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Holiday Baking {& a Give-Away!}

A Composed Christmas

True confession:  I don’t like to cook.

This can be a little bit of a problem at times, since I have to feed 8-9 people three times per day.

I love having company for meals, too.  It’s so much more fun than having people over to fast.  🙂

On the other hand, I love sugar and with it I have a love for baking and candy making.  If I didn’t exhibit some self-control we’d have a pretty rotten diet around my house, and perhaps no teeth.

So, when Christmas rolls around, we like to have lots of sweet treats on hand.  Since a couple of my kids have food allergies, it’s also helpful to have safe alternatives to take with us as we spend time with others.

By the time we get into November and December – with things like Thanksgiving plans, Advent celebrations, parties, Christmas Programs, shopping & wrapping special gifts, and houseguests on top of ministry, homeschooling, homemaking, and parenting it can be hard to squeeze in Christmas goodies.

As much as I like my kids to help in the kitchen – mixing cocoa, sugar, milk, and memories – when life is harried, I end up baking after bedtime or sending them out of the kitchen so I can get it done quickly.  If I do permit them to join me under pressure, it’s not pretty.  We do not have fun. Later on we end up choking down cookies laced with contention.  🙁

If today is the childhood my kids will remember, I want their memories to be good ones.  The only way I can accomplish that with holiday baking is to schedule it when we have plenty of time so we can have fun.

October is a great time to start.  With the advent of freezer space, baking in advance becomes a viable option.

Any given Christmas season, as time allows, we choose from a list of goodies to make.  In late September or early October we choose the goodies we want and make a schedule to prepare them.

We choose from things like:

Mint-Chocolate covered Oreos
Chocolate covered pretzels
Pretzel Treats
Snickerdoodles with red & green cinnamon-sugar
Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Gingerbread Cookies (people, shapes, or our gingerbread nativity)
Sugar Cookies in lots of shapes, decorated with lots of icing
Mint-Cream or Coconut- Cream filled candies
Hazelnut Cocoa Mix
Peppermint Syrup
Peppermint Rock Candy

Plus, anything new we’d like to try…

Holiday Baking

Additional considerations:

  1. We schedule candy making and cookie baking for every Friday in October (excepting Halloween or my daughter’s birthday, if it falls on a Friday).
  2. We usually have enough time on a Friday to enjoyably make 1-2 things, so this does limit our options.
  3. If we know someone will visit us during the holidays and one of these treats would be a fun project to do while spending time with them, we’ll hold that item as an activity to include later.
  4. One year, when we didn’t have any grandparents in the house, we made Pretzel Treats and Peppermint Syrup with my step-mom.  We used frequent texts & photos to update each other on our progress and to compare the results.  It was such a sweet afternoon – completely spontaneous – and we felt connected at a time the hearts in our house were aching with a different sorrow.
  5. Use the Freezer!
    • Sometimes we make cookie dough and freeze it to pull out and bake fresh as needed through the holidays.
    • Other times we freeze baked-but-undecorated cookies to prepare closer to eating time.
    • And, if we’ve tempered the chocolate well, we flash-freeze and then freeze (in airtight containers), fudge, truffles, and other chocolate candies.

So!  Are you ready to begin baking?  What are some of your favorite treats at Christmas?  Do you enjoy baking with your kids?

And… the Give Away!

If you’d like some fun recipes to try this year, Share this post on your Facebook wall, Tweet about this post, or Pin it on Pinterest between now and October 6th, and I’ll send you recipes for some of our holiday favorites including our *famous* truffles.

To receive the mini-PDF Cookbook, you’ll need to head to my website and let me know where you shared in the comments section of this post (Scroll to the bottom and look for “Leave a Reply”). I’ll send copies of the mini-PDF cookbook to you via email October 7, 2014!

Photo Credit:
A Composed Christmas photo by christmasstockimages.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Swallow the Frog

A Composed Christmas

Back in July, I warned you this day would come.  I mentioned that in September I would start preparing for Christmas and invited you to join me.

