Like many moms, my to-do list this time of year is a mile long. But Sharon Bowers’ inspiring book Sweet Christmas is an excellent reminder to slow down and get back to the heart of the holiday season – spending time with our families. From crafting colorful garlands to baking creative cookies, her projects are doable, delicious, and perfect for sharing with enthusiastic kids. Sharon recently chatted about her go-to party recipes, her least favorite part of the holidays, and her best advice for busy moms.
Q: What inspiredSweet Christmas?
A: My first two books, Ghoulish Goodies and Candy Construction, had sort of made it evident that sweet stuff is my thing! But working on those books had also helped me understand more clearly that what’s fun around the holidays, any holiday, is not shopping trips with tired, crabby kids. What’s fun is staying home with your kids and enjoying projects together, celebrating as a family.
Q: I bet Christmas at your house is great! Tell me about how your family spends the holiday.
A: We do a lot of baking and a lot of eating! It’s not all about sweet stuff, however. We make an Advent Calendar by hanging paper envelopes or little socks on a string and we put tiny toys or knickknacks in to surprise each other, or we make little wreaths to hang off the doorknobs by sticking gumdrops into a foam core.
Q: How much latitude do you give your kids in the kitchen?
A: I’m really into letting my children be hands-on about projects. When you’re making something like Stained Glass Cookies, for example, with crushed candy melted into the opening of sugar cookies, it’s so easy to let your inner grownup take over, to make all the cookies look pretty. But what’s fun for my kids, and ultimately for my husband and me, is to let our boys do it themselves, and we end up laughing together in the kitchen and spending time with one another.
Q: What is your favorite part about Christmas?
A: The excellent excuse to eat whatever we want for a few days! I spend the entire rest of the year keeping a running tab on precisely what amount of fruits and vegetables went into each child each day, and did they get enough iron and calcium and Vitamin C. And I just shut that part of my mind down over the holidays. For that week or so between Christmas and New Year’s, when we’re with family and friends or going to parties or entertaining at home, I just throw it all to the wind and enjoy whatever is in front of us.
Q: What is yourleastfavorite part about Christmas?
A: No matter how much fun everyone had at a big holiday meal, the dishes still have to be done.
Q: What are two or three especially good recipes/projects to make with kids from the book?
A: Believe it or not, good old-fashioned popcorn garlands absolutely enthrall kids. It might seem like the oldest holiday trick in the book, but your children may never have seen it before. 3-D cookies are another one of my favorites. Use any cookie cutter you like, but ideally more solid ones, such as Christmas trees or stockings. Then, when the baked cookies are still warm, cut a narrow rectangular groove up from the bottom of one and down from the top of the other, then fit them together through these slots to make a cookie that can stand upright (p. 78), which you can then decorate on all sides. It’s so easy but kids think it’s magic!
Q: You seem very crafty. What are some recipe options for more craft-challenged moms like me?
A: What’s kind of funny is that I’m actually really lazy about crafting. My motto is, “If I can do it, really, ANYONE can.” I think that’s why so many of my projects start in the kitchen, because I don’t have to go to a craft store and buy a lot of stuff before I begin. I’ve already got butter, sugar and chocolate in the kitchen most of the time, so I try to find things to make with what’s at hand like Chocolate Santa Mice (p. 77). These are made with a sort of sticky chocolate dough made from ground-up cookies that kids can form into shapes–we make mice–and roll in powdered sugar. All you need to be able to do is work a food processor, and your kids will do the rest.
Q:What are your go-to holiday party recipes?
A: My Caramelized Onion Dip (p. 99) is ridiculously easy considering how many compliments it gets. You cook onions until they’re deeply golden and stir them with sour cream and mayo and a little Worcestershire, serve with chips or veggies, and people will think you just invented the wheel. My mother’s side of the family is Swedish so I also am always in charge of making mini Swedish Meatballs (p. 104) which take very little effort but get people all excited–there’s never one left over.
Q:Any tips for moms who want to make special treats for their families but find themselves pressed for time?
A: Ohmigosh, yes: give yourself a break! We all work fulltime, whether inside or outside the home, and we’re all tired and kids’ schedules are demanding. So if you make “bake something with children” just another thing to check off your list, it feels like a burden. But a tray of Blondies (p. 89) takes about 6 minutes to mix, even if you let the kids stir, and 35 minutes to bake, and you’ve got something gorgeous you made yourself. So just pick one thing and do it and enjoy it.
Q:What do you hope families will get out of your book?
