Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Those darn moving thoughts are back....

The topic of moving has come up again. Moving is a stressful  subject for both Micah and I so these thoughts are to be considered lightly. 
The last time we moved (back from Hawaii) it was such a HUGE ordeal that I never wanted to move again. Ever. I remember telling Micah he'd have to scrape my dead body off the kitchen floor before we ever moved houses again. Yet here I am, 3 years and 4 months later, feeling that itch to move again. It doesn't seem sensible after all the time we've spent planting roots here, but the more I think about it, our roots still don't run very deep. 

Sure we've chopped down the old pine trees in the front yard and Micah has planted long-term fruit bearing trees for us to enjoy in the years to come. And sure we've planted raspberries all along the front lawn and the asparagus crop will be ready to harvest in another year. Providing long-term food sources has been a big priority to my husband as we've made a point to settle down here. 

Plus we've made a few adjustments to the house to make it feel more like home to us. I've given myself the liberty to paint the upstairs bedrooms in all the boldest, brightest colors possible, making my home feel more like...me! I really don't see any potential buyers loving my periwinkle and squash colored walls like I do. Or my yellow door.
However, as I take this all in--our home, our trees, our garden, our painted walls- there's still some pieces missing here for me in beautiful Southern Utah. Our roots don't seem to want to hold on as tight as I'd like to think because however breathtaking and beautiful and wonderful Southern Utah can be, It's been difficult to feel like I belong here as a person. 

I've talked this subject  over with Micah again and again and we both feel the same way and have come to the same conclusion:  There's nowhere perfect in the world to live and you have to make compromises anywhere you go. i.e. The Big island was awesome but we couldn't afford to live on Oahu, which is the ideal Hawaii living experience for me (us). If we lived there long-term and bought a home we also couldn't afford to ever leave, which would forfeit any plans to travel and show our children the world. So, we moved back to Cedar City where real estate was cheap and there were so many awesome wilderness opportunities. Life has been good to us here. Micah has a great job and our children love the outdoors.


But, here's the things I don't like, and the things that don't work for me, and the compromises we've had to make: 

*There's no homeschool community here that we can be a part of. The homeschooling community that does partially exist here is not the right fit for us. The people are nice but it ends there. No offense to the nice people, we just have different ideals, and different perceptions on what we want out of homeschooling. So basically homeschooling my kids here has been an isolating experience. I see how co-ops are done in other places and I know it can be something amazing and beneficial to homeschooling families, but It's just not happening here. The compromise has been homeschooling my kids anyways, sending them to public schools at times, and enjoying the awesome experiences in the natural surroundings we have. I also see a special bond between my boys that we have formed in our family from years of just being with us. They are each other's best friends and companions.

*The Mormon Culture here is wacky. In Mormon culture (not religion) which dominates the  Utah population, many people here confuse church culture with the true gospel of Christ. Sadly, I see so many people trying so hard to get away from the culture of the church that they incidentally move farther and farther away from the blessings of the gospel.

The true gospel is the glorious plan of God that allows us to follow the Savior and return to live with our Heavenly father. Our ultimate goal is to have eternal life in the presence of God! We can have this by living the true gospel! Having an established and organized church on earth is God's way of orchestrating all of it into one magnificent structure of purpose and goodness.
However, with any organized religion also comes cultural customs and traditions that get passed down and passed on without thought. Latter-Day-Saints already have a very distinct set of commandments and instructions on how to live the gospel and reach eternal life so by adding unnecessary rules and customs constructed through cultural traditions, we are taking away from the real purposes of the gospel. (The church is not a social club.)
Many of these wacky traditions have stuck here in Utah and they are constantly confused with living righteously. I often don't feel like we fit in here because we don't subscribe to the cultural norms, yet we still live and believe our religion. It frustrates me to no end when someone is surprised to find out I'm LDS right here in my little community (because it has happened several times.) Or when I meet a new friend and I can tell they want to share the gospel with me until I break it to them that I've been a devout LDS for 15 years, I just don't "look" like a Utah Mormon. grrrrrr.
The compromise is that there are a lot of good, well-meaning Christians all around us and people are nice here. We have good neighbors and can feel the safety and security of living in a sheltered area where crime is low and all your neighbors bring you cookies at Christmas.

