Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Naughty AND Nice List

“What if there was a ‘Naughty AND Nice’ list, Mommy?” my oldest asked me. We were in the living room enjoying our daily viewing of The Polar Express.

“What do you mean, honey – not either-or, but naughty and nice at the same time?”

“Yeah. But that wouldn’t be possible…” he said, dismissing the thought. At seven, he sees the world in black and white.

“Well, hold on just a minute – remember the coal…?” It was in a little dish on the side table in our dining room.

I’d picked it up at our oil company last year as I was walking past it down the rail trail one day. I had told the kids that if they didn’t change their “Gimme-that-it’s-mine-shut-up-poopy-idiot-whack” behavior, Santa would bring them coal instead of presents for Christmas. But I’d realized how ridiculous it was for me to say that, because what did they know about coal? When we barbecue it’s with a gas grill and we heat our house with oil.

My initial intent was simply to illustrate the threat, though I began to get a knot in my stomach as I waited for the office manager to pause in her conversation with an older gentleman. “Uhmmmmm… do you mind if I pick up a few pieces of coal from the shed?”

Friday, December 23, 2016

Silent Night

I actually like Christmas Eve better than Christmas. For one thing, my three sons are usually compliant about going to bed because they want to make it as easy as possible for Santa. They know he won’t come if they’re awake.

What seals the deal for us is the “Reindeer Food” we get every year from a friend at church.

I read the “directions for use” out loud to my boys. “Prior to going to bed, sprinkle the reindeer food on the ground. Run back into the house, brush your teeth, say your prayers and jump into bed. Go right to sleep.”

It’s the one night a year I don’t have to argue with them about 8:00 bedtime. Grown up time, at last!

All is calm.
Christmas Eve: Silent Night. All is calm. All is bright. Sleep in heavenly peace.Another thing is, there’s a certain feeling of contentment in knowing that I have done all there is to do – or at least all that can be done. The presents are wrapped and under the tree. The gifts and cards are sent out, and the ones that aren’t will become New Year’s greetings. The frenzy of the previous weeks – list making, purchasing, organizing, hiding, baking, planning, executing…everything – is done, whether it’s done as planned or not (especially given this year with the recent storms, power outages, and school cancellations that thwarted much of my final preparations). The clock has run down.

All is bright.

Gift opening lasts merely minutes followed closely by the burrowing through wrapping paper, hunting hopefully for something that just might have been overlooked. To me, Christmas Eve is the high point prior to the denouement that the actual holiday is. I try not to think about the fact that the gift opening lasts merely minutes followed closely by the burrowing through wrapping paper, hunting hopefully for something that just might have been overlooked. Then comes the bouncing off the walls, arguing, grabbing, and demanding to know when our extended family is coming over with more presents.

Sleep in heavenly peace

The cookies and note for Santa are left on the table. The house is clean and quiet. Church was attended. The cookies and note for Santa are left on the table. I take a picture of the tree with the gifts under it, decorated on the top half only by this time, as is the tree in any household with young children who like to pull off anything within reach, sometimes leaving dirty socks or empty juice boxes instead.

I know that my admonition to wait until it’s light out before we get up fell on deaf ears, so I can’t stay up too late. If the clock on the wall next to the tree (which is always included in my picture) reads 10:30, I’m doing alright.

I bask in the tranquil moments I as I share some of Santa’s cookies, and survey the slim tree snug in the corner of our smallish dining room. At last, all is well.

Sleep in heavenly peace.

xoxox, Carlie


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

How to make peppermint bark

This is a really simple recipe for peppermint bark, which is a perfect gift for so many people during the holidays, including your kids' teachers, coaches, and significant others; your mail carrier; your mechanic (if you didn't already get him a case of beer -- not trying to be sexist here, my mechanic is a guy); and so on.

You get the idea: people love peppermint bark! You could also make it and use it instead of cookies at a swap.

Here's a simple recipe for peppermint bark. It's a festive holiday gift for anyone on your gift list.Peppermint bark is quick and easy and you can do it last minute with ingredients from the supermarket, which means you can squeeze it out of your grocery budget if you're worried about your bank account (as so many of us are at holiday time -- I know I am). Get the kids involved, too. They can stir, smash candies with a hammer, and taste test.


