12 Days of Christmas – Day 11: Stockings!

Stockings are, well, they’re pretty awesome. A giant sock filled with little treasures. I blame my Nana for the fact my family still has them, regardless of people’s ages. She always filled my parents’ stockings with things like surge protectors and new toothbrushes. The idea is that everyone buys things for everyone else’s stockings. (In reality, I full everyone’s but my own, with a few additions here or there.)

You’ll want to include something edible because isn’t that what most folks expect in a stocking? Candy, homemade cookies, fruit chews, gum, nuts, granola/protein bars.

Non-edible is easy for kids – small books, Hotwheels cards, bandaids with a fun pattern or character, tsum tsum plushies, playdough. For adults – a bit harder though I like to include gloves, earrings, nail polish, bottle openers, hot cocoa packets, and those wipes for putting on bug spray.

Do you have any great ideas for stocking stuffers? Do you aim for low-price or just small enough to fit?

12 Days of Christmas – Day 10: Books

Some families have a tradition of wrapping up 24 books which are then opened up one at a time on the days counting up to Christmas. I am not so organized. I only went as far as taking Lizzie to the library where she picked out a few books – which she has zero interest in reading for some reason – with the theme of Christmas. Those books are back at the library already so I don’t have anything to share about that. I do, however, have a list of my favorite Christmas books:

  • The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
  • Merry Christmas, Mouse! (of the If you give a…. series) by  Laura Numeroff, Felicia Bond (Illustrator)
  • The Night Before Christmas – particularly love the Berenstain Bear version
  • The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas by Laura Murray

Do you have any favorite kid’s Christmas books?

12 Days of Christmas – Day 9: Wrapping Presents

Yeah, I know, it’s like four days until Christmas. We all should have had our presents wrapped long, long ago. But, come on now, only people like my mom and friend, Adrian, are that organized. Most of mine are wrapped, sure, but that’s only because my parents arrive in two days and my spare bedroom can’t contain all of my Amazon boxes and random bags of stuff purchased in local stores AND the stuff they shipped here to wrap.

But, should you be one of those folks with a whole pile of wrapping in front of you, I’ve got a few tips to share:

  1. Craft stores are great for supplies – they have lots of tape, plain gift bags and tissue paper, and photo boxes with holiday and non-holiday themes. (Make sure you check whatever store you’re going to, they probably have a 40% one item or 20% off everything coupon going on. You could also ask some nice person near you in line if they have an extra print coupon.)
  2. Buy heavyweight paper. Like, truly heavy-weighted stuff. If you can, feel the paper to see its thickness. Thicker paper is easier to wrap with because it will fold where you want it to, rather than just crinkle.
  3. Buy paper with a grid on the back. Again, makes wrapping easier. Okay, cutting is easier because you have nice straight lines.
  4. Buy twice as much tape as you think you’ll need. Same for paper. I can tell you from experience that only Walgreens will have supplies left and everyone else will be there buying them, too.
  5. If you got someone a gift card or made a donation in their name, wrap it up in a big box. It’ll show the significance of the gift and opened something that’s actually wrapped is much more fun than opening a card.
  6. Make your own gift bag tags that tie onto the bag – index cards cut in half work totally fine and you can borrow a hole-punch from a neighbor. Then you can more easily re-use the bags than if you stuck a label onto them.
  7. Use a hairtie to keep a roll of paper closed and tidy. Better yet, use two – one at the top and one at the bottom.
  8. Have a weird item to wrap? YouTube probably has a tutorial for how to wrap it. Or your local mall, should be truly brave, probably has a middle school band/chorus/sailing team wrapping things for tips/donations. They’ll love the challenge.
  9. Let your kids help by adding bows to things. (Lizzie had great fun helping Matt this way.)
  10. Hoard Amazon boxes starting in October. They’re great for odd-shaped gifts or wrapping together multi-part gifts (like that movie, microwave popcorn, fuzzy blanket set you put together for a friend).
  11. When putting presents under your tree, put ones that will be given to recipients later at the back. (Like my in-laws will be here later in the day, so theirs will be back there.) This way, you won’t have to keep pushing presents for guests not already present back when your preschooler wants to tear into her next gift.

Any tips on gift wrapping to share?

12 Days of Christmas: Day 8 – Music

I’m at risk of repeating myself. See, two years ago I wrote a post all about my favorite Christmas songs. I came up with a Top 10 list and everything!

So I guess I shouldn’t just repeat myself…so I’ll share a story, instead.

