Christmas Traditions

The past few weeks have been…well, kinda crazy. At the risk of sounding cliche, I could say life happened – unexpected inconveniences, extra deadlines at work – you name it, it’s happened. So tonight, I’m officially deeming an “off” night. I’ll tackle a few nagging tasks along the way, but I can tell I just need a little wiggle room to breath. Some mindless activities to shake off this grumpy mood.

Writing calms me – gives me a focus and an outlet for any lingering tension or stress. And what better thing to ponder than Christmas traditions/memories when I’m in the mood for a pick-me-up?

I had idyllic Christmases growing up, and I hope that Abby and any other future little Frost’s will be able to look back at their own childhood and claim the same. I mentioned a few things that I cherish at each Christmas season, but that post didn’t encompass all our family traditions.

Christmas Present:

Food:

Following my family tradition of pizza on Christmas Eve, John and I now make homemade calzones each year for Christmas Eve, and have Cinnamon Coffee Cake for dessert (my family Christmas breakfast tradition). While quite a bit of work (I shouldn’t be talking…it’s actually John who does the calzones), they are worth every minute of flour-covered chaos.

Gifts:

We exchange a new Christmas ornament on Christmas Eve and hang it on the tree. It takes the guess work out of what gift to open on Christmas Eve, and we always pick up fun ornaments on clearance right after Christmas for the following year. It also makes decorating the tree extra special each year because we can reminisce about what Christmas such-and-such ornament joined our collection.

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One of my favourite ornaments from John

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My ornament to John last year – to commemorate our trip to New York City earlier in the year.

We also give clues on each gift tag that hint at the contents (sometimes it can be pretty obvious, but most times it’s just a frustrating teaser that only makes sense after the fact). They can be inside jokes, or other times we might pick a theme (last year I did song lyrics). For example, one said say “Charlie, Charlie give me your answer true” – these are lyrics from “A Bicycle Built for Two” and I put this tag on some bicycle photos I’d printed and framed for John.

We’ve super excited to take this one step further; our close friends the Abriels use Bible verses for the clues, so the kids spend ALL Christmas morning with their Bibles open. They even have the kids figure out whose gifts are whose by looking up verses (ie: a verse mentioning the first born would indicate that gift was for the eldest child etc.,). Some of the verses are hilarious (Luke 3:5 – “the rough ways shall become smooth” was the verse associated with a package of razors or Song of Solomon 4:2 about “your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn” might be used for a new toothbrush).
We’ll have to be wary of translations, though. One year we were included in this tradition, and although the intended version included the word “frost”…which happens to be our last name…the translation being read aloud said “ice”…everyone was left confused until we consulted another translation.

Christmas Past

Decorations:

We would always decorate the tree together; it was such a fun family event. Mom never seemed to care about misplaced ornaments or gaudy tinsel. Dad’s only demand – that “his” star be the crowning adornment. Every year we fought to get this star to work (it is ancient), and complained about how terrible it looked. And every year he said something along the lines: “One day when I’m gone, you’ll be fighting over who gets the star since you’ll treasure it so much.” And he was right – this star, in all it’s ugly glory, is such a fond memory for me now.

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The other main decoration item that stands out is the kissing mistletoe figure. This is an old, old, old Avon wax potpourri figurine gifted to my Mom years ago. Every Christmas when we went to get the box of decorations from it’s neglected corner of the basement I would just stand and soak in this scent – it is so distinctive, and it would permeate every last item in the box.

Mom passed this along to me the year we were married, and I’ve been proudly displaying and smelling this ornament ever since.

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Food:

Aside from Nuts & Bolts and Cinnamon Coffee Cake the other main family food tradition was Christmas Eve supper – every single year it was pizza. When my parents were pasting a small church, and struggling to make ends meet, one generous parishioner would provide gift certificates for a local pizza place. As the years passed, and we eventually moved to another location, the pizza tradition stuck. Most years we make our own, which adds to the fun. Along with pizza, we always dimmed the lights (much to my father’s horror who always announced he couldn’t “see his food enough to eat”) and had pop.

Gifts:

While we never received lavish gifts at Christmas, there were a few traditions

Big Stockings – we always had overflowing stockings, packed with every necessity: soap, socks, pens and paper…and almost every item would be wrapped in plastic bags. Yup – grocery bags from the store made it easy to wrap even the most awkward of stocking stuffers in seconds, all secured with masking tape! When I tediously wrap every last item in paper each year, I think longingly of the plastic bag tradition.

Tracking gifts – Mom would always sit in her chair armed with a clipboard. When we received a gift, she would note the contents, the giver, and the recipient to make sure everyone received a proper thank you note when it was all finished.

