Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Minnesota Christmas 2014

And ... BREATHE.


Another Christmas has come and gone, and I'm left feeling so incredibly blessed and run through the wringer all at the same time. This past month was a crazy one, wasn't it? I feel like I've been in over-drive since the calendar flipped to December. So much to do! So little time! As busy as December was, it was a joyous month filled with lots of family celebrations and holiday traditions, and I'm beyond thankful for this little life of mine.

This year, we celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Minnesota. Typically, we alternate spending Christmas in Minnesota with Andi's family one year and the next year in Nebraska with my family. I love the opportunity to see my family, but it was nice not having to travel over the holiday and having Santa Claus come into our own home on Christmas morning.

Christmas Eve Day, Andi took Tory skiing for the very first time. He is an avid skier, so it was a dream realized to share one of his favorite pastimes with his daughter. I'll admit, I was a little nervous as they left together and I jokingly cautioned Andi I'd be one upset mama if Tory came back home with a broken arm on Christmas Eve. But! He said she did great, and the pride of his face when he retold their day together was absolutely priceless.

Andi and Tory skied at a local ski resort in the Twin Cities. He'd previously purchased a toddler ski harness to use and rented kids skis at the resort. She wore the harness around her body and Andi held the straps behind her to guide her down the hill. He said the harness worked really well, and Tory had absolutely no fear in learning to ski. Tory's only complaint was that the rented skis weren't pink. Ha!   

Christmas Eve night, we met Andi's parents at a local church near his grandma's house for Mass, then celebrated together with forty of his aunts, uncles and cousins at his grandma's house that evening. Of course, not before we snapped a few photos at home in front of our own Christmas tree.

Christmas morning, the kids woke up to presents left by Santa Claus displayed in front of the Christmas tree. Unfortunately, Tory wasn't feeling very well (she was battling a head cold) so her excitement about Christmas morning was less than stellar. She walked out of her room, looked around at her gifts and asked to go lay down in our bedroom for a while. Poor girl!

With all the built-up anticipation of Christmas morning, my heart was a little hurt by her lack of enthusiasm, but Andi reminded me Christmas isn't about presents or Tory's reaction to Santa Claus on Christmas morning. He's was right, of course, and we agreed to let Tory rest up for the day and perhaps wait to let her open gifts later that day or even over the weekend if she wasn't up to it. He dosed her with some medicine, she laid down for a bit that morning and luckily later that day Tory was feeling more like herself.

Aden, on the other hand, went nuts over his gifts from Santa Claus! I wasn't expecting his reaction at all. At 13 months, Aden isn't enamored by many toys, so to see him go crazy over his new Little People airport and especially the musical shaker eggs, drums and maracas was joyous for this mama.

Andi's parents Janie and Jim, sister Lindsay and husband Kyle came by our house mid-morning for our immediate family's Christmas celebration. The kids were spoiled like crazy (we all were, truly) with some fantastic gifts. Tory received a Baby Genius sing-a-long jukebox from Andi's parents that was a big hit (music to play during all her fashion shows, naturally) and Lindsay and Kyle gave Tory a framed photograph of Tory as the flower girl in their wedding (which was quite possibly the best day of Tory's life), among other things. She was so excited when she opened the frame she exclaimed, "I wanted this!" Aden received some little cars and a race car play mat that folds into a storage cube that's really neat and countless other adorable toys such as a baby music player and a Vtech car carrier.

Kyle received a pair of headphones he wanted from all of us.

Grandma Janie and her mini-me, Aden.

Two of my favorite gifts this year were a canvas with mistletoe footprints of Tory and Aden's which Andi made me from the kids, and handprint clay ornaments Janie made me from the kids as well. I love these gifts because they capture this moment in time of Tory and Aden's youth and usually I'm the one who makes this type of artwork for myself. It was so wonderful to receive thoughtful, handmade gifts made just for me to enjoy. (Also, I'm so impressed Andi tackled an art project with the kids that involved paint. He said later Aden escaped at one point and left a trail of red paint from his feet all over the kitchen floor. Ha! It's not easy to complete this type of craft project with kids, that's for sure! He left no evidence of a paint trail behind so I was completely surprised to open this gift from him and the kids on Christmas.)

