CHRISTMAS

That’s a Wrap … Last Minute Christmas Gift Ideas

Who says a gift card is boring? When I found this large 3 foot tall popcorn box filled with three kinds of popcorn I knew it would be the perfect prop for a movie gift card. Individual serving paper bags are attached and the gift card slipped inside, tied with a large bow and an old fashioned pop corn machine Christmas ornament. (As the stores continue to reduce the prices of Christmas ornaments and decorations consider picking up some that can be used to adorn your gifts this year and the next.)

An odd shaped gift still deserves to be pretty. Wrap your paper around its shape and extend the top about an inch higher above the packaging before folding over. Punch two side by side holes with a hole punch and thread the ribbon from the back and then fasten a looped bow in front. Add a pretty little dollar store ornament for a little fun and sparkle.

A cheerful little red feathered cardinal (2 per card at the dollar store) – “A Little Birdie told me you wanted this!”

Christmas can be a little melancholy for some. Here’s a way to cheer them up. An elegant gold box of chocolates tied with a cheerful red bow and pinned with a beautiful brooch. (Antique shops often have several designs in a glass case to choose from – or a new one may be available at a department store.) I wear my brooch on my sweater or coat and all day someone stops to tell me how pretty it is. What better way to lift someone’s spirits than to give them something that others will notice and compliment throughout their day?

Vanilla bean paste is quickly becoming a favorite of bakers. A gel like vanilla liquid filled with vanilla bean seeds amps up the flavor of baked goods without the high cost of vanilla beans.
Cardamon, Chinese Five Spice and Everything Bagel seasoning are some of my favorite spices.

For the person who loves to cook and or bake …. Spices are bought in large quantities and only a small amount (i.e. a teaspoon at a time) is used in each recipe. Years later the bottle can look like it has been hardly used. Replacing spices every year can be costly. Even someone who bakes and cooks as often as I do can discover a bottle that’s been in the pantry for far too long. As spices age they lose their freshness, fragrance and flavor. Baking ingredients like pure vanilla or almond extract or the ever growing popular jar of vanilla bean paste are pricey to restock. But there are spices in every price range for your budget. A fresh supply would be a great gift to cheffie. Cinnamon, paprika, white or black peppercorns, Sea or French gray salt are a few examples.

Another less costly idea is to purchase spices in packets. The spice in the jar can be emptied, retaining the bottle, washed and refilled with the fresh spice packet. Throw in a couple of unusual spices to experiment with like Zatar, Sumac, Cardamon, Chinese Five Spice or Ras El Hanout.

Not every cook has one of these – a garlic canister with little holes on the sides for air to flow through. I purchased this one a World Market Cost Plus. Some culinary stores have ceramic versions as well.

On to the love of travel. Is someone you know dreaming of a special bucket list vacation? Wrap a current guidebook and embellish the bow with a symbolic ornament might manifest that dream this year.

Place an order for a travel magazine subscription – wrap a current edition with the note inside and an interesting luggage tag as a gift card.

Dress up a plant for a friend or as a hostess gift. This orchid planter was purchased at Trader Joe’s. I also purchased a packet of green pine and evergreens and stuck them into and around the plants. I added a couple of pine cone shaped ornaments. While this version was fine, I wanted to do a little more. So I made a bow and tucked the small ornaments in its center.

Below: Giving a little piece of jewelry this year? While a velvet box is wonderful, consider presenting the item in a new unexpected way. This little bee pin is hiding along the branches. It may seem that only an orchid plant is the gift – until you zoom in. Earrings, bracelets or a delicate necklace could easily be hung from within an arrangement.

The reason for the season … a gift for yourself or someone you know who is going through a difficult time or simply wants to grow in faith… I’ve given so many copies of these books away that I’ve lost count. When someone is so broken that they can’t even find the strength to pray, Illuminata is filled with beautiful prayers for every kind of petition and Jesus Calling (that was a gift given to me several years ago) offers daily messages based on scripture that somehow seem to be exactly what you need to know to get through every day. The spine of mine is greatly worn from so many years of reading its pages.

When I’m at a loss for something to give that friend or family member, I will sometimes find something to give that involves spending time together. Below I purchased two of these knitting kits (one for me and one for my friend) with a card that explains my gift comes with time spent together. One year a friend and I decided to each buy a ticket to see the Beauty and the Beast musical as our gift. We went to dinner and the theater one evening together as our gifts to each other.

I bought one for you and one for me. I thought we could spend a few afternoons together knitting.

While these are only a short list of gift ideas, I hope they will inspire you to think about who you have to give a gift to and do what you can to make your gift meaningful. In our busyness, it’s easy to fall short no matter how hard we try. I struggle to find something for those I want to present with a gift, but have done so for so many years that my idea well is dry. In an ideal situation, we would start our list in January and each month look for something special for one person at a time. Unfortunately, we do well for some and not so well for others. I believe in attaching a gift receipt. We all work so hard for the money we earn, and I would rather someone return something that wasn’t the fabulous idea I thought it was and exchange it for something they would prefer. These ideas were meant to generate ideas for the last minute shopper or busy bee whose schedule is so packed with work, school and family or other roles, that they can’t spend hours in a mall.

