We have been so wrapped up in preparation for Christmas on the farm that we have barely had time to reflect on the reason behind all the busyness. It really is a shame that the holiday should be so stressful for most of those in our culture. There are so many expectations to fulfill. Gifts for everyone you know, including the trash man and your kid's music teacher. Decorations with the latest LED drip lights that one-up the neighbor's so-last-season LED icicle lights. A tree with themed ornaments. Is it real? Do you go artificial? Then there is the obligatory family portrait/Christmas postcard that goes out to 54 people on your list...in which you haven't actually talked to 37 of them since you sent out last year's portrait/postcard. Besides working full time, dealing with personal projects and perhaps raising a family, there are fund-raisers, donations and non-profits hoping for a piece of the Christmas financial pie.
It's enough to make one want to write off the month before Christmas altogether. Here on the farm, we've been gripped with a terrible cold snap that hasn't loosened in nearly two weeks. The animals are spending most their days indoors and the workers have been trying to do the same. Our kids have been begging to go outside to make snowmen, or snow angels or go sledding, but the wind and high temps of 10˚ have kept us with a myriad of excuses.
Andy and I have been working on some intense product promotion for St. Brigid's that is not only time sensitive, but requires extra delivery days for us both. This week, we needed to deliver every single day instead of the typical three days/week pattern. It's been exhausting to say the least, with late nights and early mornings keeping up with the orders and promotional emails.
But we are in the home stretch and look forward with great anticipation to the forthcoming weekend. We are traveling back to Omro area for Christmas Eve and Day. Then we'll head back about halfway and spend the day with Andy's family on the 26th.
From our ambitious beginning of the Christmas season back before Thanksgiving to now, there has actually been a lot of preparation for a thoughtful, genuine Christmas experience. I know that when I was growing up, as soon as the home was decorated for the season, everything took on a sort of magical anticipation of what was to come. As the early dusk set in, our timers would all click on and the house and yard took on a soft glow of whites and blues and reds. Some areas of the home were only lit by candles in the window or a string of colored lights above a mirror. It was cozy, inviting and made a great impression on me. In my time being on my own as a single adult, that feeling was hard to replicate in rented apartments and roommates with different opinions on how Christmas time should feel. I began to just forget about the act of decorating at all and making Christmas treats was pretty far from my mind.
Enter Andy and then children. Andy has always kept a meticulous love of decorating for all seasons, but relishes the opportunity to create a HOME during Christmas. I just sort of let him do his thing the first couple years we were together. But as time wore on, I began to find a renewed interest in this seemingly pointless act of the season (I mean, it's a lot of work that will just be taken down in a month, so why bother?). Then we add a very creative little girl in the mix and suddenly decorating has a very clear and real purpose.
Elly delights in "decorates" and would do it all day long if there were enough boughs and ornaments to satisfy her. In our haste of the farm work and delivering and keeping up with patrons, it would have been easy to glaze over the slow joys of preparing for a wonderful holiday. Thank goodness for our little Eleanor. Over the last month, I have made the time to create decor with her and I'm so blessed for it.
We began one day with a project of making ornaments for the tree. I found a couple kits from Hobby Lobby and just spread it all out and got to work. Below, you can see Elly diligently placing foam glitter stickers together to make a lovely, child-friendly ornament. With Ethan napping, I was able to sit down next to her and create some of my own.
Later, Andy came back from deliveries and made some homemade hot chocolate with some of our precious Ghiradelli stash and my home-made marshmallows. The three of us sat down and continued creating ornaments together. Below, this is one of Elly's ornaments. In the end, we spent nearly three hours together, creating and laughing and hanging decor on the tree. Even Ethan participated a little after his nap and it wasn't until darkness began to creep in that we decided to call it quits. I bet you can believe that Elly was VERY disappointed to be cleaning up.
A fews days later, it was cookie making time. I grew up with the standard cut out sugar cookie as our only Christmas cookie and it hadn't occured to me until we moved back to Wisconsin that one has a myriad of Christmas themed cookies to choose from. At that point, I determined that we would have no less than three varieties of cookies each Christmas. And I am ever searching of the best sugar cookie recipe since the Betty Crocker recipe my mother uses makes for a pretty hard cookie (albeit, one that lasts until Easter!)
