Saturday, December 31, 2011

Callaway Gardens Fantasy in Lights

Today is a quick check-in about our visit to Callaway Garden's Fantasy in Lights.  In case you don't know, Fantasy in Lights is a series of custom Christmas light displays set to music along a 5-mile route at Callaway Gardens.  You can read more about it here.
After our Christmas lunch and festivities on la Jour de Noël, we packed out two odysseys (with 8 adults, and 6 kids ages 10, 5, 2, 2, 1 and 1) and headed to Callway.  Let me back up.

A few weeks ago, my sister emailed the fam that she had access to $5 tickets to Fantasy in Lights.  It sounded like a fun idea, but honestly my first response was to be a little leery of a Christmas road trip with so many little kids.  After some encouragement from people who have seen the lights and after reading some of the events accolades... we decided to go for it.

I was very pleasantly surprised by our peaceful ride there.  (We were about one hour from Pine Mountain).
Reed and his cousin Cameron getting in a nap
When we arrived, it was not overly crowded or crazy.  (We parked in one of the first lots, but there was a huge parking area roped off that I would not have wanted to see full- think Six Flags).  We had dressed warmly and brought hats, mittens, and blankets.
Grammy and Reed upon arrival
We spent a few minutes high-fiving the snowman and the penguin.  This was a big highlight for Reed.

Somehow we got on the first jolly trolley without much more than a five minute wait... maybe when you have a party of 14 they just shew you along?  (You can either ride a "jolly trolley" or choose to drive through in your own vehicle, but you have to decide when you purchase the tickets). Also remember that we were visiting the day after Christmas.  I have no idea how crowded in can be on peak dates.

The lights were great.  I didn't bother trying to get too many pictures in the dark and just wanted to enjoy the show, but here are a couple.  My favorite displays were the animated ones, like where it was designed to look like elves toss a present across the road over your vehicle.  The music was really fun and festive too.

The verdict: We had a great visit to Fantasy in Lights, and I'm glad we went, but I wouldn't say we feel a need to go back every year.
Fam on the jolly trolley
Everything went smoothly for us, but I can't help but think of all the uncontrollable variables (it could rain, be very cold, or very crowded- keep in mind we went the day after Christmas).  If you've never been to Fantasy in Lights and are within a reasonable distance, I would definitely recommend checking it out.  Be sure to find a good coupon or deal, and plan to visit on a non-peak day.

Despite his frown, Reed had lots of fun! :)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Joyeux Noël

Greetings!  I'm back with Part II of the Morgan 2011 Christmas Recap. :)

(You can catch up with Part I here...  It covers Christmas Eve, a new donut breakfast tradition, Christmas morning, Christmas with our Morgan family, and a couple of holiday appetizer recipes).

You might remember me telling you about my family's tradition of celebrating Christmas around the world.  (I mentioned it here and here).  Basically, my Mom came up with the idea a few years ago to change up our family Christmas by choosing a foreign country each year, and to plan our celebration around its unique Christmas customs.  We usually choose one person to coordinate the research, planning, menu etc.  This year, my sister Brianne did a great job hosting "le jour de Noël"
...Christmas Day in France!
The older grandchildren usually get tasked with making a map and/or flag, as pictured here.

A few highlights from la fête de Noël...

 Le Réveillon (Christmas Feast)

The Christmas menu varies by region in France, so we welcomed the liberty to pick and choose any French dishes that sounded most appetizing.  (Side note: we don't usually hold ourselves to a traditional holiday menu for each country.  We had cheese dip tacos and margaritas when we celebrated Mexican Christmas Eve!)  Planning and preparing the meal is one of the best parts about Christmas around the World, so go all out if you're goin!

Apple Crisp Baked Brie Recipe

I made this brie bake as an appetizer, and it was good!  Click the caption above for link to recipe.  We also had a toddler-friendly cheese, fruit, and cracker plate that included some authentic cheeses as well as some basics.  The four children aged 2 and under were grateful. :)

Our main feast included... French onion soup, roasted chicken, quiche, potato casserole, baguettes, salad (added apples to linked recipe), and green beans.  I think it was our yummiest cultural Christmas meal yet!

After lunch, Père Fouettard (The Christmas Bogeyman) showed up and gave spankings to the bad children. :)  Oh my.

But, don't worry, he also pointed out the candy that Papa Noël left in everyone's shoes... well as some candy and small toys hanging on the Christmas tree.  Side note: much to Matt's horror, Reed cried and threw a fit until someone would trade him for the orange and blue (gator-colored!) football!

