Saturday, December 24, 2011


There are some missing hands on our nativity people, but they still tell the Story.

Does your family have a lot of Christmas traditions?  I thought ours didn't until I found myself a little frantic to keep them all.  It's irresistible for me to add on new traditions.  They feel like snuggly warm socks to me.  I love them because they hold me accountable to get things done, but in a memorable way I don't need to reinvent.  I started wondering why we're so eager to pile on traditions surrounding Christmas, and I think it's because we're really observing the biggest tradition of all: celebrating the birth of Jesus, the Son of God.

Maybe we feel like we need to make the day extra special because of its deep importance.  Maybe it's just part of human nature to distract ourselves.  Even though we all know Jesus wasn't actually born on Christmas, it's a time we've set for ourselves as a society to remember how very important that quiet birth was.  Over the years, our family dropped the traditions that bring stress and distraction from the day.  Instead, we keep a few that help make Christmas special for us and the people who are important to us.  They are ways for us to be purposeful about seeing people we love, and ways of remembering the biggest gift of all, Jesus.
I thought I'd write down our traditions so I could see how they change over the years.  I'd love to hear a few of yours too!

Our Christmas celebrations start right after our Isaac's birthday, which is November 30th.  We meet up with my brother and his family, and my childhood friend Jeanette and her husband Morgan.  We always go to the same tree farm after too many years of random tree farms with sketchy and unpredictable trees.  We may try a different farm this year because this farm's tree grooming has gotten a little lazy: there were lots of trees that had the bottom 3 feet of branches cut off so that the tree you'd cut was really the leftover parts.  It's fun to let the kids chop down the tree and try to keep from freezing.  Then we get to go home and visit with our friends over tea and snacks before digging into decorating.

There is a nativity calendar that hangs every year on our dining room wall.  It's  made of fabric with 25 felt squares sewn on and is filled with little tiny German rubber creatures that I've collected in Germany and other places.  We don't do well at actually taking them out daily and setting them up because the kids love to put them right back in, but they are all well appreciated many times over the month.   The last pocket holds and Angel, proclaiming Jesus' birth.

We have 4 different nativity sets and all of them are at kid level.  I like the kids to feel totally at ease with the Christmas story, placing Jesus wherever they feel he's most needed, and not worrying whether something's going to crack.  Many hands and parts are missing, but these special scenes are very loved.  There's even a set of window decals  the kids put up every year with all the main characters of the nativity.  My favorite part was when someone stuck a horse lounging up in the heavens with the angels with Mary, Joseph and Jesus peacefully hanging out below.

It's so important to me that the kids understand that Jesus is real, and that Saint Nicholas was a special person whose story reminds us of the ways Jesus always provides us with what we need.  I remember when our oldest kids were small, they began to think Jesus was just as real as Santa, and that's when we decided to play "Santa Dad and Santa Mom."  We keep all the Santa traditions, but the kids know it's us.  We always eat goodies and leave the remnants for them.  We fill the stockings and then leave giant "snowy" santa footprints with some baking soda sprinkled on the sole of Brandon's shoe, then stamped on the ground.

Snow from Santa's boots

There are also of course the food traditions.  We MUST have my mom's peanut butter balls each year.  I've made a designated goodie creating night with my friend Josie, and we get together with a few other friends and make Christmas treats and trade them among ourselves.  On Christmas morning, in honor of my childhood family traditions, we eat cinnamon rolls, (which I now make from scratch, crazy me), those cheesy Little Smokies sausages that are so bad for you, scrambled eggs and orange juice.  Mmm.  It fills us up for all day!  We always manage to somehow make some sort of roll out cookies.  This year, my friend Carol took the little girls and spent an afternoon making sugar cookies and Jesus birthday cakes.  The next day we made some yummy ginger bread cutout cookies.

Cinnamon rolls rising for Christmas Morning

Saraiah decided she needed to make some wrapping paper elf shoes while helping me wrap.

The completed shoes...made 100% by Saraiah.

