December 2012

A Year Like No Other

December 31, 2012

Road in Mekelle

Every New Year’s Eve day, I like to look back on the past 12 months and take stock of what kind of year it has been, what I learned, and what I have to be grateful for. I’ve had crazy and memorable years before, but I don’t think anything can top 2012…

I celebrated 10 years of marriage. I became a mom to two precious little girls after an almost four-year adoption wait. I made two trips to Ethiopia. I witnessed my beloved father-in-law take his last breath and depart this life. I flew to Spain to celebrate my brother’s wedding and gained a new nephew 11 months later. I spent a good part of the year way out of my comfort zone and learned that I’m stronger and braver than I thought. I learned a lot about generosity through the goodness of friends, family, and neighbors who went above and beyond to support us this year. 2012 was an intense, heart-breaking, beautiful, difficult, amazing year.

Sometimes I can’t believe I made it through. The year has changed me. My accomplishments have empowered me, and what I’ve witnessed in others — including in my daughters — has inspired me.

I hope it’s fine with my Maker, though, if I pray for 2013 to be a little less eventful!

What kind of year was 2012 for you? Any highlights to share?

And do you have any fun plans for tonight? We’ll be nursing our terrible colds and maybe, just maybe, peering out our front door at the fireworks over the Baltimore harbor. Wherever you are tonight, I hope you’re bidding farewell to 2012 just the way you want, feeling hopeful about a brand new year.

Image: Mekelle, Ethiopia by Zoe Saint-Paul

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Christmas Report

December 28, 2012

New gifts

Did you have a good Christmas? Ours was filled with fun family time, firsts for our girls (and us, too!), yummy food, and meaningful traditions and religious celebrations. Apart from some sickness that’s sweeping the household (yet again, argh!) and the fact that I always miss my family at this time of year, Christmas day couldn’t have been merrier.

Our time with B’s mom surpassed our expectations. The girls adjusted very quickly to having another person in our small space; they took to their Nana right away, and she enjoyed getting to know her long-awaited grandchildren (and got to see firsthand what total characters they are).

The girls were delighted when they came downstairs Christmas morning and saw presents under the tree, but they didn’t realize the gifts were meant to be opened, so they began stacking them like blocks and pushing them around the room. We used this to our advantage and enjoyed a leisurely brunch before gathering around the tree to finally tear up some wrapping paper. What started out as oohs and aahhs ended in chants for “more, more, more!” — thus proving that materialism corrupts the souls of even the cutest members of the human race.

We are loosely celebrating the twelve days of Christmas, spacing out the girls’ gifts. We got them just a few special things, but friends and family have been very generous, so we need to bring things out little by little so the girls can better appreciate everything.

In other happy news, they were excited to wear their Christmas dresses to church, along with the adorable hats one of their great-aunts sent. The adorability factor was out. of. control here.

We bid adieu to Nana yesterday morning and spent the day nursing our respective colds and respiratory infections. Here’s hoping we’ll all be back to full health to usher in the new year.

Instead of Friday links this week, I want to leave you with a few more images from the past few days. Have a slow last weekend of 2012, and see you back here on Monday!

Christmas dresses

Christmas brunch

Stacking Gifts

First snow - and snowman!

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul 

 

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The Lighter Side of Christmas

December 26, 2012

by Abby Scharbach

muffins

My family and I are celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas, but as we enjoy decadent holiday fare, I also like to make a few healthier treats as I anticipate New Year’s resolutions around the corner. If you ask me, nothing says “comfort” more than fresh-baked muffins from mama’s oven, and since going gluten- and dairy-free last summer, I’ve retooled many of our family’s favorite recipes to fit within our new diet.

This recipe is a variation of one from the Moosewood Restaurant New Classics cookbook, and I’ve made it countless times; it’s definitely a treat you can feel good about eating in the New Year. While the recipe yields at least 24 yummy muffins, it’s easy to halve it for a smaller brood. Sadly, I can’t speak to their shelf life — they never last more than a day at my house!

