Wrapping Up the Holidays and Bringing Joy Into the New Year

christmas wonder

Happy New Year! I’m a little sorry to see this holiday season near its end, since it has been such a special one for our family. My husband even told me this was the best Christmas ever, and hearing that made me feel so happy–knowing all the planning, decorating, cooking, baking, and everything else I did to bring Christmas cheer achieved the intended result of bringing joy to my family. As the Christmas season winds down, I review what I did and what I didn’t get around to, what worked and what didn’t, and generate new ideas for the next year. After feeling that I did so well with our celebrations this year, I even feel like I just can’t wait to do it all again next year!

 

I try to keep the Christmas spirit among us through the entire twelve days of Christmas, leading up to the Epiphany. It helps that we have family that usually arrive at our house  on the second day of Christmas, and stay for a few days. That’s the night I host a Christmas dinner at our house for my and my husband’s parents. I change up the sides and desserts from year to year, but we always have Cornish hens. This year, I served my standby appetizer of cream cheese and pepper jelly–it is the easiest and quickest thing, and you really should just always keep some cream cheese and a jar of pepper jelly in the house in case you need to throw together a quick appetizer–and some Prosciutto-wrapped cheese. Then, we had broccoli-cheddar soup. For sides, I made smashed potatoes using baby Dutch yellow potatoes, and roasted carrots. Last year I made a pretty elaborate cake from a recipe I had to translate from Italian, but with all the cookies and little cakes I already had, I decided just to serve those for dessert. Every dish was a hit, and the fellowship was even better. (I’ll share some of those recipes with you here soon.)

our tree

 

Our Christmas tree stays up at least until Epiphany, and usually through the following Sunday. This year, aware of the particular curiosities of my toddler and knowing that no amount of baby-proofing would make a full-size Christmas tree possible for us, we opted for a small tree on an end table. It was cute, easy to carry home from the Christmas tree lot, and I think it brought us as much cheer as a much larger tree always has. This was the first year I made a fresh garland for the indoor banister, so we had plenty of greenery to enjoy.

fresh homemade garland

I asked for branches at the lot where I bought our Christmas tree, and used them with the greenery I gathered with my husband and daughter on Thanksgiving morning. This was a good way to use some of the green and gold accents that wouldn’t fit on our small Christmas tree. The books you see between the posts are some of Bitsy’s Christmas books. I liked the idea of displaying the books to add to the decor, but I think I will scrap that idea next year. This put the books out of her reach, so we were more likely to read the books she brought me from her shelf.

I think the thing my husband enjoyed best about this Christmas was all the baking. Sweets are his love language (forget the other five!) and I kept them coming from about a week and a half before Christmas day and I’ll still be baking through this Sunday. Last year I found some Linzer cookie cutters at an after-Christmas sale, and I’d been eager to try my hand at making them this year. Maybe it was beginner’s luck, but they turned out great! They’re my mother-in-law’s favorite, so I was sure to have them on days that she came to the house. They are a little more involved than other cookies–mix the batter, refrigerate two hours, change the shapes in the cookie cutters, sprinkle the tops with powdered sugar before placing them on top of the bottom cookies, spread just the right amount of jam on the bottoms–but the task isn’t so onerous that I’d be deterred from making them again. These are going to be a new Christmas tradition in our house, and that little set of cookie cutters will be used for years to come.

linzer cookies

 

While I honestly do feel proud of the things I did to make Christmas special for my family and myself this year, I have to attribute my joy, strength, and peace to Christ in the manger. Having a very meaningful Advent, preparing for Jesus to come is what helped me and motivated me to plan and do all the things we did to celebrate. The Year in Our Church from Loyola Press is series of emails I subscribe to throughout the liturgical year. Including their daily Sacred Advent and Sacred Christmas email reflections in my routine this season helped me to find peace through the sometimes stressful aspects of preparing my heart and home and celebrating Christmas–the cleaning, the cooking, the planning, the shopping, coordinating schedules, hoping our items ship in time for gift-giving. Taking time for daily reflection and spending quiet time in conversation with Jesus helped me to celebrate the right way. The Year in Our Church emails also help me have a good Lent, which will be here again before we know it. (This blog is in no way affiliated with Loyola Press. I’m only sharing a personal recommendation.)

