Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ways We Celebrated Christmas

{This post is full of stuff from LAST Christmas, but as time goes on this holiday season I will be adding as I go. Hope some of these are fun, new ideas for you to try with YOUR family!}

We love Christmas around here. I'm that annoying crazy lady that starts listening to carols and watching Christmas movies before Thanksgiving. I was proud of myself for holding off till after Halloween to start watching Holiday movies actually!

Here are my words of advice - do what makes YOU the best mom you can be.  As in if cooking or crafting aren't your thing and don't make you happy, don't do it.  If you just aren't feeling it this year, that's okay.  Give yourself permission to know your limits and reduce your vulnerability by staying within them.  When making 800 kinds of Christmas cookies when I'm fried will cause me to yell at the kids and cry about all the dishes then I DON'T make them! I curl up on the couch and read a book to the kids instead. They won't remember "we didn't bake cookies" or "we never went sledding" as much as they may remember "Mom was always yelling."  This may not be a concern for you but the concept still stands.

I often tend to feel a bit overwhelmed by all there is "to do." As if I MUST do all things or Christmas will cease to exist. Which is more than just "silly," it's... Obsessive. Crazy. And totally missing the point.

I wasn't thinking "all or nothing" so much as a bit more low-key.  I sat with the kids and we brainstormed some of our favorite holiday activities (some are traditions, some are new ideas to try) and typed them up. I determined what we realistically could do this year and assigned them to days of the month that we would actually have time for that task. Some days were far too busy/full of appointments to do a time-consuming task, such as baking cookies.

I scored this wooden Advent Calendar tree with a half-off coupon at Michael's for $5. We painted it since it was naked wood and boring looking. I cut up the activities paper and put those slips of paper into each drawer on the tree calendar. Some days had more than one activity.

We also had a scripture passage for each day to read about Jesus' birth.  I cater this to the younger children in the home - so only a few verses a day.

Here's some of the ways we celebrated Christmas this year (a list of the Advent calendar activities first and then more detailed explanations and photos to follow):

  • Operation Christmas Child shoebox stuffing
  • Decorate the front door like a snowman
  • Make paper snowflakes & a giant paper chain to hang from the living room ceiling
  • Watch Christmas movies (this is actually done as much as possible in November & December as this is truly one of my most favorite things ever - but there are a few classics that go on the MUST list. "Holiday Inn," "It's a Wonderful Life," all 3 "Santa Claus" movies, the first 2 "Die Hard" films, and "Jingle All the Way" (filmed in Minnesota). 
  • Go sledding
  • Dance around to Christmas tunes
  • Build a snowman (outdoors as well as inside with construction paper & art supplies)
  • Decorate the house, including picking out a tree, putting up lights & wreathes & stockings
  • Add buildings & other items to our foam village. 
  • Visit Macy's 8th Floor Show downtown Minneapolis, get a giant, fancy, yummy cookie from their bakery, walk down Nicollet enjoying the lights, and right the light rail train there and back
  • Photos with Santa - we are lucky enough that the ECFE preschool hosts a few hours with Santa. You get 7 minutes with the big guy, his wife if you like, a photo backdrop, and a mini photo session.  I helped with this event for years before we moved but I'm still going this year! 
  • See The Holiday Train & watch their concert & light show (braving the cold is worth it on this one)
  • Make a video from Santa - personalized for each child
  • Secret Santa with our roommate & PCAs & small group close friends.  This involves the shopping & wrapping & gift exchange. We also make gifts for teachers, Bible Study & Sunday school leaders, & various therapists (OT, speech, etc).  We actually allowed 2 days for this on our Advent Calendar because it is such a huge project.
  • Decorate our front window with construction paper cutouts - a tree, snowman, snowflakes, bells, angels, etc.
  • Bake Christmas cookies, treats, snacks like Chex Mix & Puppy Chow & frost cookies
  • Grow Candy Canes
  • Make ornaments
  • Unwrap a book a day in December and read together
  • Make gingerbread, cookie-scented, and candy cane play dough
  • December sensory bins - like painting snow from outside!
  • Visit the malls to enjoy the decorations
  • Drive around to look at lights
  • Make gingerbread houses (and trains and trees, etc)
  • Have a fancy hot cocoa bar
  • Make cards for soldiers
  • Buy a personalized ornament with the year and our family member's names

Decorate the house and tree! The garland looked festive on the banister and our homemade carolers were adorable in the entryway arch shelf.  Oh, and you can see a couple parts to our foam village on the mantle above the stockings. That's a cool tradition that we add to each year.

