Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Has your Christmas been picture perfect? I didn't always take my own advice, and I paid the price. However, I DID get all the presents wrapped before Christmas Eve this year. So what if it was the night of Dec. 23? At least I got to bed at a decent hour on Dec. 24 and didn't sleep half of Christmas Day away! LOL One of these years, I'm going to wrap them as I acquire them. I'm always surprised how many hours it takes to wrap what looks like a small pile of gifts!

News Flash: Upstate South Carolina had the first Christmas Day snowfall in 47 years! Woooooooooooooo!!! It was a peaceful addition to the day. But it hasn't stuck yet. (My company, who traveled from out-of-state, is worried about the trip home in a few days.)

I'm already making plans to "do" Christmas better next year.  How about you? Do you want to take another trip around the sun, preparing for Christmas All Year Long?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

#15 - November still: If You Enjoy Driving Around Looking at Christmas Lights...

In this month's copy of "Thriving Family," I found a de"light"ful idea that I have to share with you. It suggested making Christmas thank-you cards to drop off at homes displaying a manger in their yard. It's done like a game: your family goes driving to look at neighborhood light displays. Someone spots a nativity among the decorations. You stop the car so that one of you can run up and leave a thank you card at the door of the house. If you have children or grandchildren, they can be in charge of making the thank you cards. All you have to do is drive! Think of the pleasure the homeowner will have upon discovering the note. Think of the fun of hearing the kids exclaim, "I see Baby Jesus! Stop the car!" What a fun way to spread a little Christmas cheer, and all it costs is pennies for a few art supplies, since you were going to drive around looking at Christmas decorations anyway.

How do you spread Christmas cheer during the holidays?

Monday, November 8, 2010

#13 - November: Preparations Continue

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas! The temps in the sunny South have dipped to the 30s at night. Frost and snow sightings have occurred to the north of us. Yes, Christmas is fast approaching! Does that knowledge fill you with dread or anticipation? How prepared are you? For me, gifts are nearly done, but I should go ahead and wrap them. My always accidental, annual “tradition” of wrapping in the wee hours of Christmas morning steals some of my natural joy! This year will be different! I mean it!

Now is the time to prepare your family’s Christmas newsletter – if you plan to send one out. Now is a good time to address the envelopes for your Christmas cards as well. You can do that while watching TV or waiting for appointments; any time when you will be away from home with nothing to occupy your hands is an opportunity to get ahead with holiday preparations. Last year I carried my address labels, return address labels, stamps, and card envelopes with me so that when I had a free moment, I could apply everything to the envelopes. 

Now is also the time to start working on your December calendar. What annual traditions do you need to include so that you don’t forget? Are there live nativities, cantatas, parades, holiday light displays, etc. that you want to see? Is there an office Christmas party or two? Do friends invite you to a drop-in one certain weekend every December? If you or someone in your family loves to get out and celebrate with others, you may have a lot on your calendar. If your family prefers relaxing at home more than joining the hustle and bustle of Christmas, then your calendar may be fairly clear. The reason we've been working all year long on Christmas plans is to free up our time for the month of December so that we can enjoy the season our way, whether that’s throwing parties or attending them, driving around town looking at the Christmas decorations, making and baking, getting involved in community service, or just kicking back and watching Christmas specials while stringing popcorn and sipping hot cocoa in front of a glowing fireplace!

“Be prepared” is the Scout motto. Let’s claim it as our motto too! I hope this month you will finalize what you can, be it gifts, cards, decorations, or the activity calendar. Be sure to devote a fair share of your attention to Thanksgiving (if you are an American) as well and make the most of that day and enjoy your family, your blessings, and your memories.  It’s a holiday that deserves more time and attention than it gets.  Imagine what the world would be like if we all devoted more time to remembering our blessings and the One from whom all blessings flow.

Happy Thanksgiving, my fellow Americans! Happy November, everyone! I wish you happy thoughts and clear heads, focus and motivation, and above all, peace. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

#12 - still October: Are You Prepared Yet? and Brenda's Top Ten Frugal Gift Ideas

October 17: it’s now 44 days till December 1, our goal date for having our Christmas preparations completed! It’s 68 days from today until Christmas Day, but in the event that you are reading this at a later date, I added a Christmas countdown widget to the sidebar so that you can see for yourself how much time is left. Have you spent some time this month getting your thoughts and plans organized?

A friend asked for tips for frugal gifts, and so I compiled a list to share with you in case you have more family than funds but still enjoy giving gifts. Because my love language is gifts, I can’t stand not having something to offer; it’s how I express my love for friends and family.  From the years of being a poor newlywed to the years of being a struggling single parent, I’ve found thrifty ways to satisfy my desire to provide presents for my loved ones without going into debt. One way is to shop throughout the year, starting with the January clearance sales! When I see a good deal on something I know someone on my list would enjoy, I buy it and stash it in my gift cabinet. Spreading out the spending like that helps a lot. My friend Ann does something similar; she buys gift cards throughout the year, stockpiling them as gifts to give when December rolls around! That’s a smart move that is gentler on the budget than buying them all at once.

