The Christmas Letter That Wasn’t

gift in the taking This year I accidentally took my own advice and sent New Year’s cards instead of Christmas cards. (OK, to be perfectly transparent… I haven’t actually sent anything yet. It’s on my to-do list!) I say “accidentally” because I actually wrote the blamed thing back in December, but then never had a chance to print it out, sign and address the cards, and get it in the mail. Henceforth and therefore, it is now a “New Year’s” card/letter.

Here’s the blogified version. It’s worth a read, if I do say so myself. 

“The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21

What if the greatest blessing is not found in the gift that is given, but in the gift that is taken away?

Consider for a moment: the arrival of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was a Gift that prompted the glorious praise of men and angels alike, and continues to be marked in celebration annually centuries later. Yet those who witnessed the coming of this precious Gift were stunned and dismayed when He was seemingly snatched from them before their eyes just a few decades later, apparently without having even fulfilled His purpose on earth. {Or so it seemed to them at first.}

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform, and often, His greatest blessings come not when the gift is given… but when it is taken away.

My DH and I have experienced this firsthand! In March of last year, God gave us what we had been asking for a long time: a better job for my DH, with significantly higher salary, and a security clearance to boot! His direction in our lives was quite clear, and we moved excitedly – and with a little trepidation – to Northern Virginia, after having spent our entire married life thus far in Maryland.

Barely two months later, through no fault of his own, my DH lost his new job. We spent very little time wondering if we had misread the signs leading us to Virginia because God quickly strengthened the conviction in our hearts that He had given us this job for the express purpose of taking it away.

Doesn’t make sense? The mysterious ways of God do not make sense to our human mind, but both Jonathan and I can honestly say, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” We cannot explain to you the joy and the peace that flooded our hearts after the initial shock wore off. We have seen God work in our lives in an amazing way that would not have been possible otherwise. We have experienced God’s grace more personally and tangibly than we ever had previously in our lives, even though we both grew up in Christian homes surrounded by the teaching of the Word.

We are ever so grateful to God for His provision for us (not the least of which is Jonathan’s PT job and my job as a K3 teacher) and His love for us, and that He has not discarded us to live our lives as we wish, but continually draws us closer and closer to Him.

We know also, that just as Jesus – the Perfect Gift from Heaven – was not taken away from us forever {No, He is alive and well and will return in power and glory one day!), and therefore endured the suffering of death and the cross for the joy that was set before Him; so we can endure our temporary suffering here on earth, knowing He has a greater purpose to fulfill within us and through us. We look forward to being useful as clean vessels in His service, wherever that may be and whatever it requires of us.

Merry Christmas!

Happy New Year’s!

Uh… ya know… have a good life and stuff! 

(Next Christmas, I promise I’ll be on time!)

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Upcycle Your Christmas Cards – Christmas Card Ornaments

upcycled christmas card ornaments text

Now that Christmas is over, I’m sure you have a plethora of Christmas cards you don’t really know what to do with. At least I know that’s what happens to me every year! The photograph ones I keep in a photo album, but the actual Christmas cards are not so easily dealt with: they’re so pretty, you hate to throw them away… but what can you do with them?

This year, I hit upon a creative solution: Every year at Christmas, I like to help my boys make some ornaments they can give as gifts to various family members. One year it was cinnamon ornaments, and another year they were made with salt dough. I feel like the whole process teaches them the joy of giving as well as the joy of creating, and family members (grandparents especially!) love to receive their little handmade treasures – a total win-win!

This past Christmas, I took on an ambitious project for their ornament gifts; and in the end, their role was minimal (probably shoulda waited ’til they were a little older), but I loved the final result anyway! What I particularly love about this project (which I originally found on Pinterest , of course) is that it is made of recycled materials. In particular, it makes use of Christmas cards, which are so beautiful… but so plentiful. You can only use them for gift tags so much, and then even that gets a little old, ya know? I was thrilled to find this unique and creative usage for all the Christmas cards I’d been hoarding in a little box.

Christmas card ornament

This isn’t as simple of a craft as I usually undertake, and I actually did have to buy some items specifically for this project (never happens!), but I love the result. I might make some more next year and give them as gifts myself!

Upcycle Christmas Cards into Christmas Card Ornaments

christmas card ornament 3

Christmas Card Ornaments

Summary: Upcycle your old Christmas cards into these beautiful ornaments.

