Why I'm Done Sending Christmas Cards

Last December, I had a flitting moment of genius.

Back story: Thanks to the pre-Christmas insanity, with all the baking and gift buying and decorating and wrapping and mailing, I was turning into Mrs. Grinch. Which is sad, really, because taken individually, I like each of those tasks. I like to bake. I like to buy gifts. I like to decorate and wrap and enjoy the season. It's just that it's too much, too fast, and the pressure sucks the joy out.

I wished I could postpone some of the activities until after Christmas, when the rush comes to a dead halt and I still have a week of winter break to enjoy. But the kids have this thing about opening gifts on Christmas morning (go figure), and it's somewhat anticlimactic to put up a tree on December 26.

And that's when it hit me - why send Christmas cards when I could send New Year's cards and actually enjoy the process of designing and mailing letters to our many far-flung friends? There's no law that says the cards have to be received before December 25 to count. Holiday cards are tiny bubbles of happiness whenever they arrive.


Thus, I sat down on December 27 last year and throughly enjoyed ordering these cards from Shutterfly.

This year, I'm in the mood to try something new, and my favorite Christmas cards came from friends using Minted. I've been shopping the site the last few days, in-between snuggles and games of Zingo and skating sessions on the new backyard rink.

I've narrowed it down to these options:





You might notice, I'm all about the fun and bright and the whimsy. But honestly, how am I supposed to choose? Minted has more than 250 New Year's photo cards. I'm a notorious waffler when it comes to stuff like this. Because I love it all.

Which one do you like best? No guarantees, but maybe it will help me make up my mind.

Minted is compensating me for reviewing their New Year's cards, but my choices and opinions are entirely my own. I'll be sure to let you know what I think of the cards once they arrive, too.

Among Us

"There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified."

I read that familiar passage from Luke last night, after I collapsed into bed, a weary but happy heap of holiday hope.

For the first time ever, the words "God's angel stood among them" jumped out to me. I was startled awake.

In the pictures we see in our Bibles and in famous artwork, the angels hover over the hillside, with the shepherds and the oddly non-terrified sheep below. It's intense, for sure; I'm not sure how I would react if a blazing being suddenly appeared in the sky above me, like a comet plunging to earth.

But I know for sure how I would react if that same blazing being suddenly appeared right next to me, feet on the same soil, elbows close enough to touch.

I would be beyond terrified. I would gasp and jump back and probably tremble with the adrenaline surge of my life.

With me? Right here? In my space? It's too much. It's too real. I can't comprehend it.

But that's what the Bible says happened. The angel appeared among the shepherds, and eventually, an entire regiment of angels joined him. God's glory lit up every blade of grass, every stubble on the shepherd's face, every bruise and smudge of dirt and smear of sheep dung.

It's too real. Holy among the unclean. God's messengers with the outcasts.

Maybe God did it that way to signal something.

Because, just a few miles from that hillside, God had moved into the neighborhood. He came to dwell in our mess, in our gritty reality. The outsiders moved in faith and sought out the baby in the manager, and they became insiders, privy to witness the greatest miracle of all time.

God among us.



He is here.

Here, Taste This : Chocolate Mint Brownies

If I have any cooking mojo at all, I got it from my Mom.

She's an old-school, from-scratch, homemade-is-best wonder. Her Sunday dinners are legendary, she once had a small business selling her cinnamon rolls, and it's not a birthday in my house unless I have pan of her chocolate cake baking in my oven. It's the scent of celebration to me.

When I was a kid, our kitchen was a virtual machine each December. My Mom would make close to 20 kinds of cookies and several types of candy. (And that doesn't include the cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning, the ice cream cake roll for the Sunday dinner before Christmas, the Hannukah meal we all loved, etc.) (I have no idea how my siblings and I aren't all obese.) She gave away a lot of her bounty, packing plates of sweets for teacher's gifts and staff presents. And we kids, we were fine with that.