 Next, we exchanged gifts with one another, played, took pictures, and broke up toddler gang fights.

Later that night, we enjoyed crème brûlée and a yule log (la bûche de noël).

My Dad ordered both desserts from a bakery, and bought a torch to caramelize the crème brûlée...
I'm no expert, but I don't think that's a dessert torch.  He said he needed one he could use for other projects too. :)  The guys were more than willing to play dessert chef!  HA.  In some parts of France, it is traditional to have thirteen different symbolic desserts ("treize desserts").  We opted not to go this route, but I bet if we counted all of the different cookies and candies we would have had 13 plus.

We hope you had a joyeux Noël! :)

Okay, last thing:  I had a new idea (I know, I know... me and my ideas. eye roll.) to adopt into our yearly celebration a small tradition from each country that we feature.  I am sure we will repeat countries in the years ahead, as Reed won't really remember anything from at least the first 5 or 6, so hopefully this won't become overwhelming.  But I am really excited about these.  So far, I have:

Mexico (2009)- In Mexico, the Nativity is central to the Christmas celebration, similarly to the Christmas Tree in the U.S.  Traditionally, families wait until Christmas Eve to place baby Jesus in the manger.  So that's an easy one to adopt.  It will be fun to make a big deal out of waiting for baby Jesus to "come on the scene!"

Italy (2010)- In learning about Italy last year, we read that Christmas is less commercialized there.  Instead of writing letters to Santa Claus, children write letters to their parents on Christmas Eve, telling them how much they love them.  This tradition definitely stands out to me from our celebration last year.  My Mom was the coordinator and tried to tell us that it was letters to fathers, but we had all seen the custom in our research, so we surprised her with letters to everyone.  My brother-in-law's mother joined us and had a letter too!  It was sweet words and blubbering all around.  I think maybe we will do a version of this where we each write a note to each other family member and drop them in stockings.  (Like the non-Italy-related version mentioned back here).

France (2011)- One of the unique customs in France is the hanging of gifts (fruit, candy, small toys) on the Christmas Tree.  It might vary each year, but I'm thinking we could either hang a specific present for each person somewhere on the tree, or maybe just some candy for the kids to collect.  We also have an ornament that opens up, so when the kids are older we can include a first clue to a Christmas gift hunt as an appropriation of this French tradition.  Matt is really excited about hiding gifts someday soon. :)  If we go the ornament route, (which is my favorite option I think), I'll write "Joyeux Noël 2011" on it.

This new custom appropriating idea is just one part of a new project I am really, really excited about.  I will be back to share it with you soon!! :)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Quick Christmas Recap

Merry Christmas! We are flat exhausted, but our hearts (and tummies!) are full. Here is a "quick" rundown of our Christmas celebration, including a couple of recipes.

Christmas Recap:

Christmas Eve
We knew we'd have a long four days ahead so we opted for a slow morning.  First, we initiated a new (Matt's idea) tradition: Christmas Donuts!  We actually picked them out for Christmas (the next) morning, but we decided that going forward it would be a daddy/kiddos thing to run out and pick them up on Christmas Eve right before breakfast.  Christmas Eve looked very different for us this year with Matt on staff at church (thus at work from 1:00- 7:30!) :)  Sanctuary hosted three worship services.  Matt shared a children's message about Jesus as our good shepherd at each of the three.  Reed napped through the first one, then R & I met up with Matt at church and worked children's ministry during the 4:30 service.  We all attended the 6:00 service together, and our Morgan family joined us.  Reed didn't smile in the picture above, but I filmed this video right before we left for church that more than makes up for it.

I had this 'brilliant' idea to grab a quick dinner at IHOP afterwards since it would be late and we'd have a lot of people...  Let's just say 8:00, hungry tummies, 12 people (with 5 kids aged 3 and under), and IHOP not having their "hop" on made for an edgy rendition of holiday cheer.  Several hours of cooking, cleaning, prepping (and watching Elf) later, Matt & I finally got to bed... after 1am!  But we were ready for the morning:

Merry Christmas!
We were so excited when we heard Reed wake up on Christmas morning!

We went to get him out of bed, talked about Christmas and sang "Happy Birthday" to Jesus, then went to celebrate with gifts.

We really thought he would love the cozy coupe (and he did), but the big hit was definitely his basketball goal.  He has talked about it nonstop.  Also about the donuts.

After breakfast, we opened stockings.
Love our little pink addition! :)
It was so sweet to watch Reed explore his stocking with zero expectations.  He wasn't digging through looking for what was next; he took his time getting excited over each little gift, with no anticipation of the next.