christmas joy

Advent is about new beginning, and seeing Christmas anew through Bitsy’s eyes made this year extra special for our family. This is her second Christmas, but of course last year as a tiny baby she didn’t get what was happening. This year, though she still doesn’t understand that Christmas is coming and her new toys and books are from Santa, she still got excited about a lot of activities. I showed her our nativity and talked to her about it, read her some Christmas stories, and she enjoyed watching Christmas movies. One of my favorite moments of this holiday season happened in church on the last Sunday of Advent. Bitsy saw the Nativity on display at church and though the baby Jesus was not yet in the manger, she pointed to it and said, “Baby!” Maybe this was her own innocent, childlike way of loving the baby Jesus and joyfully anticipating his arrival. I think next year will be even more special, as she will have a better understanding of what is happening and can really get excited for the coming of Christmas. Until then, I’ll be trying to keep the comfort, joy, and peace of Christmas alive in my heart and home as long possible.

 

 

 

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Wrapping Up November With Thanks and Joy

Season’s greetings! Is it too early to say that? I’m in the Christmas spirit early this year, and genuinely want to share with everyone the joy this time of year brings to me.

An Easy and Special Thanksgiving

gathering greenery

We had a happy Thanksgiving. This year, we stayed in town and celebrated with my husband’s side of the family who live in town, too. Not traveling or hosting allowed us to make the day our own, and it was a day that really did remind me that there is so much in my life for which to be thankful.

Knowing that I needed greenery to make Christmas decorations, my husband surprised me with a special plan when Bitsy and I woke up Thanksgiving morning: we would be going to a friend’s horse farm to gather greenery. We dressed and got coffee on the way. It was a beautiful morning: sunny and mild, just cool enough for a sweater or light jacket. The farm looks beautiful in the fall, with all the colorful leaves and the evergreens getting their time to shine.

gathering greenery fun

Bitsy had a wonderful time. We watch her closely but give her plenty of room to play. At one time, we were in a fenced-in area where we could gather holly branches and let her explore. She walked alongside us and played her heart out. By the time we finished gathering, she was falling asleep in my arms. I got great exercise carrying her and the baskets full of branches, leaves, and pine cones!

farm finds

A Simple Sidedish: Kale Salad With Apples and Dried Cranberries

We came home in time for me to prepare the simple side dish I was bringing to Thanksgiving dinner: a kale salad with warm cranberry vinaigrette. All I had to do was wash and tear the kale, cut a couple Honeycrisp apples into thin slices, and prepare the vinaigrette (olive oil, garlic powder and 2 cups of dried cranberries, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, a tablespoon of honey, juice & zest of half a lemon and half an orange, a pinch of brown sugar, and salt & pepper to taste) in a sauté pan, massage the kale with olive oil for about 90 seconds, then toss in the cranberry vinaigrette mixture and top with the apple slices and pecans. Bitsy napped the whole time I was preparing it–something else for which to be thankful! Those who like kale loved the salad, and those who don’t ate some to be polite 🙂 What more could I ask for?

My Most Precious Blessing

This was Bitsy’s second Thanksgiving, but the first since she started eating table foods. She loved the food, and had a wonderful time playing with cousins and made new friends with my sister-in-law’s brother-in-law’s children who are close to her age. She ran played, squealed, and laughed with the purest joy until she was all tuckered out.

And the Prettiest Sight You’ll See is the Holly that Will Be On Your Own Front Door

Christmas wreath

I’m usually not one to put up my Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving. I like to wait until it’s officially Advent to even begin decorating for Christmas. Beautifying my home with Christmas decorations is part of my observance of Advent. “Make your homes fair as you are able,” says my favorite Advent hymn, “People Look East,” as we prepare for the coming of our greatest Christmas guest, Jesus Christ. This year is different because I’ve already collected all of this beautiful fresh holly, pine, and magnolia, and must go ahead and put it to use. I made my wreath and put it on the front door Saturday, and we are all enjoying it. For this one, and most Christmas wreaths I make, I used a metal wreath form, attaching the pieces with floral wire. Whenever I hang a wreath, Bitsy likes me to open and close the door so she can keep getting a look at it. I have plenty left over for more decorations, so I’ll be pretty busy decking the halls.

