Gingerbread Houses

I am back-dating this post to January, because that is how old the pictures are.  The post really belongs with Christmas, and if I don’t put it close to that time frame, I’ll never find it in the archives.  Those who read me via a reader will probably see it.  Those who go straight to my blog probably won’t, so I hope to do a summary post after I finally publish all these old photos, so my mom and others don’t miss them.

The kids were given a free hand with their gingerbread houses.  I bought kits, because I did not have the energy to make them myself.  Bill assembled them one night, and then the next day we just let them go to town.  I think I know which belongs to whom; I definitely know three of them.

This one is Katie’s house.  There is lots of activity.

 Please note the man burying his friend in the snow.  One shovelful left to go.

 I can not identify the owner of this house.  Fritz? Mary? Jenny?  Fritz was very apathetic to the whole project, so lack of skill is no indication of artist in his case.

 This house with the Star Wars battle scene is definitely Billy’s.

 Note the figure impaled on the top of the Christmas tree.  Because nothing says “Christmas” quite like fantasy death and destruction.

 I don’t even know who the good guys are.

 But I trust that St. Nicholas is offering an appropriate blessing to the right side.  The angel, though, has more important things to look after.

 Rooftop duel.  Never take a light saber to a blaster fight.

 Not sure who made this house.  If I had to guess, I would think this understated one was Fritz’s and the really goopy one was Mary’s.  I think Jenny did a gingerbread train.

And now for Peter’s house.  Another one with lots of interesting things going on.  I think this one has a cop and robber theme.  Again, why such violent drama is included in what was supposed to be Christmas decorations is unknown.  I did mention that the kids were completely unsupervised on this project, right?

 When Peter showed me the house, I mistook the red icing going up the side as flames.  “The house is on fire?” I asked him.

“No, Mom,” he said in that offended tone of a misunderstood artist.  “That’s not fire.  That’s blood.”

Uh, Merry Christmas to you, too.

What NOT to Buy

It’s that time of year where people are out looking for great ideas for gifts for all the loved ones in their lives.  If you want to know what’s great or hot this year for your kids, try some other blog.  I’m going to tell you what not to buy your kids.  Learn from me, young mothers.

I mentally wrote this blog post while cleaning the house on Friday afternoon, so it’s a bit centered on the “how much mess does this make” issue.  Hence, the first bad gift idea is:

1. A Pet.  I have a dog, and I’ve had cats.  Pets are just fine.  But if you get a pet, get one because you want one, not because you think the kids want one, or because the kids say they want one, or because you think they will help teach your children responsibility or unconditional love or whatever.  My dog is a great running partner; she removes all edible crumbs from my floors; and she does a fabulous job of convincing strangers that walking into my house uninvited would be a mistake.  But she sheds enough hair every week to cover a dozen Chihuahuas, and she can’t use a flush toilet.  Pets require work, and unless you are prepared to joyfully do all that work yourself, forget it.

2. Chinese Checkers.  I had this game as a kid, and I thought it was great.  Several years ago I bought a nice set for my kids.  I don’t think they have ever played the game.  They have played with the board and the marbles, making designs or their own interesting games, and that would be fine, if the marbles ever stayed with the set.  But they don’t.  I find them everywhere.  I have several deposit zones where I put the ones I find and hope, one day, to reunite them all.  I kid you not, every time we move, I find several of them after all the furniture and boxes are gone.

I do not include marbles, in general, in this category, because a collection of marbles is interesting.  Plus if you lose one, you might not notice.  Chinese checkers, though, requires 6 sets of 10 matching marbles.  It’s quite a bummer if you can only find 7 or 8 of several colors.  One drawback , though, to those of us with many children: marbles are fine for children past the age of putting things in their mouth.  But if you have younger children around, they are sure to get at them.  I’m paranoid about choking hazards, and marbles are at the top of the “things that strike fear into my heart” list.

