Last year was my first time dealing with a school Valentine’s Day exchange in probably twenty years. And let me tell you, A LOT has changed since I used to tear apart those cheap perforated cards with looney toons characters and obsess over which cute boys got the most romantic messages. Fast forward to today and the expectations for this holiday seems to have skyrocketed. [Well done, Hallmark]
As you might expect, cutting down on the wastefulness of the event is my main priority. Last year, Evangeline took these cuties to her class to give out.
This year, we went with a non-edible option: color your own bookmark.
I printed these bookmarks [free from Inspiration Made Simple – thank you!] and attached them to colored card stock then taped a crayon to the back.
This option was perfect for Evangeline because she LOVES reading and she actually uses bookmarks because she is already reading chapter books [WHAT?!?]. She also LOVES coloring. Of course, she wanted to color them in, so I let her color one for her teacher and attached it to a jar of chocolate we got from the bulk bins.
Besides avoiding waste, I also like to use what I have on hand. Since we already had an unused box of crayons and plenty of paper, this project didn’t require going out to buy anything.
Though a lot has changed, kids still apparently decorate boxes for their valentines. I may have had a little too much fun helping Evangeline with hers.
It turned out cute – and distinctly Evangeline.
[I found more great ideas for zero waste Valentine’s gifts for the obligatory classroom exchange on Zeroish.org – read the list here!]
I hope everyone has a lovely [nearly] zero waste Valentine’s Day!
Every year we do our “Carlson Countdown to Christmas” with twenty-five holiday-inspired activities. This year, we did some new things and revisited some of our favorites from previous years.
For those thinking of starting a similar tradition, here are the activities we did this year and [at the end] some tips for making this happen!
The Annual Carlson Countdown to Christmas
December 1: Santa’s Holiday Workshop. This year we kicked off the holiday season with a park district event where we watched Santa arrived pulled by sled dogs and the kids participated in a variety of holiday themed activities.
Tip: Check your park district guide or local event calendar for ideas of things to do with your community.
December 2: Put up the Christmas Tree and Make the Paper Chain. Every year, the kids and I make a Christmas paper chain so that we can countdown to Christmas. This is a helpful visual for them to see how far til Christmas AND cuts down on them asking a million times if today is the big day.
December 3: Shopping for Toys for Tots. This is an annual tradition. We take the kids shopping for toys to give to Toys for Tots then drop them off in a local collection bin. This activity reminds us to appreciate our many blessings and give back to other kids in our community. And, as an added bonus, it helps us to see what toys our kids really love.
December 4: Homemade Marshmallows and Hot Chocolate. This was my first time making marshmallows, but I make hot chocolate every year. The kids and I LOVE hot chocolate and it is so easy to make at home. I can’t believe I used to buy it in packets!
December 5: Christmas I-Spy Game. I wanted to create an activity that would get the kids outside, and since my kids are really into I-Spy and “Look and Find” books, I hid a bunch of Christmas items in the backyard for them to find. They played outside for several hours searching and then re-hiding the items. I wore the baby in a carrier and we got involved in the game too.
Tip: The activity for the day does not have to be a big event or time consuming trip out of the home. I always gather a few simple holiday games and craft ideas to use on occasional days when we just want to stay in [or I’m exhausted].
December 6: Geneva Christmas Walk. This is a tradition for us, even though it always means long lines and walking around outside in the freezing cold. This year we got hot chocolate at Kilwins and took photos with the Grinch. This event is a Christmas classic for us.
December 7: Clay Ornaments. Every year the kids and I make ornaments of some kind. We’ve done salt dough. Last year we did paper. This year, we rolled and cut and painted and glittered cornstarch clay ornaments. This is a great way to make gifts and to add some new ornaments to the tree.
December 8: Christmas Light Shows. This is another annual tradition that the kids LOVE. We have several big, fancy light shows in our area [one was even featured on The Great Christmas Light Fight a few years back]. This year we all got in our Christmas pajamas and drove to the displays.
