Wednesday, December 28, 2011

{A Few of My Favorite Things} - Handmade for the Holidays

I hope you all had a very Merry Christmas!  I know we did...and now I can't believe that the New Year is just a couple days away!  As the holidays draw to a close, so is my "favorite things" series.  I hope you've enjoyed it! 

The last thing I want to share is my favorite handmade gifts that were either given or recieved this year.  I love handmade items for several reasons - they are unique; if you are the crafter, you may save some money (though not always!); if you aren't the crafter, you are supporting someone else's craftiness.  I love to support small and local businesses! 

Some of you may think I'm a bit belated in sharing these ideas...but you can always keep them in mind for birthdays or other special occasions or, better yet, plan for next Christmas NOW!  It's never too early, especially if you want to try to make something!

Here's what we loved:

Hat, scarf, and mitten set.  Every year one of my gifts to my daughter is a hat, scarf, and mitten/gloves set.  I love to accessorize in the winter with fun hats and scarves and I'm training her to do the same!  While I typically look for a cutesy set from Gap, Old Navy, or The Children's Place, this year I tried a little something different...I custom ordered her a knitted set from Scoggin's Noggins.  I discovered Sarah Scoggin and her talented knitting skills through my friend Anne's blog, Modern Mrs. Darcy, when she won a custom-made hat.  It was great to have the freedom to choose the exact colors I wanted (to match Libby's winter coat perfectly!) and pick a style.  And it was a big hit with Libby, especially when I told her that it's truly one-of-a-kind and that someone had to work really hard to make it.  (Thanks, Sarah!)  Check it out:
Libby in her "modeling" pose for her Mommy's blog :)
As if the owl hat wasn't great enough, we both (Libby and I) lucked out and got matching hand-crocheted hats from my friend Michelle as a Christmas gift, which I also loved!

Handmade ornaments.  This year, at my friends' annual ornament exchange my friend Stacey changed things up a bit...she went handmade!  A lot of work went into her fabric decouppaged ornament but it's something that I'll always remember when I get that ornament out over the years to come.  Stacey's daughter even made her own version to pass on to Libby so we both got one!  I'm thinking that next year I will have to get some pointers on how to make them so we can give it a try.  In the meantime, I've got a button ornament in the works (Yes, I started it before Thanksgiving, and no, I never got around to actually finishing it - maybe next year!).

My ornament from my friend, Stacey                                        Libby's ornament from her friend, Maggie

Guess Who: Family Edition.  Remember that popular board game from the 1980s, Guess Who?  If you don't, check out the game section at Target or Wal-Mart - it's still around but has changed a bit since the original version.  Anywho, I can't take credit for this was another discovery on Anne's great blog (Thanks, Anne, for all your help this Christmas!).  I ordered a "vintage" version of the Guess Who game and replaced all of the fictional characters with real people in Libby's family!  It was fun (and challenging!) gathering up the photos that I needed (It takes 24 mugs!) but the end result was definitely unique and a lot more fun than the regular version!  I hope that her dad's family enjoys it!  I would love to post a picture of the final product but feel it's best to protect their privacy.

Pinterest, Pinterest, and more Pinterest!  In case you can't tell, Pinterest is my latest-and-greatest favorite website.  While I've regained control of my life and am no longer wasting away hours upon hours in front of my computer as I divulge in all the craftiness, oddities, and delicious recipes that make up my favorite parts of Pinterest, I still love to frequent the site when I have some spare time.  For me, it has inspired my inner creativity.  Before the discovery of Pinterest, I rarely found the time or energy to attempt handmade.  But I can honestly say that I have been more crafty (and had more fun with it!) since discovering this amazing website.  Kudos to Pinterest this Christmas for giving me the ideas to refurbish a Pringles can to hold homemade cookies, to make cute button ornaments (still in progress, as I mentioned above); and for helping me find a unique gift for Libby's uncle!  Can't wait to see what Pinterest inspires me to make (or buy!) next year!