Cranberry Apple Walnut Muffins

In a stand mixer, blend:

  • ¾ cup coconut oil, room temperature
  • 1 cup sucanat (or maple syrup, which I prefer to honey; if you use liquid sweetener, you may have to add more flour)

Add:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ¼ cup whole fat milk (or coconut milk)
  • 1 t vanilla

Gently mix in:

  • 3 cups peeled and diced apples (this is how I purge the fridge of the older, bruised apples my kids haven’t eaten)
  • 1 cup fresh cranberries, chopped (by hand or pulsed in the processor)
  • ½ – 1 cup chopped walnuts

In a separate bowl, combine:

  • 2 cups rice flour
  • 2 cups almond meal
  • ¼ cup coconut flour
  • 2 t baking soda
  • ½ t baking powder
  • ½ t salt
  • 1 t cinnamon

Pour the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and gently fold. Mixture should be somewhat dry and lumpy. It won’t rise much, so fill your lined muffin cups to the desired height. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes, then allow to cool for 15 minutes before serving.

muffinandtea

Because of the rice flour, the muffin is somewhat crumbly and reminds me of coffeecake. It’s perfectly sweet, though, with fruit and nuts in every bite.

Here’s to a delicious New Year!

Images: Abby Scharbach. Abby is a homeschooling mama of seven based in Baltimore, MD.

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Merriest Christmas!

December 24, 2012

Hampden Christmas lights

It’s Christmas Eve! Our girls could not be more excited, even though they don’t exactly know what’s going on. As I mentioned Friday, Nana (B’s mom) is here, and there’s lots of anticipation in the air. Now I just need to get the girls to agree to wear the dresses I got them for Christmas Mass…

I must say, it’s hard to believe B and I are finally spending a Christmas with two daughters! That’s definitely our best gift this year.

It will be a little quiet around here this week, but if you stop by on Wednesday I’ll have a fun Christmas-themed guest post for you, and I’ll be back on Friday to wrap things up for the week.

Enjoy your day and evening — whatever your plans — and have a most happy and peaceful Christmas day!

With Nana

Images: B

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20121221-090046.jpg

B’s mom arrived last night to spend Christmas with her new granddaughters (and her number one son and daughter-in-law, of course). She’s our first overnight guest and the first family member to meet the girls. It’s also our first Christmas without B’s dad, so we’re all happy to be together.

I lucked out with in-laws who embraced me from the very beginning as the daughter they never had. I married their only child, and I’ve always been impressed by how non-intrusive and respectful they are — always supportive, always effusive with praise.

In-law relationships can be tricky, and tensions can run high this time of year when you’re spending intense time under the same roof, with different expectations and preferences. I’ve passed along a few tips to clients over the years that I’d like to share with you…

Get on the same page with your spouse. If you’re spending holidays with your in-laws — even if the relationships are good — talk things over beforehand and make sure you agree on how to handle certain issues that might arise.

Set boundaries. Most of us are challenged in the boundary-setting department in one way or another. There are ways to communicate your needs and wants in a positive manner — first by making it about you/your own family and not about them. Say it with a smile and be clear so that you may be understood.

Remember the end goal. If you focus on what will help the relationship in the long term, versus zeroing in on the annoyance of the moment, it will help you handle those rougher patches and feel calmer in the long run.

Give the benefit of the doubt. Most in-laws want to be loving parents and grandparents. They have their habits, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses — just like anyone else. Try to see the good intentions behind the words or behaviors. This doesn’t mean you need to pretend all is well, but it can give you perspective, which can help you choose the best response.

I won’t ask how your in-law relationships are; instead, I’ll move on to some links I found this week that I thought you might enjoy…

  • Thai Monks struggle as consumerism and fast-living become the norm. (Is that lead pic not dreamy?)
  • These roasted cranberry bars look yummy and are a little healthier than similar treats.