A: To slow down a little more at Christmas. To take the time to stay home and do a little baking with their children. It’s so easy to get caught up in all the shopping and gift-buying. But simple homemade gifts, even really easy things such as a jar of Salted Caramel Sauce (p. 167), are much more welcome to the recipients, and they express so much more love that everyone feels happier.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Make delicious snowman pops for your next holiday party:
With Halloween only a few weeks away, it’s about to get really busy for the entire family. The good news is that retailers are releasing their best deals earlier than they have historically done because of the shorter holiday shopping period this year. In fact, we’re starting to see those great offers now.
Here are this week’s top five deals you can use for your entire family:
If you have a baby, take advantage of an offer from Diapers.com and save 20% on your diaper purchase. You can even combine this coupon with sale prices for an even better deal. Use coupon code GOSHOPAFF. Expires 12/31/2013.
Do you need to buy a couple of sweaters, pants, long sleeved shirts for the entire family? Or a mixer in which to make your favorite holiday treats? Save 20% off any order over $100 at Kohl’s. Use coupon code CARAMEL. Expires 10/27/2013.
Stock up on winter indoor activities (or get a jump start on that Christmas list!) by saving $3 off select Hasbro games at Target. If your purchase goes over $50, click through this link first to save an additional $5 off your entire purchase, then add coupon code SAVE3GAMES at checkout to get the $3 off as well. Expires 10/27/2013.
There’s only one doll my 7-year-old daughter wants for Christmas: McKenna, the determined gymnast who’s American Girl’s 2012 Girl of the Year. On a sunny December day, I took a walk from Parents’ midtown office to the Fifth Avenue flagship store, and weaved my way past groups of mothers and grandmothers, and adorable little girls in white tights and black patent-leather Mary Janes, clutching their Rebeccas, their Julies, and their Carolines to their pretty coats.
“That’s the question of the day,” he said. “She’s sold out.” Uh-oh.
Back at my desk, I called American Girl’s catalogue number and a customer-service rep confirmed the news: “McKenna is completely sold out, in stores, online, and in the catalogue.”
This isn’t the first time a Girl of the Year doll has vanished from shelves before the holiday season’s end (note to self: heed the fine print that items are available “while supplies last”). But the folks at American Girl headquarters tell me that McKenna was an especially popular doll, thanks to the boost she got from the Summer Olympic Games, a hit DVD movie, and even the appealing “playability” of her long locks.
So what’s a parent of a girl with her heart set on McKenna to do? AG has a lookalike doll, from its “My American Girl” line, also with bright blue eyes and long caramel-colored hair, if you think your child would go for a substitute. I checked out the doll (product code: F1251), and she could indeed be McKenna’s twin.
Also sold out are most of McKenna’s accoutrements, from her floor-beam-and-bar set to her goldendoodle Cooper. Unlike the doll, you can backorder many of these, though you’ll need to wait. American Girl’s providing frustrated customers who call (800-360-1861) with substitute suggestions for these hot McKenna items as well. I was denied McKenna’s cast and crutches, but I think my daughter will be pleased with a very similar set I spotted in the store.
If substitutes just won’t do, this might help: American Girl will be unveiling its 2013 Girl of the Year on December 28th. I’m not allowed to say who she is, but if your girl’s got a creative streak and loves art, this one’s bound to please.
As for what I did about McKenna: My story has a happy ending. My Christmas wasn’t saved by Santa but by—what else?—eBay.
Getting any kind of letter in the mail is exciting for a child, but imagine how thrilled your little one would be to open the mailbox and find a note from Santa! Through the U.S. Postal Service’s “Letters from Santa” program, your child can receive a personalized letter from jolly old Saint Nick postmarked from the North Pole.
Here’s how it works:
Write a letter from Santa to your child (make sure to sign it “From, Santa”)
Place the finished letter into an envelope addressed to your child with a North Pole return address. Include a First-Class stamp.
Insert that envelope into a larger envelope, with the correct postage, and send it to:
North Pole Postmark Postmaster 4141 Postmark Drive Anchorage, AK 99530-9998
Mail your letter out by December 10, 2012 and Santa’s helpers will have it delivered in time for Christmas!
Image: Portrait of Santa Claus answering Christmas letter (via Shutterstock)
I don’t have an elf. I’m not getting an elf. And for the love of Christmas, please don’t buy me an elf.
Parents, you know the elf I’m talking about: the Elf on the Shelf, that doll with the freakishly thin physique, jaunty hat, and creepy sideways glance. When I first heard about this Christmas interloper a few years ago, I thought so very wrongly that he’d go the way of countless other bad ideas that get trotted out every holiday season, and be left behind in a heap of Christmas albums from yesteryear’s boy bands.
But in a few short years, The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, a marketing marvel cooked up by a couple of moms, who packaged the pixie in a festive keepsake box complete with storybook, has cemented its seat at the Christmas table, right alongside such classics as Frosty and Rudolph. The elf even got his own TV special. However, unlike everyone’s favorite snowman and reindeer, which know their rightful place is at the North Pole, the elf is a fitful, messy, repeat overnight guest in your home, at the busiest time of the year.