However, it’s a bit late in the year for that advice to be helpful for now.  If a moth flew out of your wallet the last time you opened it, maybe you’ll like a few gift ideas on the following list, or maybe they will help spark an idea of your own!

Brenda’s Top Ten Ideas for Thrifty Gift-giving

1. Photo collage in a thrift store frame – can take 20 or so photos and automatically arrange them in an 8 x 10 collage for cheap. You may be able to do the same on your computer. Either way, it makes a cool gift (don’t tell my mom, but I made her one for Christmas!). You can usually find cheap photo frames that are new, but you might find a unique one in a thrift store that is good as is or that you could paint or decorate to suit the recipient’s tastes. It all depends on how crafty you are and how much time you have.

2. Homemade cookbook – if you enjoy cooking and others enjoy the pleasure of eating the dishes you’ve made, you might put together a cookbook. This is an especially thoughtful gift for your young adult kids who are out on their own and might be missing your home cooking. I once gathered family recipes and compiled them in a family cookbook to share with my relatives.

3. Since we’re on the subject of food, consider gifts of jar mixes for homemade soup, cookies, or muffins. You don't even have to know how to cook to put this type of gift together. You can find recipes online and at the library. You’ll have to create a tag to go with this gift so that the recipient knows what ingredients to add as well as how to turn the mix into a delicious treat!

4. We’re not done with the subject of food yet.  Do you can foods or otherwise enjoy cooking? Canned preserves, jams, and jellies are a sweet treat, and nothing tastes better than my mom’s home grown, canned green beans! Yes, that’s right; I’m saying that my eyes would light up if I found some of those green beans under my tree! I’ve given my own homemade peach butter as gifts. Other ideas are gifts of homemade cookies and candies, bread, muffins, or croutons. Yes, croutons! My daughter and I discovered the joy of homemade croutons this past summer and have plans to bless others with that joy this Christmas. Last of all are jar cakes – cakes baked directly in a canning jar in the oven. The batter from my favorite recipe makes 6-1/2 jar cakes! (We eat the half cake ourselves – a bonus!) When properly sealed, these can be saved and eaten a month or two later. I’ve seen them sell in stores for $12; making them yourself saves big bucks.

5. Made of food items but not edible are cinnamon-applesauce dough ornaments.  My son made some in kindergarten. Fourteen years later, they still smell of cinnamon! You can easily find the recipe for these ornaments online. Use cookie cutters for the ornament shape and a drinking straw to cut out a hole for hanging. You can add a touch of gold or silver paint for added interest.

6. Homemade candles – When I was little, my mom used to make candles to give as gifts. She made round snowball ones (I don’t know how) and tall pillar candles using empty Pringles cans as molds and broken crayon pieces for coloring the wax. If you buy supplies with half-off coupons in the Sunday paper, this would be a frugal but pretty gift and not time-consuming, either.

7. Especially for kids: an arts/crafts kit you put together. Any time Mom wasn’t sure what toy a child would like, she’d put together one of these kits. Construction paper, glue sticks, glitter or glitter glue, pipe cleaners, crayons, kid scissors, stickers, and stencils. Well, the list could go on, but you get the idea. You can put the supplies in a shoe box or maybe a tote bag found in a thrift shop.

8. Repurposed items are becoming popular as a way of recycling. Jean legs cut from worn out jeans can easily be made into neck roll pillows. Any favorite-but-outgrown item of clothing could become part of a pillow! In addition, I’ve seen old, men’s shirts and ties turned into funky skirts. Be sure your intended recipient has the personality and taste for such a gift.

9. Most teens and young adults enjoy money as a gift, and it’s easier than shopping. If you’re on a limited budget, you can still dress up a smaller amount and make it a fun gift. Origami animals made from dollar bills would be fun – if you know origami. (I don’t.) If it were me, I’d roll up a few dollars into tight rolls, and push them into balloons. Then I’d blow up the balloons and tie them together with pretty, curled ribbons.  Warning: this is a terrible gift idea for a child who hates the sound of popping balloons. Otherwise, it’s a fun package to pop!

10. My teenage daughter loves bath baskets, but those can be pricey and not have much in them. If you know someone who enjoys that kind of pampering gift, buy (or re-use) a basket or decorative box and fill it with bath items found at a dollar store. If you have time to make bath salts to add to a small jar, do that as well. Coloring and scenting Epsom salts is a simple thing to do, and you could use the recipient’s favorite perfume for the scent!

I hope you are getting excited about Christmas this year. So often it’s an overwhelming ordeal to get through, but it doesn’t have to be. With advance planning, it can be as simple or as elaborate as you’ve always wanted, and you can finally have time to savor each moment.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

#11 - October: Gearing up for Christmas!