Knowing Elly's love of helping in the kitchen I knew this would be right up her alley. Here she helps Daddy mix the dry ingredients while I work on creaming the butter and sugar in the stand mixer (not shown).We made two kinds of cookies that day, a peppermint flavored spritz cookie and a ginger-molasses cookie that turned out great. We also made up a refrigerated chocolate cookie dough that would serve as our cut-outs this year. Let me tell you, this chocolate dough is to DIE for. It basically tastes like cake batter, but much thicker and stickier. It has to be refrigerated and then rolled out under plastic wrap or you will get your rolling pin and counter completely covered in blessed chocolatey goodness.
Two days later, we baked the chocolate cookies. Here Ethan and Elly get a tutorial in cookie cutting before trying it themselves. Can you see the anticipation on Ethan's pursed lips? He's doing everything a 22 month old can do to keep from climbing onto that counter and smashing those star shapes into the dough!
But they did great! I had made cut-out cookies in October with them and totally killed the joy by freaking out as they put cutters all over the place and stole bits of dough for their little mouths and reached for random baking utensils. The whole experience ended with me taking them off their chairs and sending them out of the kitchen to play while I finished cutting the cookies "properly" and cleaning up. That wasn't fun for ANYONE and I took a serious lesson from that day.
I had the opportunity to help Andy learn the same lesson on this day. After I helped Elly and Ethan make the initial cuts, I was preoccupied with getting cookie sheets in and out of the oven, onto cooling racks and so on. Andy took over the cutting supervision and it wasn't long before I heard the very familiar "No, that doesn't fit there!" "Stop placing them right in the middle; that wastes the dough." "Get your hands off of it, it's not time to eat it yet!"
The spiral was beginning and I quickly stated, "Honey, I know what you are thinking, but they are 3 and not even 2. This is how they operate. The whole thing will be alot more fun for all if you just sort of let them cut with no rhyme or reason. In the coming years, we can teach them proper cookie cutting etiquette (if there is such a thing!)"
He said later that really helped him out and suddenly cookie time was fun time again. Below, Ethan pushes down on the star cutter. He knew just what to do. I was very proud of him! Elly was quite helpful as well and by next season, she'll know just how to place cutters on the dough.
Below, Andy rolls out the sticky dough. Ethan can hardly wait to cut some more and reaches as far as his little body will let him to get in on that dough action!In the end, it didn't really matter that we meticulously picked out fun shapes from our mass of cookie cutters. There wasn't a point to scooping up the cut-outs carefully and depositing them nicely on the cookie sheet. In fact, we probably could have let Ethan and Elly have their way with the dough and it would have looked the same.
Those cookies blobbed out and mushed together and became indistinguishable from each other in the oven. I checked the recipe to make sure I had the ingredients correct. (I mean, they tasted amazing!) Yes, they were all correct. Then I double checked the photo that accompanied the recipe. All the cookies on their sheet looked like perfectly crisp, five pointed stars. Then it hit me. The photo I was seeing was taken before the cookies were baked. In how many recipes do you see that? Ah ha! This is probably the normal reaction, but they taste too darn good to "improve upon them" to make the cookies hold a shape in baking.
After that, we decided frosting them would be pointless because how can you decorate a Christmas tree when it looks like a mud puddle, or a star when it looks like...a mud puddle? Instead, Andy sprinkled some powdered sugar on a select few and added a homemade star shape to enhance the chic feel of the cookies. I am in love with the one below. I don't think I can eat it!
Ok, who am I kidding? Of course I can! Chocolate!!
We made these cookies last Sunday and as we head into the following week, I'll have Elly help me wrap presents with some homemade wrapping paper. This will be fun; take some large size, plain newsprint and wrap the box. Then let a pre-schooler go nuts on it with red, green, and blue markers. What's more festive than that? I'll figure out a way to include Ethan, too, but his favorite marker past-time is coloring nicely until I look away, then taking a big bite out of the tip and hiding it in his mouth. That way, we BOTH end up with blue all over and it's just too funny to see mommy wigging out about the potential toxins in a Crayola knock-off marker. Boys!
In great joy and anticipation,