Thursday, December 3, 2009

Here's a little gift idea for St. Nicholas Day (or a great stocking stuffer)

It's almost time to start supper, but before I do, I wanted to quickly write a blog entry about my newest find--a toy line called "So Small Pets."  I saw them in Target today and they are adorable!

"So Small Pets" are 3" soft, poseable pets that fit nicely in a pocket or backpack, making them a great "take along" toy on holiday trips.  They would also be a great way to keep your little girl entertained while you run errands or wait at a doctor's office. They are wonderfully detailed and look like mini versions of plush toys.There are many different pets--Haylee the Horse, Bully the Cow, Jackie the Dog, Pinky the Pig, and several others.  You can buy little accessories and clothes for them.  They also have the cutest playsets (that's what caught my eye at Target--the Treehouse Playset was wonderful!) I like the idea that these little guys have alot of play value (and will help your child's imagination) but they aren't large or cumbersome.

This might be a great gift idea for a little girl. (My seven year old daughter is fascinated by them.) The little figures would fit in a shoe for St. Nicholas Day or a stocking for Christmas Eve!

You can check out some of the available animals and playsets on the So Small Pets website. Or, on your next trip to Target, stop by the doll aisle.  In my store they were near the Barbie dolls and Fancy Nancy stuff.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A great movie for St. Nicholas Day or any day during December: Winky's Horse

I am always looking for unique and interesting films to add to our home library, especially family-friendly films. So thought I would tell you about a film that my kids and I recently watched. It is called Winky's Horse.

I stumbled upon this DVD quite by mistake, but it is a mistake worth repeating! I was at the library with my kids, looking for something to watch together on family movie night. That can be a challenge when everyone in the house has such diverse interests. But this movie was a winner. In fact, the kids asked if we could buy a copy for our home library.

Winky’s Horse is about a 6 year old girl who moves from China to the Netherlands. The movie documents some of her frustrations at learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture. After a frustrating first day at her new school, she vows never to go back. On her way home, she sees a small horse and immediately falls in love with it. Life becomes more bearable now that she can sneak off after school and go to the farm to see the horse. She begs her parents to go to the farm and ride, but they say she is too young for horses. She asks them to get her a horse but her mother is afraid of them and says that she is too small. Then she hears about St. Nicholas, and decides that he is the only way she will get a horse. When he appears at her school, she asks him for a horse but he gives her a plush dog toy instead. Despite this, eventually her dreams come true. But you will need to watch the movie to see how!

The story had my seven year old daughter in tears; but then again, she cries easily at most movies! But even my ten year old son liked the movie. It has some weaknesses. It isn’t a glitzy, high budget film with the latest technological advances. But that would detract from the film’s purpose and story, which is a simple one. It was originally filmed in Dutch, so the dubbing of the English language over the film is a bit awkward, and the English is a bit stilted.

The film has some strengths, too. For example, it gives a good glimpse into Christmastime in the Netherlands, and the Dutch culture in general. It is interesting to see how the children make paper hats and do other projects to prepare for Sinterklaas. Incidentally, Sinterklaas is different from the American Santa Claus. He dresses in a red robe (instead of red jacket) and wears a miter on his head instead of a red tasseled cap. In fact, Sinterklaas resembles the ancient bishop after whom he is patterned--St. Nicholas of Myra. It is interesting to see that he travels into town on a ship, then travels around town on a white horse.

The film was produced in 2005. It has won a number of international film awards, including a Kids Audience Award at the Munich Film Festival in 2006, a Children’s Jury Award at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival in 2006, and an Audience Award at the Castellinaria Festival Internazionale in Bellinzona, Switzerland in 2006.

I hope we can find the sequel, Where is Winky’s Horse? so we can see the further adventures of the impish Winky!

Some might think this movie is a bit corny, but I recommend it as a great family flick for the holiday season!

Incidentally, the cover art shown at the beginning of this article is from the original Dutch release of the movie. The artwork was changed for U.S. release. The new artwork is strange; it shows a photo of a Caucasian girl, a white horse, Santa and his sleigh. Neither they girl, Santa or the sleigh are a part of this story. I think Peace Arch Entertainment, the distributors of the film in the U.S., must have changed the cover art to appeal to U.S. audiences. That’s too bad because Ebbie Tam, the little girl who plays Winky, is adorable, as you can see in the original artwork.

You can see another synopsis of the movie at the website

If you can't find this film at your library, you can purchase it inexpensively on  Click on this link for more information:

This would be a good film to get now so you can watch it on St. Nicholas Day (December 6).  

Some information about St. Nicholas Day (December 6)

The next few posts will include some fun ideas for celebrating St. Nicholas Day.  Most Americans may not be familiar with this holiday, which is the feast day of St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop in Myra (modern day Turkey) during the fourth century. Many consider him the predecessor of today's Santa Claus because of the way he anonymously helped many people in need.

St. Nicholas is a very well-known and popular saint throughout Europe.  In some countries, he is the one who delivers the holiday gifts, but not on Christmas Eve.  Instead, he appears in mid-November in the Netherlands and travels throughout the country for most of the next month, visiting schools, churches, stores and many other public locations.  In most countries he makes his secret visit to homes on the evening/late night of December 5, leaving little treats for children in their shoes.

I have shared one of my favorite resources for this holiday in the past, but it is certainly worth sharing again! I love the St. Nicholas Center website because it is filled with everything you could ever want to know about St. Nicholas:  his history, where and how his feast day is celebrated around the world,  activities and crafts you can do with a St. Nicholas theme, stories to read, recipes to make and much more!

