Wednesday, November 28, 2012

christmas merger

Sometimes I'm torn between making it or buying it.

It's the struggle between quality and time...daily decisions (dinner) or seasonal (gifts and decor). And with more quality ingredients or materials available, it seems like we've been invaded by a DIY nation.  When I browse through this season's magazines and blogs, there are so many inspirational custom and DIY cards seen on Pinterest (or check out SavvyMom's list of "18 Best Holiday Cards") that it's difficult to not feel the urge to make hand crafted cards, wrap and decor?

When we were first married, at Christmas we would spend hours handwriting each greeting and address (we send about 60 cards at any given year) on store bought Christmas cards.   Then, we had kids.  We started enclosing those cute, wallet sized Christmas portraits done at a department store photo studio.  (again, more handwriting of names and dates on the back of the photos).  And honestly, the greeting card companies have really stepped up their selection to compete with e-cards.  With so many pretty embellishments and sparkles, store bought cards really takes away the labour of gluing things ourselves!

So what do you do when you love the look of personalized custom cards, but don't have the time or craftiness to make them from scratch (all that handwriting, gluing, cutting!?!)  And what do you do with those boxes of cards you bought at last year's boxing week sale? (admit it...the prices after Christmas makes those card purchases very tempting!)

Merge the two.

I think I've found that happy medium of being creative but efficient with my time (and budget) with my Christmas cards.  I create collages of photographs, add text (yea, no handwriting!), then add the photos to pretty, glitter covered store bought cards.  I hole punch the photos and the cards and attach with a ribbon. (Of course, you just print your photo collage on card stock and say you're done!)

So in the spirit of Christmas, I thought I'd show you two photo collage ideas.  I used Picasa (it's free) so my instructions below are for that program.  But this can be done with any photo editing software.  They're pretty simple...and you can check off one more thing on your Christmas to do list.

Layer two photographs. 
(Picture Pile Method)

1)  In Picasa, click the "Create a collage" button.  The button looks like this:

2)  Choose 2 photographs...the one with the family portrait and the other of a beautiful background picture...something simple (the pine cone pic here was taken at the cottage with my phone and an Instagram filter).

3)  Add photos as a "Picture Pile" where the photos are scattered on the page. I like this so I can position and the size the photos as I please.

4)  Choose a photograph as your background image.

5)  Adjust your photo to the desired size and position.  Add text and filters.

Here's some examples:

Split Screen Photo with clip art 
(Mosaic method)

1)  In Picasa, click the "Create a collage" button.  The button looks like this:

2)  Find  or layer free clip art onto a word document, then add your text to create your message or find already created free clip art Christmas messages (the chalkboard one I found here), and save it as a gif or jpg file.

3) Choose your portrait.

4)  Add both portrait and your clip art photos using "Mosaic" where the photos are automatically fit into the page), pick your portrait.

Here's some examples:


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

that's the spirit

Ahhh...the spirit of Christmas!

You know it's time to start making that gift list a reality when the big guy in the red suit waltzes into town.  And did he ever make a grand entrance into town this past weekend at the Santa Claus parade. (with a cool wireless headphone mic, no less)

After years of going to the local parade, since the kids are old enough to brace the long wait with little complaints (ha!), but are still young enough to appreciate some Santa related festivities, we decided to go to the main parade in the city.  So we bundled up and headed on the train with blankets, snacks, and hot chocolate filled thermoses in tow, and arrived early to meet with friends and get a great spot to watch "the BIG" parade.

After securing our spot for 2 hours (apparently some people waited for 5 hours!), we watched as those who arrived late (as in, after the parade had already started), waltz in like VIP grinches and stand in front of little kids who waited for hours in the front row.  Ahhh...there's that spirit again...

Using a newly developed iPhone app (which was embraced by no one more than me..."When IS Santa showing up!!!!"), we were able to track Santa on his route down to where we were standing, so we knew "if Santa was around the corner or not".


Float after float went by, not necessarily to wish us a Merry Christmas but more to remind everyone to act quick and get the hottest pop group's CD, video game or DVD movie.  Call it my imagination, but the very next day, parking lots at the malls seemed a little more crowded.  Mmm.....hey, that's my spot!

I'm not sure if it's just my age, but I'm starting to miss the simpler activities around Christmas.  A time when a Christmas tree wasn't a pink and purple lit upside down cone, but a tree with branches and pine needles.  A time when a Santa parade had floats with signs that actually said " Merry Christmas" on it, not "Get the latest CD, just in time for the holidays!"

Or maybe I just need to remind myself to look a little harder and find those really wonderful Christmas "spirits" at the parade, like the Toys for the North program and the Red Nose program (where toy donations and proceeds from the sales of the Rudolph noses went to various charities).

And of course to enjoy the most important (to me)... happy, spirited kids. When I asked them what they thought about the parade, they said the floats were cool, the iPhone app was handy and shrugged when the big guy showed up at the end.  But it was after the parade when they really started to get excited because they knew that when all that "hoopla" was done, the REAL FUN was going to begin...spending more time with family and friends.  And with smiles on their faces, laughter with friends, and hot chocolate stains on one exhausted Mom...they laughed, hugged and said "Merry Christmas" to EVERYONE.

Maybe the spirit of Christmas is here after all...

Homemade Hot Chocolate with Baileys
(approx. 4 servings)

  • 4 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (chocolate chips would also work fine)
  • 2 ounces of butterscotch chips (optional)
  • 1 ounce Bailey's irish cream (optional)

  • Heat milk, water, sugar to a boil. (also add vanilla bean seeds, from pod, if using).
  • Remove from heat and stir in chocolate and butterscotch chips until they melt into milk. 
  • Pour into small mugs or cups and add "spirits" for adults, as required.
  • Top with whipped cream or marshmallows.