3. BINGO.  Another game that nobody actually plays the way they are supposed to, but with which the components get played all the time.  Our set has transparent yellow disks – another choking hazard for little ones – and, worst of all, the disks are exactly the right size to get sucked up by my vacuum wand and stuck about 4 inches in.

4. Toys that make noise.  I think the worst ones in this category are the “educational” ones for toddlers and preschoolers.  Honestly, the only thing they teach is how to drive mom crazy as you stop and start and stop and start the same inane, obnoxious tune, or letter of the alphabet or easy-to-read word.  “CAT!…CAT!…CAT!…CCCCCCAT!”  I am a woman who can tune out Barney, but V-Tech sets my teeth on edge.

Toy musical instruments are included in this category.  If you want your kid to play the piano, buy a real piano and give them lessons…don’t buy one of those toy pianos (a full-sized keyboard is a good alternative to those who have neither the space nor the cash for a real piano, but lessons are a must).  Tamborines and maracas might seem like good items to inspire creativity, but children do not need to be encouraged to make any more noise than they already do.  These and other percussion instruments (drums…you’re not that crazy, right?) have no melodic potential, and are simply noise-makers.

I was recently in a store and saw a small box with a bunch of sound effect buttons on it.  There were several different types with different themes: one had effects from a stormy night, another had ghost-like noises.  I thought my older boys would find it amusing, but I balked at the $15 price tag.  Thank goodness!  I must have been under some Christmas-shopping daze that prevents clear thinking.  Why, oh why, I asked myself later, would I ever consider adding to the level of loud chaos in my home?

5. Things made in China and other places of ill-repute.  The other reason I put that sound-effects machine down was the “Made in China” label.  Even if you don’t have political/moral issues with some of these countries, the scandals involving poor quality control and potentially dangerous substances (lead) in their composition should be enough to give pause.  I know this is hard to do, and I do make a slight exception for American (or European) owned companies that manufacture overseas, because their quality control tends to be better.  But especially the cheap knock-off brands that cost half as much for, say, a Little People type toy, are not worth it in the long run.

When the kids were little and Bill was deployed to Kosovo, we received a gift donated by anonymous people to benefit children of deployed soldiers.  It was a parking garage made from cheap plastic with assembly instructions only in Chinese or Korean.  I managed to get it together, but it kept falling apart, breaking, and was, in general, a supreme source of frustration for both my boys and me.  It is better to buy one $40 toy that will last until your grandchildren are old enough to play with it, than a $10 toy that will be in the garbage can before the New Year.

6. Age-inappropriate toys.  I do not care how advanced you think your child is, do not buy something labeled for an 8 year old if he is only 5.  These sorts of things are usually LEGOs or crafts or other toys and games that require fine motor skills and/or certain cognitive abilities.  Yes, perhaps your child is a genius or extremely advanced in his manipulative abilities.  But unless you want to spend your entire Christmas break reading step-by-step assembly directions to your child, helping him find the exact right piece, and making sure he secures the components with the proper pressure, then finding things in the right age group is a better idea.

7. A different genre.  We have boys, and hence we have boy-themed toys.  We have girls, and hence girl-themed toys.  We have 6 children, and hence we have a lot of toys.  We do not have nearly as many toys as other families I have seen with half the number of children.  It is extremely easy for families with a decent income and/or generous extended families to become overrun with toys.  Toy management becomes a problem.  One solution is to minimize the types of toys you have.  We do happen to have both LEGOs and Playmobil, but I will not add K’Nex or Tinker Toys or even Lincoln Logs at this point.  We have Pet Shop and My Little Pony which we keep in the same bucket.  I’m not going to get Polly Pockets or any other girl themed stuff.  It’s too much.  One huge bucket of matchbox cars is better then several smaller buckets of all sorts of different toys.

Those are my top annoyances.  Anyone else want to contribute to my list?

Random pictures

I’ve got pictures from before our Disney trip that I’ve been meaning to post.  Sorry that my blog is not in chronological order right now.

