Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

Christmas in San Antonio 2009

December 16, 2009

Well, it’s time for my annual San Antonio Christmas buñuelo report.   No one ever seems to show up at an office in this town with a holiday fruit basket.  Our office is always  the fortunate recipient of this ‘food of goodwill and good business’ tradition.  So far this year we’ve had tamales, pecans 3 ways (sugared, salted and chocolate), and trashcan sized tins of cookies, but the best is the buñuelos.  Light-as-air dough fried in copious amounts of lard until browned to the color of a Padre Island suntan, then sprinkled all over with a handful of granulated sugar and cinnamon, which adheres to the hot and greasy buñuelo like a cotton shirt to a sweaty body.   Really, they are that good.

Did you know buñuelos are most likely a Sephardic Jewish tradition?  There had to be a religious connection in there somewhere.  Did I mention I’m feeling really ill now?  Can you be hospitalized for a sugar overdose? 

The Day After Thanksgiving

November 27, 2009

and all through the house, not a creature was stirring….because they were all sleeping off the food hangover from a day of overindulgence and gluttony.  Uggh.  I feel terrible right now.   It’s  times like this I’m really glad to be Orthodox and observing the Nativity Fast.  A return to moderation come Monday will do my gastrointestinal system some good.

Blessings to all who have tolerated reading this blog and find anything remotely meaningful.  Blessings to all who are going out today to face the Black Friday shopping madness, those who are recovering today from family-induced psychosis, and to all the Aggies who need some quiet alone time to ponder the loss yesterday to that university in Austin.

Have a great laugh with this turkey of a video!   And isn’t it always the case that the cat gets the blame for everything, when we all know it’s really the dog that’s guilty.  You just can’t trust an animal that will sneakily swipe stuff off countertops then lick your face and wag their tails to reinforce the facade of trustworthiness and honor.  Dogs -the real sleeper cell terrorists in our midst.

Halloween and Orthodox Christians

October 26, 2009


Pews or no pews, kneeling on Sunday, headcoverings.  You think these cause consternation and discord among our “Little T” debates?  Try raising the issue of Halloween among 10 Orthodox Christians and you’ll get 10 different opinions, each centered around the question of  ‘what commonly observed, secular American activities are appropriate for an Orthodox Christian to take part in?   

 In this past Sunday’s church bulletin, I went back and forth about what exactly to put in concerning Halloween.  Knowing the range of opinions, I did not want to print anything that was too dogmatic or based upon my own beliefs, but was a more general treatment of the Christian holiday associated with the season and which was in line with our priest’s judgment, which is pretty neutral about Halloween.  On the other hand, very strong injunctions against the practice of Halloween have been preached in recent years, and not so recently.  You’d be surprised to know that St. John of Maximovitch, who I myself revere, dealt with Halloween in his own way back in his earliest days in San Francisco.   This is not an issue the Church has considered on a level in the way abortion or same sex marriage attack key doctrinal positions.  This is a pastoral issue and as such is subject to the various interpretations of clergy.

So in order to balance these competing pastoral opinions, I found the following explanation from the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Belief, concerning the history of All Hallow’s Eve and its connections with the modern celebration of Halloween.  Make of it what you will, but it presents a more moderate counter-balance to the usual explanation of Halloween as a strictly  Celtic, pagan influenced observance, and the gateway holiday that leads a Christian straight into Satanism and damnation.    (A few minor grammar edits are mine to adapt it for length and for use in an Orthodox publication.)

The Feast of All Saints is a holy day of the Church honoring all saints, known and unknown. This is much like the American holidays of Veterans Day and Presidents Day, where many people are honored on one day.   Christians have been honoring their saints and martyrs since at least the second century AD. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this reality:

Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.

Initially the calendars of saints and martyrs varied from location to location, and many times local churches honored local saints. Gradually, however, feast days became more universal. The first reference to a general feast celebrating all saints occurs in Saint Ephrem the Syrian (†AD 373).  Saint John Chrysostom (†AD 407) assigned a day to the feast, the first Sunday after Pentecost, where in the Eastern Churches the feast is celebrated to this day. In the West, this date was probably originally used, and then the feast was moved to May 13th. The current observance, November 1st, originates from the time of Pope Gregory III (†AD 741), and was likely first observed on that date  in Germany. This fact makes the connection of the All Saints Feast with the pagan festival Samhain less likely, since Samhain was an Irish pagan feast, rather than German.

