Saturday, December 24, 2016

I Blame My Family

In the early seventies, two families combined with the marriage of my mom and our dentist. Mom had three kids, he had four, and the two of them had a baby together. We were the Brady Bunch, minus Alice. Who needs an Alice when you have eight kids to do chores? 

My dad remarried, too, and he and my stepmom had a baby a couple weeks before Christmas, and named her Natalie, our child of Christmas. Yes, I had four sisters, four brothers, and a foster brother, too.

One of my favorite holidays since childhood has been Christmas. I blame my family. Even though my parents were divorced when I was ten, one thing they all (step-parents included) agreed on was this: Christmas is for celebrating. My folks went all out for Christmas.

Mom and Richard

My mom must have one of the most extensive collections of Christmas sweaters. (We don't use the word "ugly" when referencing any of the sweaters; they are just absolutely FESTIVE.) My Dad wore his Santa hat and apron when delivering his homemade baked goods to friends. They loved doing things for other people, and they had fun doing it.

Photo Credit: Patsy Smith, 2013

My childhood Christmases were hand-dipped chocolates, German stöllen and pfeffernüse, tins of cookies and fudge, Nativity sets, fresh-cut pine trees, hand-painted ceramic ornaments, piling into the van to drive to the neighbors in rural Virginia to go Christmas caroling, and delivering plates heaping with Mom's holiday treats, the annual family Christmas Eve program, oyster stew for breakfast at Mom's, and a huge holiday feast Christmas afternoon at Dad and Jackie's. 

My love of Christmas may have been partly genetic, but there were definitely environmental influences, as well. Again, I blame my family.

Early this Christmas Eve morning, as I sat in my cozy little cottage, wearing a red sweater and my Santa leggings and socks, my thoughts turned to those Christmases so many years ago celebrated in the two-story farmhouse in Shipman, Virginia. Enjoying my sentimental mood, I decided to write my mom and siblings a letter, to let them know I had not forgotten them, or our holidays of the past.

Dear Family,

Was there anything more exciting than Christmas Eve in Shipman? Okay, maybe there was, but there was certainly nothing funnier, or more memorable. 

I think of our Christmas Eve programs, and the songs we sang off-key (Do You Hear What I Hear, Kathy?), the poems we wrote (Mom, Grandma, Dan, and even Kevin, I believe), the trumpet solos by Keith, the nativity acted out with Lisa, Eric, and anyone else who would do it, The Night Before Christmas recited by Joelle when she had barely learned to talk, the Elvis lip-sync by our foster brother Ricky, and I think way back to Grandpa's singing "O, Tannenbaum." Waiting for Dad to distribute our first and only gift for Christmas Eve before we went to bed, hoping against hope he would let us open something fun, but knowing in the end, the chosen gift for each of us would be underwear from Aunt Myrtle. Were those fun times or what? 

I love Christmas so much. Yes, I blame you people. 

I love remembering the Christmases in Shipman. Putting out milk, cookies, and carrots before we went to bed, and loving to wake up oh, so early on Christmas morning. (Wait, that was just me, but even Kathy joined in, and was a morning person on Christmas, and we worked hard to get everyone else to wake up.)

This is for you, Kathy. I think we all know I'm a morning person, thanks to making friends with insomnia.

All eight kids ready, and tingly with excitement, sitting on the stairs outside our parents' bedroom, singing Christmas carols with our biggest voices, trying to wake up Mom and Dad. Waiting FOREVER for them to come out of their room, just so Dad could inspect the Christmas room, and come back out, quietly close the door, and tell us to go back to bed; Santa had forgotten to come to our house. Every. Single. Christmas.

And when we were finally given permission to go into that chilly living room with the upright piano, dark paneled walls and faux wooden beams, we ran to our stockings and our pile of loot. I remember with a smile the year little Eric walked up to the last unclaimed pile, wondering where HIS stuff was because he certainly hadn't ordered any of THIS stuff. Other memories. Dumping out our stockings of simple inexpensive things, hard candy and an orange. Trying to get all the lint off of the hard candy, and realizing we'd have to eat it linty, or not eat it at all.

