The Big Truth I Learned In 2015

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At this time of year I typically spend some time reflecting on the past 12 months. Some years are full of happy memories and hope and promise. Other years are full of shattered dreams and disappointment and the twinge of loss. And other years–like my 2015–are a chaotic mix of the two. 2015 has been one of the most challenging, heart-breaking, life-changing years of my life…and, yet, it’s also been filled with more hope and joy and grace than ever before.

My take away this year? The one big truth that I learned? God is faithful. Time and time again this year I have seen God keep his promises and remain unchanging in His love and care for me. Through both the hope and the disappointment, through the promise and the shattered dreams, through the joy and the hurt: God is faithful.

2015 began on unsteady feet and my whole world flipped upside down when we discovered in late-January that we would inevitably miscarry what would have been our third child. We’d only learned about the baby a few weeks before, on Christmas Eve, and the hope and joy we’d entered the year with was quickly replaced with fear and heartache.

The pain I felt during those first few months of 2015 was so real and so deep that I didn’t think it would ever go away. Truth be told, it probably won’t ever go away–not completely. Yet things have gotten better and, through it all, a resounding truth has sustained me: God is faithful.

I knew God’s faithfulness each time I was spoken to with love and truth from His Word, friends, family…even strangers who came alongside me in support. I knew His faithfulness each time I looked at my boys and relished in the vivacity of their lives. I knew His faithfulness when I observed new flowers blooming in the spring, bounding forth as new creations after the dark, cold days of winter. I knew His faithfulness when, in early summer, we discovered that we would be blessed again with a baby. Through some of the darkest, coldest days of my life His light never dimmed. God is faithful.

I witnessed God’s faithfulness again in August when we were forced to move out of our comfortable and still-new-to-us home at seemingly a moment’s notice. Granted, the circumstances were highly unusual–our landlord had been murdered (What the what?!?!) and his family had to sell the house–but I took the whole transaction very personally.

We had literally moved halfway around the world and had just begun to settle in to a new life in our community. Finding out that our home was being taken away from us after less than a year was frustrating and incredibly stressful (if you’ve ever tried to find a home–or two–in one of the most competitive real estate markets in the nation–while dragging two young children along with you to every open house within a 20-mile radius–then you totally get it). I began to question our very existence in this land of over-priced, unavailable housing. But then I was reminded: God is faithful.

As a last-ditch effort I put out a plea for housing to my local mommy running group’s Facebook page. Within a few hours I had gotten several responses from people vowing to help us find a house before our move-out deadline. By the end of the week we’d not only signed a lease on one of those houses, but we got it for below the budget we had set out to find. Add to that the fact that our neighbors are truly some of the most generous people I’ve ever met and our new community has embraced us with open arms. I feel like we hit the housing jackpot. My fears of homelessness and being uprooted from our home were replaced with amazement the moment we arrived at the place He had planned for us: home. God is faithful.

In September I experienced God’s faithfulness again when we finally settled on an education plan for the boys during this school year.  After months of considering our options and feeling unsettled about decisions that had already been made, we decided to scrap it all and try something completely different: homeschool. I had never wanted or planned to homeschool our children, but as soon as we made our decision I felt at peace.

Over these last few months as I’ve spent time teaching, learning, praying, and playing with my boys at our little “school” I have seen God work in amazing ways. The boys have shown a great interest and joy in learning, which basically fulfills my wildest teacher fantasies. Their relationships with each other, with us, and with God have grown deeper. The flexibility we have with our time and our schedule have positively impacted our family in so many ways. In the end, this decision that I had dreaded and attempted to escape has actually turned out wonderfully. God is faithful.

And there have been countless other times this year when God has proven his faithfulness in the ordinary moments of life.

Like that time when I was walking through a parking lot with both boys and a car backed out of their parking spot to within about an inch of my big toe before slamming on their brakes.

Or the time when I was having a particularly rough day and an unexpected care package arrived on my doorstep.

Or the time when our house in Washington just would NOT sell and we were paying overlapping rents in California and  I was sure our checkbook would never find it’s balance again–and we received a long-forgotten Irish tax refund in the mail.

Or that season when a beloved family member passed away and we were able to rekindle family traditions in her honor and pass them on to our children.

Or the hundreds of times when, out of the blue, one of my boys randomly professed his undying love for me or snuck in for a kiss or called me beautiful…and I knew I must be doing something right. Time and time again, God has shown His deep love for me through His faithfulness.

So, there you have it. My big lesson of 2015 is that God is, always and forever, faithful. Life will have its ups and downs and there will be times when nothing seems to be going my way, but that’s…life. Even during–maybe especially during–these hard times, I need to remember that I am not alone. God’s plans are always bigger and better than my own, and His big picture holds many more details than my sliver-of-the-picture that I can see.

As this year concludes and the next one begins, I hope that I can keep this truth close to my heart. For all of the challenges that this year has brought me, I am grateful. Grateful because the challenges have changed me, grateful because it has made me appreciate the not-so-obvious blessings in my life. I am grateful, because God is faithful.

