Kicking off a month of Christmas

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I recently read an article in which I was surprised to learn that traditionally Christians and Catholics did not decorate a tree or put up any Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve. I don’t remember when we used to get our tree as a kid but I remember going to the Kmart parking lot to pick one out in the evening, and I remember loving Christmas decorations and Christmas music. I used to put those plug-in candles in the windows of my bedroom (and I feel like I hung on to them much longer than just the Christmas season) and I’d bring my family’s Christmas CDs upstairs to my room and listen to them when I went to sleep at night. I remember thinking that it was wonderful the year that my dad got fancy lights for the hedge out in front of our house that had multiple blinking and twinkling modes to choose from.

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I’ve always loved the lead up to Christmas and on many occasions have felt really sad when the day was finally over. I’ve read before that for most people, having something to look forward to contributes to well being, and that the looking forward is often better than the actualization of that something. So rather than downplaying the fun of Christmas in an effort to avoid that let down, I’d rather play up the period of anticipation to make the most of it. If I love the decorations and the lights and the preparation and the countdown, then let’s make a month of that. The day will come and go no matter what, but why not fill more of the dark and gloomy days of winter with decorations and twinkle lights and anticipation?

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The first Christmas-related activity that I allow myself to indulge in each year is our Christmas card. I love Christmas cards; I love making them, sending them, receiving them. I hang them all up on a cabinet in our kitchen and I love walking by them all season long. I can always justifying kicking this part of the season off really early by telling myself that I want to have them out shortly after Thanksgiving (so that I can focus on other things for the rest of the month, naturally; it’s all about efficiency) so we need to plan and take photos well in advance so that we have time to order them. This year that didn’t pan out exactly as planned, because the photographer we’d hoped to work with flaked at the last minute, so I decided that surely I could do this myself. My dad recently let me borrow his tripod and we have a suitable enough backyard, so why not?

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The only hiccup was the 30 degree weather (not to mention having to use a timer and then run into position and try to get the kids to look at a camera with no person behind it to grab their attention). My cousin Aimee does this almost every year and I have NO idea how she gets such wonderful photos of her family of six. This is almost an impossible task. The cooperation bribes this year went from hot cocoa, to hot cocoa with unlimited marshmallows, to hot cocoa with unlimited marshmallows and Halloween candy. We eventually got something we could use, and despite the struggle the challenge was kind of fun.

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Because we went to Charleston for Thanksgiving we weren’t around to get a tree that weekend, but I’m fairly certain we would have had we been home. Since I knew we’d be gone I’ve had the following Saturday blocked off on our calendar for quite some time.

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In addition to stretching out the period of joy and anticipation, I also like to weave in Christmas-related family activities throughout the month because I want our enjoyment of Christmas to be about more than just presents on Christmas morning. I want the kids to look forward to getting a tree, and decorating that tree, and driving around to look at the lights, and making Christmas cookies, and all of the other traditions that we haven’t even thought of yet. This year we also got an advent calendar for the first time (the kind with magnetic ornaments that the kids can own completely). I have big dreams of making my own advent calendar in an heirloom sort of way if I ever get a sewing machine and figure out how to do that, but this will do nicely until then.

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I always forget how stressful it can be to decorate the tree with the kids. Naturally most of the ornaments are breakable, and they don’t really understand how to hang them so that they don’t tumble off immediately. They tend to put multiple ornaments on a single branch and only on the very bottom branches of the tree. We do a lot of redirecting and redecorating, but I still love it.

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It just feels right for our tree to be in the front room of the house, the living room where the fireplace is and where we hang stockings, but it’s not a room that we actually spend a lot of time in. So this year I asked Kristin if we could get an inexpensive artificial tree for the great room as well – the room where we do the most living. She was happy to oblige, and after a lot of back and forth about how we wanted to decorate each of the two trees we decided that we would keep the living room tree colorful (the kids love rainbow lights, and I grew up with them) and give the great room tree a bit more of a stylish theme by using only white, wood, and metallic ornaments along with white lights.

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On the same Sunday that we decorated the tree we went to Holidays at the Homestead at the Nature Center. For some reason it feels especially fun to step back in time around Christmastime: making yarn dolls, watching a blacksmith work on his craft, going on a horse-drawn wagon ride complete with jingle bells. I’ve been itching to take everyone to an old-timey holiday event at Greenfield Village, but it’s two hours away and goes from 6:30-10:00 p.m. and I can’t decide whether the kids will be able to handle the late hours in the cold.

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Two mornings ago as I was making breakfast for the kids and trying to get them out the door to school, Vivi asked me if she could write “a note to Santa like the bear in the book.” I had no idea which book she was referring to, and wasn’t even sure where she’d learned about letters to Santa. She ran over to grab the book Corduroy’s Christmas Surprise and flipped to the picture of the bear working on his letter to Santa. I hesitated for a moment because I have mixed feelings about that whole part of Christmas, but I said yes and got her some paper and crayons. She went right to work, and soon after Jude wanted to do the same.

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Once she’d completed her portion she asked me to help, and I wrote while she dictated her list. She actually completed three different letters to Santa (all with slightly different items) and was ready to launch into a fourth when I told her that it was time to get ready for school.

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I loved watching their joy and their investment in the task. I know that no matter how much I want to push them to find magic in specific elements of the season and perhaps steer them away from others, I don’t get to choose the sources of their joy. I can share mine with them and sit back and enjoy the glow of theirs, and carve out time and space for family traditions. But ultimately they will develop their own preferences and cling to the parts of the season that they love the most. And that’s the way that it should be, and probably the way it has always been whether the tree goes up on November 24th or December 24th.