Not because the stores have started putting up Christmas decorations already.  They are intent on rushing us into a season of greed, busyness, and consumerism.  No, I want to avoid all of those things and be able to savor my Savior this Christmas while enjoying the traditions my family holds dear.  And, quite honestly, that means planning ahead so I don’t get sucked into the craziness and materialism the stores are already marketing.

In July I encouraged you to make a list of the things you wanted to include in your holiday season.  If you have that list, now is a good time to pull it out, dust it off, and get ready to start making it happen.  If you don’t have that list: make it today.  You can read my Christmas in July post for ideas to get you started.

Today I want to think about the annual update letter.  I love writing an update letter about our family.  It helps me to realize and recognize our victories, which is encouraging to a mama who so often sees the ongoing needs for growth in her children.  As soon as one issue is resolved another crops up.  Taking time to write about how we’ve grown and changed reminds me of the victories.  I need that encouragement.

I don’t love (as a matter of fact, I hate!) updating my contact list and verifying addresses.

Enter Mark Twain:

If you know you have to swallow a frog, swallow it first thing in the morning. If there are two frogs, swallow the big one first.

I love that quote!  It’s such an awesome image.

Big Frog

Swallow the Frog

Since my biggest frog is dealing with my mailing list, I want to swallow it first.

If you are with me on this venture and you have “Update Letter” or “Send Christmas Cards” on your list of things which are important to you during the holidays, read on!

Today I will start verifying addresses.  I guess, technically, I started verifying addresses last January when we packed up Christmas 2013.

We have a “tradition” of reading all the cards we’ve received & checking out all the pictures one last time as part of putting away the decorations.  I take all the envelopes from this time and compare it to my mailing list and make any needed corrections right then.

But by September, people may have moved, died, gotten married, had a baby… more updates are needed.

So I start by opening my Christmas Mailing List spreadsheet.  {I’m not very original with my titles. :)}  I make a new tab in the spreadsheet for the current year.  Then I cut and paste the entire mailing list from last year’s tab into this year’s tab as a starting place.

I scan through the list and delete anyone to whom we no longer want to send a letter.

This usually jogs my memory about people I have met in the past year or with whom I’ve reconnected that I want to add to my list.  So I add them, Lord willing, with all their pertinent information.

Then I go through the list and highlight the rows of people I know have had a change of address or life as well as people I have reason to believe may have changed something – college students, for instance, frequently change addresses.

Then I start the process of verifying their addresses – email, phone call, Facebook message, text…  Pro-tip:  it is a lot easier to get a response if you start by providing the last address you have for them.  For instance, “Julia, I am just updating my addresses and wanted to make sure you are still at P.O. Box 321, Crab Orchard, TN 37723.  Is this right?”  If someone sees that message, and the address is correct, they can send a quick, “Yep!  You’ve got it!  How are you doing?”  If it’s incorrect, they’ll probably get back to you a little later when they have time to type in their corrections.

As soon as I get a response, I make the corrections in my spreadsheet and un-highlight their row.

Occasionally I don’t get a response for longer than I am willing to wait, and I’ll contact someone else about their address.  “Hey Shannon!  Do you know if Julia’s address is still P.O. Box 321 in Crab Orchard?”  It saves me from feeling like a collection agency, anyway.  🙂

Now, I’m a finisher.  I like things completed.  So it is important for me to set my expectations that I will not finish this task in a day.  Perhaps that’s why it is a frog for me.  I have to wait.  I start this process in September so I can get it done before I, or others, get caught up in the busyness of gift purchases, menu planning, Christmas parties, etc.

Small(er) Frog

Small(er) Frog



The small(er) frog for me is addressing & stamping the letters, so I always do that next.  It also guarantees I’ll get my letter out, because I’ve got over $50 in postage attached to the envelopes and I don’t like to waste money…

Once my mailing list is complete and verified, I complete a mail merge and print all the addresses either on labels or on the envelopes.  I don’t know how I decide which to do, it varies from year to year.  Maybe it’s the time I have to sit at the printer, the cost of labels, or the position of Venus with respect to Mars in the night sky.  I really cannot say.  But one way or another I get those addresses printed.