Tip: Even if you don’t have a fancy light show in your area, there are usually neighborhoods to drive through where the lights are beautiful. I have also seen Christmas light bingo cards on Pinterest which would be a fun game to play!
December 9: Bake Christmas Cookies. Every year, I take one day to bake Christmas cookies because I know that I will eat an obscene amount of cookie dough, and my health [and blood sugar] can only handle it one day. Let me tell you – it’s a special day! The kids love to get involved. Thus far, we’ve been making different types of cookies each year, but I’m hoping that over the years we will settle on our favorites. I think the melted snowmen cookies we made this year might be my favorite cookie EVER.
December 10: Deliver Christmas Gifts to our Neighbors. The gift has been different each year [this year we gave away tins of the freshly baked cookies], but we always enjoy walking to our neighbors to wish them a merry Christmas. This year everyone was home!
December 11: Puffy Paint Snowmen and Christmas Shopping. One of my regular holiday crafts is puffy paint snowmen because the kids love it so much and all it requires is shaving cream and glue. The 11th is also our wedding anniversary so we went out to dinner with the whole family and then took the kids shopping for gifts for each other. It was so sweet to see how thoughtful they were in picking out gifts that their siblings [including the dog], would love.
December 12: Daisy’s Birthday Party. We brought Daisy home three years ago on December 12th as a Christmas present for our kids and every year we celebrate that day as her birthday [we don’t know the actual date]. We bake her a little “pup cake” [humans get banana muffins with cream cheese frosting] and wear party hats and sing to her and give her gifts – the whole deal. It is seriously great fun!
December 13: Christmas Movie. I LOVE Christmas movies. And I love the excuse to watch the cute kids Christmas movies like The Polar Express, The Grinch, and [my personal fave] Arthur Christmas.
December 14: Christmas Tree Waffles. These waffles are an annual breakfast tradition – one day a year only. I didn’t get a picture this year but they are just waffles colored green and decorated with mini M&Ms and powdered sugar.
December 15: Christmas Tree Cinnamon Rolls. I saw this on Pinterest and thought they were cute. They are harder to make into a tree shape than you would think…only half of them came close to resembling trees. Still delicious though!
December 16: Birdseed Ornaments. This is another annual tradition. We love to take care of our feathered friends – especially since we live in a very wooded area.
17. Gift for Peter Rabbit. This year for the first time, we bought and delivered a gift for the bunny who lives in our local nature center, Peter Rabbit. Then we played at the nature center for the afternoon.
18. Gingerbread Houses with Auntie Paula. Of course this is our FAVORITE annual tradition – with our favorite Auntie!
19. Frozen 2 with Judi. My kids are old enough to go to the movies!!!!!!! [At least, my two oldest are…] So we went to see Frozen 2 with my good friend and fellow movie lover, Judi.
20. Read Christmas books by the fire. We have a big collection of kids Christmas books that we bring out in December – and something about a warm fire in the fireplace makes reading the stories extra special for the kids.
21. Oreo ornaments. More treats! No wonder I gain five pounds every December!
22. Puppy Chow and other gifts. We love to give edible homemade gifts that go in mason jars! We make puppy chow every year because it is easy, delicious, and the kids can help. Only bummer is that I have to buy boxed cereal for it, which I ordinarily never do. Next year I think I’ll try making chocolate popcorn instead to avoid the waste since I can buy popcorn kernels and chocolate in bulk bins.
23. Polar Express and 2 Toots. Every year we do our own “Polar Express” train ride to a little train themed diner called 2 Toots Train Whistle Grill. This year, my parents and my sister and her family came up from Indiana to join us.
24. Christmas Scavenger Hunt. This is a new activity that I hope to turn into an annual tradition. When we had our first kid, Brett and I began the tradition of opening one gift on Christmas Eve – always one Christmas book and Christmas pajamas. Well, our sustainability values no longer include a) buying new books [because we use the library and already own too many books] or b) buying new pajamas when they aren’t needed. We needed to change the tradition, so this year I created a scavenger hunt for the kids to find one Christmas gift for them all to share. Because it was hidden, it didn’t need to be wrapped. And it was also a toy set that I bought used.
