Las Posadas, or Making Room

Inez just hanging out with a couple of her closest buds! #nativityscene

A photo posted by izzyortega (@izzyortega) on

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Above: Inez this year; Mary Tobin last year.

Every December our church celebrates Las Posadas, an Advent tradition that migrated from Spain to Mexico and the Southwestern United States.

The church we attend in Nashville, St. George’s, is approximately five thousand times whiter than our old one, Gracia y Paz. So I was not expecting to see a Las Posadas sign-up sheet last year. But since I recognized that Las Posadas was a Mexican thing, I felt like it was our duty, as the representative Mexican family in the parish, to volunteer for hosting Mary and Joseph for a night.

Afterward I panicked momentarily that I’d agreed to throw a huge party. In Mexico, Las Posadas begins nine days before Christmas, and there’s a party at a different house each night. In Tomie de Paola’s book set in Santa Fe, the event is a procession with singers, paper lanterns lining the square, and a procession led by Mary and Joseph (actually: María y José), knocking on doors, sometimes rejected, sometimes ignored, hindered by devils (Boo! Hiss! says the crowd). Another sweet book about this tradition is Nine Days to Christmas: A Story of Mexico. Whatever the specifics of a locality’s Las Posadas—posada means hotel or inn— it ends with Mary and Joseph finally finding a place at the stable in Bethlehem, where Jesus is born.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I had not signed up to serve tequila and hot chocolate to the entire congregation. St. George’s Las Posadas is more “flat stanley” than fiesta. It’s a tradition where a family hosts Mary and Joseph—essentially yard art statues—for a night, then passes them along on their journey to the next family, and then they’re ultimately delivered to the church to process down the aisle to the creche on Christmas Eve.

We had our turn hosting the Holy Family on an early December weekend. A couple friends came by the house and I had to explain right away why we had outrageously out-of-proportion nativity figures. We literally had to make room for a place for the Holy Family (JC still in Mary’s belly, I had to explain to Mary Tobin). This got me thinking about the idea of making room during Advent. Sister Angie, in De Paola’s The Night of Las Posadas, talks about “Making room in my heart so the Christ Child can be born.”

How did I make room in my life this December? Some ideas and attempts:

  • Make room in my house
  • Make room in my schedule and my plans. In a word: MARGIN.
  • Make room for . . .
    • people,
    • maybe last minute plans,
    • maybe a need to be filled.
    • Maybe silence that I need.
    • Maybe ABC Family’s new classic The 12 Dates of Christmas.
  • Make room for mystery.

I love that last one. Mystery. The incarnation is history’s greatest mystery, worth pondering every single year. In our Sunday school teacher training for the sweet little [wild] 3 to 6 year olds, we were encouraged to get Socratic on them (my words, and I might not grasp the proper usage). Rather than cleanly tying up a story by issuing the final, correct answers to all questions—as if we could!—instead, we wonder together. I wonder how the shepherds felt? I wonder why God chose Mary, chose Bethlehem? Why did he want to tell the shepherds about it? How did the wisemen know to follow the star? This must have been a very special baby.

I want to get comfortable with the discomfort, the mystery, the not knowing. I want to let go of control and loosen expectations. I want not to be embarrassed by the slightly tacky Marys and Josephs sitting in the living room. I want to clean out the mess and make room for something new to be revealed in the old stories.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

27 Shopping Ideas

Christmas gifts

What’s your gift giving philosophy? Do you have a budget? Do you draw names for a present exchange with the fam? Did I tell you about the time my brother Ben got punched in the face by the trunk of a wooden elephant statue during our family’s Dirty Santa gift exchange?

For kids, I like the idea of three gifts for Christmas (since that’s what JC got). Or four gifts: “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.”

If you’re one of those people who has all her holiday shopping finished before Thanksgiving, I salute you. If you grow cotton in the backyard and weave sweaters for all your extended family members and mailman, I salute you. And if you stick to a budget, I heartily salute you.