I was in elementary school when the School of Music I took piano lessons with had a preparatory session for it’s annual Christmas concert. (There were only three teachers in said school, so don’t start thinking this was some giant operation.) One of the teachers had us all sit together and told us we were going to help her organize the program.

We would be dividing ourselves into two groups: those playing secular songs and those playing sacred songs. She carefully explained that sacred songs are those you sing in church. Secular songs were songs that weren’t about things you heard about very much in church.

We all sat there for awhile and thought about whether our songs were secular or sacred. Then, we were told to divide ourselves, secular on one side, sacred on the other.

There’s always that one kid. And, in my church (where my music school was), there was Ross.

Ross proudly announced that his song was both scared and secular (think it was “Up on the Rooftop”) because, if he could sing about poop during the church service, any song could be considered sacred.

After a bit of questioning, it was determined that this poop song was not part of the children’s choir repertoire, but a song he’d made up himself and sung – to his parents’ embarrassment, I’m sure – loudly in the pew during a recent church service.

Oh, Ross…

12 Days of Christmas: Day 7 – Holiday Swaps

I thought I’d share some specific ideas of what to bring to one of those holiday gift exchanges – call it white elephant, yankee swap, or whatever – because my work is having theirs tomorrow so it’s on my mind. The premise of them all is the same: bring a wrapped gift under some dollar limit then sit back and watch as your coworkers pick and swap their way to happiness. Okay, more like mild amusement. I came up with these ideas while waiting for my breakfast oatmeal to cool down / work computer to log me into the network.

If you have a $10 limit….

  • Mug with tea, coffee, or hot chocolate packets
  • Christmas music CD – make it something classic like Bing Crosby or a good mix of songs from current popular artists
  • Cookie mix and decorating supplies (tubed icing, colored sugar)
  • Joke or random facts books
  • Small first aid kit
  • Flashlight (could have used this when we lost power last night!)
  • Card or board game – Uno, Scrabble, Apples to Apples

If you have a $15 limit….

  • Set of Legos
  • Nice chocolates
  • Candles, either nice scented ones or flameless that look nice
  • Stationery set – cards with envelopes or maybe a wax seal set
  • Pair of Funko pop figurines along a given theme (Star Wars would be really popular right now)
  • Whiskey stones
  • Pound of local coffee – make sure it’s ground, not everyone has a grinder

If you have a $20 limit….

  • Book and movie version of same story
  • Wine/beer glasses – check out somewhere like HomeGoods that usually has at least a few sets on sale
  • Cookie spices set from Penzeys
  • Toy with storybook set of a currently popular character (for someone’s kid)
  • Last-minute wrapping kit (paper, tape, scissors, labels)

12 Days of Christmas: Day 5 -Santa

Oof. I cannot imagine a more, shall we say, contentious topic than Santa.

My parents represent what is probably the most common viewpoint towards Santa. He’s the one who brings you most of your gifts when you’re little. At some point, they told me he wasn’t real and, when my brother started to question it, I was allowed to inform him.

Matt’s parents – okay, his mother – is a die-hard Santa fan. Matt is 34 and, to this day, his mother has yet to ever admit that Santa exists.

I struggle with where Matt and I will be on Santa. For now, it’s easy. Santa exists. He’ll be the one who brings Lizzie most of her presents. He uses special wrapping paper with images of himself on it and no present labels.

But what happens when she’s eight or ten and starts to ask? Do we tell her the truth? Do we give her the “Yes, Viriginia, there is a Santa Clause” answer? Do we pull an Esther (my MIL)?

For now, I’ll just enjoy the fact our little girl gets very, very excited whenever she sees an image of The Man in Red.

12 Days of Christmas: Day 3 – Finding Gifts

When folks talk of holiday stress, finding the right gift for people can be pretty high up there. Nothing too personal for coworkers. Nothing too weird for a gift exchange at work. Something meaningful for family. Something extravagant but not too extravagant for your mother who never buys herself anything nicer than a Starbucks hot chocolate. Something romantic for your partner/spouse. Something more significant than another plastic toy for your kids.


I have a few strategies for gift-finding, all focused on who the gift is for.

For Partner/Spouse

Matt makes it easy on me. He drops hints all year long and has an Amazon wish list. I use the following formula: a cookbook I know he’d enjoy that just came out, something he hinted at for awhile, something non-expensive that I know he’d enjoy (copy of a movie he enjoyed, a silly joke book, more Sharpies for marking things in the kitchen), something boring like underwear or socks (because the man will not buy them himself), and fill in with things from his wish list. And, other years, this whole thing goes out the window because he wants something expensive so he gets that big thing and a handful of things just barely bigger than stocking stuffers.