As long as she didn't give away a SINGLE Chocolate Mint Brownie. Because those double-iced, rich and minty, buttery bites were our favorite, and they were not for sharing. They were ours. ALL OURS.

So today, I'm sharing the recipe with you. In hopes that you'll make them for your own family and watch them turn into mini-Grinches after tasting them.

Because I'm clearly not sharing the pan I made this week.

Warning: This recipe uses more than a pound of butter and half a dozen eggs and more than two pounds of sugar. And it is worth every single calorie.


1-1/2 cups butter, softened
3 cups sugar
6 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
2-1/2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cocoa powder

1. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until combined. Mix in flour, salt and cocoa powder.
2. Spread in a 10x15 jelly roll pan.
3. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 25-30 minutes.
4. Cool throughly.

1. Yes, that's 3 sticks of butter, Marge. It's worth it.
2. I don't have a jelly roll pan, so I make these in a half-sheet cake pan. They turn out fine. Just cook them a little less. The edges want to crisp up before the middle is done.
3. This makes a lot of brownies. I cut them small, because they are rich, and I get about 7 dozen. Theoretically, you could half this recipe and make it in a 9x13 pan if you'd rather not have such a large batch of goodness in your house. But why would you do something so miserly at the holidays? Why?
4. I put my brownies in my garage to cool, because it's cold out there. A fridge would work if you live in a place where you can feel your toes in January. You want them to be almost chilled before you go on to the next step. (The brownies. Not your toes.)

Mint Icing
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
green food coloring

1. Beat butter until fluffy. Add sugar in small amounts until throughly mixed.
2. Add milk and beat until icing is fluffy. Add peppermint extract and a few drops of green food coloring at the end. The icing should be buttery, fluffy and mint green.
3. Spread on cool brownies. Chill.

1. If you don't have green food coloring, it wouldn't be the end of the world. The peppermint extract ensure they taste minty. But the green color adds to the overall effect.
2. If you haven't cooled your brownies sufficiently before adding this icing, it will melt and spread out in a puddle. Not that I've ever done this (cough), but I've heard it can be a mess. Patience is your friend.
3. Once they are iced, put the brownies back in your garage or your fridge. You want this icing to be nice and cold before you add the pièce de résistance.

Chocolate Ganache
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
6 tablespoons butter

1. Combine chocolate chips and butter in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Stir well. If chocolate is not all melted, microwave for 30 more seconds and stir until no chunks remain.
2. Stir mixture until silky and let cool until it's not hot to the touch.
3. Spread over the mint frosting layer of the brownies and chill one last time before cutting.

1. If you have an off-set spatula, this is when you want to use it. It's a huge help in spreading this silky chocolate over the mint icing. Use a light touch so you don't combine the two layers.
2. Chill throughly before you cut, and if you want the brownies to look purty, use a sharp knife dipped in hot water between each cut.
3. I leave an edge around my pan, because the icing doesn't always reach.
4. The first few brownies you remove will probably be a mess. That's OK. Eat them and move on. Once you have space for the spatula, they will come out easier.
5. Store these brownies in the fridge for the best results. That chocolate ganache gets gooey in a warm kitchen.

Innocence Lost

I didn't live this past weekend as much as pray to wake up.

I think many of us felt that way, after the nightmare of last Friday. How can we go on, with hearts shattered by sorrow? It is too much. It is pain beyond imagination, evil beyond description.

So we lament, and our souls don sackcloth and ashes and we seek respite in the sweet innocence of children.

That is how I cope, now that I'm a parent. Natalie was just 6 weeks old when evil tore into the Twin Towers, and life was forever marked by before and after. I cradled my newborn and kissed her head and I didn't put her down for days. My tears wet her hair, and I would occasionally look away from the TV and look down at her tiny body as she nursed, and she would be staring at me with her hazel eyes, a gaze of pure love and trust. And fear dissolved away, like snow in the rain.

It's always been that way. During the darkest days of our marriage, Connor was a newborn, Natalie a toddler. I sought refuge in their simple routines, in their laughter and innocence. And this past weekend, I found myself touching Teyla's curls more often, embracing Kieran's constant touch. I let the laughter of Natalie and Connor wash over me like a healing balm.