This year I hope that my creative side continues to grow - Libby and I both enjoy being crafty and it makes for great mommy-and-me time!  Do you have any project or craft ideas we should try?  What are your favorite handmade gifts?  Please share - I may need to try them in 2012! 

Have a wonderful and safe New Year! 


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

{A Few of My Favorite Things} - Christmas Food!

Over the last week, it seems that everyday when I've come into work, there has been a different sweet treat awaiting us...peanut butter balls, fudge, red velvet cake, cookies, peanut brittle...the list goes on!  Something about this season seems to bring out the baker in everyone!  In fact, just tonight my daughter and I baked our first gingerbread house...not that we haven't decorated one's just that in the past we always just bought the gingerbread house kits, where the gingerbread is pre-made.  But this year, we bought a gingerbread mix and, using a pan I bought on clearance after Christmas last year, we made a giant gingerbread cookie in the shape of a house.  It turned out fantastic and I think we've started a new tradition!

Christmas just doesn't seem complete without the sweet treats and overeating!  :)  Here are a few of my favorite Christmas foods:

Oreo Balls.  If you haven't discovered these balls of yummy, Oreo goodness, you are truly missing out!  They are fairly easy (once you have managed to finely crush the Oreos) - all it takes is 1 package of Oreos, 8 oz. of cream cheese, and chocolate bark (I prefer white myself).  Mix the finely crushed Oreos and cream cheese well and form into small balls.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour (or if you're in a rush, as I usually am, pop them in the freezer for about 15 minutes).  Melt your chocolate bark and then, using a toothpick, dip the balls into the chocolate and place on wax paper to harden.  Or if you want to really impress people, use some decorative sugar or sprinkles to top them before the chocolate hardens.  Everyone I know seriously loves these and one batch makes quite a bit - makes for great gifts!

Christmas Tree Cakes.  Am I the only one out there that loves, and even looks forward to, Little Debbie's Christmas Tree Cakes?  They aren't homemade by any means, but I just LOVE these things.  Normally junk food is off limits in my theory is that if I buy it, I will eat it so I just don't buy junk food.  But once a year, I make an exception with these little guys.  I don't know what it is about the creme-filled cakes and the green sugar granules, but I really can't resist them!
image via Google images 

Sausage Balls.  Another easy favorite, these disappear quickly at our family's annual Christmas Eve gathering.  All you need is a roll of sausage, a package of sharp cheddar cheese, and 3 cups of Bisquick.  Mix all ingredients together and roll into balls.  Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes or until browned.  They are good anytime but they are definitely best when served warm!

My Mom's Grit Casserole.  If you read my Thanksgiving post, you know that I was really looking forward to my mom's grit casserole at Thanksgiving...and I was let down!  As soon as I walked in the door to my parent's house, my mom made her confession to me - she had failed to make my favorite dish!  But she promised to pull through for Christmas so I'm anxiously awaiting our feast!  I realize that many people don't care for grits - either because of the texture or the bland taste.  But I'm telling you, grit casserole is pretty amazing and just might win you over if it's fixed just right!  I'm a Southern girl at heart and was raised on grits so I wouldn't know what it's like to not enjoy them!  Mom's casserole recipe is as follows:

6-8 servings grits, cooked
1 stick butter or margarine
2 eggs
1 (6 oz) roll of Kraft garlic cheese (which happens to be next-to-impossible to mom now creates her own combination of garlic and cheese which I would share but I have yet to perfect myself!)
Approximately 1 cup of milk

Cook grits per directions on package.  Add butter and garlic cheese; let melt.  Blend thoroughly.  Break eggs into measuring cup; beat slightly.  Add milk.  Add mixture to grits.  Stir until smooth.  Pour into 9x13 dish.  Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes or until edges begin to brown slightly and crust forms. 