*Next, it's been really hard to make friends.

This is such a beautiful and unique little community that many people come here to go to college and then leave. There's an 80% turnover rate in our ward alone for college students that graduate and move on every couple years. On the flip side there are families that have been here for generations that never leave. Most of the established families we know have generations of family surrounding them...aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmas, moms and dads-they're all still living here in Cedar City or surrounding areas.
So for us, as transplants with no family here, and who arent' from here, and who aren't school students, but want to feel established here, it's hard to get our foot in the door to find like-minded people who want to hang out.
Most of the good friends I've made have graduated and have moved or are moving soon, and the established families don't have a lot of extra room for us. I don't blame them! If I had lots of family here it would be harder for me to spend a lot of time and energy reaching out to lonely transplants when I could just call up my sister or my aunt to hang out. I look around us, especially during the holidays, and see people's homes filled with cousins and grandmas and moms and nieces and nephews and I get it!-- but it's still hard. It's hard to realize that we live in a place where we have a million kind acquaintances, but few real friends.
The compromise is to keep enjoying the wonderful folks we've gotten to know and serve through our ward, and of course to keep trying---to keep reaching out to meet new friends who may need a friend. Also to enjoy the closeness that our little family feels when again and again we are doing things with just us to celebrate the holidays and the swiftly moving years of their childhoods. Our kids are great friends!

*I don't like the cold. I really don't. The snow is beautiful for about a week and then I'm done. Plus winter-time exacerbates my feelings of isolation and sadness. The compromise is (my compromise) is that my children love it (and my husband, too.) Their little faces get so excited when it snows! They can spend hours out there playing and sledding and discovering cool shapes and textures in the ice and snow. Their love for snow is contagious! Another compromise is that I get to snowboard a couple times a year. It's fun and helps me recharge my busy mom batteries. I can't say I love snowboarding, but it's a fun distraction from the cold. Plus I'm naturally pretty good at it so it boosts my feelings of awesomeness. j/k


So these are just a few thoughts about moving I've been having lately. Like I said, these thoughts are to be taken lightly because there are so many wonderful things we do love about Southern Utah. And moving is a stressful huge ordeal that I'd like to avoid. I also want to do what's best for our growing children. There's only 8 more years til Z-boy is 18 and going on his mission. I feel like we need to take the next 8 years of special family time into careful consideration. Time is precious. Families are precious and need to be protected.

Is moving the best option? Is the grass sometimes greener somewhere else when really we just need to keep blooming here? Another thought is that I always see, to want to move every Winter. haha. These thoughts may flee as soon as springtime comes around.

There's also the question of where would we move to?

We've thought in the past about moving to the Northwest to be closer to my family up in Seattle and Oregon. We also really like the culture and natural beauty up there, but we've also considered the impact the overcast and rainy skies would have on my depression. There are much fewer sunny days even compared to Cedar City, so that can't be good long-term. Plus, there's the possibility that we could move there and then my mom, sister, and two brothers could all move away. haha. I don't want to put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, although I think it would be fun to have family to be around for once.
Another option is sunny San Diego. There are a few neighborhoods we've looked into that have neutral climates, sunny skies, awesome gardening opportunities, mountains with snow within an hour's drive, and an ocean nearby, which would be so wonderful to be near the sea again!
Then there's Australia. Oh Australia! Micah and I both have an obsession, although he's actually been there to visit and knows he loves it there and I have only seen pictures and heard the stories. Moving out of the country would be so hard for me, yet the allure of Australia keeps coming back. Micah has wanted to move there for years. I'm not sure if I could do it.

Darn moving thoughts! Time for thinking, praying, and considering all options.

To be continued.....

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Depression, pull up a chair!