Add to our foam village decorations

This is a collection of those foam craft kits they sell at Michael's & other places.  The kids can actually help with these, there is a huge variety, they are not heavy to store (but a bit bulky) and it's no biggie if they break. I've been burnt by my hot glue gun a few dozen times but it was worth it.  

I buy them on clearance for the following year and store with the Christmas decorations. We have a nativity scene, polar bears on a skating rink, Santa's Candy Shop, etc.  It all started with one foam train craft 9 years ago and now we have 62 pieces! 

Go to a Community Event - like a tree lighting or the Holiday Train like we did!

This was the first year the Canadian-Pacific Holiday Train came to the Twin Cities. We braved the crowds and cold to see this decked-out train and concert!

I didn't get a great picture of the concert car - but very cool. Door to traincar opened, lights, smoke, and music! Home Free performed a bunch of Christmas songs.

Secret Santa!! 

We have the perfect size group for a Secret Santa exchange.  Getting gifts for everyone can get to be a bit much.  This 2015 year we drew names - my family of 6, my roommate/PCA and our good friend Katie visits us from Canada (she's our roommate's girlfriend) my other PCA/good friend and her hubby and kids are all in the mix.  My daughters love that they are old enough to shop on their own now and keep their selections a secret!

Christmas Baking:  Yeah, I know, my kitchen threw up Christmas. And cookies. And sugar. But we love it.

We traditionally make gingerbread men & sugar cookies for The Littles to frost, candy-coated Oreo's w/ sprinkles, Ande's Mint cookies, cherry shortbread cookies, several batches of Chex Mix, pretzel rods dipped in melted almond bark and rolled in sprinkles, and coconut macaroons.  A few others if I'm feeling ambitious.

Grow a candy cane!

I made a "special winter wonderland soil" to plant our peppermints in. Stir together:
  • crushed Oreos
  • powdered sugar
  • crushed candycanes
"Plant" an unwrapped peppermint candy - those small circle ones. In the morning a full size candy cane will have grown in its place!  (Remember to remove the peppermint candy when you are placing the candy cane in the cup overnight - a la Tooth Fairy.)

25 Books of Christmas

The books in the green basket are from last year.  This year I'm doing The 12 Days of Christmas instead - and the boys are sharing!  My bookshelves are always overflowing anyway.  

I digress.  I love to encourage reading (though I set a terrible example, lol).  Dean especially is at the age where he is learning to read.  My local thrift store has books buy 4 and get the 5th free.  Plus they are super cheap to begin with. For Dean I selected 24 early readers but since Bruce is a toddler I gave him aset of ABC board books.  Yes, there are 26 letters and a couple days had to include 2 books.                                                                                                                                                                    
I wrapped each book individually and the boys opened one each day leading up to Christmas.  It was a fun way to get them excited about the book we'd read each day.

Visiting the mall at Christmastime is one of my fondest childhood memories.  

Mall of America opened when I was like 10, I think, but any mall will do.  I also REALLY love Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis - we did this as a kid each year after visiting the Macy's 8th Floor Show (back when it was Dayton's and the display changed each year).  

Oh, the lights and decorations everywhere - hanging from the ceiling even! Department stores have lights and ribbons and trees and stockings.  Santa. Oh, the mall. 

Gingerbread Houses

The ones in these photos are from Ikea with candy purchased separately (& leftover Halloween candy).  We've done graham crackers on a tissue box (obviously not to eat) and ready made kits but the concept is all the same.  I got some cute little gingerbread cookies and they were perfect for adding people to our houses.

This year I bought kits for each kit and Bruce chose the train - it turned out really cute but then they ate it all (candy & cookie alike) over the next few days. Oh - well. They had fun.

