When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stockings, sweet and simple

Every Christmas, Matt, the boys and I look forward to the tradition of hanging our stockings along the fireplace mantel in our family room. For all of us, the stockings themselves hold as much meaning as the special little gifts that will be spilling from their tops on Christmas morning. They are a familiar, heartwarming sight that remind us of all the joyful moments we've shared together in Christmas seasons past.

I have always had a fondness for homemade Christmas stockings. My mom sewed ones for my brothers and I, my dad, and herself when we three kids were young, and I can still remember how happy I felt seeing those lovingly made socks hanging all together in a row over the holidays. I am definitely not gifted in the sewing department myself, however when Noah was very small I was able to take some plain red pre-made stockings from a craft store and turn them into something more special and personal with some simple craft supplies and techniques.

Our four stockings are cheerily embellished with Christmas-y shapes that I cut out freehand from craft store felt squares, plus mini pom-poms, glittery fabric paint, and a felt-tipped marker. If you aren't comfortable cutting out your own shapes, you can trace simple Christmas pictures from cards, puzzles or colouring books onto paper and use those as templates for cutting out your felt. Fasten all embellishments to the stocking with hot glue to make sure they will stay securely. For me, making stockings was a fun craft project that has been much appreciated by my favourite boys.

I hope that your stockings and your holidays are filled with whatever makes your heart happy. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gifts from the heart

Christmas is just over a week away, and everywhere I go the excitement of the season is palpable in the air. I'm not sure who is more anxious for Christmas to arrive in our house: the boys, who are eagerly waiting to see what Santa will bring them this year, or I, who will love to see the looks on their faces when they discover their Christmas morning surprises! For many of us, this season is a joyful, magical time of year, a time for sharing gifts and special moments with loved ones, a time for lighting up the darkness of winter with laughter and celebration. It's also a time to remember that there are many people around us for whom Christmas is not so joyful, and that in the midst of all of our giving to those we love, we must also give to those who truly need us.

It's difficult for children who are growing up in a very comfortable life to have any real understanding of what it feels like to go without, either physically or emotionally. Matt and I think it's important, however, to try to give the boys some sense of this, especially at this time of year when it is more easily obvious to them how abundant their own blessings are. We look for opportunities to give to people or creatures in need and make sure, now that the boys are older, that they play an active role in that giving. They may be still too young to make a profound difference in the world, but there are many things that they can do: shopping for new books (some of their own favourites) to bring to a local Christmas book drive, donating a part of their allowance to a charity, making catnip toys and bringing them to the local animal shelter (thanks, Mom, for this wonderful idea!), or being a good friend to someone who is sad at holiday time due to a difficult family situation. With each chance they have to help someone, we talk with the boys about what their "gift" means and how happy it will make the recipient. I think their part in helping others makes the boys feel happy too.

The other day when Will was bringing some canned and boxed goods to school for the holiday food drive, he wondered aloud to me whether the hungry children in a distant poverty-stricken country would even like the kind of cereal we have here. He thought the school was sending the food to a far-off land where there are many people in need, and was shocked to know that there are people right in our own community who don't have enough to eat. I absolutely didn't fault him for his understanding of the situation, but it made me realize that we still have some more work to do to help open up the boys' eyes to the fact that there is hardship and sadness right around us, if we take the time to look. I hope someday they will realize that while it is wonderful to have a mountain of presents under the Christmas tree, the most meaningful gifts of all are the ones that we give from the heart.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The first big snow

I was out and about running errands today, and everywhere I went, adults were commenting glumly about the snow and the cold that the weekend had brought us. When I arrived at the boys' school to pick them up at the end of the day, I saw groups of parents huddled up miserably against the school wall to try and avoid the bone-chilling winds, looking uncomfortably cold despite their warm winter attire. It was a rather dreary sight, and I was anxious for the boys to come out of the building so we could go hibernate for the rest of the day in our warm, cozy house.

The mood suddenly changed when the bell rang and scores of children came running out of the school doors. There was no way a little (okay, a lot of) cold was going to stop them from enjoying themselves fully in the fascinating world of white they had watched through the classroom windows all afternoon. Children in multi-coloured snowsuits rolled everywhere and chased each other, laughing, through the drifts. It was impossible not to smile watching them.

Noah and Will begged me to let them stay out and play when we got home, and I had a chance to see the snow differently than I had all day. Instead of it being an obstacle to getting around town, or a mountain that required shovelling, the snow became something lovely that transformed our yard into a new and exciting playground. The boys spent an hour out there, completely oblivious to the frigid temperature; they were sliding gleefully down the incline at the back of our yard, laying in laughing heaps when they tumbled off of their sleds, and playing in the frosty flakes with complete abandon like children do. I think we adults would do well to remember the pure and simple joy of the first real snow days of our childhood winters, and make an effort to get out and play more often. The beaming faces of my two boys outside today made it seem impossible that snow could ever make anyone feel grumpy.

