I married into the Christmas card tradition.
My MIL has always sent out a Christmas letter with a photo, and JG and his siblings have always suffered through a family photo at the annual beach vacation. So, when JG and I were looking ahead to our first married Christmas, he caught me off guard when he asked, “What are we doing for our Christmas card?”
Over the years, I’ve tried everything from cards with a picture to a folded card with a printed picture on it to the current iteration: a quick layout thrown together on PicMonkey, then printed on a flat stationery card on PrintRunner. The picture isn’t as vibrant as I hoped it would be, but for less than 50 cents per card, it’s good enough. I’ve realized that I care less about how designed the card looks and more about being able to write a note on it, so I don’t expend a lot of energy on the card’s aesthetic any more.
In the past, in addition to writing notes, I also stamped and addressed all of the envelopes, and it was way too much. As soon as I started doing that every year, I’d wonder, “This is JG’s tradition. Why am I doing this?! … Oh, yeah, because his handwriting is illegible, and I am a control freak.” Annnd, back to the hand cramps. This year, I wised up and ran a mail merge off our address book spreadsheet (of course, I have one, and of course, it calculates how many cards and stamps I need to buy) to make mailing labels. I also ordered a self-inking return-address stamp after only 8 years of living at this address. I delegated the addressing and stamping to JG, and all I had to do was write messages and stuff envelopes. Now, that was division of labor I could handle, and cards went in the mail yesterday.* Woo!
The flip side to this Christmas card thing is that you get cards, too! And I love getting cards. Not to be braggy or anything, but, well, we get a lot of cards. Until last year, I struggled with how to deal with and display them in some way that was big enough, temporary, out-of-the-way, and fairly cheap. It took me a few years and a few experiments, but I’ve arrived at a solution that works for us.
So, our front door opens onto a landing where you choose to go up or down half a flight of stairs. I display our cards on the wall of the stairway going up. These are last year’s cards.
See what I mean? It’s a lot of cards, right?
This operation consists of 3M Command hooks and some chain, both of which I got from Walmart for … not that much money. Sorry. I came up with this idea last year, and I can’t remember the exact cost, but I want to say, less than $10? Which I guess sounds like a lot, but I’m reusing it this year and plan to continue doing so forever and ever, amen.
I stick the hooks on the wall at an angle that follows the stairs, more or less. I do this very systematically by standing on the steps and reaching up as high as I can (ie, not very high) for the top row and then eyeballing the bottom row. Then I loop the links of the chain over the hooks so the chain falls in swags. (It occurs to me now that you could arrange the hooks and chains in a shape, if you wanted. Like, maybe a star or a tree? Or an initial, like if your name starts with an angular letter like M or N or Z.) When we get cards in the mail, I thread a paper clip through one of the links and then clip the card to the chain. The chain and the hooks can hold the weight easily, and the links make distinct resting places for the paper clips so that nothing slides around. After Christmas, everything deconstructs and stores easily.
I wish the white tabs of the hooks weren’t visible, but the cards mostly obscure them and draw the focus. If I cared more, I might add bows or something to cover them, but … I don’t care more. This set-up works, and the overall effect of the full banner of cards is pretty nice, I think.
* I have a mysterious surplus of cards, so if you’d like one, e-mail me your address! Disclaimer: no guarantees on timeliness, and I have already run out of poinsettia stamps.
I bake a lot of cookies throughout the year, but in December, I make even more. I make cookies as gifts for my co-workers and our small group people; cookies to bring as hostess gifts for parties; and of course, cookies for my own family when we celebrate Christmas. I used to try to gut it out the week before Christmas and make everything in a frenzy of flour, butter, and sugar, but then I read in BraveTart‘s super helpful Holiday Cookie Survival Guide, “Do all of the making on one day and the baking on another.”
Or as I tell myself, “Make it now, bake it later.”
Here are 4 cookies I have in my freezer right now that will help me out a lot in the next two weeks:
1. Double-chip cookies: my go-to cookie; bakes right from the freezer; always a crowd-pleaser
- Make: mix, scoop, and flash-freeze; store in a freezer bag
- Bake: on parchment-lined baking sheets, straight from the freezer
- In my freezer now: 7 dozen (from a standard 5-dozen batch, thanks to my small cookie scoop!)