The vigil of the Feast (the eve) has grown up in the English-speaking countries as a festival in itself, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.  While many consider Halloween pagan, as far as the [Western] Church is concerned the date is simply the eve of the feast of All Saints.  Many customs of Halloween reflect the Christian belief that on the feast’s vigils we mock evil, because as Christians, it has no real power over us.  However, for some Halloween is used for evil purposes, in which many Christians dabble unknowingly.

Various customs have developed related to Halloween. In the Middle Ages, poor people in the community begged for “soul cakes,” and upon receiving these doughnuts, they would agree to pray for departed souls. This is the root of our modern day “trick-or-treat.”  The custom of masks and costumes developed to mock evil and perhaps confuse the evil spirits by dressing as one of their own. Some Christians visit cemeteries on Halloween, not to practice evil, but to commemorate departed relatives and friends, with picnics and the last flowers of the year. The day after All Saints day is called All Soul’s Day, a day to remember and offer prayers up on behalf of all of the faithful departed.

As so often happens in our “internet as fact” culture, blog readers often visit  a variety of blogs to know what to think and believe.  They can pick and chose from millions of bloggers who use their electronic soapboxes to display a clever use of words and out-of-context sources, and to broadcast their “authoritative” opinions to the world.    I say this to dissuade anyone from using my post to argue “for” or “against” Halloween.  Opinions I have – but not the ability to make these spiritual decisions for you and your family.  That said, my own family practice has been to celebrate Halloween as a fun, silly night of dress-up, child-friendly scariness and block party revelry.  I have had many talks with the kids about the various origins of Halloween customs and some of the evils that have been improperly attached to Halloween (i.e. Satanism or animal sacrifice) and what is appropriate behavior for an Orthodox Christian.  My kids being kids, always list Halloween as one of their favorite “holidays”, right up there with Christmas and Pascha.  It makes for good segway talks into the difference between having fun and celebrating the life of our Lord and Savior, and what is truly important as a Christian.   In other words, fun in moderation and with a clear understanding of boundaries.

Is this what I think everyone should do?   Heavens no!  My opinion about Halloween may be based on my own poor discernment and failure to give all areas of my life over to the Gospel.  On the other hand, as another priest friend remarked once, “Why should the devil have all the fun?”

Everyone’s Having A Happy 4th of July (except for this guy!)

July 4, 2009

american_flagA very happy 4th of July to everyone!  Hope y’all are all proudly displaying your American flags, the privilege of which seems to be in some doubt in the Little Babylon on the River.  You may know it as the city of Austin, Texas.  Read the story and then explain to me what gives the idiot property managers at this apartment complex the right to dictate to this man what he can and can’t put up on the walls of his own apartment?  What if that was a large cross or religious tapestry or banner visible from the parking lot?   I can understand they’re just trying to maintain a nice looking property, but isn’t this going a bit far?  And anyone who says “then why can’t you fly a Confederate flag?” is just goading.   


This Is My Idea Of A Fresh Start For 2009

December 31, 2008


If there are any mothers out there who read this blog you can understand why I’m so happy right now.  My idea of a New Year’s celebration is not to go out dancing, tie one on or generally do anything more exciting than have my mom over and let the kids stay up as late as they want.   But, right at this very moment I have achieved a mothering milestone.  A pinnacle of parenthood.  A freakin’ fantastical feat of housewifery.

At 10:23 pm, Dec. 31, 2008, I finished all 2008 laundry.

If Sisyphus had been condemned to doing laundry for eternity in the Underworld instead of pushing that stupid boulder up a hill, I think he’d have been much less of a jerk while alive.    Meanwhile in present day LaLa Land, my kids and husband expect clothes to suddenly animate themselves like the Apprentice’s broom, magically washed and dried, then march up the stairs and obediently fling their cloth bodies around  coathangers, with lines of tighty whiteys and boxers queed up to hop into dresser drawers; matched socks bouncing two-by-two behind them.   (In all fairness, my 8 year old must hang up his clean clothes, but it is never done without grumbling and procrastination.)

