12 Days of Christmas Cookies: Peppernuts

This Christmas, we’re sharing 12 Christmas cookie recipes to help you prepare for your cookie parade (also called a cookie swap or cookie party). Or, you know, just for eating yourself.

Peppernuts–or Pfeffernüsse, if you want to be technical about it–are a Danish/Dutch/German, but, most importantly, Mennonite (specifically of the Midwestern variety) cookie. They’re labor intensive (If you are working with a partner, you will finish them in A Muppet Christmas Carol; working alone, you’ll probably be able to watch both Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York), so they are made by many Mennonites around Christmas. Thankfully, if stored in an airtight container, they last a long time.

There are a zillion recipes for peppernuts out there, but the basics are: some kind of sugar (molasses, white sugar, brown sugar, dark or light Karo syrup), which determine if they are “light” or “dark” peppernuts; a fat or combination of them; a mix of spices (Pepper is not required, despite the name. People have very strong feelings about the inclusion of anise.); possible fruits (dates, raisins, etc.) or ground nuts; and flour. You can see why one of my local church cookbooks includes 9 different recipes for this one cookie.

I’ve chosen a peppery, anise-forward version to share here because I like them spicy. The texture is like biscotti–quite hard and good for serving with tea.

Ingredients and Directions:
Cream together:

  • 2 c. light karo syrup
  • 1 1/2 c. shortening
  • 1/2 c. butter

Add

  • 3 tsp. finely ground black pepper
  • 3 tsp. nutmeg
  • 3 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 tsp. cardamom
  • 2 tsp. ginger
  • 2 tsp. cloves

Plus:

  • 3 tsp. anise oil
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 tsp lemon extract

Stir in

  • 2 c. sour cream

Add

  • enough flour to make a stiff dough (probably 5-6 cups)

Roll into snakes about the circumference of a pencil. Slice, then either bake sliced or re-roll gently into balls. At this size, I fit 12 rows and 8 columns on a quarter-sized baking sheet. I made about almost 1600 total from this recipe.

Bake 8-10 minutes.img_3361.jpg

The ideal peppernut should look like it was cut out by a thimble. This one is as big as the fingernail on my pinkie–just perfect!

So many reminders of how loved we have been in November

November is almost no one’s favorite month–and the least favorite for lots of people. According to 2005 data from Gallup (the only time I found the question asked), November was ranked 11th, ahead of only February. And since Novembers have only gotten more stressful since 2005, with unpleasant elections and their aftermath taking up much of the month, it’s easy to imagine that many of us like it even less.

And there is a lot to dislike: shortened days and long nights, the start of the cold but rarely snow to make it worthwhile, the leaves are mostly fallen, the mums dead. The gemstone is the topaz, the ugliest.

On the other hand, a holiday devoted to cooking and eating, a daily reminder to go to sleep earlier, the start of Advent, and my birthday (which, now that you know about it, you should feel free to celebrate!)

Here’s what we’re loving about it

Our shelves are full of little things we love, especially photos of travels that now seem like a lifetime ago.

A wooden bird in a wooden frame
What a birthday! A much longed-for waffle iron, a new casserole dish, pajamas, and zero-proof cordials

First Sunday of Advent: Hope

The first Sunday of Advent is the first day of the year on the liturgical calendar. It’s also the the Sunday of Hope. You hear it in today’s readings, which include  parts of Isaiah 64. Here is an excerpt from The Message:

Since before time began
    no one has ever imagined,
No ear heard, no eye seen, a God like you
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who happily do what is right,
    who keep a good memory of the way you work.
But how angry you’ve been with us!
    We’ve sinned and kept at it so long!
    Is there any hope for us? Can we be saved?
We’re all sin-infected, sin-contaminated.
    Our best efforts are grease-stained rags.
We dry up like autumn leaves—
    sin-dried, we’re blown off by the wind.
No one prays to you
    or makes the effort to reach out to you
Because you’ve turned away from us,
    left us to stew in our sins.