Let me know if you try any of my favorites this Christmas!  And please share your own favorites...'tis the season for baking! 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

{A Few of My Favorite Things} - Christmas Songs

image via PhotoBucket

With only a week to go, the sights and sounds of Christmas are everywhere now.  And I can tell you that it's  no different at our house!  As soon as we wake in the morning, Libby or myself (although she usually beats me to it!) get straight to the Christmas tree to turn on the lights!  And anytime we are  home, I have our satellite tuned into the "Christmas Message" music station.  Nothing gets me quite in the spirit like the music does!  So here are a few of my faves:

Beautiful Star (by Emmylou Harris).  Definitely a country-Christmas-kind-of-song, this is one that I grew up listening to.  I have wonderful memories of our family decorating the house and traveling together with this song playing in the background.

Christmas Canon (by Trans Siberian Orchestra).  A beautiful mashup of two of my favorite stand-along songs, Carol of the Bells, and Pachelbel's Canon, it brings a sense of the beauty of the season through its melody.  My soul quiets whenever this song is played.

I'll Be Home for Christmas (by Amy Grant).  There are so many versions of this 1940s song, but this is my favorite thus far.  At times I feel tears coming to my eyes as I'm reminded of all the people who have family members that can't be home for Christmas.  As for me and Libby, well, "I'll be home for can plan on me."

O Holy Night (by Jackie Evancho).  Between the lyrics and the music of this song, it's hard not to be awed by any version.  I once made an attempt at this song myself at my church when I was in high school but 10 year old Evancho's version definitely puts mine to shame!  (YES, I said 10-years-old!!!)She reaches the high notes with a power that's hard to believe!

Angels We Have Heard on High (by Point of Grace).  This isn't your typical Angels We Have Heard on High.  While most of the lyrics are true to the church hymn, they have also added some to make this version of this song very unique and catchy.  The first time I heard it, I immediately purchased it from itunes...and maybe even played it on repeat for a while!

What songs are you tuning into to get into the Christmas spirit?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

{A Few of My Favorite Things} - Christmas Movies

As I type this, we actually have one of our favorite Christmas movies on in the daughter and I LOVE movie nights and they are even more special when the movies revolve around our favorite holiday!  What better way to have a cheap "date night" with your child than a good movie and some snuggling on the couch, especially in this chilly weather! 

Here are some of our favorites:

NOW SHOWING (at our house): Elf.  Kid-friendly and VERY funny, Elf is by far one of our favorite picks!  You can always count on Will Ferrell for some good humor and this time it's actually clean!  It's all about Buddy the Elf, who goes on a journey to find his real father, a business executive in New York City.  Having been raised in the North Pole, Buddy runs into many mishaps with his new family!

The Santa Clause.  Tim Allen finds himself in Santa's shoes (literally!) when the real Santa falls off his roof and needs a replacement.  Such a clever play on words when his son discovers that there is a ladder leading to the roof from the "Rose Suchak Ladder Company" (from 'Twas the Night Before Christmas: When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter...) "just like the poem!"  There are 2 sequels to this movie but none are as great as the original! 

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.  Not for the younger audience, this is the movie to turn to if you need some adult-only humor!  My Christmas isn't complete without watching Chevy Chase's plans for a perfect family Christmas go awry in every way possible.  One of my favorite scenes is when one of the elderly family members is asked to say grace.  With my experience working in a nursing home, this really is how our conversations go sometimes!  I can definitely see one of my patients being the "Aunt Bethany" of their family.  

The Polar Express.  The digital film-making used for this movie is remarkable!  If you watch it, note the uncanny resemblance of Tom Hanks in the train conductor (who is voiced by Hanks).  A beautiful message of believing in the spirit of Christmas, this movie is based on a children's book.  There are a few dark scenes which may scare little ones, but overall it's really a delight for the whole family!  I especially love the music!  If you live in a retro area, you may be lucky enough to stumble upon the IMAX version or even a real Polar Express train ride!

