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 6 – Cookies

Mmmmm, cookies. I didn’t grow up with the tradition of Christmas cookies but I’m very happy to be part of it now. Baking of Christmas cookies starts as soon as humanly possible and the prep begins in mid-November when Matt stocks up on sugar, flour, and cookie spices. (He also picked up some colored sugar this year, for use by a certain blonde little girl.) Most of the cookies stay with us, but we share with anyone that comes over during the season. Making ten different kinds in a season is not at all surprising.

So far, we’ve only made three cookie recipes, all were new to us:

  • Butter cookies (Galettes bretonnes) from The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan
  • Cinnamon stars (Zimtsterne) from The German Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Mastering Authentic German Cooking by Mimi Sheraton
  • Decorator’s dream cookies from The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion: The Essential Cookie Cookbook by King Arthur Flour

The butter cookies, unfortunately, have little flavor and are quite dry (so, would not recommend). The cinnamon starts are tasty but very German with not much sugar (recommend, if you like semi-sweet cookies). The sugar cookies are quite excellent – easy to roll out and cut and are quite tasty. They even aren’t too sweet when you add sugar decoration.

Do you make cookies for the holidays? Do you hand them out to others to keep them all for yourself?

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.

Phew.

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)

Coworkers

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

Christmas Countdown – Breakfast at the Manger

Our church has a great annual event called Breakfast at the Manger where kids are invited to come and, well, have breakfast at the manger. They bring in donkeys and goats and bunnies from a local petting zoo and the kids can dress up as a wise person, angel, or shepherd (complete with appropriate headwear). Everyone enjoys a simple breakfast of pancakes and juice boxes put together but the grandfather-aged Christ’s Curmudgeons men’s Bible study group. There’s also a formal program where they tell the story of Jesus’s birth and sing songs and some sort of art and craft project going on in another room.

Not having a kid before, this was our first year attending and we really enjoyed ourselves. Squirms was too little to get much out of petting the animals (though we tried multiple times) or craft time or the outfits but we could tell she’s really going to love it in a few years.

I took a ton of photos but most turned out too blurry to be usable. But, hey, whatever. It’s Christmas!

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Christmas Countdown

When I was little, the Christmas season kicked off one of three ways: 1) my brother and I attempting to put together our artificial Christmas tree (real ones are extremely expensive in Florida, or at were when I was a kid) 2) my hometown Christmas parade featuring marching bands with lights on their instruments and lots of folks in Santa hats on the back of pickup trucks or hand-made floats or 3) the Christmas pageant at our church with the craziness of a full orchestra and professional set and lighting design.

Now that I’m an adult, it’s never the same thing. Some years, it’s the first Sunday we light an advent candle at church, the selected family awkwardly reading the liturgy as their eldest child tries not to burn down the church. Others, it’s when we get a tree or put a wreath on the door or get our first Christmas card in the mail. Once I finally feel like it’s really Christmas, the countdown starts in my head (Today’s the 14th – only 11 days until Christmas!) and I let myself listen to the Rockin’ Christmas station on Pandora.

Last year, Christmas came and went in the blur that is the first few weeks of having a newborn. My parents came down for a week, my in-laws stopped by for the big meal, lots of gifts and the usual decorations and lights. I was just too tired and unfocused to enjoy it, though I did get a journal and a scarf from my mom, Matt, and my mother-in-law.

This year, Christmas started the day after Squirms’s birthday party. Church had wreaths that were available from the Boy Scouts (we completely missed any mention of pre-ordering) so we got one and stuck it up on our door. I started the Christmas station while Matt prepared dinner. Later in the week, I got Christmas cards and started hounding people for their addresses. (Our tree arrives tomorrow, via my father-in-law who always buys them from a nice man named Bud up in rural Pennsylvania.)

And, because this is Squirms’s first real Christmas, I am more than a little excited. And you’re going to have to put up with me sharing my excitement because I’m planning to post at least every few days about how we’re counting down to Christmas.

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Squirms even has her Christmas outfit already.