I've been struggling with depression really bad the last few months. It comes in waves, but when it hits it's worse than the normal waves that I've grown accustomed to over the years. These ones have been harsh, severe, completely overwhelming, and sometimes debilitating. I have been attributing it to going back to college, what with the extra stress that accompanies deadlines and extra responsibilities, especially when I haven't been used to this routine. I struggled with depression when I was going to college 12 years ago so I figured I must've hit a negative trigger when I started up again. Like resetting my memory button to remind myself, "Oh yeah, college was stressful and you were depressed so let's welcome back all those same feelings again!"  Boo.

I went and spoke with a therapist recently about all my woes and worries and got a lot off my chest. It felt good! After our second session, however, I felt like he broke up with me. I felt like he was telling me I was doing just fine and all I need to do is keep reminding myself of this truth: I am fine. I am fine. I am fine! I struggle from time to time but I am fine! 

I walked away feeling satisfied but also a little dejected that he thought I was better off than I felt inside. Overall,  It's probably better that I stopped going because it costs big money, but I wanted to be the one to decide when I was done and I felt like he decided for me.

Anyways, back to my depression.

The first time I remember feeling deeply, severely depressed was in high school when my parent's got divorced. I've scoured my journals along with the deep memories of my past I can't recall feeling depressed or anxious until the years following this traumatic event. 
This is where I have come to accept the reality of my depression without feeling guilt or blame. I no longer want to feel guilty for my personal struggles and frustrations with depression. They do not make me a weak or incompetent person. Nor do I want to continuously blame the cause of their existence. Many psychologists believe that certain people are more prone to pessimism, negative thoughts, and depression but these tendencies aren't prevalent until a catalyst brings them into play. I'm pretty sure that this catalyst for me was my parent's divorce. 

In recent readings for my Health and Wellness class it says that there are no simple answers to why people become depressed yet there are some possible factors to how depression develops. 

Heredity is one possible answer. Depressive disorders like Persistent Depression Disorder  can be passed down through simple genetics. 
Another factor is Background and Personality."People who have certain psychological backgrounds or personality characteristics appear to be more vulnerable to depression. Many specialists believe that some depressive disorders can be traced to a troubled childhood or  low self-esteem. Also people who consistently view themselves and the world with pessimism, or who become easily overwhelmed by stress tend to be more prone to depression." 
Then there are biochemical factors: "Some types of depression may result from abnormal chemical activity within the brain. These chemicals play a role in the transmission of electrical impulses from one nerve cell (neuron) to another. These chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, set in motion the complex interactions that control moods, feelings, and behaviors."
Then there's physical illnessPeople who have chronic medical illnesses are at high risk of psychiatric illness, especially depression. 
Last there's the factor of Environment—"Environment can also contribute to the onset of a depression. Research has shown that stressful life events, especially those involving a loss or threatened loss, often precede episodes of depressive illness. Examples include the death of a loved one, a divorce, the loss of a job, a move to a new home, physical illness, the breakup of an important relationship, or financial problems." (AAP 1999)

Sometimes I get really down on myself because I don't understand why I have to deal with anxiety and depressive thoughts. In general I've always considered myself a really positive and upbeat individual. I remember being a really happy child with a busy, active, bright, and beautiful life. I remember loving everything and always looking forward to whatever adventures came my way. I felt comfort and security in the warm cocoon of my family. I often recall feeling so happy I could burst!

That's why it's hard for me when I start to feel so negative in my mind. It's hard for me when these sad, angry, resentful, or depressing feelings creep into my mind because that's not the way I want to be and I don't really think I am that person, yet looking back on the past 20 years or so I've been that person more often than I've wanted. 
I was taught to always look on the bright side of life. I often remember my Grandma Lois saying,
"I am happy when it snows, I am happy when it rains, and I am happy when the sun comes out! It's good to be happy in whatever situation you're in." 
This is always how I wanted my thoughts to be, too, yet it so often isn't. For me,  the snow and cold make me feel trapped and melancholy. My depression gets worse in the winter. I love summertime but it's really sad when it ends.... Summertime is the only season where I feel consistently okay.
I don't think it's realistic to feel happy ALL the time, but it seems that so often my happiness is dependent on everything going just the way I need it to, all around me. Loss of control is synonymous with loss of my happiness. When too much stress or out-of-control-feelings come into my life I get on a downward spiral where I just can't cope and everyone and everything around me seems hopeless and miserable, too. Then there's the crying for no reason. This mostly happens in the winter when I'm feeling suffocated in the cold weather.