  • 24 oz. bag semi-sweet chocolate chips

  • 24 oz. bag white chocolate chips (my supermarket does not carry this size so if yours doesn't just get two 12 oz. bags!)

  • peppermint extract

  • peppermint candies

  • vegetable oil


  • Line two cookie sheets with wax paper.

  • In  a double boiler (I just used a bowl fit over a pot because I don't have a real double boiler), melt the semi-sweet chocolate chips. I have heard you could do this in the microwave in short bursts, but I chose not to because I didn't want to deal with all the beeping and was afraid to boil the chocolate.

  • Spread the melted semi-sweet chocolate over the wax paper and let it harden. It takes about 30 minutes.

  • During this time you can break the peppermint candies. I put them in a ziplock bag and used a hammer. I did not unwrap them first – it's pretty easy to get the wrappers off after they're in pieces.

  • Next, melt the white chocolate chips. You'll want to add a little vegetable oil (maybe a tablespoon) to keep these chips smooth. When they're all melted, add some peppermint extract and stir until mixed. It will "sizzle" a little as the alcohol burns off. (I just eyeballed this but I think 2 teaspoons would be good.)

  • Pour the white chocolate over the semi-sweet chocolate and spread it around. Then add the broken candy pieces on top of that.

The peppermint bark should take approximately an hour to cool and harden. I just put mine in the garage overnight and the next morning it was ready to break up. I put it in a gallon-size ziplock bag and dropped it on the counter a few times. (The thinner it is, the easier it is to break.) You don't want fingerprints on it so I'd recommend using wax paper it/when handling it. You can portion it out directly from the gallon-size bag into small plastic containers or cellophane bags for gifting.

(I'd also recommend packaging it ASAP to avoid eating too much of it!)

Voilà! Now you have an impressive gift. People have told me they like it better than Nieman Marcus'.

Happy holidays and boy to the world!

xoxox, Carlie

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmas when no one believes in Santa

This is my first Christmas where no one believes in Santa. I've been having a hard time feeling Christmas-y.

My youngest broke the news to me over the summer. I don't even remember how the topic came up – maybe it was during Christmas in July week at camp. I'm not gonna lie, I was relieved. He's in middle school now and I wanted him to know the truth but wasn't sure how to tell him.

Is Christmas "not the same" anymore now that your kids are older and no one believes in Santa?I hadn't even prepared any words about how Santa Claus actually was a real guy, a 4th-century Catholic saint who was remembered for giving gifts to children. I just asked him if he was okay with me lying to him for all those years. (He was.)

In the past, I'd had to be quick on my feet when one of the older two snooped, found gifts, and told the others that Santa is really Mom.

"No," I sputtered (annoyed at the snooping).

"Santa just needs Mom's help wrapping everything -- do you really think he has time to wrap, never mind fly around the world in one night? He has to drop off gifts throughout the whole month of December!"

But last summer, it was just time to let it go.

Getting ready for Christmas when the kids were younger

I remember one day a long time ago when I decided to take inventory of all of the Christmas presents I had bought for my kids during one of my conference calls.

I put the phone on speaker (and muted it), hauled everything out from the various hiding places, and spread it all over my office/bedroom floor. Then I pulled out all the wrapping paper, tape, bows, ribbons, gift tags and boxes. Then I got overwhelmed.

I spent most of the day walking around or stepping over little piles of gifts. At lunch time, I wrapped the kids’ gifts that they had chosen for each other. Mid-afternoon, I had my Santa gifts wrapped. When 5:00 came, I realized that I better at least organize everything else before I put it all back in my luggage, hanging next to my garment bags, in the eaves of the attic.

I spent the next 25 minutes sorting the stocking stuffers, making sure I had the right number of Santa gifts for everyone else, and trying to balance out the items I was giving to my kids. I considered holding some of them back for upcoming birthdays, especially when I realized I had bought two of exactly the same Lego Hero Factory sets. Then I just tossed everything together in one bag. I’d have to defer that decision to another day. I had to be sure I hid all the wrapping paper, too – I wouldn’t want Santa paper to be found anywhere, not even the scraps that were in the trash.

