My secret code gift labelling system

My secret code gift labelling system

A few days before Christmas, I was surprised to hear our 13-year-old daughter say what she was looking forward to the most.

“I can’t wait to crack mom’s code on the gifts,” she said.

About five years ago, I began replacing my traditional gift tags with a secret code. When the kids were little, I would write their names on their gifts like a normal person. But as they got older, they began going through the gifts, sorting them into piles by name.

Once they knew which gifts belonged to each child, the shaking, squishing and guessing began. They were usually able to identify with about 70 percent accuracy the contents of each package.

The first year I set out gifts without names, they were perplexed for a little while, at least. I wrapped each persons gift in a different type of paper. It didn’t take their curious minds long to decode that one. Just find the gift that shakes like Lego and start narrowing it down.

The next year, I mixed up the wrapping paper, but added tags in different shapes. The shapes didn’t correspond to a person, but the order in which they should be unwrapped. I added a number to indicate the name of the receiver.

My secret codes have grown more and more complex over the years. But this year’s topped them all.

As I was wrapping the gifts, I saw a little pile of cards sitting on the table next to me. On each card was written the name of a Christmas song. We had used these cards a week earlier to play a game of “Christmas Carol Pictionary” at a party we had at our house.

I attached a card to the front of each gift. In my notebook, I created a little spreadsheet of which Christmas song labelled each gift.

For several days, the kids had been trying to figure out my system. Did the Christmas songs indicate a certain person? Or were they a clue to the contents of the package?

On Christmas morning, they were excited to crack the code.

I started with the first gift for the youngest child and began drawing the name of the Christmas carol that labelled her gift. She had to guess the Christmas song, then locate the package with that tag.

Once she had opened hers, I whispered the clue for the next person, and she got to draw… just like Pictionary. We continued, with each gift recipient then becoming the artist.

“I so glad you did this!” our oldest son chimed in. “Usually, we open the gifts so fast, and then it’s over. This makes it really fun!”

We ended up having tons of laughs as each person drew clues like, “it’s beginning to LOOK a lot like Christmas” …

“Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem “…

“I’m gettin’ nuttin’ for Christmas”…

And “Oh, Holy Night”…

I love thinking of a new secret code every year to label the gifts. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to top this one!

Maybe Christmas label Pictionary will become a new tradition.

What about you? Have you ever done anything unusual with your Christmas labels? Leave me a comment and let me know!

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The hands of Christmas past

The hands of Christmas past

Fifteen years ago, I was a mom to two little boys. One was 2 years old, and the other was just a baby.

Back then, I didn’t have Pinterest. I didn’t have Instagram or even Facebook. Somehow, even living on a planet empty of social media, I was able to glean creative ideas from sources of which I now have absolutely no memory.

Somewhere, I saw an idea to trace a child’s hands on the skirt of a Christmas tree. I thought this was cute, so I set out to find a plain tree skirt that I could decorate with the handprints of these two tiny boys.

I chose gold paint for the older child and silver for the baby.

When it came to actually tracing these little hands with paint, I imagined them running through the house with wet paint all over their hands, touching things and sticking fingers in mouths, faster than I could stop them. So, I decided to first trace their hands on cardstock, then cut out the hands, and trace the paper hands with paint.

I had so much fun tracing their hands that first year. I spread out the four little hands, with no concern for making room for hands in future years. I wrote their names under their hands and the year: 2002.

The next year, I added four more slightly larger hands. By the third year, I had a new set of tiny hands to add to the tree skirt. I had to choose a new color for her hands. And so a splash of green was added to the gold and silver.

As the years went on, I would often wait until after Christmas to paint the hands. Many times, the tree skirt would lay out for months after we had put away all of the other Christmas decorations. Sometimes, I would even let the little cut-outs of their hands pile up and have to paint two sets the following year.

Our seventh year into the process, we added one more set of hands. This time, I traced in red.

And I also filled up the tree skirt.

What should I do now? Was that the end of the tradition?

As a fourth born myself, I know how it feels to looks at so many photos and hear tales of vacations of which I have no memory. I wasn’t born for much of the fun. Or some of the traditions. I wanted this sweet little one to get more than one set of hands drawn on the tree skirt.

So, I set out shopping for another plain tree skirt. This time, all I could find was green.

The hands were growing larger, and in 2010, those eight hands wrapped themselves halfway around the outer edge of the new skirt.

I continued tracing hands on cardstock at the beginning of each Christmas season. But sometimes, the traced hands would sit in the closet never getting traced in paint.