Lindsay, Janie and I each contributed to the breakfast and lunch meals. We kept the food simple with croissants, fruit and bacon-wrapped sausage wienies for breakfast and soup, salad and bread for lunch. Even though our meals were low-key, I couldn't help myself and set the table with my gorgeous holiday dishes I received as an early Christmas present from Janie and Jim this year.

Afterwards, Andi and I cleaned it all up and drove straight to the lake cabin for the rest of the holiday weekend. Never a dull moment in our household!

We had a fantastic Christmas holiday spent with our Minnesota family. I'm feeling so incredibly blessed this holiday season.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Advent Calendar: Days 9 - Well, The Rest of Them

Wait, what? Christmas is over? The last few weeks happened in a blur and suddenly I'm left playing blogger catch-up. I still have Christmas advent calendar activities to recap, our recent trip to Nebraska for Christmas with my family and, of course, Christmas in Minnesota this past weekend to document. Let's get started ...

On advent calendar day 9, I packaged up treats from my holiday cookie swap a few days prior and  delivered them to our neighbors. This year, I bought Christmas-themed disposable Tupperware containers for the treats and packaged the cookies inside them. I placed our family's holiday card on top and tied it together with some baker's twine. Perfect.

Speaking of holiday cards, this was ours for 2014: 

I selected photographs we'd taken this past October at our lake cabin. The day we took photos was pretty cold outside, but the kids were troopers and we managed to capture great shots with the beautiful fall colors in the background. It seemed like more people were into holiday cards this year, as we received more holiday mail than we have in the past. I loved it! It's fun seeing what cards our friends and family select and pictures from their past year.  

Tory, Aden and I made salt dough ornaments on advent calendar day 10. Tory helped me mix the ingredients together, then each of the kids pressed their handprints into the dough before baking. I have a salt dough handprint from Tory's first year and it's one of my most cherished Christmas tree ornaments. It's amazing to see how much their little hands grow over the years! 

After I had the handprint shapes I wanted, I placed the leftover dough and a few Christmas cookie cutters on a cookie sheet and let Tory (and Aden) go nuts playing, cutting and making shapes. It turned into a sensory activity of sorts, and they both loved it. Tory quietly sat and "made ornaments" for a solid 30-45 minutes. Score! 

We traveled to Nebraska on advent calendar day 11 so I let Tory and Aden each open a Christmas present. Tory received some holiday-themed coloring books and stickers and Aden got a Christmas story book. This time when Tory opened her gift she said, "Oh, good! I have lots of coloring books to share with my cousins!" My gorgeous girl has such a generous heart.

Really, I gifted Tory those dollar activity packs to keep her entertained on our flight to Nebraska the following day. We celebrated an early Christmas this year with my family as we planned to stay in Minnesota for the actual holiday this year. Advent calendar day 12's activity was a simple "celebrate Christmas" which we did that day in Nebraska and I'll recap our time there in another post.

As the month progressed, I fell off the advent calendar wagon a bit. I'd venture to say Tory, Aden and I did something holiday-themed each day, but there were less organized activities. Reading gobs of Christmas books counts as something, right? Some of Tory's favorite Christmas books this year were: Eight Jolly Reindeer, Georgie the Gingerbread Fairy and The Story of Christmas.

On advent calendar day 15, Tory painted the salt dough ornaments we'd made a few days prior. I set her up with a paintbrush and paints, got busy tending to Aden and came back to some of the ugliest ornaments I'd ever seen. Ha! Tory mixed all the paint colors together until the shapes were a blah brownish green color. Oh, well. She enjoyed herself, and that's that matters.

