Friday, December 21, 2012

{12th day of christmas: traditions}

December is a season of traditions. The holidays are often filled with bright faces, bright memories, and bright spirit, dotted with bits of brightly colored wrapping paper and a good dash of nostalgia. It's a time of the year when we can reflect on how far we've come, or how far we have yet to go. It's a time to remember traditions that were started when we were very young, traditions that we have passed on in own families as we grew older. In this way, we become immortal.

For this final 12 Days of Christmas post, I wanted to share my own holiday traditions with you. Each person has their own version of their special holiday, be it waiting in line at 3 am each Black Friday with your aunts and mother, or lighting the Hanukkah candles, surrounded by loved ones, or watching A Christmas Story with your wacky uncle each year, drinking glasses of egg nog. This is my story. This is how I remember Christmas best. I hope you share your traditions this season, too. :)

{christmas tradition}

It is the day after Thanksgiving. With leftover turkey still in the fridge and our extended family scattering back to all points of the country, my family bundles up and heads to our local Christmas tree farm. I am small, and my sister smaller. The winters in the Southwest are not cold, but they are nippy enough to make our noses red and cheeks pink. We are wrapped in several layers of over-sized clothing and boots for the mud. The Christmas tree farmer gives my sister and I mugs of hot chocolate and peppermint sticks, and coloring books with pictures of little fir trees and reindeer. We suck on our peppermint sticks slowly, watching them dissolve into tiny white slivers, the red stripes pasted to our lips. We spend a long time wandering the rows of trees. It has to be perfect, our tree. Not too tall, not to short. Not too wide, not too skinny. Just the right amount of branches for ornaments, but not too droopy or low or crooked. My sister and I grow bored and chase each other through the fir trees, pretending we are Christmas elves.

We find the perfect tree. Or rather, if finds us. Somehow it chooses us every year, and when we get it back home, we place it inside and know it is perfect. There are pine needles all over the floor, and boxes of Christmas decorations that my mom has pulled out of the garage. My dad carries my sister outside on his shoulders; they begin the careful task of tacking up the Christmas lights along our roof-top. My mom and I pull out the indoor lights and carefully string the tree. We play Christmas music by Amy Grant, Andy Williams, and George Winston. We talk about our upcoming trip to Santa Fe, as we take each year, to visit my aunt and cousins. I sigh happily over memories of adobe houses, Christmas craft fairs and sparkling city lights beneath a dusting of snow.

Our ornaments are carefully packed in in boxes, but they emerge next: each ornament is a memory for our family tree. There are many from trips we have taken around the world, mementos of our yearly travels. There are some for my sister and I through the years, with dates or names or a memory attached. Some are handmade, some are gifts. Each one has a story, and we remember them as they reemerge.
Our nativity is next: a wooden stable that my grandfather made for my mom before he died. Inside are small wooden figures: a Mary, Joseph, wise men and baby Jesus. But my favorite are the delicate wooden camels. They are beautifully hand carved; my grandmother brought the nativity back from Bethlehem for us long ago. My mom adds figurines to the stable from her travels each year: a wooden owl from Peru, a heilan coo from Scotland, a soapstone Zebra from Brazil. Over the years the holy stable has become a menagerie of brightly colored and mismatched bits of the world.

The household decorations go up: garland around the banisters and porch posts. Lights in the windows. Stitched stockings with repeating patterns, one for each of us: angels for mom, nutcrackers for dad, bears for my sister, Santas for me. My mom's elaborate collection of Santa Clauses. They are everywhere: wooden ones and wooly ones, tall ones and short ones, skinny ones and plump ones. Hand painted, hand carved, hand stitched. They come from local and abroad, from near and far. They are Father Christmases and Pere Noels and Kris Kringles. They each have their own personality and they watch over us through the season.

