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.