 So what if my parent's divorce was the catalyst that brought my struggles with depression into play? Does this mean I wouldn't be dealing with this crap if my life path turned out differently? Does this mean that my negative mind wouldn't be triggered with despair when stress becomes too unmanageable in my life? Would I be freed from remembering over and over of the trauma I experienced during those years in high school or would it be something else?

I don't know. I don't have all the answers. Perhaps something else would've triggered it along the way. Life is full of ups and downs. 
Or maybe It's hereditary. Are there family members who struggle like I do? Nobody really wants to talk about it. 
Or maybe it's biochemical. I experienced depression in my pregnancies and post-partum depression which I attributed to the changes in my hormones and abnormal brain activity. I've been on anti-depressant medication since Jonah was 2, to take the sharp edge off of my downer feelings and to stop crying everyday. I've wanted to get off it and sometimes I do, but then I go back to it again.
 Or maybe it's my personality. Perhaps I'm just prone to sad feelings because that's who I am. I've always had a tender heart full of empathy and love towards others. My emotions get the best of me at times. I cry easily. Perhaps these things go hand in hand with feeling depressed. 

So whatever the source of my ongoing struggles with depression, it doesn't really matter anymore because it dawned on me today in a very real and powerful awakening of sorts (and that's why I'm writing this all down) that my struggle with depression isn't going to go away. It's part of me now. My own personal disease. I suppose I've been focusing so much on trying to get rid of it forever that I've been running myself exhausted into the ground. 


Today I am pulling up a chair for depression and facing the fact that it's here to stay.

Sure I've got my long list of healthy coping strategies and my positive thinking exercises and the occasional check-ins with a therapist and the self-help books I read, and some medication that takes the edge off and all those things are helpful and wonderful and help me to get past the hard parts....
But this is where I've realized why this has continued to be such a struggle for me--because it's never going to go away and I need to stop fighting it and just accept it.
On occasion it's going to leave then it's going to come back then it's going to come in waves then it's going to come in storms and sometimes it's going to wipe me out completely but then it's going to be gentle and calm and allow me the peace and happiness I need and then it's going to come back again. Daily. Monthly. Weekly. I don't know.
I am fine. I am fine. I am fine! 

Although this news feels like it could be drowning me, it's actually very liberating. Perhaps it is like a person who has injured their leg and finally realizing they're never going to walk normal again no matter how much physical therapy they go to! The end of the struggle could feel rather cathartic, although depressing at the same time.

No matter how hard they try to walk the same walk, it's just not going to happen because life is different now. This is the new normal and now it's time to accept it and learn to walk differently. No matter how much I want my depression to go away for good I'm just going to have to continue to walk differently with the legs that I have. 

What hit me last night was that there are certain things I cannot do because of my depression even though I want to believe I can. I'll try over and over again and convince myself it'll be okay until I find myself suffering the brutal consequences. And then there's certain things I have to do to take care of myself that I can't ignore even when I want to. 


I guess just like any illness, there's prescribed medications except it's not very cut and dry--I've had to figure out for myself through years and years of trial and error what works for me and what doesn't. For instance if I go even one week without some form of high-impact physical exercise I dip into a deep hole of hopelessness and misery. I have to exercise. Working out is one of my medicines, my coping mechanisms, my healthy strategies for staying sane. I also have to eat a consistent healthy diet, have alone time for myself, get outside in nature, talk with a close friend, read my scriptures and pray with my Father in Heaven, get enough Vitamin D and sunshine, cut back on responsibilities, have a clean and tidy house (clutter makes my brain feel cluttered), and spend relaxing time alone with my husband. 