These days, if I buy gifts from an Etsy shop or another handmade seller, I feel like I’m not spending anything. And if it’s from someone I know (or let’s be honest, kind of know), I feel like I’m making money. Amiright?!

So in the spirit of shopping small and local, I’ve compiled a list of small and not-so-small shops whose proprietors I know, or have met once, or are a friend of a friend. I like the idea of supporting a real person. [Although, corporations are people. True or false? Sound off in the comments.]

Check these folks out if you’re stuck for gift ideas!

For babes and kiddos:
Sweet P Embroidery: Custom monograms and appliqué (AKA preciousness overload).
NOLA Onesie: Festive baby clothes.
Rain for Roots: My girls love these Nashville songwriters’ album “Big Stories for Little Ones” (plus it’s not obnoxious for parents!).
storieChild: Create an easy baby book or a story book featuring your kid.

Tasty treats (or, How to be the Office Hero):
Sweet LaLa’s Bakery
 partners with a juvenile intervention program in Memphis to bake de-lish cookies for pickup or delivery.
Whimsy Cookie Company: We get these for pretty much every birthday and special occasion. Impressive designs, and so tasty.
A Signature Welcome: Gourmet food boxes (+ other great gifts like turkish towels!)
District Doughnut (DC): Because they support Little Lights!

For the art lover:
Maltby Rote: Commission something wonderful, like this.
Hillary Butler Fine Art, as seen on Nashville, and here.
Steve Keene: Fun!
Saw & Mitre Frame Co.: Print your pics, frame your story.
St. Frank: “Home luxury for the modern bohemian.” Love that. (I posted about Saw & Mitre and St. Frank here.)
Joanna Hope Art: Beauty. Watch her amazing process videos.

For a lovely lady:
Stella & Dot: Katherine is selling jewelry (and tons of other great gifts) to underwrite her pro bono counseling.
Lydali and Umba both support handmade artists and small batch producers. Beautiful stuff.
Tara Montgomery Jewelry and Erin McDermott Jewelry: ::swooning::
LaLa Land NYC, because stationery = life.
BeautyCounter: safe skincare and makeup.
FashionABLE: Gorgeous products made by “women who have overcome.”

For a dashing dude:
(Some of these could be girl things, but I’m trying to round out my categories.)
Tucker Blair: Needlepoint belts, flasks, and preppiness galore. “When in doubt, prep out.” -Israel Ortega
Nashville Fit Factory: My cousin Zach coaches here, where they’re known for a community/family feel. The first class is free.
Bring It Food Hub (Memphis): Share some CSA love! They’ve also got coffee and other local goodies.
Pork Barrel BBQ: Lots of good pork-centric options, including cologne—“an intoxicating bouquet of spices, smoke, meat, and sweet summer sweat.”
Bonobos: So his rear will look good.

For Fido:
Haha, just kidding. I don’t have any animal suggestions.

Please comment if you have any friends’ shops we might want to patronize!

Update with new additions:
Lebelle Soaps: Artisan tallow shaving soap and aftershave = perfect guy stocking stuffer.
Maggie Russell: another great Memphis artist. Don’t miss her funny, quirky greeting cards.

None of the above are sponsored links. But if you’re into supporting one another, here’s your [pre-Black Friday/Cyber Monday] reminder that I’m an Amazon affiliate. So if you click over there from one of my links then order something—anything, not only whatever I linked—I’ll receive a teensy commission, no change in price for you. Thanks in advance for helping a sister out!

Christmas by the numbers

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Merry Christmas from Graceland!

On this, the twelfth day of Christmas, I’m totally on board with keeping Christmas going all through Epiphany. Not only does it appeal to my natural slacker, but the longer celebration provides an antidote to the inevitable disappointment when events don’t follow your vision for the perfect, beautiful Christmas morning. We’re not perfect; that’s fine. I wrote a reflection for my friend Elizabeth’s blog about the angels and the shepherds and what it meant to me to rejoice not because things are perfect, but because God has come near. You can wrap up this last day of Christmas by reading it here.