A Charlie Brown Christmas.  If you need a reminder about what Christmas is really all about, you can't beat the Peanuts gang!  A few years ago I decided that one of our Christmas Eve traditions needed to be hearing the Christmas story just before turning in for the night.  Rather than read it straight from the Bible, I thought it would catch my daughter's attention better if she could watch Linus telling it through a clip of this movie on YouTube.  And I was right!  She loved it, I loved it - and while it seems a little "non-traditional" to gather around the computer screen to watch a movie clip on Christmas Eve, it's just what we happen to do!  He tells such a heart-warming version of the story that I honestly can't read the Christmas story from Luke 2:8-14 without hearing Linus' voice reciting his monologue: 

The list could go on, really, but if I have to narrow it down, these are my top picks.  I also enjoy some of the classic movies (It's a Wonderful Life; Miracle on 34th Street - both 1947 and 2000 versions), as well as some animated and claymation flicks (the original Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas and you've gotta love Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer!)

What movies do you like to watch to make your holiday complete?


Friday, December 2, 2011

{A Few of My Favorite Things} - Traditions

Happy December!  The most wonderful time of the year is finally here!  Just like a child, I look forward to this time of year all year round.  Now don't get me wrong - I actually hate cold weather and love, love, love the summertime!  But there's nothing quite like Christmas - the traditions, the music that fills the air (and my heart!), the sights, and the heart-felt warmth that comes with the sense of giving, whether it's sharing gifts with family members or sharing time or money with charitable organizations.

In honor of this cherished holiday called Christmas, over the next 4 weeks I will be blogging about a few of my favorite things.  Sometimes it's hard as a single parent to feel like a "real family" around Christmas time.  But all families are whether you're like myself and just a family of 2 or whether you're a blended family of 10 or anything else in between, it is up to you to share this joyous season with your child/children and build memories that will last a lifetime. 

This week I'd like to share a few of my favorite Christmas traditions - I thought this would be a great way to start the series and who knows?  Maybe you might decide to add 1 or 2 of these to your own holiday lineup! 
1. The elf on the shelf.  If you haven't heard of this tradition, you and your kiddos are missing out!  The Elf on the Shelf arrived in our home on December 7, 2008 and his name is Tink.  You can find your own at Amazon here but they are becoming more and more widely available as the popularity of these little elves is gaining and can even be found in mainstream stores such as Target now.  Typically sold as a set, there is a small elf and a book explaining the tradition.  Basically what happens is the elf arrives sometime after Thanksgiving and stays with you until Christmas.  Each night he/she flies back to the North Pole to report to Santa if your child/children have been naughty or nice and then (here comes the fun part!) he reappears in a different spot in your home when he returns!  At our house, Libby can't wait to wake up and see where Tink is next - he can be quite naughty himself sometimes, even spilling M&Ms all over our kitchen table one year!  :)  This year he was running a bit behind schedule and just showed up today and she was thrilled!  It's a great way to keep her behavior in check for the next few weeks but also to inspire her to believe in the magic of Christmas.

2. "Happy birthday, Jesus!" party.  I make it a point to help Libby (and myself!) remember the true meaning of Christmas - a celebration of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  While the entire Christmas season can sometimes seem like a blur of one celebration after another, it's easy to get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle and forget what we're really celebrating.  To get back to the root of Christmas, we have had a small "Happy birthday, Jesus" party every year for the last 3 years.  Each year Libby invites a few friends over and together we decorate a birthday cake and sing "happy birthday" to Jesus.  Since she is older now, last year I decided that I also wanted to tie in some sort of service activity with the party to help my daughter and her friends take part in the giving aspect of Christmas - we should give and make sacrifices just like Jesus did for us when he suffered a death on the cross for our sins.  While I'm not sure what I'm going to have them do this year (any ideas???), last year Libby and her 2 friends painted magnets that I later wrapped and delivered to some of the residents of the nursing home where I work that do not have any family or friends visiting regularly.  I gave the magnets anonymously but I know that the residents that received them were so grateful for that small gesture of kindness. 