Oyster stew and German stöllen for breakfast, and then three of us went to our Dad's and four of them went to their Mom's, and one of us stayed behind with both of her parents for Christmas dinner. 

I just wanted you to know I haven't forgotten those special Christmases in Shipman. I am thinking about each of you today. I blame you all for my crazy love of Christmas, but I love you even more because of it. 

Wishing you the merriest of Christmases.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Comfort and Joy

Comfort and joy were in short supply a couple months ago when I was watching my weight steadily climb up the chart. I was feeling anxious and sad, and would have given anything to find comfort and joy again. 

On a four hour flight from Chicago to Vegas back in October, I took advantage of the time, and read most of Lysa Terkeurst's book Made to Crave. When I first opened the book, and read the dedication, tears ran down my cheeks. The seeds of hope were planted in my heart, and I determined to figure out how I could loosen the grip food seemed to have on me.

Made to Crave dedication, Lysa TerKeurst

A few weeks after I finished reading that book, on November 22, 2016, I admitted to you that my weight had gotten out of control in The Number Which Shall Not Be Written. I couldn't even write the number numerically; and told you I had hit "two-oh-two. Point six." I promised myself I would be publicly accountable in a month's time. Today's my day of accountability.

Here it is. One month later, I weigh 193.8. Almost nine pounds gone in four weeks. To see my weight moving in the other direction gives me so much hope. I was beginning to think I just didn't have it in me to change my habits. 

But here we are. I've concentrated my efforts on dealing with emotions in constructive ways: taking care of myself, writing, visiting with friends, talking to Chuck, and talking to God. I can honestly say I haven't turned to food for comfort this month.

From Thanksgiving until Christmas, I have been trying to take care of myself better. Instead of relying on food for anything beyond my nutritional needs, I've been trying to find simple things that bring me comfort. Yep, and joy. Focusing on things that lift my spirits makes it a little easier to stay the course when it might be tempting to slip back into my old habits. 

I have taken comfort in deeper conversations with Chuck, trying to understand my husband and myself better. I have sought solace in prayer, and have found not only that, but a strength that is not my own. I have found both comfort and joy in so many small things.

What makes you feel comforted? What brings you joy? I will share some of my favorite things, in the hopes these might help you remember the little things that might comfort you during these cold, winter days.


Soft socks and warm blankets. 

Yummy herbal teas and favorite movies.

Writing. Writing to yourself in a journal, or to a friend in a letter.

Making time for friends; 
inviting another couple for dinner, 
Facetiming faraway girlfriends, 
having a friend over for coffee, and
having young adults at the house. 
Positive people recharge me with good energy.

Enjoying the company of  the little ones in your life.

Yes, we made chocolate-dipped pretzel rods, and I gave them all away.

Enjoying things that make you feel young.

Laughing all the way...down the sledding hill at the park.

Baking things for others that aren't a temptation for yourself.
I love to bake, and it makes me happy to share from my kitchen.

Focusing on nutrition. 
Most days begin with a spinach-protein smoothie. 
Quick snacks include veggie sticks, protein bars, and

Making time to move: yoga inside; walking outside. 

It's not all about restriction, though.
Small indulgences, planned in advance,
give me something to look forward to.
I don't tell myself I can't have foods I like.
I allow myself to enjoy whatever I want,
in a small portion, on special occasions.
I waited two weeks for this brownie.

Feeding your spirit in meaningful ways.
For me, that includes 

prayer, reading, and meditation. 
What would feed your spirit?

As this holiday season approaches the new year, 
I hope we'll all find more comfort and joy in the little things. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Peppermint Bark Tea? I Think I'm Going Crazy

When a friend noticed how much I was enjoying Celestial Seasoning's Gingerbread Spice and Sugar Cookie teas, she asked if I'd tried Bigelow's Peppermint Bark tea. Katie says it's divine. A tea that intermingles chocolate and peppermint? GIVE IT TO ME!

Sorry. That sounded rude. 