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Thanksgiving and turning five in Charleston

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Back in September, my parents offered to fly us down to Charleston for Thanksgiving as our Christmas gift. It was a lovely, generous offer but we waffled because travel with kids when there’s less than a week to work with always feels less than relaxing. Our kids are good travelers, mostly road-trippers, but in this case the thought of having to haul three car seats, luggage, and kids to a rental car lot after a long morning of air travel did not have any appeal. If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between having two small children versus having three, it’s fitting in someone else’s car. We’ve made it work before with infant seats, but we just weren’t sure what was possible at this stage.

My parents talked to my sister and they determined that between the two families they had enough spare car seats and enough room to make it work so that we wouldn’t have to bring any car seats or rent a minivan. That tipped the scales for us, so we were in.

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We love trips to Charleston. Even though I love a magical white Christmas season, it’s such a joy to step out of the Michigan cold and into warm southern weather for a few days. My sister and brother-in-law host an epic Thanksgiving dinner every year but we’ve only been once, well before we had kids. Since that year it’s grown significantly, and they’ve been setting up the dinner table in the long driveway to accommodate everyone. If that sounds casual, believe me it isn’t. For some reason I never took a photo of the table spread, but it was gorgeous. Kira and Dewey are SO good at this.

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It was an unusually cold and wet Thanksgiving this year, which caused my sister and brother-in-law to have to make some challenging last-minute modifications to the plan. They rented a tent to cover the table (the running joke was that it was more like a wedding reception than a Thanksgiving dinner). Kira was worried that it would hurt the ambiance, but the twinkle lights and gorgeous tablescape were plenty festive.

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My rough count (from memory) is 30+ adults and 10 kids, and it was full of love and gratitude and energy and noise and chaos in all of the right ways.

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The next day Jonah turned five, which I’ve been dreading for weeks, but it’s such a blessing to have my anxiety balanced out by a five-year-old’s birthday joy all day long. He woke up and asked Mama K for gingerbread pancakes, and she was happy to oblige so they made those together. Then we headed out to meet everyone at a trampoline park with ninja warrior courses and inflatables and an arcade. I don’t have any good photos, but somewhere there is a slow-mo video of me awkwardly dropping into a foam pit from a trapeze. The kids had a blast.

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In the late afternoon we met up again at Folly Beach for a walk along the water. I love the Charleston beaches. I’m not a beach person by the traditional definition, but I love beach walks when it isn’t really beach weather.

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And one of my favorite parts of the trip, always? Seeing Maris and Jonah together. They just love each other so much, and it makes me so happy. I feel like they have this wonderful twin-cousin thing going on and I hope that it never goes away.

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On Saturday morning we met up downtown to walk to a hotel and shopping area where they have a big Christmas model train display in the lobby. Everyone seemed to enjoy it (is there anyone who doesn’t like searching for details in a miniature scene?).

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We did a pretty good job of kicking off the Christmas season between the train display, helping to decorate Gigi and Papa Doc’s tree, and checking out the Festival of Lights at John’s Island County Park on Saturday night.

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A friend from New York who moved down to Charleston this past summer joined the twelve of us for the festival of lights, and thankfully she loves the kids and is totally comfortable with holiday family madness.  The lights were beautiful, we roasted marshmallows, we waited in line for a train ride that I think surpassed everyone’s expectations, and it felt like a perfect closure to our trip. It was sad to say goodbye to family when we know we won’t see them at Christmas. I know what a lovely, simple Christmas we had last year on our own and I’m looking forward to that while also wishing that we could watch those cousins wake up and dig into their stockings together on Christmas morning.

Another Halloween in the books: Robots and Moana

It’s November 1st and I’m feeling a little bit sad because Kristin just left to spend four days in New York (the first time I’ve been with the kids alone for more than one night) and my parents are heading for Charleston for the winter first thing tomorrow morning. It feels a bit lonely, and then there’s always that slight twinge of sadness that comes after a big holiday for me. I can find things to get excited about many different times of year, but as Kristin said recently, October through December is kind of my jam.

I love Halloween; we’ve established that already, and this year I decided way back in the spring that I wanted to make robot costumes for the kids. They were really into this great show called Annedroids and I thought that it would be a really fun costume project. The first weekend of October Jonah and I went shopping for supplies, I started collecting boxes of specific sizes, and I started spray painting in the garage (which I knew would just remind me of the frustration of this project, but I just kept telling myself that the stakes were lower this time).

Almost as soon as I had the boxes painted, Vivienne announced, “I don’t like robots anymore. I like Moana now.” Despite having a killer robot voice that was part of my inspiration in the first place, she wanted to be her new idol, Moana, and was having none of this robot business. At first I thought that maybe I’d just buy her a cheap Moana costume and let her wear it to school and tell her that she still had to trick-or-treat as a robot, but the more I considered my options the less I liked that. I asked my mom (the queen of whipping things together without a map) if she thought we could make a decent Moana costume, and having only seen a single image of the character she said, “That looks easy enough.” My mom is always such a shining reminder that one way or another it will all work out, and I need that kind of energy in my life, especially when I’m DIYing.

I went to the fabric store one afternoon on my lunch hour on a mission to find the perfect fabrics. I was really pleased with what I found (after talking myself down from a $21/yard fabric that was more than a two-year-old needed for Halloween), and my mom came over that night to get started.

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Meanwhile, in robot-land, I was searching for the perfect lights to make pretend buttons. I ordered these way in advance, and thank goodness I did because they took roughly a month to ship from Azerbaijan (literally) which I didn’t realize when I bought them. They turned out to be kind of cool though, so I’m glad we included them. Most of the lights, however, were these because they blinked which added a really fun element. The tricky part was that the only way to turn them on and off was to squeeze them from both sides, which meant that I couldn’t really affix them to the boxes in a permanent way. I ended up making a control panel out of a shoebox lid and zip tying only the top of it to the rest of the costume so that I could easily flip it up to turn them on. I zip tied the bottom of each light to the back of the control panel and cut holes the size of a Sacagawea dollar for each one.