Guess what! As of October 2, it's only SIXTY days till December 1! If you don't want to be rushing around at the last moment trying to make your family's Christmas dreams come true while your dream of having time to enjoy the sights, the sounds, and the flavors of the holiday turns into a nightmare of never-ending chores, pull yourself together and start preparing now.

I hope your gift shopping and stashing are done or nearly done. If you're planning to give handmade items and homemade edibles that aren't made yet, you need to pull out a calendar and devise a plan. When do your gifts need to be finished? What dates will you be home and able to work on them? If you don't make a plan and plan for time to complete your projects, time will fly by and leave you gift-less. You know it's happened before; don't let it happen this year!

Next on your to-do list is your decorations. While you're getting out your fall harvest home decór, take time to check on your strings of Christmas lights. Plug them in and see first whether the strings work and second, whether each bulb works. Throwing out damaged strings and replacing burned out bulbs now will save time and stress later. Plus, you'll know how many strings need to be replaced and can buy replacements before "decorating day" comes.

Take time this month to think about a theme, if such things delight you. (They delight me!) Some of us enjoy wrapping gifts in coordinating gift wrap and decorative bows, making an impressive tableau around the Christmas tree. Some even select a theme for the tree decorations and the family's matching pajamas! I enjoy seeing all the different theme trees at the Festival of Trees, but I tend to just use the collection of ornaments I've already amassed rather than making or purchasing ornaments to go with a new theme. If your idea of a special Christmas is one where the tree, the gifts, the cards, and the kids all match, then make it happen while you have time to plan! One year I embraced the red plaid theme. My gifts had red plaid ribbon around them, and the whole family had red plaid pj's (gowns for the girls, pajama pants and tops for the boys). One year I went crazy with snowflakes: I bought some flocked snowflake ornaments to add to the upstairs tree, found pajamas featuring snowflakes for me and my teenage kids, and wrapped gifts in snowman gift wrap. If that sort of thing brings you joy, then go for it! However, if the very idea of that much planning makes you panic, then forget about it. If someone else in your family is willing and anxious to plan and carry out a theme, then let them handle it while you put your feet up and relax! (NOTE: other themes can involve a favorite color, angels, Santas, stars, polka dots, candles, candy, or country!) Don't feel guilty about not having a theme. This blog is not about guilt, it's about celebrating Christmas the way you want to without the usual hustle and bustle and last-minute rush to get ready!

Plan your volunteer activities. Will you sing in the Christmas choir, help collect or deliver gifts or food to needy families, go caroling at a nursing home, or adopt a needy child or missionary for Christmas giving? Planning in advance will save you from taking on too much on the spur of the moment -- or from missing an opportunity.

Have you planned where you are going to spend Christmas? (I haven't. I need to discuss this with my mother tonight. Either she is coming here, or we are going there!) Knowing whether you will be at home or visiting family or friends will make a difference in your holiday planning. It's not too early to plan your feast! Lack of planning keeps us relying on the same old recipes every year. That's fine if a certain meal is a tradition everyone enjoys and looks forward to. However, if you've been bored with the same ol' same ol' and want this year to be different, plan now! You'll make it happen.

[UPDATE: Mom has decided to drive the 500 miles to spend Christmas with me and any grandkids who are here, and she will bring her best friend, widowed this year, with her so that the friend (who is like a second Grandma to my kids) doesn't have to spend her first Christmas as a widow alone. I am excited to play hostess for an extra person this year!]

I'll check back in a couple of weeks to see how you're doing. Time is of essence! I really want all of us to be able to enjoy the celebration of our Savior's birth without regrets, without guilt, and without wishing that we'd been more organized. The more you do in advance, the more time you'll have to enjoy your family, your friends, and the message of God's love.

Monday, September 20, 2010

#10 - September: Time to Take Stock

As of Sept 22, the first day of autumn, it is 93 days till Christmas, and 74 days till Dec. 1. If you've been following the monthly suggestions in this blog, this information won’t cause you to gasp and drop your coffee mug! You’ll be ready for the holidays before they officially arrive!

This month, it's time to take stock of all that you have planned or prepared for Christmas. Did you start a Christmas notebook? Remember, that’s where you were to jot down not only ideas for gifts but also the list of gifts you’ve made or bought and tucked away, as well as the place to list the sizes, favorite colors, styles, and motifs, etc. of those to whom you plan to give gifts. If you made such a notebook, that’s a good place to write down the rest of your Christmas plans. If not, what are you waiting for? Time’s a-wasting!

Other plans you may or may not have finalized are 1) the family newsletter or photo collage that will go into the Christmas cards that you may have handmade or purchased on clearance in January, 2) your choice of gift wrap – handmade or purchased on clearance in January, 3) ideas for meals and desserts you intend to make this year, and 4) your plan for putting more of Christ into your Christmas.

