Trying to tamp down the guilt that rose like a cloud of evil dust, I mentally ran through my week, comparing it to the week that my brothers and sisters have endured in Aleppo. I shouldn’t have bought any presents, I thought. How could I even dare? How can we light our Advent candles and sing “O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel?” We are not captives. We are healthy, wealthy, safe, pampered. Our walls our intact. We are home. Our children are with us, safe and warm in bed. The Syrians, they are the ones who need rescuing, Lord. Lord, isn’t there something I can do?
Feeling a dearth of burlap, foxes, chevrons, fairy lights, and mason jar lids in my life, I went on Pinterest to see what was happenin’.
I always start out with wholesome intentions, sincerely searching for neat DIY ideas. I even bought a set of plain glass balls, and I intend to spray paint them, using tiny paper snowflakes as stencils. As stencils! It is going to be pretty. Tell me it’s going to be pretty!
I start out, I say, with good intentions, looking for ideas that we will enjoy trying out; but I always end up calling my husband over for backup to help me mock stuff more thoroughly.
Because son, there is some stupid shit out there.
For your convenience, I’ve organized my thoughts into some basic rules to help you identify when you’ve slipped past DIY and landed smack in the middle of WTF, by which I obviously mean Where’s the Fphrenologist to feel your lumpy head and figure out what would impel you to follow through with some of these hideously inexcusable projects?
Things that would bring shame to hobos. Okay, so we all have failed crafts and stupid crafts and crafts that don’t turn out so great. That is fine. I have a number of them displayed around my house, because I have low standards.
When kids make things that turn out a little rough and wobbly, that’s cute. When disabled people make things that are kind of naive and clunky, your heart is allowed to melt. But functioning adults are not allowed to just churn out crap and call it “adorable” just because it looks bad! Bad is bad! It’s not twee or offbeat or funky! It’s just bad! Bad bad bad!
(If you want to live a little, browse around in this chick’s site. Do not miss the confetti updo, which, the tutorial will instruct you, can be achieved by braiding your hair and then using your head to clean under the couch. In another spot, she instructs you to roast a turkey, cram some pom poms up its ass, and call it “festive feast.” I BET IT IS.)
Craft projects that require you spend $18 on a hobby store fake version of something people used to throw out back once the hogs were done with them. You know it must be within ten days of a major American holiday when local message boards are full of frantic pleas: Does anyone know where I can find wooden pallets? No, honey, nobody knows, because they have all been painted like terrible flags for the fourth of July, hung on the walls of pretentious condos for terrible wine racks, transformed into terrible herb planters in the front yards of people who wouldn’t know what to do with basil if grew with instructions right on the leaves, or tacked together by someone’s gloomy husband who would be perfectly willing to shell out cash for an actual, real, non-wobbly coffee table that doesn’t give you splinters, but now we have to spend all Thursday night sanding, and the Raiders are playing, too.
Leave pallets alone. Also milk bottles, mason jars, pre-weathered planks, and fruit crates. Gosh.
A small-scale rendition of this trend is when you take perfectly good stand-alone ornaments and tag them with keywords designed to snag maximum pageviews. You know what I mean: You have five glass balls in tasteful blue and silver, and that’s fine, but then you have to buy a special glass-writing marker and label each one with a Certified Holiday Word (without upper case letters or punctuation, of course, because we are having fun!). “Jingle” says one. “Merry,” explains another. “Star,” posits a third.
What? What? What is this for? This is stupid. If you like jingling so much, maybe use a bell, eh, smartacus? This is one of those things that people only do because other people are doing it, so it seems normal and cute and pretty, but it’s not. It’s stupid and it’s making the word stupider.
Subset: those astronomically smug, oversized wall decals that literally spell out exactly what kind of family you are. “WE DO LOVE! WE DO MESSY! WE DO OOPSIE WOOPSIE DOO ON THE REGULAR! WE SHINE FULL TIME! LOOK AT MY WHITE TEETH! I DEMAND A GOLD MEDAL FOR NOT FLIPPING OUT WHEN CARTER DROPS A CRACKER ON THE CARPET! CAN YOU EVEN BELIEVE YOU GET TO BE FRIENDS WITH US!” No, I can’t. Please give me my coat back; I really must be going. I think I left my humidifier running, and the cats are going to get all waterlogged.