- Ultimate destiny: last-minute snacks or hostess gifts
- Bonus: I’ve also made this recipe as a bar cookie, baked it, cut it up, and had little frozen, brownie-like bars all ready for nuking in case of a dessert emergency.
2. Sugar cookie dough for peppermint patty cookies: using a puffy, soft sugar cookie that tastes like nostalgia
- Make: mix, scoop, flash-freeze. I got fancy this year and froze them on sheets of a dozen each because they fit nicely into quart-sized zip-top bags.
- Bake: place dough a parchment-lined baking sheet, allow to thaw at room temperature. Meanwhile, cut peppermint patties into fussy eighths and press 4 into each dough ball like a pinwheel. Bake according to original recipe.
- In my freezer now: 5 dozen (using a medium cookie scoop)
- Ultimate destiny: being my sister’s favorite Christmas cookie and then devoured
- Bonus: you can replicate this gooey-mint-dark-chocolate-sugar-cookie awesomeness with premade, bake-and-break dough from the refrigerated section of the grocery store. No judging here — I’ve done it!
3-4. Cutout sugar and chocolate cookie dough: if I have no discs of frozen sugar cookie dough, surely the apocalypse is nigh. Also, brownie rollout cookies from Smitten Kitchen are super chocolate-y and yield a ton
- Make: mix, split the batch in halves, wrap each in plastic, flatten into discs.
- Bake: thaw overnight in the fridge; then roll the chilled dough to 1/4″ thickness. Cut with cookie cutters and bake.
- In my freezer now: 3 discs of sugar cookies and 2 discs of chocolate
- Ultimate destiny: I think both will be snowflakes for small-group and co-worker gifts — they were so fun to pipe last year
- Bonus: okay, this doesn’t really save time so much as defer it until later, but I find that already having dough made and chilled makes me feel like I’ve already cleared a hurdle. Cutout cookies are always time-consuming, no matter how you split up the work.
I think it’s worth mentioning that brownies freeze really nicely after being baked. I make mine in a 9×9″ or 8×8″ square pan, lined with a foil sling. After cooling it a bit on the counter, I put it in the freezer, cooling rack and all. Once solid, I wrap in foil again, slide into a gallon freezer bag, and store vertically in the freezer. When I need brownies (yes, brownies are sometimes a need), I thaw them in the fridge overnight and cut while cold, which yields super clean cuts. I’ve frozen brownies with chocolate chips, peanut butter, and cream cheese swirl with great results.
Here’s my rough baking and making schedule for the rest of the month:
- This week: make one more batch of brownie rollout dough; make and bake giant chocolate chip cookies for JG’s birthday party; cut, roll, and bake sugar and chocolate snowflakes
- Next week: decorate and package snowflakes for small-group and co-worker gifts; make 2 dozen peppermint patty cookies for small-group Christmas dinner
- Week before Christmas: bake pumpkin bread for my grandmother; cut, roll, bake, and decorate about 2 dozen cutouts (whatever makes sense, given remaining dough quantities); make chocolate pretzel bites and cranberry crumb bars; bake 3 dozen peppermint patty cookies
I realize that this might still look insane, but having a stockpile of cookies in my freezer makes me feel super prepared in the face of it. I mean, pumpkin bread is a quick bread; no sweat. The hardest part of pretzel bites is unwrapping all those kisses; no problem. Did you notice that the double-chip cookies don’t even figure into this plan? They are just contingency cookies! Mark my words — you never know when you will need a plate of cookies.
Far, far too often, I notice local events, restaurants, or sights and say something like, “I keep meaning to do that/go there/see that!” and I have had enough! I’ve made a list called “Local Things to Finally Do,” and I am bound and determined to start ticking them off. First on the list was the annual Holiday Lights Parade in Kennett Square.
Every year on the day after Thanksgiving, locals bedazzle farm equipment, large vehicles, and cars with twinkle lights and holiday paraphernalia. The downtown area is closed to traffic, and the vehicles slowly make their way down the parade route as their passengers toss candy to children on the sidewalk. At the end of the parade, Santa makes an appearance and the town tree gets lit, and the Christmas season is officially on in Kennett Square.
I’ve never gone to this parade before primarily because JG and I are usually out of town for Thanksgiving through Black Friday at least. Secondarily, it was bound to be a total cheesefest, but honestly, that is practically a draw in my book. So this year, when we decided to come back from Thanksgiving festivities on Friday afternoon, I was decided: I was finally going to the Holiday Lights Parade!