You will need:

  • Mason Jar Rings
  • Christmas Cards
  • Acetate Sheets (I found a pad of “mock” acetate at Michaels)
  • Hot Glue Gun & Glue
  • White Glue
  • Foam Adhesive Stickers
  • Glue Dots
  • Sharp Scissors
  • Glitter
  • Ribbon

Instructions

  1. Choose a Christmas card with a picture or motif that will fit within the frame made by a Mason jar ring. Place the jar ring on the card, and trace around the edge of the ring with a pencil. Cut out the circle you traced, and glue the picture to the back of the ring.
  2. Cut out one or two small details from the remainder of the card (or from complementary cards), and attach them to the circle with a foam sticker to create a 3D effect.
  3. Place the ring down on a sheet of acetate paper. With the hot glue gun, glue all around the edge of the ring, adhering it to the acetate. Allow it to cool and dry completely, then trim the paper and the dried glue close to the edge of the ring.
  4. Pour some glitter onto a plate. Drizzle some glue around the outer edge of the acetate, then place the ornament face down in the glitter. Shake off the excess glitter and allow to dry.
  5. Cut out one or two more small details from a Christmas card, and affix them to the front of the acetate sheet with a glue dot.
  6. Tie a ribbon around the ring, creating a loop at the top so it can hang. (You might need to secure the ribbon with just a bit of hot glue.)

christmas card ornament 2

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Don’t Buy for Everyone – Pick Names at Christmas!

Christmas presents under the tree
Since there are 11 children in my family, my mom, as I have mentioned before, found lots of ways to simplify our Christmas gift-giving process. Rather than each of us giving all 10 other kids a gift, she had us pick names out of a hat earlier in the Christmas season. That way, each of us was responsible for only one sibling gift, and each of us received a gift. Simple, fair, and square.

Clearly, this suggestion is a wee bit too late for you to implement this year. But since you’re probably going to be seeing – or at least speaking with – your extended family in a few days here, now’s a good time to think about it and perhaps suggest it for next year. 

Picking Names for Christmas Gift-Giving

Now that all 11 of us siblings have grown up and gone separate ways all around the country, the name-picking process does get a little complicated. We have learned that we have to think ahead, so whenever the bulk of the family gets together for any reason (this year, it was in September, when my parents descended from their Yooper heights to spend some time with their family in the almost-South), we make it a priority to draw names for that year’s Christmas giving. Sometimes this name-picking process occurs as early as May or June, depending on we all have plans to get together.

The process has also expanded to include in-laws as they are added to the family, although we haven’t yet figured out a good system for the cousins/grandkids. We’ve tossed around the idea of having a separate name-picking process for all the children, but so far haven’t actually done that yet.

And just to make sure that all goes smoothly, it’s my mom’s responsibility to record who has whom so that when if we should happen to forget, we can give her a call and be reminded. Not that any of us ever has to do that. Ahem.

When we were little, we had a price limit of $10, if I remember correctly. As adults, I think technically, the limit is $20, but mostly, we each just spend what we’re comfortable spending (which is typically in the $20-30 range).

Also, as adults, some of us have chosen to give each sibling a small gift, whether or not we picked their name. This is totally voluntary and not at all expected by anyone. For myself, I typically try to find a nice small gift of $5 or less to give to each sibling besides the one whose name I picked, just to show them I love ‘em.

This name-picking process is ideal for anyone with a large and/or extended family. It’s also a great idea for cousins and grandkids, especially if the whole family gets together for Christmas.

Make it Fun with Added Elements!

As an extension of this idea, my mom’s family does something very creative for gift-giving at Christmas. Every Christmas, there’s a standing invitation for whoever is available to come and celebrate together at this bed and breakfast. As a group, those who attend pick a letter of the alphabet, and everyone who plans to come the following year must come bearing a gift that begins with that letter. And every Christmas evening, after a very large and satisfying potluck meal, they all have fun taking turns picking gifts from under the tree one at a time. The fun twist is that when wrapping the gift, each person is supposed to write a clue on the tag and whoever opens the gift must guess first what is inside the wrapping. It’s a lot of fun, and a great way for any extended family or group to give gifts without the expense and stress of buying for every single individual.

Go Digital

And, of course, in this digital age, there is a way to make the name-exchange process simpler and more organized. Check out SecretSanta.com, a free online service that helps you exchange names and keep track of them. It even has a way to share wish lists! I’m definitely suggesting we go with this for next year’s Christmas gift exchange!

How do you make extended family gift-giving easy?

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Three Birds, One Stone: Christmas, New Years’ and Thank You Cards

Union Pacific Tea Company XmasCard 2 This time of year, the card company execs are all rubbing their hands delightedly as we all rush to the store and purchase their overpriced boxes of pretty paper, then rush home to sign them, stamp them, and send them off to our far-flung friends and relatives in time to wish them a very merry Christmas.