Loving the Fall and Looking Forward to Winter

It’s still fall for a while longer, but starting to feel like winter. Just a couple weeks ago we were enjoying the pleasant days of early fall, with lots of playing outside. I guess it wouldn’t be right to skip through the season without the obligatory toddler-playing-in-leaves blog post, so here we are having some family fun time outdoors a couple Sundays ago:

The day was still warm enough for bare feet, especially for my child who hates to wear socks and shoes.

leaves on porch

After helping Daddy with a little yard work…

approaching leaves

…it was time to play in the crisp dry leaves.

in the leaves xi

in the leaves 6

in the leaves xii

in the leaves xiv

Bundling Up

Now that the cooler weather is here, I’m happy we get to start wearing our coats and sweaters. I love this trench I got from Stitch Fix (this link will get each of us $25 off when you sign up and order your first box!) I got it two years ago, but it’s such a classic and high-quality piece that it should last me for years to come.

beforeMass Missal for Toddlers

Something to Read

In this pic we were just getting ready to leave for Mass. The book you see in the picture,  A Missal for Toddlers, is a recent purchase I’m so glad I made. Bitsy loves the book (as you can see her clinging to it in the picture), so it’s a great way to a) start getting her interested in what’s happening at Mass, and b) give her something to entertain herself with if she gets restless during Mass. This board book is hardcover, but soft enough (almost like a padded feel) that it won’t be noisy if your toddler bangs it against the pew. The language is simple and relatable for little ones, and the illustrations are adorable. I highly recommend it for Catholic families with small children.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time…

It’s a busy but happy and invigorating time for me as the semester winds down and the holidays approach. I have one last big assignment to do for my collection development class, and so much decorating to do! We have to come up with a plan b for our Christmas tree this year, since we don’t have a good way to baby-proof it, and Bitsy’s too young to understand that it’s off limits. I know it’s just the type of thing she’ll want to explore, from the water in the tree stand, to the branches, lights, and ornaments. Right now, the plan is to have a very small tree on an end table. I’ll check in again soon with more decorations, recipes, and holiday cheer!

(This post contains affiliate links.)

 

Be the Most Valuable Guest: 9 Hostess Gifts That Aren’t Candles!

The holidays are here, and with all the upcoming preparations and activities, some details may be forgotten. Don’t let gifts for your hosts and hostesses be one of them! Planning ahead and buying or making those gifts in advance makes it much more likely that we won’t have to stop at whichever supermarket is in on the way to their house for a last-minute fruit basket, bottle of okay wine, or the ubiquitous candle.

 

It’s the gift of having a gift to give away!

So don’t get me wrong, your host or hostess will certainly appreciate the candle, or bouquet, or fresh bread, if that what you choose to give them. But why not bring something unexpected, that the other guests didn’t already think of, something that won’t get regifted at their work holiday party’s Yankee Swap, something they’ll remember long after the party?

Something So Special

Here’s a list of some hostess gifts that may feel a little more special. Try some of these, or let the list inspire you as you brainstorm gift ideas for the very special hosts and hostesses you’ll visit this holiday season.

1) Something for Breakfast

After a night of entertaining, wouldn’t it be nice to wake up the next morning to a ready-made breakfast? Bring cinnamon rolls from a local bakery,  bake homemade banana bread in a pretty dish they won’t have to return, or prepare a jar of overnight oats with a pretty ribbon around it.

2) Something to Make Cleaning Up More Enjoyable

caldrea kitchen set

We get to see, hear, smell, and taste all the great work our hosts and hostesses put into entertaining: the food, the decorations, the playlists. The work we usually miss is all the cleanup that has to happen after we leave. Whether you’ll be sticking around to wash dishes while your host or hostess dries, or if they’d rather leave the cleanup to be tackled in the morning after a long winter’s nap, a luxe cleanup kit is a great way to thank your host and hostess for all their hard work. Let the scents of  nicer-than-their-everyday cleaner and dish soap become tied to their happy holiday memories.