Homemade Ornaments

We've done everything over the years - kits from Oriental Trading or Michael's Craft Store, ideas found on Pinterest, filling clear glass bulbs and painting them, coming up with new creations using whatever is in our art supplies stash.  We generally put a couple on our own tree and gift the rest to relatives (tape them on by the bow and gift tag for added flair).

Even Baby Bruce got in on the action on ornament making day!

Making Perler Bead Ornaments - including a Nativity Scene

We didn't have a pattern for any of these but my daughters are really creative.  They are very into My Little Pony at the moment and created a bunch of the characters.

A Hot Cocoa Bar

Hot Chocolate (we used packets), Redi Whip, candy canes, and different sizes and flavors of marshmallows. We added sugar cookies and some Christmas movies for good measure.

Make Cards for Soldiers

These had to be done right away in December to be mailed in and shipped off on time.  Check online to see what works for you best locally.  Some Red Cross chapters accept cards.

Buy a personalized ornament

Each year we get one of these ornaments with the year and little people or animals on it and have it personalized with our family members names.  Even if our family size doesn't change our personalities do, which is reflected in the ornament we all agree on.  We love this!

Visit a Christmas-decked-out Landmark.

We went to the Alexander Ramsey House Victorian Christmas for a school field trip. It was NOT worth the expense since we are on a tight budget, but hey, at least we can say we've been!

Sensory Play --

Homemade Gingerbread, Christmas Cookie, & Candy Cane Play Doughs

Start with a basic homemade dough recipe -- I've got another blog post on this - and add in a little extra flair.

Gingerbread dough smells AMAZING, is made with NO food color or dyes, and is so much easier for little kids to manage than real cookie dough. I found the recipe and idea here.

Candy Cane dough involves peppermint essential oil (or peppermint extract works fine) and red food coloring.  Wilton cake frosting gel coloring is even better - more vibrant.  I did try last year to make a red & white swirl version but as you can see from the photo is just turned pink after being played with.

Christmas Cookie scented - I colored green, added spices (cinnamon and nutmeg), and Frankincense essential oil.  I heard that particular oil is a calming one & good for Autism (I'm not a huge EO person but I happened to have this on hand).  I'm not a fan of the smell of the oil though so I added the spices for a lovely cookie smell.  If I had anything pine tree scented I'd have done that!

Snow Painting/Play -

Bring the outdoors in! We filled our sensory tubs with snow from the yard (clean snow, people, clean) and the boys used scoops, pails, molds, and food-colored-water & droppers.  I also give them a small bowl of epsom salts to melt the snow with because they think it's pretty cool.

The kiddos have a lot of sensory issues when it comes to scarves & mittens and getting any clothing even minutely wet so this works WAY better for snow play.  We also fill spray bottles & squirt bottles with colored warm water and the kids spray it in the snow outside (for as long as they will last in the cold).

Wrap Gifts

My kids LOVE wrapping gifts for whatever reason.  Plus it's good motor skills practice.  3 of my children have Autism and their cutting skills need A LOT of work - so this is good experience.  I buy wrapping paper on clearance; the pattern is far less important than the price because it can always be turned to the white side and colored on.  We even wrap up random household toys when The Littles want more to wrap and are impatient in waiting to open.

I guess this pile of gifts looks kinda ridiculous in a photo, but there are 6 of us and a lot of things are sweet homemade items and most of it is from the thrift store.  And for all the other people we get gifts for - the girls just wanted a photo of all that they had wrapped!

I found this Duplo train and Mega Blocks carnival set at the thrift store (most of the set, the boys never noticed that some was missing) and set it up for the boys to find in the morning!!  It was so worth their reaction!

Open Stockings

I have this thing with stockings.  Growing up we did all our gifts on Christmas Eve because we had to travel to family events on Christmas day. Now, as a parent, we have the same issue. To allot time for the events of the busy day we do our family gift opening on Christmas Eve.  I love to take time for each kid to open - taking turns, one at a time.  Some of the magic, however, is lost when everything is done prior to Christmas.

No, Christmas is not all about gifts - we have had years with none.  But there is something so special about waking up to a stocking full of goodies - and getting to eat all that candy!

See the lights

No place special, we just love to check out neighborhoods around us and blast Christmas music on the radio. The house below in the photo won a city contest and was set to music; a sign in the yard told you what station to tune in to. Pretty cool.