If I’ve opted for labels, I take 1/2 an hour, set up an assembly line of children who like to “do stickers” and we get the envelopes ready to go.  The first child does the return address sticker, next comes the mailing address sticker, and finally the postage-stamp sticker.  We only mail around 100 letters, so it really doesn’t take that long.

Later, when we get around to writing the letter, the envelopes are ready to receive.  At that point I can print, fold, add picture, stuff, and seal the envelopes in another assembly line…

So, what are your Christmas frogs?  Are you going to swallow the mailing list problem in September?  I know it seems really early, but it’s one of those things that you really can do early.  Making fudge or Candy Cane Syrup is a bit premature.  And it’s way to early to decorate the tree…

If you do this now, I promise you’ll be glad you did!

Photo Credit:
A Composed Christmas photo by christmasstockimages.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Big Frog by Max (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Little Frog by Whotheheckareyou [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Composing Christmas

I like the idea of a composed Christmas.  Whether I think of composure as calm, peaceful, and tranquil or as crafting a masterpiece from various elements I want my Christmas to be composed.

You see, all to often I arrive in January bloated, exhausted, and feeling like I missed Christmas somehow.  Instead of spending time experiencing the peace Christ came to bring, I spent two months rushed, hurried, and agitated.

A few years ago I decided there had to be a better way, so I sat down with the kids and we set a vision for Christmas.  We decided what was important for us to include in the areas of traditions, diet, rest, parties, worship, and so on.  These became the elements we use to compose our Christmas (as in crafting a masterpiece from various elements).

The result has been a few years of composed Christmases (as in peaceful, calm, and tranquil).

In the summer I blogged about planning ahead for Christmas, and I mentioned I would start my own planning/preparing in September.

It’s September.  🙂

In July I encouraged you to sit down and think about what you wanted your Christmas to look like.  If you’ve done that, now is a great time to pull out those thoughts and put them into an actionable plan.  If not, and the idea of a restful, relaxed, meaningful Christmas appeals to you but often eludes you, please take a bit to read Christmas in July and then come back here.

Quick Note:

I have a great to-do app connecting my phone, iPad mini, and computers.  I use 2Do which syncs to all my devices through my *free*  Toodledo Account.  There are a lot of really good to-do apps out there, though, so don’t change from something that is already working for you.  And, of course, you can also use a paper calendar or pen-and-paper plan if that’s more your style.

Christmas To-DosThe point is to have a place to keep track of the things you want to do, when you want to do them, and if you have a feature where you can set things to repeat on a specified interval you’ll be able to plan once and work the plan forever (with easy ability to modify as needed!) it’s extra awesome.

I set my tasks to repeat every year, so although I adjust it every July & September (and as needed along the way), I don’t have to remember the tasks I need to schedule, I just need to check them against the calendar so I don’t end up trying to buy stamps on Sunday or expecting company for the third Thursday in November instead of the fourth.

Birthday Cake for Jesus

Your schedule may look quite different than ours because you may include different things, have different traditions, and travel rather than stay at home.  I still find it easier to edit than to create, so here’s what our schedule looks like – edit away!

July 25

Set Vision for Christmas, add/delete anything we want to change, review to-dos and make sure the timing is appropriate for the coming season (for instance, last year my husband was on a sabbatical for the month of September, so I either accelerated or delayed September tasks to allow us to truly rest.  This year we have a vacation scheduled in November, so I needed to adjust the schedule accordingly.)