Letting it all go

Now that no one believes in Santa, I can let go of all of the orchestrations of Santa letters, Santa gifts as opposed to Mom gifts, different wrapping paper, different handwriting for mom and Santa, cookies for Santa, the lists, and so on. (We never got into Elf on a Shelf, fortunately. I think that would have put me over the edge.)

My husband suggested that it's time to remind the kids about all the gifts they get all year long, like hockey, a car, and a trip to Europe. He used to take his kids on vacation at Christmastime when they got older (they're in their late 20s now), but we can't do that because of people's sports schedules.

Starting new traditions

I made a photo album that shows pictures of the boys doing fun things throughout the year and titled it "It's a Wonderful Life: 2016." Sure, they'll also have things to open: one substantial gift each and a bunch of trinkets that I think they'll like, which are related to their hockey, car, and trip, as well as a stocking (Must.Not.Go.Overboard.On.Stocking.Stuffers!)

For the first year, they'll be going to the mall on their own (since my oldest drives now). If they want to do a pajama run and look at Christmas lights, they can do that themselves, too. My youngest has already wrapped all his gifts, by himself.

One of my boys isn't bothering with his chocolate advent calendar. We did not put ornaments on the tree (yet. I know there's still time.) -- only lights and a star. We likely won't get up at the crack of dawn this year. It might even be nice to have breakfast first!

Appreciating the entire season

I've been playing Christmas music in the morning before the kids go to school and in the car (for those who still drive with me). We've had our get together with our relatives and the boys have been receiving an influx of gifts and cash in the mail. They are still counting down the days, which I think is partially because they'll be off from school, but also the anticipation of opening gifts is of course still very exciting. I hope it has more to do with knowing we picked out things just for them than it is the rabid frenzy of more-more-more that sometimes happens with little kids. I know appreciating the entire season has become important to at least some of them!

One of my friends posted on Facebook about how there are only a limited number of Christmases where her kids will live under the same roof before they're off on their own. Because her kids are the same ages as my older two, this hit me hard. Time flies. Am I savoring the moments enough?

Another friend offered empathy and encouragement, agreeing it's sad when no one believes in Santa, but reminding me that there are other things about the holidays to enjoy together, such as traditions.

We're a long way off from the spiked eggnog my friend enjoys with her son (as in when hell freezes over, since I do not drink alcohol and it would be an especially hellish day if I ever picked that up again), but I can still enjoy making peppermint bark with one of my boys and helping them choose gifts for each other.

My mom used to say that the reason we give gifts is to honor the Christ in each other. Perhaps now that no one believes in Santa, feeling Christmas-y is more about remembering Jesus' birthday and the real St. Nick than it is about the trespassing dude in the red suit.

With that said, one of the traditions I don't plan to let go is the birthday cake for Jesus.

Celebrate Christmas with a birthday cake for Jesus!

Happy holidays everybody and boy to the world!

xoxox, Carlie



Friday, December 16, 2016

Keep it simple this holiday season: 3 quick tips

How many activities is too many?

That was originally the topic of this post, but now that we're in the final countdown to Christmas, I realized I need to address being overbooked and why I find it necessary to keep it simple during the holiday season.

If you don't want the backstory, skip to tips.

"Is he not signed up for basketball?"  My friend sounded genuinely surprised. Not scolding or critical, just surprised. We were waiting around the gym for our Fitness for a Cure (fundraising for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital) committee meeting to start.

"No, I answered. I felt like two hockey teams and Fitness for a Cure was enough. Realizing that my friend's son also played on two hockey teams in addition to basketball and Fitness for a Cure, I added, "He also takes piano lessons. Plus he's just wrapping up his cross country season." I had suggested he run to train for hockey and to do something after school besides watch YouTube videos.

If it were up to my son, he would be playing basketball, and would have joined ski club as well, along with another of his friends who also plays on two hockey teams (one is elite, which means more travel), participates in Fitness for a Cure, and plays rec basketball. (Last year his friend played travel basketball, but I just don't see how you can play travel basketball and elite hockey.)