Herbal teas have been my go-to indulgence these last few weeks, and I think this could be just the thing to take me from Christmas into the new year. I know I've seen boxes of this on the shelves at the stores around Saint Charles, and just ignored them because I didn't think it was possible to make chocolate taste good in a clear broth. Katie says it's DIVINE, though. Katie wouldn't lie to me.

So, I thought I'd backtrack, and hit our local stores, and pick myself up some of this amazing goodness. Only, none of the stores seem to have it. Maybe it's so amazing, it flew off the shelves, and it is gone. But hope springs eternal.

Even though Chuck was sick, he took me to Walmart. No peppermint bark tea there. Then we went to Jewel-Osco. Nope. I called the Blue Goose market; nada. I checked Target online; zero. I just kept coming up empty-handed. I am not giving up. I think it is safe to say I am obsessed. I know I saw this exact holiday tea during the last couple of weeks.

Katie at the Renaissance Faire, 2016.

Being the sweetheart that she is, Katie says she will bring me some the next time she sees me. The thing is, I'm not going to see her until January or February. Can you sense the urgency of my finding this tea before then?

This morning I went online, and tried to find it at Caputo's, Mariano's, Whole Foods...nope, nope, nope. I KNOW I have seen this tea when I've been shopping this month, so WHERE IS IT?

Katie friend lives in Wisconsin, and says Festival Foods has it there. Great; just great. That is a store local to Wisconsin; Festival Foods is not in Illinois.

So I looked to my all-time fave shopping mecca: AMAZON PRIME. 

Yep, Amazon has it. I just knew they would! But the day I pay $9.99 for a box of 20 tea bags...well, it just ain't happening. Bigelow tea sells it online for $3.50 a box, plus shipping, but I'd have to buy a case of it. (Pssst. Katie, what if I don't love it?)

Can anybody out there help me find this stuff that isn't going to cost me an arm and a leg? I'll be in Utah Friday. Is it in Saint George? Richfield? Monroe? 

Oh, please, help me. I'm going crazy. (Obviously, I'm already there, but finding this tea might take the edge off of the cray-cray.) Help a girl out, will ya? FIND ME THIS TEA! 


These displays are not necessarily anywhere near the tea. This particular one was by the checkout.

P.S. My husband found it for me after a tip from a friend who lives near Chuck's work. A grocery store up there had a few boxes, and Chuck brought home THREE of them to me. I was giddy all afternoon, and as soon as he got home, I made myself a cup. It was very good. You know how York Peppermint Patties help you get the sensation? The tea has final notes of the sensation, too!

I made a cup of tea to sip at Chuck's work before I headed to the library.
It's another fun Bring Your Wife to Work Day. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Gingerbread: A Holiday Tradition

My daughter was telling me that it is time for her to make her gingerbread house for Christmas. I've never made a gingerbread house without a kit, and for the last two years, Sierra has done a great job making her own. I'm pretty proud of her. Maybe she'll let us help decorate her gingerbread house when we all get together this weekend.

Sisi inherited her Granddaddy's Garlic Lovers' apron. Both of them like baking gingerbread.

If the reigning flavor of fall was pumpkin spice, the flavor of Christmas must be gingerbread spice. Have you noticed how Gingerbread-everything has taken over the store shelves this month? I have.

I've been craving gingerbread men, gingerbread houses, ginger snaps, and ginger ale. If I gave in to all of these cravings, I would be in trouble. (In two days, I will reveal the results of my month of not turning to food for comfort.) So I have found ways to satisfy my desires without wrecking my healthier eating.

Luckily, there is diet ginger ale and gingerbread-flavored tea. Celestial Seasonings gingerbread spice tea tastes like Christmas in a cup. I have consumed gallons of gingery drinks in the last several weeks. Gallons.

This morning, long before dawn, I decided to start my holiday baking. You might think I'm crazy to tempt myself with homemade goodies, but so far, so good. A friend is coming over for coffee tomorrow, and Chuck signed up for holiday bread for their luncheon at work. These were just the excuses I needed to busy myself in the kitchen.

Today was the day to try this tantalizing holiday recipe, Gingerbread Loaf, shared by Amy on her blog  Her picture alone makes me drool.