If you had intended to make gifts, design gift wrap, or make greetings cards and haven’t gotten started yet, start now or scrap your plans for now and save them for next year. (Except, of course, if your gifts will be of the edible variety. Naturally those can’t be made too far in advance.) Our goal is to have a stress-free holiday this year. In October and November our focus will be on preparing to decorate, entertain, and enjoy holiday activities, as well as to finish collecting and stashing gifts. When December 1 arrives, I want you to look forward to the merriest of Christmases, not panic about the stuff you have left on your list of to-do’s!

So tell me, how ready for Christmas are you?

Friday, August 6, 2010

#9 - August: Great Shopping Month!

Listen, I know Christmas is technically a long way off, but you know how fast time flies these days. It will be here before you know it! Now is a good time to start making those gift lists and seeking out bargains. I bring this up now because of the Back-to-School sales. This weekend in a number of states it's "tax-free weekend" on a lot of items that could be saved as gifts - art supplies, computer stuff, clothes, etc. Your state's website will provide more details about what you can buy tax-free. Other stores will offer good sale prices on the not-tax-free merchandise in order to be competitive. There's no telling what you'll find!

I may be back later this month with another Christmas-related topic, but I just wanted to give you this idea while it was still timely! Happy hunting!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

#8 - July: Putting More Christ into Your Christmas

Several months ago, a friend of mine asked that I devote a column to putting more Christ into Christmas. What a great topic! Over the years I've added a number of traditions to our family Christmas to remind myself and my children what we are really celebrating at Christmas. In fact, as I listed them, I came up with eleven to share with you this month! They are listed for you below.

If your way of keeping Christ in Christmas is not listed, please share it in the comments section. I would love to read about it!

1. Observe Advent. One year my church observed the Advent with the lighting of the candles and a special reading. I was intrigued! It took me a few years to find the kind of Advent wreath I wanted. Here it is; it's ceramic. The traditional greenery wreaths are also beautiful. An Advent wreath will have five candles. A candle will be lit each of the four Sundays before Christmas and also on Christmas Eve. Advent is about preparing our hearts for the Christ in Christmas. For more information, follow this link from the Rev. Mark D. Roberts' website:

2. Hang a stocking for Jesus. I have a small blue and gold stocking to hang with our individual stockings. This stocking collects the change from our pockets and any other money that any family member would like to give to Jesus. On the Sunday before Christmas, we take the stocking to church and quietly empty it into the offering plate as our gift to Jesus. (It's small enough to fit into my purse.) If you want to have a stocking for Jesus, be sure to have a sturdy nail and a sturdy stocking. The first year we observed this tradition, the stocking's loop broke under the weight of our coins, sending the stocking crashing to the hearth! Warning: those cute stocking hangers that sit on a mantle or shelf will tip and fall under the weight of a coin-filled stocking.

3. Donate gifts to someone in need. Just as the wise men brought gifts to Jesus, we can give gifts to needy children. You can find "Giving Trees" in stores and restaurants in your community. You just choose a tag that lists things the recipient would like, buy as many of those items as possible, and return them with the tag attached. You might choose to bless a missionary from your church with a monetary gift or gift box. You might participate in Operation Christmas Child by filling a shoebox with small gift items. If your budget is lean, you might chip in with another family or
with a Sunday school class to put together a bundle of gifts to bless the recipient. This is an important way to teach your children that Christmas is not all about receiving.

4. Find picture books that tell the Christmas story from different viewpoints. Authors have gotten very creative with the Christmas story. It's been told from everyone's perspective, including the innkeeper and the angels! These tellings make the story fresh and give us new thoughts to ponder. My daughter especially loved the story about the cranky innkeeper who was changed when he saw the baby Jesus.

5. Display a nativity/creche in your home. As a child, I watched Mom set up this nativity scene
with awe. As an adult, setting up this scene (passed down to me by Mom a few years ago) still fills me with awe. I know some people hide the Christ child until Christmas morning. Some have the wise men "travel" through the house and arrive at the scene later on. I have a fear of losing these breakable figures, so I haven't done that, but if the idea appeals to you, go for it! I also have a glass nativity, a wooden nativity that little hands can't break, and a few miniature ones that are tree ornaments.

6. Visit a live nativity and/or a walk through Bethlehem. This more than anything brings the reality of God's sacrifice home to me. We are fortunate to live in an area where a number of churches set up live nativities, and at least one re-creates the village of Bethlehem. We sign the census, visit the "vendors" who tell us about their wares and whisper about the Christ child, and avoid the stern and suspicious centurion guards tofinally slip into the stable and see Mary, Joseph, and the baby.

7. Hang meaningful ornaments. I'm fond of candy, snowflake, and snowman ornaments as well as ornaments that feature animals. They are cute and make me smile. However, to keep Christ in Christmas, I also hang some ornaments based on the Christmas story: wisemen, shepherds, angels, and one special baby Jesus ornament. To remind us why Jesus was born, I also have some beaded cross ornaments that we made ourselves.

8. Watch Charlie Brown Christmas. I've seen this little cartoon Christmas show more than 40 times, but it always gets to me. How often in a children's program does a character recite scripture? It's very touching and end with "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

9. Send Christmas cards with a spiritual theme, or with a special verse written inside. Share your joy in Christ with your family and friends.