This year, I looked at my second tree skirt and realized I had fallen FIVE YEARS behind! I knew where those traced hands were kept because they taunted me all year long. Over and over again, I would write on a to-do list, “paint hands on tree skirt!” Over and over again, I would ignore my own admonition.

Finally, this year, I found the hands I had traced. I had missed a few years, but was determined not to give up. I simply used the following year’s handprint and traced a set slightly smaller to represent the previous year. This was art, I told myself, not an exact representation.

I cut out five year’s worth of hands. That’s 20 sets. Forty hands.

I arranged them on the tree skirt and realized that once again I had run out of space.

I had two complete years that wouldn’t fit.


This was no time to stop. I searched five stores before finding a plain tree skirt that I liked. I struggled with the fact that the three skirts were completely different styles.

I spent hours tracing and cutting hands. Laying them out. Tracing them in paint. Writing the names. Adding the years.

Finally. I’m done.

I think this is the only tradition that I have carried out for basically the entire life of my children (minus those first two years). I wonder what I will do with three tree skirts. I wonder what I will do when one goes to college, then two, then three, then four. I wonder if I will someday add grandchildren. I wonder how many tree skirts I will eventually fill.

I decide not to worry about it. This year, I love looking back at those tiny hands that have grown into bigger hands and are now adult-sized hands.

I’m so thankful I have them to look at and remind me how blessed I’ve been by all of those sets of hands.

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How we were finally visited by an elf

How we were finally visited by an elf

A few days ago, our oldest son stopped me as he was rushing to head out for his early morning drive to school. He looked perplexed.

“Mom, why were you wrapping toilet paper around the Christmas tree?”

A few days earlier, our 15-year-old confronted me in a similar manner.

“Ummmm, Mom?” “Why did you come running down the stairs at 6 a.m., throw the elf in a bowl and pour Froot Loops on top of him?”

These kinds of crazy activities have become a new addition to my morning routine. I draw pictures on bananas. I set up fake Scrabble games. I stage dance parties in the Barbie dream house.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit to the world that I’ve become one of THOSE moms. After years of resistance, we have an elf.

I swore for years that this would never happen to me. I’ve always hated the Elf on the Shelf trend. It had to be the most heinous of all forms of distraction from the true meaning of Christmas. I have enough on my plate with four children, there’s no way I could take on the responsibility of setting up elaborate escapades for a stuffed elf. And… I know myself. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to go Pinterest crazy. I didn’t know if I could handle the pressure of being an Elf Mom.

When the older three kids were little, I really didn’t have to worry about stuff like this. We homeschooled, and then they went to a private Christian school. They weren’t surrounded on a daily basis by kids who talked about Santa Claus or their elves in such a profound, this-is-reality, kind of way.

Then, our youngest went off to kindergarten at public school. When Dec. 1 rolled around, an elf came to visit her school. She had fun searching for the elf each day and seeing what kind of antics he had pulled overnight. But then the conversations began. Each child in her class would tell about what his or her elf had done that morning. Our little 6-year-old was stuck in the awkward position of trying to explain why an elf had not come to visit her home.

“Mom!” she would question each day after school. “WHY am I the ONLY child in my entire class who doesn’t have an elf?!”

I tried to compensate by moving her stuffed animals at night. I created elaborate displays of them playing games or dumping cereal on the counter or getting into other sorts of trouble. I was dancing on the edge of the elf trend, but refusing to jump in. My daughter gave a half-hearted smile at my attempts to fill the elf void, but it was never enough.

Still, the more pressure I felt to participate in this elf religion, the more I dug in my heels. We are NOT getting an elf.

Our daughter’s birthday is Dec. 1, so the next year, I was so focused on getting ready for her first grade birthday party, that I didn’t even stop to think about the elf. She came home from school that day, not full of excitement that it was her birthday, but crushed from hearing all of the stories of how everyone’s elf had arrived with great fanfare that morning.

Dang. I forgot about the elf.

December dragged on with more tales of the amazing, crazy and exciting things that were happening with elves in other people’s homes. I couldnt even muster the energy to move her Beanie Boos. No matter what I did to try to make the season merry, the elf tales hung like a heavy shadow over all my efforts. I couldn’t wait for December to end.

By the time Christmas came and went at our house, I knew one thing was for sure. On our daughter’s 8th birthday, she would be getting an elf.

How could I do such a 180 on my anti-elf stance?