Maia had to join the fun.
The sharing traditions are also important.  I write a Christmas letter every year as a way of remembering what God has brought us through that year, and of keeping a small family history.  I need to compile all the letters into a binder for this purpose.  Recently, with my increased interest in photography, I also make a photo collage, going through the year's photos and finding the favorites, then generating it using Picasa software.  We select the very best of those for a calendar for all the grandparents.  I also do my own portraits of the kids.  The tradition used to be that I'd take their pictures on their birthday, but this year we squeaked in with photos of everyone taken in December.  We also now have an annual cousin picture that I take of the kids with their nephew.   Oh dear!  I love all of these traditions but they do overwhelm me sometimes.  There are ways to make it easier though:  Brandon usually hangs out with the kids while I write my letter and do the collage and photo editing.  My friend Wendy and I usually get together to stuff Christmas letter envelopes.  These traditions are special because they keep our family, stretching from Indiana to Hawaii updated and close to us through our words and pictures.
Happy birthday Jesus!  Jesus can be one, right, since he's number one ?  :)
On Christmas Eve, we always intend to go to the church candlelight service, and instead stay home and have our Jesus birthday party.  We stick a candle in something yummy (this year Eva made a cake), read the story of Jesus' birth from the Bible, then open one present from someone who doesn't live in our state.
Eva reads the Christmas Story

She's got a halo!

That random set of flames is a reminder of growing up in Hawaii.  It's an exact copy of the cardboard flames my parents would put up in a nook of a cabinet where we hung our stockings, so we'd have a "fireplace" at Christmas.
There are the family gathering traditions.  I'm sure these warm Jesus' heart because we're all a part of His family.  My husband's side of the family gets together  a week before Christmas with as many great aunts and uncles, grandparents and great grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins as can make it. We  We spend hours chatting, eating and watching the kids open presents and be generally adorable.  On Christmas morning, my brother's wife and his daughter stop by along with Brandon's parents to watch the kids open their stockings.  Then we have our delicious breakfast with Emma.  She and my niece go home to wait for Danny (my brother) to get off of work and we go over to my in-laws to celebrate with my husband's family.  In the afternoon, we head over to see Danny and Emma at their home.  

I'm eager for Christmas day and am reminding myself that in the midst of our sometimes dizzying traditions, there is always Jesus, the Heart and Hope of Christmas.  Merry Christmas to you!

I think she loves her present.

Maia dances for joy in her new outfit

snug in bed

Star to remind us of the Bethlehem star,

Friday, December 23, 2011

Our Christmas Letter 2011

2011 Donnelson Family Christmas Letter

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Matthew 22:36-40

"If we could only remember that God loves me, and I have an opportunity to love others as he loves me, not in big things, but in small things with great love, then Norway (or wherever we live) becomes a nest of love. --Mother Theresa, 1979 Nobel Lecture

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12

Jesus was 33 when he died on the cross and rose again.  That’s my age too.  Of course when I realized that, I began to compare myself with the Creator and Savior of the world, wondering at how much he accomplished in His short earthly life with just a few years of active ministry.  Then I realized that wasn’t my job in life: to try to be as spectacular or influential as Jesus.  Instead, my work is to love Him in the best ways I can and to use my life to point gently to Him.  In November 2010 my in-laws gave me the wonderful gift of a camera for my birthday.  Since then, its shutter has clicked 27,166 times.  Probably half of those images were not worth keeping, but they are a reflection of the joy that a camera can give.  It has allowed me and my family to more carefully notice the beauty of God’s creation and of the simple moments.  There have been many times that the kids have said, “Mom! You have to see this, it’s so beautiful!  Take a picture!”  Oftentimes I just look and appreciate the moment with the kids.  Other times, the camera comes out to attempt to convey even just a bit of the experience to the viewer.  

Because of our more careful attention to God’s creation, we have become more curious and fascinated as a family in the design and order of it all.  I think about the things Brandon and I do for the kids and one another: work, prepare food, organize rubble, hug, tuck in, talk and so much more.  These things are not great things or things that will begin a worldwide movement.  They may not be always done in the most cheerful frame of mind.  They are, however, things done out of the great love we have for them and for their Maker.  Our greatest hope is that the love we share with them will be realized as a reflection of God’s sweet care for them and that they in turn will want to share it with the people in their lives.  So in that vein, I share with you the small things we have tried to do with great love this year and more importantly, the things God has done in His great love for us.