10. Attend a Christmas Eve church service. If there isn't one, hold family devotions by candlelight before going to bed.

11. Make a birthday cake for Jesus. You're planning to have desserts on Christmas anyway, right? Make one a birthday cake for Jesus. Light a candle and sing a song. If you don't know the "Happy Birthday, Jesus" song, the traditional Happy Birthday song will do. Children love a birthday, and this will remind them on Christmas Day that Christmas is about Christ!

Those are my traditions. What are yours?

Monday, June 21, 2010

#7 - June: Planning the Christmas Newsletter

How do you feel about Christmas newsletters? It probably depends on your experience of receiving and reading them. I enjoy them. I love it when my loved ones share their lives with me! I learned how to write my own by reading Uncle Jimmie and Aunt Susan’s newsletters. Their newsletters are nearly always just one page in length. Each includes a few photos. Each shares a few brief milestones and accomplishments of each member of the family. Each is organized in a newspaper format with a headline that hints at the theme. Each sticks to the theme. Each is fun to read!

Contrast that kind of newsletter with the one you hate to read: that’s the overly long one written in a hard-too-read font filled with exclamation-point-bragging about the writer’s perfect life and over-the-top beautiful, creative, talented, genius children. I really think it’s that kind of newsletter that makes so many people disparage Christmas newsletters.

To create a Christmas newsletter that folks can’t wait to receive, follow these pointers:

  • Keep track of your milestones. We can lead such busy lives that looking back is a blur! If you’ve marked a calendar or kept notes in a notebook, you can look back and be reminded of events that others would enjoy reading about.

  • Keep it short. Try your best to keep it to one page. It’s common knowledge in the business world that people look at multiple pages and set them aside to read later when they have more time. Sometimes, later never comes. It’s better to keep your readers’ attention with brief milestones and memorable events than lose them with long explanations of every activity and award that made up your year.

  • Keep it real. Your life isn’t perfect. Feel free to share the lows along with the highs. Additionally, you are the one writing the newsletter, not your pets, not your new baby, not some nameless reporter. The cutesy stuff has already been done. Keep things real by writing as yourself. And remember that most of your friends are more interested in you than in your kids. Make sure you don’t leave your own news out of the newsletter.

  • Make ’em laugh. Keep track of the funny quotes by your kids or even your significant other: write them in your daily planner or wall calendar, or on a 3 x 5 card that you save with your Christmas card supply. Then when you get ready to write your newsletter, you can go through the quotes and choose one or two to highlight. Looking back through my old newsletters, I found that I included two in my 2000 newsletter. 1) When my 8-year-old daughter was asked what she wants to be when she grows up, she answered, “A lady!” 2) After watching me butter the turkey and search inside for the giblets, my son asked, “What’s turkey made out of? Chicken?”

  • Avoid preaching. A Christmas newsletter should be casual and friendly, not self-righteous and preachy. Please understand that I'm not talking about sharing a few thoughts about the meaning of Christmas or a spiritual lesson you learned. That sort of thing is fine and expected. Just remember that the bulk of a newsletter should news about you and your family. That's what inquiring minds want to know!

  • Choose an interesting format. Many programs have newsletter templates that you can use, or you can be extra creative and design your own. (If you go with a simple letter format, please break it down into paragraphs. It's daunting to be faced with a Christmas letter that is an entire page long with no breaks!) Choose a font that won’t make readers reach for reading glasses. You may also use special, holiday-themed newsletter paper, or you may use plain white paper and dress it up with your color photos or graphics.

  • Consider your options. Maybe writing isn’t your thing. A picture is worth a thousand words! Instead of writing a newsletter, you might enjoy creating a collage of photos that tell the story of your year. A few captions, and your project will be complete. Your relatives will love it!

There’s a fringe benefit to writing yearly Christmas newsletters that you may not know about. Your newsletters will act much like a diary but in a more succinct fashion. I’ve saved a copy of almost all of mine since 1987! Re-reading them is like a walk down memory lane. If you have never written one before, I encourage you to give it a shot this year. When you can plan for it, you can make it happen!

My apologies for a late-month blog. If all goes as planned, I'll have the next blog posted on the first Sunday of the month. Coming in July: Ideas for emphasizing Christ during Christmastime

Saturday, May 8, 2010

#6 - May: Gift Wrap, and Thwarting Snoopers

Is it too early to think about gift wrap? Not if 1) you already have gifts hidden, and 2) you want to do theme gift wrap or at least have something special under the tree this time around!

If you already have some gifts stashed away for Christmas, wrapping them now can save time in December when you might otherwise be up in the wee hours of Christmas morning, tears of exhaustion trailing down your cheeks as you continue to wrap, wrap, wrap, or stuff, stuff, stuff (into gift bags because you ran out of wrapping time and/or patience). Trust me, it’s hard to re-claim your Christmas joy after a night like that.