Is it silly for me to wish you a slow weekend? Enjoy it nonetheless and see you back here on Monday!

Image: Avanti Press

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Spiced Brandied Cherries

December 20, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

cherry

Here’s the thing: Christmas is in five days. Everyone’s entering the home stretch with holiday shopping and baking and decorating and just trying to keep the wheels from falling off before next Tuesday. (If I just described myself and no one else, please don’t tell me.) The last thing you need is another elaborate gift to make; what you probably need is a good stiff drink.

With that in mind, I thought about sharing my old family recipe for homemade eggnog, but Jimmy over at the Book of Jimmy has already done the blogging world a solid by sharing his eggnog adventures and tasting notes, so I’ll just send you over there with my blessing.

Instead, I thought I’d share a recipe for something that works equally well as a last-minute gift for friends or a restorative just for you. These spiced brandied cherries only taste elaborate and fancy; in reality, you can whip them up in five minutes, give them away that afternoon, and be dropping one in your Manhattan by dinnertime. Cheers to that.

I adapted this recipe slightly from the New York Times; the original calls for fresh cherries, but as they aren’t in season now, I use frozen (they’re picked in season and flash-frozen, so the flavor is still plenty good). It also saves you the trouble of pitting them, which makes this recipe even simpler.

ingredients

What you’ll need:

  • 4 c frozen cherries (I found two 12-oz bags about did the trick), thawed, juices reserved
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 cardamom pods
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 1/2 c brandy (don’t worry about getting the good stuff here; any brand’ll do)

Put the sugar and spices in a small saucepan. Add enough water to your reserved cherry juice to equal one cup of liquid and add it to the pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for five minutes. Off the heat, stir in the brandy and cherries. Let it cool, then store the whole thing in a quart-sized jar in the fridge (or decant into four half-pint jars to give away).

champagne

You should technically wait at least two days before sampling them, to give the brandy and spices time to work their magic, but that didn’t stop me from testing one straight away. The cherries will keep at least a few months in the fridge, and their flavor will just keep getting better. I like using them as garnishes in mixed drinks, dropping them (along with a spoonful of syrup) in a glass topped with champagne, spooning them over ice cream… I’m sure you’ll find plenty of uses for them, and any booze hounds cocktail aficionados on your Christmas list will be seriously impressed.

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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SlowMama Holiday Favorites

December 19, 2012

To follow up on Monday’s post about conjuring up the Christmas spirit, I wanted to share a few favorite books, movies, and albums that put my contributors and me in the holiday mood. We tried to think of things beyond the usual Frosty the Snowman and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas — since, classic though they are, you no doubt already know them. So here’s our short list:

My Recommendations:

Advent at Ephesus, by the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles. It’s hard to find good Advent music, and this is one of the most beautiful collections I’ve heard. We’ve been playing it every night since B heard about it, and frankly, we’ll probably play it right through the Christmas season (although I was pleased to see the sisters previously released a Christmas album, too). If you aren’t lifted to the heavens by these beautiful arrangements and angelic voices, visit your doctor. And don’t be put off by their simple website; these cloistered nuns haven’t hit the bigtime yet, but give them a little time.

Wintersong, by Sarah McLachlan. Let me say right off the bat that I’m not a fan of modern holiday music. But then B and I received this album one Christmas early in our marriage, a gift from my mother. McLachlan has roots in Nova Scotia, and many of her selections have a Maritime flavor. Her renditions of the traditional “The First Noel” and “Silent Night” are terrific. I can’t listen to this CD without tearing up — probably because it reminds me of home, but also because it’s just a lovely soundtrack for the Christmas holiday and wintertime in general.

The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats. This is a new favorite in our home, even though it’s been around for a while. Two years ago, when I discovered this story about a little boy and the wonder of snow, I stuck it on my Amazon wish list, thinking it would be perfect for our future children. Now they’re here, and S and H could not be more excited about the prospect of falling snowflakes. The illustrations are sweet, sweet, sweet. This is one I’m sure we’ll be reading together for many years to come.