It's really hard to get these needs met as a mother of 4 little boys who is busy all the time! Many of these needs get ignored for my children's needs, which is the natural by-product of being a mama because spending time with my wonderful children also brings me joy, but depression seeps in when I don't take care of myself along the way. I guess that's where I left off with the therapist: we both acknowledged that I know what to do to take care of myself-I just have to keep doing it.

I have faith that God has a plan for me even when I feel like I'm drowning. I know He's there and I know He's blessing my life all along the way. I made a list the other night of all the things I am worrying about and it ended up being two pages long, then I asked Christ to please take these burdens from me. Please take all my worries and make them better and make me feel better.... 

Then I waited for all my worries to go away-to magically disappear into Christ's hands. I know of the miracles of Christ. I have felt His miraculous hand in my life over and over again so I waited......and guess what? My problems didn't disappear of course, but instead I received clarity like I'd never had before about my depression. I awakened to a realization that my  depression is something that isn't going to go away and my worries won't magically go away, but He will guide me and walk beside me and help lift my worries from me as I continue to have faith in His plan for my life. Especially as I continue to accept who I am and accept  the trials I've been though that have shaped my life into what it is today. 
I have had to learn to walk differently than I ever imagined, but I am walking with Christ so I know I'll be fine. He takes my burdens from me in just the ways that I need.

My dear friend Wendy sent this painting to me by Korean artist YoungSung Kim a couple weeks ago. It is hanging in our living room and I love it so much. It is Christ reaching down into the water to lift Peter up when he started sinking into the lake. Peter tried to walk on the water towards the Lord but got afraid and cried out, "Lord Save Me!" as he started to sink. Christ stretched out His hand and lifted him up immediately. I like to imagine Christ is holding his hand down to me, ready to catch me at any moment. I love this so much and am so grateful she sent it to me. I love the colors, I love His smile, and I love that she thought of ME when she found it. Thank you, Wendy, for sending me this gift at such a perfect time. I can feel Christ lifting me up and I can feel His love through friends like you.


Saturday, December 17, 2016

November 2016 Calendar

November 7- Took Mally to the dermatologist. He'd had this unidentifiable red rash around his mouth for weeks so I made an appointment to take him in. Then I realized that ALL my kids had weird unidentifiable rashes on their faces, so I ended up taking them all in! The doctor prescribed various creams and antibiotics and instructions on how to keep the rashes at bay and we went home happy. However, I also realized that these rashes coincidentally showed up right around the time we got a family pass to the community pool. 

November 8-Election Day. Let the record be known I did NOT vote for Trump.

November 10- I had a braces appointment today. My adult tooth has descended 100%. Time to celebrate! Woohoo!! The doctor says he's really happy with the progress and it happened faster than he thought it would! He'd predicted anywhere between 1-5 years and it came down in just 6 months! He attributes it to me being healthy, active, and having good cellular activity. 
Over the next 5 months he will tighten, strengthen, and straighten everything out, and then my braces can come off FOREVER! Hallelujah! I am SO ready!

November 12-Today was me n' Micah's 12th wedding anniversary! To be honest, I was super lame and didn't do much all day to let him know I cared.  Meanwhile he kept showering me with gifts of love and appreciation all throughout the day.
So, I was really depending on our date night where I could make up for my lameness by being a fun and awesome date, but then our babysitter cancelled on us last minute. We were pretty upset about it and didn't really want to do anything yet felt we should do something, so we took our kids bowling. I was too cranky to enjoy it. This anniversary was definitely not one of my favorites, except for the awesome jewelry Micah got me. Thanks my love....

November 23-Drove to my in-laws house in California for Thanksgiving break. Played all the usual roadtrip games: Animal guessing game, I spy with my little eye, the alpahbet finding game, out of state plates game, and the entertain Malachi with tiny Thomas trains for 8 hours-game. 

November 24-Thanksgiving, but especially Micah's 40th birthday today! We had a wonderful Turkey meal prepared by Micah's mom and a lovely day visiting with his parents and his brother and wife. For his birthday we had cake and ice cream, he opened presents and cards, and then the video portion of the birthday party: Zadok made him a movie and I made him a slide show (with Zadok's help.) I love my wonderful husband!