They were SO EXCITED.
25. Monkey Bread, Orange Julius, [MIMOSAS for the tired mama] and Christmas gift exchange. Every family has their own Christmas traditions, obviously. Ours include a very extravagant breakfast [compared to our usual oatmeal] and a gift exchange. [I like to use the phrase “gift exchange” as opposed to “opening presents” because the former implies that we are GIVING as well as RECEIVING.]
Tips for a Successful Christmas Countdown
1. Make a LONG list. I brainstorm a huge list of ideas of crafts to make, things to bake, places to go, community events to attend, etc. We don’t do all of it, but it helpsto have options.
2. Include LOTS of simple, stay-at-home activities. The activities don’t all have to be extravagant or costly. We do plenty of simple activities like reading Christmas stories together, dancing to Christmas music, or coloring Christmas pictures.
3. Be FLEXIBLE. I used to tryto plan out the entire month in advance, but it’s impossible to predict what will happen over twenty-five days and sometimes you’ll have to adjust the plan. In those instances, having plenty of simple ideas will be helpful.
PLEASE let me know if you start this tradition in your family! The holiday season is about so much more than just gifts. We have so much fun celebrating it all month long, spending time together, and remembering to real reason for the season.
Every December, we celebrate the holiday season with our Carlson Countdown to Christmas – which is basically an advent calendar of holiday-themed activities for us to do as a family like baking Christmas cookies, driving to local Christmas light shows, visiting Santa Claus, making Christmas ornaments, etc. Each year I come up with twenty-four of these activities [some old, some new] and then go through the process of planning and organizing and actually making all of it happen.
It is a lot of work. It is also a lot of fun, but with four little kids, at this point, it is mostly a lot of work.
So, why do I bother?
Well, I am hoping that it will result in a lot of cherished memories for my kids and holiday traditions that we can all look forward to around the holidays. I dream of my kids getting excited on Black Friday, not to go shopping, but to start prepping for our annual countdown which always begins on December 1st with decorating the house for the holidays.
But in these early years, the kids don’t really appreciate or understand the lengths to which I go to ensure that we get to decorate gingerbread houses with Auntie Paula, and go ice skating at our local outdoor rink on a night when it is not absolutely freezing, or coordinate with Brett’s work schedule to make sure we can take our annual train ride and read The Polar Express.
Ah, the things we do as parents…
So, for now, I’ve been using these days to build a foundation of gratitude and generosity in my children by intentionally turning their attention to ways we can give rather than things we can get.
Here are some ways that we celebrate the season of giving:
Last year, we had a “Gratitude Tree” in the month of November to count all of our blessings. This year, we are doing a holiday version. At breakfast time, we talk about the things we are grateful for and add some ornaments to our tree.
[I rather like how “Dr. Seuss” our tree looks, pieced together from all the random pieces of green paper I could find in my scrapbook stash.]
We encourage [read: “force”] our kids to give gifts in many different ways throughout the month:
1. We take them shopping to buy toys to donate to Toys for Tots. This is hard for the kids, but each year it gets easier. We always explain in advance that we are picking out toys for other kids to open at Christmas. We obviously foot the bill.
[Side note: this is very helpful for giving us gift ideas for them as well.]
The kids drop them off in a local collection box, and let me tell you, I am so proud every time my kids put toys they love into that box.
2. We take them shopping to buy gifts for each other. In my family growing up, all five of us kids always gave individual gifts to every other member of the family. I don’t know when or how this came to be, but honestly, it is still happening even though we are all adults. I want my kids to enjoy giving gifts to their siblings so we are starting young [and also paying at this point, of course]. The kids also pick out gifts for Daisy the Dog, of course.
I ask them what their siblings would like for Christmas to get them thinking about it and then take them shopping. They did really well this year [after my son stopped insisting that his big sister really wanted a paw patrol truck].
Later I wrap the gifts with each child. My 3-year-old son wanted to put a message on the gift tags so he dictated these sweet notes for his sisters.
This just melts my heart.