Just a few days after Christmas, our new puppy got hit by a car and lost his leg.  I have never understood the affection people have for their pets until that moment.  After being turned away by 3 vets, another doctor took Koa in for an emergency amputation, giving him a blood transfusion from an employee’s dog and nursing him carefully back to health.  Before the accident, Koa was my dog: my running buddy.  Afterwards, he and I shared a special connection because I was no longer able to run due to an injury that still keeps me walking today.  More importantly, he began to belong to our whole family and even our community.  Our friend Jeanette teamed up with friends to raise money to pay for his vet bills and Brandon runs daily on our property with him.  He never ceases to evoke tender words from anyone who is greeted by his licking tongue and whip-like wagging tail.  He’s our little miracle, having drawn our family and community closer together.

We’ve spent lots of time taking kids to various activities all year.  Isaac played basketball and wowed us with his long stride and quick running.  He’s a senior red belt in taekwondo and will be testing for black belt in 2012.  Eva is a red belt in taekwondo and has quite the impressive high kick.  She has played volleyball on two different teams this year.  We’ve seen both of them develop confidence and discipline through these sports.  Levi played basketball with his great uncle Wayne as coach last year and is in taekwondo.  He does everything with outstanding speed and enthusiasm.  Saraiah took a ballet and tap class last year and has just completed a dance and acrobatics class.  Her favorite part of course is posing, wearing the recital costumes and teaching us all how to do cool moves, especially her newly learned cartwheel.

All 3 big kids are active in 4H this year in order to make use of all the animals we have.  Eva and Levi showed goats at Stanwood fair last year, with Eva earning the top exhibitor belt buckle and Levi looking effortless, like he’d been showing goats since he was a babe.  For the first time this year, Eva showed her goats at the Evergreen State fair, staying on the grounds for a week with her ever patient and amazing 4H leader.  She won high awards for her fleeces and showmanship surprising herself a little I think.  We all know how she cares for those animals, so it didn’t surprise us.  We were given 2 alpacas this summer, so Isaac and Eva will show them next summer.  We’ve bred one of the pygora goats and Levi will show her while Saraiah and Maia show the babies in the tiny tots class.  We sold 3 of our goats in order to buy Joy, a Nigerian Dwarf milk goat, who we milked last year.  She still has yet to be bred this year, but we are hopeful.  We might milk the pygora!  

Brandon and I began the year with a large shift in our financial thinking after going through the Dave Ramsey financial peace university class in February.  We’ve been budgeting since then, have paid off several very old debts, have paid off our credit cards without incurring new debt, bought health and dental insurance (ouch) and are slowly chipping away faithfully at our mountain of debt.  It feels good to be united in our finances and we pray that we’ll be able to be consistent for the sake of our family.  

Brandon has been working this year in real estate, which includes his whole family.  They work with banks to market and sell bank owned properties, which is a hugely busy business in this economy.  They are a great team.  Brandon and his brother work in the field managing the properties and keeping in close contact with the banks.  He has also been consistently waking early daily and doing programming work for several hours before going off to his day job.  He has built a panorama photo viewer prototype and has been earning extra income through his programming tutorials on his blogs and youtube accounts.  He’s been actively networking with other Google software developers and has attended many Google Techology User Group meetings.  One night he and some other developers made a photo watermarker app in one evening!  His latest project has been to put our Co-Op school’s Student Learning Plan form online so that parents can access and update their students’ information from anywhere.  He consistently confuses and amazes me, which is one of the reasons I love him so much.  

We all remember the terrible devastation the earthquake and Tsunami caused in Japan on March 11.  Eva and her friend Emma were especially moved to do something to help the people of Japan.  They were both enrolled in a class called “Building a Better World” at our co-op school.  Their assignment was to take on a project to help improve the world around them.  They chose to do a fundraiser for Japan, crocheting little amigurumi creatures and selling them, then sending the money to World Vision.  They worked nearly to the end of the school year creating things.  In the end, people donated nearly $1000 to the cause.  It is healing sometimes to have a tangible way to help when there is so much hurt.  Eva is 13 now and has decided to be a vegetarian.  Her caring for animals is so great that I think she just can’t bring herself to eat meat.  She has also learned of the impact of meat production on the environment and doesn’t really like meat, so I guess that helped her decision!