A friend suggested that we ought to try to work fidget spinners into the costumes as well, which was a brilliant suggestion. They had crappy ones at the dollar store, and my dad helped by drilling a hole into the center of each one and fitting them with screws so that when affixed to the costumes, they would still spin. This was a huge hit while trick-or-treating; lots of big kids wanted to spin the spinners.

I also made each of the robots a set of rocket boosters with felt flames coming out, because why not? I saw it on Pinterest while searching for ideas and it seemed worth the extra effort. The boys were totally into it.

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Late in the project I decided that Jonah ought to have a full robot head. Jude didn’t want a head covering of any kind, which was for the best anyway because I didn’t trust him not to trip and fall while trick-or-treating in the dark. I ended up just getting Jude a set of silver ball deelie boppers (that’s what we called them growing up, but I’m guessing that’s not universal?), and I think they made him look extra adorable. Jonah wanted a slinky on his robot head, so we added that along with a red light and cut out a couple of holes so that he could see and breathe easily and covered them with window screen. We ended up not attaching the head to the rest of the costume because most of the time it rested on the larger box anyway, but it also allowed him to take it off when he felt like he needed a break. I put some 2″ window A/C foam inside the box to make it fit a bit better.

For the boys’ arms and legs we used dryer vent tubing and bought the lightest weight stuff we could find (more like aluminum foil than sharp metal, but both types exist so go to the hardware store and feel it first). I zip tied the arms to the body box and made a set of suspenders out of elastic for the legs (attached to zip tie loops). Walking was a bit of a challenge, but honestly they did great once they got the hang of it (and we did a lot of hand-holding just to be sure).

Back to Moana – I didn’t feel like a midriff-baring shirt was acceptable for a two-year-old, so my mom designed a top based on another summer shirt of Vivi’s. She layered and trimmed the skirt fabric I bought to make a wrap skirt that went nicely around a cheap 12″ grass skirt I found on Amazon. We also bought the necklace on Amazon (because I suspect that making our own would have cost a lot more) and she’s worn it pretty much every day for the past three weeks, so I think we’ve gotten our money’s worth. I bought a few cowrie shells at a bead shop and we sewed them around the neckline. I bought some tropical-looking flowers at the dollar store and hot glued one onto a barrette that we already had, and I think that it made a lovely final touch.

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When Vivi finally got to wear this to preschool she was probably the proudest I’ve ever seen her. Throughout the month of October we’ve been hearing from her teacher that some days she’ll only respond to the name Moana. Preschool was also the only place we let her wear this without pants and a leotard underneath (because Michigan).

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We actually got incredibly lucky because it was supposed to rain on Halloween, and while it was roughly 40 degrees (or less) it was dry, and trick-or-treating was a huge success. Vivienne was chilly, but agreed to wear a cardigan and zip up hoodie (unzipped, of course) on top of her costume. The boys were pretty well bundled and the robot parts kept the wind off, so they actually seemed to fare well.

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If Vivienne was the star of the preschool costume parade (if only because she spent a month getting into character), the boys were the stars of neighborhood trick-or-treating. I can’t even tell you how many kids and adults stopped us on the sidewalk to ask if they could take a photo or video. I got high-fives from parents I’d never met, and at one house Kristin walked away with a glass of wine after helping Jude up the steps. “Did my robot costumes earn you an adult beverage?” I asked. She said that they probably did.

I had to take a video once it was dark because the lights make it so much more fun. Check it out on Instagram.

It was a ton of work, but I only cried once during construction and I have absolutely no regrets about everything that went into it. It’s funny, in general I tend to be pretty pragmatic about a lot of things. I like things that are useful and practical, I don’t like spending money on things that won’t get a lot of use, I don’t do a ton of whimsy, but when it comes to Halloween all of that seems to go out the window. I spend an entire month (and always more money than I’d planned) working on something made of cardboard and glue that really isn’t built to last and that we’ll only get a few hours use from, but it always feels like the right thing to do in my mind.

One of my favorite bloggers wrote something recently that absolutely nailed it for me:

…let me also tell you that when you see stuff like this–fun parties for kids or holiday crafts and celebrations, for example–on my site or in my social media feeds, this isn’t about attempting to be a good mom. I don’t associate being a good mom with celebrations and details and parties. But I do associate being a good mom with doing things that make me happy and inviting my kids to witness my happiness and be part of it. This is more about me than my kids. Because I like creating things and celebrating parties and making space for the 10-year-old girl inside who never died. It makes me happy. And I think the best way to be a good mom is to do things that make you happy.

I think that’s really what this is for me. I do this for me, because for reasons I can’t entirely explain (tradition, I guess?) this is ridiculously important to me and I love doing it. The kids would happily wear store-bought costumes, but that wouldn’t be any fun for me.

The other night we drove by the elementary school where they seemed to be wrapping up a school Halloween party, and I suddenly remembered that my parents used to put a ton of work into our elementary school haunted house when I was a kid. My dad was Dracula in it, and a few other neighborhood parents who were like family to me were in it too. I went through that damn thing SO many times, giggling every time I spotted a family member or friend in costume. I’m sure no one strong-armed my parents into doing that stuff, they just loved doing it, and I remember it and it brings me so much joy even now. My mom pointed out that we now have a tradition three-years running of she and I collaborating on the kids’ costumes, and I love that it’s turned out that way. It honestly wouldn’t be as much fun without her, so I’m thrilled that my parents are willing to stay in Michigan through Halloween in order to see this effort to the end.

Over dinner tonight both Jonah and Vivienne began to tell me and Gigi and Papa Doc what they want to be next year, so my parents and I may already be passing this tradition along to the next generation, which makes me pretty happy.