I have to admit, my only must-watch movie at Christmas is It’s a Wonderful Life. Nothing unique about that, so to recommend something a bit off-kilter, how about a re-watching of Edward Scissorhands? There are, of course, some oldies but goodies, like The Bells of Saint Mary’s and Miracle on 34th Street. When the girls get a bit older, I’ll introduce them to Little Women. The book is better, but the movie is well done and very Christmassy.

Alissa’s Recommendations:

Norman Rockwell’s Christmas BookWhen I was growing up, this book was packed away with our ornaments every year, so pulling it out was always like my first present of Christmas. It’s full of hymns, poems, Bible passages, and Christmas stories, not to mention plenty of Rockwell’s artwork. I would pretty much commandeer the book for the entirety of the Christmas season; I don’t think you can read “The Gift of the Magi” or “The Worst Christmas Story” too many times. I still look forward to reading it every year when we visit my parents, and I plan to find my own copy eventually so that my children can enjoy it as well.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Nazareth” by Rita Ford’s Music Boxes — a sweet and beautiful song that was on a compilation of Christmas music that we played growing up. Actually, it might be a toss-up between that and Mahalia Jackson’s “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” — both immediately put me in a more peaceful and Christmas-like mood, even in the pre-Christmas craziness.

Ann’s Recommendation:

Babar and Father Christmas, by Jean Du Brunoff. I was enchanted by Babar and his kingdom of elephants as a kid — and now, my own children are equally enthralled with him. In Babar and Father Christmas, the elephants learn of a mysterious person who visits the land of men to deliver presents at Christmas. Would he do the same for the kingdom of the elephants? Babar goes to find out and a delightful adventure follows.

Mags’ Recommendations:

A Child’s Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas (illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman). Simply the perfect evocation of childhood memories and the sense impressions that form them. An old boss of mine would have us read it aloud at our annual Christmas party, which I highly recommend trying; the lyrical prose is such a treat to hear. (Even better, there’s a recording of the Welsh poet reading it himself, if you’re a little too shy for public performances.) My nephews love the gorgeous illustrations in this particular edition (and the fun stories of mischief) — one of those Christmas stories for all ages.

I recommended a slew of Advent and Christmas albums last year, and I still stand behind them all (particularly Nat King Cole; that might be my desert island pick). This year, I would add The Cherry Tree by Anonymous 4; these spare a capella arrangements of medieval English carols are perfect for the remaining days leading up to Christmas. For a more experimental Christmas, check out Sufjan Stevens’ Silver and Gold, his second five-disc Christmas music compilation, released this fall. I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet, but it will certainly give you the most bang for your buck.

This is both a music and a movie recommendation: The Nutcracker. Every Christmas when I was little, my parents would take us to see the ballet — and then, once I was a bit older, I danced in it myself each winter, so this music is pretty well burned into my memory. It’s one of those albums that immediately puts me in the Christmas spirit without making me feel like I’m “rushing” the holiday. Do right by any future bunheads in your family and pick up the complete ballet suite, rather than just the “highlights.” (Though for fun, I definitely recommend the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s 7-minute medley of the whole shebang.) Can’t take your family to a live performance? This film version featuring the New York City Ballet is a great place to start (narrated by Kevin Kline and filmed more like a movie rather than just a staged performance, it’s a bit more engaging for younger kids) — though Baryshnikov and Kirkland will always reign supreme.

A Muppet Christmas Carol. I’m ostensibly recommending this movie for you parents with young children, but my family still watches it most Christmases. Readers of a certain age who grew up watching The Muppet Show don’t need any further endorsement; it’s a pretty faithful adaptation to boot, and Michael Caine (here playing Scrooge) makes everything more awesome. Definitely family classic material.

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There you have it, friends — SlowMama’s holiday favorites for 2012! Hope some of them pique your interest… Have any others to share? Leave them in the comments!