So, before the stroke of midnight  I resolved to finish every bit of dirty laundry in this house.  I did not want to be looking at last year’s clothes baskets waiting for me in 2009, and with a little perseverence, everything is washed, folded, hung up and put away.  Woohoo!   I can finally see the bottom of all four laundry baskets.  What a feeling of accomplishment, even if I know it’s only going to last one day, two at the most.   

Get a life you say or aren’t you just the slightest bit envious? 


December 26, 2008

I can’t think of anything better than Christmas tamales for breakfast (except maybe Thanksgiving pie).   Straight out of my microwave.  I wish I could invite y’all over for tamales since I’ve got 4 dozen left.


Twisted Marketing at Restoration Hardware

December 26, 2008

Somebody needs a good smiting and I think it ought to start with the marketing or advertising department at Restoration Hardware.


This gem of spiritual advice was in the window of the Restoration Hardware store in the Alamo Quarry shopping center.  I was driving around looking for a parking place on Monday and this caught my eye.    The sad thing is that for most of the scripturally illiterate people in this country, this ad might register something slightly familiar with them.  Kind of like a few words from a song they know they’ve heard before but just can’t remember where.  We have now come down to twisting our Lord and Saviour’s own words to sell s#$@! to people who may or may not be aware of the true significance of Christmas, aside from shopping, presents, and feasting.  It’s all about giving so you can get in on the receiving.

(My ranting rings a bit hollow I think as yours truly shoves Christmas cookies and tamales into her mouth for breakfast, and is surrounded by the detritus of wrapping paper and toy carnage.)

The original context for this bit of propaganda is the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 11:9-11.

So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish?


St. John Climacus in the Ladder of Divine Ascent spells out clearly what this passage means and why and how we petition God through our prayers.

Ask with tears, seek with obedience, knock with patience. For thus he who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened…[but] all who ask and do not obtain their requests from God, are denied for one of the following reasons: because they ask at the wrong time, or because they ask unworthily and vaingloriously, or because if they received they would become conceited, or finally because they would become negligent after obtaining their request.

God knows exactly what we need even without our prayers, but it’s through prayer that we we are trying to understand His will and communicate with Him in a united, cooperative manner.  In the passage from Luke above, Jesus is speaking about our boldness before God through prayer, but that doesn’t mean you should ask Him for retro door knobs and 700 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.   That’s the same heresy the health-and-wealth gospel preachers have been passing off for years.   Jesus doesn’t owe you anything, certainly not a new set of furniture, a new car or designer clothes.  You want stuff like that,  ask Santa Claus.

When God is Born As A Little Child…

December 25, 2008


how can anything else seem important?  We should be out in the streets shouting for joy.  We should be falling down to our knees and praising God for this miracle.  We ought to be crying with happiness and amazement at what God has done for us.  Did I do anything remotely like this today?  Not at first…first I had to have a nose-out-of-joint, indignant snit, followed by a good ‘ol fashioned spell of feeling sorry for myself.  The cause?  Unfulfilled  expectations about the perfect family Christmas celebration.   Fatigue and stress caused by incessant cookie baking, house cleaning and meal preparation.  And unsympathetic and uncharitable feelings towards the entirely human nature and weaknesses of those closest to me, which at any other time of the year I freely exhibit, but which are more easily excused or overlooked without the magnification of Christmas hopes and dreams.  Basically, I’m a sinner with a Yule log in my eye.

So what pulled me out of my funk?  I went to Divine Liturgy this morning at 9 am and several things happened that brought me back to the reality of the Nativity.  The funny thing is that all of them weren’t even things that you could consider spiritual, but God isn’t always going to whack you with a cross to make you see what an idiot you are.

A beautiful, white Great Egret flying across a sun-broken cloud bank….angelic little babies and toddlers dressed in their sparkly, frilly Christmas dresses and suits….bright red Cardinals hopping in the leaf-strewn churchyard…the sound of a dearly loved former priest’s voice as he helped serve Christmas Day Liturgy….my kids playing happily with their new toys and giving me Christmas hugs.

As the Grinch learned, Christmas comes no matter what.  So how you spiritually profit from the day depends totally on your outlook.   If you’re looking for perfection in the human celebration of the Feast you will always be disappointed.  The only perfection is in Christ himself who was perfect God and perfect man and appeared this day as a little child.

