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20 Ways to Enjoy the Holidays Across the World

I love Christmas. You cannot come to my home and not see Christmas in every room of the house (yes, even the bathrooms). But I also love culture. I got my master’s in political science with an emphasis on international relations. I love learning about other cultures and traditions. If you spend time at my house, it would be normal to watch documentaries on culture, anthropology, and archeology from all around the world.

Although I celebrate Christmas in the Christian way, I also like to see how the rest of the world celebrates. I like sharing this with my son, so he is more inclined to understand other people in the world and all the beauty they bring.

Toward this endeavor, we look at a different culture every week of the season and learn about their traditions, songs, stories, and food.

These are just some ways we have incorporated other cultures, traditions, and fun into celebrating the Christmas season.

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Christmas in China

  • Shen Dan Jieh (Holy Birth Festival): Families decorate their homes in evergreens, posters, and bright paper chains. The tree is decorated with flowers and red paper chains that symbolize happiness. Color is a big part of this celebration. We sometimes like to use the bright colored chains as our advent calendar to help count down to the big day.
  • Ta Chiu: This is a celebration of peace and renewal. The Chinese will make offerings to saints and read the names of everyone who lives in the area. We chose this time to find a non-profit to give to, give to our church, and remember those we love near and far.
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Christmas in England

  • Christmas caroling is a big tradition here. People give carolers little treats (little fruit and nut pies are especially delicious). All the wrapping of presents, baking cookies, and hanging stockings happens Christmas Eve. This is one fun tradition we do. I wrap (my husband builds toys and things), and we watch Christmas movies with a nice cup of Egg Nog, wine, or spirit-filled fun drink.
  • Writing Letters to Father Christmas: English children write letters to Father Christmas then put them in the fire, so the wishes go up the chimney. We tweak this tradition by having a mailbox to Santa by the fireplace. Our son puts his letter in the box on Christmas Eve and Santa writes by Christmas morning.
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Christmas in Ethiopia

  • Ganna: Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on January 7 as the Ethiopians follow the ancient Julian calendar. For Ganna, people fast and dress in white, usually a traditional shamma (a thin, white cotton wrap with brightly colored stripes across the ends). They attend church at 4 am. We incorporate this tradition by dressing up on Christmas Eve in our finest clothes.
  • The Ethiopians do not exchange gifts during Ganna. If a child receives a gift, it is a small gift of clothing. To incorporate this, we do Elf-ing with our son. We find a family that needs a bit of extra love, and secretly help make the season better for them with food and small gifts.
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Christmas in France

  • Fasting: Christmas Day is a day of fasting and midnight mass. After mass, they come home and enjoy le Réveillon (nighttime feast). Growing up, I enjoyed attending the Christmas Eve midnight service. We move so much; it sometimes is hard to find one. So, we adopted my father’s tradition of bring coffee. and donuts to those security forces (local police) who have to work the holiday at midnight.
  • Christmas shows: Plays and puppet shows are popular entertainment (especially in Paris and Lyon). We always try to find a local production to watch (dance schools are great for this) to help get us in the spirit.
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Christmas in Germany

  • Advent Calendars: There is something fun about counting down to Christmas. In Germany, they use an advent calendar where children open a little number flap to see the Christmas picture hidden there. We do this with pictures, sometimes tiny candies, and verses for the season.
  • Christmas Tree: The tradition of the Christmas tree started in Germany. Under the decorate tree, they arrange a manger scene. Instead of stockings by the fire, in some places children leave their shoes outside the front door filled with carrots and hay for St. Nicholas’ horses. We leave carrots and celery out for Santa with his cookies.
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Christmas in Holland

  • The Letterbanket: This is a letter cake made in the shape of the family’s last name. Some families give a little “cupcake” version to every member. We do this, but instead of our cake in our initial, we bake one for Jesus.
  • Poems: During the gift giving, the giver also recites a poem written by the giver about the recipient. We love this. We decided to do this all year round by having a dedicated notebook to little notes and encouragements to each other to read and enjoy.
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Christmas in Italy

  • The Italians use the manger scene in a lot of their decorations. We incorporate one in the center of the entertainment, so we are reminded of the true meaning of Christmas.
  • La Befana: Legend has it, La Befana was too busy cleaning house to help the Wise Men on their quest to find the King, so now she spends January 6 (Thee Kings Day) wandering through the air on her broomstick looking for the Christ Child on the eve of Epiphany leaving gifts and candy in the shoes of little children. We do not do this, but we do watch movies about La Befana in the original Italian for fun.
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Christmas in Mexico

