Friday, January 4, 2019

Ta-Da! It's Christmas!

Merry Christmas! And Happy New Year!

I know it's officially January now, so most of the world has moved from Christmas to restrictive eating...but, technically it's not Epiphany yet, so if the Wise Men are still on the road to baby Jesus, I figure I'm still well within bounds for some Christmas reflection.

We had just the best holiday season this year....Maybe I say that every year, but regardless of comparison, it was just so lovely. You might even say it's the most wonderful time of the year! :)

I always love Christmas, but this felt like one of the calmest holiday seasons I can remember. That might be because we had fewer kids than last year...or maybe because this is our first year with all "big" kids...but in any case I just felt much...lighter this year. I was less pressured, less overwhelmed, less frantic. It was certainly a full season, with a packed calendar, and a ton of a fun activities and events, but it didn't come with the stress level that I felt in previous years. I'd love to pinpoint why, so I could share my wisdom (and replicate this again and again), but I'm sure it's a complicated combination of factors. One of the main things that shifted for me, was refusing to do things out of obligation. I know lots of people struggle with this, especially around the holidays- all of the things you "have to" do. turns out, when you get down to it, there really aren't that many mandatories in life. I'm fortunate in this area, because I'm not naturally a people-pleaser, but I struggle with my own expectations and need for achievement, saddling myself with a lot of "shoulds". I feel (/create) pressure to do and be all the provide a magical season for my kids-  to see the sights, to plan the outings, to savor every second of the season... And while that makes for a lot of festive memories it also makes me a wee bit nutty.

I didn't consciously set out to do things different this year...(I kinda wish I did...then at least I could brag about how well it turned out!)- I think maybe as I get older my standards (and energy) are just naturally getting lower. Somehow I just settled into a perspective/approach that I can only describe as: "Let's do it!...if we want to." Truly it's that simple. If it sounded fun- we did it. If it didn't...skip! Now, it may sound incredibly self-centered and entitled to just do whatever you want all the time, and I agree if it's not a great life strategy in general. But for the holidays? A time that's supposed to filled with love and fun and wonder? Well why bring guilt, shame and obligation into that? It's a season designed for love and keep it as simple as it should be, and do things you love and that make you happy.

I saw a lot of "seasonal bucket list" type ideas on Instagram this season, and while I'm no stranger to a to-do list (oooh I love me some check boxes) this time around the idea of setting up a bunch of must-do's made Christmas fun feel like more of a challenge than a pleasure. So I entered the season without major goals, real plans, or formalized itinerary. There were a few events I knew we'd get to, and some traditions I'd never want to miss, but for the most part, I approached things as they came, and went with the flow. Not my signature style, but it suited me just fine this month.

So in lieu of a Christmas To-Do list, I've retroactively summarized our season into a list of Ta-Da's! All the things we actually did...which turns out was quite a lot! Funny how with LESS striving, MORE can feel JUST RIGHT.