Bill’s sister and parents visited us the week after Christmas.  The days they left, we said, “Hey, we didn’t take any pictures.”  Nobody minded taking a picture with Aunt Margaret, who left before New Year’s and who is surrounded by the flotsam of Christmas gift giving.  But cooperation was scarce for the grandparent picture.  It was too sunny, they all felt.  I finally bribed Mary with a candy cane to get that last picture.


Grown up toys are way better than any kid toy.  And I got a toy for Christmas.

This is the first picture I took with my new camera.  I hadn’t figured out how to turn on the “live view” so I had no idea at what I was aiming.  Bill pointed out to me that there was a viewfinder – oh, duh.
My next shot was at the table to my left and I got this picture of a camel’s rear end and an overturned train car.  The clarity had me all giggly.
I spent my day reading the quick start guide – half of which made no sense to me (aperture size…shutter speed…), but I practiced all the point and shoot features.

Good looking faces.  They look good in real life.  I’ve never had a camera that did them justice.

Some of our ornaments.  I’m loving being able to focus on the one object among many others.

My dog did not like all the whirring and clicking.  I tried to get a better shot of her, but she hid under the porch swing. 

Did you have a white Christmas?  Obviously, we did not.  I rather enjoyed sitting outside playing with my camera.  We might get some sleet tomorrow, but then the temps go back up.  Yes, I am rubbing this in.  I’ll be back up in the cold before you know it.

This picture is my slippered foot.  I was practicing moving the point of focus to something off-center.
This is my favorite picture – the last one I took.  I had to concentrate the focus area to a smaller size to get past the rails of the deck and to the nails on the handrail by the steps. 
I never thought a camera would make me so happy.  I’m so glad to have a husband who spoils me because I never would have bought this camera myself.  In a month or so, expect lots of pictures of me as I practice the timer thing-y.  In order to replenish our savings account, I’ve decided to eliminate our grocery budget.  I should look rather svelte by spring.

Quitting Time

I have reached that point.

Gingerbread houses?  Yeee…NO.

This child’s favorite cookies?  No.

That new recipe that looks so good?  No.

This perfect gift?  No.

That box of decorations?  No.

The homemade red velvet vests I’ve been promising the boys for years?  Again, no.

My cards are here, and I will be sending them out.  I have wrapping to do.  And mailing.  And we always decorate the tree on Christmas Eve.

But my house will not be perfectly clean and tidy and decluttered.  We will have a variety of cookies, thanks to a cookie exchange but not my own baking.  And I’m not sure how elaborate Christmas Eve dinner will be.  Fish sticks are looking mighty good right now.

I learned long ago that the point at which the preparations are more stress than fun is the time to stop and call it quits.  What’s done is done.  Now it is time to enjoy the fruits of my labor. 

Lego Creche

I just received this link in my email and I need to post it here so I can find it again. 

Lego Creche (a tutorial)

My boys will be wanting to do this, right after they finish playing with the game St. Nicholas brought them today: The Priest Game.  They’ve been playing all day.  “It’s awesome,” is my 12 year old’s review.  Keep in mind he’s a geeky homeschooled kid if you are wondering if your 12 year old would like it too. 

Window Shopping

Well, not window shopping…catalog shopping, with no intent to buy.  Usually the catalogs that come here go straight from the mailbox to the brown paper bag for recycling.  Sometimes they make a detour to the kitchen table until I get to the mail, and then they go out the door without a single page turned.  I have found that I am much happier not seeing all the gadgets, gizmos, appliances, decorative items, beautiful linens, books, CDs, furniture, camping equipment, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, that are available for purchase.

I have found my husband is much happier with me not seeing all these things that are available for purchase.

That said, it’s that time of year when I think that perhaps a few peeks might help me get some ideas for presents.  My husband and I don’t really *need* anything.  But there are always nice things to have. 

