Monday, April 14, 2014

Easter breads to make with kids

Here is a favorite for the season. Enjoy!

Making Hot Cross Buns
             Originally these were very plain buns with a cross made out of dough across the top; they were eaten on Good Friday.  Now the buns are sometimes filled with fruits and nuts, then topped with a cross made of frosting.  They are often eaten throughout Lent, as well as on Easter.
As you make these buns with the children, tell them how the bread of sorrow became the sweet bread of celebration.  While you’re working, if you know the old street vendor’s “Hot Cross Buns” call, teach it to them. You can find a lively version here.
            To make hot cross buns, use your favorite basic sweet bread recipe, or go online to find one. You can also use frozen bread dough, defrosted. Whatever dough you use, while you are kneading, you can add either candied fruit or dried apricots and raisins, steamed soft and (for the apricots) cut into small pieces; you can include chopped walnuts, too, if the children like nuts, and flavor the dough with a teaspoon of allspice or cinnamon.  Dough made with four cups of flour will make about 20 buns. After the dough has gone through one rising, punch it down and have the children shape it into smooth balls,.  Set them two inches apart on a greased baking sheet and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand or the bottom of a glass or mug. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Let the buns rise until double in bulk, brush with a wash made of an egg yolk beaten with a tablespoon of milk or cream, then bake for about 12 minutes. Remove to wire cooling racks and -- after they are cool -- draw a cross on each bun using a simple confectioners sugar frosting (a cup of powdered sugar, a tablespoon of cold milk, and a teaspoon of vanilla).  Note: if you try to put the frosting crosses on while the buns are still hot, the frosting will melt and slide off.  Hard as it is to wait, do let them cool before frosting! Then eat and enjoy!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Eggs, whales, and butterflies, Easter preparation from 2013 redux

Let's start with the most basic of all Easter activities: dying hard boiled eggs.  Although the intricate designs of Ukrainian eggs are famous, another tradition of the Ukraine is to dye eggs in a single bright color.  For a step by step explanation of how to do this, check out:<>.
Before your Easter dinner, have the children place the eggs in the containers of newly grown grass (from last week's suggested activity).

Historic note:   During the Middle Ages when infant mortality was high, bereaved mothers in the Ukraine took comfort during Easter by sending something tangible to the souls of their children. They told the story of the Blazhenni, spirits who live on the edge of the world where all the streams and rivers come together; these Blazhenni, they believed, were the souls of unbaptized babies.  On Easter, grieving mothers would throw the shells of red-dyed eggs into nearby rivers and streams, believing that when the shells reached the Blazhennni, they would know that it was Easter and they, too, could celebrate.  The Blazhenni were gentle spirits who ate no meat, except on the day the red shells reached them. 
More things to do: Another activity in preparation for Easter is to decorate an Easter Tree with ornaments of eggs, whales, and butterflies.  Choose a tree or shrub in the yard, or bring a branch indoors to use as your Easter Tree. 

In preparation for making whale decorations, tell the children the story of Jonah and the whale (read it from Scripture, paraphrase it on your own, or use one of the many picture books -- Amazon lists 1,618 versions of this story!). Jesus told his followers: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” No wonder the early church celebrated the story of Jonah and the whale as symbolic of Jesus’ death, entombment, and resurrection!
Then as the children work on butterfly decorations, tell them about the metamorphosis of caterpillars into moths and butterflies through the seeming tomb of the cocoon, and tell them that the butterfly--also symbolic for the early church--is still used today to represent Jesus’ resurrection.  Both Golden Books and Scholastic Books offer readable explanations and clear illustrations of the metamorphosis, or you could read Eric Carle’s lively classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. 
If you haven’t talked about eggs while coloring them, do so as they make egg ornaments. Since ancient times, eggs have been symbols of fertility and new life.  Many cultures believed that the world began as an egg; the Hindus, for example, said that the “World-Egg” was formed in “the waters of chaos” before the beginning of time.  Christians adopted the egg as an Easter symbol because, like the dry, hard seed that brings forth new plant life, seemingly hard eggs bring forth new animal life.  In both cases, what seems dry and hard and dead actually contains new life.  This hiddenness is part of the strangeness and surprise of Easter itself. 
Additional activities: For activities that echo this theme of hiddenness, have an old fashioned Easter egg hunt, either with hard-boiled eggs or with foil-covered  chocolate eggs.  Be sure to have extras to pass out at the end so that the less successful hunters don’t have empty baskets or bags.  (If the successful egg-hunters complain, tell them the parable of the laborers in the vineyard from Matthew 20; or use Dina Strong’s retelling of this parable in her book The Vineyard and the Wedding.)  Another option would be to get a piñata that holds hidden treasures; if you can’t find piñatas locally, you can online -- eggs, whales, or butterflies! Hang the piñata from a high place, and take turns blindfolding the children and having them swing a broomstick or other long stick at it (remember to have everyone else stand far back while this is going on). When a child finally manages to break open the piñata, all the children get to gather and share the goodies. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Watching the grass grow: helping children get ready for Easter