The details:
  • Get a tree: We got our tree earlier than we ever have (the Sunday after Thanksgiving) which is fine with me- more time to enjoy it! The place we went the last two years has closed now, so we tried out a new spot- Cackler Family Farms which we really liked! We saw a donkey, rode in the sled, enjoyed the 50+ degree weather and got a good fir (Douglas? Fraiser? Who knows?) Piper complained that we were too pick and that the whole process took too long (she's not wrong) but everyone was in mostly good spirits (the "sandbox" full of corn, and the free candy canes didn't hurt). Despite all the hassle and mishaps that come with cutting down your own tree, it is still one of my absolute favorite traditions and I'm glad we made it happen.
  • Send out Christmas cards: Another love of mine this season. We took a break from mailing these last year but are now back in the game. I managed to get this down super early as well, using photos pulled from our recent family video session- I ordered from Chatbooks and got them before Thanksgiving (which gave me extra time to address and send the before things got too busy) I got 100, not knowing exactly how many we needed, which worked out to be just about right. I think we received more cards than ever this year...which I attribute mostly to people reciprocating our mailing- which I'm fine with! It makes me so happy to see all the fun art and smiling faces displayed around our home.
  • Drive to look at lights:  Ok...guess what...this is ANOTHER one of my favorite things to do each year! It doesn't rank too high on Dustin's list, but he's become much more tolerant over the years, and barely even muttered a bah humbug. We did it up right this year, making popcorn and hot chocolate for our outing (with fancy Christmas tree marshmallows!), and pulling out a bunch of blankets to snuggle over everyone's carseats. We hit up all the houses we know that typically do a big show (though several seem to have gone into full or semi-retirement from the lighting game) and checked out a new house which ended up being a big hit (their lights coordinated with music, and they had Santa on a big screen through the window!) We did an encore night with friends after hearing about a neighborhood near us where all the houses sync up to a custom radio station. We also went to Franklin Park to see their lights and gingerbread house tour. Dustin was out of town for that (conveniently, as he didn't really want to participate in another light-related outing), so my mom and I took the kids, and loved it. Light up flamingo topiaries AND a rainbow light tunnel? YES! And for the first time, we attended the Westerville Tree Lighting Ceremony...which left me, in a word: underwhelmed. (What we didn't do? Wildlights at the Zoo, or the Fantasy of Lights...maybe next year!)
  • See Santa: twice! Much to Dustin's chagrin (are you sensing a theme? He's not a total curmudgeon, but I will say our Ta-Da list would be a wee bit shorter if he were leading the charge) we trekked downtown for a Santa sighting which ended up being a super fun day (Crafts, face paint, a band...!) It wasn't the most convenient location (downtown parking + rain) but the Santa was legit, and it was such a lovely kickoff to the holidays.
  • Set up a train: I picked up a train on super clearance after the holidays last year, so we surprised the kids with it after we set up our tree. It's nothing elaborate, but it's a fun little addition to the set up this time around.

  • Craft, craft, craft: oh DID WE EVER. I became the unofficial art teacher of our unofficial home school, as the girls requested endless crafty activities. (Every time Miller went down for a nap, Fin was immediately by my side raising her eyebrows and asking what I had planned). We tried salt painting, (so easy!) mirror decorating (so borderline dangerous!), Gingerbread ornaments (fun process, terrible results), melted beads in cookie cutters (it probably goes without saying that was a disaster), shrinky-dinks (total fail- maybe I'm not qualified for oven related crafting?), and wood+marker ornaments. Between all the supplies and resulting "masterpieces" I didn't see the my countertops for a month straight, and it was equal parts awesome and stressful. We had a blast making it all, but then I was almost as happy to sweep most of those treasures into the trash.
  • Read books: oodles of books! Stacks of books! A different Christmas book every night! Some favs: Mooseltoe, Santa Mouse, and Gingerbread Mouse (apparently my kids have a thing for animals). I've never met anyone who complained their parents read to them too much when they were little, so I give myself permission to go all kinds of crazy on bedtime stories, especially at Christmas.
  • Make Christmas lists and send them to Santa: Another double check! When we visited Santa downtown there was a special craft station to make letters, and a big mailbox to send them to his workshop. Piper mailed hers then, Fin insisted on bringing it home for later, and Miller jumped back into the line to show Santa right then. Our town also has a fancy Santa mailbox that we've visited the last two years, so we headed there early on Christmas Eve to drop off some drawings (I didn't want to do lists that late in the game...can't have them springing new things on Santa last minute- even if he is magic!)