Enjoy the spirit of the holidays!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

the alternative

"Please eat."

Lately, I feel like a say that phrase a million times over a course of one meal.  "Please stay seated...and EAT!"  And I admit...sometimes in the rush of our schedules, I turn to old standbys and the meals can be less than appealing if you've had it a few times in the past few weeks.

However, last week during a cold weather spell, instead of "please eat", I told my kids "you need to eat to stay healthy and stay warm".  My son smiled and proclaimed that statement should be a life rule!  "Stay healthy and stay warm!!!", he chanted.  After some discussion, we then thought that those still recovering from the Sandy/Nor'easter storm would agree with that statement, and wish they had more healthy choices and options.

Silently, both kids started to eat.  They started to think of those who still don't have electrical power to keep warm and that the only choice they have to meet their basic needs is to ration their gas, line up at food trucks, shower stalls and power stations to sustain themselves.  That for now, this is the only choice they have.  The kids asked "if they are still struggling to get back to normal in such a prosperous city like New York, what would it be like if it happened to us?" 

Then we started to think of the children that receive the Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes that we fill at school around this time every year before Christmas.  That on a grander scale, those in North America are still so much better off than children in many other countries who continually struggle to find basic food, water and shelter.  Those children don't have the luxury to make alternative choices, if any.

And while my kids are pretty healthy eaters and occasionally may still be a little picky with what they eat, I am glad that they are appreciative of the opportunity to be able to be that picky.  And appreciate that the storm passed us, and we're warm and safe here at home, instead of the alternative just south of the border.

Quinoa Bean Salad
Quinoa is a complete protein rich grain, and is a great alternative to meat.  This salad keeps well (and could sustain without refrigeration longer than most salads), and actually tastes better as it sits longer for the quinoa to absorb the flavours.

  • 1 package of quinoa
  • 1/2 cup of vinegar (white or apple cidar works)
  • 1/4 cup of vegetable oil
  • 1 celery sticks
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1/2 chopped red or green pepper (optional)
  • 1/2 cup of cooked waxed beans (optional)
  • 1 can of red kidney beans
  • 1 can of chick peas
  • Cook the quinoa as directed on the package.  Set aside to cool.
  • Rinse the beans & peas in cold water then place in hot water for 2 minutes.  Drain.
  • Add all of the above ingredients in a large bowl and refrigerate overnight.

Serves 8.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

a light in the dark

Sometimes the light shines brightest when it's dark.

When my kids were little, they were frightened by shadows on the wall when I tucked them into bed at night.  I would always tell them, that there must be light somewhere in the house, or else the shadows wouldn't exist.  That even when you think it's completely never really is.

Last week, Hurricane "Sandy" proved that.  When the storm came in that night, all we could see was a singular spotlight casting light and shadows on our mammoth 20 year old maple tree in our backyard, which was swaying and bending with the 90km/h+ winds.  Miraculously, it didn't come crashing through our house (like so many larger trees did, as shown on a multitude of newscasts).

However, what was more miraculous, was the events after the storm.  My faith in humanity was renewed again as I read story after story about the kindness of strangers...people coming together to help each other in need.  Even the simplest of things like providing power to strangers so they can charge cell phones and communicate with loved ones.  These stories of kindness has been the bright light in this (continuing) darkness.

Photo courtesy of Mashable

While I cannot directly help those in affected areas (other than through donations), the aftermath of the storm did however, shed some light on my own emergency preparedness, and beyond the "extra flashlights, batteries, candles and food" list (a handy list of what should be in your 72 hour emergency preparedness kit can be found here at Red Cross), I thought I'd do my small part and share with you some interesting things that I've read and learned that might help you with your own emergency preparedness plan.

1)  Add a "text-to-tweet" option on Twitter.  I know, this may sound like my Twitter addiction is overrun, but seriously, communication is key and if there is no internet access available in my area to email loved ones, at least I can send one message out to the masses (i.e. more than one family member) by sending a tweet via text.  For info on how to do this, click {here}.  Conversely, I've added my husbands' tweets, so I can receive tweets from him via text, if for some reason we've been separated.

2) Make sure your OUTDOOR solar garden lights have been charged.  So often we hear about fires that start with candles (we use mason jars with tea light candles), so a great (and safe) alternative light source in the house would be those outdoor garden solar powered lights (we have the solar coach lights that can be removed from the post and placed flat on a table).

3)   Update our emergency contact list on my phone to include some government phone numbers that I normally do not have handy (in case of hydro outages, downed trees or sewer back up/flooding emergencies).   In Toronto, you can find the list of phone numbers. {here}

4)  Make sure you have an updated hand crank radio.  The one we currently have is a radio/flashlight combo, which can be operated by hand crank.  I realized it could also recharge my phone, if I had the proper phone cord attachment.  But I didn't.  I'm considering purchasing this hand crank radio that has the USB option. {here}.

5)  Pack an extra travel charger/ power outlet along in the emergency kit, like this Mini Surge Protector with USB outlets. {here}.  If you have to evacuate, there is a possibility that your destination will not have enough outlets.  This is a small but good one to have handy.

And while we are very fortunate to have no damage or lives lost in our family and we have the luxury of learning from the devastation of others to prepare for ourselves in case there's a "next time", I hope that in the midst of darkness, we can all be each other's shining light.

Red Cross