Now, I love receiving Christmas cards and letters from family and friends, so I would be the last person on earth to suggest we eliminate the practice altogether. However, I do have a suggestion that might make the whole Christmas card process a little easier, a lot less frantic, and just as meaningful. 

Send the Christmas cards after Christmas. 

I mean, seriously. Why not? 

The advantages of sending Christmas cards after Christmas:

  • You can wait until the Christmas frenetic rush of activity is over, and deal with the task during the afterglow of Christmas done.
  • You can extend greetings, wishes, and prayers for a happy, healthy New Year to all your family and friends.
  • The Christmas cheer doesn’t end at Christmas; it keeps giving into the New Year!
  • You can thank said far-flung friends and relatives for the gifts they gave you and your family at Christmas, without taking the time to write an extra card. One stone is all you need.
  • You can buy Christmas cards on clearance. 75% off, baby!

Disadvantages? I can’t think of any. Can you?

When do you typically send your Christmas cards?

 

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Of Christmas and Tragedy

This picture was posted on Facebook by a local radio station. I am not sure who is the original source. But I think this is what Heaven looked like today.

To some, Christmas seems like a terrible time -as if there’s ever a good time – for events like the tragedy in Connecticut to occur. Tears come to my eyes as I imagine the presents bought and perhaps even wrapped, but never to be given. Of children with excited anticipation awaiting the holiday of the year in less than two weeks. Of empty chairs at family gatherings… if the family can even bring themselves to gather together. Certainly, those won’t be gatherings of celebration. Not this year.

And yet, part of me feels like -if such things must happen – perhaps the Christmas season is better timing than it seems at first. Hope. Joy. Peace. We are desperately in need of these things. We are desperately in need. We are desperate. 

We need a Savior.

Christmas – no, the Christ of Christmas – brings us hope. Hope for an eternal future as bright as day, regardless of the darkness that is our night on earth.

The Christ of Christmas brings us joy. Not always an exuberant dance, but sometimes a sober “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  A smile washed with tears, a hug tight with love. Joy that supercedes our deepest pain.

And the Christ of Christmas is the only source of true and lasting peace. There is no peace on earth without the Christ-Child. There is no peace in the heart without the presence of His Holy Spirit. There is no peace between fellow-men unless God is there in the midst of them.

In fact, without Him, we are broken. Lost, deluded, dying, hopeless.

I cannot help but think of that young man, so filled with the burden of bitterness and hatred that he sought solace in violence, not only against those he believed to have wronged him, but against the innocent and helpless.

I cannot help but think that I am much like him. I find myself angry, frustrated, and irritated when my day doesn’t go the way I planned. I carry heavy burdens of ingratitude and selfishness that continually inflict pain on me and those around me. I harbor grudges against people, against situations, against God.

I need grace.

I need forgiveness.

I need a Savior. 

Oh, may we all humble ourselves before Him and accept the grace, forgiveness, hope, joy, and peace He freely offers us, wrapped up in the precious and unassuming gift of a tiny baby in a manger.

How desperately we need Him.

How grateful we are that He came.

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Get Personalized Gift Ideas for Those Hard-to-Buy-For People

Christmas Gift List
We all have those people on our list – the people whose wish list is either nonexistent or full of very expensive toys. We wrack our brains trying to come up with an affordable but desirable gift idea, and end up resorting to gift cards (Not that there’s anything wrong with gift cards, really. They just don’t show how much evidence of thought and care being put into the gift).

I have a great idea for you that will solve your gift-giving blues. It’s such a simple but effective tip, you’re going to smack your head and say, “Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?”.

Here’s a great gift-giving idea for hard to buy for people:

Browse the Pinterest and/or Facebook profile of the person you are having trouble gifting. Look for interests, hobbies, and even specific items they want and/or need.

Because you know, if you just asked the person outright what they want for Christmas, you will more than likely get a shrug of the shoulders and an “I don’t know!”. At least that’s my experience. But if you do a little modern-day spying, you can get some great fool-proof ideas for the best gift ever. 