November 25-Beach Day! You can't drive all the way to California without going to the beach! Swimming, playing in the sand, chasing seagulls... Jonah brought his boomerang and was throwing it and chasing it all over the beach. I was worried he'd hit someone in the head but he did okay. Zadok and Odin spent a lot of time jumping in the waves until they had terrible chaffing and had to get out and change into dry clothes. Micah took a nap and relaxed. Malachi jumped all over the sand and loved every second of it. Uncle Aaron and Aunt Molly hung out and had fun and played with little Malachi a lot, which was awesome. I rented a wetsuit and paddled out on my 6'8 shortboard. The waves were about chest high and coming in in frequent sets. I immediately felt the strain of my out-of- shapeness as I struggled to get out past the white wash. My entire body began aching and pulsing against the push of the water. My heart was beating like crazy. I finally got out past the line-up and sat on my board practically dry-heaving from being out of breath. The first set that came in took me to shore on my belly. I was too exhausted to try standing up. Too out-of-shape to push my arms up after all that paddling. And that, my friends is what happens when you move to Utah! haha. I paddled back out on my 7'0 foam board and tried again to catch some surf in the whitewash, with little luck. Oh well. I think next year I'll bring a boogie board and fins!

November 29- Started winter playgroup up at my church again for all the moms of young children who need to get out and play! It was a blast. Lots of babies and toddlers and happy mamas chatting. 

Goodbye November. It was nice!
FUN with Rashes I mean fun at the pool!


HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MICAH
Destination: Huntington Beach

Odin thinks he looks like Goku in this shot.

 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Sharing Christmas Traditions

We had the most wonderful Relief Society activity this past Thursday night for the women's organization of my church. I came home feeling all warm and fuzzy and grateful for the spirit of Christ that thrives each year in our homes and families. 
Since I've been called to serve as the Relief Society second counselor in my ward, I've been given the privilege to organize activities which help unite our sisters through love and service. 
This particular activity which I planned was about gathering together and sharing the traditions we celebrate each year around the holidays. For many people traditions are the emotional and spiritual glue that cements their families together. Traditions don't have be extravagant or take too much advanced planning (although those ones are fun, too!), but can  be simple and evolve naturally over time. Traditions build unity, security, warmth and strengthen bonds between family members. Traditions can be silly or fun and traditions can be spiritual and help us to grow closer to Christ. Although, I think that any tradition designed to bring families closer together draws us closer to our Savior.

I've always loved traditions and love that my little family already has so many! Some of my fondest memories from childhood were waking up Christmas morning to open stockings with my brothers and sister. After opening stockings we'd play with our things while suspensefully waiting for my dad to wake up so we could open the rest of the gifts. We'd gather around the tree as a family and take time to watch each person open their gifts--gifts given from the hearts of other family members. In true Stokes' traditional fashion there was a specific order to our present opening, which is something I've passed on to our family. Basically you start with the youngest family member who picks out a gift from under the tree either for himself or someone else and then it keeps going upwards until it gets to the oldest family member. Then start over again until all the presents are opened. This can take a long time depending on how many presents are under the tree, but it's worth it to take the time to watch each gift opened and enjoyed, pausing to reflect on the meaning and love conveyed from the giver as well as the appreciation from the receiver. 

I love that as a married couple we can take our favorite family traditions and combine them and add on to them. I think it's great that both Micah and I grew up with parents that taught us Santa Claus wasnt real.  We always knew it was our parents sneaking around the tree on Christmas Eve.  Therefore, we also tell our children, as soon as they are old enough, that Santa is a fun, fictional character that people like to pretend and celebrate, but we've chosen not to. Our emphasis is on our Savior Jesus Christ and the magic, beauty, hope, healing, joy, and awesomeness He brought into the world when He was born. We are celebrating His birthday and this is the reason for our many traditions and the spirit we feel at Christmas-time. Santa Claus is just a fun by-product! 
*Correction-Micah's family actually did do Santa Claus make-believe stuff when he was growing up! For some reason I thought otherwise probably because he is so against it now, I figured he grew up thinking that way.