For My Brother and Sister-in-Law

They also have Amazon wish lists. I’ll admit I really don’t know that they’re into enough to stray much on anything expensive that’s not on their list. This year, they got a big, shared gift and I’v also sent a box of stocking stuffer-type things. I make sure to give or send foods I know they like, fancy versions of food I guess they may like (like a really nice tea), something smelly like candles for my SIL, and something fun they can keep on their desk as work (though I totally forgot that this year).

My In-Laws and Mom (aka Easy to Buy For)

Okay, they’re easy. My MIL loves just about anything someone gets for her, especially earrings that, in her words, look like something a cat would want to play with. We see my in-laws often so we just buy them something they hinted at or we think they’d enjoy. Same for my mom, she gives me a few ideas but really enjoys anything you get for her. I try for more impractical for her, in particular, because she is so-very-practical in her normal life. Forces her to live a little and let me spoil her.

My Dad (aka Hard to Buy For)

My dad is a tough cookie. He likes anything you give him, sure, but he’s not really a stuff person. Ask him what he wants and he’ll always say world peace. So, accordingly, I usually give him something that he’ll use up (like a book he’ll read) and make a donation to a cause he supports. (But no more Red Cross – they got hit by two Cat 5 hurricanes that year. I know, correlation is not causation but I felt really, really guilty.) This year, I went in a different direction but I don’t want to spoil it in case he comes and reads this. Sorry, Dad, you’re getting stuff.

If you have a hard-to-buy-for, you can take a few routes that I’ve considered:

  • Make a donation to a cause they support
  • Buy an experience (concert tickets, sports car rental, etc)
  • Buy a piece of art (watercolor of favorite animal or Fat Head of favorite sports star)
  • Spend a day with them, doing whatever they want (like go fly fishing  with your best bud because he’d always wanted you to try it)


Gift-giving at work is hard. There’s usually corporate and/or government regulations about that sort of thing. If you do give something, make something like cookies that’s generic and won’t just sit on a shelf for the next few years. And only give to the couple folks you work with everyday or you’ll go broke. Give your boss a card and leave it at that – no one wants to explain to HR that they really weren’t trying to buy a good annual review, ‘ya know?

Gift Exchanges

Don’t be lame. Unless it’s formally designated as a White Elephant – aka bring in random stuff you already have or got at a yard sale – don’t bring in something like that because you’ll be The Jerk. Buy with a recipient in mind, like a coffee lover or folks with a small child. Don’t get politically gifts. (Okay, there’s a story here. A very Republican coworker once wound up with a bottle opener that looked like and talked like Bill Clinton when you used it. She was PISSED.) Oh, and don’t be a dork and go way outside of the set dollar limit, if there is one.

Talk Back

How do you find gifts for people? Any tips for finding the right gift? Want to share a funny story of a gift gone wrong?

Coming tomorrow…Christmas lights

12 Days of Christmas: Day 2 – Christmas Cards

I enjoy both sending and receiving Christmas cards. I put all of them on our fridge and even keep up the photo cards year-round. It’s really fun to get something in the mail, especially when it comes with Christmas cheer.

Standard Cards

When we were first married, I sent cards I purchased from Target or Costco. Target is a given, with their giant assortment of options. Costco, I’d recommend as they usually have a box of a couple dozen hand-made looking cards for not too much. Bonus – not many folks get their cards from there so you’ll not be as likely as Target cards to send out the same ones as someone else.

Photo Cards

People with kids (or favorite pets) have it really easy. Take a photo of kid/pet – or, for the really brave, get a photo taken of your entire family. Upload photo to a photo website, pick a card design, and they’ll mail them to your house. If you’re fancy, they may even send them directly to your recipients for you.

This year, the photo selection was exceptionally easy. Matt took a great photo of her when we were at Shenandoah this last time. We’d been down to Dark Hallow Falls and she insisted on walking/hiking/climbing back herself. When she got tired, she would find somewhere to sit then plop down for a bit. We used Mpix yet again because they are at a great price-point for the quality. I ordered them in mid-November, not because I’m that much of an overachiever but because they had a great deal.

Christmas Letters

I come from a family that sends out a Christmas letter each year. Maybe it’s a generational thing but I know almost no one my age that does the same. Let’s blame Facebook for us all knowing far too much about one another and not feeling the need to share via a letter. I do enjoy the ones we received, though, as they’re usually from folks who either aren’t on Facebook or who don’t post there often.