Header image: Graeme Robertson

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Homestead Emporium Products

I’ve got a fun post for you in a couple of hours — but first, there’s a little business to attend to…

The winner of the Homestead Emporium gift certificate is:

Patty

Congratulations, Patty! Please contact me to find out how to claim your prize.

A big thanks once again to Homestead Emporium’s founder, Pieternella Willard, for this giveaway.

And by the way, I must say I loved reading all of your “what people would be surprised to know about me” comments!

Image: Homestead Emporium 

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by Ann Waterman

Ask any kid what most excites him about Christmas, and gifts are bound to be at the top of the list. There’s no question that gift-giving — and receiving — is one of the joys of the season, especially for kids, but it’s hard not to feel totally overwhelmed and bombarded by store retailers making it the whole reason for the season. If you’re like me, you’re probably trying to insulate your child from the  commercialization of the holidays and help them focus on the more meaningful aspects of Christmas. Here are a few ideas about how to do that:

Gifts of Self

Christmas is the season of giving, but we all know the best gift you can give is the gift of self — and it’s never too early to start teaching children this lesson. In our family, we sit down at the beginning of the season and write down little deeds of charity that we try to accomplish during the Christmas season (and hopefully beyond). For kids, it could be something like doing chores without complaining or making an extra effort to be nice to a sibling. We place them in an olive wood box from Bethlehem until the end of the holidays when we review them once again to see how we fared. They are personal and private, but the act of writing them down makes them more tangible.

There are lots of other ideas for directing children’s attention to the needs and happiness of others: volunteering with them at a food bank, having them make gifts for siblings or other family members, or making some cookies to bring over to an elderly neighbor. It doesn’t have to be something big, just something that helps them give of themselves.

Make Them Wait

Before opening presents on Christmas morning, my parents made us sit down and eat breakfast first. I used to think this was a special form of torture my parents derived to torment us — I swear it was the only time of year they had a second cup of coffee in the morning — but as I got older, I saw the wisdom of my parent’s ways. It took our mind off the gifts and helped us focus on what was more important — spending time with family. The wait was made more bearable with special breakfast fare, and as we grew older, we actually came to enjoy this Christmas morning routine.

Now that I have my own family, we have our own tradition of gathering before our creche, placing baby Jesus in the manager, and saying a little family prayer together before the gift opening revelry begins. Sure, the kids are writhing with impatience through the whole affair, but as they get older, I hope they’ll appreciate this little reminder of what our family is really celebrating.

Give Them Traditions 

Many of the gifts you give your kids will be forgotten by next Christmas, but they will cherish memories of special family traditions for years to come. Make a point to create a few family traditions during the season: They don’t have to be many or extravagant, but something you find enjoyable and that you can maintain year to year. I learned pretty quickly that you can run yourself ragged trying to implement too many traditions, especially during such a busy time, so I’ve pared down them down to just a few that are especially meaningful to our family. Your family traditions could be as simple as watching a favorite holiday movie together, gathering to light an Advent wreath each evening, or spending an afternoon making a gingerbread house — even if it’s pre-fab (promise I won’t tell). The point is to spend time with your children and create memories of the holidays that are more than just opening gifts on Christmas morning.

Manage Expectations

It’s helpful for kids to know boundaries and limits ahead of time, so why not apply this same wisdom to gift-giving as well? We tell our kids that Saint Nick brings three gifts — just like the Magi brought to the baby Jesus. There are also stockings and gifts from relatives, but our kids know what to expect and there are never any tears on Christmas morning. Obviously, what and how much you give to your children is a personal decision and will vary from family to family, but consider sticking to a specific budget or amount.

How do you make the Christmas season meaningful for your kids?