Last year my kids and I took a drive over to Holland, Michigan, to experience St. Nicholas Eve in this Dutch-themed town. We were able to see Sinter Klaas (the Dutch name for St. Nicholas) ride into town on his white horse and parade down the main street.  The procession ended at a Dutch themed outdoor Christmas market at the end of the street, where children sang traditional Dutch songs to St. Nicholas.  Several Zwarte Piets (Black Peters) were mulling around in the crowd, handing out candy to all the kids.  I even had a chance to photograph my kids with St. Nicholas. I purchased some Dutch cookies from the baker in the marketplace, and we walked around this quaint little town to admire the lights and decorations, before returning to our hotel for the evening. 

Jimmy and Maria were a bit worried that St. Nicholas might not find them in the hotel, but the receptionist at the hotel assured the kids that Sinter Klaas ALWAYS stopped there.  Sure enough, they awoke in the morning to find that their shoes had been filled with the traditional treats:  a clementine, some chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper, a candy cane, and some Dutch cookies.  Sinter Klaas also left them a doll (like the one pictured at the right) and a book about St. Nicholas.

One thing I like about this holiday is that it doesn't have to be "over the top" like many of the celebrations in December.  Kids learn to appreciate little treats like clementines and foil-wrapped chocolate coins!  My kids know that the holiday isn't about the gifts they will receive, but rather about remembering a saint who played an important role in Christian history.  They both enjoy learning about other countries and customs so this holiday is a treat for them.

This year, we are going to attend the St. Nicholas celebration at Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium. One of the male parishioners always dresses up as St. Nicholas and the kids learn the nomenclature for the pieces of clothing that a bishop wears.  They realize St. Nicholas is a parishioner, and not some unknown person who appears out of nowhere.

Yet there is still something magical about the celebration for them. You can see it in their eyes, as he calls each of them to the front of the room and talks to them about their behavior over the past year.  He might gently reprimand "Johnny" for pulling the cat's tail, but then will compliment him on the great way he shares with his little sister. After his personalized pep talk with each child, he hands them a small fabric bag filled with the traditional treats, plus perhaps a St. Nicholas prayer card or ornament.

If you have ever watched the movie "Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates," you see a similar scene with Sinter Klaas at a party in Holland.  (Incidentally, that would be a great movie to watch on December 6!  Your library might have it or you can purchase it online from Amazon.  See the notes and links at the end of this article.)

If you have never celebrated St. Nicholas Day before, why not try to incorporate it into your holiday season?  As I mentioned in Monday's blog entry, you don't need to do alot to make these Advent celebrations special. Kids enjoy even the smallest touches, like serving Dutch Pepernoten cookies (find the recipe here on the St. Nicholas Center website) or reading a book about St. Nicholas on the eve of his feast day. (Your library will probably have at least one book on this saint, or you can download stories from the internet.)  Of course, stock up on clementines and chocolate coins to add to those shoes, which the kids should place outside their room doors on December 5!

Perhaps you could find a church, school, or public activity in your area where St. Nicholas appears. The St. Nicholas Center keeps a list of  St. Nicholas appearances and activities by country.  Although it is not comprehensive, it may give you some ideas.  Search through their listed activities by clicking here to go to the St. Nicholas Center website.

I will be sharing another great movie for St. Nicholas Day this evening, so please bookmark this blog and come back later today!

About the "Hans Brinker" movie:
There are four versions of this movie.  Two of them are easiest to locate: one is a 1962 Disney-produced film with Rony Zeaner and Carin Rossby.  The other is a 1969 musical made for NBC TV with Eleanor Park and Richard Basehart.  I have both films and they are good, although I prefer the second version a bit more.  It  isn't as "Disneysque" and, I think, better portrays the difficulties of  the Brinker family after their father suffers a head injury. It isn't as commercialized and may seem a bit hokey by today's standards, but it does take you back to 19th century Holland. However, both films have their merits, which is why our family library includes each version!  You can find out more about the films by clicking on this Amazon link:  Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates

Monday, November 30, 2009

Using themes to take the commercialism off the holiday season

In our home, we like to have a series of mini celebrations throughout the month of December, recognizing various saints and festivals celebrated around the world.  I try to do something special to recognize and celebrate on these days:

December 6 - St. Nicholas' Day

December 8 - Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

December 9 - St. Juan Diego (or we celebrate on December 12, feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe)

December 13 - St. Lucia's Day

Then, of course, we like to have a big celebration on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day!

But in our home the celebrating doesn't end on Christmas Day.  We try to do something special on:

December 26 - St. Stephen's Day

January 6 - Epiphany

Most of these are simple rituals rather than elaborate, full-blown celebrations.  On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I sometimes replace our purple Advent tablecloth with a blue one. On St. Juan Diego's day, we sometimes watch a cartoon video about that saint or make tilmas out of brown paper bags. On December 13, we might have a special breakfast served by my daughter, who is dressed in white to symbolize St. Lucia.  On December 6, St. Nicholas secretly comes to our home and fills the kids' shoes with simple little treats like clementines, a candy cane, and perhaps a book or video on St. Nicholas, which we will watch together that day.