  • Las Posadas Buena Noche: Christmas Eve the children lead a procession to the church and place a figure of the Christ Child in the Nacimiento (nativity scene) and attend midnight mass. To incorporate this, we attend a city children’s parade.
  • Farolitos: This little tradition is when family members cut intricate designs in brown paper bags to make lanterns. Families then place candles inside the bags, and the lanterns are set alongside sidewalks, in windowsills, and on rooftops outdoor to illuminate the community with the Christmas spirit. My family lights the entire yard with lights. My son also makes additional decorations for the tree (or anywhere).
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Christmas in Spain

  • Christmas Day Reunion: This is a day for families to come together and enjoy a great feast (having fasted Christmas Eve. As we cannot always travel for the holidays, we use this day to call, text, and zoo family across the world.
  • Urn of Fate: Names are written on cards and placed in a bowl. Then, two names are drawn at a time. Those two people will be friends to each other throughout the coming year. My large family does a similar thing via excel spreadsheet. Each name rotates so a new sibling gets to think about and take care of the other for Christmas the following year.
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Christmas in Sweden

  • St. Lucia’s Day: Christmas really begins here on December 13 with St. Lucia’s Day. The Swede celebrate the patron saint of light. The oldest daughter will get up before dawn, dress as the “Queen of Lights,” and go from bedroom to bedroom serving coffee and treats to each member of the family. The younger children help. We like this tradition, but we serve each other cinnamon rolls and coffee after getting the house beautiful for celebration. We work as family helping with chores, making breakfast, and enjoying a slower morning.
  • The Jultometn and Julbokar: This tiny Christmas gnome comes on a sleigh drawn by the Christmas goat, Julbokar. In some families, a family friends dresses up in a red robe and wears a long beard to bring toys for children. In other families, gifts are left behind on the tree. After gifts are open, the families dance and sing around the tree. We incorporate this little tradition by leaving notes for our son throughout the season and singing and dancing is a part of our life, so we listen, sing and dance to Christmas carols.

Perhaps there is something here that you might do? May want to try? Let me know.

Valentine Fun with the Kiddos

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My son reminds me so often to celebrate the little things.  He gets excited for every holiday – EVERY holiday.  From Groundhog’s Day to Battery Day (February 18) to the traditional New Years’ to Christmas Day.  Need some fun creative days to celebrate, check out this fantastic calendar! He reminds me that each day has a reason to be celebrated. 

But, he also reminds me daily how hard it is to be a parent.  Some days, weeks, months (if you have that teenager), it is so easy to focus on the negative.  “My kid isn’t…. (fill in the blank) and should be.”  Grades are down, a call to the principal’s office, a truancy notice.  Some days it can be hard to want to love on our kids.

But, this month of love, I think we can (and should) do better.  Our kids need to know they are loved just as much as we need to know our spouse or significant other loves us.

Here are some ways to bring more love into your relationships with your kids:

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  1. Encouraging words. We parents are often so quick to bring to light the negative actions of our children.  And there is a good reason for that (discipline is essential to growth and development).  But how quick are we to bring encouragement?  When was the last time you told your kid you were proud of them? Impressed by them? Complimented them? This month, I encourage you to try to do this once a day and see how much richer your relationship with your child gets.
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2. Play.  This is so hard!  Most parents work and parent. By the time work is done, we are exhausted and tired and the last thing we want to do is get on the ground and play blocks or Lego with the kiddos.  We don’t have the energy to play a video game or draw.  When we spend time with kids, the adults typically chose the activity.  I encourage you this month, to purposely set aside 30 minutes a day where your child gets to pick the fun activity and then pour heart into it.  After all, aren’t they more important than a replaceable job?    

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3. Cook.  It is amazing what bonding happens over food.  The smells.  The textures. The colors.  Cooking together is a great way to get quality time naturally.  Teaching how to cook or experiencing new recipes and flavors together invites conversation, laughter, and play into the home. Enjoy the mess.  Enjoy the yummy product.  Enjoy the time with these precious children.

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4. Apologize.  How often have we yelled at our kids out of anger?  Frustration? Exhaustion?  How often have we gotten on to them about disrespect? Self-control? The choice of words?  Too often as adults, we do not practice this vital step in our relationships with our children.  Then we wonder why the attitude doesn’t change or the disrespect increases.  We must be willing to humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness from our children when we respond negatively to them.  They will practice what is modeled to them.  Apologize.  Talk it out with them like you would in the reverse.  Grow together.  Be stronger together.