3. We hand deliver gifts to the neighbors. We’ve done this every year since we moved into this house because I resolved to be intentional in building good relationships with my neighbors. The first year, we gave store-bought boxes of chocolates. [We had just moved in so I didn’t know if people would accept hand-made goodies.] Last year the kids and I made chocolate covered pretzel rods with holiday molds. This year, we delivered a tin of freshly baked Christmas cookies to each neighbor. [I think they know us well enough now to eat them.] We also give a gift to our postwoman.
4. We make ornaments to give to friends and family. We’ve done different kinds of ornaments – salt dough, paper, clay, etc. We tried mailing clay ornaments to the cousins one year. That was a bad idea. The next year we sent Danish paper heart ornaments. This year we made corn starch ornaments and will give them to local friends and family.
5. We give to every bell ringer. I will write more about this some other time, but we have a lot of fun giving to the bell ringers outside of the stores during the holiday season. I always carry cash to make sure we can do this. This sets an example of generosity for my kids. I want them to grow up seeing us giving freely and generously as often as possible.
The rest of our holiday traditions revolve around spending time together as a family. The “Season of Giving” doesn’t have to be about buying stuff and stressing over what to give who and how much money to spend and all of that. Giving is as simple as spending time with friends and family. The gift of time and attention is worth so much more than anything we can find in a store – especially nowadays when everyone is so rushed and busy and families are spread across the country [or around the world]. Time is the greatest gift.
It is also zero waste. 😉 Just sayin’…
I try to find as many ways as I can to incorporate giving into our holiday traditions because I hope that someday this will balance out the emphasis on receiving gifts that is an inevitable part of Christmas.
When the kids are older, I look forward to volunteering as a family – all year round, but especially during the holidays – to expose my kids to the hardships that face many people even in this privileged country and to show them that the true joy of Christmas comes from giving not getting.
This entire year, I have been on a journey to become a more mindful consumer, a more generous giver, and a less wasteful person in general. [Besides that, I have also worked very hard to eliminate all of our extra “stuff.”]
So, when Christmas time came around this year, I knew that some things had to change about the way we do gifts for our kids and loved ones.
But – how?
How do we still show everyone how much we love them without giving them a bunch of “stuff”? And how do we make more conscientious purchasing decisions while still giving people things that they will appreciate? And how do I provide my kids with the fun of unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning without a lot of toys that will just end up cluttering our space?
I still don’t have perfect answers, and we didn’t do a perfect job [I should have asked these questions before Christmas to get some help from the blogging world], but we made an effort, which is the most important thing.
Here’s what we did:
Experience gifts for extended family. We gave all of our siblings and their families experience memberships [like to the local zoo for those with little kids] or gift cards to spend on an experience [like jump zone for those with older kids] or amazon/restaurant gift cards for family members without kids.
The nice thing about this type of gift is that it doesn’t even require anything to be physically exchanged [I actually texted the amazon gift cards to my siblings – thank you, 21st century!]. Can’t get much more zero waste than that. And [for the most part], the gift can be enjoyed many times throughout the year.
BUT, the downside is that there is no physical gift to open.
Used toys for our kids. If we are going to have toys to open on Christmas, I felt like we should get them used [as much as we are able]. My kids are young enough to not care at all if a gift is new or not. [Hopefully, they will never care, but that is probably wishful thinking.] We bought an AMAZING wooden train set complete with a table and rails and trains and cars [probably 100+ pieces] for $35 from a family that no longer used it. And we got an art easel from friends who were getting rid of theirs and graciously gave it to us for free. These are types of things that last for years and can be loved by many children – and are plastic-free!
That being said, we did purchase new consumables for the art easel like markers and paint and notepads and things like that. Some things cannot be purchased used. I probably didn’t put enough thought into getting these things from responsible sources [or making my own]. I know I can improve in that area in the future.
Consumable gifts from the family. Anyone who asked what to get our kids, I suggested consumables like art and craft supplies, coloring books, temporary tattoos, bandaids, or gift cards for ice cream. This really helped cut down on the toys they received and this way everything will be used. We received ornaments from two families which the kids loved. Some were homemade which were adorable and meaningful and some were supporting international orphans – also very meaningful to us.