They know little of evil, these children of mine. We don't watch the news, and their lives are sheltered and safe, as it should be.

As it should be.

But Natalie, my oldest, she is 11 and in sixth grade. She has entered the in-between land where she is not yet adult, yet not quite child. I knew, last night, I had to tell her. Her teacher sent a note home Friday afternoon and said the entire school staff was broken with the news of the day, but they declined to tell the students themselves, believing that was a task better left to the parents.

I swayed on that cliff for three days. A large part of me wanted to keep Natalie's bubble of naivete. Life's malignancy will stain her soon enough, and Corey and I both know there is a trickle down effect in a group of siblings. By keeping Natalie blissfully unaware, we protect the collective.

But the deeper part of me knew this was the time. She is in sixth grade. Many of her classmates are the youngest in their families, exposed to so much more than she. I didn't want her to be the only one at prayer time this morning wondering what Miss Johnson was talking about.

So last night, in a brief moment alone as I cleaned up the kitchen, I looked her deep in the eyes and told her of Friday. Just the barest details, but enough. And I watched her face crumble with disbelief and then horror and then utter grief. Her eyes pooled with tears and she threw her head on the counter and started to weep.

I walked over and held her. And I wept too.

Eden is fouled.

Innocence lost.

It should not be.

Here, Taste This : Mini Turkey Burgers with Sweet Potato Fries

This fall, I'm earning my black-belt in solo parenting. Corey's been gone all but five weeks since August. That's a pace of travel that's ridiculous even for him. He's home on the weekends, but I'm on my own when it comes to managing the school week and all that comes with it.

I think it's an understatement when I say: I've had to figure out a new way to do dinner when it's just me and four kids. I don't have the energy, time or focus to cook the way I do when Corey is home. And honestly, why bother? The kids don't eat that without a fight anyway.

But I also don't want to serve cereal or frozen pizza every night for dinner. It's fine on a really bad day. But this is my life right now; eating junk all the time isn't sustainable.

Enter: The menu of kid-friendly-but-still-healthy food. To make my list, recipes must be quick to make, easy to clean-up, be mostly real food and be something both the kids and I would want to eat.

The recipes I'm sharing today top that list. They are kid-friendly, even kid-sized, yet tasty and healthy. I originally got these recipes from Everyday Food (which has been discontinued with the December 2012 issue, a fact I am still in mourning about) (really - mourning), but I've adapted them quite a bit to make them even easier. Serve this with some apple or orange slices and some sugar snap peas to round out the meal.

Mini Turkey Burgers

1 pound ground turkey
1/2 cup cheddar cheese
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 small onion, grated OR 1 tablespoon dried onion
salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons olive oil
12 whole wheat dinner rolls or mini hamburger buns

1. Combine ground turkey, cheddar cheese, bread crumbs and onion; season with salt and pepper. Mix gently. Form 12 small patties, about 2 inches each.
2. Heat olive oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat. Cook patties until browned and cooked through, flipping once, about 5 minutes per side. Serve on dinner rolls with lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup and mustard on the side.

1. The regular lean turkey works best for turkey burgers; the extra lean stuff is too dry.
2. I use regular bread crumbs, but you could use seasoned if that's all you have.
3. These reheat well for lunch the next day; just pop the burger in the bun into the microwave for 30 seconds.

Sweet Potato Fries

2 sweet potatoes, for about 2 pounds total, peeled and cut into 1/2-by-2-inch sticks
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

1. Preheat over to a rip-roaring 450-degrees. Toss potato sticks with the olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet.
2. Roast, flipping once, until tender and starting to brown, about 25-30 minutes.

1. If you're this whole meal, get the sweet potatoes in the oven before you start the burgers. That way, they'll be done about the same time.
2. Serve these as fast as you can for maximum crispness. Sweet potato fries tend to get soggy quickly.