We had to wait until Mom and Dad were up, dressed, and Dad had taken the time to shave before we were allowed to open gifts. It was pure torture, since we usually didn’t get to start presents until 7:30 or 8:00. Good practice for self-control I suppose.

Other:

Every year we would contribute to these goody baskets our church delivered. They were packed with fruit and cakes and cookies and wrapped in bright cellophane. I loved tagging along as we visited the elderly and delivered this Christmas cheer.

Every year we would read the Christmas story (from Luke 2) right before we went to bed.

Every year, we finished Christmas Eve by singing Silver Bells by Christmas-tree light.

Every year we would sit around the Christmas tree and shake each gift on Christmas Eve. I got pretty good at guessing!

Every year we participated in wonderful Christmas programmes at church. We started practicing in September; I loved lighted candles all throughout the sanctuary. Another highlight – putting together the goody bags. I would cover our dining room table with small paper bags and fill them with chocolates and candies, to be handed out to each visitor at the end of the Christmas programme. The year I was deemed old enough to do this whole process by myself was incredibly special.

Christmas Future

I’m excited to start various Advent countdowns – I love this The Way of Light candle wreath that can be used at Christmas and Easter.

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I love the idea of a handmade advent calendar, with each day holding a Scripture verse, little candy, or maybe a fun activity (like go caroling at a nursing home, go ice skating, or make Christmas cookies).

I also love the idea of starting Christmas service traditions – like working at a soup kitchen each Christmas Eve, or every family member filling an Operation Christmas Child box for a less-fortunate child of the same age.

Any fun family traditions?

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Holiday Favourites

Christmas has the ability to extrude every last ounce of sentimentality out of my veins. And let me tell you – that’s a whole lot of sentiment. I’m a nostalgic at heart and nothing elicits warm fuzzies like reminiscing about Christmas past. The best part – I get to relive certain aspects of the holiday season each and every year in the form of tried and true favourites.

Here’s a quick run-down of things that set my sentimental heart aflutter – without fail!

Film:

How could I not start with the epitome of classic holiday viewing pleasure: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

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I look forward to watching this every year. The pitiful dog, the adorable Cindy Lou, and the ornery old grinch and that eventual, wonderful, miraculous conversion from miserable to generous.  Don’t get me started on the movie version though, I’m passionately opposed.

My next favourite: White Christmas

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I can’t get enough of this 1954 classic. I love everything about the movie. Awkward 50’s acting (check), great music (check), wonderful costuming (check), Bing Crosby (check), feel-good ending (check, check, mate). I may (or may not) have watched this movie three times last Christmas. It’s that good.

Music:

I grew up immersed in music; my mother loved to play the piano and we all sang regularly as a family (minus Dad, who can’t hold a tune to save his life). It’s not surprising, then, that at Christmas time our music-loving genes kicked in to overdrive. Aside from one particular Christmas smell (I’ll write about this later; smell is the sense believed to trigger the most vivid memories, and it’s definitely the case at Christmas for me), music is what brings back childhood Christmases most clearly.

First off: The Sounds of Christmas by Julie Andrews. Some of the songs are unconventional, and I likely wouldn’t enjoy this album if I hadn’t heard it every year at Christmas (on repeat) in my house growing up, but this signals “Christmas is here” whenever I listen to it for the first time each year.

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Another family favourite: The Living Strings and Living Voices White Christmas (link to full album on YouTube). My favourite song from this album is Buon Natale (Merry Christmas to You) – I’ve never heard it anywhere else.

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As a quick aside – my new favourite album (much to my husband’s chagrin): Michael Buble Christmas (link to full album on YouTube)

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The White Christmas duet with Shania Twain – I cannot get this out of my head.

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And just have to throw this one in to the mix too (also a “newer” favourite): Sarah McLachlan Wintersong

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Food:

And finally, what Christmas celebration is complete without “eat, drink, and be merry?” So many dishes stand out as classic family recipes (I’ll write about a few food traditions another day), but two it-just-wouldn’t-be-Christmas-without-them:

Homemade Nuts and Bolts

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My recipe:

2 cups Cheerios

2 cups Life

2 cups Shreddies

1 cup peanuts

1 cup pretzels

1/3 cup margarine or butter (melted)

2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce

1 teaspoon seasoning salt

3 teaspoons garlic powder

Mix (melted) margarine with W. Sauce and powdered ingredients. Pour over cereal, nuts, and pretzels and stir until coated. Bake at 300 degrees for about 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes. Be careful it doesn’t burn. I usually add some extra seasoning because I love garlic.