You see, it’s not enough to just have an elf perched on your mantel or TV console, “watching” the kids for good behavior each day before he “flies” to the North Pole and delivers his report to “Santa.” The next morning, the kids bound out of bed to see where Buddy or Jingle or Jack (it’s critical to name your elf; that’s how he gets his magic, instructs the book) has return-landed overnight, whether in the branches of the Christmas tree in your living room, or atop the American Standard in your bathroom (yes, really). The elf is sometimes found having made some midnight mischief, like having gone for a spin with Barbie in her pink convertible (that sly dog), or wedging himself inside an upside-down glass in the cabinet. In some homes, this nightly ritual starts before the calendar page even turns to December.
How fun! What excitement!
In a moment of elf peer pressure (“The kids love it,” said one friend; “It is a great discipline tool,” conceded another), I thought about my children, and their friends with toy elves dangling from the mesh side pockets of their backpacks this time of year. Was I being a mean, self-centered mother, averting my gaze from the towers of Elf on the Shelf boxes crowding the aisles at Barnes and Noble?
I turned to the most scientific poll I have at my disposal: I asked my Facebook friends.
“Am I the last mom without an Elf on the Shelf?” I wondered aloud.
Quickly, I was assured by a handful of friends I was not. What did we need this elf for anyway, one pointed out, when we already have an all-seeing Santa to keep an eye on who’s been naughty or nice?
And then, there in my news feed between photos of elves making snow angels in plates of flour, or elves sledding down hills of mini marshmallows, the elf regret poured in.
“Don’t get one!” implored one friend. “It’s a total pain in the you-know-what!”
“Is it possible to resent a stuffed doll?” said a second pal. “How many times I’ve woken in the middle of the night to realize I forgot to move ‘Freddie.’”
“Someone bought an elf for us. It’s on a shelf, the shelf in my closet,” said another friend. “And there it shall remain another year.”
So moms, if you’re suffering from elf remorse, take heart: you’re not alone. And if your elf gets lost on his way home from the North Pole, or makes the unfortunate choice of hiding deep inside the kitchen trash can, or meets the jaws of the family dog, this mother, and countless other have-enough-to-do-besides-remember-to-move-a-freaking-elf moms, won’t judge you.
And if anyone dares to buy you a replacement elf, I have just the idea for a gift you can get for that person in return, one that also likes to launch surprise messes when nobody’s looking.
This time of year can put children’s (and parents’) patience to the test — long trips in the car to visit family, seemingly endless shopping lines. Make the most of the time your kids will spend waiting with a fun new educational app, Little Ashby: Star Reporter.
Created by Parents’ celebrity correspondent and Entertainment Tonight co-host Nancy O’Dell and developed by StoryChimes, the app is an interactive storybook that allows children to follow TV reporter Ashby (named after Nancy’s daughter) and her crew on exciting assignments.
Ashby’s first job? To interview Santa! Children will love joining Ashby on her journey to the North Pole. Along the way, they’ll learn educational facts, values, and morals that will be reinforced with engaging activities and games.
Here’s a brief description of the special: The Cat in the Hat, Nick, and Sally are on a journey around the world to help a lost reindeer find his way home to Freezeyourknees Snowland in time for Christmas. On the way, the Thingamajigger breaks down, and they depend on a variety of animals — from African bush elephants to bottlenose dolphins to red crabs — and their remarkable abilities to help them.
As we start counting down the weeks before the holidays, a tradition in our household is to make a gingerbread house. The trick (and I am no Betty Crocker) is to let icing thoroughly dry before decorating every inch with candy. It’s not an easy feat to wait, I might add, as piling on the candy is without doubt the most fun part. The other trick is to support the gingerbread roof slabs with some homemade devices so they don’t slip. Ours usually involve empty yogurt pots, and some carefully placed Lego pieces!
Before you make the gingerbread house, draw one out on paper, and draw the different colors of candy on the house but make sure to do so in repetitive sequences. For example, red M+M, blue Skittle, green Nerd, and repeat. Do this all over the house and give this “blueprint” to your wee ones as a guide to follow. If they’re toddlers, picking out the right color will help with their vocabulary and grasp of color; if they’re of pre-school and kindergarten age, they can then carefully place the candy while learning about sequences. Make sure to let them create their own candy sequences also. If they’re a little older, let them design the gingerbread-house candy sequences themselves, and then implement them.
P.S. If you’d rather cut back on the candy, you can use dried and fresh cut-up fruits, which go nicely with the gingerbread flavor. You can also make your gingerbread houses from scratch, or buy a kit that comes with pre-made walls and roof. Either way, you get to combine tradition with candy (or fruit) and math! Simply perfect.