Gifts Tweens Want To Get

Chances are likely, you have one in your life.

And buying a gift for them makes your heart quake with terror.

Fear not, gentle friends. Tweens are not another species. They are just changing. (My daughter is so tired of me saying that.) I believe it is possible to get them a gift for Christmas that won't get returned. (Hi! I'm Kelly! I'm hopelessly optimistic!)

This list was put together with help from my own 11-year-old daughter and a dear friend who has three boys between the ages of 12 and 16. Experience breeds confidence, yes? And talking to real tweens (and teens) about what they want means it's credible.

One note before we begin: My friend and I have ulterior motives with these gifts. We don't just want to delight the tweens in our life; we want to draw them in, to build relationships with them and get to know them. So we've weighted gifts that allow us to scheme for quality time.

Shall we start with the boys?

1. Army Surplus
Your local army surplus store is tween boy heaven.

Not only do they have all kinds of trinkets and gear, like customizable dog tags, Navy SEAL iron-on patches, compasses, camo hats and flight jackets, but they have male-friendly storage containers, also known as retired ammo boxes. My friend says her boys use those beat-up metal boxes to store everything from Legos to books to video games at her house. Genius gift. Cool and practical. (If you can't find an army surplus store near you - maybe you live in Berkley? - you can always shop online.)

2. Airsoft Gear
If you are a pacifist, look away. LOOK AWAY! But if you are the parent or relative of a tween boy, you probably already know what I'm going to say: Airsoft is hugely popular with boys between the ages of 9 and 19. For the uninitiated: it's basically a BB gun that shoots tiny plastic beads. Boys will spend hours chasing each other through the woods seeking nothing more than the thrill of putting the hurt on their friend or sibling. You can find Airsoft gear at your local sporting goods store or, again, online.

3. Fan Gear

Think outside of the pro sports team box here. What about a local minor league baseball team? Or a sport that doesn't get as much attention in your area? Or - my favorite - what about gear for the high school they'll someday attend? Talk about a great way to build up your community.

4. Events
This ties directly back to scheming to get quality time. Instead of a gift that might break in a week or get returned the next day, buy tickets to an upcoming game, be it pro, semi or high school. Buy passes for that movie that you know he wants to see and go with him. (Hint: The Hobbit opens December 14.) Hit up some balls at a batting cage. Sprain your ankle at an indoor trampoline park. Give him a gift card to his favorite store - but then promise to take him on that shopping trip and go for burgers and fries afterwards. Experiences are priceless to tweens, and your investment in that relationship is the real gift.

BONUS: Stocking Stuffers for Tween Boys
- portable iPod speakers
- sunglasses
- iTunes gift card
- handheld video games like this Simon Electronic Carabiner
- action-oriented games like Bop It

On to the girls. A quick note. These ideas - and more - were originally published in my Gift Guide for Tween Girls. You can always check that out if these highlights don't strike your fancy.

1. Digital Camera
This is what we got Natalie for her birthday this year: a purple (color is critical to tween girls) Kodak EasyShare Mini Digital Camera.

It's been a great gift; the EasyShare is user-friendly, small, lightweight and not pricey. But really, any camera similar to it would work.

2. Scrapbook Kit
If the tween girl in your life already has a camera, the logical next step is to record those memories. My daughter loves crafts, ao a physical scrapbook would be the easiest entry point.

Try something like the American Girl Crafts Super Scrapbook Kit. (All of the American Girl Crafts are high quality, I've found.) Or, if the girl you're buying for isn't into stickers and glue, you could always move directly to digital scrapbooking. Getting her a gift card to an online photo site like Shutterfly or Snapfish would let her create a photo book of her best friends, her summer adventures or even her Christmas break.

3. Funky Furniture
A few years ago, Natalie was given a (purple) chair for her birthday. It's similar to this hang-a-round chair at Pottery Barn Teens.