Sometimes we like to build our holiday around a special theme like "Christmas in the Netherlands" (which we did last year, when we went to Holland, Michigan for St. Nicholas Day), or a "Nutcracker Christmas," when we decorated our tree in candy pastel colors, saw the Nutcracker ballet and made sugar plum cookies.

One year my son was fascinated with Hanukkah, so we experienced that holiday by playing dreidel,  learning a few Hebrew songs, and lighting a menorah during the nine day celebration.

The point is that Advent and the Christmas season can be filled with many different little surprises for friends and family.  It doesn't take away from the holiness and specialness of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact, it seems to enhance it. My kids look forward to the little celebrations and don't spend as much time dwelling on making lists of gifts they want to receive.

So if your December has become all about gift buying and giving, consider changing your focus just a bit. Learn about these saints or other ones in simple ways, like serving a dessert that symbolizes something about the saint.  (My favorite resource for saint-inspired meals and snacks is the CatholicCuisine blog).

If celebrating saint days isn't your thing, there are alot of other themes you can use throughout the season. You could focus on learning about the various symbols of the holiday season (e.g., Christmas tree, poinsettia, candy cane, bells, etc.) through games, activities, food and crafts.  Or you could try to recreate a holiday  like it might be in Germany, France or another European country.

Several months ago I was surfing on Amazon and came across a book/CD set called "Buon Natale: Learning Songs and Traditions in Italian."  It inspired me to use an Italian theme for our holiday celebrations this year. (Not much of a stretch, since my husband is of Italian descent.  But we have never really focused on his heritage.) I am still planning the details but so far I've decided that:

- On Christmas Eve we will have an Italian gorgonzola soup and sandwich supper. (We're not seafood or fish lovers in this house, so the traditional seafood dinner of my husband's childhood won't work!)

- On Christmas Day we will have a traditional meal served in Italy on this day, complete with pasta, of course!

- I will bake a variety of Italian cookies this year, including some that my husband has been craving since his mom quit baking 10 years ago.

- The kids will get a special visit (and tree ornament) from La Befana on Epiphany.

- We will learn to sing at least two Christmas songs in Italian!

- I am trying to figure out how to make a ceppo, which is an Italian Christmas display (that sometimes replaces the Christmas tree).

I will share more of our "Italian adventures" in future blog entries.

What will you be doing this year?  Will you build your holiday around any special themes?  Please share your ideas in the comments section!  I would love to hear about them.

P.S. If you would like to learn more about the book Buon Natale, click on the Amazon link below:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Did you know it's "Stir Up Sunday?"

Most Christians recognize this as the first Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation before Christmas. However, in some Catholic churches, this Sunday is also unofficially recognized as "Stir Up Sunday." (In Anglican and Episcopalian churches, "Stir It Up Sunday" was last Sunday.) This name is taken from the opening prayer of the day, which goes:

Stir up thy power, O Lord, and come,

that by thy protection we may be rescued

from the dangers that beset us through our sins;

and be a Redeemer to deliver us;

Who livest and reignest with God the Father

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

ever one God, world without end.

Traditionally, this is the day that families make their holiday pudding to ensure it is properly matured before Christmas. The whole family takes a turn at stirring the mixture; while doing so they make a wish for the coming year. A coin may also be thrown into the pudding. It is believed that the person who finds it on Christmas Day will have wealth and happiness throughout the year.

You certainly don't need to be Catholic, Episcopalian or Anglican to observe this little tradition with your family. If you would like to try it, Recipezaar has a simple Christmas pudding recipe. They recommend using a metal bowl covered with foil if you don't have a pudding mold.

Nestle's website also has a recipe for a pretty chocolate Christmas Pudding. (Its pudding is pictured above.)

Maybe you can think of some other ways to "stir it up" today?   I can think of Johnny Nash's 1972 hit recording; perhaps play it for your kids and have them invent a special "stir it up" dance.  Not your typical pre-holiday activity, but isn't that the point of "stirring it up?"

Friday, November 27, 2009

You can still get some great Black Friday toy buys online!

I wasn't one of those people standing outside Walmart, Best Buy or Target at 4 a.m. this morning.  I don't think I will ever be one of those people, although I have a deep respect for those hardy souls who are willing to brave the dark and cold in pursuit of  bargains.

If you are like me--or if you were there at 4 a.m. but weren't early enough for the limited number of items available at the hot prices--I wanted to let you know that there are less tiring Black Friday deals online.  And no, those bargains aren't gone, like the brick and mortar store deals that disappeared by 7 a.m.  A number of toy stores sent me information and links to their Black Friday sales; thought you might like to check them out!

Little Tikes
I love Little Tikes toys.  They are so durable; some of the ones I purchased for my son when he was a toddler still look like new (and he is now 10 years old!)  Some of their buys include their 2-in-1 Playhouse for $149.99 (regularly $299.99); their little plastic chairs for $5.99 (regularly $12.99); a 4 pack of Chou Chou doll rompers for $11.96 (regularly $39.96); the My Real Digital Video Camera for $79.99 (was $99.99) and more.

If you are worried about shipping, they are offering free shipping until November 30 on all orders of $150 or more. Use code TRKY2009 at checkout.  Check it out at the Little Tikes webstore.

I See Me Personalized Gifts
I understand their new book, A Christmas Bear for Me, already has brisk sales.  Use this link to I See Me Personalized Gifts and code FSW715 to get free shipping until 12/10/09.

Back to Basics Toys
I really like their basic, well-built toys.  This is a good resource for classic toys, too, like those Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots,  the Slinky Dog, the Drop in the Bucket Game, and the neatest pink retro trike.