Still, God, you are our Father.
We’re the clay and you’re our potter:
All of us are what you made us.
Don’t be too angry with us, O God.
Don’t keep a permanent account of wrongdoing.
Keep in mind, please, we are your people—all of us.
Your holy cities are all ghost towns:
Zion’s a ghost town,
Jerusalem’s a field of weeds.
Our holy and beautiful Temple,
which our ancestors filled with your praises,
Was burned down by fire,
all our lovely parks and gardens in ruins.
In the face of all this,
are you going to sit there unmoved, God?

To hear a really beautiful reading of this, listen to my friend Chuck read it, starting at minute 10:25.

Like many families, we use an Advent wreath to guide us through the Sundays of Advent. Here is ours this year:

Advent People: The Shepherds

This year, I’m sharing a bit about an Advent activity my church did last Advent during our time dedicated to children. Each Sunday of Advent, we introduced a few new characters to the Christmas story, each a porcelain figure about the size of a thimble. The figures were hidden in the church each week, moving closer and closer to the Bethlehem, the manger, and the star, and children were invited to search for them after church each week, sharing where they found them with other children so that everyone could find them. If they shared the location with the adult who led children’s time that Sunday, they received a small stone with one of that week’s figures painted on it as a prize, so that by the end of Advent, they had a Holy Family + Angel nativity scene.

The first week of Advent, we explained what the next few weeks would entail, and we reviewed it for just a few moments at the start or end of each of the following weeks’ children’s time so that new children would be included. Each week, the leader showed the children the new figures being added to the scene, then hid them during the bustle of children’s dismissal. The third week (December 13 in 2020), we focused on the shepherds.

Our children span from 2-12, and some are very familiar and some very unfamiliar with the Christmas story. Our speaker during Week 3 focused on shepherds as outsiders. She shared briefly about what shepherds did (watched flocks of sheep) and talked about why that was both a needed and a dirty job. She explained that they were considered untrustworthy by the rest of society–so much so that people were discouraged from doing any kind of business with them because they were thought to be cheaters and thieves. This made it hard for them to get the things they needed. We were left with the question: Why were some of the first people God wanted to share the good news of Jesus’ birth with shepherds, of all people? What does that tell us about how God values all people? How can we make sure that people our society might call “lowly” are are included and have their needs met? We ended by singing “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow” as a congregation.

Later, children who found the shepherd and sheep were rewarded with a stone of Joseph.

Alternatives for this week would be to focus on Joseph’s faithfulness to Mary during a time of uncertainty for him or the importance of trusting the people we love when they tell us about what God is doing in their life.

**Adults telling the story of the shepherds should consider the specific children in front of them. For example, in Kansas, where I live, some communities heavily invested in agriculture or meat packing, work often done by immigrants. Adults should speak sensitively about the nature of this kind of work and its social meaning if they fear local families being demeaned by talking about the low status of shepherds.

What are we thankful for?

Sometimes I get to share children’s time teachings with my congregation. When I do, I share them here. 

For this children’s time, from the Sunday before Thanksgiving, children shared parts of creation that they are thankful for. In the weeks before, they submitted drawings of landscapes, plants, and animals that they love. I used these to illustrate the first creation story in Genesis, viewing humans as dependent on nature rather than dominating it, an insight from Native American expressions of Christianity.

Advent People: Mary and Joseph

This year, I’m sharing a bit about an Advent activity my church did last Advent during our time dedicated to children. Each Sunday of Advent, we introduced a few new characters in the Christmas story, each a tiny porcelain figure.  The figures were hidden in the church each week, moving closer and closer to the Bethlehem, and children were invited to search for them after church each week, sharing where they found them with other children so that everyone could find them. If they shared the location with the adult who led children’s time that Sunday, they received a small stone with one of that week’s figures painted on it as a prize, so that by the end of Advent, they had a Holy Family + Angel nativity scene.