Ghosts of Halloween past

It’s almost October, which means that we’re preparing to kick off some serious Halloween costume crafting. Back in late August, Jonah really wanted me to buy “spooky stuff” for the house, but it felt way too early even if we did put it all away till October. Then September raced by, and suddenly I realized that I only have five weekends till Halloween and I need to get cracking. Even though I’ve had a theme in mind for the kids’ costumes since March, this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the costumes we’ve done in the past, as well as some sources of inspiration.

I’ve mentioned before that Halloween was big in our house growing up. I grew up in a spectacular trick-or-treating neighborhood where, even now, folks say that you can easily hand out 700 pieces of candy by 6:30 p.m. My mom always made costumes for me and my sister, and my dad always took us around the neighborhood while my mom stayed back to keep the porch light on for the other trick-or-treaters. I don’t have vivid memories of my mom working on the costumes, but now that I do it for our kids I can only imagine that hours of work that she must have put in. My mom has a much more low-stress approach to crafts than I do (plus she’s crazy talented), so last year I loved being able to work on costumes with her at night (since we were living in their house).

Last year we did Octonauts, because the kids were all really into the show. I won’t elaborate on it because that one has its own post, but I wasn’t blogging in the years before that so I’ll share a few highlights from other Halloweens.

The previous year, Jonah set the theme by asking to be a John Deere tractor. I wasn’t really going to try to make him blend in with the equipment, so instead I sort of made him a tractor driver, or a farmer if you will. That led us naturally into a farm theme, so I made Jude a scarecrow and Vivi a chicken (a rooster, I suppose is more accurate).

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I didn’t document the process for any of these, but for the most part they were all pretty simple. Not quick, but simple. While it’s hard to tell from the photo, Jude’s overalls had patches sewn onto them, with straw sticking out from a number of places. I made his hat from burlap and twine, put him in a flannel shirt and called it a day. Vivi got a TON of attention while we trick-or-treated. Her costume was actually just a feather boa loosely tacked around a white long-sleeved bodysuit, orange leggings, and some baby shoes hot glued inside kitchen gloves. My mom helped us to make her little hat with the comb on top. Jonah had a diaper box painted in John Deere colors (no, I didn’t pull any Pantone or RGB codes, but I chose as closely as I could from memory), with reflective tape for headlights and tail lights. He seemed pretty pleased with the result.

The farm was actually our second year of diaper box costumes, since the previous year Jonah wanted to be a bulldozer (once again, I went for “bulldozer driver/construction worker”).

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I was pretty happy with the way this one turned out, especially since it was my first box costume. The bummer was that when it came time for trick-or-treating, he wouldn’t wear it. I carried it the entire time we were out. He only stepped inside once towards the end of the night to let me take a picture.

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The year before that was Jonah’s first Halloween. He was eleven months old and had just begun walking, but was still in that in-between place where crawling was much quicker. He was also too young to choose his costume, so I made him an octopus.

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I spent many an evening sewing buttons onto tights, and while he was too young to trick-or-treat, we did spend the evening with friends and I was proud of my efforts.

There are so many extraordinary costumes out there, and while none of mine have ever come close to that level of artistry or originality, there’s something important to me in the process of making them. Earlier this week I was actually looking up something Christmas-related and went back to a blog that was probably the thing that made me dream of blogging someday. While it doesn’t appear to be operational any longer, Sweet Juniper was one of the first blogs about parenting that I read hungrily, many years before I ever had children of my own. It was also a blog about Detroit, and a family that moved there from San Francisco, so while we were still firmly planted in New York it was a welcome glimpse of what it might be like to move away from a big city on the coast back to the Midwest of our youth. But maybe most of all it was a source of inspiration for the kind of parent I could only dream of being someday. It was written by a stay-at-home dad who created the most magical childhood for his daughter and son through exploration, endless curiosity, and a willingness to build or craft just about anything you can imagine. They were the kind of family that made all of their Christmas presents by hand (for real), so naturally their Halloween costumes were outstanding.

I hadn’t given much thought to Sweet Juniper in quite a long time, but as I poked around on it this week I realized what gratitude I owe that father for sharing his parenting adventures with the world. Even before becoming a mom I knew that creativity at that level was probably not in the cards for me, but I do have to say that parenthood has brought out my willingness to try, and to end up with something imperfect and maybe unimpressive, but to still feel great pride that I gave it a go.

This weekend Jonah and I have a date planned to shop for Halloween costume supplies, and he tells me that he’s going to help me this year. I’d worried that I hadn’t chosen costumes that are interesting or unique enough, but now I feel like maybe it’s the perfect year to let Jonah have some control of the process. Too often I’ve let perfectionism get in the way, but maybe what matters most is letting the kids see how much fun creation can be, no matter what we end up with.

Mama K’s sneaky Mother’s Day surprise project

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I just got back from another work trip to NYC this afternoon. Since it was the second trip, we all went into it with a tad more confidence that we could get through it, but that didn’t make leaving easy. I was eager to get back to my family, and I knew coming home that today was going to be a little bit hectic because I’d be taking Jonah to a bouncy-house birthday party almost as soon as we left the airport. He fell asleep in the car on the way to pick me up, and I let him stay there and sleep while I ran into the house to quickly put on a clean shirt and throw my hair into a ponytail. At some point I stepped towards the great room and Kristin told me that I wasn’t allowed to go near the backyard because there was a surprise, but Jonah wanted to show me.

I took him to the birthday party and when we got back I mentioned that there was some sort of surprise. He remembered, and took me to the windows to show me two pretty blue planters (a hand-me-down we’d claimed from my parents old house when they sold it) full of flowers. Kristin knows how excited I’ve been to get our backyard and patio ready for a season of outdoor living, one of the most significant reasons that we moved back to Michigan in the first place, so she took it upon herself to do a planting project with the kids this morning as an early Mother’s Day gift for me. I got teary when she told me that they all participated and that she even made sure to take photos of the process because she knew how meaningful that would be for me. She was right. There’s nothing better.