First, I had to fight insane traffic around town in order to find parking, and I made a mental note for the future to either walk or get there way early and nurse a drink while I waited. Once I found a spot in the parking garage, I hoofed it down to the main intersection at the center of town. The crowds were thick on both sides of the street, so I continued down little way until I found space on the curb in front of the Half Moon. I stood right in front of a lamp post festooned with holiday greens. A family with 2 gigantic dogs set up camp across the street, in front of the under-construction coffee shop. Aside from the twinkle lights on every storefront, the street lights, and the clock tower, it was pretty darn dark. Perfect.
The MC boomed out a welcome from the loudspeaker stand by the clock tower, and before I knew what was happening, music was blaring and a troop of dancers from the local dance school was performing in the street, dressed as reindeer. Okay, then! When the music stopped and we gathered that the dance was over, we all applauded with muffled, gloved applause: thud-thud-thud-thud. Then, parade time!
All manner of vehicles passed by, all bedecked and glowing.
My favorite float was a tractor pulling a “hay ride” festooned with swags of twinkle lights, and in the back, a Kennett Square mushroom, but of course.
I cut out before the end of the parade, so I missed Santa and the tree-lighting. But it was going to be a mess getting out of there, and I had the urgent mission of picking up our takeout food for dinner. My quick exit was hardly an indicator of my level of enjoyment, because I loved being out there in the cold with my fellow Kennett crazies. I loved watching kids scramble for candy canes tossed from the floats. I loved seeing the whole downtown decorated and and shiny for Christmas. And most of all, I loved witnessing a beloved tradition in my town.
So! Last week! Thanksgiving! We went up to my in-laws’ house in the Poconos, as is the custom. I met a new family dog, ate lots of food, posed with a turkey leg. You know, same old. Not to be blase about thanksgiving, of course. Trust me, thanks were given.
The real trick of the holiday was that the ladies threw a surprise baby shower for JG’s cousin, Carly, who is expecting the first grandchild of our generation. When the secret emails about this shower were flying across the internet, I volunteered to make cookies (of course) and plan a game, mostly out of self-preservation. I haaate humiliating shower games, and baby shower games are basically the worst. I don’t want to sniff candy bars. I don’t want to not say “baby.” I don’t want to estimate the pregnant lady’s girth with yarn. I don’t want to speed-diaper a doll. I don’t want to share my best piece of parenting advice. I don’t really even want to stand up. So, my favorite games are always quick and involve pen and paper, and such was the game I planned on bringing to the party: Crossover Baby Names!
I confess that I’ve had this idea rolling around in my head for a while, but this was the first chance I got to execute it. Here’s the gist:
- Every year, the Social Security Administration compiles the 1,000 most popular baby names
- In the lists for 2012, 63 names were used for both boys and girls
- Of those 63 names, 13 names were distributed between boys and girls in close proportion
- The largest spread is 40-60%, although none of them split exactly down the middle
Here are the 13 names:
The question is: Did boys or girls make up the majority of babies given each name in 2012?
Note that spelling is specific (that is, various spellings of the same name were not combined), and names are listed in order of increasing average rank.
You want to play, right? Of course, you do. I’ll wait while you jot down your guesses. Nerdy methodology and answers to the game after the jump!
It’s our third year running! Setting up two big tables with every chair we have, including collapsible camp chairs. Putting together cheerful centerpieces from grocery-store mums, mini pumpkins and tealights. Introducing people to deep-fried turkey. Having so many guests that we run out of proper-sized silverware (oh, well, someone gets a salad fork!). Chatter in the kitchen as the turkey fries. Pouring wine and opening bottles of beer. JG triumphantly bearing of the fried turkey to the kitchen. Ted following the turkey and stalking the carving closely, hoping for scraps. The flurry of activity in transferring side dishes from the oven to the buffet: grabbing trivets, removing foil, sliding in serving spoons. Forming a circle to say grace and telling our small group how much we are thankful for them. No hesitation from the first people in the buffet line. How everyone bringing one item created such a huge abundance of food. Pausing after every other bite to exclaim, “Everything is so good!” Everyone bearing with me as I take pictures. No (audible) teasing when I pose for my traditional, crazy-faced turkey leg picture. Our feeling of accomplishment at building our own tradition. Love and light and gratitude all around.