Isaac and Levi are overjoyed to have buddies who live on our street now.  When the house on our street was for sale, I remember praying that we’d have a family move in who was like us, and what did we get?  A lovely family with a 13 year old girl, a 10 year old boy and a 7 year old boy!  Wow!   And of course the boys are all equally obsessed with legos and video games, so life is good.  Eva has been playing volleyball with the neighbor gal and they enjoy each other immensely.  Maia and Saraiah, not to be left out, made some new buddies this year when I made a new friend, Julie, who’s even more interested in plants and knowlegable than I am about them.  She’s married to a computer programmer, just as I am and has 2 girls the same age as our little ones.  The girls all have the same spitfire adorable attitude and love each other.  

Isaac and Eva are both learning to play musical instruments from their inspiring band teacher at our co-op.  Isaac plays the saxophone and has been trying out reading music from other sources and sounding out songs on his own.  His ear amazes me.  Eva is playing clarinet and you can hear her playing in between workbooks during homeschool time.  They have blazed through their music book and will definitely be playing again next year.  Levi is in a percussion class and reminds the teacher of himself as a child with his deep interest for music and also his exuberance.  He’s learning to reign that in, but in the meantime can be found climbing everything in sight, whether it’s a cherry picker, a chicken coop or a plain old tree.  He charms everyone and makes friends within a few minutes of arriving anywhere.  

Isaac continues to be Maia’s faithful buddy, carrying her everywhere, making her food and generally being completely compassionate with her.  She needs this because she’s always got a very specific idea of how she wants life to go, and with my distracted brain, some extra attention is welcome.  Maia is a loving little girl, tenderly hugging everyone she trusts and cares for.  She and Saraiah are both quick to complement anyone they meet, even charming the check out lady at the airport in Hawaii by telling her they liked her purple earrings.  She turned from grumpy to joyful in a few seconds!  Saraiah is an artist and gift giver, constantly creating for everyone she meets.  Her art is beautiful and has made its way even to our walls.  Our favorite graffiti is a picture of a girl we have affectionately named “baleen girl.”  

And what’s Angie up to?  Hmm.  I’m the one with my eye always to the viewfinder of the camera, trying to interpret the amazing things I see.  I’m helping a friend teach a kids’ beginning photography class at our co-op school.  I’ve got an atrophied muscle in my leg that keeps my foot weak and me unable to run, so I have jumped full tilt into the photography obsession.  My dear friend Josie has been there for a long time with me already with our annual trips to take pictures in the tulip fields.  Now that we both have DSLR cameras, we have been able to hone our skills and shoot in manual.  We had the privilege of doing the photos for a wedding together.  She’s going to school for photography and I’m learning what I can from her and from books while I share my images and thoughts on my blog:  You can keep up with us there most easily.  My prayer group girls: Wendy, Jenny, Carly, Lisa, Josie and Julie are always my rock, grounding me and reminding me that God is indeed in charge and that we can bring everything to Him in prayer. I’m not only playing with cameras of course.  There’s the hard and good work of gardening, canning, laundry and housecleaning and of course homeschooling and being a personal chef, organizer (attempting) and comforter for the family.  

All of this is only done in the strength that comes from knowing we have a mighty and powerful God, the original giver of every good thing and the best example of true Love I’ve ever known.

Merry Christmas with love!
Angie, writing for Brandon, Eva (13) Isaac (11) Levi (8) Saraiah (5) Maia (3) and Koa the dog, the cat, the chickens, the alpacas, the llama and the goats.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Just the ten of them

She had this adorable shirt for her cold hands!

Today I had the privilege of teaming up with my good friend Josie for a photo shoot.  Our dear friend Anneliese, who has ten children, wanted some pictures of her children for the new year.  Josie, being a more experienced photographer, took care of six of the kids while I did the other four.  I love this family.  They are some of the hardest working, kindest and most thoughtful people I have ever met.  They also all have really beautiful eyes. You'll have to watch for the rest of the children!

It was a bit frosty out.

One of Josie's cute kiddos

Gotta taste the frost!
Anneleise ran home to get the youngest children, so Josie and I did artsy pictures of the frost while we waited.

Josie's pretending to be a 2 year old for me so I can practice with the light.

There's my sister! 

The grass looked like a teeny forest