The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas

“Everybody in the Austin family is excited on the first day of December because every day for twenty-four days they will do something special to prepare for the twenty-fifth day, Christmas Day, the most joyful day in the whole year.”

And so begins The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas by Madeleine L’engle.

I read an old copy of this book as child ( it was published in 1964) and the memories of Mother and her Advent preparations, her Advent activities, stayed with me.

When I became a mother myself, I had a vision for Advent already in mind. Preparing as a family for Christmas. Making and pulling out an Advent calendar. Making cookies. Assembling a crèche or nativity scene. Crafts. Cooking. Carols. Books. Music.

And prayers and masses and movies,  in a modern Catholic family twist.

There is a danger, however, that Advent can become yet another time of busy-ness. Of being task oriented. Of endless to do lists.

“Advent, John could tell you, is the name for the four weeks of preparation and thought that lead up to Christmas day.”

Preparation and thought. Not necessarily frantic activity and compulsion to do everything that Mrs Austin, Mother in the book, does.

“The kitchen is a big wandery room that turns corners and as kinds of unexpected nooks and crannies. In the dining room end a fire is crackling merrily, and the smell of applewood mingles with the smell of pancakes and maple syrup, and hot chocolate with marshmallows.”

In our current house, our kitchen opens onto our dining area, it is light and symmetrical. The teens woke this morning to freshly made pikelets, tea in my variety of cute and fanciful teapots and our basket of Advent books. We lit the first candle in the Advent wreath.

So, yes, I do the Mrs Austin-ish Advent things. Well, some of them. Well, my own version.

But ultimately I know that Advent preparation and thought and prayer should be interior as well as exterior…Holy Mass, the Novena for the Immaculate Conception, the sacrament of penance, the rosary.

Being faithful.

Even if we don’t do all the Advent activities, the crafts, the cooking, the books…

We prepare and think and pray.

We find that star, the Light of Christ, in our faithfulness . In His Love.

“One star is brighter and more sparkling than any of the others. ‘The Christmas star,’ Vicky whispers. Its light seems to shine right down into her heart.”



“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit…And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.” Catechism of the Catholic Church 81.

“What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.” Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops that accompanied the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum

This is an example of our understanding, as Catholics, of Tradition.

Now contrast this with a parish reflection on the parable of the employer, the three servants, the talents. ” This (parable) is a criticism of religious tradition. …In our Church today, there are people who do not want to change anything, who want to go back to the old way of doing things. The want to bury the Spirit of God in the napkin of Tradition.”

Mm. I don’t think that our Holy Father would agree. We are to hold sacred that which earlier generations held as sacred. This is not a refusal to change at whim but an obedience to the Church, who has authority to change discipline but who has also respect for our heritage.

We do not bury talents in Tradition..we follow the Church, we respect what has gone before us, we build our talents, our faith, in obedience to Church teaching. Not in obedience to a subjective spirit of the law. An obedience to to the Church, to Tradition, and with a prayerful respect of those little traditions, too.


What do unschoolers do?

We have lived in very small houses and still live in suburbia.

What do we do with our days? What did we do when all the sons were young?

Well…. We have always done a lot of park visits, library visits, putting posters in libraries and notes in homeschool newsletters for other homeschoolers to meet us at these visits.

We have done and still do regular ice skating arena sessions with other homeschoolers and lunch at the park or even Macdonalds together ( free rein on the equipment!).

Cleaning up every few hours hasn’t been a bad thing for us. We have just put some things aside or in a box to resume after meals …we still do! Even I have a work basket….or we have used the clean up as a time to change an activity or change direction eg craft in the morning and park visit or DVD or computer in the afternoon.

And asking some friends to join us for the craft or DVD or computer games… Mums chat, littlies make a mess with Lego and toys and biggies enjoy the computer game camaraderie. 

I like to question routines… Life doesn’t have to be a certain way, we can change things up to suit us.

For example, meals don’t have to be eaten at the table.. We often had picnic meals on the patio or on a blanket on the floor and we could sit together or read a story there.

Or take it to the park.

Or spread the tablecloths on the floor and watch a movie together while eating.

We can have breakfast for dinner .

We can start our day with art as we did one season .

Or start our day with a walk around our suburbs or a walk to the shops or to the park, as we did many times.