Even if you haven't started making or purchasing Christmas gifts yet (What are you waiting for? Christmas???), you can plan your gift wrap. What strikes your fancy for this year? Metallic wrap? White wrap with colorful ribbons? Newspaper wrap adorned with stamps/stencils/stickers? Homemade painted paper? Do you want all your gifts to look different, do you want them all wrapped in one kind of paper, or do you choose a paper for each family member and wrap all gifts to that person in that paper? (Btw, if you do this, please don't choose the ugliest paper for your least favorite relative. That's not in the spirit of the season. And if you can't imagine anyone doing that, trust me. I had an in-law who wrapped all gifts to me in paper with a black background - every year. I don't know how she did it, but she found the ugliest Christmas wrap on the face of this planet and saved it just for me! Every year!) I may have a lifetime supply of clearance Christmas wrap in my closet, but I don’t always feel like using it. One year our gift wrap was giant sheets of butcher paper that I let my kids cover with sponge-painted red, green, and gold stars. One year I wrapped everything in white tissue paper and plaid ribbons. Another year I went for silver and red shiny paper. Since my trees look much the same from year to year, I enjoy creating different looks for the gifts placed beneath them.

If you begin wrapping now, you will want a master sheet of all gifts acquired and who they are for. You will need to tag the gifts so that you don’t accidentally gift the deluxe strawberry bath set to big, hairy Uncle Hank. Rather than putting names on the gifts (tempting any snoopers to sneak a peak in gifts bearing their names), you might assign each person a number and tag the gifts with the correct number. You must keep a master list of the names and numbers, maybe in a secret place in your wallet. On Christmas Eve, you can replace the numbered tags with name tags so that there is no confusion on the big day.

Be sneaky when it comes to your master sheets. My mom kept hers in her jewelry box, but she had a darling daughter who liked to admire the rings and things it held. This daughter found a folded piece of paper in the jewelry box and opened it. She read a list of every gift she was going to get! (Have I mentioned that I am my mother’s only daughter?) She discovered that a lot of the fun of Christmas involved anticipating surprises. Knowing what’s coming just sucks the fun of opening presents right out of the day!

As you wrap your gifts, keep those snoopers in mind. You don’t want them to spoil their surprises! You can foil snoopers who find their gifts (or those who like to squeeze and shake the boxes under the tree) with a few tricks. My mom got me really good one year. I was about 16, and she was tired of my ability to guess what was in wrapped gifts. That year she put all my gifts inside puzzle boxes! I was outraged when I shook those boxes. One thing I didn’t want for Christmas was puzzles! Then as I opened my gifts and saw that the puzzle boxes were old ones we’d already put together, I was confused. My mom told me to look inside, and that’s when I found the real gifts of Avon jewelry. Mom sure tricked me with those puzzles!

As an adult, I still had the ability to accurately guess the contents of wrapped packages. “That’s a dress, that’s a sweater, that’s a bathrobe, that’s chocolate-covered cherries, that’s a box of Andes mints!” I thought I was funny, but the gift-giver’s joy had been spoiled. Therefore, he went out and bought one last gift and had it “canned.” That’s right, I found a gift in a sealed tin can under the tree, and it was for me. It sounded like it had a rock in it. I couldn’t snoop! I was thwarted! (Not really.) The rest of the story: I thought it was a joke gift, and I didn’t want to be laughed at on Christmas. Therefore, when no one was around, I got a can opener and went to work on that can. Imagine my horror when I discovered a necklace wrapped in paper inside the can, along with a marble! It was a real gift, not a joke, and I had just spoiled the surprise! You know what? You can’t hide the evidence of an opened can, even if you put it back under the tree upside down. I learned my lesson that year. No more snooping for me! (Hopefully most snoopers won’t go as far as I did.)

Let’s wrap this up. (Pun intended. Hehehe!) You can thwart snoopers by putting the real gift inside a puzzle box with puzzle pieces still inside. You can put the gift in unexpected containers, like a small gift in a large box. You can include sound-makers – marbles, rocks, jingle bells – to mask the sound the real gift makes when shaken. You can wrap the gift in bubble wrap and make it seem like an item of clothing when squeezed, when it’s really a book or CD. And of course, you can keep the gifts hidden and/or locked up where the snoops in your family will never think to look.

A note about gift bags: Gift bags are pretty and easy. They have cute little handles too! But they are an invitation to snoop. Only use them if the recipient won't be tempted to sneak an early peak, which may be because you are going to deliver the gift and expect the recipient to open it right away.

Use these tips if you’re going to start wrapping gifts now. Remember these tips if you’re going to wrap your gifts later.

Do you have any creative ideas for gift wrap or thwarting snoopers? Post them in the comments section!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

#5 - April: Your Christmas Stash and Items to Stock Up On

This month I want to focus on your Christmas “hiding place” and the things you can start filling it with. Do you have a place where you stash the gifts you make or buy throughout the year? Do you need a place to store materials for gift ideas? Without such a place, you probably hide things and then forget where you put them. One year it was two months AFTER Christmas when I found a big gift I’d gotten for my son. I’d hidden it behind a chair that sat behind my bedroom closet door that always remained open. He never looked there — but neither did I after I chose that as my hiding place!