Image: Joseph Susanka

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Christmas Wreath

All of our hearts are heavy in the wake of the news of the Newtown elementary school tragedy. At such times, there are no adequate words. We here at SlowMama are united in our prayers and thoughts with the Newtown community, particularly the families of those killed. Advent and Christmas are seasons of hope, and of light arising from darkness, so it’s in that spirit that I share the post I had already prepared for today…  

I remember years past when I didn’t get into the Christmas spirit until I found myself at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. There, the candles, incense, greenery, flowers, and ethereal music would finally stir my heart, just in time for Christmas day. Over the years, I’ve come up with little ways to stir my senses and encourage the spirit of the season in my heart and home before the holiday is directly upon us…

We’re creatures of the senses: What we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste conjures up powerful memories and emotions, connecting us to meaningful events and ideas. I’m sure you can think of foods that automatically channel your mom’s love, or a song that brings you back to that junior high school party where you met your best friend, or the aroma of cigar smoke when your Dad would come home from his weekly poker night. In fact, smell is probably the most powerful sense of all when it comes to transporting us to the past.

So if you’re feeing a bit bah humbug this year, or just want to bring more smells and bells into these remaining days before Christmas, maybe some of these ideas will help. Most cost very little, or nothing at all — and little things like this can help children start building their sensory memories, too.

Simmer seasonal spices on the stove.

Place a few cinnamon sticks, ground or whole cloves, ground nutmeg, and some lemon slices or orange peel in a small saucepan and simmer on the stove for a couple hours. It will make your kitchen smell lovely. You can, of course, also make mulled cider or wine and then enjoy a steamy cup of it afterwards!

Use essential oils.

There are many ways to use essential oils and numerous scents that will put you in the Christmassy mood…rosemary, peppermint, cedar, frankincense, and star anise, just to name a few. If you don’t have an aromatherapy dispenser, place a few drops in a pot on the stove with some water and simmer for a few hours. You can also place a few drops in a  humidifier dispenser, or use it in your bath.

Bring the outside in.

Gather pine cones and cut pine branches and place them on your mantle or in a bowl as a table centerpiece. I even put pine cones in our Christmas tree: I love the look of them, and they remind me of wintertime.

Walk along decorated streets.

We’ve been taking the girls out for a lot of walks — the crunch of the leaves underfoot, Christmas wreaths on doors, colorful lights and decorated store windows… It’s a feast for the senses, and for two little girls who don’t speak English, it’s clear something special is going on. Most neighborhoods at this time of year are decorated in some way for the holidays, so lace up your boots (or sandals, if you’re in the southern hemisphere), take a leisurely stroll, and soak up the sights and sounds.

Burn some wax.

My favorite candle at this time of year is a small balsam fir scented candle — it smells so much like Christmas to me. There are so many scented candles that work at this time of year: cranberry, pomegranate, cinnamon, apple, pear… I encourage you to look for naturally scented candles, since many commercial brands use chemicals. And it’s never too late to set up a simple Advent wreath and light the candles at dinnertime.

Hang a wreath.

Hang a festive wreath on your door so that every time you walk into your home, you’ll see it. I like real stuff, but one year I spotted the wreath in my lead shot above at Marshall’s and hung it up for the holidays. I ended up leaving it on the door the rest of the year. Last year, I told you about Agnes Bum’s yarn wreaths; you wouldn’t want to hang one outside unless you live in a super-safe neighborhood, but hanging one in any room would definitely bring a smile to your face.

Display your Christmas cards.

I display all our cards around the house, and this year I’ll be stringing them along one of our brick walls so the girls don’t use them for paper doll outfits or something. They add another decorative touch to your home and bring to mind your friends and family.

There are so many ideas: Playing seasonal music (I’ll be sharing a couple of favorites later this week). Attending a production of A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker or The Messiah. Stopping by a church to visit a creche (even if you’re not a regular churchgoer). Grabbing a few friends or taking the kids caroling one evening around the neighborhood or at a local nursing home. The simplest things are often the best when it comes to heightening our excitement for Christmas.

What puts you in the Christmas spirit?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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