My need to cut back started with jury duty. I was going to be on call for three weeks starting December 5. What a terrible inconvenience, I thought. I have work, kids, a household to run, and my husband is having surgery, and what about my side gigs? I tried to get excused but was denied. The Jury Administrator did call me the Friday before though and offered me an option. He said I was not on the schedule for the following Monday, but if I would like to opt in, then I could show up and take my chances.

I thought this was a good idea because then I wouldn't be on call for the two weeks after that and who knows, maybe they wouldn't even pick me, or maybe I wouldn't be a good fit for the case.

I did get selected for the case and sat on the jury for four days, but that is a story in itself. I don't know when I'll get around to writing it so, for now, I'll just say, it was a noteworthy experience. Highly recommended.

#1) Just say no.

There are so many opportunities to do festive and extravagant things during the holiday season. There are shows, concerts, sporting events, parties, fairs, and so on. But there are still only 24 hours in any given day. Chances are you have a lot more on your plate than usual, given you've got a holiday to shop, cook, clean, and entertain for. Sometimes you're just going to have to say no. I lost a whole week with jury duty. My work didn't go away, so I did that at night and into the next week. I couldn't make a couple of parties and the idea about going to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra went out the window. Keep it simple!

#2) Stop trying to be perfect.

We didn't yet put any ornaments on our tree this year and maybe we won't. I had hoped to get together with friends to make gingerbread houses as we have done in past years, but our schedules didn't mesh. I don't have any Christmas pictures for our greetings cards. I am also not going to be writing a Christmas letter, and I'm not so sure I'll be able to pitch that guest blog post either. Oh, well. The earth is still turning, and I can still enjoy the holidays and appreciate the tabletop tree in my office that does have a few ornaments on it (since I put it away like that last year). Keep it simple!

#3) Don't overspend.

No one in my family believes in the Santa Claus that travels the world in one day in a sleigh pulled through the sky with flying reindeer, landing on people's roofs to deliver gifts, never mind keeps track of a naughty or nice list. I can't believe how anyone over six even believes in this fairy tale, now that I type that. Of course, we all still enjoy the magic and anticipation of Christmas but I don't have to keep up the charade. (Thank God.) Keep it simple!

So I have begun reminding everyone about how fortunate they already are and how they have all their needs/wants met throughout the year. My oldest has a car; my middle is going to Europe over Spring vacation; and my youngest plays on two hockey teams. Many of their  Christmas gifts are related to these things, e.g., fuzzy dice, outlet converter, new stick. The pièce de résistance is a photo album I made them that includes pictures of them at their various activities throughout the past year: baseball, hockey, excursions, parties, camp, etc.

Be grateful for what you already have!

That's it -- just three suggestions, instead of five, seven, or a "top 10 list," because I want to keep it simple!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Christmas through a child's eyes

How was your weekend?” the daycare office manager asked me.

“Not that great,” I replied with a sigh. It was first thing Monday morning.

Raised eyebrows.

“My children are like a small band of monkeys.” (At the time my three boys were ages six and under).

“Oh, well…it’s that time of year…”

“I suppose…”

I was recovering from the second weekend in Advent.

I had arranged my work schedule and decreased my commitments in an effort to enjoy the holiday season that year. But it wasn’t happening.

I had envisioned that the kids and I would put up the tree and decorate it during Thanksgiving weekend while listening to Christmas music. Then over the course of the next several weeks, we’d bake cookies, and make peppermint bark and other treats together, including our traditional gingerbread structures. 

We’d talk about the story of Jesus’ birth while we set up our nativity scene under the tree. We’d watch some Christmas movies, make wish lists for Santa, and observe Advent every Sunday. That meant I’d have to plan a lesson and an activity and a treat, but that would be okay. After all, I was only working four-day weeks in December (because I needed to use up vacation time, or lose it). We’d count down the days with our Advent calendar.

What it was really like in my house

I put up the tree. The boys lost interest in decorating it after hanging a few ornaments each, after which they proceeded to use them as missiles and other weapons. A couple of weeks later, our tree was mostly decorated on the top half, as is the tree of any family that includes an eighteen-month-old. (Though, one day I did find a pair of dirty socks draped across some of the lower branches.)