Here are some tips to guide your social media spy mission:

  • Look for fan pages of musicians, movies, and TV shows they have “liked” on Facebook. Chances are, they probably already own the music, TV show, or movie in question, but you can purchase them some fan paraphernalia. Or, just buy them the digital version on Amazon and have it sent to them on Christmas Day. If they already do own it, they can do a virtual exchange to get something they want but don’t have instead.
  • Do the same with sports teams. Find out which college or pro team they love, and gift accordingly. Clothing will always be well accepted (think t-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, etc.), as would tickets to a game!
  • Is your friend crafty? Do they pin scrapbooking or knitting ideas like crazy? Buy them tools for the trade! Put together a package of scrapbooking accessories, or yarn and crochet needles, or a glue gun with lots of glue sticks. Once you’ve identified a favorite craft they enjoy, a walk through Michaels’, Joanns, or Hobby Lobby will yield more gift-giving ideas than you can imagine.
  • Notice recipe trends on Pinterest boards. Does your friend pin lots of Italian recipes? Or baking? Or quick and easy meals? Think of cookbooks they might enjoy along those lines. You could even build a basket of ingredients to make one of the meals or dishes they pinned. This is particularly useful if it’s a special recipe with expensive ingredients they might not buy as part of their normal grocery budget.
  • Identify hobbies and pastimes. Aside from crafting, many people enjoy pastimes like reading, or listening to music, or watching TV shows. Once you’ve figured out their particular pastime, you can come up with lots of great gift ideas to go with them. Find favorite authors and purchase their books. A subscription to streaming Netflix would be another great idea! Did you know you could gift Redbox codes, which are good for TV show, movie, and video game rentals?
  • Check out their sense of style. If your friend posts lots of fashion ideas on Pinterest, that can give you some great guidance as you browse through clothing racks. Clothing is hard to buy for someone other than yourself, but armed with their own personal fashion guide they created themselves, it’s easier to get it right.
  • What kind of fragrances do they enjoy? Candles, personal toiletries, and perfumes all come in a variety of fragrances, and with a little bit of sharp sleuthing, you can figure out what sorts of smells your friend might like. They may not come out and say, “I love this smell”, but you can look for postings about favorite flowers, favorite drinks and foods, and other indicators.
  • Find their favorite colors. A quick skim through a few different Pinterest boards will help you figure this out.
  • What sparks their passion? What topics do they post frequently about? Politics? Religion? Natural living? Child-rearing? Think of books, movies, and events that correlate to those and buy along those interests.

And if all else fails, buy them a gift card.

How do you buy something for that hard-to-gift person?

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No More Pine Needles on the Floor

In my family, having a real Christmas tree is almost – almost – sacred. It was tradition growing up to go to a Christmas tree farm and pick out the perfect tree, cut it down and bring it home. There was never even a discussion about the possibility of buying an artificial tree; we didn’t even consider it.

Now as an adult I realize there are practical reasons why people choose to get a fake tree: for one thing, you can buy a tree that lasts for many Christmases for the same price you can buy a real tree at Lowe’s or a local farm. And another big reason many people choose to go with an artificial tree over a real tree is the pine needles. Those sharp little boogers get all over the floor and into any available nook and cranny and clog up your vacuum cleaner when you try to clean them up.

I get that, I really do. But as the name of my blog implies, I have a tendency to insist on the real thing. Ya know, authentic. Fake just doesn’t do it for me. So I’m perfectly willing to deal with the annoying little pine needles  and the extra cost every year simply for the joy and genuine-ness of a true  honest-to-goodness Christmas tree. Totally worth it, in my opinion.

But if you do not agree with me, I do have one suggestion for you that will at least take care of the pine needle problem. The cost is unavoidable unless you have a forest in your backyard, so  no help for you there. But I can help with the pine needles.

And it only costs $5 (it might be even less at Walmart). All you need is one of these handy dandy disposable Giant Tree Removal Bags, which are essentially extremely large and very sturdy trash bags. It is designed so that you place it under your tree when you set it up, and hide it underneath the tree skirt. When Christmas is over, all you have to do is pull the bag up and over the tree so you can drag it out to your local tree recycler without spreading pine needles the whole way there.

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A Simple Christmas Series

Does Christmas ever seem like it’s just too much? Does it ever seem like it’s just completely lacking in all the qualities it’s supposed to bring: love, joy, peace…?

The solution is to simplify (a familiar refrain around here). And what is simplification but crystallizing the focus, honing in on that, and dismissing all the rest? Christmas is about celebrating Jesus Christ with my family, and nothing else. To that end, I am eliminating (or significantly reducing) anything that interferes with that purpose: no more commercialization, no more excessive spending, no more elusive searches for the “perfect” gift, no more of anything that blurs my focus on the truly important things.

To that end, I will be bringing you 25 tips to help all of us celebrate A Simple Christmas, kind of like the Authentic Simplicity version of an Advent Calendar. Each day, your inbox will bring you one simple tip to help you focus your Christmas celebration on what really matters, and forget about all that other stuff. You will discover ways to:

  • Spend less money on gifts, cards, wrapping, and decorating
  • Focus on your family and loved ones
  • Spend less time in the kitchen
  • Spend less time decking the halls
  • Give generously but intentionally
  • …and much more!