When Noah and Will came inside late this afternoon, they were still giddy, and their cheeks and noses were a shocking bright red from the biting, chilly air. However, all three of our hearts were filled with a happy warmth, one I want to hold on to throughout the long, cold winter ahead.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Gingerbread cookies times two

When I was little, my mom used to make the most wonderful gingerbread cookies at Christmas time. She must have spent hours rolling dough, cutting out boys and girls, baking them, and painstakingly decorating them better than any gingerbread people I have ever seen since -- they all had unique faces, hair, and intricately striped and polka-dotted clothes made from different coloured icings. It was truly a labour of love on her part, and one she continued unfailingly, even after my brother Frank, before leaving for school, once secretly ate a good part of the batch she had made for his class, and even after our dog ate all the gingerbreads she could reach from the bottom half of the Christmas tree. (Many years later, Frank has confessed that he and our brother Jamie may have helped the dog eat those gingerbreads too!) Obviously, the cookies were a real favourite with my brothers and I, and when I think about the happy Christmases of my childhood, I will always remember that very special treat.

It was important to me to continue the gingerbread cookie tradition once I had children of my own. However, after one Christmas of attempting to decorate the sweet boys and girls with icing details, I decided from then on I would find other ways to show my boys I love them! I had neither the talent nor the patience of my mom for the intricate icing work. We decorate our cookies more simply now, and they're not as fantastic as my mom's were, but Noah and Will love their job of adding the embellishments to each ginger person's outfit. This is the traditional recipe I've used for many years; it always yields yummy, kid-friendly results.

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup molasses
1 or 2 eggs

In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Add in butter, molasses and egg(s) and mix until completely blended. Cover and refrigerate dough for 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll dough to 1/4 inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Cut dough into boy and girl shapes with cookie cutters. Decorate cutouts with mini m&ms or other goodies.
Place cookies on a lightly greased cookie sheet about 2" apart. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool and serve.

I was thrilled last year to discover a recipe for gluten-free gingerbread cookies made from almond flour over at Elana's Pantry. This meant that Will could still enjoy a version of his favourite holiday treat in spite of his newly discovered food sensitivities. These gingerbreads are absolutely delicious -- sweet and chewy and full of spicy goodness. I made a few modifications to Elana's recipe to accommodate our needs and tastes.

5 cups blanched almond flour
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
1/2 cup agave nectar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup yacon syrup (I couldn't find this ingredient, so I substituted another 1/2 cup of agave nectar instead and the cookies turned out beautifully.)
2 eggs (If egg allergies are a concern, you can substitute 2 tbsp of arrowroot powder in the dry ingredients and 6 tbsp water in the wet ingredients instead.)
1 tsp lemon zest (optional)

In a large bowl, combine almond flour, spices, salt and baking soda. In a smaller bowl, mix together grapeseed oil, agave, vanilla, yacon, eggs, and lemon zest. Stir wet ingredients into dry. Chill dough in freezer for 1 to 2 hours.
Roll out dough between two pieces of parchment paper to 1/4" thick. Remove top sheet of parchment paper and cut out cookies using cookie cutters. Decorate cut-outs with nuts and dried fruit.
Transfer cutouts with a spatula to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 F for 10 to 15 minutes. Cool and serve.

We used fruit juice sweetened dried cranberries to decorate our cookies, but you could also use raisins, almond slivers, or pieces of dried citrus rind to add faces and fashions to your gingerbread people.

With some helping hands yesterday, I finished baking all of our gingerbread cookies for this season. We're looking forward to the upcoming days when we'll enjoy them with a cup of hot cocoa after an afternoon of skating, or share them with family and friends who come to visit over the holidays. I know the little gingerbread people will continue to be part of happy holiday memories in our family for many Christmases to come.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Peas on Earth

One of my favourite things about decorating our home for the holidays is reliving fond memories of Christmas seasons past. Within each Christmas storage box I unpack is a treasure trove of special ornaments, CDs, and sweet little crafts handmade by the boys over the years, all of which remind me of people and stories I love. This week, when I came across the red berries I use for our dining room table centrepiece, I burst into laughter remembering a Will moment from last December. It's a cheerful little holiday tale I think is worth sharing.

Will has lots of priorities and important things to do in a day; eating is not one of them. After spending most of the family dinner time talking, singing, or asking questions most nights, he is often the very last one at the table. He sits and eventually works slowly away at his full plate of food while the rest of us clean up and are too occupied to pay much attention to him. One evening last December, we were living out this exact scenario, and Matt, Noah and I had already left the kitchen. Will was unusually quiet and we figured he had finally got down to the business of eating. When he decided he had had enough dinner, I glanced at his plate and noticed that surprisingly, he had eaten a very respectable amount of peas. I smiled at him, sent him off to play, and thought nothing more about it.

The next day I was working on a project at the dining room table when something strange caught my eye. There, in the midst of all the red berries in the table centrepiece, was a small but conspicuous green berry. Curious, I investigated further and discovered several clusters of the hard, shrivelled little green orbs. It suddenly dawned on me what had become of Will's peas the previous evening. It wasn't like he had just thrown spoonfuls of peas into the branches, either, hoping that they would never be noticed; he had actually taken the time to painstakingly thread each pea onto a wire in true Martha Stewart-esque fashion. I'm sure not even Martha ever thought of using peas as a festive decorating embellishment!

I wanted to have a serious talk with Will about what he had done with his peas, but I simply couldn't keep a straight face. (I also secretly admired his ingenuity in the absence of any dog he could feed his vegetables to.) Will was a little sheepish when I made him fess up, and I felt more than a little foolish for believing that he had actually eaten his peas. But it was Christmastime, and it was darn funny, and the story is now one we will remember and chuckle about every time the holiday season rolls around.

For all of you reading this, I hope this month is full of moments of laughter and joy shared with loved ones. Happy December!