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5. Date night: We make it a priority in my home to have a date night with my spouse.  But, I think this same tradition should be made with the kids.  Quality one-on-one time with each child is essential.  It allows the child the opportunity to speak freely, laugh honestly, and get needed coaching without an audience of siblings.  It is a perfect time to pour in honest discipleship into the next generation – who loves you above all other people.  Once a week, take your kid out or spend some time in, just you two, and see how they prosper.

What are you doing to fan the flame of love in your children?

9 Steps to Preventing and Stopping the Meltdowns and Tantrums

When people meet my son, they are often taken aback to learn he has a special need.  We are often complimented on how well behaved he is and how polite.  But, life was not always that way.

When our son was younger, could not speak at age five, and could not communicate to us anything without grunts, hitting, and kicking, we often felt like Annie Sullivan with Helen Keller. 

Helen Keller’s first experience with Anne Sullivan (an ABA therapist if ever I saw one)

One Christmas, when he was younger, I remember walking into a store and my son pulling the most epic of tantrums because he could not get the toy he wanted.  This was literally five minutes into walking into the store.

He threw himself on the floor, kicking, thrashing about, and screaming like a banshee.  Words did not help. 

The stares started.  The condescending looks.  My husband and I were faced with a choice: give in and get him what he wanted so badly or stand our ground.

I am stubborn…we stood our ground.

My son did not expect what I did next.  My husband continued with the shopping trip while I hauled our son (kicking and screaming) back to the car. I then put him in his seat, shut the door, and stood outside in the safety and relative peace and quiet.

My son spent the next 15 minutes kicking, screaming, and hitting everything he could reach, in the safety of the car and seat.  I was there ready to open the door at any moment should he become unsafe, or once he calmed down.  The windows were rolled down a bit (all safety precautions were met).

Once he calmed down (and stopped seeing red), my husband and I were able to talk to him about his behavior and how that was unacceptable.

This was our turning point. This was when I began to dig into every parenting book for strong-willed children I could get my hands on, every podcast, Ted Talk, everything I could find out about our son’s needs, how his brain worked, and how we could help him overcome the challenges he was born with.

Here are the top 9 things we learned about how to prevent and stop meltdowns, tantrums, and mayhem.

1.       Start Small: If your child is anything like mine, then you probably want to tackle everything at once.  Potty training.  Tantrums. Cleaning. Manners.  Unfortunately, we do not learn that way. Pick one to three things you want to focus on.  We chose behavior in a store and classroom and transitions from preferred to non-preferred activities.  

2.       Prep: So often I hear of parents who cave in the market check out line when their child starts a tantrum.  Or parents tell me of how exhausted they are from calls from the school and parent-teacher conferences.  I get it.  We could time the first call from the school to the exact day in the school year (Monday week three).  We once had three parent-teacher conferences in the first week and a half of school.  What we learned, prep.  Prep the child with what is expected of them and what they will earn if they accomplish it. Prep the teachers what is expected of both child and teacher.  Teachers have to be on board.  We had a system where I texted the teacher daily what our son was earning and the expectations.  This was helpful for consistency throughout the day.

3.       Be Consistent: I am a big proponent of this and will say it again.  Consistency is key.  If your child thinks he plays a parent against the other, if she thinks she can get away with something at school and not at home, if a child sees a weakness in defenses anywhere – they will exploit it! Be consistent and work as a team.

4.       Incentivize: I get the most push-back on this.  “I don’t want to bribe my child.”  “I don’t want my child thinking they get a treat just for making choices expected of them.”  “I don’t want to bribe my child.” I get that.  First, an incentive is not a bribe.  A bribe is reactionary – an in the moment choice: “If you stop throwing a fit, then I will get you the candy you are hollering about.”  This teaches the child that enough public humiliation for you as the parent gets them what they want.  An incentive is a contract.  A contract between parent and child of what is expected on both sides.  If you keep your hands in your pocket in the store/if you use please and thank you/if you finish your homework without asking, then you get a balloon/piece of candy/star on your chart.  This is actually a great way to start teaching finances and economy as this is a practice we adults use daily.  Work an hour and I will pay you $10.00, don’t complete the work well, and you are fired. Instead of hourly work, they are doing task work – like an independent contractor.