Their Black Friday offer includes 10%-off orders $50+, 15%-off orders $100+, and 20%-off orders $150+. Expires 12/1/09. Enter code SSAVINGS8 at checkout.  Check out Back to Basics Toys.
Discovery Channel Store
Love their toys--kids learn science without even realizing it! I saw some especially enticing deals on their DVD documentaries.  For Black Friday they have their Paper Recycling Studio for $14.99 (regularly $24.99); their Blue Planet DVD set for $39.99 (regularly $79.95); their Day We Left Earth NASA Missions DVD for $24.99 (regularly $69.95); and their Ultimate Star Planetarium for $49.99 (regularly $79.95).  Here is the link:  Discovery Channel Online.  By the way, they offer free shipping on orders of more than $75; use code FREESHIP at checkout.

Crayola Store
They have the Crayola Color Explosion Glow Dome, which is sold at on ToysRUs, for $22.99 (regularly $29.99). their popular Crayon Maker for $22.99 and the Wonder Magic Light Brush for $16.99. Crayola Store Online.

Amazon will be offering "Black Friday" deals for the next few days on all their categories, including toys.  When I checked a few minutes ago, the Barbie 3-Story Dream Townhouse is only $99; Deluxe Transformers were $7.99; MagNext I Coaster was just $29.99.  This is the Amazon Black Friday Index of Hot Deals.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Make a list and check it twice!

With Thanksgiving just two days away, we are currently being bombarded with messages about "Black Friday Deals." Many of you are probably already making your lists of gift ideas and recipients. Today's blog may give you some ideas on timesaving ways to set up and keep those gift lists.

A few years ago I developed a paper list system but thought it would be good to upgrade to something more cool and hip. So I started searching online for gift list systems.

I haven't started using any of these sites yet, but thought I would pass on some links for you, in case you also want to upgrade your list system.

LifeHacker's Holiday Shopping Checklist
This nifty template allows you to color code, cross-reference, and calculate your shopping budget. It is a spreadsheet that includes columns for recipients, purchased gift, gift cost, and whether you have received, wrapped and delivered the gift. It's a free template; that's a price I like when I'm budgeting for Christmas!

If you have an I-Phone, I found several Christmas gift list organizer aps:

Santa's List by Vurgood Apps

This YouTube video shows how it works.

My Christmas Gift List by PRG Consulting

Christmas Gifts List

This Christmas List application is for the Palm.

GiftBox is for Palms, but it also has a PC application. Like the fact that you can keep notes on possible gift ideas.

Or, if you still want to rely on the old printed list, here are a couple of free lists available for free:

Debi's Handy Helper Freebies: Christmas Shopping List

All Things Christmas Gift List

This is my favorite because there is a place to list budgeted amount and actually spent for each gift:

Thrifty Fun's Holiday Gift List

Hope these resources help you. Go ahead and make that list today, so you can enjoy Thanksgiving tomorrow, before you start the shopping frenzy on Friday! With one of these lists, you will be all ready for Friday!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Preparing for the holidays: gifts in a jar

Now that November is here, many of us are starting to think about Thanksgiving and Christmas. I will pass along many great ideas in the next two months, so please follow this blog! My gift database full of clever ideas for saving money (yet maintaining your creativity) during these hard economic times. These frugal gift ideas are fun to give and will be greatly appreciated by the recipient!

Today I wanted to give you a link to an article I found on the Right@Home website. It's a brief primer on making gifts in a jar, and includes a delectable sounding recipe for buttermilk berry pancakes. To make it super simple, you can download and print out their recipe card to attach to the jar. Check it out at the Right@Home website.

Wouldn't it make a nice hostess gift for Thanksgiving?

While you are at the site, enter to win the $100 Visa Gift Card and download coupons for some of your favorite household cleaning supplies.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Last minute dollar store Halloween costumes

My son is home sick today, so I spent the morning catching up on some household chores. While dusting I caught the Rachel Ray TV show. Kathy Jacobs, the "Discount Store Diva" was on it, giving a fashion show of costumes she made from mundane items found at dollar discount stores. Black garbage bags were transformed into witch and bumblebee costumes; coffee filters were re-purposed to become the crinoline on her Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz costume.

Intrigued, I checked out the Discount Store Diva website and her Flicker Photo Album.

Wow, that's creative with a capital "C!" She is obviously one of those people who can look at an ordinary item and imagine a myriad of unexpected ways to use it. For example, she created a "Deviled Eggs" costume with a red mesh laundry bag, a white flannel backed tablecloth, and an inflatable devil's pitchfork. A food umbrella, opaque shower curtain and blue flannel backed tablecloth were used to create a Jellyfish costume. Inflatable plastic cats became part of a clever "Cat Lady" disguise.

Most of the costumes take less than one hour to make and cost less than $10. So if you are looking for creative last minute costumes, check out her Flicker "How To" slideshow.

Although I was not as imaginative as Kathy, I put together my son's costume with some ordinary items. He is an FBI agent. I purchased a black ballcap and t-shirt and added F.B.I. patches to the front of the ball cap and t-shirt. (I purchased the patches at a local military store.) I used white tape on the back of the t-shirt to write F.B.I. in large letters. I created a F.B.I. type ID on my computer with Microsoft Publisher and attached it to a lanyard. To complete the costume, he wears black pants and black sunglasses.