We had a wonderful—not perfect—fun, old-fashioned family Christmas (name that movie!) in Memphis, with Israel’s and my families combining forces for an epic Christmas Palooza 2K14. Mama Rote compiled the stats:

16 people
12 adults
4 girls 3 and under
6 Ortegas
5 Rotes (+  1 soon to be Rote)
4 Slakases
7 days
1 birthday party for a 1 year old
4 gallons of milk
10 pounds of corn tortillas
7 dozen eggs
3 gallons of pozole
3 high chairs (+ 1 booster seat)
3 cribs
3 strollers
countless diapers
50+ loads of laundry
30+ plus dishwasher loads
1 Grizzlies game, complete with overtime
14 rolls of paper towels
5 dozen tamales
1 1/2 gallon of vegetable beef soup
1 ping-pong tournament
1 Chinese checkers tournament
2 aerobeds
2 dogs 
1 cat
FOURTEEN, yes, FOURTEEN cases of a nasty tummy bug.**
*Some numbers estimated
**Will says that a positive thing is that, in the aggregate, we gained less weight as family due to ‘the circumstances.’

It was so fun to be together, despite the tummy bug. Now we’re back at home, watching Downton Abbey and maybe White Christmas one last time! In Mexico, children receive gifts from the Tres Reyes Magos on Epiphany, so last night Mary Tobin and I put shoes out in the hall, with pine needles instead of hay for the camels as the wise men came through, and this morning we found one last Christmas treat. Today we’re packing away the decorations, and I hope I can convince Israel to burn our tree in the fire pit in the back yard tonight . . . wouldn’t it be beautiful and symbolic, like the light in darkness, the star leading to the Christ Child?? OK, I love fire. I’m a pyromaniac.

If you’re packing up today, too, here’s some free advice I picked up from my Aunt Kace. She has pretty Christmas frames with photos from family Christmases in years past that she stores with her decorations (but too many embarrassing middle school ones, Aunt Kace!!). So now I’m keeping an eye out for Christmas frames at post-holiday sales and trying to tuck away any good photos with the ornaments. I haven’t found many frames that I like, but we brought out pictures and subbed them into our usual frames for the month, and I love the nostalgic effect!

 photo 8759CC53-AD8D-458D-8785-D1D36FC356BE_zpslzyzsgs3.jpgIn looking through this year’s pictures, I spotted a bit of a theme:
 photo B1011067-3F3A-484B-8E4D-6C3C6F0F0153_zps8dnbgm9l.jpg  photo 37E2C393-8BF9-4352-9558-B3B0AE079C2F_zpsnnevrhnu.jpg Just offering Baby Jesus what we can. (Food is our love language. I would probably take the chocolate, but the tamales are also really good.)

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Cards!

A little public service announcement: Minted holiday cards are on sale 20% off until midnight tonight. (You don’t have to personalize them right now, but you can go ahead and place an order to get the discount.) I ordered ours last week, and they also threw in free recipient addressing. #winning

Christmas cards are such fun, but I’m a little bit torn about the phenomenon of sending family pictures every year. On one hand, I love getting the pictures from friends; on the other hand, sometimes it feels like we’re taking the focus off the celebration and onto how cute our families are. (Just thinking out loud here, folks. Please send me your family photo Christmas card!! Please.) Two of the last three years we’ve used the opportunity to send a birth announcement/Christmas card, so who am I to talk. This piece in the Washington Post last year put a finger on it— “Thank you for your impersonal and self-serving holiday card. It’s lovely.” —lack of handwritten notes, etc. I’m an old person, I guess, is the bottom line.

Growing up my family didn’t usually send cards. I remember one year we were thinking about it, and I got into a discussion with Dad about the options. He said Option 1 is a generic holiday card. Option 2 would be a Christmas card with a standard message. Option 2B (this is the only option Dad was interested in) would be a Christmas card that takes it up a notch with an inspirational message. Then I asked about cards for our Jewish friends, and he conceded that we could get a few Option 1 cards for them . . . needless to say, we didn’t send anything that year (or ever after). This is funnier if you know my dad.