September 1

Review tasks for upcoming months, adjust any dates as necessary

September 10

Choose Christmas Letter recipients

Verify addresses for Christmas Letter recipients

Check inventory on envelopes, paper, and labels for Christmas letter, add any needed supplies to shopping list

Make to-do task to buy postage for Christmas letter, including international stamps, on next trip to town

September 25

Print address and return-address labels for Christmas Letter

Address envelopes for Christmas Letter

Put postage on envelopes for Christmas Letter

Plan schedule for Christmas baking

October 1

Decide on people to whom we will give gifts

Decide on gifts for each person/family to whom we are giving gifts

Plan schedule for buying/making Christmas gifts

October 3 (well, in our case, this is a repeating task on Fridays Oct 3, 10, 17, & 24)

We will take different Friday’s to bake/make things like Fudge, truffles, caramels, mint-chocolate covered Oreos, chocolate covered pretzel rods, pretzel treats, snicker doodles, Oatmeal raisin cookies, gingerbread, sugar cookies, butter mints, cream eggs, hot cocoa mix, and peppermint syrup & rock candy.  Since it is not yet September 25, I have not yet assigned these treats to any given Friday.  Every year we have to decide which of these things we will make and we simply schedule a time to do it so that we have time set aside to relax and enjoy each other in the process.

November 3

Purchase a child friendly nativity set {we are doing this once per year until we have a different one for each of our kids (+ one for us) to take with them when they start their own families, eventually we won’t need this task}

November 7

Write Christmas Letter

November 10

Super Qs 2013Complete gift purchasing/making

Take picture for Christmas Letter (sometimes this happens later – like last year when we were “late” on a lot of things because we’d taken a sabbatical in September – it’s OK!  The schedule is there to help me master my tasks, not to become the master.)

Order copies of picture for Christmas Letter

Decide on date for Open House & get it on the church calendar

November 15

Operation Christmas Child shopping, packaging, letter writing

November 16

Take Operation Christmas Child boxes to collection location

November 17

Print Christmas Letter

Fold, stuff, seal Christmas letters/pictures in envelopes

Create invitation for Open House & write bulletin announcement & select dates to put in bulletin

November 19

E-mail church office with bulletin announcement for Open House with dates to include it in the bulletin

Print invitations for Open House

November 21

Buy annual ornament for each person in our family

November 22

Wrap all presents

Package all presents for shipping

November 23

Deliver/Mail invitations for Open House

Get Christmas decorations down from the attic

Review/Finalize menu for Thanksgiving

November 24

Grocery shopping for Thanksgiving

Clean house/set up guest quarters for Thanksgiving company

November 25-30

Enjoy Thanksgiving & company

Thanksgiving Memories

November 30/December 1

Decorate inside of house for Christmas (+ admire work with cocoa & Christmas music)

Set up Advent Calendars/Celebrations

December 1

Begin observing Advent

Mail Christmas Letters

Schedule: PopPop’s Crepes, Stargazing w/cocoa, lights drive, caroling, service projects, movies we want to watch, and decide how frequently we would like to attend parties/special events to maintain sanity & restfulness

December 4

Decorate outside of house for Christmas

Sometime in December (depending upon what we decided in November)

Host Open House

December 23

Make & decorate birthday cake for Jesus

December 24

Appetizer Dinner & watch Nativity Story

December 25

Cinnamon Roll Breakfast (invite friends who are alone at Christmas to join us)

Christmas Morning worship (we read the Christmas story & sing favorite hymns)


Connect with extended family

December 31

Fondue and sparkling sangria for dinner

January 2

Buy birthday cards for next year

Write in Christmas memories book

Re-read Christmas letters & update any addresses

Select & cut down Christmas cards/pictures for next year’s placemat

January 3

Un-decorate & move everything back into attic

Photo Credit:
A Composed Christmas photo by christmasstockimages.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
2Do App Screenshots by Julia Quillen

Christmas in July

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!  Ev-ery where you gooooooooo…”

OK, unless you live in Florida or California or some other equatorial location, it probably doesn’t look anything like Christmas right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to think about Christmas!