Photo Credit:

By 5:30, the house was fragrant with the aromas of Christmas: cinnamon, molasses, allspice, and ginger. Amy's blog includes a recipe for a glaze topping, but the bread is plenty sweet without it. 

No, I'm not being paid to endorse this tea; it's just reeeally good.
Thought you'd want to know.

Yes, I sampled a small slice of gingerbread loaf. It was wonderful. Before I dive into any more bread, I'm going to head off this little craving with some yummy gingerbread spice tea. That should do the trick!

Mighty Nice

Chuck and I have this bad habit of buying things for each other, and giving the gifts before the day of celebration, whether it's a birthday, anniversary, or Christmas. Then as the special day approaches, we scramble to find something for each other to open.

Not even 24 hours after we bought our Christmas coats, and Chuck was lamenting that since we already wore them home from the store in the snowstorm, there wouldn't be any gifts for me to open under the Christmas tree.

"Chuck, you have made it possible for us to fly to Utah for the holidays, and I will get to spend Christmas with all of my kids. There is NOTHING you could put under the Christmas tree that could compare to that gift."

He looked up, and then said, "Well, that was mighty nice of me."

I just put my head down on the counter, and laughed.

Yes, that was mighty nice of him, but what's even nicer than nice is Chuck came up with a fun Christmas gift for my kids that makes my heart so happy; airline tickets to come to Chicago for a long weekend getaway in January. Treating ourselves to a visit from the kids will be our big gift to each other, and the tickets are our gifts to the kids. A mighty nice gift from a mighty nice man.

Counting down the sleeps until I get to have all of us together again.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Glass from the Past: Grandma's Christmas Ornaments

When I was visiting everyone back home in Virginia about eighteen years ago, I happened to be talking to my stepdad while he was organizing the basement. Calvin was my kind of guy; he was a purger, too. He pulled an old decrepit postal box off the shelf, opened it, and said, "We don't use these. Let's toss this box." When Mom saw the contents of the box, her eyes went wide.  

"Those were my mom's!" She looked at me. "Maybe Denise wants them."  

Within that ratty-looking box were the delicate glass Christmas ornaments that belonged to my grandmother from so many years ago. They were so beautiful, and very fragile. 

"I can seriously have these?" I'm a purger, but I'm not a fool. We minimalists know it's important to save the things we will USE that bring us JOY. I couldn't believe my luck. How I cherish the heirloom-quality collection I was given. I'm so glad I was there to save Grandma's decorations from a terrible fate.

One of my favorite winter scenes: my mom and Aunt Ann with my Great-Grandma Engelhard in her apron in the snow,
and looking out the wavy glass of the window, my Grandma Engelhard.

These ornaments were the first set of Christmas decorations my grandmother had as a new bride in 1934. They are made of the thinnest of glass, and hand-painted. They were just run-of-the-mill ornaments back then, probably purchased at the local five and dime store, but they are so special now because of their antiquity. Over 80 years old...

For the first few Christmases, I hung them on my tree, but inevitably, one would break as I attached it to a branch; they are so fragile. I continued to wrap them in the toilet paper that cushioned them in the old postal box, but a few years ago, I decided to put them in an egg carton to protect them a little better, or so I thought.

Several years ago, I purchased a small table-top tree on which to hang them; but the presentation was a little too tacky. That didn't set well with me; they need a special place to be displayed. 

Several friends were talking about old family Christmas decorations, and I happened to mention Grandma's ornaments. My friend Carol asked me to show them to her. Since she lives in Massachusetts, the only way I could do that was to take pictures of them.

So, one night while I was waiting for Bridger to get home from playing in the pep band at the high school basketball game, I photographed the ornaments. I gingerly removed each of the little glass decorations from the egg carton, and hung them on the tree, taking pictures of each one, trying to catch the light just right to showcase the individuality of each ornament. I even photographed the broken one; it was one of my favorites, and I can't bear to throw it away.

My favorite one is broken. I can't bear to part with it.