  • Snowflake Castle: This is a big event put on by our town, but I've never been, or really even known much about it. All I knew is people go crazy for it, and tickets sell out in minutes. So...naturally I figured we needed to go! I set an alarm on my phone and logged on as soon as sales opened up...and still only weekday mornings were available. So- Thursday at 9AM it was! (We let Piper go to school late that day...hopefully she won't suffer too much academically from her mom's misplaced educational values). Turns out it was totally worth the hype...we got to meet Santa (and Mrs. Claus!), sit in his sleigh, and build+paint wooden toys in his workshop.The kids were so proud of their creations...Piper even wrapped hers up to give to G'mi (the other two were displayed through the holidays but might have gotten swept up in the post-Christmas purge). Everyone there was so nice, and really went all out to make it special, and it was a really fun little memory to share together. 
  • Candy Cane Lane: Fin's school runs a market for the kids to shop for gifts for their families and it's the CUTEST. I got to volunteer for the first time this year, walking kids around helping them pick out gifts for everyone on their lists. Fin wanted to shop for Miller and Piper, so she chose a PJ Masks stuffed animal (Catboy!) and some American Girl Doll clothes. She was so excited to wrap them up, and could barely wait to give them to her siblings. We had to put them in the basement so she would stop asking every ten minutes if they could open them now! She managed to wait until Christmas, and both gifts were a big hit. 

  • Kids' program at church: When our church called for volunteers for the elementary school Christmas program my girls were pretty emphatic about what they wanted to be: Piper wanted to be Mary (and nothing else) and Fin wanted to be a King (because they wear crowns and don't have to talk). Apparently the competition for Mary was fierce, but Piper's name was drawn out of a hat, so she won the coveted honor. Fin's role came with a stuffed camel to hold, so she was equally thrilled. They both performed their walking, smiling and not-speaking flawlessly, and even learned sign language to one of the songs. But Miller pretty much stole the whole show by wearing a bow tie and looking all around adorable in the preschool performance of Oh What a Glorious Night. (Dustin gets a shout out for helping to run sound, and we had an extra bit of fun leading worship together before and after the program.)
  • Watched (terribly) good movies: I fully embraced the cheese this year with a bunch of "Hallmark-esque" Christmas movies on Netflix. "The Princess Switch" was exceptionally good, "Merry Kissmas" was nearly unbearable and there were a few sappy/fluffy gems somewhere in between. 
  • Wear festive jammies: I'm a sucker for spirit wear, and had stocked up on a few new sets after Christmas last year, so the kids were all decked out. They love having special pj's, and might have worn them just as much in the day as the did at night. 

  • Decorate (and undecorate) the church: because you can take the girl out of visual merchandising, but.... I've volunteered with the decor team each year since we moved here and it's always way too much work and a ton of fun. We all agreed to keep things simple this year, and very nearly kept our promise. I roped Dustin into tying strings on 300 custom paper ornaments, got my kids to help bake four dozen cookies, and helped manage the set up team for a frenzied weekend of manger staging, tree fluffing, garland lighting, and photobooth building. It ended up looking beautiful...if not for the smell of the gym lockers, you'd barely know our sanctuary is actually a middle school! 
  • Advent calendars: This had to be the easiest win all season- reusing jokes from last year's advent calendar! The kids even actually understand them sometimes! I also had Frozen themed advent calendar stashed away from last year's clearance sales (another theme to our holidays- stockpiling discounted merch!) which the kids tore into every day at breakfast. 
  • Read the Bible: My absolute favorite new tradition. I printed out the Jesus Storybook Bible advent plan and clipped it to a garland above our dining table so we could read an entry each day while we ate. We weren't perfect, so some nights had us catching up on an extra story or two, but the kids really got into it. It was such a sweet time to spend reading about the different stories and events leading up to Jesus's birth, and talking about it all together. Miller still asks me to read the bible during dinner, so it might become a more regular event. 