I can’t narrate this project for you because I wasn’t here, but I’ll let the photos do the talking.

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See that table? It’s going to get its own post sometime soon. It’s my contribution to the patio-beautification effort and while I’m hating nearly every second of the actual process, I’m hopeful about the results. More to come when I finally finish.

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Naturally there were construction vehicles involved in the transferring of soil.

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There aren’t as many photos of Jude because, as K tells it, this project went the way most projects go: everyone started strong, and Vivienne was by far the most dedicated (although I feel like the photos show a pretty strong effort from Jonah as well). Jude was on his scooter for much of the planting, it seems.

Kristin even told me that now she feels energized to do lots more of this and really dig into gardening (see what I did there?). I hated yard work as a kid but I too have been feeling somewhat inspired and interested in figuring out what’s out in our yard and trying to make it beautiful. We’re total amateurs and right now the garden portion of the yard is about 80% weeds (we think – we honestly have no idea) but this Mother’s Day project is so inspiring and full of love, I can’t wait to do more with the kids. K knows me so well, and the photos put the love right over the top.

Easter Fun

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For the last couple of years we’ve spent Easter morning with friends, complete with an egg hunt for our kids and a handful of others in a park near their home. I knew that we would miss that this year, and honestly we didn’t have much in the way of plans until some things fell into place at the last minute. It turned out to be a surprisingly lovely holiday weekend, both because the rain we’d expected turned into beautiful weather both days, and because we squeezed in plenty of Easter activities with people we love.

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On Saturday morning we dyed eggs with the kids, the kind of craft project I always visualize idyllically, but which always ends up somewhat marred by my anxiety and control-freak tendencies. It’s not that I really care what their eggs end up looking like (OK, I sort of do, but only in that I want them to stay in the dye long enough to have visible color and to end up with a variety by the end). This is actually the first year Jude and Vivi have dyed eggs. I’d forgotten that last year we did it while they were asleep (good move). They totally enjoyed it, but Jude really wanted to dunk his eggs aggressively, splashing dye everywhere, and Vivi wanted to dunk her hands in the dye because she’s really into hand-print art lately. We did end up spilling an entire cup of yellow dye on the wood floor (no stain, fortunately), and Jude did manage to stain a chair seat (our mistake for not putting him on a metal stool), and I was way less relaxed than I’d hoped to be, but I do think that they all had fun.

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One of K’s colleagues also gave the kids a set of foam eggs with stickers to decorate, so we also did a little bit of that before nap time.

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Some good friends invited us over for dinner and an egg hunt that evening, which was perfect because the weather was gorgeous and they have the most incredible yard for an egg hunt. The kids had a blast.

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We left much later than we’d planned, well after the sun had set, but the kids were still going strong out in the yard. Vivi and her friend Kate were busy building a tiny house out of sticks and mud, and she was not happy to leave her project to head home. I told Kristin that it’s exactly the sort of childhood I want them to have: out playing in nature for as long as we’ll let them. I’m so glad they have that now.

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On Easter Sunday we started the day with Easter baskets filled with tiny toys they seemed thrilled with, and drove out to Canton to have lunch with K’s family. I’d been dreading more time in the car, not yet having fully recovered from the drive back from Charleston last weekend, but I’m glad that we went. It was important to K and the kids had fun with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

We have way more candy in the house than we ought to, and it took the kids hours to fall asleep tonight surely due in part to all of the jellybeans and marshmallows their grandmother fed to them this afternoon (well, that and the car nap on the way home). But I’m trying to let that all go and be thankful for their delight.

Valentine craftiness

 

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I have to admit, a couple of weeks ago when I began to wonder whether the kids’ preschool would suggest that they bring and exchange valentine cards, I was feeling a little bit grinchy about it. I pictured the entire classroom buying boxes of character cards and handing them out completely at random (since none of the kids can really read or write anyway). It felt completely devoid of any sentiment, and for some reason I tend to be really character-averse when it comes to things like…well, almost anything really, but mostly things like clothing, backpacks or other items that aren’t specifically a toy that allows some imaginary play; it feels like free advertising. We have a billion Octonauts toys (see our most recent Halloween for evidence of my own hypocrisy), so it’s not as if we don’t do characters at all, but I’ve never loved those valentines. I was sort of hoping to skip it, but then a blogger I enjoy posted something on Instagram about her plans to do all sorts of fun, over-the-top things throughout the month of February, and I realized that there was joy to be found if I made some effort. Not everything has to be so utilitarian, and sometimes I need a reminder. So what if exchanging Valentines doesn’t do anything; it’s a reason to do crafts and bake cookies.

I spent Thursday night, all day Friday, and all day Saturday at a super intense anti-racism workshop (which was powerful and necessary and gave me a lot of hope for Kalamazoo because of all of the wonderful people representing local organizations who were there making commitments to real change) and knowing that I was losing a lot of precious weekend time with the kids made me want to pack even more special moments into Sunday. Now before you start down the “I’m not a Pinterest mom…” or “I wish I could do things like this with my kids…” path, know that at one point early in the day, Kristin stopped me and gently asked “Is this the most relaxing way for you to spend the day?” which was a poorly disguised way of saying “This seems to be causing you a great deal of stress, do we need to do this?” But it was important to me, and by then I was committed and nothing was going to get me to back down. She later apologized for calling me out and pointed out that she did observe many moments of real joy. I’m still glad that we did it.

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We didn’t attempt one of those adorable, candy/valentine combos that usually involves some sort of clever play on words. I just bought a crapload (it was actually a “party platter” if you must know) of foam hearts and a bunch of additional stickers, along with some markers and glue sticks. It was WAY more than we needed, but the kids were honestly really into it! So I’m glad we had extras.