December passes by. My sister and I sneak candy canes off the tree when no one is looking. We hide the wooden baby Jesus until Christmas morning. We watch The Santa Clause and Miracle on 34th Street over and over. We push our beds together in our room and lay a large down comforter on top, whispering about the presents under the tree. They have already begun to appear: gifts carefully wrapped by mom and dad. My mom puts a code on them each year, so my sister and I won't know which ones are ours until Christmas morning. Each year we try to solve the code early, and this year mom asks us if she can just write our names on them. She can't think of another code, she says. My sister and I say no! We love solving riddles. We like the codes. We like pretending and guessing which presents might be ours, but never really knowing. Last year our presents spelled out words, each one a different letter. Hers said Happy Holidays in red. Mine said Seasons Greetings in green.

Christmas draws closer. Each Sunday at church the Advent candles are lit: four of them on a wreath of garland. Three of the candles are purple, one is pink for Mother Mary. I count down the days to Christmas by watching the candles light each week.
My family spends our evenings driving slowly through our favorite neighborhoods, looking at Christmas lights. We sit by the tree in the dark before bed, watching the lights twinkle while listening to Christmas music. My sister and I go caroling with our Girl Scout troops. On Christmas Eve we go to evening Mass. My sister and I are in the nativity play. I am a wise man this year, and she is a shepherd. I wear my mom's wooly bath robe and my sister brings a walking staff. I bring a small jewelry box as Myrrh for the baby Jesus. The church is lit with candles and singers, and everything feels magical. We sing Hark, the Harold Angels Sing, Oh Bethlehem, and my favorite, O, Holy Night.
We return home sleepy, yet excited. At this age, Santa is a wonderful bit of magic to me. I sit down and write him a careful letter. I can hardly wait to leave out a plate of fig newtons and carrots (for Rudolph). I want to go to bed right away, but I stay up with my sister reading The Polar Express and The Night Before Christmas. I remember listening for sleigh bells before falling asleep.

Christmas morning comes quickly: my sister and I tiptoe out of bed so we don't wake our parents. Wrapped in blankets, we sneak into the living room where Santa has left a plate full of crumbs and two perfectly wrapped presents, one for her and one for me. These are the only two presents we are allowed to open before anyone else wakes up, so we dive into them with giggles and then impatiently return to bed, waiting for mom and dad to awaken. When everyone is up, we turn on the music, pretend to gobble down breakfast, and settle down beneath the tree. My sister and I learn that this year's code is a numbered system for each of us. Mom has the cheat sheet on a small index card, but halfway through my dad opens a book titled Just for Girls, and mom realizes she mixed up the system a little and we laugh. Our presents are always carefully matched; if I get a six-year old's makeup kit, my sister gets a three year old's makeup kit. We open them at the same time. Mom and dad take their turn in between. Usually the gifts are small things, baubles and delights. One or two special "big" presents are saved until very last. A firework finale.

When the living room is wholly strewn with wrapping paper, we clean up the wreckage and take pictures with our presents carefully arranged around us. The photos are put into our scrapbooks, and it is fun to look back at years past and see how the times have changed. I got my first set of legos that year... there's my favorite doll... remember that book? I had almost forgotten about Lite-Brites, or Polly Pockets, or Little People toy sets, but there they are, in my photos over the years.

The rest of the holiday is for family, and for travels, and for sharing those moments over and over. We keep our tree up until New Years, sometimes later, and when it's finally time to take it down, my dad loads it into his truck and brings it to his lake where he can sink it. He marks the spot on his radar and will fish there for the rest of the year. We carefully pack up ornaments and decorations and take down the lights, boxing away the memories for another year.

What are your traditions?
Happy holidays! (I will be back next year!) ;)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

{11th day of christmas: gingersnap cookies}

Gingerbread cookies are Santa's favorite cookies. And mine, too. I never seem to remember how much I love them until this time of year rolls around and I get a craving for them... something about the spicy bite of cloves and ginger, the sweetness of the cinnamon and the bitterness of the molasses is what does me in completely.