This year I tried to walk the line by choosing a design with a greeting on the front, and a spot for our picture on the back. Can you guess which one of these we chose? Hint: it’s one of the million with berries on it.

Minted is fun because you can decide which backer you want to use: blank, one picture, two, three, six, etc. (If you order from them, I’d love for you to use my affiliate link. Thanks!)

And if you care to know, I have been known to use my dad’s philosophy of Option 2B (Christmas card with inspirational message), but I like the inspirational message to be vague and elegant, like a line from a traditional carol (“Tidings of comfort and joy” for example), instead of cheesy. Not that Captain Papa would ever be cheesy.

Do you have a Christmas card policy?

Midweek Motivation: “Simply Charming!”

So maybe not motivation/inspiration, just a little holiday cheer for your Tuesday:

This is probably my favorite scene from Miracle on 34th Street; I quote it all the time. 1947 humor, you slay me.

Although our Christmas movie list has to be hammered out each year, it’s certain that we’ll watch Miracle on 34th Street sometime during Thanksgiving weekend.

One thing Mary Tobin is into right now is talking on her “butter phone”— a wooden block from her set of kitchen play food. She carries it in her jacket pocket, takes it out and says hello and tells the person on the other end (usually one of her grandmothers, or maybe Meggie, my friend who she’s met once) what we’re doing. She swipes the screen with her finger like Mama and Papa do, and recently she’s started taking pictures with the phone or just pulling up pictures of her baby cousins to show us.

Naturally we tried to get her to say “Hellloooooo” like drunk Mrs. Shellhammer, but Mary Tobin wouldn’t take the bait.

“No.” ::shakes head:: (How silly of ME to ask!)

No more pliable baby to experiment on!

 photo null_zpsb866c2e8.jpgMary Tobin and Papa conducting some business in the taxi.

 photo null_zps1432da0b.jpgThanksgiving. Mary Tobin taking a picture of me taking a picture.

On a separate note, MT is wearing a dress by Mama Rote, scarf by Abuela; preppy sweater to represent her father, and moccasins to represent her bohemian-chic mother (right?)– and also Native Americans. :)

P.S. Related: Louis C.K. on kids and cell phones. I love him so much. “I don’t care what you want. It’s not even interesting.”

My Bilingual Sheep

Indulge me in some late Christmas pictures . . . since they are adorable.

nativity play

In December we saw Mary Tobin’s theatrical debut as a sheep in the nativity play. She wasn’t enthusiastic, but at least she wasn’t a lobster. (“There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus??” Name that movie.)

My standard way to participate at our Spanish-speaking church is to help out with the kids, since most of them speak English. I assisted at the rehearsal for their Christmas performance, and was rewarded with a great personal victory. A new little girl who only speaks Spanish was playing the cow. I was trying to get everyone in their places and my baby-level Spanish did the trick! “Mi vaca, ven aca! Ven aca. Sientate.” (“My cow, come here! Come here. Sit.”)

We hope Mary Tobin will be bilingual, and we’re using the One Parent One Language (OPOL) strategy.  Israel speaks to her in Spanish and I speak to her in English. Except sometimes I’ll throw in una frase or two, since I’m pretty much conversational as you can tell from this little story.

Chalk it up in the WIN column!

Christmas Movie Battles: “Everything is Hunky Dunky”

It was a Dostoevsky character who said that God and the devil are fighting over beauty and “the battlefield is the heart of man.” My updated version: that husbands and wives are fighting for their marriages, and the battlefield is the Netflix queue.

By the time we’ve been married 50 years, Israel and I will have hammered out our ultimate Christmas movie list, and the order in which films must be watched will be well established. I got in some trouble this December for making us watch Love Actually too early. (You want to save the best ones for closer to Christmas.)