Andi's mom offered to babysit on advent calendar day 18, so Andi and I snuck out for a quick date night. The date doubled as a belated birthday celebration for Andi since we were in Nebraska on his actual birthday. I suggested we go downtown to check out the Minneapolis Holiday Market, so we did just that, then enjoyed a nice dinner at Vincent's across the street.

Quite a few people asked me afterwards what I thought of Minneapolis' new Holiday Market and I'll say this: I liked it. Andi and I went during the evening, so the streets were lit up with sparkly Christmas lights as far as the eye could see and the bustle of being downtown was exciting as always since I don't go down there very often. The market itself wasn't huge or even that amazing, but I thought it was something fun and festive and different to do during the holidays. I spent the evening walking hand-in-hand with my special guy (without kids!), drinking yummy mulled wine and window browsing the various shops.   

That following weekend, Andi, Tory, Aden and I drove around to look at Christmas lights several different times. One night we took an evening drive through the countryside at the lake cabin and a surprisingly few number of rural houses had light displays. Another time we drove around St. Paul's Rice Park after stopping by one of Andi's work events nearby. The lights were hard for Tory to see from her car seat though, so "going to look at Christmas lights" packed less of a punch than I had hoped this year.

I was wrapping Christmas presents into mid-day Christmas Eve and had two little assistants by my side helping me most of the time. My ideal evening during the holidays would be spent with a good show on television, a glass of wine and a boatload of gifts to wrap for friends and family, but for some reason I completely ran out of time this year and was forced to wrap presents in spurts when I had a few minutes to spare. The Christmas season was so busy this year -- why was it like this? Was it because I have small kids? We went to Nebraska mid-month? The cabin on the weekends? Whatever the case, there didn't seem to be enough time in the day to complete everything I had to do. So, I wrapped Christmas presents alongside my kids which is just about as relaxing as it sounds.

Tory was very sweet as she "helped me" wrap gifts. She colored on scrap pieces of wrapping paper and wrapped her own "presents" with pieces of tape I'd fork over. One evening as I rearranged presents under the Christmas tree I found some of Tory's "presents" -- open markers wrapped in pieces of scrap paper and taped closed -- hidden under there. Good thing I discovered them before all her markers dried out! Though, what a darling to make her own gifts for her family. I love where her heart is.

I hung an old Santa Claus advent calendar on Tory's bedroom door this year, and I'd venture to say it was her favorite thing we did all month long. There was no candy or prize associated with each day, or even an assigned activity -- it was simply a wooden candy cane we moved from day to day throughout the month. Each morning in December, Tory woke up and exclaimed, "What month is it?" and together we'd talk about the day (by the end of the month, she learned the difference between days and months), what numbers made it (i.e.: the 16th -- a 1 and a 6, the 17th -- a 1 and a 7, ... ) and counted how many days were left until Christmas Day. It's awesome to see Tory's mind develop and grow as she learned something new each day. And for Christmas, Santa Claus brought Tory a daily calendar so the fun can continue all year long.

So, I guess that's it. Another year's advent calendar activities in the books. We enjoyed a lot of fun holiday activities together as a family and individually with the kids so I'd call it a success.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Advent Calendar: Day 8 - Visit Santa Claus

Christmas Advent Calendar, Day 8 - Oh, yes, this day. The evening before, Andi discovered a broken pipe in our downstairs storage room which had flooded a portion of our basement. He shut off our water supply and called a plumber to fix the broken pipe, so the kids and I stayed close to home for most of Advent Calendar Day 8 waiting for the plumber to show. My kitchen counters were full of servingware to put away (in the compromised storage room, mind you) and general cleanup from my holiday cookie party the day prior, so I really wasn't in the mood to spread Christmas cheer.

Later, the plumber came out and I restored order to our home turned upside down (read: mopped up standing water in the downstairs storage and laundry rooms). I suddenly felt the desperate need to get out of the house, so I decided to take the kids to see Santa at a nearby mall.