My daughter's costume was easy, too. She is a monarch butterfly. I purchased the butterfly wings and headpiece (a headband with chenille stem antennas) from the costume store after Halloween last year. We added her black leotard, black tights and black knit ballet skirt. If I had more time, I would have used Kathy's method to make the wings and made my own headpiece. Perhaps next year!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Creative (and goulish!) food for your Halloween supper

Today's blog isn't necessarily about gifts. But it is creative!

Actually, I think the best gifts are thoughtful little gestures that you do for family and friends, like tucking a specially decorated Halloween cookie in their lunch or serving a special dessert for Halloween supper.

Yes, I know you can go out and buy cakes, cookies and cupcakes decorated with orange frosting and little plastic pumpkins. But I still think they know the difference and truly appreciate the extra time and effort you took to make it yourself.

If your busy schedule prevents you from making special foods from scratch, consider using mixes to decrease the preparation time. Bisquick-mix pancakes become a special fall treat when you add a bit of canned pumpkin and some pumpkin spice. A brownie mix eliminates the need to assemble and measure ingredients, giving you more time to focus on creative decorating.

To save even more time, use pre-made, packaged items and embellish them. For example, graham crackers can be dipped in white chocolate and then piped with "R.I.P" using black frosting. Nutter Butter cookies can also be dipped in melted white chocolate to look like ghosts; use mini chocolate chips for their eyes.

You don't have to reserve those special touches for dessert, either. Your refrigerator's vegetable bin is filled with potential treats for Halloween. That orange sweet pepper could be transformed into a jack-o-lantern by cutting eyes and a mouth in it. Or that small celery stalk can be turned into a green spider by cutting the stalk in strips (leaving the end intact) and then soaking the celery in ice water so it curls.

The possibilities are endless!

Here are some of my favorite websites for easy Halloween food.

The Nabisco website has 28 recipes of Halloween themed food including Monster cookie pops made with Fig Newton(r) cookies, Boo Cups made with chocolate pudding and a spider web pizza spread made with spaghetti sauce. Most of the recipes take just 10-15 minutes to prepare.

The Hershey's website has a variety of recipes using Hershey's kisses, chocolate syrup, Reese's(r) pieces and more. Click here to check it out.

Check out their eyeball cookies made with Whoppers Malt Balls:

The Mars website has a very creative cookie called "Vampire Bites" using Milky Way(r) mini candy bars. Here is the link to that recipe:

Or you can search all their recipes by clicking here.

If you have favorite websites for quick Halloween treats, please drop me a note and share them. I would love to hear about them!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Non-candy treats for Halloween trick-or-treaters

It's time to get back to writing this blog! With Halloween around the corner, thought I would re-visit one of the favorite topics from the Creative Gift Giver website:

Non-candy treats for Halloween trick-or-treaters

Sometimes you just don't want to give those little ghosts and goblins another candy bar or lollipop. Don't despair--there are many inexpensive alternatives! Here are a few ideas:

1) Halloween themed pencils and erasers

2) Stickers. It's easy to find stickers with a Halloween motif at many dollar stores and grocery stores, especially this time of year.

3) Silly novelties, like wind-up chomping teeth, glow-in-the-dark slime, or or bouncing eye balls. It's Halloween--the weirder, the better! As long-time readers to my website already know, my favorite resource for inexpensive novelties and small toys is Oriental Trading. Click on this graphic if you want to check out their online catalog:

Oriental Trading Company, Inc.

4)Ghostly jewelry. Spider rings, pumpkin necklaces, even glow-in-the-dark rubber wristbands are favorites among kids. Oriental Trading or your local five-and-dime store would be a good resource for these items.

5) Coloring sheets. Print out some Halloween themed coloring sheets from the internet. Package them in a zippered plastic bag along with a couple of crayons.

6) Play clay. Sometimes you can find it in Halloween colors, like orange, brown and even black! Or look for glow-in-the-dark play clay. I have seen packs of small canisters of PlayDoh in Halloween colors at Target; a bag of 20 small canisters is just $4.99.

Another option: you could make your own play clay and then dye it orange using food coloring. If you do this, put a 1/2 or 1/3 cup portion into Halloween themed treat bags. Include a tag stating that it is homemade play clay. (You might include the recipe, too.) Here is a great homemade play clay recipe.

7) Barrettes, hair ribbons in Halloween colors. Mostly for the little girls, but they will be delighted!

8) Pumpkin pencil toppers made out of felt. A simple craft; find the directions here.

Those ideas should get your creative juices flowing!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Homemade Easter Candy

My family is fortunate to have some wonderful neighbors. For example, one family always picks up our mail and even shovels our walk if it snows when we out of town. Another family welcomed us home from an extended trip with a huge homemade banner and a balloon bouquet, and also by filling our refrigerator with food.

This year, I decided to say "thank you" to those special neighbors by giving them some homemade Easter candy. I found some plastic egg cartons at a dollar store which I will have my kids decorate with Easter-themed stickers. Inside, I will fill the box with some delectable homemade candies.

If you would like to do something similar for a special person in your life, you might try your hand at some of these recipes:

This blog has a recipe for white chocolate birds' nests filled with jelly beans.

This blog gives step-by-step directions for making adorable bunny-shaped boxes made with white chocolate melts. Yes, the box is edible!

This isn't exactly candy -- but it is very creative! Chocolate cupcakes reminscent of those wonderful Cadbury chocolate eggs.