5.       Diet: Food affects behavior.  Food was not something we originally tracked. I am so glad we did.  By tracking his food, in combination with behavior, we learned that within 24 hours (to the minute) of having dairy, our son would have very negative behavior.  We learned that when he ate a lot of processed food, high sugar foods, his focus decreased and his attitude was negative. We later learned this was because he was having stomach issues (he couldn’t tell us his stomach hurt).  A great cookbook that helped us get started on a healthier diet for him is The Brain Food Cook Book, written by a mom of a special need’s kiddo.  I have to say, some of our favorite recipes are in this book, and the tips on how to do this without breaking the bank and how the brain works is incredible.  Our son’s neurologist concurred and said it was because of his diet and his oxidated stress regime, our son did not need medication for his migraines and other neurological issues.

6.       Medication: If you can avoid it, I personally recommend avoiding medication.  In our experience, when Kennedy Krieger doctors told us they don’t know enough about the need and effect of medication long-term on children, we were very hesitant.  However, the school system we were in at the time, told us without medication they would not teach our child.  The daycare echoed this.  (NOTE: This is not legal, and we should have fought it, but didn’t know at the time we could).  The medication prescribed was only approved in adults with heart conditions.  The bi-product was helping with behavior in children, but no long-term studies had been done.  We later learned (three years on the mediation), that there were studies showing his medication could lead to cancer long term.  They did help.  If that is what you think is best for your child, do what is best for your child. 

7.       Oxidated Stress: This an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can lead to cell and tissue damage.  This occurs naturally.  There are some peer-reviewed studies showing this affects everything from thyroids (almost 5,000), cancers (nearly 90,000), ADHD (nearly 2,000), and Autism (nearly 3,000). How do you combat this naturally occurring process? Fruits and vegetables are a start.  We also switched to “clean” cleaning products (chemical free), decreased screen time, and increased time outside. We incorporated Protandim into our life.  After a month on this vitamin, our son’s monthly to quarterly ER visits for stomach migraines decreased to none in the past three years, our son’s focus and attention increased (he is 11 reading at a ninth-grade level and taking a college music course), and he has been completely off medication for three years (taken off under the care of his physician).  We get ours from Life Vantage (patented formula).

8.       Track: It is important to only start one behavioral change at a time.  Introducing too many variables at once will not let you know which ones do anything.  We started with diet, then added medication, then dealt with oxidated stress – which eventually got him completely off medication.  Track measurable things – how often the school calls, grades, attention while reading, how long it takes to complete a task. Below are some great resources we used, and use, to help us. I recommend making them editable and laminating them. This reduces waste and allows you modify based on age and behavior. Dry erase markers work great on these.

9.       Celebrate and Recycle: Celebrate the win! Talk with your child about how proud you are of their progress. Celebrate the hard work it took them to accomplish that goal. Then, start the process over on a new behavior or more advanced behavior.  Humans should never stop learning and growing.  This is especially important for children.  When one thing is mastered, move on to the next level or new behavior. 

For more ideas on how to help avoid meltdowns and mayhem, take a look at my Facebook page.

Celebrate Life

Being the middle of seven children, I have seen the gambit in behaviors. Everything from stitches and fights to games of “War” and dances. I have been blessed to always have a sibling on my side when life turns a sour leaf and family around for holidays…and sometimes when I don’t want them.

But, not everyone is as blessed.

Special needs children are one of the largest groups of children in America…and unfortunately, one of the most often forgotten and ostracized. Many hear the words “special needs” or “Autism” or “Down Syndrome” and immediately think “stupid,” “hard,” and “pity.”

They could not be farther from the truth!

Our little bundle of joy was diagnosed with Autism at age three. And, like all parents who hear that, there was some fear and trepidation (a discussion for another time). At the time, and up until he was about five, our kiddo did not speak. There was loud screams, throwing, tantrums and the like because speech communication was not possible. Getting dressed was a chore as he could not put socks on by himself much less zip a zipper to his pants or button his jacket.

Hard? Yes. But, do I need to be pitied? No!

You see when my son first started to say small sentences – PURE JOY! When he started to be able to zip his pants – JUBILATION! When he started to got straight A’s having to be pulled from class on a daily basis for doctor’s appointments – PRIDE would be an understatement. I even told my husband my kid was the smartest because he did what streamlined kids did in half the time!

What living with a special needs kid has taught me is… [Read more…]

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1. Celebrate Life

In our day and age, it is really easy to get down and out. We are inundated with negative thoughts and reality. News broadcasts deliver only negative news and life hits hard when it hits. Seeing the negative is like pouring a cup of coffee – most of us do it without even thinking.