It's round and cozy and foldable, so it's easy to move or store. It's the perfect place to curl up on a rainy Saturday and read a book or three. (Or a great place to keep your Shriveled Balloon Collection, which is what Natalie's chair is doing right now. Keeping it real, folks.) Pottery Barn's chair is obviously a tad high on the price spectrum, but you can find all sorts of fun chairs or beanbags at Target, Wal-Mart or Ikea. I would never have thought of giving furniture as a gift, but done right, it can be practical and cool.

4. Activity for Two
Find an activity your girl loves - or something that will challenge her to learn something new. Social media sites like Groupon and Living Social can be fun for this; they offer great deals on services or experiences you might not have considered. What about an afternoon of paddle boarding? Or rock climbing lessons? Tickets to a Circque de Soleil show? Take her to tea. Go get a pedicure. Go on a sleigh ride. Give her a gift card and then take her shopping for some new boots. Again, the time you spend together will be the real gift - for both of you.

BONUS: Stocking Stuffers for Tween Girls
- fun tights
- lipgloss, nail polish, bubble bath
- Gussy Sews hair accessories or seasonal zipped pouch
- small Starbucks tumbler
- fuzzy socks or slippers
- Perfectly Unique, a fun and fresh look at aligning our body image with God's view of us, by the irrepressible and talented Annie Downs

Looking for more gift ideas? Have I got a deal for you! Some of my favorite blogging friends are posting gift guides today, each with its own flavor and speciality. Take a gander.
Sarah Bessey : Sarah's Favourite Things
The BlahBlahBlahger : Gifts for Wine Lovers
O My Family : Gifts for Toddlers
Joy In This Journey : Healthy Gifts
Fried Okra : Stylish Gifts for Him and Her
Nish Happens : Gifts for the Adventurous
Love Feast Table : Gifts for Him

Me and my Shadow

I have this shadow.

It follows me wherever I go. Sometimes, it lags behind. It might take a few minutes to catch up to my new location.

But it always reappears.

Especially when I sit at the computer for a few minutes. Or try to cook dinner. Or take a shower.

It is my constant companion.

It isn't a perfect copy. It's about half my size and it has way more energy than me.

And it talks different. It says like things like, "Hi Mama! You taking shower, Mama? You on da compooter Mama? Wook at me, Mama! I firefighter Kieran!"

It even appears at my side in the middle of the night, with a hand on my face and a tousled head on my shoulder.

Occasionally, my shadow disappears. Sometimes it's because it's playing Legos or reading a book or building a train track.

But more likely, it's because that shadow is climbing a counter stool to get into the treats cabinet and stuff handfuls of mini peppermint marshmallows in its ample cheeks. Or maybe it can be found pouring an entire bottle of bubble bath into the tub. Or maybe it's coloring on the legs of the kitchen table or dialing the phone or digging in the house plants in search of secret treasure.

I don't like it when my shadow disappears.

I prefer to keep it close to me. That's the point of a shadow, after all. It's always there, invited or not. It's steadfast and devoted and perfectly happy just to be with you.

Funny thing about shadows: when they show up, the sun shines.

Welcome to The Parent 'Hood, a weekly blog round-up of all things parenting. I host this carnival every Monday (er, sometimes Tuesday), along with some of my favorite blogging buddies (FriedOkra, Vita Familiae, To Think is To Create, Joy in this Journey, Lovefeast Table and O My Family). Post your link using the tool below, and your post will show up instantly on all the host blogs.

A few bits and pieces:
1. Today’s link-up will run from this morning through next Sunday night. A new link-up will start next Monday morning.
2. Link the unique URL of your parenting post, not the homepage of your blog. Otherwise, your parenting post will get buried under new content on your homepage and be hard to find when readers click through later in the week.
3. We ask that you please include a link somewhere in your post back to The Parent 'Hood, via this post or The Parent 'Hood welcome post on any of the other hosting blogs.
4. If you're on Twitter, hashtag Parent 'Hood posts with #TheParentHood.
5. Share your own posts and read and comment on other blogs. Any good 'hood is all about community, right? Read, comment and enjoy as you have time.