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In: Christmas

December 20, 2013

Milo’s New Advent Calendar

A few years ago, I got this sparkly advent calendar for 3 dollars at a yard sale. It was really nice and doing it’s job, the only problem was that the compartments behind the doors were so tiny, that really nothing but a piece of chocolate or other unhealthy candy would fit in them. But what I really wanted to sweeten the wait for Christmas, were some small little gifts that wouldn’t disappear in one bite. Especially now that Milo is getting into Legos, the possibilities are endless to make each day of December special.

So I went on Pinterest for the usual inspiration and found this link. It also helped that my friend Kathleen did a similar one last year. Overall this was not a cheap and quick project, but it will hopefully last through Milo’s childhood and pay off in durability and joy. I probably paid about $40 total for all 25 boxes, paint, and decoration supplies. The project took about three evenings to complete = 6 hours. And here it goes.


First I laid out the 25 boxes on a board that I had left over from a different project so that they would spread out nicely and not repeat too much. Then I marked each one for which base color it was to receive, also making sure not to have too many of the same color in the same neighborhood.


The next step was to paint all boxes with craft paints. Milo actually helped with this step. We painted one at a time and then put it right back into its place on the board to keep everything in order.


The main idea of this project was to have Milo involved in decorating the boxes, so I bought a bunch of stickers for easy decorating. But after glueing on 3 stars, he was “getting tired of stickers”. So, most of the decorating was left to me. Lincoln jumped in to create the most elaborate box (guess which one), and I just free-styled all the other ones. I used some glittery scrapbook paper, felt snowflake stickers, star stickers, white puffy paint, and a glitter marker. To keep things cohesive it probably helps sticking to 4-5 colors. And I made sure to use at least two of those colors on each box and sticking with winter motives like snowflakes, pine trees, snowmen, stars, etc.


Next, I whitewashed the wooden board. Whitewashing or any color washing is soo easy I can’t believe I ever bought wood stain. Just water down any existing paint (I do around 1:1 ratio, but you can water it down further to have it more transparent) and then brush on the wood. It gives the wood a soft tint while still showing the grain. After it all dried, I sealed the board with Polycrylic – another recent discovery of mine. Somehow I always thought that Polyurethane is the number one top coat to use. But Polycrylic is much less smelly, dries faster, smoother, and cleans up easily with water. It also won’t yellow over time.


Finally, it was time to attach the boxes to the board. Because I have had some incidents with hot glue losing its power from one Christmas season to the next from being exposed to all sorts of temperatures while stored in the attic, I wanted to be safe and not only used hot glue, but also drilled one small screw through the back of each box. I screwed a string picture hook in the back and hung the final product out of Felix’s reach on a wall.

Next year, it’s Felix’s turn to get one of these.

January 18, 2013

A Not So Merry Christmas

This year one of my big goals is to start all Christmas preparations way earlier than usual, so that I can finally experience a season of joy and peace rather than chaos and stress. But before that, let’s just wrap up last year real quick, shall we? 2012  was Felix’s first Christmas and Milo’s first time that he really understood what was going on. I had big dreams and plans to make it very special for our boys, but then life happened. Felix got very sick (sinus and ear infection, plus a bad cough with wheezing and trouble breathing) and Milo had a super emotional cranky phase. On top of that both kids were teething. Nobody in our house got nearly enough sleep and between December 17 and 27 we just wished for it all to be over.

We barely managed to get all Christmas preparations done and just wanted the kids to get better. The negative highlight of our holidays was spending Christmas Day with Felix at the urgent care clinic. No wonder we didn’t quite feel the festive spirit, right?

At least Milo didn’t seem to notice, so he had a good time with ripping presents open. We were wondering beforehand whether we would go with the whole Santa story or not. In the end we just kept it unspecific were the presents came from and I don’t think Milo cared enough yet. So maybe we will revisit this philosophic question this year. And are wishing for only one thing: Healthy and happy kids.

On these photos we look deceivably happy and healthy, but I swear we were all miserable inside. At least we won’t forever be reminded of a not so merry Christmas by these photos.

December 25, 2011

So This Is Christmas

Christmas is almost over. It is the evening of the 25th and the adults of this household are chilling on the couch with their computers shining in unison with the tree while the child can be heard sucking on his peacemaker over the monitor. Oh, what nice silence! Finally we are getting to the heart of Christmas spirit. The last couple of weeks were crazy busy – as always before the holidays. And as always we didn’t manage to send out all mail on time, print personalized cards, nor finish all DIY gift projects that were planned even though I started in November this year.