Surprisingly, Tory was really excited to see Santa Claus this year and squealed with delight when I told her the plan for our afternoon. After a bit of thought, she asked "How will we get all the way to the North Pole?" "Oh, Santa made a special trip to the mall today, so we'll go see him there," I answered. "Oh, good," audibly letting go of a huge breath of air, "because the North Pole is really far away," she said.

Before we left home, I asked Tory to write a letter to Santa with a list of things she'd like to receive for Christmas. She sat down at the table and very seriously completed the Official Santa Letter I'd printed from the Internet.

Dear Santa,

This Christmas, I am 3 years old. 

This year, I have been nice

My Christmas wishes are: a princess dress that fits me just right.

Merry Christmas! 
Love, Tory 

I asked Tory if there was anything Aden wanted her to add to the letter on his behalf and she responded, "A dollhouse." (I think so he'll stop playing with hers). We placed Tory's letter to Santa Claus, along with a picture she'd colored the day before, in an envelope and brought it with us to the mall.

We saw the same Santa Claus we've visited every year since Tory was born (2011, 2012, 2013). Tory talked non-stop about seeing "Santer Claus" on the drive to the mall, but when we pulled into the parking lot she got a little nervous. As we walked up to the Santa Claus display in the mall's main atrium, Tory froze still. The mall was pretty quiet and there wasn't anyone else at the Santa display, so The Big Guy noticed her watching and waved hello. We walked up Santa Claus and Tory handed him her list, but refused to talk and avoided eye-contact. I placed Aden on Santa's lap and convinced Tory to sit on the stool set out beside Santa for a picture. In the time it took me to position Tory on the stool, Aden realized a man with a big white beard was holding him and erupted in tears. An employee snapped their photo with Santa Claus, and I paid a ridiculous $22 for capturing the moment on film.

Believe me when I say Tory was excited to see Santa Claus. Afterwards, she recited the experience to me in the most positive light, so I know she wasn't afraid; maybe just awe-struck or nervous. I took the kids to the mall's kids area afterwards and Aden experienced his first opportunity to play on the toys, so all of his troubles were soon forgotten.

Andi said later I was glutton for punishment taking the kids to see Santa Claus, but nah - it wasn't too bad. It gave us something fun to do on a day that didn't start out so fantastically.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Our Cabin Make-Over: The After Photos! (Living Room / Dining Room / Kitchen)

Our lake cabin renovations are now complete, and I'm excited to share the final results! I'm not sure if others will be as WOW'd by the changes as Andi and I are, but to us the transformation is truly breathtaking. As in, every single time we're at the cabin now, one of us stops dead in our tracks and says, "Oh my gosh, I love it here." It's crazy to dream up a plan for renovation, source the materials and contractors to complete the work, then see the results come to life before your very eyes.

Before I get to the "after" photos, let me touch on our design plan. As I shared in the "before" post, the entire interior of the cabin is a blond-colored knotty pine wood. Knotty pine walls, ceilings, cabinetry, furnishings; you name it. The knotty pine wood had faded in several spots so Andi and I were forced to get creative in finding ways to mask the blemishes while still preserving the rustic feel of the lake cabin. We weren't big fans of the blond color of wood to begin with, so we looked for ways to break up the monotony.

Andi and I considered painting the wood, sheet-rocking some or all of the walls, or taking down the knotty-pine wood walls altogether. Though, it seemed like a shame to cover and/or remove perfectly good wood. In the end, we opted to remove the existing blond-colored trim throughout the entire cabin interior and replace it with a darker and wider trim board. We hoped this would give the interior spaces the visual contrast they so desperately needed.