May all your gifts come from the heart and your holiday be filled with blessed moments and memories. Blessings and happy wishes to all!

CHRISTMAS, HOLIDAY

Twelve Days of Christmas Cocktail Party

The house was ready for a party…tree branches from the neighbor’s trimmings on the chandelier.

Weekends during the month of December fly by so quickly packed with shopping and a variety holiday themed activities of every kind. While I love the festive beauty and nostalgic glow that Christmas decorations and music offer for entertaining, by the time December arrives I’m a little worn down from a year of hosting parties all year. I love holiday baking and cooking which both consume a lot of weekend time also. While the idea of hosting a Christmas party simmers in my mind each year, my energy level has fizzled to glowing embers and I just can’t get the fire started to put together another party.

My daughter, her husband and my grandchildren usually come home for Christmas week and my point of focus is on preparing for their arrival and reserving energy to dedicate to my grandchildren. As a full-time mortgage loan underwriter, my days are busy at work like most of you and weekends are precious time that must be wisely scheduled to accomplish everything that the holidays demand. One year however, my little family decided they would being staying home, so I decided to host a small cocktail party, but I needed it to be as stress free as possible.

Christmas parties can draw from many different themes, but short on time, I had to use what I had. As I dug through my boxes of Christmas treasures I found my Twelve Days of Christmas linen napkins I bought on clearance one year at Williams Sonoma. I pressed each on the ironing board and lined them across the table. They provided both a pop of Christmas colors and fun.

My neighbor had just purchased a fresh tree and trimmed some of the branches from it’s trunk. They were piled beside their trash can, so before they were picked up by the trash collectors I grabbed them and once again glanced around the house for a place to use them. The chandelier in the center of my living room caught my eye. I didn’t put up a Christmas tree this particular year since the kids weren’t coming home, so I needed to add a little spruce drama to the room. Using floral wire, I draped and tied the branches to the chandelier and then made a large bow that I attached to the bottom center.

Next for the refreshments. A cocktail party needs cocktails and a place to prepare and serve them. I surveyed my living area considering the best way to arrange the room for a cocktail party. I decided to have three stations around the room with drink options. A Moscow mule station with labeled bottles, ice, sparkling wine, garnishes and the recipe was created on top of my entertainment cabinet (above); a large punch bowl filled with eggnog set on top of a copper bowl filled with ice (a mixture of bottled eggnog from the liquor department combined with a jug of dairy department eggnog and a pint of rich vanilla ice cream swirled in) punch cups, a ladle and a couple of nutmeg pods with a small grater on the side to top off each cup were set up on my cocktail cart; and finally my mulled wine (a combination of red wine, brandy, grand mariner, ginger beer and mulling spices) simmered in a crock pot on the kitchen counter with a bowl of blood orange slices for garnish (below) for easy self serve access. Cocktail napkins were also provided at each location for a guest to hold around their glass.

Eggnog Station
Mulled Wine Station
Left to right: Mulled wine, Moscow Mule & Eggnog

I envisioned my guests walking around the room helping themselves to a drink and the food also placed in different areas around the room, allowing me to also enjoy the party and visit with my guests.

On the sofa table bacon wrapped pineapple and Chinese sweet chili sauce and
Fig balsamic goat cheese with cranberry pepper jelly in filo cups.

I cleared off every surface in the room and placed platters out to plan what I would serve and where I would place each item around the room. I chose items that could be made ahead and served at room temperature or in a warming vessel such as an electric fondue pot or crock pot.

On the breakfast table: White Velvet Soup and Bourbon Meatballs.
https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/white-velvet-soup-3157615?soc=itksocialsharedefault%7Cios%7Cp

On the breakfast table (above) a White Velvet Soup stayed warm with the help of a crock pot. A stack of small bowls and a tray arranged with the toppings and spoons were provided on the side; Bourbon meatballs to the right with small cocktail forks.

On the dining room table a spinach dip twisted bread tree , cheese plater and red velvet coconut buche noel.
https://www.tastynova.com/2018/10/christmas-tree-spinach-dip-breadsticks.html

On the dining room table, (above) a spinach dip twisted bread stick Christmas tree; (below) two trays with various cheeses, crackers, olives, pickled mushrooms, etc. and finally dessert – a red velvet roll cake with whipped cream cheese and coconut shavings to resemble a buche noel that I sliced later in the evening and served.

Red Velvet coconut buche noel.

With Christmas music in the background, this party required no formalities and allowed everyone to mingle and converse the night away while sipping and nibbling around the room. I hope these make ahead and self serve station ideas will inspire you if you’re considering hosting your own Christmas gathering this year and feel like you just don’t have the time. Store bought small bites and pastries would work just as easily with no cooking or baking required at all. Use what you have and just add a little sparkle to make a toast to the holidays!

CHRISTMAS, TRADITIONS & TEA

Our Christmas Cookie (Tradition)

Homemade cookies delivered to my neighbors last year.

