By Renée Gotcher
This week I’m participating with a homeschool blog link-up called “The Homeschool Mother’s Journal” hosted by The Homeschool Chick. I’m also continuing my series on “a homeschooling Christmas,” where I’ve been sharing about our new approach to integrating Christmas traditions (some old, some new!) with our homeschool plan for December. Week One was a big hit with the kids and relatively stress free for me — which has been my goal all along — but Week Two proved to be a bit more challenging. Here’s what went down:
In our homeschool this past week… the pace of Christmas events and activities snowballed, and to top that off, the week started off with an awful stomach bug making its way through most of the family! By the end of last week, I felt like I was digging myself out of an avalanche and had almost lost “my way”— my way being the mission to keep our family focused on celebrating Jesus and away from the normal stresses of the season.
Thankfully, the Lord in His grace made sure that I wasn’t sick myself until my husband was home for the weekend from a week-long business trip (although I’m sure he didn’t appreciate it!) — which was just long enough for me to recover and get my footing for the busy week ahead and the fact that he’d be gone again for four days.
Along with the week’s special events, such as my girls’ absolute favorite Elementary Presentation Day and Christmas Party, plus my second annual Christmas Cookie Swap (co-hosted with another homeschooling mom), we tried our best to keep up with our new and repeating family Christmas traditions. This proved to be the biggest challenge, since two of our new Christmas traditions involved daily activities! What was I thinking when I made that decision?
Not surprisingly, we missed a few days of our Jesse Tree devotional in the morning, and due to the sick days, we missed a few days of the Family Fun Christmas Countdown activities as well. And my lofty plan to keep the girls working on core schoolwork each day also fell to the wayside.
But quickly I realized that the only person keeping track of these “misses” was me. The girls were still having a great time each day with the projects that we did accomplish, they had a blast at our week’s special events, and most important, Christmas was still front and center in the daily conversation. Kids have an amazing ability to keep their eyes on the big picture when we are still buried in the details, don’t they?
My favorite thing this week was… what we did accomplish! We kept up a few existing traditions that we love, caught up with our new ones (finally back on the right day of the Jesse Tree devotional), and were blessed to participate in some fun fellowship with people we are grateful to know. Here are the highlights:
Baking Christmas Cookies With Dad — a Keeper!
Years ago when our eldest Audrey was maybe two or three years old, my husband initiated our first Christmas Cookie baking and decorating party. Yes, you read that right — my husband started this tradition in our family! I am blessed to have a husband who loves to cook and is a natural born chef, in my opinion. Which works out great for me because I’m definitely not!
Since that first frosting fest, the girls have come to look forward to this special time of baking and free-form decorating with dad. When they were young, we usually bought a ready-made roll of sugar cookie dough, canisters of cake frosting, and a Christmas sprinkles assortment. Creating cookies was as easy as cutting out shapes, popping them in the oven, smearing them with frosting and dousing them with sprinkles.
This year, since the girls are older and more skilled, I secretly hoped that we could come up with some uniform decorating ideas and end up with more “gift-ready” sugar cookies. But I realized quickly that dad’s laid-back and free-for-all fun attitude is one of the reasons the girls enjoy doing this with him.
So while I tried to sprinkle in decorating suggestions here and there, the girls pretty much did what they wanted — and had a blast doing it. This is definitely dad’s tradition! If I want perfectly decorated cookies for gift-giving, I will have to decorate them myself. My husband Kenny did a nice job on his (first row, below) and the girls just did their thing… good times!
Decorating a Gingerbread Town — new!
My eldest daughter Audrey loves to bake and decorate, and she made a special request this year to create a Gingerbread town for the first time. Such a simple request, right? Little did she know there’s a reason we haven’t done this before: I’m just not that crafty! The only “Gingerbread” houses I’ve ever made consisted of graham cracker walls smeared with store-bought frosting.
But in the spirit of incorporating more creativity into our Christmas celebration, I said yes. Then I panicked: I don’t have any molds! I’ve never even baked Gingerbread cookies from scratch before, let alone Gingerbread cookie walls! What about my goal of simplicity?
Thankfully, there’s always an easier way — and you can usually find it at Michaels! So I purchased a ready-to-build Gingerbread town, complete with candy, sprinkles and ready-to-mix frosting with included piping bags & decorating tips. Yes, this is doable! We’ll just follow the instructions and voila, we’ll have a cute homemade-looking Gingerbread town.
I’ll spare you the details of my failed attempts to get the frosting consistency just right, or to figure out why the pre-cut pieces of each house didn’t seem to want to fit together even though we followed the “blueprints” exactly. Let’s just say it didn’t turn out to be as simple as the box promised!
In the end, we had our Gingerbread town and the girls were so proud of themselves! And we learned a few things along the way, like you actually can’t fix everything with frosting and there is such a thing as too many decorations on a tiny Gingerbread wall (one door keeps falling off due to the weight of a gummy wreath and all its “ornaments”). But what fun we had!
I’d like to repeat this tradition, but I think I should try to take a cookie decorating class first — doesn’t Michaels have those too?
Christmas Cookie Swap — a Keeper!
