Tag Archives: Christmas

A Homeschooling Christmas: Final Week

27 Dec

By Renée Gotcher

Although we had a full week left before Christmas, things quickly transitioned from busy preparation to vacation mode in our house. I think this was partly due to the fact that two snowstorms moved through Colorado — one on Monday and an even bigger one on Wednesday — which left nearly two feet of fresh snow on the ground and slowed down the holiday activities considerably. Those couple of snow-bound days at home were filled with sledding and snowman-making, more baking, and lots of family time around the fire catching up with Christmas movies we’d recorded on the DVR. And although we missed a couple of planned outings as a result, a wonderfully peaceful feeling set in. I felt truly ready for Christmas.

By now, we’d also moved into vacation mode with our homeschool: The only “school” activity we accomplished each day was our Jesse Tree devotional and ornament-making project. Since I had all three girls making their own ornament to add to the tree daily since Dec. 1, it was looking quite full by now, branches barely distinguishable among all the colorful paper ornaments.

This week’s devotions in Ann Voskamp’s “A Jesus Advent Celebration” were especially thought-provoking, bringing into the spotlight the most important gift we’ve ever received — our Savior Jesus Christ and the gift of salvation — and challenging us to consider whether we really treasure this gift the way we should and recognize that it’s the only thing that truly matters.

This new tradition of creating a Jesse Tree has been really meaningful to our family — a definite keeper! It’s kept us all focused and extremely grateful. I’ve seen the typical materialism of the season melt away, and the girls have been more thoughtful, more giving and more appreciative of every moment we’ve shared together. I feel very blessed by this experience!

Despite the snow, we did manage to get out and enjoy a few more Christmas traditions, new and old. Here’s a quick recap:

Homemade Christmas Gifts — Revisited!

This year, we had to add a second day of baking to the agenda in order to have enough cookies to give away. The snow days this week provided the perfect opportunity to hunker down and complete the baking project.

My eldest daughter Audrey took charge with this second round of cookie baking, and before I knew it, she already had the dough mixed and the first tray of cookies in the oven. We made a second batch of Dark & White Chocolate Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies (adapted from this recipe) and tweaked this Double Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe by adding crushed peppermint candy to the mix before baking. Then we packed the finished product in cute Christmas-printed take-out styled boxes from Michael’s.

One thing I’ll do better next year is plan to give the cookies out very soon after baking them. Because of the snow, not all the cookies were delivered until late in the week, at which point I had to tell recipients that they should be enjoyed right away. But other than this little glitch, the cookie gifts were a fun family project and a great way to bless others, especially neighbors that we don’t interact with often.

Christmas Zoo Lights — New!

It’s been many years since we’ve taken the girls to see the special Christmas lights displayed at the Denver Zoo — back then, we were just a family of four and the girls were still riding in a double stroller. This year, we planned to stroll the lights at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo instead — partly because it was free to members, but also because we thought it would be less crowded (and my husband always prefers to avoid crowds). We had originally planned to go on Monday evening, but due to the snowstorms and subsequent freezing temperatures, we waited until Friday, the eve of Christmas Eve.

With all the fresh snow on the ground, the scene couldn’t have been more lovely! We were among the first families to enter the zoo gates and made our way through the serene streets almost completely by ourselves. It was fun to see quite a few animals out in their habitats, including a curious moose, napping trio of lions, and a restless tiger and mountain lion pacing right up to the front of their enclosures. Indoors, we got to pet the giraffes (who are very friendly when being fed!) and watch the hippos swim laps and snarl at each other.

Of course, the night would not be complete without a visit with Santa & Mrs. Claus in the Santa Zone, which looked — and felt — a lot like the North Pole. Thankfully a roaring fire was burning nearby, and we were able to warm up while chatting with Mrs. Claus. The line to sit on Santa’s lap was only a few minutes wait, and we were free to take our own photos — nice!