Christmas in July

As a matter of fact, now, during the lazy days (or crazy days) of summer, is a great time to think about what you’d like your Christmas to look like.

Or have you never gotten to January 4th and felt like a train plowed through your life and schedule and wondered what went wrong?  Then there’s the commitment to slow down next Christmas and really focus on savoring the Savior….

I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t happen without a plan.

I don’t know about you, but when I see the decorations go up in early fall, something inside of me rebels and I passively push back by refusing to even think about Christmas until after Thanksgiving.  And me and my family are the only ones who suffer for this inner rebellion.

While I don’t want to encourage retailers to capitalize on Christmas as the income-redemption it has become in the US, I am also learning I cannot wait until after Thanksgiving to think about Christmas or it all goes wrong for us.

So here we sit, in July, which is when I’ve started sitting down with the family and talking about what we want Christmas to look like next year.  What are the important things for us to do?

Usually our list includes things like:

  • give presents to people we love
  • make cookies and all kinds of goodies to share with others (and to enjoy ourselves, too!) especially fudge in honor of Grandpa Clyde’s love for all things chocolate, and we have to make Pretzel Treats like Grandma Carol makes.
  • choose which invitations we will accept
  • write a Christmas letter
  • have time for our advent celebrations from December 1-25
  • eat and sleep with balance
  • eat biscuits with Grandpa John’s honey
  • make a birthday cake for Jesus
  • go caroling
  • put lights and decorations on the outside of the house
  • drink hot chocolate after we decorate the tree
  • decorate the tree – well, trees actually – we have a little tree from Mom Mom we always decorate, too.
  • set up the train from Papaw
  • host a Christmas party
  • drive around and look at lights
  • do crafts – like making cards for hospice patients and using pictures and cards from last year to make a placemat
  • fill shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child
  • have Mamaw’s cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning
  • eat appetizers on Christmas Eve like we do with Sparkling Sangria like Granny makes
  • sometime over the holiday, eat Pop Pop’s Famous Crepes and spend some time remembering the joys we shared with Pop Pop
  • have fondue on New Year’s Eve – with sparkling grape juice
  • read all the cards one last time and choose which ones we’ll save for next year’s placemat.  Cut them down to size.

We start by making this list in July.

Then I sit down and make a plan for how we can get things done without going crazy.  I can tell you it makes a HUGE difference when November rolls around and we can enjoy our Thanksgiving company knowing our Christmas letter is ready to drop in the mail, our presents are bought/made, wrapped, and sometimes even mailed, and the advent calendar and devotions are down from the attic so we can start on December 1st.  The years we are ready for Christmas are the years we have the sweetest fellowship with each other and with Christ.  Those are the years we really can ignore the Christmas marketing, avoid the crazy rush, and savor the Savior.

It doesn’t happen without a plan.

So, your mission for July, should you choose to accept it, is to think about what you want to include in Christmas.

That’s all.

When September rolls around, I’ll start walking through our schedule for accomplishing tasks in advance.  Let’s just see if we can all have a truly Merry Christmas this year!

A Composed Christmas

Photo Credit:
A Composed Christmas photo by christmasstockimages.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Boxing Day

imageBoxing Day.

Traditionally a day for boxing alms for the poor or when servants would receive a Christmas Box from their employer.

In our house it ranges from boys boxing as the excitement and exhaustion of Christmas finally catches up with us to boxing up Christmas (in the odd years when we are traveling right away and won’t be home for weeks).

If you are like me today, the momentum of the Christmas holiday’s has come to a crashing halt and you are sitting in a bit of lethargy looking at the things that will have to be packed away soon.  Not yet, but soon.

When that day comes, it may be good to have some ideas for packing up the annual decorations with next year in mind.  We also like to think through what worked this year and what we would like to change for next year.

