Advent, a quiet season of change

It’s been awhile since I’ve written, but I’ve been deep in thought this Advent. Many changes are coming to our family. Over the last nine years, you’ve watched as our children grew from tots and teens to adulthood. In May, Megan is marrying Robert. Brennan will graduate from college the same month, and Claire will graduate from high school. Our oldest daughter, Ashley, is working hard, but she doesn’t have any life changes to spring on me in May.–at least, I hope not.

The whole family at Thanksgiving!
The whole family at Thanksgiving! Sorry we cut off part of Bill’s head.

The whole family, including my mother and sister, were together for Thanksgiving, and I hope for a repeat Christmas Eve.

I know. It’s hard for me to believe too. With so many changes comes reflection, and I’ll be honest, I’m having a bit of a tough time. I’ve called my mother twice and cried.

Thank God for mothers everywhere.

scattered seeds, hoping they fell on good soil, but I was still surprised when my young saplings grew into mature flowers and trees. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but still….

A cold wind blows outside my window, where I watch Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal, and their friends, along with Mr. Squirrel, hog the bird feeder. In the center of my window next to the French doors is our Christmas tree. To stave off the winter blues, I also have a veritable garden in every window. Amaryllis and non-stinky paperwhites take top honors while the prettiest little white poinsettia also lights my way.

Today, I’ll get out the hyacinth vases, wash them and place the bulbs inside. I’ve had the hyacinth bulbs in the refrigerator since last August. I still have tulips to plant outside, but I’m not feeling any enthusiasm for my task. Fall temperatures just wouldn’t come, and I got behind. Friday is supposed to be a beautiful day so I’ll plant them then. I intend to run up to church and plunk several more into the beds there. It will be a nice surprise come Easter. However, I also have plenty to do here at home to prepare for Christmas.

A mother’s work is never done.

If I remember to step outside the mad rush to get it all done, I feel such a sense of anticipation in the quiet season of Advent. As I wrap each gift and place it lovingly beneath the tree, I say a little prayer for each recipient. I hope they find peace and joy not overshadowed by the mad rush to get everything done.

In my faith, we don’t really celebrate Christmas until the big day, on the 25th of December. Then, our Christmas season goes on until the Baptism of the Lord mid-January. Some of my friends from church don’t even put up their trees until Christmas Eve. While I love that tradition, it isn’t practical for our family so I take a partial approach. We usually put up the tree around December 8. This year, I put up the tree and hung the stockings by the fire, but I was more restrained than ever in my decorating. Partly because my children are mostly grown. Since I only have to please Bill and me, I did what I thought was beautiful, but not overwhelming. A lot of Christmas decorations stayed in the bedroom closet, and that’s okay.

My heart is also full of a quiet anticipation created by Advent’s gentle feasts. On December 8, we celebrated one of the most important, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. There’s a lot of confusion surrounding this holy day. People often think it’s about Jesus’ conception–the moment when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary–actually called the Annunciation–but December 8, is truly about Mary being conceived without sin. Our former pastor, Fr. Robert Wood, explained it in a way I, as a convert finally understood. He said–and I’m paraphrasing–that Mary, being the tabernacle for Christ, had to be without sin, or she couldn’t hold the glory of God within her womb. As a mother, I get chills every time I think about it. When he put it that way, I felt an indescribable joy in my heart, maybe a joy similar to what Elizabeth felt when John leaped in her womb at Mary’s visit. The entire season of Advent is all about journeys, fear and trepidation and finally, joy.

It’s a story that never gets old.

Mary, the Blessed Mother, and the Advent Wreath at St. Mary's Church in Guthrie, OK.
Mary, the Blessed Mother, and the Advent Wreath at St. Mary’s Church in Guthrie, OK.