The drive to and from the zoo was equally scenic: The surrounding neighborhood was filled with some of the most beautiful Christmas lights we’ve seen yet. And although we didn’t plan to do this so late in the schedule, there was something really special about sharing this experience the night before Christmas Eve. In fact, maybe we’ll plan for exactly that next year (weather permitting, of course).

Christmas Eve Candle-lighting Service — Revisited!

Most Christmases past when we’ve been out of town visiting family, we split up the Christmas Eve between a few different family parties. This year, we were able to attend the Christmas Eve candle-lighting service at our own home church. It was great to have the whole family (even four-year-old Elise) in the service together, worshiping with Christmas songs and honoring our Savior. Even though we didn’t have any parties to attend, we still got dressed up in our Christmas colors.

After the service, we came home and enjoyed homemade enchiladas (our substitute for fresh tamales, which is a Christmas Eve tradition in my family that we weren’t up to attempting ourselves) and made calls to family members across the country. I have to admit that by this point, I was starting to miss everyone, so it was nice to connect and share the events of the day.

We allowed the girls to open one gift each, which was their Christmas PJs from us, and then we watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” by the fire. On those few Christmases that we’ve stayed home, we let the girls sleep in the living room. Once they were all tucked in, my husband pulled out the guitar and we sang Christmas songs together, wrapping things up with a family prayer. I felt very blessed in that moment!

Christmas Day

Thankfully the girls are not early risers, even on Christmas Day! But our whining Siberian Husky made sure we didn’t sleep in too long, and the girls were up in a flash to check their stockings. After a quick bite for breakfast, we decided to open all the presents under the tree so the girls could spend the rest of the day enjoying their goodies and let us focus on the cooking.

I say “us” but in reality, it was mostly my husband — who is an amazing cook — that did all the work. He made Prime Rib & Lobster Tail (a last-minute addition thanks to a steal of a deal at the grocery store), plus two different pies for dessert! I got away with helping with the side dishes and setting the table. One tradition we kept was making my Grandma’s famous creamed corn — a decadent recipe involving lots of butter, sugar and half & half — along with trying something new, caramelized brussel sprouts with bacon and cranberries. No surprise that Grandma’s corn is still the family favorite. The fresh baked apple pie and creamy chocolate french silk pie my husband had made were also big hits!

My eldest daughter Audrey also got busy using one of her Christmas gifts — a cake pop maker — and made chocolate cake pops decorated like Christmas elves as well as some chocolate “snowballs.” I was happy to see her sharing the experience with her sisters, letting them assist with the decorating and sugar dusting.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing by the fire. The girls played with some of their new toys, we watched a few more favorite Christmas movies together, and we made more calls to family members. We never left the house — a Christmas first, I think! But it was exactly what I had in mind.

This Christmas we shared a lot of new experiences, and it was most exciting to establish some new traditions that helped us focus on the reason for the season. By incorporating the Christmas theme into our homeschooling days, we not only found more focus, but we turned Christmas to-do’s that usually stress me out into creative family projects. We got more done and we had a lot of fun in the process. We turned what is often a stressful and sometimes burdensome time into peaceful days full of joy and gratefulness — spent together as a family, making meaningful memories.

As much as I’ve enjoyed it, I realized that I also did miss my family and the close friends that we have shared Christmas with in the past. I think there’s still room to include some family visiting in the Christmas schedule (when finances permit), and to find a way to keep our Christmas traditions while sharing them with others. It would be nice if some of our family members would come spend a Christmas with us at some point too!

I am very thankful for the blessings God has bestowed on our family this year. I’ve learned a lot during this second year of homeschooling: I’ve been challenged and stretched, and I’ve grown. This Christmas was especially revealing to me, and I am very grateful for the experience. I feel closer to my Lord and my family than I ever have. And I’m looking forward to seeing what the new year holds for all of us!

— 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.

A Homeschooling Christmas: Week Two

19 Dec

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.

Then we moved up to making the cookies from scratch, and finally started making our own frosting with powdered sugar and food coloring.

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.