Homemade, meaningful, or consumable gifts for others. We made chocolate pretzels for our neighbors. We gave chocolates and amazon gift cards to Evangeline’s preschool teachers. We made ornaments for our aunts/cousins.
Our Auntie Paula, who does so much for our family, got a special homemade ornament: three hearts [one for each of my kids] hanging from a moon that said “Love you to the moon” – the special saying she shares with my kids. It might have been small and not cost us anything, but sometimes something special and made with love is the best gift.
Any other ideas/suggestions? I know there are other ways to give mindfully and meaningfully. If anyone has ideas to share, let me know so I can continue to improve in this area.
We love giving to our friends and family – but now I feel the pressure to purchase from responsible sources and not burden the recipients with stuff they don’t need. It is a strange balancing act that I am new [and not very good] at.
Overall, we stayed within budget and [hopefully] made everyone feel loved and appreciated this holiday season.
The Christmas festivities have continued, but I was getting sick of posting every day [as I’m sure you all were as well].
Dec 8: Baking Christmas Cookies
On the 8th day of Christmas, the kids and I spent most of the day baking Christmas cookies for [spoiler alert] Brett’s work party that we were hosting the following day.
The Grinch Crinkle Cookies:
Red Velvet Cheesecake Cookies:
Oreo Christmas Trees:
I had planned to do the standard cut out sugar cookies as well, but my feet hurt and I was tired after four hours, so we called it quits. [Hard to believe that two months ago I ran for four hours straight and now I can’t even stand in my kitchen for four hours…ahh, pregnant life.]
Dec 9: Christmas Party
On the 9th day of Christmas, we hosted Brett’s management team for a Christmas party. We spent most of the day cleaning [since I haven’t been doing much housework these days 😬] and prepping for dinner, but the kids were allowed to stay up extra late to meet the guests and join in part of the party.
Dec 10: Arthur Christmas Movie Night
On the 10th day of Christmas, the kids and I watched Arthur Christmas for our “Monday movie night.” We had popcorn and movie candy – which are rare treats in our home.
Dec 11: Anniversary / Christmas Crafts with Auntie Paula
On the 11th day of Christmas, Brett and I celebrated our 8th wedding anniversary by going to dinner and a movie. Our wonderful Auntie Paula came over to watch the kids and she brought Christmas crafts for them to do.
It’s been fun!
We are already prepping for tonight’s annual celebration! [More on that at a later date.]
Well, only the older two skated, but JoElle and I had fun watching and hanging out in the warming shelter. 👍🏻
This is another one of our annual traditions and gets more enjoyable each year as the kids get older. However, it was really cold tonight and the kids can barely stand on their skates, let alone actually skate. So we only lasted about thirty minutes. But we still made fun memories.
That’s what it’s all about, right?
Afterwards, we always go to Noodles and Co to get warm cheesy noodles. [It’s the only way to bribe Brett into skating the kids around the whole time – way to take one for the team, babe!]
Yesterday, while we were visiting Brett’s mall, we swung by a toy store to let the kids pick out toys to donate to the Salvation Army’s Toys for Kids campaign. And today, for our Christmas activity, we dropped them off at the collection bin outside Eva’s preschool.
[This is Theo, regretting his decision to give the toys away 😂.]
We do this every year with the kids…and it’s not easy for them to go into a toy store and leave without a toy for themselves. I just kept telling my kids, “You will get your gifts at Christmas and these toys are for other kids to open at Christmas, so you can all have something special Christmas morning.”
It might seem cruel, but it is so important to me that my kids don’t think of Christmas as just a day when they get gifts. I am constantly telling them that Christmas is just as much about spending time with family and friends and giving gifts to other people.
We have also been working very hard on patience with Evangeline, so she understands now that she has to be patient and wait for Christmas to get her gifts. And she and Theo both have such sweet spirits and they want to give toys to other children, so it went pretty well this year. I hope that in the future, my kids can embrace the spirit of giving and look forward to the time when they get to make some other child’s Christmas magical.