I know I said earlier that I’m no whiz in the kitchen, but there is one thing that I’ve had repeated success with over the years: Baking (not decorating) great cookies! This is largely due to the fact that baking is precise and involves detailed instructions — totally up my alley. As long as I have a fool-proof recipe in my hands, all the necessary ingredients, a nonstick pan and a cooperating oven, and there’s lots of chocolate involved, I’m good to go.
A few years back when we lived in Durango, one of my neighbors invited me to participate in my first Christmas Cookie Swap. The invitation requested that I bring six dozen cookies from the same recipe, printed copies of my recipe, and an appetizer — that’s a huge request for a kitchen-shy mom like me! But I didn’t want to miss out on the fun, and the idea of having an assortment of amazing cookies to give away as gifts was tempting. Plus there’s a little spark of Martha in me that was up for the challenge.
I made six dozen of the easiest and best cookies I knew how to make — drop chocolate chip cookies — and simply added crushed peppermint to the batter. And guess what? Among some of the prettiest homemade cookies I’ve ever seen, my simple peppermint chocolate chip cookies were a huge hit! Since then, I’ve actually located a recipe for these cookies online. Maybe I’m not such a kitchen disaster after all?
When I moved to Castle Rock last year, I longed to keep this tradition alive, but no one I knew was stepping up to host one. So I chatted up the idea with a friend in my homeschool group who enjoys cooking, and we decided to pool our talents together and co-host our own Cookie Swap. She has the perfect entertaining house and loves to cook, so she made the apps and set up a beautifully decorated spread. I am the social ringleader and computer whiz, so I planned the games and coordinated the online and print invitations, RSVPs, and recipe printouts.
I also decided to be a little more adventurous this year and make “pretty” cookies: This recipe for Chocolate Peppermint Wafers from my favorite magazine Real Simple seemed to fit the bill, incorporating a cookie must-have for me — chocolate — with the festive flavor of peppermint and some snazzy decor. They turned out to be easy and delicious!
Although our first Cookie Swap party was small — we couldn’t seem to convince many moms in our homeschool group that it wasn’t as intimidating as it sounded — those who came had a fabulous time and asked us if we’d do it again this year. So we decided to make it an annual tradition!
This year I was inspired by my favorite Starbucks dessert, the Cranberry Bliss Bar, to make a cranberry white chocolate cookie. I couldn’t find a recipe that was exactly what I had in mind, so I decided to adapt this Triple Chocolate Cranberry Oatmeal Cookie recipe and use only dark and white chocolate, along with dried cranberries instead of fresh or frozen, which I prefer in texture and tartness. I couldn’t believe I was actually modifying a recipe by myself, but they turned out amazing! In fact, I’m making more today because there aren’t enough left for gifts — no one in the family has been able to keep their hands off of them.
The Cookie Swap was a big hit again this year: Not only did last year’s guests come back for more, but we added a few new moms too! The cookies were great, but the best part of the evening was the meaningful conversation. I think we all needed that break from the busy pace of the season to share from the heart with like-minded women who could encourage and support one another. I really felt blessed to have played a role in bringing us all together that night!
Songs of Christmas — new!
I’ve always loved Christmas music, and it’s something that really brings me back to childhood. My mom was really great about turning on the Christmas tunes right after Thanksgiving every year, and once we even purchased a seen-on-TV set of Christmas Classics cassette tapes that eventually wore out from many years of use. We sang Christmas carols with groups of friends, as a family, and with Christmas choirs from church and school. I’m no singer, but music is definitely a family trait, and I’ve always enjoyed singing at Christmas time and watching others perform as well.
But for some reason, I haven’t been great at incorporating music into our family’s Christmas traditions. This year, I set out to find something special involving music, and what do you know, my own church was hosting an event called “Songs of Christmas.” Perfect!
I thought it would be like a Christmas concert, but it turns out the evening was about everyone singing — the performers simply led the way. There were a couple of solo numbers, but for the most part we all sang in unison some of the most treasured and meaningful Christmas carols we all know. It was like one big worship service, and it was perfect! The girls loved singing along and sharing cookies and cider with their friends from church. It was just what I needed last week to bring the true spirit of the season back into focus in our family.
And my favorite photo of the week… was taken on one of our Family Fun Christmas Countdown activities, cruising for Christmas lights. After picking up Audrey from ballet last Monday, I surprised the girls by picking up dinner and peppermint hot chocolates from the McDonald’s drive-through (don’t judge me!) and taking them through a neighborhood that actually hosts a Christmas lights decorating contest each year. I figured if there’s a contest, there should be some great light displays to see — and I was right! This house was everyone’s favorite:
Another December week has quicky come and gone, and although we hit some bumps in the road (like illness and over-booking), I felt like we still managed to stay on track with the Homeschooling Christmas plan. And despite the addition of all those events last week, we’re still having one of the most peaceful Christmases I can remember. I think it is going to be really hard to see it all come to a close at the end of this week!
— Renée Gotcher is an entrepreneur, writer, wife & home-educating mother of three daughters: Audrey, Claire and Elise. Renée was homeschooled during her last two years of high school and started homeschooling in 2010. She and her family currently reside in Castle Rock, Colorado.