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Even after we took a break to bake cookies Vivi said that she wanted to do more art, and went back for more.

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The wardrobe change is because it was post-cookie-mess, and they were completely covered in flour.

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It’s so funny and wonderful, Jonah is at this age now where he takes on crafts and activities with so much more independence than ever before. He was just cranking through the valentines totally on his own, and the same was true for the cookies. While Jude just wanted to roll everything flat and poke a variety of toy kitchen implements into the dough, Jonah was busy cutting out hearts and dutifully carrying them over to the cookie sheets. Vivi actually tends to be the same way which is somewhat surprising given the age difference, but her over-the-top independent streak is probably the explanation.

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It was so cute watching them watch the cookies bake. They could hardly wait.

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Unfortunately the afternoon got away from us and K and I ended up doing all of the decorating solo after the kids were asleep, but I did decorate one for Jonah before he went off to bed and we saved a few more for tomorrow. The rest are going to the kids’ teachers because I cannot have this many butter-frosted sugar cookies in the house or I’ll eat myself sick.

Feeling the end of the holidays

Today is the final day of our holiday week (really ten days) at home together as a family, and I’m feeling a bit sad about it. Another mom in my Facebook mom group mentioned recently that she’d foolishly forgotten how un-relaxing it is to have a vacation at home with three children, and while I don’t disagree, I really love having this time with them and wouldn’t trade it. Kristin is off for two weeks in this school district, so she actually has this whole week off as well (so I imagine she will get some recuperation time) and I took tomorrow off so that she and I could have one day together, but the kids return to school tomorrow. Their school was actually open for most of last week, so we could have sent them Tuesday through Friday if we’d chosen to. We knew that we would pay for the days either way, but we chose to keep them home because we both remembered the excitement of holiday breaks at home with family, and wanted to share that with them.

Originally we’d planned to get out of the house a whole lot more than we did, but never-ending illness really put a crimp in our intentions (I can’t call them plans really, since we only talked about all of the places we might go). The pink eye that showed up on Christmas day made its way through the house until we ended up at urgent care on New Year’s day. The cold that we all had a couple of weeks ago seemed to return for both K and I, and in spurts for the kids, and I ended up with a painful ear infection that almost had me driving myself to the ER on NYE. As a result, we ended up with almost zero social interactions, save for a couple of drop-bys earlier in the week, and we decided that it was best to quarantine ourselves at home for the most part. Thankfully the kids had new toys to amuse themselves, and there’s always the bounce house in the great room to burn off some energy. While a part of me wishes that we’d done more novel things, another part of me knows that sometimes all the kids want is to play at home and have our attention.

This morning I checked the weather and told Kristin that we really ought to get outside in the morning because it was going to rain in the afternoon, and suggested a walk at The Nature Center. We got everyone dressed and headed out (a pretty significant drive considering it’s Kalamazoo) only to realize when we arrived that we’d forgotten to bring the twins’ coats. Since we don’t let the kids wear puffy coats in their car seats, it’s actually somewhat astonishing that this is the first time we’ve forgotten them. I was super bummed, but K was optimistic and felt that we’d dressed them warm enough (since they were both layered on top and had snowpants on the bottom) to give it a go. We gave them our scarves and off we went.

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It wasn’t a long hike, but we foolishly failed to consider the fact that Jonah had a crappy breakfast of two orange rolls and nothing else (our kids are all huge breakfast eaters, but Jonah slept late and then we decided to head out without a more significant meal) and was probably starving by the time we got going. He cried and yelled almost the entire walk, and I can’t even remember why at this point. The photo above was pre-meltdown.

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I think that one of the reasons I find this post-holiday period to be so emotionally challenging is because I spend so much time looking forward to Christmas, and when it’s over there are fewer traditions to fall back on and just a lot of cold, grey weather and the usual grind. I usually get through the transition by finding something else to look forward to on the horizon, and much of the time that’s some sort of spring break trip. This year we’re planning to drive down to Charleston to visit my parents and my sister and brother and law and their kids, and I love seeing the cousins together so I’m certainly looking forward to that. I don’t want to give up on the months in between like I may have in the past, however. I’m curious to know what others do in order to get through the winter once the holidays have passed.

Christmas is here!

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It really is the most wonderful time of the year. We’ve been looking forward to Christmas in this house for so long, and it did not disappoint. With my parents down in Charleston with my sister and her family for Christmas, we knew that it would be a very quiet day for us (well, quiet for a family-of-five Christmas). A few friends mentioned that they might stop by later on, but we knew that the morning was ours alone and we were actually looking forward to it. There’s something lovely about having no one else to coordinate or compromise with when it comes to the plan and how the day unfolds. We made sure to pull together the Christmas morning breakfast that’s become an important family tradition, even if we were going to be on our own: peaches & cream french toast (my mom’s specialty that K looks forward to all year long), grits with cheese and Cholula, scrambled eggs, sausage and soy bacon.

When I was a kid, my sister and I would wake up well before dawn and urge my parents out of bed, they would head downstairs first to plug in the tree and make some coffee while we waited at the top of the stairs for the go-ahead to rush down and see what Santa had brought. I know that there are many ways of doing Christmas morning, but in our house the gifts Santa brought were in stockings or on the hearth and were unwrapped, and everything under the tree and wrapped was from someone else (our parents, pets, etc.). Many of those gifts were already under the tree well before Christmas. I found out from Kristin only a few days ago that all of the gifts they received were from Santa, and all were wrapped and appeared only on Christmas morning. It became a point of contention when I started to wrap gifts and place them under the tree a few days ago, so we had to hash out how our own family’s tradition was going to unfold. To be honest, I’ve also had lots of complicated feelings about Santa, largely because I want Christmas magic to come from lots of places for our kids and not have it all in that singular person and event (and in receiving gifts – Jonah already says that his favorite thing about Christmas is getting lots of toys). So this season I’ve tried hard to actively remind him to notice lots of other special things about the holiday season, and I’ve been telling him that those are MY favorite things about Christmas. It seems to have a tiny effect so I’ll keep trying. At any rate, peer influence is powerful and this year he’s been more interested in Santa than ever, so we’ve embraced it and he was excited to put cookies out on Christmas Eve. I’m not really capable of half-assing something with meaning, even if I’m ambivalent about some of the details, so I was fully committed to it this year.