I don’t know exactly how many catalogs came yesterday.  They are in the recycle bin.  I did decide to flip through one: the Brookstone catalog.  I generally would never buy anything at this store, considering the majority of their merchandise to be overpriced, frivolous, or simply not useful for me (I do not need to weigh my luggage, but I could see where somebody might want to, I suppose.  Bill travels quite a bit and somehow manages without a scale).

This time I did find two items that I think I would like.  I think they are too expensive, and I’m willing to bet they can be found for less elsewhere.  But if somebody (hint, hint, husband dear) is buying a gift for me, and needs an idea, look around for things like this for less or on sale.

Moshi Bluetooth® Handsfree Car Kit

My van is pretty basic.  I’m happy it has a CD player and TWO adapter plugs so I can charge my cell phone and use the GPS at the same time.  I don’t often talk on the phone while I’m driving, but sometimes that’s the only time I’m sitting still long enough to have a conversation.  I have a handsfree ear plug, which I despise (it isn’t comfortable…none of them are comfortable to me).  When I have needed to talk on the phone (Bill, where is the fabric store?  Past the mall or before it?), I usually put the phone on speaker and place it in my lap.  A device that clips to my sun visor would be very nice. 
Wireless Key Finder

This device comes with two colored key fobs and a base with two colored buttons.  Can’t find your keys?  Press the button and the fob emits a loud alarm.  I wish I could be better about always putting my keys in the same place every time, but the whole getting-out-of-the-car process is usually very messy here.  I never come in empty-handed between collecting garbage, groceries, or children.  Sometimes I put them in my pocket, sometimes my purse (but I don’t always have my purse), sometimes I keep them in my hand and put them down…somewhere.  And then my 3 year old helps me lose them as well.  In fact, for the last 2 weeks or so, I have been using my backup set because I cannot find my original set.  I have cleaned, and they still remain hidden.  Yes, this would be used rather often, I think.
I was trying to come up with a family gift that fits my family-vacation-gift theme this year, and suggested to Bill a hiking GPS so we could get into geocaching“Why would we go geocaching?” he asked.  “It sounds like fun,” I replied.  “What makes you think it would be fun?  Have you ever been geocaching?” he asked.  “No,” I said defensively, “You need a GPS to go geocaching.  Do you see the circular problem here?”
I keep forgetting that my Army guy is branch armor, a tanker: they ride on powerful vehicles that knock down trees in their path.  They do not hike around the woods for fun.
Since that conversation, our elderly and feeble car GPS has taken a turn for the worse, and I do not believe is long for the world.  Do they make GPSes that do both hiking and car?  I haven’t seen any, but if you know of one, let me know.  I’d also like opinions on car GPSes.  If you love your GPS, let me know what make and model.  A new car GPS may be the family gift this year. 

More on a Traditional Christmas

Yesterday I participated in a podcast with Chris Cash of the The Catholic Company and Catholic SpotlightOur topic was oplatky, which are the special Christmas wafers traditionally used on Christmas Eve by Eastern European families.  As soon as that podcast is posted, I’ll provide the link.

**Updated: the link is here.

One of the things we discussed was the traditional dinner known as Wigilia in Polish.  The Slovak tradition is similar, and I promised Chris I’d check out my copy of The Anniversary Slovak-American Cook Book and do a post about the dishes listed there.  The Traditional Christmas Eve Supper Menu is listed on page 8 and includes this explanation:

The traditional Christmas Eve Supper is prepared with home grown crops.  The menu, therefore, varies in different parts of Slovakia.  Varieties of soups are served.  For example, some people serve mushroom soup, others serve sauerkraut soup with mushrooms…

Although I have a Slovak heritage, I and my family are definitely American and our taste buds, especially those of the children, don’t necessarily agree that sauerkraut or stewed prunes make for good eats.  Having a “traditional” dinner isn’t much fun if nobody wants to eat it.  So, although I post this menu for those who may be interested, I do not claim to prepare all these dishes or heartily enjoy them.  If I were truly a traditionalist, my dinner would be made with home-grown crops which, this year, were primarily tomatoes, basil and peppers, none of which are included in this list. 