Here is a recipe for homemade candy corn. I can picture it in pastel colors for Easter. Or take the basic recipe and instead of forming it into candy corn, form it into Easter eggs.

I found this recipe for Crunchy Easter eggs. It is made with graham crackers, coconut and peanut butter, shaped like an egg and then dipped in chocolate.

These Fruit and Nut Eggs sound delicious! Their ingredient list includes maraschino cherries, chopped pecans and coconut.

I love Salted Nut Rolls and plan to try this recipe for a homemade version.

I will be making some of these candies in the next few days. Please check back on this log, as I will post updates on the candy-making process and photos.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Holy Week Banner

I've added another project to the Diary of the Sower blog -- a Holy Week banner. This would be a quick and simple project that you could whip up today and begin using tomorrow. Check it out here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Our Lenten Jesus Tree

I thought some of you might be interested in the project that I just posted on my other blog: Diary of a Sower. It's about a new tradition we have started this year -- we are using a Jesus Tree to mark the days of Lent. (See the photo.) For more information check out at the blog at this link.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Make your own heirloom Easter Basket

As I mentioned in the current edition of the CreativeGiftGiver website, when I was a child my mom made our Easter baskets from an old beach bottle that was cut into a bunny shape and crocheted on the edges with colored yarn. As an adult looking back, I now realize the uniqueness of that homemade basket. I still have it (although it has aged and worn a bit). But I can still feel my mom's love when I look at it, knowing she took the time to make a special basket for each of us kids.

On the website, I give links and suggestions for making your own heirloom Easter basket. Most of the baskets are made with recycled items found around the home, or inexpensive items you can pick up from the craft store.

I also promised to share information on how to make the Duck and Bunny cannisters pictured on the website. These adorable cannisters would make perfect baskets that could be reused year after year. So, let's get started!

Duck and Bunny cannisters

1. Small potato chip or nut can 
2. Fun foam in your choice of colors 
(we used orange and yellow for our duck and 
white, pink and black for our bunny) 
3. Chenille stems (also known as pipe cleaners)
4. Hot glue or tacky glue
5. Cotton ball (for bunny's tail)
6. Scissors
7. Permanent marker
1. Measure the length and width of the can and cut out a piece of fun foam to fit around the can.  Glue it onto the can, lapping ends in the back and leaving two gaps at the top for the basket handles.
2. Hand draw (or use a coloring book pattern) the wings, beak, eyes and webbed feet for the duck;  or ears, eyes, 4 paws (two for "hands" and two for "feet") and a nose for the bunny.   
3. Trace each piece on fun foam and cut out with scissors.  If desired, trace an outline of the wings and webbed feet, or the paws, with a black permanent marker onto the fun foam.  Allow ink to dry completely
4. Glue each piece of fun foam onto the can.  (For the bunny, make whiskers out of black chenille stems and glue them behind the bunny's fun foam nose.) Allow to dry completely. 
To make the bunny's tale, glue a cotton ball on the backside of the can. 
5. If desired, use a permanent marker to draw additional details on the face. 
6. Take two or three chenille stems and twist them around each other, then shape them into a handle.  Place each end of the handle on different sides of the basket, anchoring the handle between the fun foam and the can.  Secure in place with glue. 
7. Fill with shred or Easter grass and add candy or small trinkets. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fool 'em with crazy food!

Tomorrow is April Fool's Day. I usually don't have time to think up clever pranks to play on friends and family, but this year is a bit different. Since its spring break and I'm not driving kids to and from school and activities, I actually have a few moments to plan a little mischief!

My son is a very picky eater, and usually complains about almost every meal. In lighthearted fun, I decided to surprise him (and the rest of the family) with a crazy meal.

Preparing and serving a crazy meal gives your family and friends the gift of laughter and a good time. It also proves that not all gifts need to be wrapped in beautiful paper and tied with a bow. In fact, the best gifts are those born out of your time and creativity.

I've been doing some research online for good food pranks to play on my children. The April issue of Family Fun magazine has some great ideas, including "fish sticks" made with a chocolate wafer cookie and peas shaped from green taffy. It looks so realistic that when my daughter just saw the photo I was uploading for this article, she said "ohh, those peas and fish sticks look good!" Check out the article here.

In fact, Family Fun magazine is gaining a reputation for its realistic looking dinner food made from sweets and other unexpected food items. In previous years they have shown how to make spaghetti and meat balls from buttercream frosting and malted milk balls.

I think I'm going to serve a "backwards meal" tomorrow, using their recipe for cupcakes made from meatloaf. (The pastel colored frosting is really mashed potatoes.) So we will start with the fish sticks and peas featured above, then end the meal with the meatlof cupcake.

Check out this link for some of their other prank recipes.

Some other ideas I've gleaned from the internet:

1)Wormy apple
Cut a small round hole on the side of an apple using an apple corer, then put a gummy worm inside the hole for an unexpected surprise.

2)Buggy ice cubes
Dig into the kids' toy box and pull out a few of those plastic spiders and other bugs they may have collected at Halloween. Wash them well, then put them in ice cube trays. Cover them with water and freeze them. Then pop the frozen cubes into their lunch or supper drinks.

3) Eggs and toast, anyone?
The eggs are actually lemon pudding and lemon curd! See the complete instructions here.

4) Tomato soup
Use frosting (diluted a bit) and add red food coloring. It will be more realistic if you serve it in a soup bowl with crackers!