Sometimes inspiration hits at odd moments. I was craving gingersnaps at 10 pm, so that's when I made them. Fortunately, this recipe is very quick and easy; I was putting the second batch of cookies in the oven at the same time that I was polishing off the first batch. Then I realized that snacking on gingersnaps is not like snacking on popcorn, and perhaps I should not have six of them at a time.

{gingersnap cookies}


3/4 cup butter (room temp)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
Garnish: 1 cup white sugar

...aaaaand Santa's little helper. :)

In a large bowl, cream the butter and brown/white sugars together until light and fluffy. Since Tanner likes using power tools, I gave him our hand mixer and told him to have at it.

Once creamy, slowly add in the egg, vanilla, and molasses.

In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Add the dry mixture to the butter mixture and mix.

Chill the mixture in the fridge for about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Scoop out small balls of cookie dough and roll in white sugar to coat. Place cookies on cookie sheet and flatten with your hand or the bottom of a jar. (I like imperfect cookies, so mine weren't very symmetrical.)

Bake for 12-15 minutes or until dry and firm on top. The longer they bake, the crisper the gingersnap will be. I have an overly manic oven and a taste for soft-centered cookies, so I only baked mine for 11 minutes. Warm, spicy goodness.

Tanner kept trying to sneak cookies when I wasn't looking, so I made him stand still to take some photos. This didn't go over very well. In fact, the conversation went something like this:

Me: "Ok, take a step back. A little further. Now hold the cookie out into the light. More to the left. No, don't eat the cookie. More to the left. A little more. Ok, hold it right there... no, you can't eat the cookie. Tanner. Leave the cookie alone. You're supposed to hold it still so I can take a picture. Don't eat the cookie! TANNER, STOP EATING THE COOKIE."

Verdict? Delicious.

Monday, December 17, 2012

{10th day of christmas: poinsettia wreath}

It's the last week of Christmas crafts! Can you believe it? Only eight more days until Christmas, and then I'm taking a much deserved holiday. :)

For this 10th day of Christmas, we're going to make a holiday poinsettia wreath. You may have seen this DIY project floating around Pinterest. I noticed it months ago and knew I just had to try it. After diligently collecting toilet paper rolls for the past few weeks, the finished result is finally here!

This wreath is shockingly easy and the design possibilities are endless. See {here}, {here} and {here} for some more inspiration. All you need are some TP rolls and an adhesive of some kind. Ready... go.

{poinsettia wreath}

Empty toilet paper rolls (I used eleven. Each roll makes 2/3 of a flower)
Mini stapler (or glue and paper clips/clamps)
Ribbon or twine to hang

First collect your toilet paper (or paper towel) rolls. All of mine came from the same pack of TP, so I have no idea why some of the tubes are white and some are brown. Maybe there's some hidden symbolism there. Like, "we may be different colors on the outside, but on the very outside, we're all just toilet paper."
...or something like that.

Flatten out your tubes and use a ruler to divide them into consistent widths. I cut mine into 3/4" strips. Each tube yielded five strips and a little left over.

Flatten and cut out all your TP tubes:

Then arrange them on a table into a design of your choosing. You may opt for some fancy wall hanging, or a circular leaf motif, or a flowing form of some kind. I went with poinsettia-like shapes, since it is a holiday wreath, after all.

Once you have a good design, adhere your pieces together. You can be all fancy and glue them, but then you'll have to get paper clips or clamps of some kind to keep it all together while it dries. I have no patience for that kind of thing, so I got all ghetto-DIY on this thing and used a stapler. Yeah, I'm all about the classy.

P.S.- if you use a stapler, you'll need a mini one. The full sized staplers don't fit very well between the TP tubes.

I discovered that stapling the flowers together in sets of six before adding any "leaves" or other frills will make your job easier in the long run. Don't try to line up all the flower points in the middle, it will only frustrate you. Besides, having a small gap in the center of each flower looks better.

The wreath will be more stable than you give it credit for, and stapling all the pieces together with lots of overlap will help it hang better.