The first week of Advent, we explained what the next few weeks would entail, and we reviewed it for just a few moments at the start or end of each of the following weeks’ children’s time so that new children would be included. Each week, the leader showed the children the new figures being added to the scene, then hid them during the bustle of children’s dismissal. The second week (December 6 in 2020), we focused on Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem.

Our children span from 2-12, and some are very familiar and some very unfamiliar with the Christmas story.

Here is one way to focus the story:

Joseph was told by the angel that Mary would give birth to a son. Gabriel even told him that God already had the baby’s name picked out: Jesus, which means Salvation, and his nickname would be Immanuel: God with us. Joseph understand how important it was for him to support Mary, and take care of her during her pregnancy so that she could have a healthy pregnancy and baby.

But there was bad news: Mary was pregnant during a time when the king of the land demanded that all the people under his rule return to the city where their families were from so they could be counted. In the US, we do something like this every 10 years–we county every single person in something called a Census. But we don’t require that everyone return to the place where their families are from to get counted. But that is how the king did it then. So Mary and Joseph had to travel about 90 miles to get to Bethlehem. It probably took them a week to walk this far, and it would have been especially hard for Mary, because she was just about ready to give birth! The route wasn’t flat; it was uphill and downhill. And, at the time of year it occurred, the weather was mostly cold and rainy during the day and freezing at night. They had to walk by the Jordan forest, which had bears, lions, and wild boars in it. They may have faced robbers, and they would have traveled with others going to Bethlehem so that they were less likely to be attacked by robbers. They probably walked about 10 miles each day, about half the pace of other travelers who weren’t pregnant. And there were no fast food restaurants or convenience stores or highway rest stops along the way. It was hard work!

We an imagine what the trip was like. What do you think Mary and Joseph talked about? What do you think they laughed about? Do you think they felt worried, or do you think they felt confident? What promises had God made to each of them to assure them? What else might have been hard about the trip? What might they have done for each other to make it more pleasant?

Week 1, Gabriel and Mary had been hidden between the front door and the sanctuary; Week 2, these two were joined by Joseph, and they were hidden directly outside of the sanctuary. Children who found them were encouraged to tell other children who wanted help where they were located, and all children who reported where they were located received a small stone with a pregnant Mary (represented by the heart over her belly) on it. Children who had not participated the week before were also given an angel.

**Those leading story time should be sensitive to the experiences of children and adults i their audience. Children who have immigrated or those who have unstable family backgrounds (for example, homelessness) may find this story distressing, so you should teach to the children actually in front of you. This means, as much as you are able, knowing their stories and their needs.

Advent People: Mary and Gabriel

This year, I’m sharing a bit about an Advent activity my church did last Advent during our time dedicated to children. Each Sunday of Advent, we introduced a few new characters to our manger scene, a tiny one made from small porcelain figurines. Or, to be more precise, each week, we brought more of them toward Bethlehem and the manger. The figures were hidden in the church each week, moving closer and closer to the Bethlehem, the star, and the manger, and children were invited to search for them after church each week, sharing where they found them with other children so that everyone could find them. If they shared the location with the adult who led children’s time that Sunday, they received a small stone with one of that week’s figures painted on it as a prize, so that by the end of Advent, they had a Holy Family + Angel nativity scene.

The first week of Advent (November 29 in 2020), we explained what the next few weeks would entail. Children were quickly excited about finding the figures, which I showed them at the start of children’s time (then hid between the front door and the sanctuary during the first moments after children’s time ended), and nearly all of them located the figures and claimed their prize–this week, an angel.

Our children span from 2-12, and some are very familiar and some very unfamiliar with the Christmas story, so I aimed for 5-8 minutes of attentive time and tried to make no assumptions about their knowledge. After showing them to Mary and Gabriel figures, I briefly told the story this way:

This week begins Advent, the four weeks before Christmas when Christians around the world Jesus’ birth. Because Jesus is God, when Jesus is born, this is one way that God has come into our world so that we can understand what God is like.