We wrapped a present (a little car) in Reed's stocking "from" baby sister.  He opened it, and told her thank you. :)

Next we headed to Mimi's house for a fun day of playing and gifting with our Morgan family.  Reed even (miracle of Christmas miracles) got in a little nap.  We shared a delicious lunch and dinner, lots of gift exchanging, and Christmas cookies.

We brought along a couple of new appetizers I had tracked down on Pinterest.  We gave them both a thumbs up; click below for links to the recipes.
Sausage Stars
Cold Veggie Pizza

Christmas was a full day of joy and laughter, but it was also a hard first Christmas without Matt's dad.  Matt and I both cried on the way home that night.  We really missed "Pops."  We always try to remember and be thankful that the reason we miss him so terribly is because his presence in our lives was full and rich.  May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in you (Psalm 33:22).

We spent the two days following Christmas with our Cagle family; I will be back, as promised, to fill you in on "Christmas in France" and Callaway's Fantasy in Lights. :)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

From our home to yours... Merry, Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Felt Tree Fun

I saw this felt Christmas tree on Pinterest...

...and I made one for Reed and his buddies!

 It was such an easy project and is perfect for Reed!  I pretty much just followed these instructions...

First I bought felt at the craft store, a yard of green felt (be sure to take a coupon to keep it super cheap!) and several 8.5X11 colored felt sheets (usually about 4/$1).

I wasn't sure whether to try to make it symmetrical or a little topsy turvy, but I just plunged right in, sketched out a tree with chalk, and cut it out.  I think it turned out kind of fun... at least you can tell it's a tree! :)

Next, I used various circular objects as stencils to cut out round ornaments.  I really wanted to jazz up the ornaments with ribbon and ric-rac or whatever, but I made this tree in a hurry to have it ready for the kids at our gender reveal party.  I may or may not get back to the decorating this year, but I'll definitely pull this tree out for the next several Christmas seasons!

I used thumbtacks to hang mine (which wasn't a big deal since it is in the basement), because the command adhesive strips wouldn't stick to the felt.

I am trying to think of a fun felt activity to have up in the basement for Reed & friends year-round, but need some ideas...
I bought extra green felt and made a "football field" (since our basement is UGA themed) with the intention of cutting out helmets and footballs, but the helmets look all wonky.
I also thought maybe just a background piece and various shapes and colors would be fun/educational.
And I love, love this felt faces idea from IAMHMR:

Any input or other felt activity ideas?  Thanks!
And happy felting! :)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Roundup

I'm back to unload some Christmas Cheer!  So far this holly jolly season we've...

...decked the halls:
For the first time in a while, I left a good chunk of the Christmas decor in the boxes.  But, don't worry, we're still feeling a lot of falalala.

...decorated our tree:
Reed was so proud of himself for adorning the branches with things like the cardboard ornament separators and trash.  He was cute.  I had forgotten that Reed's 'Baby's 1st Christmas' ornament (from Grammy) was a Mickey ornament... made me smile when we pulled it out since he is crazy about Mickey and pals.  Reed loves the tree.  Sometimes he walks up to it and belts "Oh Christmas Tree," a good lead in to "teach the children that the pure color of the stately fir tree remains green all year round, depicting the everlasting hope of mankind, all the needles point heavenward, making it a symbol of man's thoughts turning toward heaven... that the star was the heavenly sign of promises long ago.  God promised a Savior for the World, and the star was the sign of fulfillment of His promise" (source).

...made ornaments and decorated cookies with cousins:
Less is more, Reed. ;)  We also tried to make snickerdoodles with Daddy, but they didn't turn out so well.  May or may not have anything to do with the ingredients that ended up all over Reed and on the floors.  Too soon for baking?

...taken a couple of driving detours on the way home to point out Christmas lights to Reed...  But I'm super excited to visit the Callaway Gardens Fantasy in Lights on the 26th when we get together with our Cagle family.  Matt and I have never been before, and I hope we have a lot of fun bundling up and getting hot chocolate and snacks as we ride the "jolly trolley" through the lights display.  (My brother-in-law got a great deal on tickets through work, but I will check back in and let you know if it's worth a trip for next year!)

...eaten candy canes.
Okay, so that's not a stand alone tradition per se, but Reed has been realllly into candy canes (aka "canes") lately.  He pulls them on and off the tree, breaks them, and is always asking for one.  I think he will enjoy the "story" of the candy cane next year or so!