About a month ago, I felt very strongly that I had to write a difficult e-mail to a friend, and I was afraid. I was afraid that I would say things all wrong. That I wouldn’t say enough. That I would say too much. That our new relationship would be broken. That she wouldn’t trust me any more. But even more than I was afraid, I was compelled to bring my thoughts before this person. If anything, that made the fear even worse, because I knew that I would write (and ultimately, send!) the e-mail. I could feel my heart rate increase. My palms were sweaty.
I thought desperately, “I wish someone would pray for me about this.”
And that thought is always the trigger for Gchatting Val.
“Can you pray for me very quickly right now?” I messaged.
“Yes,” she responded immediately.
The story spilled out. “I am feeling faint of heart,” I said.
“Oh, that is so hard,” Val said, “yes, I will pray for you right now.”
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“Let me tell you what I do when I don’t know what to do [...] I usually just try to figure out what the next step is and then do that.”
Bob Goff, Love Does
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That morning, I felt that God was telling me that writing that e-mail was the next step to take. And I am not one to hear The Voice of God, but I don’t know, maybe my reception is improving. Be truthful, I heard. Be loving. Invite her out to breakfast.
My mind spun out of control. What if she doesn’t respond well? What if she doesn’t want to go to breakfast? What if she does want to go to breakfast? What if we get to breakfast and I don’t know what to say?
Then I heard, Pause.
That’s when I Gchatted Val.
I typed rapidly, “I feel like this is right. It’s like, I’ll just take the one step. And I need to be okay with only seeing the stepping stone I’m on, even though the river is rushing all around me. I want to see all the stepping stones! Or, better yet, let us get out of the freaking river, form a committee, and plan a bridge, yes? That is better for the long term. I will write up the agenda for our first meeting!”
Then Val laughed at me. I said I was a mess. She said, “Everyone is.”
I understood then that if I get out of the river to form a committee and write an agenda, I don’t get much closer to crossing it. And maybe that one stepping stone feels scary because I can’t see what’s next, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that this one stone is pretty solid.
I sent the e-mail.
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If there’s an ocean in front of you
You know what you’ve gotta do
Take another step and another step
Maybe He’ll turn the water into land
And maybe He’ll take your hand and say,
“Let’s take a walk on the waves.
Will you trust Me either way
And take another step?”
Take another step
Steven Curtis Chapman, “Take Another Step“
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My friend responded to my e-mail right away. She wasn’t mad. She understood where I was coming from. She agreed that since we don’t know each other that well yet, she would like to meet for breakfast. When would work for me?
So I took the next right step: going out to breakfast. Again, I was afraid (What if we get to breakfast and I don’t know what to say?), but it was fine. We ate breakfast sandwiches and talked easily. Our relationship is building, and I feel more calm every time we hang out. When I slot our next meet-up in my calendar, I think, “This is the next right step.” We’ll have our fifth weekly breakfast date this coming Tuesday, and I’m only thinking about the one after that a little bit.
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I can’t go into detail, but my job is up in the air. I’m sorry for the blog vagueness, but I’m not hiding anything, really. I won’t know anything real until the end of the year at earliest, so there’s not much to tell. I might have a job in the future; I might not. It’s all due to corporate goings-on, unrelated to performance, and everything feels uncertain. For now, I’m trying to carry on as usual until I get more information.
JG and I have been discussing and praying about the future of our small group Bible study for a few months now. We love leading it and the people in it, but we are starting to question whether we need to make a transition. Maybe we will simply attend a group instead of leading one. Maybe we will continue to lead this one, but under a different label. Maybe we will split our group and deputize another couple to lead one half of it. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m thinking seriously about women’s ministry at my church, and I feel this pull toward engaging in that way somehow. Considering that the concept hardly crossed my mind before August, I’m startled at the strength of this inclination. I’ve had to do a lot of reading, talking to others, and figuring out where I stand on some theological viewpoints, and my conclusions are pretty far-flung from how I was brought up. It is blowing my mind. I feel like I’m on the cusp of something new. I don’t know what it is, but something is coming.
Three uncertain things. Three rushing rivers. Three opportunities.
I feel unclear, unwieldy, undetermined.
I feel expectant, alert, wide open.