Yeah, yeah, I know, they’re not there for guests. They’re there for the actual family, to remind them of their own ideals. Except they’re not. They’re totally there to impress people, along the lines of those “Another family for peace” bumper stickers. I’m going to start my own auto insurance company just to design a rider specifically to cover people who deliberately rear-end another family for peace.
Inedible food ornaments. This may just be a hangover from some stinging childhood disappointment, but I feel like it’s bad form to fill the house with marvellous scents and then not get to chew on anything. Gingerbread cookies? Those are for eating. Applesauce is also for eating, and not for compressing into little weird brick stars and hearts that only look like non-poop if you tell people, “Those are made of applesauce, you know!” I’ll make an exception for clove oranges, because they really are pretty, and they have a venerable past. But no more dried applesauce poop. It doesn’t make me mad, it just makes me sad. I like applesauce.
Now, if you’re trying to sell me on the idea that industrial design can be beautiful, that is one thing. I will actually go to a museum and look carefully at a very good toilet or a telephone or a circuit board, because I like design. But that is not what is going on here. What is going on here is that some deranged housewife gets it into her head that anything that is no longer for sale at full price at Bed, Bath and So Forth must be automatically nostalgic, and therefore decorative. My only comfort is that deranged people are bad at hanging stuff, so it will probably fall down at some point and hit somebody. Kapow! Where’s your nostalgia now?
We have ten kids, ages eighteen to almost two. We buy . . . . a lot . . . .of gifts. Here’s a list of fifty that our kids tried and liked this past year. They’re mostly under $50, and are in order from cheapest to most expensive, so it’s a little book-heavy in the beginning.
I’d also like to apologize for the graphic.
Most of these items are from Amazon. I’m an Amazon Affiliate, and all of the Amazon links in this post have my code embedded, so I earn a small percentage of the sale price, which is how we buy more presents for ten kids next year, and on and on it goes.
“I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies!” Possibly specific to the needs of my family. For the right person, it could be the best $4 you ever spent. When people ask how my kids deal with being one of the few Catholics in a giant public school, this sums it up pretty well.
This book came highly recommended by trusted friends for kids grade four and up, and it lived up to the hype. Original, exciting, and the author actually wrote it with care and wit, rather than just assembling a plot with the right keywords. Kids and I both enjoyed it. It’s part one of a series of four.
Another book my friends have been lauding forever. My first-grader just adores this series, which has ten books total. I admit I haven’t read it yet, but my daughter doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, so I respect her opinion.
This is the one of two items on this list that I haven’t actually bought yet, but it’s on my list — in this case, on my wish list. If someone gets it for me, I plan to grow ivy in it. Ivy will grow easily in water. I need green in the house to tide me over until spring!
This was a gift for the six-year-old, but everyone loves it, from the baby on up. Those orderly little drops, marching up and down the steps, hurrying or strolling, as you choose. Endlessly fascinating, miraculously never mixing. (There are any number of liquid motion toys to choose from. Great for babies, older kids who need calming down, or adults who need calming down. I once spotted a few of these toys in the waiting room at the washing machine repair shop, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t mind waiting.)
Matthew Alderman’s new offerings this year. Alderman’s style is so fresh and inviting, reminiscent of Trina Schart Hyman, who drew heavily on heraldry and illuminated manuscripts, nodded at the pre-raphaelites, and then opened the window to let some air in. Great stuff. Kids (and others) soak in knowledge as they color.
Corrie got this last Christmas, when she was teething hard, so it became known as the Corrie-o. The little ridges are perfect for sore gums. It’s bigger than a real Oreo, so not a choking hazard. Super cute, still a favorite after a year of gnawing.
How I adore this movie. It shows, without comment, everyday scenes from the lives of four babies, from just before they’re born until they’re learning how to stand. The families live in San Francisco, Tokyo, the Mongolian steppe, and Namibia, and their lives vary widely, but some things are always the same. Sweetness and a little melancholy, but mostly sweetness. I always feel restored after watching this short, gentle, agenda-free movie, and the kids love it.