I'm not sure why there's potpourri in that photo. Just go with it.

Once you have your creation stapled and ready to go, use some twine or ribbon to tie to the top. Add embellishments as you see fit, and hang your creation on your wall!

Friday, December 14, 2012

{9th day of christmas: gift boxes}

Do you have an ever-growing stack of holiday cards you collect each year, or is that just me? It's hard to know what to do with them all, so here's a quick and easy DIY craft that recycles your old holiday cards into tiny origami gift boxes that you can use the next year for stocking stuffers!

{christmas card gift boxes}

Materials needed:
Holiday cards
Tape (optional)

You'll need the front and back of the greeting card for these boxes (to make the top and bottom of the box). As a tip: larger cards are easier to fold and make bigger boxes, so shy away from the smaller sized cards if you get frustrated by attempting tiny origami folds (like me).

1. Cut the card down the middle to separate the front from the back. The folds are the same for both halves, but this demo will be for the top of the box.
2. Cut your card so that it is a perfect square. (When you're making the bottom of your box, you will need to remember to make the square slightly smaller)
3. Flip your card over so that the pattern is facing down (in this case, I wanted the polar bear and penguin on the top of the box. I'm not sure why this card happens to have a weird design on the back, too!)
4. Fold your card in half right-to-left and reopen.

5. Now fold your square in half top-to-bottom.
6. When you reopen the square, you should see the crease marks create a "plus" sign on your card.
7. Fold each of your corners into the center where they should line up. (Sorry, in this picture I rotated the card a little... I hope that doesn't confuse anyone!)
8. With your corners still folded to the middle, now fold the top and bottom of your square to the center where they should line up.

9. Unfold the last step you just did and do the same thing the other direction: bring your left and right sides of your square to the middle.
10. Unfold everything except two of your corners, as shown.
11. Fold in the left and right halves along your crease lines to make a "skinny tie" shape.
12. Lift up the sides you just folded down to create the sides of your box.

13. Pinch your fingers into the top creases so that the side of the box starts to collapse into itself.
14. Flip the fold up and over...
15. ... so that it tucks into place and holds up the side of the box.
16. Do the same thing to the other side of the box. If the flaps keep popping up, use a bit of tape to secure it in place.

Now you should have one half of a tiny holiday box! Make the bottom of your box the same way (but cut your square slightly smaller) and fit the two pieces together to make a closed box. Fill with candies, jewelry, or other small gifts to put in Advent Calendars, stockings, or under the tree!


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

{8th day of christmas: egg nog}

If you were watching the news yesterday, you may have seen that there was a shooting near Portland, OR: a lone gunman opened fire in a crowded, holiday-shopper-filled mall, killed two people and injured one before killing himself.

Occurrences like this are senseless, scary, and a dose of bitter, terrible reality at a time when we're supposed to be loving, kind and warm toward one another. This instance, in particular, hits particularly close to home (emotionally and in actuality) and is an unfortunate follow-up to a post where I exuded the sheer wonder and delight I feel every time I go into a holiday mall this time of year. Instead of giggling over the extravagant decorations and the plump, smiling Santas, last night there was Christmas music playing in quiet and empty mall hallways while SWAT teams checked on employees and customers alike. To dampen such wonder with something so cruel is just beyond all reason. My thoughts and prayers go out to all involved in such a tragedy.

As such, I've been watching the news since 4 pm yesterday, and though I had been working diligently on my shop all morning, all that was forsaken to watch the unraveling of events. As afternoon turned towards evening, I decided to make a batch of egg nog, to hold very carefully to holiday normalcy before it, too, cracked.

{egg nog}

4 eggs
1 cup sugar
3 1/2 cups milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla extract

I have never made egg nog before, nor even whipped egg whites before (I know, I'm terribly cooking naive) so this was a learning opportunity for me. As far as I could tell, there are two ways to make egg nog: cooked and uncooked. The cooked version didn't seem to take heavy cream as an ingredient, which I assumed would make the egg nog too milky, but I wasn't in favor of making a drink from raw eggs, so I spliced two recipes together and came up with my own concoction.

