremely flexible.  It’s deep enough to use as an adult study and make the scriptures the focus of your personal quiet time, but there are also enough questions to make it a great prompt for discussion.  You could easily read the scripture around the breakfast or dinner table and talk about its meaning throughout the meal as a family. 

But that’s not all.  Don’t I sound like an infomercial now?  But really, this is one of the best aspects of this ebook.  In addition to the basic script of the story, which I really liked, there are lots of bonus features.  Songs you can listen to and Pinterest boards to follow.  The Pinterest boards share information about arts, crafts, decorating, and additional educational resources. How great is it that one resource can provide so much other information?

 I love Jesus: Light of the World, Praying the Scriptures through Advent.  I can’t wait to dig deep into it even further in the coming weeks.

If you’d like to grab your own copy of Jesus: Light of the World, click here.

Do you celebrate Advent? 

 I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Coming this Advent Season: Melk, the Christmas Monkey

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Every year I look for an Advent plan for my kids that will keep the ‘Christ’ in CHRISTmas.  Something that will be fun and meaningful for them without stressing me out.  Somehow the ‘no stress’ part never really plays out.

But Melk, the Christmas Monkey, looks perfect.

Melk is a Christmas monkey -or sheep, or cow, or whatever you’d like, really – who writes kids letters overnight (because monkeys are nocturnal, of course).   He points to projects and activities that are fun, but each letter has a devotional aspect.  There’s a point to each activity, and Melk is careful to keep the spotlight on the true Reason for the Season amidst all the holiday cheer.

There are a few things that make Melk different from the other Advent programs I’ve seen.  One is simply that you don’t need to do each activity.  There are a total of 30 projects in this ebook, so you have more than enough to do one each day before Christmas – but they don’t build upon each other as with some programs, and so you can pick and choose the ones that best suit your family.  You could do some one year, some the next, or go for broke and enjoy them all.  The planning is done for you so you can enjoy the fun part.

Within those 30 project plans, there’s even more flexibility.  Melk might ask you to make something, but there are multiple sets of directions listed, so you can choose the involvement level you like.  You could even have older children do more complicated projects than your littles!

About those projects?  Many of them are based on popular Christmas activities.  Some might be things you’d try to do anyway – but Melk will add meaning to it.  Some are spin-offs of these common activities, but all point to Jesus. 

The proceeds from Melk help spread the gospel to kids in Mexico.  Melk’s creator is a missionary currently living in Mexico, and she’s sharing some of the profits.  Not only do you get a great program, but you get to help other kids at the same time.

You can see a sample from Melk, the Christmas Monkey, here.  There are also coloring sheets available if you’d like more Melk fun.

I can’t wait for Melk to start sending my kids their Advent letters.  Want visits from Melk, too?  Click here to get your own copy of this fantastic new ebook.

Do you celebrate Advent in your home?  How do you prepare for the birth of Jesus?

I Choose Joy!