These beautiful family heirlooms should be showcased every year for as long as they last. They do no good sitting in a crate in the basement closet, getting more fragile with each passing year. They are a connection to my dear grandmother, and just having them in view makes me happier.  

Photo Credit: Sierra Waters, 2016

Except this year our little house has new tenants; Sierra and Ludo the cat, so Grandma's Christmas ornaments are safely packed away with my holiday decor in the closet. I think Grandma would understand.

Ludo loves playing with the ornaments, and removing them from the tree.

I haven't dared bring the box of fragile decorations with me the 1,400 miles to Illinois, but when we move back to Utah, I will walk the walk, and not just talk the talk. Those beautiful ornaments will be used as they were meant to be; part of our family's heritage and Christmas traditions. They will have their special place of honor, right where they belong:  on our Christmas tree. I am so glad I took the time to photograph them that night because I know they will not last forever, and I can enjoy them even when they are in their box. I promise to treasure them, and include them in my holiday decorating as long as they last.

Friday, December 16, 2016

A Tightwad's Tips for Gift-Wrapping

During Thanksgiving, Chuck's boys were remembering Christmases past. There was a reference to Dreaming of a White (Envelope) Christmas. 

I took that as a challenge to find SOMETHING for each of the kids to open at Christmas, besides a white envelope. I love the idea of a white Christmas, but not  that kind. It's challenging because gift cards have become so popular, but I'm doing it, by golly! Even if I have to resort to wrapping money in a pretty gift box. 

Gift wrapping does not have to be expensive, especially if you take advantage of the re-useable decorated gift boxes and bags. Mason jars are a new thing I'm trying this year. I confess to spending a little more money on some beautiful Mary Engelbreit gift cylinders, for wine bottles, I suppose, but they work well for socks, scarves, and other soft things that can be stuffed inside them. I've used them for years. 

Our family re-uses all of the gift-wrapping supplies, except for the paper; I draw the line there. I'm frugal, but I'm not a fanatic. My kids know that after they open their gifts, I appreciate being able to re-use the containers, and the trims, and they put them all in a pile separate from the trash when we clean up the Christmas morning aftermath. 

Some of the gifts under our tree are wrapped in designer gift wrap I found at Goodwill last year; I found a brand-new tube of Mary Engelbreit Christmas wrap for $1.50. 

Thrift shops are a good place to find ribbon, bows, and floral picks. In Illinois, I've discovered Aldi's is a great place to find good deals, not just on my groceries, but gift wrap and bows, too. I admit that I save the fabric ribbons that adorn things I buy throughout the year like blankets, towels, and robes, and I just iron them with my hair straightener before wrapping presents with them. 

I love to wrap gifts, and for an extra-special touch, I pleat the gift wrap. It is a technique I learned from my sister-in-law. It does take a little more paper to do this, but if you are curious, you can check out her pleated paper technique HERE.

Pleated paper technique, combined with curling ribbon, a bow, and a tag. Eye candy for under the tree!

For finishing touches, I love to combine textures, utilizing twine, gauzy ribbon, wired ribbon, curling ribbon, shiny bows, and floral picks. During the Christmas holidays, there are so many decorative additions to choose from:  holly and berries, ornaments, pine cones and evergreens. Caution: If you like to save money, wait until these items go on sale, unless you find them at a thrift shop or discount store.

My BIG money-saving tip is obvious: Shop the after-Christmas sales. Picks, ribbons, and bows can be pricey before the holidays, and even though it's a pain to store them for 12 months, when Christmas rolls around, I'm always so happy to to see that I'm well-stocked in wrapping supplies, for less than half the price of full retail! 

This suggestion may be less obvious: during the post-holiday sales, I look for gift wrapping supplies that can be used for birthdays and other occasions, too. There are beautiful paisley prints and fun polka dots and stripes that would work for any time of the year. Sometimes gift wrap is double sided with a print on one side, and a solid color on the other. 

Wrapped Pringles cans are a great container for cookies and treats, and the Mason jar is filled with love notes.

If you love to wrap gifts as much as I do, and know other ways to save money doing it, please share your ideas here with us!