We can go to the library and get an armload of books and play at the park on the way and visit new shops and come home and chill out with books and listen to music CDs.

We can go to the video store and come back with a pile of DVDs and games.

We have joined toy libraries and brought home new toys and games.

We have gone to op shops (charity shops and secondhand shops) and brought home interesting cheap stuff to look at and play with and take apart. And cleaned it up in the next peg of cleaning.. Or said hang it, leave the mess and get some pizza for dinner! 

We have rearranged furniture and made rooms look different. I love this. It gives a different feel to a room and especially to a small house!

We have done museums and art galleries very often, again always followed by a play in the park and with or without others .

A beach trip and walk even in winter.

A nature walk in our suburbs and collect finds or take a million photos .

Set up a container garden.. We currently have a mini lemon tree and a mini mandarin tree in pots that we planted two years ago in those same pots in our last house. These bore fruit this year!

We have always done and still do a lot of cooking ( and you get to eat the results!).

Cooking and playing with playdough.

Small pets like fish and birds and a cat.

Visit a pet shop .

Get out dress ups.

Buy foam balls for in house volleyball.. Over the sofa! My kids favourite.

One of those indoor small boouncy trampolines were popular here and the boys still love run inside and outside games with nerf guns.

Or take water pistols to the park. 

They also liked turning the kitchen table or the sofas into cubbies with blankets and pillows and playing there for hours… Eating there too so no cleanup till getting ready for dinner .

Or if we were doing schoolwork do it in mum and dad’snbedroom.. Leaning against or on the bed together, littlies in and out with toys, lie on the bed together and read. Just last week I and four sons sat and lay on the double bed or balanced on the foot and hung out and chatted. 

Go on a bike ride and skateboard ride around the neighborhood.

Go on park crawls and skateboard park crawls.

Visit new shopping centres and new libraries.

Stop to look at landmarks or signs.

Visit historical houses.

Organize these sorts of outings with other homeschoolers. 

Visit other parishes and churches. Pop in for a visit and prayer. Read the history.

These are just a few of the things we did and do, living your average unschooling suburban life.

It’s a beautiful life…


Unschooling joy?

Unschooling joy?

Can we unschool and experience joy or contentment, regardless of  our circumstances?

“I speak not as it were for want. For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, to be content therewith.” Phillipians 4:11

I decided that part of Unschooling for me would be looking for joy at this moment.

In other words, in spite of stressful things in my life, well… as much as possible, I would treat my mothering as the job or vocation that it is.

You know, when you get dressed and go to work outside the home, regardless of what is happening at home, you put on That Bright Face and smile and are cheerful and work hard…Well, that is what I try to remember at home. It’s not my kids’ fault things may be problematic so regardless I try to set the tone… Smile, do something nice even if I don’t feel like it, be willing to give ourselves a break and have fun, say yes more. Go out even just to the park or to a friends house!

Amazingly, when I do this, especially the saying yes more and being with my kids instead of directing them towards schoolwork, then I feel happier and less stressed. Of course, I have moments when I lose it or when I am utterly exhausted and just curl up on the sofa.. But when I look for joy in the little things, when I say yes more, when I hang out with the kids and with my friends, when I put on a smile and some mascara (!), when I make a chocolate church with the kids even though I am tired ( as we did for the dedication of the Lateran Basilica)… Then I just feel happier and love my life in spite of any problems.

I have learned contentment.

I have to say that my prayer life has been of paramount importance. I pray the morning and evening prayers of the Divine Office and I try to get to daily mass and weekly confession. That gives me peace.

“To converse with You, O King of glory, no third person is needed, You are always ready in the Sacrament of the Altar to give audience to all. All who desire You always find You there, and converse with You face to face.” St Teresa of Avila

And I do a workout every day, no matter how short, as those endorphins give me a high!!

We have structure in our day and week, too, just not school structure . Most often structure scheduled around homeschool activities and my work. We do better here with less clutter and more rhythm but that rhythm might be tidy ups pegged to meals and a DVD with dinner most nights for example. Or it could be lie down on the sofa with some Maths and Latin.

These routines pave the way for contentment.

Ultimately, however, contentment and joy are like love…a choice, made in and with His grace.