Living Room - BEFORE

Living Room - AFTER

We rearranged the upstairs layout to include a bigger dining area and changed the living room's focus from the built-in entertainment center to the fireplace. To accomplish this, we removed the existing carpet and replaced it with dark-colored bamboo floors to match the dark trim. We separated the living room from the dining room by adding carpet around the fireplace which helped designate the two different spaces. One weekend afternoon, Andi and I literally took a role of masking tape and "sectioned off" various parts of the room to visualize the new layout. It came together perfectly; the wood floors and the new furniture layout make the space feel bigger and more inviting, and the carpet around the fireplace gives the living room a nice, cozy feeling.

In the process, Andi and I also had the built-in entertainment center removed to make way for more living room seating. We didn't want a television in the main living space, so the built-in entertainment center was dead space to us. There wasn't knotty pine behind the built-in, so we decided to sheet-rock a portion of the living room to break up the monotony of the other wood walls and painted it white (Benjamin Moore White Dove, to be exact) to contrast the dark floors, trim and furnishings.

In the dining room area, we removed the original knotty-pine breakfast nook and replaced it with a large wood table that seats eight people. One of our biggest complaints about the old table was how cramped it was entertaining friends and family. Our new table is much more functional for our lifestyle. When removed, the breakfast nook table left behind a large faded sunspot on the walls it touched. Andi and I added a dark-colored wainscoting with barn-wood detail over the faded spot.

Dining Room - BEFORE

Dining Room - AFTER

We added a fun, unique light fixture about the dining room table. I love how the modern look of the Edison light bulbs compliment the rustic wagon-wheel wood base.

Andi and I completed the kitchen renovation in several phases. During Summer 2014, we replaced the laminate countertops with granite. Around the same time, we also selected a rugged stone back-splash, updated the appliances and sink to stainless-steel, and installed a dishwasher. After much contemplation, we decided to breathe new life into the existing cabinets by painting them a bold blue color (Benjamin Moore Newburg Green). Painting the cabinets seemed like the right option since they were still in good condition, and we liked how the blue color mimicked the lakefront. Finally, the dark wood floors were added at the same time as the living room and dining room.

Kitchen - BEFORE
Kitchen - AFTER

We removed the existing rock on the kitchen bar and carried the dark-wood wainscoting over from the dining area to create a cohesive feel between the two spaces. 

Perhaps one of my favorite details of the kitchen is the circular divided metal shelf we added to store bar glasses and bottles of wine. It brings in a modern edge amongst the rustic wood.

So, that's the upstairs of our lake cabin remodel (minus the upstairs bathroom, which I'll detail in another post). Andi and I are absolutely in love with the changes. So much so, we have an even-harder time leaving the lake to go back home.  

Coming up: "After" photos of the upstairs bath, entry way and mid-level bar area. Stay tuned!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Christmas Advent Calendar: Days 5 - 7; Gingerbread House, Play in the Snow, Cookie Party!

After organizing Christmas advent calendar activities for our family for the past three years, I think I've finally discovered the recipe for success: low expectations. Not to sound bah humbug about it all, but this philosophy has been my unofficial motto for 2014, and it's served me well.

I have a beautiful holiday advent calendar that I adore, but I've learned it makes zero sense to plan and prepare activities assigned by day because LIFE HAPPENS and I'm always left feeling disappointed. This year, I dusted off a list of holiday activities, added in a few new ones and lightly penciled the events into my calendar -- truly expecting things to change. Guess what? They did. Life with little kids demands you be flexible and since I've set the bar low, I find myself enjoying the activities more and not feeling so stressed.

On my holiday bucket list this year:

Visit Minneapolis' Holidazzle Village
Reviews are mixed as to whether Minneapolis' newest holiday festival is worth the hassle, but I'd still love to check it out. Preferably alone with Andi for a date night.

Visit Minneapolis' downtown Macy's Santaland
I've yet to go in the eight years I've lived in Minneapolis, and I've heard it's not too crazy on weekdays. I think Tory would love it.

Go ice skating
I've never been, and I'd love to try it. I think it'd be fun to take Tory, too. 

Drive around and look at Christmas lights
We usually get to this one night during the holidays, but I have no idea if we'll find time again this year.