But at least we did manage to send cards at all, hand-wrote every single one, and got all presents purchased two weeks before Christmas. Let’s just look at the improvements here. Of course all the craziness was well worth it to make it Milo’s first memorable Christmas experience. As far as I can tell, he had a blast. The whole advent thing we had going on was a hit on its own. Every morning he demanded opening his advent calendar right after breakfast. He learned how to blow out the candles of the advent wreath (all set for his second birthday next year), and gazed at all the lights around the house as if they were new every day.

We made gingerbread houses and cookies with friends and went to see an amazing train display at Brookside Botanical Gardens.

Then Christmas weekend came and at first it didn’t look like it was gonna be all fun and smiles. Milo’s incisors decided to push through his gums and mama got a cold. But luckily both of those mean things turned out much minor as expected and so the fun began. As a family we are pretty new to this Christmas thing and will see how Tran traditions will evolve and play out over the next few years, but so far so fun. It all took off on the 24th at 2pm when we met my German family on skype during their Christmas Eve celebration. (If you are not familiar with German traditions, the evening of 24th is the main Christmas deal in Germany, not the 25th.) Everybody was just happy to spend an hour of quality family time together and even the usually crappy internet connection held up pretty nicely.

We got to open their presents that were shipped over here and they opened ours. Milo got some German books and a potty seat. He immediately got the connection, grabbed one of the books, and sat down on the potty for a good 15 minutes. Hm, who did you learn that from?

Afterwards it was time for us to prepare Christmas dinner. We had Linc’s parents and siblings over for a Bieringer style Christmas Eve. That means, nicely set table, four course dinner, and gift exchange between the immediate family members.

We made traditional pumpkin soup with homemade butter croutons and bacon crumbs, then a pecan cranberry spinach salad, then thyme apple pork chops with roasted rosemary vegetables. And baked filled apples with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce as dessert. Sounds like a lot of work, but actually most of the stuff could be pre-prepared and then just baked itself in the oven while we had time to tend to our guests. We even busted out my real silver ware that I got almost twenty years ago and had never used before. Just to throw in a little bit of craft blog, see here our table setting:

The next morning of the 25th began relatively unspectacular. Probably because the American in the house was still asleep and the German was running all the Christmas action. So no stockings filled with Santa goodies this year. I did manage to sew the stockings in a time crunch right the night before, but didn’t really have anything small to fill them with, so we will work on improving this part next year. I don’t know, maybe it would also just get too much. Because the biggest party of the weekend hadn’t even started yet. The extended Tran family Christmas party at Lincoln’s parents house. It is the usual craziness (a regular house filled with 30 people, tons of food, and 20 children of all ages) times 4. At least. Every family gives every single child of the family a gift , so we had an estimated 100 presents piled up around the Christmas tree. It seriously was a wall 5 feet high and 3 feet deep of boxes that almost completely covered up the tree.

Then the traditional photo of all kids in front of the presents is supposed to happen. Of course the kids couldn’t care less and have their eyes on the prizes, not the cameras. Surprisingly Milo stayed seated for the photo shoot when I told him to. Maybe we can apply this good listening to sitting on the naughty step next time he needs a time out? See here how it played out:

But wait, it gets even better. Someone starts passing the presents to the child’s parents, everybody sets up their station on the living room floor, and opens presents as fast as possible in order to not get buried. Kids get lost under wrapping paper, parents paper-cut their fingers, trash bags get filled with everything that is not in a child’s hand, … seriously, that’s how crazy it felt. Milo got completely overwhelmed, so I sent him to another room with the first best toy and then took more than twice as long as everybody else to open his gifts.

Yeah, it was fun and we are happy that we are done with festivities for a little bit. This week I will have three days off of work and we will do our best to just relax and play and relax and play. And hopefully see some of you Columbians for a play date and some of you Germans for a Skype date so that Milo can show his new toys and do a private happy dance just for you. Cheers!

December 15, 2011

Fake For Real

An artificial Christmas tree would have never happened in my hypothetical German household. It’s just not in my nature. In my family we have always had a real pine tree with real candles – cats and toddlers running around and never a problem. This being said, sometimes you have to make compromises as a wife. Lincoln comes from the opposite side of the Christmas tree spectrum. He was raised with an artificial tree with electric light strings. Can’t blame him, people prefer what they know.