The boys would have rather watched Power Rangers reruns than any of my favorite Christmas specials like “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” or “Frosty The Snowman.” I insisted they do that upstairs. So much for togetherness.

Creating our gingerbread house was extravagantly messy affair. Not only because the pastry bag sprung a few leaks but also because I can never keep those things twisted closed, and the icing always squeezes out the back way, we all used our hands to smear the royal icing “mortar” on the gingerbread pieces before we stuck them together. It was decimated nearly as soon as it was built. The kids picked the candy off of it and then the older two reduced it to rubble with their fists. And more than a week later, I was still finding crusted icing on various knobs, dials, switches, and faucets.

I considered briefly the “Pajama Run,” an event one of my colleagues includes in her holiday celebration, which consists of driving around in your PJs with hot cocoa to look at Christmas lights. I discarded it just as quickly. Until someone invents soundproof, Plexiglas units that fit over booster seats, we’ll observe holiday lights on our regular, utilitarian routes. My youngest was just as happy to look at the “moom.”

Speaking of my youngest, he couldn’t keep his hands off the electronics and quashed every single Christmas CD I put on. Because I play them in the DVD player attached to the TV, he couldn’t understand why there’s sound, but no picture. “Show?” he would ask plaintively as he handed me the fingerprint-covered CD he’d just divested from the DVD player. So much for the Christmas music.

Instead, I was frequently serenaded by the older boys belting out “Jingle bells, Batman smells, the Joker learned ballet…hee hee hee snicker snicker snort!” Another very special musical number was “Who Let the Dogs Out?” rendered on percussion instruments.

The older boys fought over the Advent calendar. My oldest figured out if he was odds, then he’d not only get more days, but he’d get the day. My youngest wasn’t participating in this yet other than to examine and then discard on the floor every day’s felt-and-Velcro nativity scene characters, much to the chagrin of the two rules-based, school-aged kids, who tried in vain to keep the characters in sequential order beginning with the star, angel, and shepherds and ending with the Wisemen, gifts, and Jesus. When I moved the calendar upstairs into The Bigs’ room, we lost count. Oh, well.

I was on overload, as I was essentially trying to cram five days worth of work into four days on top of all the added holiday hoopla. This resulted in my sampling far too many cookies and chocolates, and drinking too much coffee. And I won’t go into detail about why I needed to replace both my laptop and cell phone within a two week period, but suffice it to say that the loss of data was a major setback for me.

The The Bigs made a battle scene out of the nativity set and launched baby Jesus off the roof of the
crèche. That we still had tiny baby Jesus and his little straw bed after four seasons was, in itself, one of the miracles of Christmas. Compounding their irreverence was the extent of their interest in our Advent celebration. “Fire. Heh-Heh. Heh-Heh. That’s cool,” about summed it up.

Embracing the pandemonium

“It’s chaos at my house,” I concluded to the office manager.

“C’mon, that’s all part of the fun!” she chuckled and nudged me.

I rolled my eyes. “Uh huh.”

But, as I drove off that morning, I thought about our conversation. I really didn’t want to be such a grinch, and the office manager was right — this was Christmas — all the boys’ antics should be taken in stride because it really was all part of the fun. Right then and there, I decided to embrace the pandemonium.

The rest of the holiday season included my youngest’s new tradition of pulling pine cones, bells, and candy canes off the tree (the only things left on the bottom half ) and hiding them around the house and The Bigs’ regular habit of shrieking potty words and scrapping like a couple of puppies. I knew that reminders of Santa Claus seeing them when they’re sleeping, knowing when they’re awake, knowing if they’ve been bad or good would be in vain. So, I simply told them I expected the mess to be cleaned up before they watched their superhero cartoons.

My children’s gift to me was to remind me to view Christmas as they do. Once I aligned my vision with reality, I was fully able to enjoy the season.

And pinecones, bells, and candy canes continued to surface until Easter.

Boy to the world!

A version of this story launched my newspaper column in 2006. Later it appeared in the anthology Christmas Through a Child's Eyes (2008) and in my book, Snakes, Snails, and Puppy Dog Tales (2010).

But no one will see it

I set up the nativity in the back yard again this year. In the past it has been out front near the fire hydrant that is on our property, and...