Friday, December 27, 2013

Merry Christmas 2013

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope everyone had a wonderful day.

Christmas is a two-day affair for us: we spent Christmas Day at home with Mum's side of the family, and then Boxing Day at Dad's house.

We had family, friends and food, beautiful weather and two long, relaxed days.

I forgot to take a photo before lunch: so here's the aftermath.

Nothing says Australian Christmas like the sight of kids running under the sprinkler after lunch!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How to Stay In Budget at Christmas

Christmas is one of the most expensive times of the year. There's decorations, food, gifts, more gifts, more food, last-minute gifts, cards, postage, travel, the list goes on.

This year we are hosting Christmas lunch at our house for the first time ever. This has been really exciting (I love planning!) and a bit nerve-wracking (because I need things to be perfect). We don't have a lot of extra cash to spend on Christmas, so we had to think how we were going to make this work.

1. Create a Budget
Obviously! It sounds really simple, and it is. Figure out how much money you can realistically spend on Christmas. Then go to the bank and take that money out of your account. For everything Christmas-related, you are going to pay with cash. This makes it much easier to not overspend and to actually keep track of what you are spending.

2. Share the Load
The best Christmases are the ones where everyone helps out. Phil and I sat down and worked out what kind of food we wanted to have on the day. Then we assigned dishes to our family members. This is something normal in our family: we always bring something to share. Everyone had made it clear that they wanted to contribute in this way, so by creating a 'master list' we made sure that we'd have enough and that we weren't doubling up anything. You don't have to be too specific; you could suggest a dessert, or a vegetable side dish, or ask a relative to bring their 'signature dish'. Whatever would help you and works for your situation. If someone doesn't enjoy cooking or doesn't have time to do it, you could ask them to bring something pre-prepared, such as dip to start. Or ask what they'd like to bring and work around that.

3. Write a List
Now that you know what you are going to be responsible for, find recipes and ingredients. Look through your fridge and pantry and see what you already have on hand and what you need to buy. I already have lots of brown sugar, for example, so I won't need to buy more to make the glaze for the ham. I also looked for decorations we already have, and thought about how I could use them in different ways.

4. Look for Sales
Get online and check out the sales at your local stores. This is especially good for items such as decorations and dinnerware. I want a holiday-themed table, so I looked at several stores to see who had the best prices. I could then work out a closer estimate of how much would be spent on decorations vs. food. I decided to go to Ikea to get a lot of the tableware, and had in my mind a figure of around $20 that was allocated to this store. I was so happy to find the items I wanted were further reduced, and I only spent about $10 there. Score!

5. Don't be Afraid of Generic
Seriously, you don't need to buy brand-label everything. For some items, yes, it does make a difference, but for things like sugar, flour, and other baking ingredients, you'll never be able to tell. My usual grocery store has their own brand which is usually much cheaper than the name-brand stuff and is of a good quality. I'm not going to pay a premium for nice packaging.

6. Unpack Carefully
Once you have your decorations and food, put it together on a separate shelf. This way, you won't lose anything, and you won't accidentally use ingredients for other meals. It will be easier to check that you have everything required.

7. Give Homemade Gifts
Christmas is really over-commercialized, and most people just want to spend time with family and friends. I created hand-made gifts for all the adults this year. It saves a lot of money and it's more personal.

8. Stick to the Plan!
It is so easy to impulse-buy when shopping. DON'T. You really need to stick to the list you made previously. I don't care if there's the cutest thing right there, or this product is on sale so you just want to pick up a few because surely you'll use them...NO. This shop is just for your Christmas stuff, which is why you took the money out in cash and you're just paying with that. If there is a great sale, go back later when you're doing your normal shopping. If there is something adorable that you can't live without, wait until you have all the necessities that you wrote on your list and see if there's cash left over to buy it with at the end.

Another tip is that Christmas items usually go on sale right before the big day, but don't leave all of your shopping til the last minute because the shelves might have been ransacked!