So after long discussions I gave in to purchasing an artificial tree. The argument of long-term payback got me. But that’s it. As a compromise it was completely up to me to pick our tree for the next few years and off I went on a quest for the most real looking artificial tree. I had been stalking Craigslist posts for weeks, passed on one sad looking plastic tree that I found and finally had to bite the bullet and get a new one at Target for more than I wanted to spend. But my heart just wouldn’t have survived anything less real looking than this Virginia Pine with cashmere tips that is conveniently pre-lit with lots of lights:

At least it was on sale for 50% of the regular price, but those $100 better pay back over the next ten years. Considering that we would pay about $30 for a real tree each year, it has to last at least 4 years. More if it really wants to be a good investment.

When I started setting it up I almost wanted to send it right back. Not that there was anything wrong with this particular tree, but dealing with artificial trees was just not what I expected it to be. It was supposed to be convenient. Not take 3 hours to pick all the branches apart to create a nice shape. Not needle all over the place like a real tree. Stand up straight unlike a real tree, …

You can tell I am still not a believer. But, it is up now. And looks actually pretty good. We put up my ornament collection that I gathered / made for less than $25 and positioned it in front of one of the front windows. A timer turns it on every evening at 5 and off at midnight, so that we don’t have to worry about it and can enjoy it automatically.

Here is a sample of each ornament up close:

  1. About 15 fresh pine cones found behind our house. I glues a white bow on top of each to hang them
  2. Ten snowy pine cones. Thrifted at 2nd Ave for $1.90.
  3. Eight wooden snowflakes. Found at 2nd Ave for $1.90. And they came with the free paper snowflakes for the kitchen window.
  4. Six felt snowflakes. Found at Joann Fabric for $0.50 each.
  5. A bunch of epsom-salted silver balls. Made after this tutorial from ornament number 7.
  6. Some epsom-salted white balls, made from ornament number 8.
  7. Silver glass balls. Found at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet for $1.99 for 20 pieces.
  8. White glass balls. Found at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet for $1.99 for 20 pieces.
  9. Twine wrapped around and glued on some mismatched golden balls that I had found at Goodwill for $1.50.
  10. Yarn wrapped around some of the golden balls. I didn’t get further than this prototype, then the tree was full and I ran out of glue power.
For the top I got this frosty twig snowflake form Target. My original intention was to replicate it from twigs and epsom salt, but you know, I get lazy sometimes.
By the way, Milo has been really good with the tree so far. When he first approached it I told him not to touch it and ever since he doesn’t go near it. Just points at it five-hundred times a day saying “no, no”. I swear he thinks the word for Christmas tree is “no”.
So now that I officially experienced both worlds, I have to say I am still an emotional fan of real trees, but a pragmatic owner of an artificial one. Here is why:
Real tree Pros:
  • smells good
  • looks a 100% real > has the calming effect of mother nature
  • less hassle setting up
  • fun choosing / cutting the tree
  • cheaper at first
Artifical tree Pros:
  • Less waste of natural resources*
  • cheaper in the long term
  • no mess with sap or needles (except for a few fake ones when setting up)
  • holds up for more than 4 weeks > can be enjoyed longer
* As for the ecological argument I know that it is ambiguous because all Christmas trees are grown specially for this purpose anyway and you could buy the ones with roots and plant them afterwards. Manufacturing the artificial ones on the other hand uses natural resources as well. But I still believe that if you keep reusing the artificial one long enough the production cost is less than the every year freshly cut cost. At least I am telling myself that as the best argument next to the price factor.
Which one do you prefer?
December 7, 2011

Milo’s Advent

Over the first few days of December Milo has totally gotten into the Christmas spirit. Or at least he appreciates all the extra fun things that were put up around the house. He is practicing his lungs by trying to blow out the advent wreath candles from a 4 foot distance. He runs towards the advent calendar first thing in the morning, hoping to find some sweet treats to replace his breakfast. So far he has gotten a few packs of raisins, one piece of chocolate (mega drool!), and some stickers. And one new car that he thought was very nicely parked behind the small door, so he put it right back.

On the morning of the 6th Milo got some bigger toys in his boots from St. Nicholas. He got lucky St. Nicholas was so generous because usually only good kids get something and recently Milo is going through this phase where he wakes us up a few times per night, hits his mom, and acts up for no good reason. Let’s take these toys as some motivation to be good from now on.

November 28, 2011

It’s beginning …

… to look a lot like Christmas in our home.

Who would have guessed that I have been secretly crafting Christmas decorations like a maniac in the past few weeks? Well, everybody who knows me, I guess. Since we have never had a Christmas in our own home before and were constantly on the move in the past years, we are starting pretty much from zero regarding holiday items. Getting the whole house into Christmas spirit could have easily gotten an expensive maneuver.