5) Bacon Cheeseburger Cake
Who knew you could turn a yellow cake mix into a cheeseburger? See it here.

6) Twinkie Sushi
I'm not a fan of raw fish, but even I might be convinced to try these!

7) Moldy Sandwich
Spatulatta has a video that shows kids making this, plus other delectable treats like Kitty Litter Cake and Doggie Do Do Drops

8)Pizza -- or is it?
This website has a nice photo of a pizza made with yellow cake mix for the crust, frosting tinted red for the sauce, red fruit roll-ups cut in circles for pepperoni and olive made with black licorice.

If you try any of these items, please take photos! I would love to post them (along with your stories and credit to you) on this blog.

Our favorite Easter books: The Legend of the Sand Dollar

To end our "Favorite Easter Books" series, I thought I would briefly describe a book that puts a unique spin on an ordinary item -- a sand dollar. You will never look at a sand dollar in the same way after you read this story!

The Legend of the Sand Dollar: An Inspirational Story of Hope for Easter

In this story, eight year old Kerry explores the beach with her cousin Jack. She finds a sand dollar and Jack explains how its markings tell the story of Jesus’ life. You and your children will never look at the sand dollar in the same way after reading this story! The illustrations are delightful too. My children now love telling everyone they meet about the markings on the sand dollar.

Why not create a beach themed Easter basket and include this book? You could use a new sand bucket for the basket. (Use a paint marker and personalize it with your child's name.) Then fill it with sand toys, sunglasses, an inflatable beach ball, a sand dollar (of course), shells, sunblock (the colored kind that kids love to use as body paint), and any other items that your child would enjoy. Don't forget this book!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Our favorite Easter books: The Thornbush

We are blessed to have so many good books available for Easter! I have two more that I would like to tell you about. Today's entry is about a book called The Thornbush; tomorrow we will learn a special story behind the sand dollar.

The Thornbush
This book provides another unique perspective on Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. It is told from the point of view of a little thorn bush growing near a big palace in Jerusalem. The thorn bush feels sad and neglected because people avoid it, not wanting to hurt themselves with its prickly branches. But one day, a man stops and shows kindness to the little bush. The bush sees how the people mistreat this gentle man. One day, some of his branches are cut off, and a little while later he recognizes those same branches on the head of the kind man. That same man leaves a symbolic little gift on the bush’s blossoms, turning them from a dull yellow to beautiful, multi colored flowers. The water-color type artwork in this book is gorgeous, and the story will enchant adults and children.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Our favorite Easter books -- The Jesus Garden: An Easter Legend

The Jesus Garden: An Easter Legend
This book personally touches my heart every time I read it! It tells the story of the Passion of Christ through the eyes of the flowers and animals in the Garden of Gethsemane. We learn why the robin’s breast is red, why the morning glory blooms only in the morning, how bleeding hearts got their name, and why the dogwood tree has blossoms shaped like little crosses. These are skillfully interwoven into the story of Jesus passion, death and resurrection in such a way that it does not scare young children. The crisp yet gentle illustrations will truly touch your heart, too. This book deserves to become a classic!

Find out more here:

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Our favorite Easter books -- The First Easter Bunny

The First Easter Bunny
I must admit that I moaned when I read the title of this book. I thought “oh no, not another book commercializing Easter and disguising its true meaning.” But I should not have been so hasty in passing judgment, because this is actually a sweet little book that successfully meshes the bunny legend and Christ’s passion and resurrection. Written by a Catholic priest, it tells the story of a rabbit who is the silent observer during Jesus’ last week on Earth. In the story, Jesus himself gives the bunny a special role each Easter. The child-like crayon drawings will especially appeal to young children. My daughter is entranced by the simplicity of this book.

Check it out here:

Friday, March 27, 2009

Our favorite Easter books -- Peter's First Easter

I will continue the series of blog entries about our favorite books with another cherished volume.

Peter's First Easter
This Zonderkidz book tells the story of Jesus’ last days through the eyes of his apostle Peter. That point of view makes the story especially poignant, as it mixes the feelings we all have when we think of Jesus’ brutal death -- the guilt of betrayal, the intense pain of seeing a friend suffer so needlessly, and the devastating sorrow of experiencing the death of a person close to us. At the same time, it is written at a level that children can understand. The story is depicted through the luminous paintings of Timothy Ladwig who also worked with author Walter Wangerin Jr. on the popular Christmas book Mary’s First Christmas.

Find out more about the book here:

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Our favorite Easter books - The Easter Cave

Today I'll continue our series on favorite Easter books by describing The Easter Cave.

The Easter Cave
This book opens with Matthew’s Biblical description of Jesus being placed in the tomb after his death. It then moves on to repetitive prose similar to the nursery rhyme “This is the House that Jack Built.” Each page’s text builds upon the text of the previous page (“This is the cave that the friend gave/This is the bird that crowed near the cave the friend gave..”) It recalls Christ’s passion on Good Friday, then moves through the sorrow of his followers and their surprise on finding the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. Colorful yet simple drawings enhance the book. Recommended for ages 4-7 and especially for emerging readers. However, my nine-year old son enjoys it, too!

Find out more here:

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Our favorite Easter books

Each Easter our children receive a heirloom quality book about Easter to build their personal libraries. My husband and I scour bookstores to find the perfect book. I must admit, we are a bit picky. We are looking for a book with a good story line that will become classic, and art museum quality artwork. Over the next week or so I will share some of our finds; all which have become "must-reads" in our home during Lent and Easter.