Ward Family Christmas Traditions: Week One

15 Dec

By Rosanna Ward

Three of our favorite family Christmas traditions happened this past weekend. Saturday afternoon we went to the local tree farm to pick out a tree and visit Santa. That evening we also attended the Tulsa Christmas Parade as a family. And our annual family baking day took place on Monday.

Saturday morning I got up early, and my sons Joel, Leif and I picked up their Aunt Elizabeth and cousins Faith and Cadence to participate in the Lowe’s Build and Grow. Over a three-week period, they have been building a Christmas Train. Saturday was the coal car. Because the weather has gotten colder, Lowe’s is holding the class in the employee break room. The past two Saturdays, it has also been increasingly crowded. This weekend, we were lucky we got there early and got our kits before they ran out. Faith and Joel are getting to be old pros at putting their kits together by now and needed very little help.

By the time we dropped the cousins off and picked up my daughter Virginia from work, we had time for only a very short rest before it was time to go to the tree farm. Pleasant Valley Farms is a local farm where we not only get our Christmas trees, but we also pick our pumpkins during the fall. The family that owns it is very nice.

After arriving at the tree farm, the first thing we did was go see Santa. The boys sat on Santa’s lap, where Joel told Santa he wanted race cars for Christmas and Leif made a grab for the candy cane Santa was offering. After that we caught a ride on a horse-drawn wagon and took a tour of the farm — the driver let Joel sit up front and even drive the horses for a minute.  This was followed by some free hot chocolate.

Then it was time to grab a saw and set out to find the “perfect” tree.  In short order, we found just the one and my husband made quick work of cutting it down. The workers carried it to the entrance, “shook the squirrels out of it” and loaded it into our truck. We got home with time to set it up in its stand and give it some water before the evening parade.

We all loaded back up in the truck, making sure to pack pillows and blankets, to head out to the Tulsa Christmas Parade. My eldest daughter Hannah had gotten there early and saved us a parking spot right by the parade route.

This year the Tulsa Christmas Parade was held at the new Tulsa Hills Shopping Center. In the past it has always been held downtown, but at some point city officials decided to rename it a “Holiday Parade,” and attendance and sponsors steadily dropped. This year private sponsors established the first annual Christmas Parade at Tulsa Hills. The night was beautiful, the parade was crowded, and a great time was had by one and all.

Sunday evening we attended a Christmas musical drama called “Believe” put on by Victory Christian Church. It was very well done: Live animals — including camels — were used. Our favorite parts were when the prophets were prophesying while interspersed throughout the audience, and when the shepherds were cracking jokes with each other.

My favorite family Christmas tradition was held on Monday this year: We pretty much baked all day. Jason started off the day at about 8:30am baking his famous chocolate chip, oatmeal, and nut cookies. While he was doing that, the rest of us (minus Hannah) worked on decorating the tree. When he was done, I started my Chocolate Crinkle Cookies. While the dough was in the fridge chilling, I made two batches of fudge. Then Virginia started her peppermint bark and toffee. After she was done, I baked off the Crinkles and made two more batches of fudge.

That evening when Hannah got home, she made the sugar cookies. By this time we were all pretty worn out, so we decided to save the cookie decorating until Tuesday. By Tuesday evening, everything was done and divvied up into containers for various lucky recipients — and the kitchen was starting to get back to normal. Once again, we ended up with way too many sweet treats, of course!

I love this time of year, mostly because of the family memories that we make. It is a time when we can remember the greatest gift we could ever receive, our Savior, and to give gifts to each other. The greatest gift I can give to and get from my family is time. I cherish every minute we can spend together.

Can you believe we’re already half-way through December? How is your family enjoying the time leading up to Christmas? What Christmas traditions have meant the most to you this year?

— Rosanna Ward is a devoted wife of 19 years and mother of four children, two of which are currently homeschooled. Her oldest daughter is a homeschool graduate, and her youngest son is a toddler. Rosanna is a homeschool graduate and has been homeschooling for six years. Rosanna loves to study History and Genealogy, and currently resides in Sand Springs, Oklahoma.

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