So I broke out my hot glue gun, some Michaels coupons, collected natural (free) goods outside, used some existing non-holiday items, and went on a thrift shopping spree. Considering the materials that I was able to gather for cheap and my love for mother nature I came up with a snow-white-silver-glistening-walking-through-the-forest theme for my very first Christmas collection. Think snowflakes, white, wool, twine, twigs, trees, silver, pine cones, … I’m gonna call it Winterwanderland. See here what I whipped up for under $40.

Paper snowflakes at the kitchen bay window. I was planning on cutting these out myself using this method, but then I found a bag of wooden tree ornaments at my new favorite thrift store (2nd Ave) that I wanted anyway for $1.90 and these paper snowflakes were randomly packed in the same bag. So they were basically free and saved me an evening of paper cutting. Milo loves looking at them when he eats his breakfast, but they look even better from the outside where the light hits them.

Mirror Advent calendar. This silver advent calendar with mirror doors was a thrift store find some time in spring for $3. Good thing I am looking forward to Christmas all year, so I bought it back then and now it fits perfectly in with the other decor. Oh, I added those trees on top, in case you were wondering. $1 from the Dollar Store. I am having a little bit of a hard time finding small enough items to put in there for Milo that are not chocolate treats (any suggestions?), so we might have to upgrade to a bigger, home made calendar next year. And then use this one for chocolates for Linc and me.

For the cone trees I got some papermache cones for $4 total, wrapped them with twine that I had from a previous project, added a silver ball (leftovers from my Advent wreath), and some silver glitter paint.

In the dining room this Advent wreath is making a statement as a modern version of the traditional Advent wreath.

This was probably the most expensive item of my collection. Even with using coupons and sales, I probably spent around $15 dollars for all assorted natural ornaments, filler balls, and candles. Unfortunately I forgot to snap photos of the process, but here is approximately how it goes: Get a flat wreath base. I found a wooden ring at Michaels, but you could probably even cut a ring out of thick cardboard. Place your candles in the middle to make sure they have enough space. Start with hot-glueing down the bigger ornaments. Then start filling in gaps with medium size pieces, then really small ones. You want to cover all of the base and achieve an even ring.

For our current table setting I just flipped over the colorful place mats that were previously seen here. How convenient that their back side perfectly matches the natural color scheme.

On the other side of the dining room we have this whole paying bills in the woods scene going on:

On the desk I arranged some pine cones (found for $0 in my backyard) in a silver vase ($5) to hold current letters (aka bills). The star was on sale for $4.50 at Joanns and temporarily replaces my dry-erase board. I swapped out the desk cover with a piece of burlap (this piece is just a fraction of the 3 yards I got for $5 and will use for other projects).

On the ledge I arranged the old candle sticks that were spray-painted white together with the dining room chandelier a few weeks ago. I made the sweater vase from a leftover sleeve of my wreath project and a vase from our wedding (cylindric glass vase, hot-glue sweater around it. Done). The pine is from a downed branch behind our house.

Similar woodsy stuff is arranged on the other ledge in the living room. Some more pine, some more pre-existing candle sticks, and other assorted items.

The big candle and the twig vase (currently housing a tea light) were made with my – you guessed it – hot glue gun. Milo had great fun helping me find sticks. Although he was done after finding one – actually two – one for each hand. But he learned a new word and we spent a good hour outside, so it was officially the first time Milo was crafting with me.

Then I just had to snip them to size and glue them around the straight glass. To use up the very rest of my twine, I wrapped them up with a small bow.

Moving over to the center of the living room, we have this entertainment arrangement providing snacks and candle light to our guests. The thrifted multi-purpose tray makes it removable for play action. The silver chalice is holding little chocolate treats.

Speaking of silver. These two shiny items were one of the first purchases that Linc and I made together for our first rental home. We found them at a thrift store for about $6 with just a little bit of patina. Over the years the black smoke monster got the best of our two silver possessions and they were not really presentable any more, therefore kept in the dark basement cave together with some random spoons and forks that I don’t even know where they came from. Until I saw this tutorial about how to clean silver. So I gave it a shot. See here the before and after:

Last but not least, a sneak preview of our undecorated Christmas tree. Let’s leave it at that to end this post on a positive note. More about my adventures with artificial Christmas trees to be posted soon.

November 22, 2011

C H R I S T M A S ! ! !