(I'm re-posting suggestions from last year.)

Looking at Lent as a purely penitential season isn’t necessarily helpful for children, who often have an exaggerated sense of guilt to begin with. 

While it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t always get things right or behave as we should, it’s also essential to let children know that God loves and forgives, always. Nothing we can do can separate us from God’s love. We always have a chance at new beginnings.

That’s why I’m going to use these last weeks of Lent as a time to suggest ways that families can get ready for the celebration of Easter, rather than provide specific activities for Lent itself.

I’m starting with this first activity because it takes time to prepare – and then there’s the waiting.  We’re going to grow grass.

A week or ten days before Easter, have the children plant wheat grass seeds in small containers such as paper cups or small bowls.  You can check with health food stores for whole wheat seeds (sometimes called wheat berries), or you can get grass seeds to grow for indoor cats from your local pet store or online at such places as (which is the source of the photo above).  

You will also need potting soil to put in the small containers. These containers of grass can then be used as nests for colored eggs and put at everyone’s place at the table for Easter dinner. There's something alive and lovely about growing grass indoors.

For an art activity before you fill the containers and plant the seeds, have the children decorate their containers with pictures of grass or flowers or the sun or bright abstract designs--whatever pleases them.  They can make the designs on paper and tape or glue them to the containers, or they can work directly on the containers themselves if the surface allows. 

Once you have seeds, potting soil, and decorated containers, here’s what to do:

·      * soak the seeds in water overnight 
·      * plant them in small containers of potting soil
·      * water enough during the week to keep the soil damp

Before or after the children plant the seeds, you can teach them the Easter song  “Now the Green Blade Rises.”  Below are three different presentations of the song.

·      * with guitar accompaniment:
·      * by a college quartet:
·      * Ely Cathedral choir:

Slightly varied versions of the lyrics can be found:

Where I live in Maine, the grass outside is often buried under snow until long after Easter.  One year when the snow was especially deep, I planted wheat grass seeds in a ceramic bowl and took it to school where it spent a month on my desk. Adolescent students in my English classes would walk by and touch the growing grass, pat it, run their hands over it. That small container of earth and green evoked such longing for spring in all of us that it seemed a sacred thing in a very secular place.

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Be salt: stories from children

"You are the salt of the earth!" Jesus said in yesterday's gospel.

Another way to put it: "You are what gives flavor to the world. Your good deeds, stirred into the mixed-up chowder that human beings make of life, are what make it savory, what ultimately save it."

"Be salt."

At the family service yesterday, some of the kids passed out a small blank card and a marker to everyone there. "Write on the card one thing you've done this week that was salt," I suggested, "a good deed that might have changed the flavor of someone's day." They wrote, then kids and grown-ups all brought their cards up and "salted" the green cloth-covered altar with their good deeds.

A sampling from the children:  "I waved to a neighbor." "I cried with a friend." "I kept my brother company when he was sick." "I helped my mom."

These kids don't know the phrase "ministry of presence," but they live it. I imagine, for example, the lonely neighbor, perhaps especially isolated this snowy winter here in Maine, whose day was brightened by a happy wave from a child; the solace given by sharing a friend's sadness; the family dynamics that are salted and changed by kindness and companionship; and as I think of these and all the other "grains of salt" scattered on the altar yesterday, I know that each small good deed literally changes the fabric of the universe; each tiny grain of goodness makes a difference, day by day, act by act, person by person.