  • Hot chocolate: We embraced hot chocolate in all of its forms- with marshmallows, an ice cream float, frozen yogurt, special flavored m&m's and limited-edition cookies. Plus the kids' Christmas Eve gift was a wooden hot cocoa set that has already gotten about 12 million hours of playtime. 
  • Give gifts: What's Christmas without the presents?! I gave some cat-related gifts to my coworkers (gotta celebrate working on a pet brand!), made teacher gifts at midnight because sometimes that's just the best you can do, and did another year of Secret Santa gifts with the kid cousins. (Fin and Hailey got each other...Fin was over the moon with her unicorn mask and fuzzy socks. She's barely taken it off since). 
  • Snuggle: We did our fair share of this each evening, but the most noteworthy snuggle-sesh had to be meeting my brand new baby niece. Nothing like that new Christmas baby smell. 
  • Class parties: I read a book to Fin's jammie-clad class at their "Cozy Christmas Eve" day (Dustin supplied the cut out sugar cookies for the kindergarteners to decorate), and played games with Piper's class (I picked up Holiday Spot It for the occasion because I just didn't have a homemade Pinterest-level idea in ended up beloved by all!)

  • Catch up with old friends: bonus- I didn't even have to travel- they came to ME! I partied with a friend I've had since my preschool days, and stayed up WAY too late with high school buddies. (I also had outings with moms from Piper's kindergarten class, and my monthly Supper club. Make new friends, but keep the ollllddd!)
  • Go to Christmas Eve church: This night always has a very special place in my heart
  • Listen to Christmas music: all day er'y day. The kids particularly enjoyed "I" (even though they can't never say it correctly enough for Alexa to play it), "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" (that Kacey Musgraves version is actually tolerable) and "I Have a Little Dreidel" by Bare Naked Ladies (because spinning and "naked" are endlessly funny). Piper also learned a few Christmas songs on the piano: Jolly Old St. Nicholas, Jingle Bells (with TWO hands!) and Good King Wenceslas. She's working on Go Tell it On The Mountain (might get there by Valentine's day). 

  • Enjoy new toys: Santa brought the must-haves of the year: a "cry baby" (yes, her face actually leaks), American Girl doll Jeep, and a PJ Masks car. But there were lots of other favs, like messy crafts: bath bombs, hair chalk, slime necklaces, and paint your own squishies. Classics like playdoh, magnetic tiles, and their first set of LEGOs (With a storage bag, because I'm silly enough to think I'm not still going to continue to find pieces to these underfoot for the next 15 years). We tried to rein in the gifts but still probably ended up spoiling them (it's so hard to resist!). Each kid got around 6 things- but a few of those were necessities like pajamas, jeans or socks. There were a few gifts for them all to share, and of course they were extra spoiled by extended family. All in all though, they were thrilled with everything, and were as grateful and non-greedy as you can expect youngin's to be. (Funny side note: I scored 4 sets of Lego Friends on Facebook Marketplace- because I refuse to pay 97 billion dollars for teeny tiny puppy shaped pieces- but when we were missing a couple pieces, I had to confess to Piper that they had been "Pre-played with". She totally saw the value, and happily announced, "Mom, when I'm a grown up, I'm going to get all my kids used toys!" Atta girl!) 
  • Eat yummy treats: There was NO shortage of eating this season but the highlight may have been a triple bread bowl. YOU. HEARD. THAT. RIGHT. It's not technically Christmas-related in the traditional sense, but it does teach that dreams really do come true. 
  • Giggle: Non-stop. Well...unless we were arguing. The Bowden sibs pretty much have two speeds. 

  • Get fancy: It doesn't get much better than a Christmastime wedding. We were honored to be a part of Jennie and Mark's big day. 
  • Deck our halls: Kept things REAL simple (yeah, right). I bailed on garland, and embraced (ok, went nuts over) ornament collecting. 
  • Cheers: We shared a flaming cocktail for a bestie's bday, enjoyed a beer or two (or maybe more) together while we wrapped/quilted/worked/vegged out, and toasted in the New Year with beloved friends. 
  • LOVE: so so so so much. 
And just to round it out- we also....Set up a giant gingerbread house, watched Fancy Nancy Christmas in the bathtub, celebrated a bunch of birthdays, put too many sprinkles on cookies, ate out for too many meals, weathered some tough times with some great friends, forgot we left food on our porch for the reindeer, and watched the Netflix fireplace (birch log edition) on a near endless loop, and stayed home together for 12 straight days and lived to tell. A Very Merry Christmas indeed!

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