Please subscribe via email so that you don’t miss any of these tips. Let’s all have A Simple Christmas together!

As the series progresses, you can view all the posts here.

 

 

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Three Easy Ways to Give Back this Christmas

After the gratefulness of Thanksgiving comes a flurry of commercialism and materialism: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. I like to shop with the best of them, and I always have fun with my family browsing the good deals on Black Friday, but it’s nice to have a day to turn our attention back to our blessings and those who are less fortunate. (And no matter how dire our circumstances, there is always someone less fortunate than us.)

In celebration of the spirit of Generous Tuesday, I bring to you 3 very easy ways to give back.

1. Pure Charity

Generous Tuesday was actually launched by Pure Charity, an organization that exists specifically to help connect givers and recipients, and not only during the holiday season. Simply create a virtual “account” on their website, then shop through their portal. The benefit to you is that you will receive special personalized deals from retailers you already shop at like Target, Groupon, Walmart and more. A percentage of your purchase is deposited into your account (otherwise known as your giving fund) and when you reach your goal amount, you can choose a charity of your choice to receive the funds! It’s a great way to finish your Christmas shopping and give generously at the same time.

2. Samaritan’s Purse

It’s too late to get in on the action of Operation Christmas Child (but you should really put it on your list for next year if you haven’t already), but Samaritans Purse, the organization behind the Christmas shoeboxes, has a lot more giving opportunities you might not be aware of.

For example, you can:

  • Feed a child in Mongolia for an entire week for $7.
  • Provide school supplies or tuition for a month for a child in a needy country for $15.
  • Supply an entire outfit complete with shoes and coat for $25.
  • Sponsor an orphan, providing their food, healthcare, shelter, education and other essentials for a month for $35.
  • Stock a fish pond for a community for $50.
  • Supply a dairy goat to a family in need for $70.
  • Provide a water filter that will provide a family with a lifetime of healthy water for $100.

Even the poorest of us here in the United States of America have so much more than the majority of people worldwide, and I love that Samaritan’s Purse makes it easy for us to give to those who have need of our generosity. They have many more options besides these, plus you can choose to split larger gifts with other people.

3. Angel Tree

Angel Tree takes the time to reach a forgotten segment of society – the children of prisoners. Parents in prison can sign their children up to receive gifts at Christmas. In turn, churches and other organizations set up Christmas trees with angel tags on them. Each angel tag bears the name of a prisoner’s child and the gift they might like to receive. Anyone interested in participating chooses a tag and purchases a $20 gift for the child, wraps it, and drops it off with the Angel Tree coordinator. Angel Tree takes care of delivering the gifts to the intended recipients.

You can participate with Angel Tree in a variety of ways:

  • Organize an Angel Tree in your church or Christian organization.
  • Contact Angel Tree at angel_tree (at) pfm.org to find organizations or churches with Angel Tree programs already existing in your area, and give a gift to a prisoner’s child.
  • Donate online.

 

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Christmas Breakfast: Cranberry-Orange Oatmeal

Cranberries and oranges are my go-to flavor combo this Christmas. What it is about those two ingredients together, I don’t know, but they taste like Christmas to me; there’s something almost magical about it. I’ve been combining them in all sorts of things, but the easiest for sure is this delicious oatmeal.

It’s easy to get in a bland old boring oatmeal rut. Well, it’s easy if you’re not me. I personally never make oatmeal the same way twice because I’m weird like that. But I have heard that it can be easy to get into the afore-mentioned oatmeal rut.

All you have to do, my friend, is add a few fun things to your oatmeal. In this particular case, very magical, very Christmas-y cranberries and oranges. From boring to exciting in one easy step.




There’s no wonder that oatmeal is one of the most popular breakfasts: it’s QUICK! If you choose to use them, steel oats can take longer, but soaking them overnight in the liquid will help them cook up pretty quickly the next morning.

Oatmeal is also EASY. Anybody can make oatmeal. And anybody can make cranberry orange oatmeal.

This is the time of year to make CHEAP cranberry orange oatmeal! Both cranberries and oranges are in season right now, so snap them up at the cheapest prices they’ll be all year round.

Cranberries are some of the HEALTHY-est berries you can eat (and one of very few actual berries), especially because of its high levels of antioxidants. So eat ‘em up!

Shared at Let’s Do Brunch!, Tastetastic Thursday, and…

Tempt my Tummy Tuesdays

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