Ben Hatke’s first installment in a new graphic novel series. It’s a reimagining of Jack and the Beanstalk, and it’s wonderful. You care about the main character right away; Hatke is generous with understated details that tell you what you need to know about the world they live in; and I have no idea what is going to happen next. Some serious themes — serious money troubles, danger, a younger sister who is autistic, and a difficult friendship — but suitable for kids age 7 and up, if they’re not highly sensitive.
We loved The Pirates! Band of Misfits movie so much (made by the same folks who make the excellent Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep), and recently discovered that it was based on a series of books that are even odder and nuttier than the movie. These books do include some bawdy jokes and some violent details, but I feel that the most inapwo-pwo stuff goes over the little kids’ heads, and it’s just edgy enough to give the older kids a little thrill, without crossing any lines.
My fashion-minded ten-year old would wear this every day if we let her (which we do). Pair it with the TARDIS hat (which she does) and and maybe the TARDIS dress, and you have a themed ensemble. The scarf is a stretchy rayon, machine washable.
This toy distracts the baby from your actual smartphone for maybe ten minutes. Worth every second. I like B. Toys because they make sounds, but they are intentionally soft; and they have an off switch. This one has held up well, and doesn’t gobble batteries too badly. Also records your voice, so the older kids are always pranking each other.
The large wooden balls are linked with elastic, so you can wear it like a bracelet, or you can roll and twist them to make all kinds of lovely clusters of color. Each ball is painted a slightly different shade, it’s pleasantly heavy, and it makes a soft clacking sound. Fine, I bought it for myself, and sometimes I let the baby play with it. We’ve had good luck with this brand, Manhattan Toy.
Whenever my kids put Calico Critters on the list, I grumble and complain about how stupid and pointless and expensive they are; and then I start shopping, and then I go, “AWWWWWWW.” They really are adorable. These are very small toys, so not great for kids who lose stuff; but they are sturdy and sweet, and come in dozens of different species. We also have the pool and sandbox set.
I actually resisted buying this kit, because it seemed dumb (ALEX toys are hit or miss) but one kid desired it greatly. It turned out to be quite good. The headbands haven’t broken after a year of use, which is almost a miracle; and she had a surprising amount of fun making different combinations.
My current favorite read-aloud. This book has an unusual focus for a children’s book: a very old couple, so poor they have to share everything, including a chair, a blanket, and the one last potato in the garden — or so they think. A simple and hilarious story of unexplained magic, but so much to unpack about what you really need in life. The illustrations are understated but extraordinary.
My ten-year-old daughter worked to earn her very own ice cream and candy dress, but maybe you’d prefer beetles, constellations, or cute ghosties. More varieties, some of them truly bizarre, than you can shake a stick at. These dresses are on the short side for adults of average height, but work fine for shorter folks. They come with or without sleeves, and are made of a stretchy rayon material.
Oh, I lied, this is another thing I haven’t bought yet, but friends say it’s lovely. I’m a sucker for little worlds under a dome, and I love how this comes with a hanging hook. Friends say it’s brighter than you might expect. We recently redid the little girls’ room with two sets of bunk beds, so we may be investing in individual lighting for individual preferences.These come in three different colors, and you can get either the rabbit thing, or a plump little bird.
By far the nicest instructional ballet video I’ve ever seen. The music is pleasant, there are no bizarre mascots or intrusive animation, the teacher seems to actually like kids, and you will learn some true, basic ballet. We put a broomstick between two chair backs to make the required barre.
The premise is that, when night falls in the village, a werewolf comes out and kills someone; and everyone else has to figure out who the werewolf is and what to do about it. Everyone closes his eyes, and the leader instructs one person at a time to wake up, take a look at the card that reveals his role (werewolf, bodyguard, witch, villager, etc.), and then go back to sleep. There are several rounds of play, in which the players anonymously decide to kill, save, protect, or silence each other.