Our oldest son is a junior in high school this year. We only get one more Christmas with him living at home after this one. Seeing how quickly he has grown up has made me realize that some things aren’t worth fighting. These years are so short. Our little one will only care about an elf for a few more Christmases. Soon, I will be wishing she still cared about Barbies and Legos and elves. I know now how painfully condensed this short season of life really is.

I would rather she have fond memories of her elf messing up the house all of December, than memories of being left out of every conversation because she didn’t have an elf.

If I hadn’t made up my mind already, my new position was solidified in late November. She was about a week away from turning 8. That is the age we had told her she needed to be to have a sleepover. She told us that her friends had invited her for a slumber party — not because she was turning 8. Nope. They wanted her to sleep over so she could experience the fun of finding their elves the next morning!!

I have a tradition of decorating each child’s door with streamers and wrapping paper on the morning of their birthday. This year, I made sure an elf was part of the decor. She declared it the Best. Birthday. Ever.

Having an elf IS a distraction from the true meaning of Christmas. But we spend lots of time talking about the birth of Christ and the things that truly matter. She knows how the elf moves at night, but she will never admit it. She staunchly obeys the rules of not touching the elf. She admonishes anyone who unknowingly tries to rescue the little stuffed guy from a bowl of cereal or being wrapped in streamers. She loves playing along with his silliness and searching for him the minute she wakes up.

My older kids aren’t sure what happened to their mom. They think the elf is ridiculous and can’t believe I’ve bought in.

My husband has tried to move the elf a few times to help me out. He quickly learned that simply setting it on the fireplace isn’t enough. Our elf likes to have more fun than that!

And me?

Well, it’s possible that I might be growing to like our elf. It turns out he hasn’t ruined our lives.

He’s cute. He’s always smiling.

And yeah… I can’t wait to see what he does next.


So, what about you? What do you think about the Elf on the Shelf craze. Have you bought in? Or do you hate the pressure?


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What are you hungry for this Christmas?

What are you hungry for this Christmas?

The Christmas season is such a tricky time to be a mom.

It’s such a mix of wanting to honor all the traditions and do all of the things and cherish all of the moments and make every moment special. But in trying to make that all happen, ending up feeling stressed and defeated and sometimes even sad.

I love, love, love watching Christmas movies together as a family and having a hot cocoa bar and going out to see Christmas lights. As our children have grown older, it gets harder and harder, not only to make time to do those things, but to find activities that appeal to a wide age range, from a second grader to a 17-year-old, along with two other kids in between.

Every year, I promise myself that if I do nothing else right at Christmas, we will at least do a better job at focusing on the Christ part of Christmas. We have tried to do this in so many ways at different points in the life of our family.

Some years have gone great, and others have been hit or miss.

For years, when our big kids were younger, we looked forward to opening the doors of our big Advent book each evening. A few years ago, we tried going through the “Jesse tree” with our youngest daughter. I’ve created “Advent calendars” that don’t have anything to do with the birth of Christ, but focus on daily activities and surprises that we do as a family.

Other years, the season has literally just flown by and Christmas was already here and gone before I could even think about Advent.

This year, one of the projects I’ve been working on at my job (working for a church) has been to help put together a booklet with a daily reading and questions for family discussion during Advent.

Celebrating Advent this Christmas as a family

It’s always interesting when a project goes from a concept that we are presenting to our congregation, to an actual tangible tool that I am trying to use on a personal level with my own family. The idea this year was to take our church through the Christmas story, not starting in the book of Matthew with the birth of Christ, but going all the way back to the beginning of time to the book of Genesis. The booklet we created looks at all of the “whispers” throughout the Bible that foretold the coming of Christ. (You can download one for free here.)

But would that really make sense to a real family sitting down around a real dinner table, trying to get four kids to focus after a long day at school and work? Could we really look at the Old Testament and have a meaningful conversation about the birth of Christ?


Our family sat down on Sunday evening for our first night of discussion. We were able to share our “greatest victory” during the past year, as we reflected on the hope we have that Jesus will eventually be the ultimate victor over sin.

We engaged in a conversation that was much longer than I had anticipated, then ended our time together by sharing prayer requests. Everyone in the family shared an area in which they needed prayer. Sometimes, the mom of the family falls into the role of question asker, but doesn’t end up being a question answerer. I was secretly hoping that would be the case this time.

But my family noticed I hadn’t answered, and they pressed me for my prayer request. The reality is that I’ve been struggling more than usual the past few months with my ongoing health issues. I feel like it’s all I talk about, and it has to be annoying and boring and basically old news. I want my kids to think of me as the fun mom who was always there for them. I don’t want them to remember me as the mom who was always sick or always made them eat crazy, healthy food or talked constantly about her health struggles.