We had already bought the kids' presents as well, but it's good to stick to the plan when buying those gifts. Create a budget for that, too. It doesn't have to be separate; you could combine it and make one big Christmas fund. Whichever way you go, you have to look at the overall picture of your finances and have a realistic idea of how much you can spend at this time. Shop around, look for sales, and no impulse buying! I think that's our biggest downfall. But if you can create a budget you're happy with and stay under it, you will be much more relaxed and able to enjoy Christmas without worrying about the bills.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Tale of the Two Front Teeth

Felix has been attending a three-year-old program at his future school for a few weeks now. It's one afternoon a week where the children attend with their parents and get accustomed to school. They'll do a few art activities, play outside, and come back in for a story and songs. It's been great and Felix loves it, and he's even more excited now about starting school next year.

On the final day, he went with Phil and my mum, because I was taking Victor to his usual clinic visit at PMH. When I finally arrived home at 6pm, I noticed a line of dried blood between his top tooth and the gum. Phil explained that he'd bumped it on a chair at school. Felix said it still hurt, and it was difficult for him to eat. He'd slipped and came crashing down on the chair directly on his top teeth, as if he were biting it.

The next day, it looked worse. The top gum was bruised, a dark purple colour, so I took him to see the dentist. This was his first ever dental visit, and he was a bit nervous, but the hygienist was very nice and took the time to explain everything to him. She had a look and agreed that the bruising was pretty bad. She decided he needed an x-ray to see if the tooth had moved at all, become fractured, and basically just to get a clearer view. He did so well...stayed nice and still, and we had our x-ray.

The good news is that the tooth hasn't appeared to have moved at all, and we couldn't see a fracture. This is great, because we certainly don't want the baby tooth to be pushed up against the adult tooth and possibly cause issues with his permanent teeth. She decided it just looked like soft tissue damage, but we booked in to come back again in two weeks' time.

So, two weeks later, he was back in the chair. The bruising has healed up really well and he's not having any more pain from it. He's able to eat normally again. The bad news is that the tooth, and the one next to it, now looks slightly discoloured; a pale grey. This could mean that the nerve of the tooth has died or become damaged, which leads to that grey colour. The best case scenario is that this means nothing. He continues on with life, the tooth eventually falls out and is replaced with the permanent one. The worst case scenario is that he could develop a chronic or recurrent infection in that tooth, which could affect the permanent one waiting above it. There's just no way to predict at this point what might happen.

Our plan is to visit the dentist one last time this coming week, and if the tooth has discoloured even further then they will refer us to a pediatric dentist. This could mean the tooth needs to come out...but that's getting way ahead of ourselves. It probably just means we need to keep an eye on it and have the tooth-extraction conversation if problems ever arise down the track. If we do get a referral, it will be good to get a second opinion anyway and learn more about what's happened.

Have I ever mentioned I'm terrified of the dentist? Yeah, I am. I'm not afraid of any other medical procedure...needles, blood, guts, surgery...don't care. There's just something about the dentist that I just can't stand. The last time I went I was given a prescription for Valium for the next visit (and I never went back!) So you should see me hold it together in that dental office for Felix. I am the perfect image of a calm, dental-loving mother. I could pass for someone who sees the dentist for fun. I could win an Oscar for my performance in there. Although, to be fair, all they've really done is look with a mirror and taken an x-ray. They haven't brought out the big guns that originate from my darkest nightmares. That little scrapey metal hook....can't even deal. But, I am determined to not pass my fears onto him.

So that's what's been going on lately. I'm really hoping that nothing eventuates from this. Add the suspected spider bite he got on his leg the other week and the poor boy has been through the wars! Aside from that we're good. Just enjoying our last few weeks together full-time before he goes off to school...the end of an era.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas Lights: Our Own 'Minivan Express'

When I stumbled upon this idea on Pinterest, I knew we had to try it and make it a yearly tradition!