As a young girl in a military family, we moved almost every year until I was in the 4th grade. We then lived for a few years each, in both northern and southern California before Dad finally retired from the service. Military families often live far away from family and miss out on the annual traditions or routines that usually form from being near them. We didn’t have Christmas Eve’s at Uncle so in so’s or alternated Christmas Day dinners at each of our grandparent’s houses. Christmas was usually just dinner for the four of us, Mom, Dad, my brother and I.

Having missed out on holiday traditions with other family members as a kid, it was important to me that my daughter have family traditions when she was growing up. I was inspired by my ex-husband’s large family, who routinely celebrated different holidays throughout the year their own unique way with a large family picnic for Easter and a Christmas Eve gathering every year that I made sure she attended.

In preparation for Christmas, three families that resided in homes all on the same street gathered in the late afternoon on Thanksgiving Day to pick a family member’s name from a bowl. On Christmas Eve there was a party at one of the three homes along with traditional food and a gift exchange. My food memory from those parties so many years later were Grammy’s shrimp balls, at the time made by a beloved Aunt nestled in a chrome insulated container that I couldn’t wait to see arrive and placed on the table.

Another tradition that took place for several years involved a group of family members that got together in early November and drove across Lake Pontchartrain to a Christmas tree farm. Each family would select their tree, pay for it and tag it. The Friday after Thanksgiving, everyone would make the journey back to the farm to cut the tree down, wrap it up and bring it home. The following Saturday night I would host a tree trimming party for friends and family. When I think back to the small townhouse living room I had back then and the number of people that would cram inside, I’m not sure how we did it, but everyone eagerly attended year after year.

These were the days long before computers, so with a few library books and a typewriter, I typed all of the lyrics to 36 Christmas carols. I cut out and taped some images and drew others to some of the pages. I then organized the pages so that after I made photocopies and folded them in half, they would form a little song book. The children would sit in front of their decorated tree and sing a few Christmas carols.

While I didn’t ask my guests to bring an ornament, I received some beautiful versions that have become treasured classics -handled with special care as they are hung on my tree all of these years later. Year after year, as I unpack them from their layers of bubble wrap or tissue, the memories of those parties come rushing back.

Both my daughter and granddaughter received a nutcracker ornament the first time I took them to see the Nutcracker Ballet. The boys, not as interested in the ballet, received their nutcrackers in their early years of tree decorating.

Whenever a party includes children it’s imperative to have an activity to keep them entertained, especially in a small home. Upstairs I had an open loft that didn’t have any specific purpose, but offered enough space to place two folding tables with chairs. For the first party I baked cookies formed into various Christmas themed shapes such as candy canes, bells, and trees. I then purchased a variety of sprinkles and colored sugars and cans of white frosting that I used food color to make green, red and yellow. The kids sat at the tables with their plastic knives and dipped into the cans of frosting to slather on their cookies and then sprinkle with various candy decorations having a ball! I would convince them to allow the cookies to dry, and then ask them to come downstairs to decorate the tree and sing Christmas carols. We then wrapped their cookies in cellophane bags for their journey home.

In the years that followed, I found a large Teddy Bear cookie cutter. I thought that something with a larger surface, maybe rolled out a little thicker, would be easier for the kids to handle. I could not have imagined not only how much they would love it at the time (as they left with bears loaded down with chocolate or vanilla icing and about a pound of various candies), but years later one of the mothers told me her daughter still remembers decorating those cookies and she’s now in her late 30’s.

While I haven’t hosted a tree trimming party for years, I do bake a variety of cookies to box and deliver to my neighbors.

Now I have grandchildren, but they live one State over and with jobs and school schedules I don’t see them as much as I would like. While they often come home for Christmas, it’s usually after the tree has been decorated, so starting with my first grandchild, I have baked those same Teddy Bear cookies and mailed them with tubes of icing and various sprinkles so she could decorate her cookies when she decorated the tree with my daughter and her husband. Now with three grandchildren, every year I’ve sent the cookies and the kids have followed the tradition of a night of cookie decorating. Last year I asked my granddaughter who was at the time just days from her 11th birthday, if I should keep making the Teddy Bear cookies and she immediately said “Yes! Nana, it’s a tradition!”

For the past two years, their little family has stopped by on the Saturday after Thanksgiving on their way home from visiting their grandparents in Alabama to decorate my tree. This year while Mom and Dad enjoyed a college football game, we played Christmas music and shared an evening of decorating my Christmas tree and then gathered around the table to decorate two new cookie shapes – a large Christmas Tree and the popular red truck with a Christmas Tree (that the boys decided to make blue.) Of course by the time we had finished the Christmas tree cookie, my littlest demanded it was time to eat his snowflake cookie. (I mean a little boy can only hold out for so long!)

Packed in those same cellophane bags, ready for the journey home, somehow all of these years later, I’ve managed to re-create a similar tradition with my grandchildren. Whether in their own home or here with me, I hope that like those other small children who once attended my tree trimming parties years ago, they will remember these moments as our “Christmas cookie tradition.”