Living with Autism teaches celebration of life. When you can constantly find growth it is easy to be optimistic. When you can see that life is not in a diagnosis but a person it is easy to enjoy the beauty of a hand-painted birdhouse or a freshly made pot of coffee.

Life is about teamwork. And when you have a great team (my husband is a rock star!) the support makes life that much more colorful and brilliant.

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2. Enjoy the Little Things

I will admit there are days when life feels like it will sucker punch me every chance it gets. But who’s life doesn’t do that? Living with special needs does not mean that life is easier or harder than for anyone else. It just means we (those of us who have special needs in our lives) face different challenges.

So, like every other family, we celebrate the little things.

We celebrate cutting a straight line. We celebrate our little one talking and playing WITH a peer. We celebrate the full sentence. We celebrate jokes.

These little celebrations may seem little but they are HUGE accomplishments. And they remind us that we are more than scary words. Doctors do not always know best. Just like with every other kid, our kid is more than the sum of his doctors’ visits and school meetings.

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3. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Prior to special needs, I would sweat the small stuff. Little things like my sister not emptying the lint trap in our family dryer or how much the scale tipped when I stepped on it were heavy weights on my shoulders.

Autism taught me life is more than the small stuff. There are bigger things to worry about in life like family, doctors, and school.

If it is a choice between my son thumb sucking while focusing on homework or throwing a tantrum because he does not want to do homework, guess which one I am ignoring?

If it is a choice between not reading and reading a comic book, guess which one I am telling his teacher he gets to read?

If it is a choice between rocking in his seat and being quiet or jumping out of it screaming, “Pick me! Pick Me!”, guess which one I am telling the teacher to ignore?

There are big battles and small battles and some battles you just don’t fight. Special needs have taught me how to better see the difference.

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4. Don’t Miss Out!

I know many families in the special needs world. Many on the Autism Spectrum. A lot of families think this diagnosis is an end-all to life as a family. Many do not leave the home…ever. Vacation – thing of the past. Trips – never going to happen. Movies – dream on!

When the word “Autism” came into our lives, our son was not talking, not potty-trained, screamed 90% of the time, was very hyperactive and threw tantrums that would make The Hulk look like a mouse. But, we made the choice early on to not let the diagnosis dictate our lives. We made the choice to hold our son to the same standards as any other child and not let his diagnosis be his crutch.

(I know I hit a nerve with some of you just now. I know there is a spectrum and big trips are hard. I know about Regressive Autism. I know first hand about the challenges of tantrums, non-verbals, and the complete difficulty it is to even get childcare for a couple hours of respite. I understand the reason some families choose to stay home. No judgment. It is just not what we chose.)

We chose to take our son out in public to things like museums, theme parks, and, yes, movies.

We did not do this without a plan. We made sure to follow all applicable guidance. But we did discover, that for our kiddo, the exposure helped with social situations, speech, and relationships.

We have a don’t miss out mentality that has served us well.

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5. Make Time

It is easy to forget to set time aside for yourself in a regular run-of-the-mill-under-the-radar kind of life. But add in multiple weekly doctors appointments in different cities on different days, school IEP’s, parent-teacher conferences and regular life of working full-time and it becomes really easy to forget about yourself and your family.

I don’t mean you forget your family. What I mean is that it is easy to forget to spend quality time with them.

We have learned that time apart each day whether in a workout, reading a book or playing a video game (yes, I said it) is essential to sanity!

We have learned that game nights, arts and crafts and reading together unite us beyond diagnosis and beyond the stress of the battle.

We have learned that date night does not always (and usually doesn’t need) a sitter. We enjoy a movie night in front of the fire with a glass of wine. We enjoy reading to each other. We enjoy sitting out in the hot tub and talking about life. None of these cost a lot of money. None of these require a baby sitter. And all are an essential investment in our marriage.

More to Life

So, does special needs mean a life of hard work? Yes! But whose life is not hard? Does it mean my life is different than most? Yes, but who wants a normal life? Does it mean I am to be “pitied?” No! If nothing else, I have been blessed beyond most. I have learned more than most. I have enjoyed life more than most.

Don’t let the diagnosis stop you from loving and living life. Don’t let a diagnosis of others scare you off from participating in their life. Don’t let the social understanding of special needs (which is highly lacking and often a misrepresentation) be your understanding of them. Be open. Be honest. Be willing. Your life will never be the same again.