My parents usually have a big Christmas Eve party and we’ve been doing that for years, but with them out of town we had to come up with an agenda. To make Christmas Eve feel special and not like any ordinary Saturday night, we decided to go to church. This is not something we ever do. I told Jonah about it a week or so ago and he said “Oh church. That’s a really big building that can fit lots of people. What’s a church?” I told him that it’s a place people go to talk about the Bible, which is a book about God and Jesus. He replied “Oh, Jesus. She’s the baby, isn’t she?” The service was really sweet, lots of very brief Christmas hymns, a brief cute and funny sermon for the kids, and cupcakes and a round of Happy Birthday for Jesus. We ran into some friends there and they introduced us to their pastor and a few other members of the congregation, which was really nice. After the service Jonah somehow found the toddler room full of toys, and as I was putting him to bed later on, he said “Hey, maybe some Sunday we could go back to that church, but instead of the singing part we could just do the playing part.” I told him that the singing part was kind of the whole point of going to church, and he said that he didn’t care for the singing part. At least he found something he liked.

On the drive home we drove through the older part of our neighborhood, where luminaries along the road are apparently a Christmas tradition. Nearly every single house for blocks and blocks had them out front, with real candles. It was truly beautiful. Kristin and I talked about how there’s something really special when that many families decide that they’re willing to go out in the cold after the sun goes down to set these up and light them, just to make the world more beautiful for the people who will pass by. Sure, some of it is tradition and neighborhood pressure I’m sure, and some might be from a sense of specialness worth flaunting (it’s the “good” part of the neighborhood), but I truly believe that at Christmas there’s a good bit of willingness to make your little plot of land more beautiful for those who may see it, and that’s so magical to me.

K and I were up ridiculously late last night (2 a.m. to be specific) preparing for the day, including some Ikea assembly that we both could have done without. At 1:30a.m. when you’re almost finished and getting super excited, the last thing you want to discover is that you’ve put the 2nd or 3rd piece in upside down. Some disassembly and reassembly later, the crisis was averted and we were off to bed. I was curious to see what time the kids would get us up, since this is the first year Jonah was truly excited and knew what to expect in the morning. At some point he climbed into bed with me (Kristin had shuffled into Vivi’s room) and asked me if it was morning. Without even looking at the time I said “no, not yet” and insisted he go back to sleep. At four he’s young enough to be OK with that, which was a much needed Christmas miracle. He finally asked me again if it was morning at 7:30 and I told him that yes, it was. I had him go wake Kristin and the twins and we all made our way into the living room.

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Jude and Vivienne were super excited about the toy kitchen, and spent a lot of time there today. That fiasco was totally worth it, even if they pulled the faucet out within the first 20 minutes. Vivi was initially disappointed that water didn’t come out and asked us repeatedly to turn it on. Maybe that’s why she removed it, who knows.

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The kids also got a teepee from Santa, which they all enjoyed. A friend who stopped over today mentioned that we seemed to choose a lot of “classic” toys, and I suppose in some ways that is our style. We almost managed to avoid batteries this year, with the exception of one flashlight and a small backhoe loader that makes engine noises (a specific request from Jonah to Santa to replace an old one that had broken). We certainly can’t claim to be minimalist in any way, however, and there’s nothing Montessori or Waldorf about our playroom. We just tend to love those toys and love to see the kids using their imaginations and creativity.

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If we struck out at all, I think that it was with Jonah. Along those same classic toy lines, we got him a marble run, which he loved and wanted to open and play with immediately in lieu of opening more gifts, which was amazing. That said, it was really the only gift he received today that he got to play with, whereas Vivi and Jude simply ended up with a lot more stuff that they were actively engaged with throughout the day. It’s not that we make any effort to keep Christmas small; in fact I come from a family that went WAY overboard on gifts every year, and it’s hard to break that cycle when it’s been passed down with such passion and love and enthusiasm.

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The problem is that we have SO many toys already, and 90% of those belong to Jonah. Sure, we insist on sharing, but when we’re thinking about gifts we often think “maybe Vivi and Jude should have their own…” or maybe it’s just that they’re interested in their own unique things now and Jonah’s interests haven’t changed a ton over the last year, so there’s space for Vivi and Jude to add new creative toys, but Jonah has all of the Legos and Magformers and construction vehicles that he could ever possibly need. Plus he has a Thanksgiving birthday, so when it came time to pick out Christmas gifts, we didn’t c0me up with much. That, and when his grandparents and aunts and uncles on Kristin’s side asked for suggestions, we gave them most of the ideas that we had (and those gifts aren’t being exchanged until tomorrow). So he’ll be receiving more things to play with, but Christmas morning is a big deal, and I’m not sure it was everything he hoped for.

He actually got a couple of other super cool gifts, a sit on digger for the sandbox (which we don’t have yet, and which it’s far too snowy for right now) and a bouncy house (!) from my sister, which was a collective gift for all three kids. We seriously considered blowing it up in the great room today but never did; every time we thought about it the kids were engaged with something else and we didn’t want to interrupt them to change gears, and by the time they were bored Jonah wasn’t feeling well. Did I mention he seems to have come down with conjunctivitis today? Double bummer. That means that he’ll miss K’s family Christmas party tomorrow (along with me) which really bums me out, for him more than anything else, but also because I really wanted to be together.