As I journey through this quiet season, I keep thinking of Luke 2:19, “As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

I carry this thought with me as I shop, decorate, wrap, cook and bake. When I had young children, I raced through Advent trying to keep up with my schedule and theirs. Now, I have more time to reflect, and I’m focusing upon wonder, joy and gratitude. I need the season to be about more than gifts, parties and good cheer, although all of these are nice. I’m trying in the rush to take time to especially thank people working in the stores where I shop and in the restaurants where I eat.  Preparation for Christmas is a marathon for them that doesn’t end on the big day. When I wish others a Merry Christmas, it’s not a political statement. Instead, it’s a heartfelt expression of the happiness I feel even if tinged with a bit of melancholy too. Christmas and Advent foster big conflicting emotions for almost everyone I know.

Whatever your faith or worldview, I wish you the merriest of Christmases and the happiest of new years. If you’re celebrating a different holiday during this season, I wish you joy in that too.

Now, I’m off to help my mother decorate her home. Then, I’m going to sit back, have a cup of tea and ponder miracles great and small, like how four children became women and men in the span of a mother’s heartbeat.

I bet Jesus’ childhood went fast for Mary too.

Marion Cunningham’s Nutmeg Muffins Gluten Free

Gluten free nutmeg muffins for Christmas

Today, on Christmas Eve, I got a craving for The Last Word in Nutmeg Muffins, so I scanned my kitchen bookshelves for one of my greatest treasures, The Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham. It was published in 1987, a lifetime ago–I bought it before I married Bill–but Cunningham’s recipes are timeless.

As I took the tattered and food-stained volume down from the shelf, I turned to Claire who was standing in the kitchen. “When I die, make sure one of you gets this book. Don’t let it go into the estate sale.”

The Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham.
The Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham, probably my favorite cookbook.

Claire looked askance and slightly horrified. Who could blame her?

I tried to explain. “I have all of Marion Cunningham’s books, but I think this one is her best. She taught me how to cook.” Claire still looked at me as if I had two heads. She’s the youngest child of four. She doesn’t remember a time when I couldn’t cook.

“It’s because of Marion Cunningham that we use whole nutmegs. Let’s make her nutmeg muffins.”

At the mention of the nutmegs, Claire finally nodded with understanding. She pulled a spice jar out of the cabinet, and taking off the lid, sniffed the nutmegs and smiled.

Claire tossed me two nutmegs, and I grated one and a half into a bowl that already held flour, salt, baking powder and sugar. As I performed these familiar steps, I thought about Cunningham’s struggles with agoraphobia and later, Alzheimer’s Disease. As someone who also struggled with anxiety in my forties, I now recognize a fellow survivor in her calm words. While I’m a huge fan of Julia Child, it was Cunningham who really taught me the important steps to cooking. Plus, her recipes are easier. Ask anyone who’s made Child’s boeuf bourguignon. I make it often because it’s my kid’s favorite stew, but let’s be real. Making boeuf bourguignon is a multi-level, time consuming process.

Contrast that recipe with Cunningham’s cheery preview of the best nutmeg muffins you’ll ever eat.

Fragrant, creamy-crumbed nutmeg muffins, the best of their kind, but you must grate one and a half whole little nutmegs to make these perfect creations. Although whole nutmegs feel like rocks, they are rather soft and easy to grate. The flavor of freshly grated nutmeg is incomparable. These muffins taste good with fruit, or butter, or all by themselves.

If I still haven’t convinced you, read The Amateur Gourmet’s estimation of this magical little book.

I made my muffins with King Arthur Gluten Free Multi Purpose Flour, my current favorite. Since they have butter, I used ghee, i.e., clarified butter. Clarified butter doesn’t have that nasty casein which gives me so much trouble.

[gmc_recipe 26362]

I spooned the thick batter into a heart-shaped muffin tin and placed it the oven for twenty minutes. Soon our house was filled with the scent of fresh nutmeg baking. Is there any scent more Christmasy than that?

I don’t think so.

Maybe I’ll just buy all of my children a copy of The Breakfast Book. It would make a great Christmas present idea for next year. Sssh, don’t tell them.

Merry Christmas Everyone.