Traditional Slovak Christmas Eve Supper

Oplatky (Christmas Wafers)
Honey (my mom says they always dipped the oplatky in the honey)
Mushroom Soup
Pagash (this is a filled dough – similar to stromboli, but filled with sauerkraut not tomato sauce and cheese)
Bobalky (this is a bread that you pour boiling water over and then coat with honey and poppy seed…sounds, um, different)
Fish (no specific recipe given)
Mixed Dried Fruits or Stewed Prunes
Assorted Fresh Fruits
Mixed Nuts
Nut and Poppy seed Rolls
Rozky (see below)

Rozky was a section heading in the cook book and based on the picture and a quick read of the recipes must translate into “cookie”.  Most of the recipes seem to be a filled cookie (nut filling or poppy seed or cheese or jam), and many seem to be shaped into crescents or horns.  Since I’m a huge fan of cookies, I thought I’d share one of the Rozky recipes.  Some of the recipes have various names, but at least 6 are labeled simply “rozky.”  This is one of those.  I say this so purists won’t write and tell me that their great-grandmother’s rozky recipe is nothing like my rozky recipe.  For the record, I make Russian Tea Cakes with pecans, but many people say walnuts are the correct nut to use.  Everybody has her own preference.


1 1/2 pounds flour
1 pound butter
1 Tbl sugar
1 Tbl baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 can evaporated milk
5 egg yolks

Mix first 7 ingredients until well blended and dough does not stick to hands.  Refrigerate for 1 hour or longer.  Roll out on floured surface and cut into 3″ squares.  Fill with poppy seed, prune butter or any desired filling.  Roll and turn into crescents.  Brush top with milk.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

A Christmas Tradition

When I was a young child and lived in Ohio, I remember our Christmas celebrations including oplatki, the thin, communion wafer-like “Christmas bread” that is a tradition among Eastern European Catholics.  My mother is Slovak and ethnic churches are plentiful in Ohio.

When I was an older child, we moved to Richmond, Virginia.  The Catholic population was not as dense there, and the ethnic groups were not very diverse.  Oplatki was not available locally, so the only times we had it were years we happened to be in Ohio for Thanksgiving or some other occasion in the late fall.

Of course, now we have the internet, and online stores like the Catholic Company will happily ship oplatki right to your doorstep. 

I introduced the use of oplatki with my own family several years ago when I found it available online.  The oplatki is shared on Christmas Eve.  The children watch the sky for the “First Star” – the sign that the Christ Child is here.  In my family, we then process with the infant Jesus statue and place him in our creche.  We bless the creche, then we bless the Christmas tree and officially light it.  Then we sit and eat because our food has been growing cool while we attended to ceremonies.  At some point, I will remember and say, “Oh!  The oplatki!” and I will scurry around trying to discover the “safe spot” where I put the envelope.  Usually, I find it.

The oplatki wafers are handed out.  My husband makes some sort of formal speech wishing everyone a happy Christmas and a blessed upcoming year.  And then there is mild chaos as we all break off pieces to exchange with each other as we give out kisses, hugs and cheery greetings.  I thoroughly enjoy our Christmas Eve festivities which are all about love and not at all about stuff.

It may seem early to be talking about Christmas, but oplatki is available for order now.  If you would like to try this tradition (or revive it), then plan ahead.  Be sure to put your wafers in a “safe spot” you can remember.

Aren’t bird sanctuaries peaceful?

This year’s pickle finder was awarded Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song (a big thank you to Jenn Miller for pointing out the book to me).

The book gets 8 thumbs up over here.

Everybody loves it.

One feature which the adults may or may not like so much, though, is the option to “Play All”. Yes, all 250 birds songs, one right after the other with no need to punch in a code and press play for each one.

One child said, “I like this because it sounds like we’re in a zoo.”

And we needed help with that?

Happy New Year! We’re home safe and sound from our travels and happy to rest up for a day or two. Then on to preparing for The Big Move and all the adventures that it entails.