This freezes really well, and actually tastes better after it’s had a chance to sit for a while.

Cinnamon Coffee Cake

We have this every Christmas morning for breakfast. So. good. In our house, it’s called Cinnamon Coffee Cake, but I think most people recognize this as monkey bread. Whatever you call it…if you haven’t tried this before…what are you still doing reading this. Make it!

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My recipe:

Biscuit dough:

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup shortening

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 egg

3/4 cup milk

Mix shortening with dry ingredients using a pastry cutter. Whisk an egg in a measuring cup, and fill with milk to the 1 cup mark (so about 3/4 cup milk). Add wet ingredients to dry and mix until moist.

Coating:

3 teaspoons cinnamon

1 cup white sugar

Take tablespoon-sized globs of biscuit dough and roll in sugar. Drop into a greased bundt pan (don’t pack these in tightly; just drop in so they’re spaced relatively evenly).

This can be refrigerated overnight.

Melt:

1/2 cup margarine  or butter

1 cup brown sugar

Over medium-high heat melt margarine and sugar. When bubbling and sugar is fully dissolved, pour over the biscuits in bundt pan.

Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. This is best served fresh!

What are your “Christmas-is-here” triggers? Any favourite holiday movies, albums, or deletable treats?

I’ll Have a Frugal Christmas

I love everything about the upcoming Christmas holiday and I suspect the majority of my posts from here on out will have some connection to the Christmas theme. I apologize in advance to any real-life Scrooge’s out there. The warm glow of twinkly lights, smell of pine needles and romance of freshly fallen snow is just too much for my weak psyche to resist. And cute babies…yes, incredibly, babies are even cuter at Christmas.

Every year when this time rolls around I succumb to the bittersweet nostalgia (does that make me sound old? I’m not even 30 yet) of Christmas past, and settle into a “nesting” phase not unlike that which attacked before Abby was born. Ornaments must hang just so and special mementos take their familiar place on our shelf. Each year, when certain Christmas traditions re-enter our lives, I’m struck by how quickly time passes. Like the (original) Grinch that Stole Christmas – I only watch it once a year, and every.single.year when I see it, I could swear it was only a matter of a few weeks that had passed. I love that. Being sentimental is just a way of life for me, and I love to reminisce about Christmases growing up which were, in many ways, of the Hallmark variety.

What makes that comment all the more special – our Christmases were virtually “perfect”, yet my parents never had much excess money for presents. So my fond memories of Christmas revolve around traditions and caroling and church pageants, not around toys and fancy gadgets. I read a statistic recently that the average Canadian spends about $750 on Christmas gifts. That’s a whole lotta molah. And while we might have a bit more to spare than my parents did back in the day…we still put considerable effort into keeping the financial burden to a minimum. Here are just a few of our ideas.

1. Limit Gift Giving

Maybe the simplest tactic of all. Take a long, hard look at all those sweet folks on your gift-giving list – do they all belong? Sometimes a Christmas card and small stack of cookies will suffice. For other situations, try suggesting a name exchange. This can drastically limit the number of gifts you have to buy (especially in large families) and it means you can afford to splurge and give that one person a much nicer gift than would be possible if your funds were stretched for gift-giving to endless siblings etc.,

2. Buy Early

This is likely my favourite tip because it’s something I fall back on each and every year. Buying early runs deep in my veins; when my sisters would return to the US after their university Christmas Break, they would shuttle back a carload of Christmas gifts. The border guards would always make a crack about them delivering their gifts late (this would have been a week after Christmas). They got some pretty strange looks when they’d tell them…each and every year…that these were actually gifts for the NEXT Christmas, as in 340-some-odd days away, and my parents didn’t want to have to mail them down.

Try keeping a running list of items you’re looking for (when dear hubby mentions something in passing, add it to the list immediately, or you’ll both forget the request). When an item comes on sale or you manage to snag a great coupon (there are limitless websites dedicated to couponing/deal-finding etc – in Canada my favourites are Mrs January and Save a Loonie), buy it. Not only does it save time and energy during the holidays, it spreads the financial stress over the whole year AND will almost inevitably save you money.

The best example is Christmas-related paraphernalia. Don’t forget about the cost of bags and bows and wrapping and cards – these can add up quickly, especially if you’re looking for high quality merchandise. Get things a week after Christmas at 75% off and you’ll be laughing when others are forking out full price the following year. I always pick up some Christmas platters, pretty ornaments and Christmas books too – all make great gifts for friends and family and I get them at a fraction of the cost.