Will we put a checkmark next to all those things? Who knows. My goal is to complete one holiday activity per day -- big or small. So far, so good.

Andi, Tory, Aden and I were at the lake cabin on Day 5, so I brought along a gingerbread house to decorate. This pre-assembled gingerbread house from Costco is the way to go! Everything you need to decorate is included in the kit, and there's no set-up time or pre-planning involved. It's the perfect project for a preschooler (with a parent's help). I promised Tory we'd decorate it together after her nap, so that afternoon we set up shop at the dining room table. Of course, Aden woke up shortly after we started and demanded my attention, so Andi stepped in and completed the gingerbread house with Tory for the second year in a row. Their gingerbread house looked nothing like the one pictured on the box, but it's perfect because they worked on it together. Tory was delighted.

Day 6, I'd planned for our family to attend a holiday event in Luck, Wisconsin. We took the kids last year (when Aden was a teeny tiny baby!) and it was super low key and something festive to do together. We woke up on this day, checked the forecast and the weather was absolutely gorgeous outdoors. Suddenly, staying at the cabin and playing outdoors seemed like the perfect thing to do. Weather can be so strange; it was bitterly cold last year as Andi and Tory took a sleigh ride through downtown Luck, and this year we played outdoors in 30 degrees and sunshine.

This day was Aden's first time playing in the snow. He loved it, and immediately shoveled (clean!) white snow in his mouth as fast as he could manage -- something that is so characteristic of Aden.

Tory spent most of the day outdoors; no time for napping when the winter weather is this gorgeous! She was Andi's little fishing buddy and hung out in the Ranger ATV while he checked his ice fishing tip-ups on the lake. She even did some fishing of her own with her pink princess fishing pole.

The four of us went for a long Ranger ride around the countryside that afternoon, then came home and put Aden down for a nap. As the sun was setting, Andi started a fire in the backyard and I pulled together the makings for S'mores. This is one of Tory's favorite things to do at the cabin, even though having her near an open fire gives me heart palpitations! The three of us sat around the fire and enjoyed each other's company, with Aden's baby monitor in ear-shot. At one point Tory asked, "So, when are the fireworks?" Ha! The first time she joined us at a backyard bonfire was over Fourth of July this past summer -- with S'mores and fireworks -- and now she associates the two things together.

We had a fabulously fun advent calendar day!

On Day 7, we left the cabin early morning and drove back to the Twin Cities. It was my annual holiday cookie party day! Andi took Tory and Aden to a friend's house and I hosted eight of my favorite ladies at our house for an afternoon of food, conversation and cookie decorating.

This is my sixth year hosting a holiday cookie party, and every year I select a different theme (past parties: 20092010, 2011, 2012, 2013). This year, I baked 100 homemade sugar cookies beforehand and supplied frosting and sprinkles for friends to decorate cookies at the party. In addition, everyone brought two dozen cookies to swap with one another, and we all departed with a boatload of holiday cookies to share with friends and family. One of my favorite parts is seeing what cookies everyone brings. This year, we had traditional peanut butter blossoms, pecan pie cookies, peanut butter balls, rice krispie blossoms, homemade caramels, cardamon cookies, cocoa coconut oatmeal drops, chocolate blossoms with a peppermint Hershey's kiss, and I made white chocolate peppermint Oreos.

I kept the menu simple and served a meat and cheese platter, buffalo chicken dip with celery and hummus, candied almonds and homemade Chex Mix. Several of my friends follow special diets, so I tried to have something for everyone.

I've learned a few things about hosting a holiday party over the years (like a smaller, more intimate group is better, and incorporating kids into the mix makes things truly chaotic). I had several friends thank me for the "mommy's day out," so I think everyone really enjoyed coming over for the afternoon. It takes a lot of planning and effort on my part, but it's a wonderful thing to gather my friends together during the busy holiday season.

More Christmas advent calendar activities to follow!