...still been trucking along with our Jesse Tree.
 As I expected, it is way over Reed's head for the most part, but it has been fun to read some of the stories in His Jesus Storybook Bible together.  By far, my favorite thing he has picked up is from the devotion about Abraham and Isaac; if you ask Reed who is the Lamb of God, he will answer "Jesus."  Mmm, hold that deep in your heart, sweet baby boy!!

And up next...

Christmas in France- I've mentioned before my family's tradition of celebrating Christmas by country.  My Mom implemented the idea a couple of years ago and so far we have done Noche Buena (Mexican Christmas Eve) and il Natale (Italian Christmas).  We always get kind of into the planning- traditions, games, food- and I LOVE it... but I'm totally cheesy like that!  I will definitely check back in after the 26th and let you know how la jour de Noel unfolds!  I hear Pere Fouettard gives out spankings to bad children in France! :) (Side note: I was just thinking as I write this- I wonder if this tradition of studying the celebration of Christmas in other cultures will help with the Saint Nicholas/Santa thing.  Plus, it's always a good way to highlight how people in other parts of the world celebrate Jesus' birth).

Christmas Morning- At the Jesse Tree party I went to a month or so ago, we all shared favorite Christmas traditions.  You have probably heard of this one or you may already do this, but I totally want to implement the simple practice of singing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus on Christmas morning.  Reed LOVES singing happy birthday and will get a big kick out of it.  I think it is such a simple and straightforward way to set the tone for giving gifts; we give in celebration of God's greatest gift, his Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Some years we might make a birthday cake together, but for now we still travel on Christmas Day so our birthday party will probably be over breakfast, with candles in our cinnamon rolls that morning. :)

I think that's the round up so far this year... Any new or favorite ways you are celebrating the season?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Celebrating CHRISTmas

Remember when we welcomed December?  How in the world are we already almost halfway through the month?!  I have been trying to be intentional about simplifying and slowing down during this season, but somehow the hustle and the bustle still follow me around.  You too?

Last April, I did a little blog series about traditions, including a couple of posts about the Christmas season.  In this one, I shared a link to an article by Mark Driscoll about how he and his wife choose to "redeem"' Santa Claus by telling their children the truth about the real Saint Nicholas and the ways our culture continues to celebrate fun, but make-believe traditions based on him.  A few days ago, I read another article called The Christmas Conundrum (by Jen Hatmaker) that a friend shared on facebook.  While Driscoll focuses specifically on Santa Claus, Hatmaker's blog post is a little broader, written about combating materialism and returning the focus of the Christmas celebration to Christ.  It is super challenging, regardless of the specific ways you choose to enjoy the Christmas season.  You can read it here I should probably revisit it a few more times, but good ole hustle and bustle have me cornered.  I will throw out a rundown and a few take-aways anyway...

The blog consists of several ideas (that the author is implementing in her own home) for making Christmas more meaningful; it invites readers to try one or none or all.  First, Hatmaker, (like Driscoll), is ditching the "Santa charade."  Thought-provoking quote: "For a five-year-old, how can Jesus compete with Santa? Our children don't have spiritual perspective; when faced with the choice of allegiance, they have a baby in a manger, or they can get a jolly, twinkling, flying character who will bring them presents. This is going to be an easy choice for them."  And I love this: "Give your kids the gift of a Christmas obsessed with Jesus - and no other - when they are little, and it will be their truth all their lives."  Personally, I really do like the idea of guiding Santa to the background of the season, but I also think it is in some ways more easily thought out than carried out, especially with a child Reed's age.  I guess we'll just have to take it one step at a time, and focus more on how we are celebrating Christmas than how we are not.

Hatmaker also discusses reining in Christmastime spending, and provides some really useful information about responsible consumerism and resources for battling injustice with our dollars.  I have heard of a lot of people who give their children three Christmas gifts, but I think I am stealing Jen's policy: Each child gets something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.  And something to give.  For this last part, each child gets $100 to distribute however they want in order to help the vulnerable. Jen and her husband provide some ideas of organizations as options.  This year, Matt, Reed, and I returned to the World Vision catalog to shop for a gift.

One thing I know I will do differently than the Hatmakers is giving within our family.  Jen says that she and her husband purposely don't exchange gifts, but Matt and I think it is important to model joyful giving in response to and celebration of God's gift of Jesus to us.  (I talked a little bit about how we came to that conclusion here).  We do a gift exchange among adults on both sides of our extended family and, for now, still buy for our nieces and nephews.  I think it could be fun to switch to an exchange of some kind among the cousins once the numbers even out some, or even a special non-gift tradition.  For all our presents, I have tried to make a conscious effort this year to choose and buy a gift on the earlier side and not prolong or labor over the shopping.  I think this is a tough one with our large families; as our kids become more aware of and/or participate in the gifting, I want to focus on generosity and giving in love, but also don't want the process to be stressful or overwhelming.  Again, we'll see.