I know that he’ll love those two gifts once the weather is right to use them in the yard, but it’s tough to wait on those things. Kind of like getting a bike for Christmas in this sort of weather, which reminds me of another example of “Maybe the twins should have their own…” They got scooters from my parents since Jonah has a scooter and they’re always trying to snatch it. We didn’t even realize that the same company has a version that converts from a ride-on to a standing scooter, and Jude and Vivienne LOVE them.

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I don’t really have a good picture of the ride-on version, but V is sitting on hers in the very back of that shot. There’s even a storage compartment under the seat that came in rather handy since Jude needed to scoot while carrying baby, and once we converted his to the seat they both popped their babies underneath.

One of the highlights for both K and I was seeing Jude open that babydoll. Vivi has a baby that she adopted from Jonah’s toys; it was a gift he received from a friend on his first birthday and he never really took to it. She loves it to pieces and takes it everywhere. Jude never really had a baby, but this summer he inherited an old Cabbage Patch doll of mine which went lots of places with us, but it was in shabby shape and was really too large for him to carry around comfortably. We knew that he needed his very own baby for Christmas, and I think this moment made our day. I honestly didn’t even catch this kiss until I was going through the photos, and despite the fact that it’s out of focus, it’s the photo that makes me melt.

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Last night, as Kristin and I were finally drifting off to sleep, we talked about how different Christmas feels when the magic is entirely up to you. It’s more work, of course, but it’s also kind of special. We felt like we were a team with a mission to do something really magical for our kids, and it felt wonderful. Last night as I looked around at the living room after wrapping and what not, I said to Kristin that maybe we’d overdone it. They just didn’t need this many new things. But this morning, seeing their excitement and joy made it all feel just right; maybe that’s why it’s so easy to go overboard. Christmas really is better when you have kids of your own. Kristin said it was the best Christmas she’s had in decades, and I might have to agree.

 

New Traditions & Snowy Day Magic

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We had the most beautiful snowstorm this past weekend. One of the most magical things about being in our new home is having the opportunity to really notice and appreciate how it looks and feels at different times of day, in different seasons, and different weather. Seeing how our backyard looks when it’s covered in snow has been such a wonderful discovery. For some reason (which I’m sure has a simple “what they eat grows in your yard” explanation that we have yet to look up), we have lots of bluejays and cardinals in our yard. There’s a Mary Oliver poem that Kristin loves, from a book by the same name, called Red Bird. I feel like we now understand the inspiration for that poem. We love to point the cardinals out to the kids and they seem just as eager to stand at the window and look for them, bright red in the snow-covered bushes.

Friday night Jonah and I went to the store to buy sleds, and Saturday morning we went out front to play in the snow. Our street seems to be low on the city plowing priority list, which was actually convenient because we were able to pull the kids up and down the street in the sled.

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Jonah loves it, and also loves helping us to shovel the driveway. Vivi quickly learned to love the sled as well because it kept her out of the snow. This is how she felt about actually being in the snow.

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Jude tolerated the first ride or two, but then decided that the sled really wasn’t his thing. He preferred to stand around with a bucket and shovel and sort of poke at the snow.

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I also just love cozy, indoor fun while it’s snowy outside. While the twins napped after playing outdoors, Jonah played with trains in the great room. There’s nothing like PJ pants and a ski sweater to keep you toasty.

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I also decided that this year I wanted to start a Christmas cookies tradition with the kids. Can you believe I’ve NEVER done this? I mean yes, I’ve made cookies. But I’m fairly certain that I’ve never made rolled cookies before. We’ve had cookie cutters lying around, but they’ve always ended up in the play doh bin. I went out with Jonah and Vivi and we bought a rolling pin (never owned one!) and a ten-pack of holiday themed cookie cutters, some sprinkles, food dye (I know, but I wasn’t going to do turmeric and beet flavored icing), and all of the ingredients for sugar cookies. We did it over two days because we got a late start with the dough and baking, but I’m so glad we did it.

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Vivi was out-of-sorts, so I was wearing her while we made the dough. She got involved later for the rolling and cutting portion, however.

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Once they learned that you can eat raw cookie dough it was all over. We pretty much had to cut their involvement in that stage short once Vivi started putting handfuls of dough into her mouth.

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Kristin and I did some decorating on Sunday night after the kids went to bed, but we saved a whole bunch for the kids to do, and because they ended up with a snow day on Monday (and I took the day off to join them) we were able to decorate then.

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Vivi stuck with it the longest (although Jude was pretty into the sprinkling as well). She just loves art so much, I think she really took it seriously.

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On our snow day I also took Jonah shopping for families in need. We didn’t have a very solid list of needs on this particular trip because I’d crowd sourced and come up a little confused, but we have a few organizers in mind with whom we can drop things off, so we had a loose sense of what might be useful. I’d talked to Jonah in advance about choosing gifts for families that might not have any on Christmas, and for people who didn’t have basic needs met. He was totally into it. He was SO SLOW in the toy aisle, and I kept telling him that he needed to choose his gift and reminding him that it wasn’t for him, and he kept saying “I am choosing my gift, I’m just thinking about what I want to pick.” He was super thoughtful about it and finally chose two large trucks. I picked up a doll (and am shocked and disappointed by the whiteness of the doll selection at two different stores – it was eye-opening and just reinforced my unwavering commitment to buying brown-skinned dolls from now on), some building blocks, three winter coats, and three backpacks. Jonah was really into it which made me so happy. In the clothing section he kept saying things like “We could buy underwear for people who don’t have underwear. We could buy snow pants for people who don’t have snow pants.” I felt like he was getting it, and I was thrilled.

It felt like a really long weekend full of good-quality Christmas fun. I’m excited that it’s only mid-December and that we still have two more weeks to enjoy this! Hopefully we can think of a few more fun things to throw into the mix.