Quilling is making a comeback! A lovely, old-fashioned craft where you roll up thin strips of paper, loosely or tightly, then pinch them into various shapes. No end of possibilities here. You can make free-standing 3-D ornaments, glue the paper to eggs, make cards, or even jewelry. A very pleasant way to spend time. My nine-year-old needed a little help to get started, but she caught on fast.
With eight daughters, we’ve tried a number of jewelry boxes. A number. This one is by far the sturdiest, but it still looks delicate and dainty. The ballerina still pops up, the music still plays, the hinges still function, and the box is still a box. Pretty, silver-satin quilted design. Plays “Fur Elise.”
Probably the most-used piece of furniture in our entire house. This lived in our living room for at least five months, and saved my sanity while Miss Insano clambered up and threw herself down hundreds and hundreds of times. Folds for storage.
This is the absolute last untested item on this list! We’ve bought many items from The Little Dress-Up Shop, and have always been completely delighted, so I’m confident that this sweet, poofy ballerina skirt with rosebuds will be well-received.
42.Portable Bluetooth speaker, about $37
Exactly what we needed. It works with my kid’s phones, and lets them blast music while slaving away in the dirty dish mines or cleaning up the yard after the last raccoon garbage party. Easy to use, and a good value for the price.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one sword. This one is long, shiny and seriously heavy. Not sharp, but you definitely could kill someone if you tried. Not meant for heavy fighting, but good for stage or costumes or just swaggering around with a big-ass sword.
Greatest inspiration I’ve had all year. We now have two sets (they come rated for different weights), and they are adjustable. First kid went from zero skill to wobbling across the floor in a few minutes, and now she can jump, run backwards, spin, and do all kinds of terrifying stunts. Good exercise, good for improving balance, and great for building confidence. Excelsior!
Yes, this is the second trampoline we’ve bought. We finally destroyed the mat of the first one, and after several unsuccesful attempts to replace it (we kept buying the wrong size, the wrong spring size, etc. etc.) we just threw in the towel and bought a new one, upgrading to fifteen feet. I know all about the horrible stories of mangled faces and splintered tibias, but we are still a trampoline family all the way.
Baby loves it. Kids love playing with the baby on it. It’s instant entertainment at birthday parties, with or without water balloons and a sprinkler or Easter dresses.
Grouchy or sullen teens discover that life is worth living after taking out their troubles on the trampoline. And it’s a perfect spot for stargazing or sunbathing or lying down while the kids run around you, blissfully under the illusion that you are playing with them.
You really need a trampoline. (And if you happen to have a spare trampoline frame, you can wrap some chicken wire around it and make a garden fence, or maybe a chicken coop.)
Okay! That’s it for this year. Happy shopping! Thanks again for using my link when you shop on Amazon.
If you only have time for three Hail Marys, these rose counters are sweet and nostalgic-looking.
The Wallet Rosary, $12.50 Made of string, light, brushed stainless steel, and slim as a credit card, it fits right in your wallet.
Neat idea! Grab it when you need it.
Use coupon code “SimchaChristmas” for free U.S. Shipping on orders of 2+ rosaries through 12/15.
Chews Life – an assortment of rosaries, chaplets, and bracelets and necklaces designed to divert and delight nursing, teething, twiddling babies
Featured item: Chews life decade rosary, $18
Gracefully bow to the inevitable and carry a rosary designed to be gnawed on. Love it.
Apple and Azalea by Theresa Barger – Memory wire rosary bracelets and other elegant jewelry and accessories
I always admired my friend Theresa’s style and elegance when we were in college together, and her original wrap-around rosaries ($24-$28) are exquisite and varied. I had a hard time picking just one to feature, so I picked three.
My own wrap-around bracelet, a southwestern-style one, has held its shape through years of abuse at the hands and mouths of various babies.
Imagine glancing out the kitchen window to see a flock of little foxes prancing by, and knowing that for once, their ears are necks are warm. (Foxes do so come in flocks.) Completely adorable, and so cozy.
Three Jolly Owls by Katie McGinley: Handcrafted Goods and Gifts for the Liturgical Year: peg doll saints, Jesse tree ornaments, and more.
Featured item: Handmade felt Jesse Tree ornaments, $54
Perfect! Simple, bright, and meaningful, and an easy tradition to follow every year. The ornaments have ribbons loops for hanging.