My victory this year: Israel took me to see White Christmas The Musical at the Kennedy Center. That’s love. (It’s a musical. “That means that the performers will periodically dance about and burst into song.” Name that movie.) White Christmas is one of my favorite movies, so even though the dancing and costumes in this performance were a lot of fun, it’s impossible to live up to Bing and Danny. I could watch the movie over and over. In order to sustain the yearly tradition for the other half of this marriage, though, we may have to create a White Christmas drinking game: take a sip when Danny Kaye rubs his arm. When a new number begins. And whenever the general enters the scene. Why? Because he’s the man.

Israel’s victory: tonight, at the pinnacle of our Christmas movie season, we’ll have a screening of It’s A Wonderful Life.  I’ll admit that this one is not at the top of my list—a little too much of a downer (especially compared to the singing, dancing, and glorious technicolor of White Christmas!)

But I always loved it when George and Mary fall in the pool, and when he offers to lasso the moon for her. Sigh.


So, in a Christmas movie ultimate smackdown battle royale, which do you think would come out on top? White Christmas or It’s A Wonderful Life?

Other observations so far this season:

The plots of way too many made-for-TV movies have to do with creating a fake engagement or fake boyfriend to bring home to your family for the holidays. I can think of three that we encountered this year, so I’m sure there are many more. (And during the rest of the year you can watch Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence’s classic My Fake Fiance.) Lesson: if you’re looking for love, just get yourself into a situation where you need to lie to your family and hire a boyfriend. It’s highly likely that you will hate the person in the beginning, but hilarity and bonding will ensue, and you may just find that what you’ve been looking for all along is right under your nose!

But seriously. Don’t miss Christmas in Connecticut and Uncle Felix saying, “Everything is hunky dunky!”


I’m officially a fan of this one, and I love Barbara Stanwyck’s voice.

We hope things are hunky dunky for you, and that your encounter with Santa goes better than this:

santa 1 santa 2 santa 3

These pictures simultaneously slay me and crack me up. Don’t tell me I’m a bad mother. It was less than five seconds. (Pics by Shannon. Thanks!)

P.S. Christmas movie reviews from years past.

Wrapping in Style

LLUM Christmas Store

Last week Mary Tobin and I took a fun outing over to the Little Lights Christmas Store. (I help out at Little Lights Urban Ministries as much as I can now that the princesa is here—which, let’s be honest, has been far less than I expected. As Israel likes to point out, she’s a tough boss.)

The Christmas Store is a new tradition for Little Lights, replacing a big party, which in years past has been held at a church in Maryland with volunteers and donors providing food, gifts, etc. This year all those resources were channeled into smaller celebrations within LLUM’s after-school programs, and then—drumroll—the Family Center was transformed into the Christmas Store for four days.

The parents of Little Lights kids received an invitation to shop (and enjoy Christmas music, cookies, coffee, and hot chocolate) and select a gift for their child from 200+ toys. Video here.

Instead of kids each receiving a gift at our Christmas Party in early December, parents got to choose the gift and save it for Christmas morning, or whenever their family celebration is.

Although the kids always loved the party and went crazy for their gifts (video of the madness here: “A baby alive!!!!”), the Christmas store will return since it’s more empowering for parents and keeps the celebration within the neighborhood.

Parents wrapped their gifts and wrote cards or gift tags, and I got to help with wrapping a little bit, which I love.

Typically, this is how my wrapping goes. I save all gift bags, ribbons, tissue paper, and salvageable gift wrap supplies from any event. I hoard them in my closet, which makes no sense given our place is tiny urban and hip. I also hold on to bags from local stores that could be used for gifts. (Y’all, not Victoria’s Secret bags, but brown ones or solid color ones. Lots of little shops or food places use generic bags without their logo.) I have a roll of brown butcher paper, which I must’ve grudgingly bought at some point. So, my favorite gifts are wrapped in brown paper or a brown bag, then have a bright fun ribbon.

Here are some inspiring images from a quick pinterest search:

Did you spot the awesome household items: newspaper, neon office supply stickers, cup cake wrappers!?

What are your wrapping tricks? Huge ribbon? Comics? Help us out with your wrapping wisdom.