God bless you all and I hope you didn’t have to go through the spiritual spanking I had to appreciate our Saviour’s birth.  Enjoy the video below that has been making the rounds of a few Orthodox blogs.  It is just beautiful and gets right to the real reason we celebrate Christmas.

Christmas in San Antonio #2

December 19, 2008


Means buñuelos.  Who doesn’t like big discs of light-as-air fried dough dusted with sugar and cinnamon?   The story goes that the local version was really popularized back in the 60’s for Hemisfair.  Someone always drops off a big bag of them at my office and they are fabulous.  If you can eat them right out of the hot oil they are ethereal, but cold with hot chocolate and I’m not complaining either.   If you want to learn about more San Antonio Christmas traditions read on.

It’s my lunch hour now so I’m off to order the biggest, most important local Christmas food staple – tamales.   Six dozen ought to do it for my family.  The debating about where to buy the best tamales in town occupies a  good deal of time for San Antonians starting about Thanksgiving.   So unless your mama hosts a tamalada you are pretty much going to have to buy them, so getting the best is very important.   Some places take orders, but others are first come, first served, so you could be standing outside a West side hole-in-the-wall at the crack of dawn.   This year the economy is pushing the price for good tamales up to at least $7 per dozen.  But that’s the price you pay for holiday tradition around here.

Nostalgic Weekend

December 15, 2008

There are some days that make you all too aware that you are alive in the present, and others that remind you constantly that everything you know about life is shaped by the experiences of your past.  My weekend was kind of like that. 

For one, I connected with my dead grandmother through the mystical seance of baking.  My Oma, dead now for close to 20 years, was a great baker.   Homemade bread with butter and honey can make me feel like I’m 8 years old again, standing in her mint green, sunny, farmhouse kitchen.   At Christmas I have resurrected a couple of her recipes, most importantly her molasses cookies and Ranger cookies.   No one ever got the correct or true recipe for the molasses cookies, but I think I’ve done a fair job of re-creation.  The Ranger Cookies I have heretically updated with the addition of chocolate chips and my kids love ’em that way.  One recipe, though, I had never been brave enough to try because of its alleged difficulty and the vagueness of her directions – the faded, handwritten directions for Leb Cookies. 

Leb Cookies are not to be confused with Lebkuchen.  Lebkuchen is a traditional German honey spice cookie.  Leb Cookies, as far as I know, are a German cookie confined to the Texas Hill Country and are made with pecans.   You will find almost no references to them in local German cook books and even fewer people make them.  I’d be willing to bet that my attempt this weekend was one of only one hundred for a fifty mile radius.   Basically, they are a mixture of butter, shortening, sugar and pecans, cooked till they caramelize slightly, then a heaping seven cups of flour and leavening mixed in while the syrup is still warm, and then stirred until you think your arm is going to fall off.  The warm dough is spread in a big pan, cooled overnight, then sliced thin and baked.  Let me just say,  my family and I will be eating more than 9 dozen of my only marginally successful attempts to recreate this tricky recipe.  But the real success of the recipe was that I thought my Oma would be so pleased that someone remembered her and the happy memories made in her kitchen. 

My second, but more important nostalgic event, was on Saturday, December 13th – the Feast of Saint Herman of Alaska – the first canonized American saint of the Orthodox Church in America.   And, it was 16 years ago to the day that I was chrismated Orthodox.  I can still remember it so vividly.  It was exciting, awkward, overwhelming and underwhelming all at the same time.  I am just glad I was received by chrismation and not baptism.  I felt strange enough standing barefooted in church; a baptism in the Holy Horse Trough (literally, but it looks nicer with a white skirt around it) would have been totally strange. (And cold.  No matter how many buckets of water they heat up on the stove, the water coming from the outside tap in December is cold.)   If the details of my memory seem a little mundane, the whole significance of what I did 16 years ago isn’t lost on me.   I can never go to church on St. Herman’s Feast without tearing up because I am so happy and grateful to God for bringing me into his Holy Church.  Becoming an Orthodox Christian remains the single most important thing I’ve ever done in my life.   

Like most important things in life, it all boils down to the significance of one single event, and everything I’ve done since has been affected by that decision.  That decision has become the nostalgic nexus of my life and has put my nostalgia for cookies, traditions, family memories into a bigger perspective.