Now I have an old, black metal, two-door supply cabinet with three shelves inside. It sits in my home office, where I spend most of my day. That’s where I stash gifts. My kids are old enough not to care what’s in there (or maybe they’ve never figured out what I keep in there besides old coloring books and boxes that once held office software), so I don’t lock it. If you have junior detectives in your house, you may want something that you can lock. Do you have a closet, cabinet, or shelf that you can use (and even disguise) as your Christmas storage? A solid color (not clear) plastic storage bin with alid is better than playing hide and seek for your gift stash. Having everything in the same place will save time later.

Now let’s turn our attention to items we can stock in our storage place. Gifts already bought or made are a given; any sewing supplies related to your gifts could be placed there, as well as any recipes that you’ve gathered for making a family cookbook. Maybe you are gathering supplies for making pretty soaps or candles. What else? This month we enjoyed the Easter holiday. What does that have to do with Christmas? Baskets are for sale now at clearance prices! If you want to make gift baskets for Christmas, stock up now. Easter grass is also on clearance and would make nifty packaging material in gift bags or boxes in place of tissue paper. You can also use the grass in clear plastic ornaments - hiding a small gift in the middle. What a pretty and unexpected surprise!

Some items may be readily available now but hard to find in the fall. Canning jars are such an item. One year I wanted to bake jar cakes as Christmas gifts, but I couldn’t find wide-mouth jars for sale anywhere in November! If you want to can homemade food items as gifts or make mix-in-a-jar gifts, now is a good time to pick up a supply of jars and stash them where you can find them. Don’t forget small jars to fill with bath salts or other homemade bath supplies as well.

Do you have a special place where you store your Christmas gifts and craft items? Share it here! This blog is set to post all comments, so feel free to comment, offer advice, or ask questions of your own.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

#4 - March: Work on Handmade Gifts or Start a Gift Notebook

I am two weeks later than planned, but better late than never, right? I’m sorry; life has been dribbling me like a basketball in a championship game.

The goal for the month of March is simple. For us, March is Make Gifts Month. The weather is still kind of chilly and damp, keeping us indoors most of the time. For those who are able to knit, crochet, embroider, or sew, this month offers time for those kinds of projects. If you are crafty, put your hobby to good use this month.

If you are like me, you intend to make some of your Christmas gifts either because you love the personal touch or you’re frugal, but time slips away before you know it. Suddenly you are facing the holiday whirlwind with no time left for quiet projects! Then you have to wander the store aisles trying to find gifts within your budget. That's why we need a plan for starting early.

If making gifts doesn’t appeal to you, you can still use this month to create a gift notebook, a place to jot down not only ideas for gifts or gifts that have been made or bought and tucked away, but also sizes, favorite colors, styles, and motifs, etc. After all, you can ask questions without anyone suspecting that you are preparing for Christmas! You can casually mention possible gift items and gauge your loved one’s reaction. Come Christmas, your questions and conversations will have been forgotten, and your gifts will truly be a welcome surprise!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Please participate in the February Poll! (NOTE: Now closed)

[NOTE: the poll - now closed - has been removed.] Hello, friends! February is at its end. Did you try any new recipes this month? Have you found new treats for Christmas? I did! I discovered a better sausage ball recipe, and my daughter and I created red hot peanut brittle that we think rocks! What about you? What new recipes are you excited about? Tell us about them, and don't forget to take the poll!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

#3 - February: Experiment with New Recipes

The worst time for attempting new holiday recipes is during Christmas when we're already strapped for time. If you're like me, you found some recipes that made your mouth water, but you never found the time to make them. Whether you needed to make treats for a party, your family, or gift-giving, you didn't have time to experiment with new recipes. You fell back on the old reliables that you've been making for years.

Let's pull out a few of those untried recipes and make them now. I'm a bit late with this suggestion, which I intended to make well before Valentine's Day (another holiday when sweets and treats are expected), but there are still a couple of weeks left to surprise someone you love.

Today I tried a new recipe for sausage balls, and I'm pleased to report that they are the best I've ever made! I have a recipe for spiced pecans that I didn't get to make in December but plan to make this month. My daughter loves to experiment with peanut brittle recipes; she's got an idea for making red hot peanut brittle that we'll try this month as well. If it's a success, it will go on her list of Christmas treats to make and give as gifts!

I'll post a poll near the end of the month to find out how you did with your holiday recipes this month, so please visit again!

P.S. The above photo is of our traditional Christmas morning monkey bread. I don't think I'll ever replace it as our family holiday breakfast!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Please participate in the Poll! (Note: Now closed)

[NOTE: the poll - now closed - has been removed .] I'm hoping that my readers who aren't members of Blogger and can't post comments can still vote in a poll. Those of you who can post a comment, feel free to tell me what you've done so far to prepare for Christmas. In 10 months we'll be pulling out our decorations and supplies and gearing up for a wonderful holiday season!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

#2 - More on Cards: Don’t Misplace Them!