Lastly, Jen writes about replacing some of the discarded practices with traditions that point our families to the Christ of Christmas.  I have come across a couple of new ideas for this year, and I will check back in to share those traditions and hopefully hear about your favorites!

And just to reiterate, I am not anti-Santa and am not even sure how our family's traditions will take shape over time; I just thought the perspective in Jen Hatmaker's article was meaningful and thought-provoking, and I'm encouraged and excited to embrace the season as Reed celebrates his 2nd Christmas!  I would love to hear any thoughts, especially ideas about practicality of some of these concepts and ideas for Reed's (and Baby girl's!) early years.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gender Reveal Party

From the time I first heard of the idea of a "gender reveal party," I've wanted to have one!  The basic concept is that you find out the gender of your baby in a fun way, together with friends and family.  Soo...

Last week, we had our ultrasound appointment.  We got to see our sweet little baby (moving around like crazy!), and the tech told us when to look away so we could keep the gender a secret.

We had the ultrasound technician write "boy" or "girl" in an envelope, then we passed the envelope on to our friends the Darcys, who knew how to take it from there...

On Saturday, we picked up a huge box from the Darcys, containing helium-filled balloons in either pink or blue--only they knew which.  It took all of my self-control to wait until party time to open it.  I was so excited to find out whether Reed was having a little brother or a little sister!

Our party plans changed and evolved a few times, but we ended up celebrating our gender reveal in combination with cheering on the Dawgs in the SEC championship game.  I had originally wanted to do a party theme around s'mores, (playing on HE and SHE in Hershey as I'd seen on pinterest), with a fire pit and s'mores and a hot chocolate and coffee bar.  Combine all of those with it being December, and we ended up with a gender party theme of Christmas-meets-pink-and-blue-meets-UGA-meets-s'mores... classy, right? :)

There are so many cute and fun ideas online and on pinterest, so I'll just share the way a few of them came together for our fun day.  If you are thinking of having a gender reveal, be sure to look around online!

I'm sure paper invitations hold endless possibilities of cuteness, but we went the simple route of an evite with my attempt at a DIY theme conversion (Football, check. Pink and Blue, check. HE SHE, sort of check. Christmas, let's not get toooo tacky.) :)

Don't judge; evite is limiting.  You can't see all of the text in this picture, but a couple of notes...  I looked up some wording options because I wanted to make sure that everyone knew that we were finding out along with our guests.  We also invited everyone to wear something pink or blue, based on their prediction.  You could totally play up the wear pink/blue more if you're not combining your party with a football game!  I also saw a couple of parties on pinterest where guests donned either a pink or blue lei upon arrival.  I wish I had gotten a picture of everyone in their "team colors," but it was too crazy.

We tried to have some fun tying everything together with decor...
Here is the table in our entry where guests were to hang a pink or blue candy on the tree to represent their guess.
(Note: I saw a really cute idea where you make a pink and blue cheat sheet to help people finalize their guesses.  You can chart the results of various gender-related pregnancy wives tales, hints like the ring test, how you are carrying, etc.  It was one of the many ideas I didn't get around to!)

The centerpiece on the food table: Christmas, UGA, Pink and Blue... :)

After the first quarter of the game, everyone converged in the back yard for the big reveal!  Reed led everyone in counting 1, 2, 3... and then we unwrapped our surprise:

I am not really sure what I expected the moment to be like, but it was so, so fun!  I got a little bit overwhelmed with emotion as we cheered for our new little addition along with family and friends.

Ashley had also made adorable, delicious cupcakes filled with pink icing that we passed around following the reveal.  Reed's grandmothers (who both guessed right!) are showing you one in the photo below. :) (Ashley does awesome cupcakes and cakes for events; let me know if you are interested in her making a cake for a birthday party or other celebration!)

We spent the rest of the evening having chaotic fun, as we had almost as many little kids in our home as adults!

Notice below that the "Hershey" theme didn't get completely ousted... I had already made a banner, so I tried to salvage the idea outside with the firepit, s'mores, and the hot chocolate/coffee bar. :)

We are so excited about our newest little blessing!  Can't wait for big brother Reed to introduce you to Baby Girl Morgan in April. :)