I prefer to be the one who takes care of other people and prays for my kids. I don’t want them to worry about me or feel like my situation is to a point they need to pray for me.

But on this first evening of Advent, I guess it was time for me to be the vulnerable one. It was also amazing to see my situation through their eyes as they prayed out loud. Our 15-year-old son thanked God for my struggles because even though they are hard, they have brought us closer together as a family.

He went on to blow me away with his youthfulness wisdom.

Each time I see food that I can’t eat, he asked God to use that as a reminder of all of the blessings that I have in my life. Instead of seeing those foods as something that’s missing, he asked that I would be reminded of all that I have.


I was struck at such a deep level by his words. I realized in that moment that his prayer applies not only to me and my health situation, but to so many other areas of my life, especially this time of year.

I spend so much time thinking about all of the gifts I need to purchase and planning out special activities and events, that I often miss what we already have. While I fight my physical cravings for a sugar cookie or a piece of chocolate fudge, I also wrestle with the longing to see all the lights and do all the things that are “required” to truly make this time of year “special.”

What if each of those longings were a reminder of the blessings all around me?

Yesterday was the third day of Advent, but we are already one day behind on our study. So, we read from Day Two, which looked at the book of Exodus in which the nation of Israel spent 40 years wandering in the dessert, complaining even though God provided for their physical needs each day by giving them manna from heaven. We discussed how it gives us hope to know that because of Jesus we will never hunger or thirst.

My son’s prayer came back to mind. Like the Israelites who weren’t satisfied with the food God miraculously provided for them day after day, this whole season is full of cravings for more. I long to be filled by treats and hot cocoa and fun experiences.

I was reminded to be thankful that no matter how hard I try, all of my desires can’t be fulfilled. Instead, may they remind me of the blessing of the birth of Christ and the hope He brings this Christmas.

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It’s a rustic, snow-globe kind of Christmas

It’s a rustic, snow-globe kind of Christmas

Hey, there! I know it’s been a while since I updated the blog. The last few months have been really crazy around here, and my poor blog has been neglected. I’ve been working a lot more hours than usual… then we have the usual family stuff, plus that whole deal about me cooking every meal from scratch.

It’s always hard to know where to begin after I haven’t written anything for so long. So it seemed like the easiest place to start would be with the happy, light-hearted topic of Christmas decor! You already know that I’m not a big fan of winter. But thank goodness for the smell of pine and the cozy warmth of Christmas decor to get us at least part way through the long winter!

I’ve continue working on my rustic decorating style by adding some new signs that I’ve painted and other wood elements. This year, I also added my snow globes to the Christmas theme. I usually don’t bring them out until January, just to change things up. I’m really loving snow globes and enjoy buying myself a new one at Christmas time!

I found a random board in the garage and painted this “Merry & Bright” sign. It was so simple. I just stained the board a dark walnut. Then, I cut out the words with my Silhouette and placed them on the sign with adhesive vinyl. I painted over the vinyl with white paint. Then, I removed the vinyl to reveal the words. So fun!

Here’s the whole fireplace, with a blurry view of the “Christmas countdown” sign that I painted this year. It has a little wreath around the number “1” that we can move each day! Dec. 1 also is our youngest daughter’s birthday, so she has been super excited to see that number marked the past few weeks!

You already know how much I love chalkboards. Here are a few that I’ve updated for the Christmas season.

And, you might also know that I’m obsessed with fairy gardens. I made this little Christmas fairy garden in a jar, which I thought was cute with my snow globes.

And remember this photograph I took last year? It was fun to pull it out for a winter touch on my shelves in the kitchen.

You might remember that I used mod podge to adhere the photo to a piece of wood. I glazed it with mod podge, which makes it looks like a painting.

This is my new snow globe for this year.

And here’s one on the coffee bar and shelves that my husband built for me:

I’ve had this white mirror for as long as we’ve been home owners. It was one of the first decorations I ever bought. All of the glass is now broken from having lots of kids in the house, but I still love decorating it for the seasons.


I haven’t done a lot outside this year, and I think I might just keep it simple.

I made this set of ornaments a few years ago with a log from our River Birch tree. I still love them!

And Jayda made this little snow man last year in first grade. Isn’t it the cutest? I want to make a whole family of them to represent our family. That could be happening soon!!

So, what do you think about decorating for the holidays? Do you love it or hate it? Do you have a decorating style or a theme?

I would love to hear! Leave me a comment!

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