1. Separate egg whites and yolks into two separate bowls. With the yolks, whip in 1/2 cup sugar until blended.
2. With an electric mixer, whip the bowl of egg whites until stiff peaks form. (It takes probably 10 minutes, but it's like magic. I used this site for some good tips on how to beat egg whites, since I was dubious that I could make it happen just by guessing at it)
3. Mix in 1/2 cup sugar bit by bit into the egg whites until blended.
4. Add the egg yolk mixture into the egg whites and then add in 2 1/2 cups milk. Mix until blended.
5. Pour mixture into a pan and heat over medium for about 5 minutes, until it thickens. I cooked mine slightly longer (my blend was already pretty thick, so I did a poor job judging when to stop heating it) and ended up with a more "eggy" smelling nog.
6. Remove egg nog from heat and let cool 5 minutes. Add in 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream.
7. In a separate bowl, beat 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream until stiff and then fold into egg nog.
8. Mix in nutmeg and vanilla extract and cool in fridge for 1-2 hours.

This makes a large pitcher's-worth of egg nog.

Mine turned out pretty tasty (and very "eggy"), but then again, I don't have a good reference for what good egg nog is really supposed to taste like. My guess is it's supposed to be a little thicker and perhaps a little sweeter (or maybe that's just the overprocessed store bought kind?)

Unfortunately, I don't have many photos of the process because, as it turns out, taking pictures of lots of white-and-yellow frothy ingredients just isn't that interesting. I'm sparing you the pain of mediocrity on this one, trust me.

Stay safe, drink your egg nog and give hugs to your loved ones tonight.

Monday, December 10, 2012

{7th day of christmas: hot cocoa}

I love the holiday season. And I'm not talking "love" like the cliche "Christmas is my favorite holiday" drivel. No, I'm talking love like everything-about-the-holidays-makes-me-mushy-inside love. As in, I love the things that most people just hate about the holidays.

- I love the gaudy, ostentatious holiday decorations that show up in the big department stores every year (it makes me feel like I live in a Christmas movie set in New York)
- I love the cheesy Christmas songs on the radio that start the day after Thanksgiving (yes, I'm that person)
- I love watching holiday movies over and over (I never get tired of The Santa Clause and While You Were Sleeping)
- I love seeing Santa Claus at the mall in his giant North Pole house with a huge line of kids all waiting to start screaming the second they sit in his lap.
- I love untangling Christmas lights and dragging out the boxes of Christmas decorations and I love leaving my tree up until mid-January... or late January... or March.
- I love the cold dump of snow and everyone bundled up running around doing their Christmas shopping last-minute.
- I love driving around town looking at the overblown Christmas lights and those horrific lawn decorations that seem to show up in every neighborhood.
- I love Christmas carolers and hand bell choirs.
- I love that jittery, excited feeling that has been with me since I was very small and still thought that a big jolly man in a red suit was going to magically leave me presents on Christmas Eve. Sometimes I still believe that.
- I love the overstuffed church pews on Christmas Eve.
- I love the foods that are somehow only acceptable once a year. Pumpkin pie, peppermint ice cream, cranberry sauce, baked yams, egg nog, gingerbread.
- and I love hot cocoa, even if every, every, every time I drink it, it scorches my tongue and I can't taste anything after the first sip.

After spending a long weekend at the mall people-watching (like a crazy person... who goes to the mall on purpose this time of year not to shop, except me?) I decided I needed to round-out my dose of Christmas cheer with a warm, chocolaty beverage.

{hot cocoa}

1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup chocolate chips
3 cups milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
Cinnamon, to taste

Mix the cocoa powder and sugar together in a small pot. Add milk and chocolate chips and heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until chocolate chips have melted and consistency thickens slightly. Add vanilla and serve. I sprinkle a dash of cinnamon on top of mine.
Makes three-four servings.