SPECIAL OFFER: Use coupon code PANTS10 to get 10% off! – valid until 12/31
Ooh, I like the looks of these. Spare and elegant with a soupçon of strangeness. Many more pieces on the site.
Door Number 9 by Elisa Low Featured item: Hamilton Gimmel Rings, $25. You remember Elisa from when we chatted about holy cards as fan art, and the intersection of faith and geekdom. Well, those interlocking Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton wedding rings she was working on are on their way! The first run sold out immediately, but you can pre-order, $25.
So luxe! I love how the natural shape of the soap is incorporated into the design, like a little landscape. Get several as little gifts or stocking stuffers, or keep them for yourself and enjoy that once-a- year scent.
Wild Things Adventures by Sarah Antonio
Featured item: Adventure bags, $85 Handmade leather satchels stocked with a hand stitched, leather bound journal with 24 watercolor pages, a Prang watercolor set with small water jar (not pictured), branch pencil, compass, binoculars, and a folding magnifying glass!
Eh? Eh? You can almost smell the outdoors calling.
Once we realized we were a band and began thinking of a name, we knew we would feel inclined to self-identify more as mothers than musicians. Our various experiences of motherhood certainly bear down on these songs.
When I’ve been pregnant (I have six children) I almost always fall into a depression, inability to pray, distance from God, and a heavy darkness that lifts almost immediately once I’ve given birth. In the midst of those pregnancies, I’ve thought more than once that I should name my child for the author of The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross.
As Kaitlyn notes, creativity often springs from this sometimes painful, always holy duty to bear and support the lives of others.
We hope you enjoy these songs, which both extend from, and are an homage to the darkening season of waiting for new life in our Beloved Savior.
Second is a GIVEAWAY of this splendid Gospel Advent calendar by MaïteRoche, one of my all-time favorite Catholic illustrators. The artwork is just luminous (the cell phone photo below doesn’t do it justice), and the calendar opens into a scene that includes all of Bethlehem, with a window to open each day. You can hang it on the wall from a little grommet, or it will stand on its own on a tabletop.
Even better, it comes with a little illustrated companion booklet that provides prayers, short readings, meditations, and suggestions for each day. So much better than the usual routine, where the kids fight over whose turn it is, then mom gets mad and opens it herself, and then you just stand there staring at the little picture of a star or something. It will appeal to children, but would be helpful for adults, as well.
(As you can see, Corrie liked it so much, she took a bite of it, and then threw it in the dog’s water dish. At least I hope it was in that order. If your booklet is not wet, you can even color in the illustrations.)
Thanks to the publisher, Ignatius, I have one calendar to give away! Same rules as last time:
To enter, leave a comment on the blog, and that’s one entry. To get additional entries, share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ or elsewhere on social media, AND . . . IMPORTANT: Please leave a separate comment for each additional entry you would like to earn.
So if you want three entries, leave one comment saying “Me please!” [or whatever], one comment saying “I shared your post on FB” and one comment saying “I tweeted this post.” And so on.
NOTE: Don’t be concerned if your comment doesn’t show up right away in the combox. The comment moderator is a little strict at the moment, so I’ll be approving comments in batches as time allows. Thanks for your patience!
This will be a quckie contest, since Advent is right at our throats. Contest closes Tuesday, November 22, at noon, and I’ll notify the winners asap.
In addition, I would like to say that when I tagged this post music, WordPress suggested the tags “soul music” and “butt music.” That means my archives have arrived, and they’ve brought their tags. Hooray?
So far, I have met zero Christians who are mad at Starbucks. My Facebook feed has, however, been overrun by Christians who don’t care what Starbucks puts on its cups, and are embarrassed by the few noisy meat heads who say they feel persecuted by having to drink their $11 lattes out of a red cup rather than a red cup with a light red reindeer on it.
Which leads me to believe that this is one of those Big Fat Nothing stories, and the more noise we make about denouncing it, the closer to Something the story becomes. Cameramen at ballgames turn away when there’s a streaker on the field, so let’s do the same, eh?