One More Thing

Before I go, I must remind you of a few things:

  • Not everyone celebrates Christmas…but that doesn’t mean you send them nothing when your Christmas-celebrating loved ones get a card. Hanukkah cards are easy to find and come in multi-packs. Find a funny and/or heart-warming “You mean a lot to me.” sort of card for those without a preferred December holiday.
  • Don’t forget cards for…that aunt you don’t see often, coworkers (I pass out those 6/$1 cards Target always has), the person who cuts your hair/takes care of your kid/cleans your house, and your mail carrier and/or UPS delivery team (especially true if you’re devout Amazon Prime mailers)
  • Start a Google Doc to keep track of mailing addresses and the list of non-mailed cards you passed out

Talk Back

Do you send cards? What type do you send? Do you send a letter?

Coming tomorrow…finding gifts

12 Days of Christmas – Day 1: The Tree(s)

The Christmas season first starts for me the day we put up our tree. Well, more like the day we have the tree in the house, the lights and ornaments are on, and the ornament boxes have been put away. It’s a whole ordeal, I won’t lie. Especially now that we’re a two tree household, but I’ll get to that in a little bit.

The Main Tree

The first few years we were married, we had a fake tree. We started with the fake tree that I think Matt had as a kid – I asked, he doesn’t quite remember where that one came from, either – then we got another fake one as part of a day-after-Christmas sale from Target. The new one was pre-lit, only separated into a few large pieces and, you know, wasn’t losing all of its needles.

Then, when we moved to Virginia and real trees weren’t over $100, we switched to real trees. The first year, I insisted we go with Matt’s dad to pick out the specific tree we’d go home with. I took photos and everything. The year after that, we picked out the tree but didn’t stick around long enough to even see it cut – I was over it. Since Lizzie was born, the tree just arrives at our house in early December. Okay, it doesn’t magically get here and we aren’t fancy enough to pay someone to deliver one. Matt’s dad picks it up for us from some farm up in Pennsylvania then brings it down here in the back of his truck. Matt and he then bring it inside, with lots of bickering to make it really festive. Eventually, it’s in the house, the too-low branches are removed, it’s secured in the stand, and I spend an eternity vacuuming up dropped needles.

Where it Goes

Tree placement isn’t as easy as people always think it is. You want somewhere that’s out of the main paths of traffic of your house but is still in a place where you’ll see it often. We have a long and narrow living room, with our front door and the stairs on one end and our fireplace on the other. The middle is taken mostly up by a shoe stand, TV, and big bay window. Previous years, the tree went in the corner, sort of in front of the window but entirely blocking a bookcase. Which isn’t a big deal unless you’re a certain little girl and all of your books that are downstairs are on said bookshelf. So, for the first time, the tree is right in front of the fireplace (which is wood-burning and will certainly not be used until well after the tree is gone).

Lights and Ornaments

Matt puts the lights on because I’d probably poke my eye out or something. Then we put on Christmas music and I sing along rather loud as we put on the ornaments. Off-season, the lights are kept in a hat box (that never held hats, it’s from TJ Maxx) and the ornaments are either in original boxes carefully placed into a big plastic bin or in these ornament organizers. The later I’d love to replace but these ones are sturdy enough and rather light so it’s easy to bring two or three upstairs at a time.

So, the ornaments. It’s a whole thing. We don’t have matching ones, like at all. They are all sort of kinds from copper ones from national landmarks, hand-blown glass balls, wooden figurines, and about anything else you’ve seen as an ornament material. Our collection, which it really is, started out as Matt’s collection. A collection he started when he was Lizzie’s age. While I get annoyed that we have so.many.ornaments when it’s time to put them on or take them off, it is really lovely to go through them and remember where or when we got each one.

The Second Tree (aka Lizzie’s Tree)

This year, we’re starting a new tradition, rather like one Matt had as a kid: Lizzie has her very own tree in her bedroom. It’s just the fancier fake tree we used to use. On it right now are her foam ornaments from her birthday party craft and the little glittery cupcakes she chose from the Dollar Spot (is that still what it’s called?) at Target. I plan to add the extra ornaments I have from a craft project at some point but haven’t gotten any farther than getting the ornaments and hooks into her room.

(Ignore the messy room. Snapped a quick photo while Lizzie was occupied elsewhere.)

Talk Back

Tell me (or better yet, show me) about your tree. Where did you place it? Real or fake? Matching ornaments or all different?