3. Ornaments.  I suppose most anyone who celebrates Christmas has a Christmas tree and if you have a Christmas tree, it's not complete without the ornaments and the lights, right?  Well,
 ornaments are more than just simple decoration at our house.  There are several traditions we have that revolve around ornaments so I want to briefly mention each of them.  First of all, one thing I look forward to every year is an ornament exchange with a few of my friends.  We began this tradition in college and this will be our 10th year!  It's a simple way for us to get together and celebrate our friendship over the years and express our gratitude for one another through the simple act of exchanging a gift - and rather than buying gifts for everyone, we each bring one ornament to the exchange and then draw names when we get there to determine whose gift we will be opening.  It's become quite the competition to see who can find the cutest ornament!  Secondly, in order to build up the small collection of ornaments that I had when I put up my first Christmas tree for my daughter and I, I have purchased a personalized ornament for our family every year.  Let me tell you - finding a cute, personalized ornament for a single parent family can be quite tricky!  Most of the personalized ornaments representing a 2 person family represent a couple.  But I've managed to find something each year, even if it's not the most accurate portrayal of our family.  And Libby loves looking at the different ones from over the years.  Not only do we have the personalized ornaments from each year, but we also have ornaments from most of the vacations we've taken.  Looking at all those ornaments brings floods of memories as we pull them out of their boxes and hang them each year.  Lastly, I also buy an ornament for my daughter every year.  The funny thing is, she doesn't even know I do this!  I buy it in secret and have a special box I keep them in, along with a small letter I write her each year explaining what the year has been like, what she means to me, and why I bought that particular ornament for her.  Someday, when my daughter has her own Christmas tree, I look forward to presenting her with this box of special notes and ornaments collected over the years.

4. Operation Christmas ChildI'm not sure who looks forward to this one more - me or Libby!  Every year in November, we participate in Samaritan's Purse's Operation Christmas Child, where we fill a shoebox with toys, candy, socks, books, crayons and paper, and hygiene items to be delivered to a child in need in countries such as Haiti.  Many times the items in these shoe boxes are the only new things these children have ever received.  When the shoe boxes are handed out, the distributors also take the opportunity to share the story of Christ with the children, often a first for many of them.  It's a great way to share God's love!  And it can easily be done on a tight budget.  I'm an avid couponer so have been able to get many free hygiene items, such as toothbrushes and toothpaste, that I set aside for either our use or to donate later.  This year I just pulled my box of "free stuff" out and Libby was able to pick out what she wanted to give.  We also keep Happy Meal and other Kids Meal toys that Libby doesn't like or want in their original packaging, making for easy toys to give to those in need.  And always looking for a good bargain, I buy a few more school supplies in August than what Libby will need because (a) they are cheaper in August and (b) they are great to donate to causes such as Operation Christmas Child!  It's too late to make a box this year (they are always due mid-November), but if you're interested, you can still make a donation by clicking on the link above.  And start setting aside a few things for next year's boxes!

 our 2011 Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes - one for a girl, one for a boy

5. Shopping!  Just tonight I returned from another cherished!  I don't really participate in the madness of Black Friday shopping but I have made it my annual tradition to go shopping the first Friday of every December with the alumni group at Bellarmine University, my Alma mater.  I know shopping is a chore to some, but not to me!  I LOVE it and even more so when I'm on this trip!  For $35 per participant, Bellarmine rents 3-4 charter buses to take a group of rowdy women of all ages to and from an outlet mall near Louisville (in Monroe, Ohio the last 2 years), provides breakfast, drinks, and snacks, as well as some fun entertainment and games en route!  If you're a single parent, you know what I mean when I say I don't get to do much shopping on my to me, having a day where I can spend all day with some great friends doing something that I love is a priceless tradition for my own Christmas and helps put me in the spirit! 

What puts you and your family in the spirit of Christmas?  Do you have any unique traditions?  Or any ideas for our service aspect of the "happy birthday, Jesus!" party this year???