The idea was created by Erica on Confessions of a Homeschooler. The premise is that it's just an ordinary night like any other. The kids get ready for bed, but they find a golden ticket for the 'Minivan Express' in their beds! The family jumps in the car and set off to look at the best Christmas lights, complete with Christmas music and snacks. Not having a Minivan, we went with the title 'Christmas Express'.

Erica has kindly created a free printable, which I printed and laminated today while the boys were busy playing outside. I placed a ticket in each bed just before bedtime. They were so excited to find the tickets! Felix said "I just love it!" and Victor held onto his ticket all night, even falling asleep holding onto it at bedtime.

Phil got some Christmas music started with the Pandora app, and we set off in search of the best Christmas lights. Luckily, we didn't have to go far. About five minutes away is a beautiful walk-through light display. So much effort has been put into it and the boys' faces lit up when they saw the lights. We wandered through and saw the illuminated reindeer, candy canes, shooting stars, even moving images. Afterwards, we drove around looking at other local Christmas displays before finally heading home for bed.

It was such a wonderful experience. Felix was so overjoyed at the surprise! I thought Victor would be too young to understand it but he honestly seemed just as excited. Of course they both loved watching the lights.

This is definitely going to be a yearly tradition for us! Now if I can find a way to get those tickets back to use again next Christmas...

Apologies for the image quality, all photos taken with my iPhone while holding a baby.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

25 Best Secular Christmas Songs

I love Christmas. But as a non-religious person, to me Christmas is more about being with family and friends and spreading peace and joy than it is about the birth of Jesus. So with that in mind, here are my top 25 Christmas songs that reflect these qualities. You can use them to count down the days until Christmas, or since the first week of December has passed already, just enjoy listening to them! Each title is linked to a youtube video so you can start right away. Merry Christmas!

25. Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!
Although I've never had a white Christmas, (our Christmases are far from white!) this is such a sweet song. Lovely imagery of cuddling by the fire during a snowstorm, being with loved ones, and that love keeping him warm when he finally braves the cold to go home. Awww.

24. It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
A catchy song listing all the great Christmas-y things to look forward to.

23. Winter Wonderland
The first time I saw snow was on the eve of my 22nd birthday. I didn't have clothes warm enough for it but I ran out in the street anyway until the cold felt like needles and I was forced to turn back in. But the snow was so beautiful. Obviously I've seen it on TV and in pictures but it doesn't quite capture it. It actually sparkles and glitters in the sun. I love this song because it reminds me of the beauty of winter, even though our Christmas is in the summer. It's my dream to have a white Christmas one year, and you can bet I'll be singing this song all day!

22. Santa Baby
This is a cute, tongue-in-cheek song about an extravagant wish list. I love the original version sung by Eartha Kitt, with that retro quality to it. I wonder if Santa gave her the things on her list? Each item is more extravagant than the last and always gives me a giggle. I wouldn't say no to a yacht for Christmas...or the deed to a platinum mine either!

21. Last Christmas -- Wham!
Really, no Christmas list is complete without this 80's pop hit. It has sad lyrics but a happy, upbeat melody, and basically revolves around a guy who had his heart broken last Christmas. It's just so catchy, I can't help singing it each December.

20. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer
This one's a crack-up. Ok so I guess it's sort of dark, but I love a bit of morbid humour!

19. Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree
Cute, catchy and up-tempo.

18. Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer
Ah, this song creates a bit of contention in my house! We sing it with the boys, but Phil doesn't like it when I add in all the additional back-up lyrics. Sorry, but when I hear the song I just can't help it. Doesn't seem right to just have Rudolph with a very shiny nose. It's "like a light bulb!" Of course, the biggest disagreement comes right at the end. Will Rudolph go down in history like Columbus or like Fat Cat? Do my kids even know who Fat Cat is? Who cares! It's a Christmas tradition!

17. Christmas Kisses -- Allstar Weekend
This is a new addition to the Christmas song playlist. It's sweet, upbeat, maybe a little saccharine...but really, aren't all the best Christmas songs a little too sweet? It's what makes them become our secret favourites. This is one that really grew on me.

16. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
A Christmas classic. Perfect for gatherings with family and friends that may as well be.

15. Ring Those Christmas Bells
Any song with this much onomatopoeia in it had to be included! So much fun.

14. Mele Kalikimaka 
One of my favourite Christmas movies is National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, which features this song as Clark Griswold is fantasizing about the backyard pool he wants to install. I also have memories of my year 6 class singing this song at school assembly...which was hilarious as none of us could pronounce the words properly!

13. Have a Holly Jolly Christmas
Just a super cute, catchy song!

12. Jingle Bells
Such a classic, and a great one to sing with the kids. We have a video of Felix trying to sing this song before he could really talk. Now he prefers to sing 'Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!'

11. You're a Mean One, Mr Grinch
I love the Dr Seuss classic, 'How The Grinch Stole Christmas'. Sometimes I feel a little bit Grinchy! But the story has a happy ending. As I was writing this Phil looked over my shoulder and told me this song was written for me, so there you have it.

10. River 
The original is sung by Joni Mitchell, but there are multiple covers of this song. This is a very melancholy song about someone who is alone at Christmas, and regrets their past actions. Christmas is all around them, and they just want to get away from it. I think that feeling sad is even worse when everyone around you is happy. I think most people can relate to feeling less than joyful around the holidays at some point in their lives. Many people are alone, have financial difficulties, or are under stress for other reasons, and these problems are really exemplified around Christmas.

9. I'll Be Home for Christmas
It's so easy to feel homesick around Christmas, especially if you've been away for a long time. Sometimes, just coming home is the best present of all.

8. Jolly Old Saint Nicholas
This song conjures up the excitement once felt on Christmas Eve, truly believing that Santa Claus himself would be coming to deliver elf-made presents. In this song, Saint Nicholas seems kind, caring, and generous. There are many songs about Santa and he certainly isn't depicted that way in all of them, but I like this one for the sweet, childlike excitement and joy it evokes.

7. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
As sung by the Jackson 5, this song perfectly captures the innocence and joy of Christmas for children. Listening to the young Michael Jackson's voice alone is worth it, but the lyrics of this song are just too cute. It's about a child catching his mother kissing Santa Claus...of course without realising that 'Santa' is actually his dad!

6. Feliz Navidad
Ever since my family sent me a JibJab card of themselves singing this song, I knew this was one that would have to be played every year. I highly recommend you check out the site and send a singing e-card to your family too!

5. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Another song about being home and with the ones we love at Christmas.

4. Carol of the Bells
This one is Phil's favourite and I first heard it at our first Christmas together. It's a beautiful, almost haunting melody, requiring multiple voices harmonizing together.

3. Merry Christmas, Darling -- The Carpenters
Here's the bit where I reveal myself to be a huge dork and fan of The Carpenters. I just love Karen Carpenter's voice. This song is all about wanting to be with the person you love at Christmas, which is really what it's all about.

2. All I Want for Christmas is You
Another song about being with the one you love at Christmastime. Do you see a theme here?! As much as I love the decorations, food, gifts and lights, it's all a bit empty and meaningless if we can't share it.

1. White Wine in the Sun -- Tim Minchin
This song is the ultimate for me. Tim Minchin captures exactly what is meaningful at Christmas, and what's really important in life in a far more articulate way than I ever could. It's pretty amazing for one song to cause the audience to both laugh and cry. But more than the commercialization and more than the religion, it really just boils down to family and spending time with the people we love. That is the true meaning of Christmas. Add to the fact that this song depicts a summertime Australian Christmas and I am totally sold on it, because that is home. My Christmases have always been hot and sunny. The first time I heard this song I was on the other side of the world, miles away from my family. It was freezing cold, it was Felix's first Christmas, and I was so homesick. It really hit me around that time, in the lead up to Christmas with our baby, and feeling so alone. I heard this song about home and family and Christmas in the sun and I think I bawled my eyes out for a week. I wanted to go back to my own family waiting in the sun. It took me almost ten months, but I did get there eventually.
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