3. Start a tradition.

I give one friend a Christmas ornament every year (which, true to form, I snag for a few bucks heavily reduced after Christmas – sorry Julia, the cat’s out of the bag). Two of my closest friends receive earrings every year. Instead of being boring, I enjoy the thrill of finding the perfect set (at a good price), but am never stressed because I know what I’m going to end up giving them. Every Christmas Eve John and I (and now Abby) exchange a new ornament; again, we buy them right after Christmas the preceding year at a fraction of the cost.

4. Give necessities/consumables

My parents never had an excess of money when we were growing up, but our Christmas stockings were always overflowing. [Don’t let that fool you; one year the only thing I asked for was an alarm clock (I was like 7), and I got the world’s worst alarm clock that they bought at a pawn shop]. We would get a few splurges, but the majority of gifts were necessities. Toothpaste, deodorant, and socks (I have a whole new appreciation for this now – socks are expensive!). Funnily, we would all sit around with our stash of toothpaste and soap and other bathroom paraphernalia and as soon as the gifts were all unwrapped every one of us would trudge to the bathroom and put every last item back under the sink – into the stockpile from which it came. Mom knew the thrill of opening gifts was just as important to us as what was actually inside.

Food items are a nice compromise – a smidgen less personal than underwear, but something sure to be used: I buy John his favourite chocolate bar (Skor), his favourite mustard, some smoked gouda, and usually some specialty cashew or peanut. Nice chocolate, a specialty olive oil…food is a great option.

When we were married I was blessed with THREE wedding showers – my favourite, by far, was one thrown by my sister. She hosted a “household supplies” party, and I’m STILL using some of the items I received: clothespins, matches, pot holders, bucket and mop, dishtowels…think about gifting a new bride with a nice set of oven mitts stuffed with kitchen supplies or a college student a laundry basket with dryer balls, detergent, and some fabric covered hangers.

5. Give gift cards (but be creative)

I love gift cards (or money in general). In fact the hubby and I decided unanimously to request gift cards and money from our wedding guests. Giving a modest sized gift card, along with a few inexpensive extras can be a great, and simple idea. I buy gift cards in bulk when there is a promotion (ie: get store points if you spend $150 on gift cards – Shoppers does this in Canada). A quick Google search would provide far more insightful ideas I’m sure, but off the top of my head:

a) Movie Pack: get a gift card to a local theatre/rental store (do those even exist now) and place it in a popcorn bowl (DollarStore) with a bag of skittles (or candy of your choice), some popcorn seasoning, and a bottle of pop.

b) Shopping card: get a store card and place it inside a fun wallet (you can find these new or gently used at consignment shops for a few dollars) or coin purse (LOVE these ones by Zesty Notion)

c) Clothing store card: buy some socks or a scarf and tuck the card in along with the clothing item

d) Grocery card: buy a small reusable bag and fill it with a grocery list pad, pen, and any other grocery shopping essentials.

6. Think homemade

The explosion of Pinterest has put more than ample crafty/DIY gifts at our fingertips. This is a great way to spread Christmas cheer to the neighbours and bus driver without breaking the bank. A standard batch of cookies is a good start; my sister used small springform pans to make miniature coffee cakes – these were a big hit with pre-school teachers and the like. A lot of it is in the packaging too; have the kids help make homemade tags out of construction paper (and kill two birds with one stone: entertain child -check; complete gift – check…they can make tags whilst you make the cookies).

I make custom framed sayings sometimes – I use Microsoft Office or Photoshop, and print off using the highest quality printer settings.

A caveat to this: time IS money, so homemade projects can quickly become an obsession that just don’t make much sense economically.

7. Give Your Time:

“Get Out of Bed Free Cards” for late bedtimes for the kiddos; give your husband a certificate to vacuum the car; offer to shovel your neighbour’s driveway every Monday in January…

Just a few more things:

Keep track of purchases: it’s easy to keep seeing more and more presents that are so “X”…if you have a list of ideas, work from that and don’t deviate (think shopping with a full tummy and armed with a grocery list vs. shopping on an empty stomach and whimsy)

Set a limit: decide how much you can/want to afford per person, and stay within the budget

Don’t discount used: my sister bought my nephew a gently-used Foosball table one year for Christmas off Kijiji for less than $40. While used gifts are obviously not always appropriate, you can get some things new-and-in-package or for larger items, gently used could be quite appropriate (a children’s play set) at thrift shops of off Kijiji.

This post is getting longer than my list for Santa this year, so I’ll be back later with some specific suggestions of inexpensive gift ideas (until then, here’s a good start for ideas from Jenna’s Journey).