See the title above for how excited I am about Christmas this year. If you happen to know how excited I was last year to go to Germany and introduce my baby to friends and family, then double that. Wait, triple it. Minus the fact that I won’t get to see my family this year. But – this is gonna be my boy’s first Christmas that he will consciously experience with our little family’s first tree ever in our first house ever. Thinking back to my own childhood and how excited I got every year for Christmas I can only imagine how much fun he will have with all the lights and am on a mission to make it the most memorable first Christmas in history.

Christmas to me is all about family, friends, and love. Call me a helpless romantic, but I get all sentimental and lovey-dovey in December when it’s dark and cold outside, warm and fuzzy inside of the home, the radio stations play cheesy Christmas classics, people put up lights, cozy up with their loved ones … sigh! This is the time of the year when my pragmatically wired brain gets a rest and the rarely expressed emotional side of Nicola has free reign. Nobody knows about this, but it is pretty likely for me to spontaneously get teary-eyed from fuzzy feelings when driving in my car and listening to Christmas classics.

Now, I’ll be the first one to admit that I am a little bit of a Christmas opportunist. I fully indulge in the romantic spirit that comes with it, but am not too much into celebrating the religious reason for it nor into consuming tons of expensive goods. Not even for the sake of this sad economy. As far as the birth of Jesus is concerned, I think it’s totally cool that people still think back to such a significant event and celebrate it in one of the finest holidays on earth, but I’m not gonna lie and say that that’s on my mind a lot during December. If you really want to know my my humble opinion – there are so many good reasons and ways to celebrate love that it doesn’t really matter how and why you do it. Just show some loving for each other.

Now that that is out of the way, let’s talk business. Here is how Christmas goes down in the Tran’s house. Well, this is the first time we actually have our own house to celebrate Christmas in, so there will be a lot of firsts for us this year. First time impatiently waiting for Thanksgiving to be over so that Christmas decorations can be put up and almost starting to happy dance at work because Lincoln gave in and let me put up stuff 5 days before Thanksgiving. First time (in my life ever) to have an artificial Christmas tree. First time keeping Milo from taking down ornaments from the tree. The list goes on ….

But over the past few years of our young marriage we also established some original Bieringer-Tran fusion traditions that are made to last. The great thing is that we can pull traditions not only from 2 different families that we grew up in, but also from 2-3 different cultures. In Germany Christmas time starts four Sundays before December 24th. It’s called Advent and is the time of anticipating Christmas. Every of the the four Sundays people light up an additional candle on their advent wreath until all four are burning by Christmas. (Of course they are not kept burning the entire time, only when attended. Mostly for long and cozy Sunday morning breakfasts.) This is what a traditional advent wreath looks like on the first Sunday in Advent:

During Advent the Germans bake many many Christmas cookies. These are made according to special recipes that you won’t find during the rest of the year. Cinnamon, nuts, and chocolate are typical ingredients. Find a version of my favorite cookie recipe by clicking on the picture:

Next thing is the Advent calendar. It comes in many different forms and levels of creativity. The basic model is just two pieces of paper with the cover sheet having little doors cut out and the sheet behind showing picture of winter scenes. It can also have chocolates behind the doors, or really take on any 3dimensional shape like this for example:

All of them boil down to having 24 doors, socks, boxes, envelopes, or bags that hold little goodies like sweets or small toys. Every morning of December the kids are allowed to open one of them (with the number of the day’s date) until Christmas Eve is here.

Then, on December 6th we have the day of Saint Nikolaus, a guy who must be somehow related to the American Saint Nick. Basically, he was a very good man who helped people in need, gave away gifts, and died on December 6th. Read the whole story here. So, in Germany all kids polish their shoes or boots on December 5th, then put them outside of the front door and hope that they were good enough for Saint Nick to put some goodies in there. The next morning everyone gets up really excited to find some small gift, nuts, oranges, and chocolates in their boots.

Can you believe how much anticipation all of these traditions build up by the time Christmas is finally here? No wonder that with my 31 years I still get so excited about it. Christmas in Germany, by the way, is on December 24th. Christmas Eve. That’s the main big deal. It’s when families get together in their homes, sit by the real pine tree singing Christmas carols (at least my Mom was trying to keep the singing up until the bitter end), having a festive meal, and exchange gifts. So, whenever we are in the US for Christmas we are having Linc’s immediate family over on Christmas Eve for a three course meal and do the big gift exchange one night before all other Americans. And then it’s American Christmas again the next morning! I am in the process of making stockings for the three of us and will fill them with a small gift on Christmas Day. Hm, that’s only one American tradition. Can you tell that I am the big Christmas tradition initiator in our family? What other things do Americans do for Christmas that I am missing?