Start with a set of cleaning products, like this luxurious kitchen set by Caldrea. It includes a dish soap, hand soap, and countertop spray. Give these items in the Gilded Balsam Birch scent to help your hosts and hostesses stay in the holiday spirit while they clean. Throw in a nice cleaning brush like this one from Full Circle, or a kitchen towel set from the Pioneer Woman collection. Put it all together in a pretty basket.

3) Spices

I don’t know about you, but I go through quite a lot of spices this time of year. Preparing all the foods for their holiday party or meal may have put a dent in your host’s and hostess’s spice rack, too. Replenish it with an organic spice kit, to help them save another trip to the grocery store and avoid starting the new year with bland foods. Like the other gifts on this list, a basket and pretty ribbon make these items an extra special gift.

4) Something that will last for years: Amaryllis bulbs

amaryllisgift

The first Christmas gift I gave my now-father-in-law was a set of amaryllis bulbs to be forced indoors. They’ve come back beautifully every year since, and he always talks about what a great gift it was. I love the way amaryllis brighten up our homes for the holidays, and really believe in giving these as hostess gifts. You should be able to find them at local retailers this time of year, but if you want to be prepared there are some very reliable companies I trust for ordering bulbs online: White Flower FarmTulip WorldJackson and Perkins, and Colorblends. This is a gift for a real gardener or flower-lover, since the bulbs of course won’t look flashy when you give them.

5) Something Hot to Drink

Help your hostess end the night with comforting hot drinks. Start with a nice mug, and add hot chocolate and marshmallows, a variety of hot teas, or coffee beans from your local roaster. There are some great hot chocolate gift sets available. Harney and Sons teas in their attractive tin containers make a great choice.  Hot Cinnamon Sunset is one of my favorite blends, especially in the winter.They also offer some flavor variety selections. You could even go all out and give them a cast iron teapot or French press.

foxmug

6) Something Grown-Up to Drink

Instead of another bottle of wine, how about a specialty cocktail book? To your well-read hostess, give Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails With a Literary Twist.  Make it retro with Vintage Cocktails or Shaking Up Prohibition in New Orleans. There’s even a book of cocktails based on different fandoms called The Geeky Chef Drinks: Unofficial Cocktail Recipes from Game of Thrones, Legend of Zelda, Star Trek, and More. These can add some fun to everyone’s night, and give your hosts and hostesses more cocktails to try for many parties to come.

tequila mockingbird

 

7) Aprons

An apron is an especially good hostess gift if you know your hostess will be baking Christmas goodies in the coming weeks. This is another gift to be used year after year. I love these by Neoviva, which can be purchased individually or in Mommy and Me sets. Think of all the happy memories of teaching little ones in the kitchen she can make as they wear these gifts from you!

mommy and me aprons

 

8) Something Fragrant

incense set

If you still want to avoid the candle, but home fragrance is your favorite way to thank your hostess, why not give incense? A set of incense sticks, like this beautiful one by Karma Scents that includes a burner in each box, should last longer than a candle and won’t be so expected.

9) Something Homemade

Taking the time to make something that will be useful to your host or hostess shows that you really gave your gift some thought and appreciate their hospitality. Something that is not too hard to make, can really come in use this time of year, and feels special is homemade crème fraiche. I started making my own last year, and it is so nice to have for recipes or even just to replace sour cream as a condiment. I prefer it to sour cream. It has a more mild, pleasant taste. All it takes is heavy cream and buttermilk. Here are some good directions at Food and Style. Just remember to make 12 to 24 hours ahead so that it has time to get nice and thick, and put a pretty bow with a small Christmas ornament on it before you hand it to your hostess!

I hope you’ll enjoy spending time with friends and family this season in their homes and yours. Give any of these gifts and I think they’ll be sure to invite you back next year!

(Many of the links in this post are to Amazon listings for the items I recommend. As an associate, I earn from qualified purchases.)