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Cut your own tree
Make tree cutting an annual family excursion. When purchased responsibly, real trees are a greener option than artificial. Find a local farm and spend the day outdoors in the fresh air finding the perfect tree.
Many farms offer wagon rides or a visit with Santa. Pack a picnic lunch with hot cocoa or hot apple cider, and tailgate it with the kids. Take sleds if there's snow. And remember your camera – those photos will prove priceless.
Ideas and photos by Rebecca Ffrench
Make an ABC Advent calendar
Since Advent calendars became popular in the States in the 1950s, they've evolved with the times. Some offer a daily piece of candy or chocolate. Lego and Playmobil even make Advent calendars that reward you with a small toy every day.
An Advent calendar need not be pricey. You can create your own ABC calendar – perfect for toddlers and preschoolers – using charming vintage flashcards found online. (Cards from Pretty Little Studio can be downloaded and printed for $6.) Counting down to Christmas will create a little excitement and give you an opportunity to teach your child a letter and number each day.
How to: ABC Advent Calendar
- 6 feet of ribbon or string
- 25 wooden clothespins
- red spray paint (if desired)
- 1 package Gartner ivory perforated postcards, or similar Pretty Little Studio's Vintage ABCs of Christmas Flashcards download, or similar
- Paint wooden clothespins, if desired.
- Download the digital file from Pretty Little Studio.
- Download the Garner online postcard template.
- Open each postcard and rotate it vertically on your computer. Copy the postcard and paste it in one of the four quadrants of the postcard template. Resize the postcard to fit the template. Repeat this for all 25 postcards. Save this document.
- Now you'll need to create the number side of the flash cards. Create another document using the same template and type one number into each quadrant.
- Be sure you change the font direction to correspond with the direction of the flash cards as you'll be printing the numbers on the back of the cards.
- Print the front of the cards using the first document you created.
- Turn the cards over and insert into your printer. Print the numbers on the back of the cards. Gently separate the cards according to the perforated lines.
- Attach the cards to the ribbon or string with clothespins and hang, number side out.
- Beginning December 1st, have your child flip over a card every day.
- If desired, you may attach a few small surprise gifts in small pouches to the back of several cards. (For examples, X is for xtra candy. On that day you could add a small piece of candy.) On the last day (Christmas Day), you could read the charming book Christmas ABC, by Carolyn Wells Dal.
Take your cookies 3-D
For some, cookie baking is the quintessential holiday activity. Sugar cookies are a given, whether they're sprinkled with colored sugars or gussied up with stained glass candy windows.
But have you ever made 3-D stand-up cookies? Cutting a small slit in each cookie before baking elevates the common cookie to new heights.
These treats are downright fun. Kids get a kick out of the 3-D element, and they can use the cookies in a scene with small plastic toys. A group of cookies makes an interesting mantel display.
How to: 3-D Holiday Cookies
Most any shape of cookie cutter can be used for these jigsaw-like cookies. You just need to make two cookies of the same shape and cut slits in each so they can interlock. Circle cutters work – you can decorate them like round ornaments. Gingerbread people, trees, and stars work well too.
This Super-Easy Sugar Cookie recipe from Sweet Home is just that: super easy! It's a winner with kids because it can be rolled out right away, no chilled dough clumps to fight with.
- One batch super-Easy Sugar Cookie dough from Sweet Home
- Cookie sheets
- Parchment paper
- Cookie cutters
- Paring knife
- Wire rack
- Colored sugars and sprinkles
- One batch royal icing from Sweet Home, plus decorator's bags and tips – or decorating pens
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or Silpat mats.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into two even parts. Working with one section at a time, roll the dough out to ¼-inch thickness. Cut the dough using cookie cutters and gently lift the shapes with a spatula and place on the prepared cookie sheet.
- Once on the cookie sheet, measure the height of each cookie. Divide that number in half and cut a slit in the center of the cookie from the bottom upward, then measure ¼ inch on each side of the slit and make another vertical cut. Repeat on the other side of the center line. You've just made a ½-inch-wide cut in the center of the cookie. Remove the excess dough.
- Repeat this procedure from the top of another cookie of the same shape. Measure down, make a vertical line with the knife, measure a ¼ inch off each side of the line and make additional cuts. Remove the excess dough. Continue to do this using all the dough, keeping pairs of cookies (one with a top slit and one with a bottom slit) together to ensure they all have mates.
Note: Be sure to cut the slits after you move the cookies to the cookie sheet.
- Sprinkle with colored sugar before baking if desired. Bake the cookies for 8 minutes or until golden brown on the edges. Let cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool.
- Before decorating, try fitting pairs of cookies together to check whether they stand before decorating.
- Lay the cookies back down and decorate with royal icing or Candy Decorating Pens (great for kids, more manageable than a decorator's bag). Be sure to keep the pairs together. If you want to decorate both sides (both sides will be seen when the cookie is standing), wait an hour before decorating the other side.
- Once the decorations have dried, assemble the cookies, fitting the pairs together like puzzle pieces.
Turn your holiday to-do's into a family party
Don't let wrapping presents and stuffing envelopes become drudgery. Instead, turn that time into fun and games for the whole family. Put on some festive tunes such as Raffi's Chrismas Album, the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, or something more high energy like Kids Rap'n the Christmas Hits and get to work – together.
Depending on your kids' ages, you can put them in charge of sticking stamps on envelopes or making gift tags with rubber stamps and cut-up paper grocery bags. Pictures from magazines, buttons, bells, pinecones, and other embellishments you have lying around can keep little hands busy beautifying packages that you've wrapped.
Take time out to dance around the room and belt out those carols with your kids. Don't try to rush through it. Instead, set out some snacks and enjoy the time together.
Create a Christmas-letter box
Christmas wish lists and letters to Santa express your child's personality at each age in a unique and memorable way. If your child isn't writing yet, have him dictate a letter. Keeping these annual letters and lists together in a decorative box will create a cherished memento.
You could make a thoughtful addition to the memento box by writing an annual letter to your child at Christmas, thoughtfully describing his or her personality traits, likes and dislikes, and quirky qualities. You could also include details about the past year or that particular holiday. In 20 or so years, when your child has long since stopped writing to Santa, you'll have a sweet, sentimental gift ready to be given.