So here are some tips to file away to make packing (and unpacking) more efficient:

  • Decorating is exciting.  Packing away? Not so much.  Plan a celebration for when the house is back to normal.  If you drink a cup of cocoa as a family when the tree is finished, consider drinking a cup of cocoa when the last pine needle is swept away.
  • While you are all together, talk about what you did/didn’t like about this Christmas season.  Decide what you’d like Christmas to look or feel like next year.  Write it down.  File it.  Next year you’ll know what to include in your schedule and what to avoid.  I also put a reminder on my calendar on November 1st to remind myself where I filed the plan so  we will be reminded of want to do differently with time to accomplish it.
  • german pyramid windmill nativityoak laser cut nativityPack Advent supplies in their own box so that you can get them out by December 1st, even if the rest of the decorating needs to wait.  We like to include our advent calendars, our German Pyramid, and our nativity sets in this box, so they are among the first things out.  A post-it note with any new traditions we want to start next year makes a great addition to this box, too.
  • Pack all your Christmas music, books, coasters, and blankets away with the Christmas decorations.  It frees up lots of space for the rest of the year and increases the appeal of seeing them again when Christmas rolls around.
  • Wrap lights around paper towel tubes.  Plug ends into each other to keep from unraveling. Stuff the extra bulbs inside the tube.  Next year plug them in before unwinding to verify that they work.
  • Pack ornaments by person.  Last year we bought a plastic bin for each child.  When we packed ornaments, each one wrapped and stored their ornaments in their own bin.  This year tree-decorating stress was dramatically reduced.  There were no fights over similar-looking ornaments, no congestion waiting for Mommy to unwrap and distribute ornaments, and no tears over “missing” ornaments that would later be found at the bottom of the box.  Someday, when they are ready to decorate their own tree, it’ll be easy to “gift” them their ornament bin.  I keep a fine-tipped, permanent marker in our ornament bin to label any new ornaments as we decorate.
  • Take a page out of Bob the Builder’s book… Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!  Cut off card fronts for use as gift tags next year.  Or make gift boxes out of greeting cards.  It’s a simple way to make the most out of those expensive cards you receive.  If you feel funny about having writing on the inside of your box, you can use card stock for the bottom.  We read all the cards one last time and then cut off the covers to use next year.
  • Make a place mat out of Christmas photos you received.  Paste special photos onto 16″ x 12″ piece of poster board.  You can overlap or trim photos if needed. Use a metallic marker to add names to photos that aren’t labeled, flip it over and add more photos to make it double sided.  Don’t forget to include the year somewhere! Our local office supply store will laminate this for about $3.  It is a fun memory builder over the years, and a great way to clean off the refrigerator!  I hate throwing all those pictures away.
  • Store your wreath hanger in the bag or box with the wreath.  We actually store all of the outdoor decorations and their hangers in one box. The outdoor lights are in there, too.  So if we have a nice day, we only have to pull out one box and the ladder to get going.  If you have lots of duplicate tools laying around, you could also add any tools you always need for this project.
  • Pack a box with all of the Christmas wrap, bags, bows, tissue.  Purchase additional tags & wrap at after Christmas sales.  Store this box in the front of your decorations  for easy access.  This will free up room wherever you normally keep gift wrap.
  • Replace any needed items via after Christmas sales.  There will be reduced prices on lights, trees, gift wrap, ornaments, etc.  If something wasn’t working this year, now is the time to replace it.
  • candy cane syrupMake candy cane syrup from all those candy canes left lying around.  This is great in hot chocolate or on vanilla ice cream.  It’s easy and makes pretty gifts.  Pink?  Think Valentines!

  • Update your Christmas mailing list before you discard the envelopes from this year’s cards.
  • Pack up special Christmas clothes with your decorations.  If your sweaters, Santa hat, and  bell necklaces are in the same bin as your advent calendar, you can get both out to enjoy by Dec. 1, even if the rest of your decorations are still waiting.

As you pack away “Christmas” be sure to recount the memories from this year and Christmases past.  And… don’t pack away Jesus.  He was born to be a part of your whole year.


Photo Credits:
Red & Green bins by Greg Henshall (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons