Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts

Dec 23, 2015

Merry Christmas 2015!

Each year, my family loves to watch the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular on Netflix. It's available streaming this year, so if you have Netflix, be sure to check it out! Our favorite part, though, is the last 10 minutes or so, where they perform their famous live nativity. It is breathtaking...and always make me teary eyed.

If you don't have Netflix, you can find clips of the Radio City nativity all over YouTube. Here was the best one I could find. It's only a short portion of the nativity play, and it's a slightly shaky amateur video, but I still think you'll enjoy it.

Merry Christmas!


Dec 4, 2015

6 Gifts to Help Your Child Grow in Jesus

Christmas is a perfect time to invest in your child's spiritual growth. Amid the toys and tinsel, it offers the opportunity to give gifts that may impact your child's entire life. Whether you have babies, elementary kids, or teens, consider what gifts will steer them closer to Christ. Here are the ones that have had the greatest impact in my family's life.

1. The Jesus Storybook Bible. A good children's Bible is paramount in helping your child learn about God. And truly, there is no better children's Bible than The Jesus Storybook Bible. Not only is it filled with illustrations children love, and told in a simple way anyone can understand, but it uncovers deep spiritual truths you find in any other children's Bible. Do your family a favor and buy not only the beautiful hardback version, but the version that comes with a CD. That way, you have multiple ways to immerse your child in God's Word.

Recommended Age: Baby to adult. (In fact, there is a version of this Bible printed just for teens and adults, called The Story of God's Love for You.)

2. The Bible in audio format. For teens, aside from their own print or ebook copy of the Bible, an audio version is essential. Fill their heads with the Word! One excellent audio Bible is The Word of Promise, featuring such top notch actors as Jim Caviezel, Louis Gossett, Jr., Michael York, Richard Dreyfuss, and Lou Diamond Phillips. It's available in several formats: CD, MP3, and Audible.

Recommended Age: Teens and adults.

3. Adventures in Odyssey. My children often go to sleep listening to an audio drama, and no audio dramas have had a more positive impact on their spiritual life than the Adventure in Odyssey radio dramas by Focus on the Family. There are about a gazillion of them, and each discusses Christianity in an entertaining way kids - and families - love. I can't recommend them enough.

Recommended Age: Preschool through adults. (A few Adventures in Odyssey audio dramas are labeled as a little more mature, and not suitable for very young children to listen to by themselves.)
4. Torchlighters. This excellent DVD series teaches kids about Christian martyrs. Does that sound too mature? Or scary? Trust me, it's not. My children absolutely love this series, and it's taught them to think about their own walk with Christ and how they can best serve him. Read more about Torchlighters here.

Recommended Age: About age 5 through adult.

5. What's in the Bible. This DVD series is unlike anything I've ever seen before. It teaches not just what's in the Bible, but basic theology, and how the Bible applies to our everyday, modern lives.

Recommended Age: Preschool through elementary - although teens and adults who like playfulness will enjoy them, too.

6. Hymns for a Kids Heart. If you don't sing traditional hymns at church, this series is a huge help in bringing hymns to your children. Why bother to teach them hymns? Because traditional hymns teach deep spiritual truths, and make getting through difficult times a bit easier. (What did the apostles do in prison? They sang hymns.) Each of these books is beautifully illustrated, tells the story behind the hymn (why and how it was written), gives complete lyrics and sheet music for each hymn, and comes with a CD containing every song in the book (sung mostly by a children's choir).

Recommended Age: Baby through elementary, though teens and adults will probably enjoy the stories (and certainly the hymns), too.

Dec 1, 2015

Our Favorite Christmas Cookie Recipes

Of all our Christmas traditions, I think my kids most look forward to putting up our nativity scene...and making cookies. And truthfully, making cookies is an easy way to say you're thinking about someone during the Christmas season. Just cover the treats in red or green plastic wrap, or make a simple homemade cookie container, and you're ready to hand the cookies over and put a smile on someone's face.

So with this sort of good will in mind, here are my family's favorite Christmas cookies to make and give away...or to scarf down ourselves.

Spiced Molasses Cookies - Oh my goodness, these are my favorite cookies ever!  And since coconut oil and molasses are both super foods, you can feel extra good about giving (and eating) these gems. (Wink.)

Melted Snowman Cookies - The kids love making these super easy, fun cookies. Just use your favorite sugar cookie recipe (or my favorite, which you can find below), a little icing, and some marshmallows. You can also use a gingerbread cookie recipe, if you prefer. (Worried about unhealthy marshmallows? You could try organic, corn syrup free marshmallows, or you could make your own, from scratch, healthy marshmallows.)

Gingerbread Cookies - It's hard to beat this traditional cookie. It's perfect for using with cookie cutters - and what kid doesn't love making a mess decorating them with icing and sprinkles? I use a very simple glaze for these cookies: A little powdered (confectioner's) sugar with just enough water stirred in to make a thin paste. Use a pastry brush to brush it onto the cookies, then add sprinkles or other edible decorations, if you like. You can also add a drop or two of food coloring to the glaze.

Sugar Cookies - Again, these are great for using with cookie cutters. I omit the salt in this recipe and use that same simple powdered sugar glaze on them as I use on gingerbread cookies.

Russian Tea Cake Cookies - A friend introduced me to these years ago. They are so pretty - and tasty!

Grinchy Cookies - Because it's just plain hard to beat chocolate chip cookies for taste - and these remind me of evergreen faith - or the Grinch - whichever you prefer! (If you want something even more Grinchy, check out these cookies. I haven't tried them, but they sure are cute!)

Double Chocolate Chip M&M Cookies - They look festive if the M&Ms are red and green, and I've yet to meet someone who doesn't like them!

Nov 20, 2015

12 Ways to Help Kids Find Christ in Christmas

It can be truly difficult for children to remember what Christmas is all about. Those pretty Christmas lights and fun presents and jingle bells are pretty darn exciting. I'm not going to suggest you stop making cookies or handing out gifts come Christmastime, but I do encourage you to steer your children toward Christ all this Christmas season. Now - before the hustle and bustle of other holiday planning takes over - is the perfect time to take just a few minutes to plan some simple ways to do that. Here are my favorite dozen.

1. Put up a nativity scene - preferably one the kids can play with. It doesn't have to be expensive. For example, you might try this free printable "paper doll" nativity set, or this toilet paper roll set kids can color themselves. And why not read the Biblical Christmas story to the children while they work on it?

2. Learn the lyrics and meaning behind famous Christmas carols. (And while you're at it, play all - or mostly - Christmas music about Jesus.)

3. Bake (and eat) a birthday cake for Jesus. Hint: It doesn't have to be a typical birthday cake. At my house, we've used everything from gingerbread to monkey bread. But we always put a candle on it and sang "Happy Birthday" to Jesus.

4. Find somebody to serve as a family. Maybe an elderly neighbor needs yard work done or a dinner cooked. Maybe there's a local shelter where your family could volunteer. Maybe your kids could do extra chores or find jobs with neighbors in order to raise money to give a needy family livestock. It doesn't really matter what service you choose - just that your children understand you're doing it because Jesus told us to serve others. You can also explain that being born and dying on the cross was Jesus' service to us.

5. Select a few good Christ-centered Christmas picture books. (Here are some of our favorites.)

6. Pick a few activities to go with those Christmas books. They don't have to be complicated, but any hands on activity will help your kids remember the books better.

7. Download Thriving Family's free Advent calendar. This magazine, published by Focus on the Family, creates a new Advent calendar each year, so if you don't love this year's, go ahead and search the site for previous year's calendars.

8. Make a paper chain - and on each chain, write one of the names of Jesus. Explain to your children why Jesus has each name.

9. Use this free Advent plan to go along with The Jesus Storybook Bible (a children's Bible that, in my opinion, every family should own).

10. Select Christmas movies that are about the Biblical Christmas story or the spirit of Christmas. For example: Why Do We Call it Christmas?, The Little Drummer Boy, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and The Crippled Lamb.

 Courtesy of  James Petts and Wikipedia Commons.
11. If possible, make your Christmas decorations reflect the real meaning of Christmas: Think angels, bells, and lights.

12. Teach your children why we use certain Christmas symbols. For example, The Legend of the Christmas Tree is a good resource explaining why we have Christmas trees. There are even picture books that use common Christmas imagery, like  stockings and candy canes, to point to Jesus. I also recommend you explain why we give each other gifts on Christmas. (Because the Wise Men gave them to Jesus shortly after his birth.)

Now it's your turn: What are some of your favorite ways to help your children find Christ in Christmas? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Dec 24, 2014

I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day

In recent years, it's been my habit to share a Christmas song with you on Christmas Eve. This year, I want to share a carol that may seem sad and sober to some - but which is full of meaning and hope for Christians.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the lyrics to this carol during the Civil War, and he wrote it while in personal despair. He'd lost his first wife years before, and had recently lost his second wife in an even more tragic way. She'd just cut their young son's hair, and wanted to preserve a lock of it. But while melting wax onto the end of the lock, her dress caught fire. Longfellow tried to save her, but she died of her burns a day later. Even more tragedy surrounded him, however. His country - a nation his forefathers had fought hard to create - seemed to be falling apart in war. And one of his sons, fighting in the war without his father's approval, was wounded.

And so, when Longfellow sat down to write this unique Christmas song, he really was suffering, as someone who mourns during the Christmas season can only fully understand. Yet, in the final verse of the song, he remembers Christ's return, when there will be true peace, as we've never known before, on earth.

Yes, grab your hanky.

Dec 1, 2014

Learning More About Christmas Carols this Advent Season

How many Christ-centered Christmas carols do you and your kids know? How many verses to them? Do you and your children truly understand them? This Christmas, I want to instill a better knowledge of  Christmas carols in our family - an activity that furthers our desire to focus on Jesus during the holiday season. Thankfully, accomplishing this is ridiculously easy. Here's how we're doing it:

1. Pick some Christmas carols. Choose them out of your head, or do an Internet search for a list of favorite carols to come up with ideas on what tunes you want to learn more about. Be sure you're picking carols (hymns, or spiritual folk songs) or songs focusing on Christ, not just popular Christmas songs that have nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas.

2. Do an Internet search for lyrics - the more verses you can find for each song, the better. There are tons of websites designed just for song lyrics. Any one of them will probably work; here's one that has a nice list of Christmas carols.

3. Do another internet search looking for the story behind the song. This is an optional, but a really interesting addition to this project. We are actually using some books - Ace Collins' Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas and More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. Another wonderful resource is Christmas Hymns for a Kids' Heart, which includes a beautifully illustrated book with stories behind Christmas carols, lyrics and vocal lines for the songs, and a CD of the songs. If you want Internet sources, I recommend beginning with "Stories of Famous Christmas Carols and Hymns" or "30 Favorite Christmas Carols - their Origins and History."

4. Now pick one Christmas song, read the story of it's origins to your kids, and read through all the lyrics. Sing the Christmas song at least once a day until everyone knows it well. It's up to you how many verses you memorize. For younger kids, I recommend memorizing one verse, but reading them all the verses and discussing what the words mean.

5. As soon as you know one song well, move on to another!

Dec 4, 2013

Best FREE Canning Jar Labels on the Net

Home canned foods and gifts in a jar both make excellent Christmas gifts. Not only are they yummy (or, in the case of some gifts in a jar, useful), but they say "You cared enough to take the time and creativity to make this for me." In years past, I've discussed some fun ways to dress up your jarred gifts, but this year I specifically wanted to focus on labels. There are a ton of free jar labels available online - just print them off, cut them out, and attach. But to help you wade through all those offerings, I've rounded up what I consider the very best the Internet has to offer.

Canning Jar Top Labels

These are the type of labels designed to fit on the lid of canning jar. You may either glue these labels on top of the lid or simply set them on top of the jar lid and hold them in place with a jar screwband.

* Beautiful, old fashioned labels for blueberry, peach, apricot, grape, cherry, raspberry, strawberry,
Old fashioned labels from World Label.
bumbleberry (mixed berry), and marmalade.

* Simple "homemade" labels

* Colorful stripes

* Black and white Art Deco inspired

* Candy stripes

* Simple "Homemade Just for You"

* Green and blue stripes

* Flower power

* Several styles of vintage labels

* Classy chalkboard style

* Plaid, polka-dotted, and starburst labels

* Pretty fruit labels for berry, cherry, raspberry, and strawberry jam

* Citrus

* Antique-style

* "Spread Love" labels and tags

* Apples

Mason jar labels from
* Blue, maroon, gold, and green print

* Cute fruit labels

* Colorful polka-dots and stripes

* Christmas trees

* Red and white "Jam Made with Love By..."

* Beautiful fruits: cherry, peaches, lemons, tomato, pear, grapes, pumpkin, strawberry, currents, raspberry, and blackberry.

* Photos of real food: apple, tomato, cucumber

* Sunbursts

* Simple "Made With Love"

* "Farm Fresh"

* Red, blue, and green gingham

* Snazzy black, white, and color labels

* Flowery black and white

* Colorful leaves

* Green leaves and grass

* Mason jars

* Old fashioned strawberry jam

Christmas presents and penguins from World Label.
* Applesauce

* Pretty vintage

* Red and white striped, snowflakes, and holly labels

* Christmas lights

* Christmas presents and penguins

Canning Jar Front Labels

These labels are designed to glue on the front of a jar - just like labels on grocery-store purchased canned goods. For best results, print on paper with a sticky back.

* Sweet cherry jar labels

* Cute blue and red "Made with Love"

* Red gingham
Old fashioned strawberries from Happy Miscellany.

* Colorful polka-dots and stripes

* "The Jam Labelizer:" choose from several fonts and colors

* Christmas and winter theme labels

* Apple pie

* Old fashioned strawberries

* Fruity labels

* Vintage

* Red and white striped, snowflakes, and holly labels

* Elaborate antique

* Modern blue and gold 

Canning Jar Tags

These tags tie on with string or ribbon.

* Cute "What's Inside" tags
Mason jar tags from Cottage Industrialist.

* Mason jar tags

* Rustic tags for strawberry, peach, cherry, plum, blueberry, raspberry, mixed berry, damson, and blackberry jams (also orange marmalade)

* Patterned mason jars

* "Spread the Love"

* Cute strawberries

* "Homemade Salsa"

* "Farm Fresh"

* Christmasy birds

* Merry Christmas

Other Ideas

* Use old Christmas cards to create jar labels.

* Use muffin liners as decorative toppers. Or use brown kraft paper. Tie with string, or just put a jar ring on.

Dec 2, 2013

20 Ways to Save Money This Christmas

This year, a great many families are worried about having enough money for Christmas. Times aren't so easy, and nobody wants to go into debt buying gifts and decorations. Happily, there's no need to go into debt. Christmas can be really wonderful without spending a bunch of dough. Not sure how to make that happen? Check out the tips below.

* Buy wrapping paper, tissue paper, ribbons, and bows at the Dollar Tree. Or, if it's cheaper, buy large rolls of brown parcel paper at an office supply store; tied with string or bows, they have a lovely, old fashioned look.

* Make your own gift tags. The easiest way to do this is use scraps of wrapping paper, folded in half. Other ideas include cutting out shapes from last year's Christmas cards, or using inexpensive Dollar Tree card stock.

* Buy fewer gifts. Jesus only received three.

* Buy less expensive gifts. (More expensive does not equal better!)

* If you choose to buy more expensive gifts, divide the cost among two or more people. For example, one year I paid a portion for my husband's new grill. His parents and grandma pitched in the rest.

* Don't buy new decorations. Do you really need another Christmas tree ornament? If you usually purchase fresh wreaths and garlands, make them yourself or consider buying re-usable (faux) greens.

* If you really want new decorations, buy them at a thrift store. At this time of year, thrift stores are overloaded with Christmas stuff - much of which is either new in the box, or looks new. (Thrift stores are also an excellent source for faux Christmas trees.)

* When buying a real tree, choose a variety that costs less. For example, in our area, noble firs cost at least $15 more than pine trees. Whatever type of tree grows most easily in your area is likely less expensive than something that has to be trucked in.

* Make gifts. This isn't always less expensive, but it can be. Besides, knowing that someone put time, effort, and creativity into a gift means a great deal. (Get ideas for homemade gifts here.)

* Give redeemable coupons. The gift of service is an excellent one, indeed. Ideas: lawn mowing, house cleaning, babysitting...

* Think practical when it comes to gifts. This is the way many Americans gave gifts until fairly recent times. Instead of overloading kids with toys, for example, children were given new shoes, clothes, books, other practical items - and perhaps one or two toys.

* Don't send Christmas cards. I know many people think this is a heretical idea, but sending cards is expensive - and, dare I say it, wasteful. Instead, send digital cards...or better yet, digital Christmas letters.

* Buy gifts throughout the year. It's too late to start that now, but once the new year begins, pay attention to sales and go ahead and buy gifts you know your loved ones will love.

* Instead of focusing on stuff, focus on Christ, the "reason for the season." For ideas on how to do this, see the bottom of this post.

* Don't give everybody gifts. It's a nice thought, but often you're just buying stuff they don't need, anyway. For non-family members or extended family, don't give gifts - or give things like food or simple homemade gifts, like gifts in a jar.

* When it comes to food, watch for sales and buy what you need when the price is lowest. For example, many foods associated with Christmas are also eaten around Thanksgiving - and are deeply discounted to get you into the store.

* Do stockings only for the kids and fill them with practical items like new toothbrushes and fun pencils and erasers.

* Don't go shopping without a plan. Know what you want to buy in advance, and always check prices online, too. Don't forget to check eBay, where often you can purchase brand new items for less.

* For young kids, don't worry about spending the same amount on each. Since young children don't really have a sense of what things are worth, you don't have to worry about making their gifts equal, price-wise. (Do be sure to give each of your children the same number of gifts, however. There's no need to tempt them to be jealous.)

* If there will be lots of adults wherever you spend Christmas, do a Secret Santa type gift giving: Each adult draws the name of one person. Each adult gives only one gift.

For a few ideas on focusing on the real meaning of Christmas, check out these posts:

* Advent: Focusing on Him
* Activities to Go with Popular Christmas Books
* Advent Projects for Kids
* A Birthday Cake for Jesus
* Advent Begins!

Nov 29, 2013

The Busy Mom's Guide to a Super Simple Advent

As much as I love the idea of Advent and how it prepares our hearts for a truly joyous Christmas, I usually find my Advent plans never quite come together the way I'd like. If you're a mom with young kids, easy and simple Advent ideas are the only ones that are likely going to happen. Try some of these:

* Use an Advent book. I just discovered The Family Book of Advent by Carol Garborg, and so far I love it. The Family Reading Bible has a good Advent reading schedule that will work for all but the youngest kids. For young kids, Adriel Booker offers a great Advent reading plan using the superb Jesus Storybook Bible. (Worried about getting any of these books in time for December 1? You can download them to a Kindle, to your computer, or to your smartphone or tablet. You can even buy just the Advent/Christmas portions of The Family Reading Bible, if you like.)

* Don't have the money to buy an Advent book? Use a free reading plan. Thriving Family magazine (along with Adventures in Odyssey) offers a free Advent activity calendar. The Internet is also packed with Advent reading plans you can use with any Bible. Focus on the Family offers a free family reading and activity plans.

Truly, a reading plan like this is all you really need. But here are some nice - but simple - ad-ons:

* Use a chalkboard to count down the days. Kids love this.

* Make a simple Advent calendar. Probably the easiest is to string up folded cards on string or ribbon, something like you see here. (There's no need to make the board that goes along with it - and the cards don't have to be fussy, either. In fact, I suggest enlisting the artistic talents of your children for the cards. Your job will be to write inside the cards.) Don't get fussy with the activities for each day, either. Keep it really simple! Things like "watch a Christmas movie" and "make a paper snowflake" work perfectly.

* If you're using the Jesus Storybook Bible, here's a nice Advent calendar go-with. It may be a bit too much work though. Maybe you can ask Grandma to make it for the kids.

* Check out this list of Advent projects for kids.

* And here's a list of fun activities to go along with your children's favorite Christmas books. Don't get overwhelmed by the list's length. Pick just a few projects that focus on the true meaning of Christmas, and leave it at that!

Dec 19, 2012

Merry Christmas

I will be taking a short break from blogging, but will be back with you shortly after Christmas. I hope you and yours have a truly joyous Christmas, full of the true blessings of the holiday.

Dec 12, 2012

Compost that Wrapping Paper!

With the Christmas season upon us, here's an important reminder: You can compost wrapping paper - and many of the other trappings of gift giving.

I know many people believe it's not safe to compost colored paper, but experts agree the inks used today are quite safe - free from harmful chemicals, or so extremely low in them that they just don't show up in finished compost. Most modern inks, in fact, are soy ink.

So rather than throwing away all that paper (a waste!) or recycling it (which uses more energy), compost it into something that is extremely beneficial to your garden. (For the basics on how to compost, visit this post.)

According to the Cornell Cooperative Extension's website, all wrapping paper can be composted except:

* High gloss paper
* Paper with plastic or metallic coatings
* Paper that is "Astro bright" (i.e., "shockingly bright")

Glossy or Astro bright paper can be recycled. Plastic or metallic-coated paper must be thrown in the trash.

You can also compost:

* Cardboard wrapping paper tubes
* Cardboard boxes
* Tissue paper

While most composting experts recommend shredding, tearingm or cutting these items into small pieces because this will make them decompose faster, I don't find this necessary. Here's how I do it:

* No paper should go into the compost bin flat or relatively flat. This makes the paper stick together and become a slimy mass that takes forever to decompose. Generally, I just crumble it up and stick it in my composter.

* Cardboard tubes should not be flattened. Instead, leave them as is. Long tubes that don't fit in the composter can be cut, torn, or folded just enough to fit.

Doing something great for your garden in the middle of December? What's not to love! Happy composting!

This post featured on Homestead Abundance

Dec 7, 2012

Making Salt Dough Ornaments

"It's easy!" they said. "It's fun!" they insisted. "Try it!" they encouraged.

Whether you're on Pinterest or just browsing in the Internet for fun Christmas ideas to do with the kids, chances are you've run across a website telling you making salt dough ornaments is a great family activity for December. Well, I'm here to tell you that every tutorial I read was WRONG.

My children (7 and 4) found the process mostly frustrating. In fact, my youngest gave up on it pretty quickly. But in the end, we were happy we stuck with it. So if you're thinking of making salt dough ornaments, please read this tutorial first! Unlike the others you may find, it is no-nonsense and gives you a heads up on the most difficult parts of the process.

What You Need:

4 cups all purpose flour
1 cup table salt
1 1/2 cups warm water
food coloring (optional)

Large mixing bowl and spoon
Baking sheets
Small rolling pin
Cookie cutters (optional but recommended)
Butter knife
Straw or similar stick-like object
Paints, markers, etc.

How to Do It:

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

2. In the mixing bowl, combine the flour and salt. Add the warm water, a little at a time, mixing well with a large spoon. Finish by kneading the dough with your hands until it's blended and pliable.

(Already, we are faltering. I follow the recipe exactly but the dough is very sticky. Never having made salt dough anything before, we proceed to roll out and cut the dough. But the dough sticks to the cutters and makes the gingerbread man look like he's made of spikes. We re-roll the dough and try again - and fail again. My 4 year old son gets mad and leaves the kitchen. Are we having fun yet?? TIP: The dough should not feel sticky. If it does, add flour, a little at a time, until the dough is still pliable, but not sticky. If the dough is dry and cracks, add water a little at a time. Also chill the dough for at least 15 minutes before rolling it out. Work in very small batches - just enough to use one cookie cutter at a time - and return the dough scraps to the fridge to chill again.)

You may now also add food coloring to the dough. 

(But let me warn you the colored dough will dye your hands, too. TIP: I recommend dividing the dough and adding just a tiny amount of food coloring to each piece. I used gel coloring - such as you'll find in the cake decorating section of a craft store; this made for nice, bold colors. You may also use liquid coloring, but you may need to add a bit of extra flour to prevent the dough from being sticky. The colors may also be more washed out.

While we wait for the dough to chill, the kids keep talking about eating the "yummy cookies" we are making. I explain that even though the process is similar to making cookies, these ornaments will be hard and taste awful. Still, I keep hearing, "I'm gonna eat a gingerbread man! I'm gonna eat an angel!")

4. (Once the dough is chilled, we try rolling out the dough again. But when we transfer the cut out ornament from the counter to the baking sheet, it stretches. "This is really hard, Mommy!" says my 7 year old. Next we try rolling dough as directed below. Definitely a better way to do it.)  

Take a small amount of dough and place it on a baking tray. Roll it out until it's about 1/8 in. thick; if it's thicker, it will take forever to dry. 

(TIP: Use a child-sized rolling pin - or, better yet, a Play Dough rolling pin. If you don't have either, a small, smooth jar will do.)

5. Use cookie cutters to cut out shapes in the dough. It will still be tricky to get some shapes to come out "clean," so I recommend using simple shapes. Also, while pressing down on the cookie cutter, roll as much of the dough away from the outside of the cutter as possible. Use a butter knife to remove any bits of dough that cling to the outside of the cutter. Finally, lift the cutter. If necessary, use the butter knife to remove any stray bits of dough from the edges of the ornament.

(You would think that if your child can cut out cookie dough with cookie cutters, this project would be a breeze. Not so! And my 7 yr. old is frustrated she can't make these ornaments all by herself.)

You may also shape pieces by hand - and now is a good time to added pieces of colored dough as decoration.  

(I found this almost impossible because the heat from my hands made the dough super-sticky and very difficult to shape. Notice how stretched-out my red star is, to the right. Ah well; it makes it look more folksy...right?

You may also supposedly roll or cut out a shape and have your child press his or her hand into the dough - but ours didn't turn out. Once the dough baked, it was impossible to make out most of the hand print.)

You can also use stamps for a subtle look.

Or add decorative holes, glitter, or ornaments like glass jewels. Other types of decoration should wait until after the dough is dry.

4. Use a straw or some other stick-like object to create a hole at the top of each ornament. This is where a ribbon or other hanger will go. The hole will shrink slightly when the ornament bakes. 

(Finally! A job that's easy for the kids!)

5. Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour, or until completely dry but not brown.  (This amount of baking time will burn the ornaments. In fact, I started checking the ornaments after 40 minutes, and some still browned. TIP: Start checking the ornaments for doneness after 10 or 15 minutes.)

If you have more trays than you can fit in the oven, place the extra trays in the fridge until ready to bake.

6. Remove trays from the oven and allow the ornaments to cool 1 or 2 minutes. Transfer to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.

7. Once the ornaments are completely cool, you may decorate them, if desired, with paints or markers. (TIP: I recommend making the ornaments one day and painting them the next. This allows recoup time after the more difficult process of cutting and baking the ornaments; my 4 year old even got excited about the project again!) You may even decoupage them.  

(Most tutorials say to expect "faded out" colors, but we used Crayola Washable Kids' Paint and our colors were nice and bright. TIP: Cover the work area with a cheap plastic tablecloth, such as you'd find at The Dollar Tree. It's best to stick to simple paintings that require only a couple of colors. Remind children to paint the main color of the ornament first, then allow it to dry before adding another color. For example, if you're painting a candy cane, paint the whole thing white, let the paint dry, then add the red bands. The good news is, the ornaments dry quickly.)

In the end, we were happy with our ornaments. Any frustrations we felt the day we cut out and baked them faded as we had fun painting them - and I was pleased the kids were able to make something to give away as Christmas gifts.

Dec 3, 2012

Best Christ-Centered Christmas Picture Books

Song of the Stars: Imagine how nature might have reacted to Christ's birth and you have the essence of this book. Animals, plants, the wind, skies, sea, and more all celebrate Jesus until finally we see Bethlehem with shepherds and angels, then a little barn, then a baby surrounded by animals, then the baby held by his mother. "Our Rescuer!" Mary cries, and all "gazed in wonder at God's great gift...Heaven's Son sleeping under the stars that he made."

The Christmas Troll: A boy is angry with his parents for not letting him open one of his Christmas presents early and takes his little sister and runs off into a nearby forest. There, they meet a troll - a wonderful, sweet troll. He is a fantastic, unexpected gift - one they hadn't deserved, yet received all the same - and now the boy can't wait to tell everyone about it. This is a well layered story that will lead to discussions such as: Do people put God in a box? Is God more unexpected and wonderful than we think? Are God's greatest gifts the surprising ones?

Tiny Baby Jesus: "Tiny, tiny fingers touch a piece of hay./Tiny baby Jesus born in Bethlehem today. Now those very fingers,/grown so sure and strong-/Jesus is a carpenter,/working all day long." So this book goes, highlighting some aspect of Jesus at birth, then some aspect of the rest of his life - up until the miracle of his resurrection.

The Christmas List: Everyone keeps asking Emily to make a Christmas list of things she wants - but she's uncomfortable with the idea and not very excited about the holiday. Then she learns that God's love - and the action it requires - is the most important thing to put on a Christmas list.

The Three Trees: Three trees have great aspirations, but when they are cut down, they think there's no chance they will do anything great. However, the first is turned into a feeding trough that later holds baby Jesus. The second is turned into a boat from which Jesus later calms the water. The third becomes Jesus' cross. This beautiful story highlights the idea that God often uses us in ways we don't expect.

Berenstain Bears Get Ready for Christmas: This simple lift the flap book shows the bear family preparing the nativity scene for their home. They find various parts (baby Jesus, Mary, the shepherds, etc.) throughout the house (and under the flaps) and each one is explained.

My First Countdown to Christmas: Actually an advent devotional, suitable for toddlers through perhaps first grade. In addition to the devotionals, some crafts are suggested, as well as prayers.

Touch and Feel Christmas: A great first Christmas book, it tells the basic story of Jesus' birth with highly attractive collage illustrations that have touch and feel elements.

Away in a Manger: In this simple book are the lyrics to the song "Away in a Manger," accompanied by gorgeous illustrations. It's a great way to both cement the reason why we celebrate Christmas and teach your child a simple Christmas song.
When Mother Was 11 Foot 4: A beautifully written story of a boy whose mother love Christmas. But one year, Mother, now single, is working but not making much money. There may be no huge Christmas tree and abundance of gifts. Mother is defeated, but her children work to raise enough to buy a meager tree. They decorate it (including a little Sunday School project of Jesus in the manger) and when Mother walks in and sees it, the little woman suddenly feels 11 ft. 4. The children have learned the power of giving.

Pine Tree Parable: A farmer and his wife plant Christmas trees. Years pass and finally the trees are ready for selling. But one tree, the farmer's wife just can't part with; she puts a not for sale sign on it. Then a very needy family visits the tree farm. The only tree they can afford is pathetic. The little girl in the family hopefully asks for the beautiful, not for sale tree instead; the farmer's wife cannot say no. As the tree falls, she thinks, "Yes, it was a great sacrifice. but it brought even greater joy. Isn't that just like Christmas?"

Saint Nicholas: This attractive book explains the man behind the Santa legend, telling the most famous parts of his story. A man has daughters who cannot marry because they can't afford a dowry. Nicholas secretly drops the needed cash into their shoes, set before the fireplace at night. The legend of St. Nicholas - a man who serves God - begins.

Josie's Gift: Josie wants a gorgeous blue sweater for Christmas. But it's the Depression and Josie's father just died. Christmas, she thinks, is about everything she doesn't have. On Christmas Eve, Josie spots a package under the tree and secretly opens it; it's her sweater! Yet moments later, she feels just as empty as she was before opening the box. She walks outside, asking God for answers. She discovers a man and his wife huddled in the barn, with an infant in their arms. They need a warm place to sleep for the night. Josie tucks her blue sweater around the baby. “Christmas is not about what we want. It’s about what we have.” Josie heartfully thanks God for Jesus and for Christmas. Because Christmas, the author concludes, is about “what she had, deep down in her soul that only God could give.”

Legend of the Christmas Stocking: There are a number of books out there explaining Christmas symbols with a Christian slant, but The Legend of the Christmas Stocking is by far the best-written. It's the story of a boy who longs for a beautiful model ship for Christmas - but there isn't much money for presents. Then the boy hears a sermon explaining why we use Christmas stockings - and the he decides to sacrifice his own desires so he can give gifts to his mother and sisters.

Gift of the Christmas Cookie: It is the 1930s, in the heart of the Depression. To one boy, Christmas doesn't seem very appealing without his father (who is far away, working) or presents. His mother makes some Christmas cookies for the poor, explaining such cookies were originally used to tell the story of Jesus' birth. Still, the boy is not happy the cookies will go to others, instead of him. Yet when his mother offers him the biggest of the cookies, the boy gives it to a vagrant man...then tells him the story of Jesus' birth.

Waiting for Christmas: Is a story about waiting patiently for Christmas. In it, a young German boy learns Jesus had to wait two or three years for his gifts from the wise men. To help the waiting, his mother gives him a daily advent cookie. “Christmas would come, he knew. For now, he would just have to wait. But that was all right. Some things are worth waiting for.”

The Tale of Baboushka: Baboushka ("grandmother" in Russian) keeps a very tidy house, and when three visitors come to her door, she makes sure they have exactly the food, drink, and shelter they need. When they tell her they are traveling to meet a new king (Jesus) and ask her to join them, Baboushka says she will follow -  but first she will tidy her home. By the time she gets around to Jesus, the star guiding the way to him is gone, so she travels around giving gifts to children around the world, ever in search of the king.