P.S. The Washington Post Magazine ran this little piece a couple weeks ago, about a girl at a shelter who was just so happy she got a gift with her name on it, that didn’t say, “Girl, age 11.” Wow, that was killer. And it reinforced to me the wisdom of updating the Little Lights Christmas traditions. I don’t know what it will mean for you, but it challenges me to think about how our good deeds this Christmas can focus more on filling a real need, rather than fulfilling our own need to do a good deed. What are your thoughts?

OK, guys, sorry this post is schizophrenic. That’s two action items. You don’t have to do both. Wrapping technique? Thoughts about better/more empowering charitable giving?

Advent, part 2

C.S. Lewis Longing

So in that last post I was not trying to be a downer, but being hopeful. This time of year is not about my personal perfection, it’s about my great need. So when I find myself (or you find yourself) trying to be the Queen of Christmas, that means somewhere along the way, priorities have gone—no, careened wildly!—off track.
That said, I’m more than a little proud of our pinterest-inspired Advent calendar.
advent calendar
Inside some of the bags are the animals and figures from the nativity scene, and random other decorations and goodies are in the rest. We read a children’s Advent book after dinner then let Mary Tobin reach into the bags for the next treasure. By now, she gets the drill and starts going bananas when we take the bag down from the ribbon.

Advent 5
Advent 4  Advent 6

Full disclosure, though. This was not my first Advent calendar attempt. My first attempt was inspired by the following image, which I think is charming and low-maintenance (like myself right?):

Unfortunately, this woman’s socks were a lot more charming than mine. When Israel returned home from a trip, I was excited to show him the results of my creative craft time. He liked the idea of the Advent/Christmas countdown, but when he looked at the strand of socks, he asked “Will people think we’re drying laundry or something?” No, no no! It’s cute! It’s like stockings! For Christmas! “Yeah, I like it. Maybe we can hang it in the bedroom. Or in my closet.”

What a Scrooge, am I right? Fortunately, we had brown lunch bags (inspired by this pinterest image) and some red and white craft paper for numbers. I grumbled as I sat and cut and pasted numbers, but as everything came together I was cooing with delight. It looks, approximately, a million times better than my sock ribbon. Also, cutting out numbers and letters is one of my hidden talents.

P.S. My friend and neighbor Shannon’s advent calendar is one of the coolest I’ve seen.

P.P.S. Don’t go nuts, just choose one thing.

O, Come Emmanuel, or, Advent LOTR Style.

Remember when the Lord of the Rings trilogy was coming out in theaters a few years ago and everyone was so Tolkien crazy? (I was in college at the time, and I even used LOTR as a template for a paper in one of my religious studies classes: “Durkheim to Barth by way of The Lord of the Rings.” I hope the Tolkien mania is refreshed with The Hobbit film.)

I read something today that called to mind this excellent quote, a remnant, programmed into my brain from those LOTR-crazy days of yore:

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.

Love mingled with grief felt poignant. Then I saw the lyrics to “O Come, Emmanuel” and listened to a beautiful, mournful version of the song. It’s actually pretty depressing: captive Israel is mourning in lonely exile, waiting. Asking God to “disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.” “Close the path to misery.” “Free thine own from Satan’s tyranny.”

But then: Rejoice!

I know Advent is about waiting for Christmas. But, I forget that waiting is a big deal only when where you are now is not so great. You wouldn’t excitedly anticipate conditions getting worse. And no need to wait and hope if you already have what you need.

Ashley wrote some great posts about Christmas in Denmark. It is a big freaking deal there. (My favorite is the kalenderlys: Christmas countdown candle!). In a land where it’s getting dark at 3 in the afternoon, it makes sense for Christmas to develop into a huge festival. Otherwise, how could one survive winter? (And good thing the church co-opted whatever pagan festival it was before…)

A life of faith is about learning to live with joy and pain at once– love mingled with grief, as Haldir/Tolkien said. Or Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” So, I acknowledge the darkness. People are sick, relationships are crappy, and sometimes there are no answers, at least not easy ones. But then: Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.