If you are looking for a good book to include in your child's Easter basket this year, be sure to check back daily for more ideas.

I will start this series by discussing the book Rechenka's Eggs.

Rechenka’s Eggs
Written by Patricia Polacco, this book tells the story of Babushka, an old lady who lives in the Russian countryside. Babushka is renowned for her beautifully decorated eggs, or pysanky, which win first prize every year in an Easter contest in Moscow. One day she takes in an injured goose, who mistakenly breaks all her decorated eggs. To make up for her error, the goose begins laying a gorgeous decorated egg each day until Babushka has enough to take to the contest. The simple drawings in this book are enchanting with their bright colors and folk art feeling. This book is a subtle lesson in kindness and gratitude, which makes it a perfect Easter gift.

You can read more reviews about this book by clicking on this link:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Simple fun and frivality on St. Patrick's Day

March 17 around our home is a chance to learn more about St. Patrick. We watch a children's DVD and read a story or two about the saint. Sometimes the kids color a coloring sheet with the saint's outline on it, or we play a homemade bingo or trivia game with tidbits about Ireland. I understand it isn't really Irish, but we also enjoy corned beef and cabbage. For dessert, we might pop into McDonald's and enjoy a shamrock shake. (I know, that's a bit commercial but it has become a simple tradition!)

This year is a bit different. The kids woke up to some commotion in our home. My son discovered that his leprechaun trap had been sprung, and that my jade ring (used as bait) was gone, replaced by a note saying "ha, ha, ya'll never get my pot of gold!"

There are green paper shamrocks scattered around our home -- on the bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator handle, on the door knobs' of the kids' rooms, on the light switch, and on the TV screen. When my son opened the peanut butter jar this morning, he discovered the peanut butter was now green. And their milk mysteriously turned green when it was poured from the jug into their drinking glasses.

There is also green paper confetti scattered over the kitchen table.

The kids (especially my youngest daughter) got a big kick out of this.

Serving unique food can be a fun and inexpensive gift for family and friends on this holiday. In fact, you can create unique items often just with things already in your cupboard. For example, I have a can of Wilton's green Food Mist spray in my pantry. It is simply food coloring in a spray can. Green sprinkles (leftover from Christmas baking) can add a festive touch, too. For example, we will be having green jello for dessert tonight -- made special with a dollop of whipped cream that has been embellished with the green sprinkles. A small bottle of green food coloring can turn almost any white food into something special. My son hates mashed potatoes; I wonder if he would like them better if they were green?

This clever mom even put tiny leprechaun footprints on her children's peanut butter sandwich. She has some other clever food ideas for the holiday, too, so check it out:

(I love her leprechuan template -- cut it out and use it to embellish cupcakes!)

I found some other links to snacks, desserts, salads and other "Leprechaun" themed food for St. Patrick's Day.

Here is a quick shamrock-shaped snack:

How about some Leprechaun latte? (Yes, you can make this yourself!)

Or a Leprechaun Gold Salad?

How about some Paddy's Day Pudding?

Some would say that we are detracting from the real reason for the holiday. But we will return to some of our traditional activities this afternoon, and learn more about St. Patrick then. In the meantime, someone obviously thought we needed a bit more mischievous fun in our lives!

I would love to hear how others celebrate this holiday! Please post some comments with your family's traditions!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It's Pancake Tuesday!

Today is one of my children’s favorite days of the year. No, we don’t celebrate Christmas in February!

At our house, today is Pancake Tuesday!

Pancake Tuesday is our family’s version of Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. We celebrate it once a year, on the day before Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, the day before Ash Wednesday was a time to use up all rich ingredients like eggs, butter, milk and cream. Pancake recipes call for all these items, so they became a standard meal item on Fat Tuesday.

Although my family eats pancakes on other days of the year, this day becomes special because we take our flapjacks to a whole new level. On this one day of the year, I allow my children to embellish their pancakes with any topping(s) that their heart desires. The table is set with not only with the usual butter and maple syrup, but also fruit syrups (apricot and boysenberry this year), peanut butter, Nutella (a hazelnut/chocolate spread), chocolate chips, fresh cut-up fruit (strawberries, blueberries, cherries, bananas), and of course, whipped cream.

During supper, we have a contest to see who can create the most appealing, tastiest pancake creation. The winner is crowned “the world’s best pancake chef” and gets to wear a silly pancake hat. (It’s a French beret decorated with a photo of a pancake.) Their name is also listed on a framed certificate (made on my computer), which notes each year’s pancake contest winner.

We decorate our table in the Mardi Gras colors of green, gold and purple. We use paper plates, cups and napkins to keep clean-up easy, too.

Some of the other things we might do include:

1.Sing Pancake Songs
Check out this website for some lyrics:

2. Color pancake themed coloring sheets

3. Do a pancake word find

4. Play a pancake themed game like Flip the Pancake

Finally, before bedtime, we will read a pancake themed book. If You Give a Pig a Pancake by Laura Numeroff is my daughter’s favorite book, but you could also read Tomie dePaola’s Pancakes for Breakfast, Eric Carle’s Pancakes, Pancakes or Mairi Mackinnon’s The Runaway Pancake.

You can find all of these books on Here are some links to them:

To get you in a "pancake mood," check out some of the silly “pancake” themed videos on YouTube. Here is one of my favorites:

Have a happy Pancake Tuesday!