Coming tomorrow: Christmas Cards

Rest of December

I’d had all of these plans to blog later in the month but my flurry of Christmas-related posts basically zapped all of my energy. Plus the whole thinking about and reading about my memoir. (Haven’t exactly done any writing for that yet, other than a first draft of an introduction.)

But, the month and year are now gone and lots happened so, yeah, a blog post is in order.

First, there was Christmas here in Virginia.

Christmas was about as calm as you can hope for with a one year old. She slept in a bit so I got some more sleep than usual (Matt was up and wide awake at seven, as he can no longer sleep in.)

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We took advantage of the fact this is probably the last Christmas we won’t have a kid running around, demanding to open presents right away so we waited for Matt to prep part of breakfast (sausage gravy and biscuits) before we did them. I got Matt a Nintendo 3DS so he has something else to do when I drag him shopping or Squirms doesn’t need tons of attention plus some clothes and candy and a new chef’s knife (a cheap one that Cook’s Illustrated rated very highly from Victorinox). Between Squrims and Matt I got a wine fridge, Jungle Book on Blueray, and some candy. We got squirms a toy box as her big gift then some clothes and books.

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(I took this photo just yesterday but it’s a good shot of her with her toy box. She LOVES trying to climb into it to get her toys out.)

We basically relaxed – okay, I relaxed, Squirms was a busy baby, and Matt worked to prep dinner – most of the day until his parents arrived in the afternoon. Matt basically made Thanksgiving dinner for Christmas dinner which was great to me as I love turkey and the traditional sides. He also made lots of Christmas cookies and his mom brought down more so we had plenty for dessert. Then we took advantage of the grandparents to get everything packed for the trip without having to worry about Squirms either getting in the way or waking up from us, erm, loudly discussing what we did and did not need to bring with us. We got his mom a bunch of books and some earrings and his father a subscription to Netflix (with the implied gift of assistance to get them all set up – I’ve already got a queue started for both of them but have yet to get their TV which may not actually be wifi enabled to stream). They got us a date night with babysitting (my mother in law’s idea) and a set of flannel sheets (my father in law’s idea). And Squirms got her first puzzle, a book, and a few other toys.

Second Christmas was the day after Christmas, when we headed to Florida to see my parents. We went out to a really nice late lunch / early dinner in Celebration (yeah, the very fake Disney-created suburb) and exchanged gifts on the street by where our car was parked. My parents got Matt some clothes, me a bag I’d wanted, Squirms some toys (which they’d brought down with them when they came for her birthday and had us wrap up for her), and we all got two days stay at a hotel in St Augustine. My brother got her some cute socks and slippers and a Minnie Mouse toy. His future mother in law got her a little beanie baby moose. My parents got from us a Dust Buster (for my mom, by her specific request) and a new gas grill (for my dad, joint give from us and my brother). We got my brother a Home Depot gift card and one from Ulta for his fiancee.

Then we were in my hometown for a few days where we did some shopping, some walking around town, and lots of football and TV watching (including a horrible show about cruises with a narrator who not only pronounces words incorrectly but also states totally obvious things like “but we must return to the ship as the captain is preparing to move to the next port”). Squirms went to the park for the first time and wasn’t a big fan of the swings or the slide but really enjoying the bouncy whale.

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Then it was off to St Augustine for two nights before we headed back. I’ve always loved St Augustine, though it’s very Disney-fied touristy. But there’s history and a great historic area with shopping and restaurants. My brother even drove over for a day to have some more time with us. Squirms had lots of fun getting pushed around in her stroller but, if her behavior out to eat there was any indication, our days of taking her to dinner out with us may be at an end (we’re chancing it tonight, we’ll see how it goes).

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Squirms screamed most of the flight down – it was nap time and she really, really hates being held for naps at this point – and was pretty happy on the way back up, as long as she was getting fed. She got dragged all over on the trip but was happy most of the time, though she was struggling with teething something fierce the first few days. She now has my parents fully wrapped around her fingers.

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We ended the year exhausted from our trip back home (and my father in law somehow going to departures then leaving the airport entirely before finally getting us). We ate far too much junk food that Matt’s mom had prepared and probably drank a bit too much wine so were in bed before 11. I woke up from the fireworks from somewhere nearby (Fairfax City?) but quickly went to bed. Staying up until Midnight is for people without children.

So, that was the rest of our December. And now it’s a new year but I’m not feeling the new year spirit yet, just that it’s still my holiday break (okay, I extended it a day as no one was going to be in, anyway). Maybe it’ll hit me that it’s now 2015 on Monday, when I return to the usual routine.