The other day I sat down with our children to make a list of all the permanent Christmas traditions we've established over the years and was surprised by how many we've either continued or acquired!
Jackson Family yearly Christmas Traditions:
* Put up a REAL Pine tree in our home (sometimes we go chop one down in the mountains but this time we didn't)
*Decorate our tree together while listening to Christmas music
*Count-down paper-rings to Christmas day
*Decorate the house with colorful Christmas lights and nativities
*Mom's homemade stockings hung up at the fireplace
*Make home-made goodies for neighbors and friends
*Watch the Charlie Brown Christmas cartoon and The Grinch and Mr. Kreuger's Christmas movie.
*Check out favorite Christmas books from the library and read them all month long.
*Walk around the St. George Temple for Christmas lights and nativity.
*Help with and attend our church Christmas party
*Play the Stokes' Christmas Card Game
*Christmas Eve: Sing Christmas hymns, light candles and read the story of Christ's birth in Luke.
*Kids sleep in the living room 
*Micah and I fill stockings together
*Christmas morning: homemade cinnamon rolls and chocolate milk
*Open stockings and gifts
*Big Turkey dinner for lunch-Micah cooks the turkey

At our Relief Society activity we went around and shared many of the traditions we have in our homes. It was really neat to hear how  each family is unique in how they celebrate Christmas with all their various traditions! There were so many fun, spiritually uplifting, and wonderful traditions, I wish I could remember all of them. I will attempt to write down the ones that I can:

*The 24 days to Christmas countdown: Several sisters shared that the 24 days before Christmas they sit down with their families and read a touching, funny, or inspiring Christmas-related story each day. There is also a song and scripture to go with the story. 
*Leaving cookies and milk for "Santa" and carrots for the reindeer.
*Green pancakes with sliced strawberries and whipped cream for breakfast on Christmas morning.
*Making Gingerbread houses
*Opening new pajamas on Christmas Eve then watching a movie together.
*Having the children act out the story of Christ's birth from the Bible. One sister said her grandfather has the scriptures memorized and the kids act it out while he recites it.
*A Christmas Eve talent show
*Christmas Eve service: Caroling and bringing goodies to widows and the elderly.
*Taking a special vacation each year at Christmastime, instead of gifts.
*Giving 3 gifts per family member to open Christmas morning which represent Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh...ie. a gift they really value like a toy or game, a spiritual gift like a new set of scriptures or Temple bag and a gift they need like socks or a new coat.
*Drawing names in large families to choose who you focus on-- as in doing services for that person and giving a gift.
*Big family dinners on Christmas Day
Some traditional Christmas goodies like fruit cake, cinnamon rolls, sugar cookies, and breads. 
I simply love this time of year! I love that people are more open and receptive to giving and receiving. I love that families get to bond together and build memories! I love that we get to stop and remember all that Christ has done for us through the traditions and celebrations we create.
 I know Christmas isn't joyful for everyone. In fact, for many people it is sad and depressing and a reminder of lost loved ones, broken families, and life gone disappointingly wrong. However, I also know that the purpose of Christmas and therefore Christ is to bring hope, healing, connectedness, and joy to our lives. If nothing else at this season, I pray that people will feel this spirit in their hearts, despite all the chaos and hoopla that comes with the season. The true center of Christmas is Christ and if we look hard enough we can find Him in just about anything--even Santa Claus.

I am really grateful I get to serve in the RS presidency. The women I get to work with are phenomenal people and I feel like God has planted these amazing women in my life as role models, examples, and  mother-mentors. I look up to their strength and their dedication to their families. I look up to their ability to center, root, and cement their lives and families in the gospel while also laughing and enjoying life along the way. I am grateful for their examples in overcoming challenges and finding hope in Christ through all the ups and downs of life. I feel very blessed this Christmas season and am most humbly grateful for my Savior for making everything good in my life, possible.