I do wonder, though, what you would do if you were Starbucks, and you really did, for whatever reason, want to make “the holiday season” (Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/What Have You) more pleasant or meaningful for the world. Let’s say you have tons of money and nothing but good intentions. What gesture would you make, big or small? Could be something commercial, or something for your customers, something for your employees, something secret, something global, or whatever. What would you do?
Last year, we gave a bunch of people homemade vanilla extract for Christmas. Was it appreciated? I have no idea. But we kept a bunch for ourselves, and it is wonderful. Here’s our current personal stash:
It was quite cheap, and you can really taste the difference in recipes over store bought vanilla extract. (The boys also add a bit to their mice’s drinking water a few times a month, to make them stink a bit less. In theory.)
Best of all, it’s SUPER EASY. The only hard part is thinking ahead a bit. It takes a month at the very least, but the longer you let it sit, the nicer it gets. All you have to do is buy some cheap liquor, split or chop a bunch of vanilla beans, throw them in the bottle of alcohol, and wait. (More detailed directions here, but there’s really not much more to it.)
We used Smirnoff Vodka, but you can use rum or bourbon. Buying expensive liquor won’t make it taste any better, so go for cheapski or middleski.
You can make it in individual bottles,
or make it in one big bottle and then decant it into something more decorative when you’re ready to give it to people.
We bought bottles like these (8 oz. each, case of 12 for about $20), but there are many lovely varieties to be found online. If I had time, I’d scout out thrift stores and find some pretty, old fashioned bottles in interesting shapes. Just make sure they have a tight cap or cork!
plus labels like this, so we could personalize the bottles
or you could go with tags. Lots of possibilities here, to make it as cute or elegant or artsy as you like.
I just bought a bunch of cheery red bows and tied them on with jingle bells from the dollar store, and it made cute little packages. This would also work for wedding or party favors, depending on how you decide to dress the bottles up.
Just a reminder! My links are to Amazon products. If you buy anything from Amazon after getting to the site through one of my links (even if you buy a completely different product), I get a small cut of the purchase price. This adds up over the month and helps tremendously to support our family. So if you buy from Amazon, I’d consider it a great favor if you’d bookmark this link and use it any time you order. Thank you so much!
I assume you’re already doing all the religious stuff, and have already bought, made, figured out, or given up on gifts. Here are a bunch of other nice Christmasy things you can do pretty easily, using materials that you may actually have in your house and skills you can probably muster up even at this stage of your life.
Can be dressed up with various nuts, crushed candies, flavored chips (peanut butter, mint, butterscotch, etc.), but yummy on its own. There are also lots of other great recipes on that page, with clear instructions.
Also more of less foolproof, and without any exotic ingredients or equipment, but messy to make: buckeyes. I let the kids do this one, since it involves a lot of hand-mooshing of dough and unsanitary dipping in chocolate.
The dog actually made this one, and he’s an idiot! That’s how easy it is! The dog couldn’t even find the stapler, so he used needle and thread. For a fancier look, try using this basic idea, but with lots of different sizes and shapes (giant to tiny), different cuts (straight, scalloped, etc.), with shiny, patterned, or regular paper, and hang them from string or ribbons or yarn, and add sparkly beads to the string. Instantly dresses up a room if you hang up half a dozen from the ceiling.
We also had fun last year gluing together various kinds of pasta for ornaments. Hot glue worked the best. These can be painted (metallic spray paint is great) or even colored with markers, but you can also get on board the “natural pasta look” train that is not actually a thing. We made wreaths, trees, angels, instruments, and all kinds of stars. We really did! But here are the ones I can actually find, to take a picture of, including the inevitable unfinished Dalek:
Just look on Pinterest for “pasta ornament” and you’ll see all the possibilities. Because it’s Christmas, I didn’t say “pastabilities.”
Contentious social media. Seriously, if you are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, you will not feel more peaceful and generous after spending time arguing about torture, racism, rape culture, or liturgical practices, so just close that tab and go find something nicer to do with your time. It’s not that these things aren’t important, and it’s not that you’re wrong. It’s just arguing about them is not going to help us get ready for Christmas. Save some argy bargy for the New Year! It’ll keep.