True to form, I burnt my tongue the first sip I took, but somehow managed to enjoy the rich, chocolate taste to the last drop. Delicious.

Friday, December 7, 2012

{6th day of christmas: how to photograph a christmas tree}

Today's post contains a few tips on how to take pictures of Christmas trees. I don't claim to be an expert at photography, so these are just the things I have discovered messing around with my camera. You may have some helpful tips of your own, so feel free to share!

{tips on how to photograph a christmas tree}

Your first step is going to be setting up a tripod for your camera. Since these are low-light shots, it's imperative that you have a stable base on which to place your camera. Otherwise you're going to be frustrated by photo blurriness. If you don't have a tripod, consider using a table and some stacked boxes to get your camera to the height you want. You'll also need some kind of remote to hit the shutter, or just put your camera on a timer when shooting (otherwise your finger hitting the shutter button will shake the camera and ruin your nice, stable setup)

You'll also need a wider lens on your camera if you want to get the whole tree in one shot. I have a Nikon D90 and used my 18-105 zoom lens for these shots, mostly with the zoom at 18mm. The tripod I use is the Manfrotto compact MKC3-H01. I love it: it packs up super tiny so I can take it on hikes with me, but is sturdy enough to hold my heavy camera and lenses.

Once you have your setup ready, let's play with your camera settings. You'll want to be in manual mode so you can adjust both aperture and shutter speed.

There are a few ways you can do this. To get the lovely "blown out" Christmas lights look, here are some general guidelines of how to set up your camera:

Shutter speed: 3"
Aperture: F/5.6
ISO: 1000
White balance: Tungsten (or Kelvin 2500)

You may not have these exact numbers; basically you want to put your aperture to a low number (ie: a low aperture number = a "wider" aperture and more light let in while shooting), your shutter speed to something slower (I set mine to 3 seconds), and your ISO to something on the higher end (a higher number will make the photo grainier, but if you have a very dark room, this may be a necessary adjustment).

(Ignore the ISO, shutter speed and aperture number in this demo, I know it says 1600, 8" and f/16... we'll get to that in a minute).

As you can see from your light meter, your camera is going to think that you're taking a photo that has the highlights really blown out. But that's what we want, so ignore the light meter and keep checking your histogram, instead: it will be more accurate.

As for white balance, I took these shots after dark, where the only light in the room was coming from the tree. Christmas lights, unless you buy the fancy new LED kind, are just tiny Tungsten lights. This is a good place to start when setting your white balance. However, my lights still were giving off a fairly orangey glow when I used the Tungsten setting:

I found what worked better was using the Kelvin setting (usually a "K" on your white balance: see above photo) and setting it to the lowest number. For me it was 2500. For those of you who don't know how the K setting works, it's basically the degree rating for different types of lighting.
For example, candlelight is about 1800 degrees, tungsten (indoor) lights usually burn about 3000 degrees, fluorescent lights at 4000 degrees, daylight is 5500 degrees, and shade in daylight is 7500 degrees. When I set the white balance to the lowest 2500 degree, the picture came out a little less "orange":

Obviously it's still a little tinted because the colors of the Christmas lights are mostly red and orange. If you have white Christmas lights, you should have a cleaner photo, but you'll also need to adjust your aperture, ISO and shutter speed to let in less light since white lights are much brighter.

Another option for shooting Christmas tree lights is to go for that "sparkly" look. The trick to achieving this is to have your aperture be very small: ie, set it to f/16. To compensate for such little light let in here, you'll need to have a much slower shutter speed and higher ISO. I changed mine to 8 seconds and 1600.

If you look closely, you can see that each Christmas light has a "star burst" around it, making the lights look more sparkly. You can choose whether you like the look of the tree this way, or the overblown glowing tree above. Feel free to play around with your settings until you find something you like!

I hope this tutorial helped - let me know if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions on how you like to photograph your Christmas tree!
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