“The only way to make it in this homeschooling life is to reach for God instead of reaching for happiness. Trying harder to be happy or content will not make you happy and content; trying harder to rest in God and depend upon His grace will. It is a spiritual issue, not a practical one. Contentedness will not come from being more organized, sleeping longer, being a better wife, having a better home, using better materials, having more time to yourself, or whatever you think might help. Contentedness is learned in the process of daily accepting life as God gives it to you, and adjusting your expectations to life’s limitations.” Sally Clarkson, Season of A Mother’s Heart


I wish unschooling for everyone..

We recently had a discussion on our Unschooling Catholics email list…on that ubiquitious statement, oh so familiar to all homeschoolers with an unschooling bent…Unschooling sounds great but *I* could never do it.
Maybe the speaker couldn’t. Or shouldn’t.
Or maybe they should and could…if they are willing to step out of their box.
I’m on my seventh teenage unschooler here.. And my thought and experience is that unschooling works with relationship and time.

Time because a child who does not pick up a book at age eight can become a a teen studying liberal arts at university and reading and enjoying philosophy and theology… And yes, I am describing one of my sons! I would strew books that he would never pick up unless they were non fiction full-of-pictures DK and Usborne books. However, we kept reading aloud and listening to books on CD and watching movie versions of books and letting him follow his interests… Which when he was young was all about the outdoors and activity. So I think Unschooling works best over time. 
Time because it takes awhile for “no strings attached” strewing to take… By no strings I mean that I really don’t mind if no one takes up my strewing but instead strews their own stuff. And with expectations off, my sons have been more likely to explore new ideas and activities and books.
Relationship because that has been the way Unschooling works in our house. It has enhanced our relationships because we spent time together not doing school but reading aloud, watching movies, drawing, cooking, going to parks and outings and talking. It’s this quantity time that is sometimes missing when mums and kids are rushing to do school and then to homeschool activities. And yet this quantity time has been the biggest aid to our learning… so one son, who used to make a big fuss about any sort of formal work when young is the one who is now  at university, writing essays and talking to me about chastity and celibacy and how he doesn’t think celibacy would be so hard as your mind, his mind, is on other things.. At the moment Cicero. (!) Now, he was the one who you could have said would not be a poster child for Unschooling, would spend oodles of time on computer games and make a big fuss about chores and really did spend a year or two around age sixteen or so just playing games and hanging out ( and doing chores and serving at mass and helping in the parish). 
Or let me give an example of another son ( did I mention I have seven sons…thus many examples!) who was also a non writer and often a non reader. But who grew, however,  into reading Shakespeare as a teen, who has a degree and now works  in politics, works hard, long hours and yet still finds time to go to mass or confession on weekdays as well. 
Are they perfect? No.
Were they the perfect poster unschooler kids? No.
Were we the perfect unschooler poster family? No, not with our problems, financial problems, moving many many times, mum’s health problems and miscarriages, unemployment, extended family crises, months where we did nothing but chores and watch movies and read and cook and eat. And I went through stages of let’s try this (  CM or classical or curriculum) but we always came  back to just living and learning.
Where am I going with this?
That I would wish Unschooling for everyone.
That blossoming of self and interests and relationships.
Unschooling tweaked to suit each family but Unschooling where the child and family are more important than is he reading, is he doing maths, can he meet these outcomes? Ad infinitum.
 In my experience, the unschooled children can meet outcomes, over time, with a good relationship ( “darling , for uni you will need more maths and writing so how about we try x and y… “…Easily suggested and more likely to be taken up when relationship in place) and with tweaking to suit each child and family. 
Unschooling has brought me to my knees, to my Faith, to the sacraments , many many times… Heck, I became a Catholic! Me! It’s that trust in Our Lord, in the Holy Spirit’s workings in my life and in the life of my kids, in the graces of the sacraments. 
So my answer to is Unschooling for everyone is.. It’s up to the parent!
Are you prepared to read more, pray more, live with your kids, daily give more of yourself, move out of your comfort zone, educate yourself, give it a good long try, no strings attached!?
For Unschooling requires effort as the vocation of mothering requires effort .. Effort and prayer… It’s just that the effort is spent in time with the child and family and not with curriculum and programmes. 
And the rewards are manifold.