One question has come up about buying cards early. How does one remember where she has stashed those boxes of January-bought Christmas cards when the Christmas season arrives?

Over the years I’ve stashed many things away in clever places only to forget where those places were. What a nuisance! However, I haven’t misplaced my cards in a long time. You know those holiday popcorn tins? We’ve given and received many as gifts over the years. I chose one of the larger ones we had received (after it had been emptied, of course) and rinsed it out. In it I stashed my Christmas cards as well as a copy of past Christmas newsletters.

Because it’s a Christmas-themed tin, I recognize it each time I see it. I don’t keep the tin in my Christmas storage closet/room; I might forget it or lose it under boxes of decorations. Instead, it’s stashed in my office closet. Before moving to this house and gaining an office, I kept my card tin in my living room coat closet.

Since you may want to get to your cards before you start decorating for the holidays, keeping them with the decorations is a bad idea You should keep your cards stored in a more visible place where they won’t become lost and forgotten. Using a decorative container like the holiday popcorn tins for storing your card supplies will increase your chances of finding them quickly when you want them. Keeping the container in a place you visit often makes it even more likely that you won’t lose them.

If you haven’t made a habit of sending Christmas cards in the past, maybe this will be the year. Finding a colorful Christmas card in the mailbox always brightens my mood. Think of how delighted your friends or family members will be to find an envelope full of holiday cheer from you! Better yet, they may return the favor!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

#1 - January 2010!

From the Festival of Trees
Welcome to Christmas All Year Long—where getting ready for your favorite holiday is a year-long project!

What happens to you each December? Are you caught off guard by the many activities available? Do you participate in a mad scramble to make Christmas happen at your house—by baking and decorating and shopping and wrapping and caroling and partying and spinning in circles till you pass out? Do some of your plans turn to dust and blow away due to neglect? Then this is the place for you, my dear. We’re going to surprise everyone come December 1 by being prepared for the holiday season and having the time to enjoy it!

The idea is to focus on a holiday project each month. It won’t be time-consuming, and I’m pretty sure it will be fun. We will take one topic a month and see if we can’t make a better Christmas for ourselves, our families, and our friends.

Let’s kick off January with a two-part project. The first part is simple. Make a list of all the Christmas activities/projects you completed, and then list the things you wanted to do but ran out of time and energy for.

For example, this year I wrote a Christmas newsletter (at the last minute) and mailed out cards (at the last minute) and shopping for gifts (at the last minute). That’s not the way I like to do things, but that’s how it went. I also decorated the inside of my house, and I put up a few things outside, but I ran out of time and energy for putting out strings of lights. I made my traditional double-decker peanut butter fudge and the edible holly candy, but I ran out of time for cookies! I listened to lots of Christmas music, and I sang in my church’s Christmas choir. I went to one Christmas party thrown by the local Writers Guild at a restaurant, but I did not get to have friends over to my house as I’d hoped to do. I missed going to a live nativity, but I did take my family to the Festival of Trees for our yearly photo safari. We drove through one professional lights display, but we didn’t have time for the other, bigger one. I wanted to take my neighbors plates of Christmas goodies, but I didn’t get them made! I wanted to make some Christmas ornaments, but I haven’t had time to do that in several years, and the kits are getting quite dusty!

I didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I wanted to. But I also have to work at my job, get my allergy shots, and do my regular chores and errands as a single parent, plus help my teenager daughter with her school schedule and homework.

The only way I’m going to get all those things accomplished is to create a plan and follow it. So that’s what we’re going to do together! We’ll plan and work our way through the year so that our next Christmas will be the one we’ve always dreamed of! Make your lists now.

Part two: If you haven’t yet, take advantage of the after-Christmas clearance sales. You can get fabulous bargains at this time of year. Plus, it helps you plan in advance for next Christmas. As you stand in front of the wrapping paper, you can decide on a color scheme or theme for next year if the idea pleases you. Do you want to go with all metallic paper? Papers with penguins? Stripes, plaids, polka dots? All white paper with colored ribbon to accent the packages? Buy now, and you’ll have that chore out of the way. Get Christmas cards at 50-75% off the retail price. Plastic storage boxes are on sale at this time as well, so if you don’t have a place to store and protect your Christmas supplies, you can pick something up at a discount. I’ve already got my cards for next year, as well as some ribbons and small gift boxes, and I’m watching the sales for some outdoor decorations at bargain prices.

Future topics will include party planning, Christmas newsletters and photos, choosing and testing new recipes for Christmas goodies, music for the Big Day, decorating both indoors and out, shopping and/or making gifts, family fun activities, and more. Feel free to leave a comment with ideas for future topics.

Let’s keep the Spirit of Christmas alive all year long!