The first person God told about this plan was Mary, a young woman. Through the angel Gabriel, God asked her to carry the baby Jesus in her belly and then give birth to him so that people could have a first-hand experience with God. Before, they only had ideas about God; now, they would get to meet God in person and see how God wanted them to act by how Jesus acted. God trusted Mary to take care of herself and baby Jesus so that people could learn about God’s great love for the world.

Mary found out that she was pregnant when an angel named Gabriel visited her. Gabriel told Mary that God was always with her, even if she felt scared about having a baby. Because Mary loved God and wanted everyone to know how much God loved them, God had chosen her for this special job. The angel Gabriel asked her if she was willing to do this hard task, and she said yes. Like other women in her society, she was excited that God was promising to come into the world! In the Bible, her response to God was written down as a song. In it, she says that she knows that God has blessed her and that she is happy to be part of God’s plan to make the world a more fair, just place. She says she trusts that God will take care of people who are poor and hungry, and she will help make this happen by being the mother who will take care of baby Jesus.

I then discharged the children, providing the older children with a two-column handout: the lefthand column included the Magnificat, and the righthand column was empty so older children could paraphrase it on their own word or draw an illustration of it. Finally, I explained our activity for the next few weeks.

Children who located the figures of Mary and Gabriel were awarded a stone painted with an angel, the first of four figures they could collect.

 

 

Advent People: Journey to the Manger

Last year, our church focused on the gathering at the manger during our children’s time during Advent. This year, Advent begins in three weeks, so I’m sharing what we did now so that if you are interested in engaging these ideas in your own children’s time or home worship, you have time to prepare.

For each of the four Sunday of Advent, we focused on a different people at a different moment of the story: the Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the shepherds seeing the star, and the birth of the infant Jesus. We kept our focus on our theme through Epiphany, bringing in the magi, and we returned to it for Candlemas. Thus, our manger scene remained in our sanctuary for four Sundays of advent and for several weeks after. If you are following along at home or in your church, this year that would be November 29 to January 31 (the last Sunday before Candlemas).

Our children’s time is offered by volunteers in the congregation. Each week, children from infants to about age 12 come forward to the front of the sanctuary for a time dedicated to them. Volunteers may tell stories, do brief activities, read books, introduce material culture related to the scripture reading of the day, etc.

During our Advent activities, we used a creche of fève figures. These very small (about the size of a thimble) porcelain figurines were hidden in the sanctuary each week, and the children were tasked with finding them after the service; if they did so, they were free to share where they found them with other children. After they reported the location back to the adult leading children’s time, they were rewarded with a small figurine of the focus of that day’s story. These were created by painting different figures (an angel, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus) on small stones sealed with Modge Podge. It took me about 2 hours to paint 30 4-figure sets.

Collection de Bethléem Nativity 10 figurines image 0

The nativity set we used. Consider using one you already own or supporting local artists in purchasing one or purchasing a fairly traded one at Ten Thousand Villages.

Over the next weeks, I’ll share more about each lesson, but if you are interested and want to get started, here is what you need:

  • 4 small stones x the number of children in your congregation + more for visitors and some for adults who may want a set (Several in my congregation did)
  • acrylic paint and brushes to create characters: I recommend very small brushes and white, medium brown, dark brown, black, blue, green, gold, and red. Use the medium brown + no white or various amounts of white to create varied skin tones, as meets your congregation’s needs. Use dark brown and black for hair.
  • Modge-Podge or other sealer
  • a fève set, an additional set of painted stones for your use in the church, or another tiny nativity
  • a star
  • a manger, if desired

 

 

Happy Halloween!

When did I become a person with a Halloween door hanger? This year, apparently.

This year, we “booed” some of our favorite local teachers. They got an after-dark present on their doorsteps. The witches at top are made from milk jugs painted green with faces drawn on them, topped with witches’ hats. Inside was candy and a bottle of wine. The mummies are toilet paper-wrapped bottles of wine with googly eyes (which we try to keep on hand by the gross). It was so fun to say “thank you” to teachers for their work this year this way!