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I was pondering all of these thoughts during my commute, cruising along in the left lane. I thought, it’s all well and good to have lots of options in front of me, but at some point, shouldn’t I choose a fig and do something?
At that moment, I passed a dump truck that was crawling in the right lane. Across its tailgate, huge capital letters read: DO NOT PUSH.
I just had to laugh.
Now, I don’t know if God put that truck on the road at that exact time so that I would pass it at the same second that I was having these thoughts. I don’t know, maybe. Regardless, I needed that message, and I got it.
So, I’m not pushing. I’m figuring out the next right step and doing that. One stone at a time.
This year, I’ve been on a quest to find other blogs to read. I’m always on the lookout for new sites, but this search has been simultaneously broader and more intentional than usual; I’m looking for strong writing, honesty, and beauty. So I’ve been combing people’s blogrolls, opening new tab after new tab, going down the rabbit hole of internet friendships. I’m reading a lot of About pages, finding people on Twitter, and subscribing to feeds. I’ve found some really great, new-to-me blogs, and I wanted to share the wealth. Here are some of my recent discoveries:
Personal: true, real
- The Art in Life: Hannah is a grad student living in DC with her Hill-staffer-husband, and she writes about food, friends, and DC spots, all with lovely photography. I love that she doesn’t shy away from difficult, complex thoughts. When I read her posts, I often experience eerie recognition because I have had that very thought in my own brain, yet, there it is in someone else’s words. Recommended posts: The Soul of Hospitality; Why I stopped pinning
- Annie B. Jones: Annie lives in the south, where she owns and operates an independent book store. I appreciate how she writes about the good and difficult times in her life, especially with the recent changes regarding her store, her husband’s job, and a future move. Recommended posts: Embracing change and fighting for things; A letter to my cousin, re: soulmates
- Mabel’s House: Liz does the blogging; Mabel is the dog. This site was recommended as “very real-life” to me, and I agree. In some posts, there are pictures of lovely, seasonally decorated scenes of domesticity. In others, Liz describes the chaos going on next to those pumpkins. Right now, she’s being very brave and posting a series about her battle with post-partum depression, When the Cheese Slides Off Your Cracker (start with the Prologue). Also recommended: Feeling Complainy: Sponsored Post Overload
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Faith: challenging, thought-provoking
- Her.meneutics: I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about women’s ministry, and part of that thought process has included conversations with a handful of women at my church for their insight. One of those women recommended this blog about women’s topics from Christianity Today, and I find the content really interesting and consistently well-written. Recommended posts: The Secret Lives of Christian Pill Addicts; Making Ourselves the Strangers
- Storyline: I heard about Donald Miller because he wrote the foreword in Love Does, by Bob Goff, and a quick Google search led me to the Storyline blog. I like how the posts are concise and thought-provoking. At least once a week, I send JG a link from the site with the subject line, “Interesting.” Recommended posts: Lazy Christian Advice; Why I Quit Being Nice
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Art: eye-opening, horizon-stretching
- Lucy Knisley’s Tumblr: I became a fan of artist/author Lucy Knisley because someone linked to how she had clothing made to match the jacket cover of Relish for her book tour. And I thought that was awesome. I have absolutely no artistic ability, and the very idea that someone would process things in pictures rather than words blows my mind. For example, Lucy just moved to Chicago, and she drew her apartment! What?! I love getting a glimpse into how Lucy interprets the world. Recommended posts: MUPPTIALS; Life is the Story
- Zen Pencils: Similarly, I subscribed to artist Gavin Aung Than’s site when someone linked to this illustration of a quote from Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes (no, I am still not over how that comic strip is gone). As the tagline says, the site features “cartoon quotes from inspirational folks.” I love the combination of words and images, and the effect is really powerful. I’ve only scratched the surface of the archives, and Gavin’s art prints at Society 6 are really tempting. Recommended posts: The Fig Tree; Behind-the-Scenes: Comic from start to finish
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Cuteness: because, why not?
- ZooBorns: Megan clued me in to this site, and I am not even a animal person (Ted notwithstanding), but I love it. I love that somebody puts this site together, and I love how cute the animals are. Go ahead, just try and not make an “aww”-type noise when you see this baby porcupine! His little snout! I just can’t. Recommended posts: Rescued Polar Bear Cub Makes a Splash at Assiniboine Park Zoo; Waffles the Wallaby Comforts Kids