And on that bombshell, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Family Road Trip Survivial 101

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Tomorrow we embark on what is probably the most iconic (and, might I add, stressful) of American past times: a family road trip. This particular road trip will take us from San Jose to Seattle: 900 miles, 16 road hours, and two winter mountain passes to navigate. Oh yeah, and we’re doing this with two young children, a dog, approximately 1 thousand Christmas presents, and a very pregnant lady. All I can say is, wish us luck.

We’ve been on our fair share of road trips in the last few years–in fact, I estimate that we’ve spent well over 100 hours road trippin’ this year alone. That being said, I’ve picked up a few tips that are helpful in making it through the whole ordeal in one pleasant little piece. Whether you’re planning a road trip this holiday season or thinking ahead to the warmer summer months, read on for my lesson in family road trip survival 101.

Is a road trip even worth it?
There are many benefits to a road trip that you can only get with a road trip. Taking in the scenery. Stopping at lovely and unusual places along the way. The ability to pack more gear than will fit in a carry on bag + personal item per person. Family bonding time (hahahahahahaha). Saving money (This one is real, especially as your family grows in size–on this particular trip we’ll save over $1000 in airfare…after you factor in the cost of gas and hotel stops during our drive).

Plan ahead
Even though we’ve driven this exact route half a dozen times before, I still spent several weeks planning for our upcoming road trip. I review my notes (yes, I take notes when we road trip) and write out an itinerary. I research lodging options and possible stopping points along our route (particularly those with McDondald’s playgrounds, Starbucks, and/or parks close to the highway). I check road conditions and pass reports in the days leading up to our departure.

It’s usually a bit overkill, but it sure does make me feel better knowing that I know something about what to expect (actually it just gives me a sense of control over a situation that will almost certainly spin out of control once we add the two young children and dog to the mix but, hey, whatever works.).

Vehicle maintenance
One of the worst/most memorable road trip experiences we had was driving back to California from Washington after Christmas in 2008. We had just crossed the border from Oregon into Northern California when our car started going crazy. Long story short, we broke down on a snowy road outside of a ho-dunk town in the middle of the night. It was quite the trial and, while the experience made for lots of interesting stories, it’s one I hope to never repeat.

Before we leave on a road trip we always make sure our adventure-pod (family car) is in full working order: oil change, air in tires (that’s another interesting story…), gas in tank (oh yeah, another good story on that one…), maintenance-required lights off. We also load the car with travel safety essentials like jumper cables, basic tools, a First Aid kit, an actual paper map (yes, there are still places on God’s green earth that do not get cell phone reception or sat nav), and snow chains (even if there’s only a remote chance we’ll encounter snow). We basically just adopt the boy scout motto: Be prepared.

 

Packing
In addition to your usual culprits (clothing, toiletries, and the like) you’ll want to pack some extra goodies for your road trip. Bring plenty of drinks and snacks to keep hungry husbands and little mouths happy (road trips are one time where I let my kids binge on their favorite fruit snacks and Goldfish crackers with very little interference from Health-Conscious Mommy).

Make essential items easily accessible: coats to throw on during pit stops, diaper bag (or a change of clothes for each person in your vehicle…you never know what surprises you may encounter whilst rolling down the open road. And while we’re at it, make sure a few plastic bags and a roll of paper towels are also within arm’s reach), your kid’s lovey, a blanket to throw on a child who nods off (please, Lord, PLEASE let them sleep…).

Entertainment
This is priority número uno when planning for a road trip with children. Thankfully both of our boys are old enough now to enjoy hour upon hour of movies and iPhone games (in fact, this exact scenario is their idea of heaven on earth), so that’s what we start with (*pro tip: make sure to bring plenty of chargers/batteries to keep those essential devices juiced up).

I also try to bring a few novel toys to introduce when they start getting squirrely (a quick trip to the dollar store is usually quite fruitful in this department), some favorite books, and a couple of beloved toys from home. I also love these paint with water books from Melissa and Doug. Perhaps when they’re older we’ll be able to play License Plates or Road Trip Bingo, but for now we stick with the basics.

P.S. If you’re traveling with a baby or a toddler, the only “entertainment” you’ll need is a set of earplugs or high-quality noise-canceling headphones for yourself. Bless.

Build anticipation
Talk up the road trip itself–not just the destination. Guess what kids? We’re going to drive in our comfy car and eat nummy snacks and watch cool movies! Won’t that be AWESOME?! And if you’re really good, we might even stop at MCDONALD’S for lunch!!! And we’ll get to stay in a hotel with a SWIMMING POOL! How much fun will that be?!

Just be sure to leave out the bummer parts about how they’ll be strapped into a car seat for seemingly endless hours and how Mommy and Daddy will become grumpy every time you hit traffic or hear incessant whining radiating from the back seat.

One final tip before we conclude: as always with children, expect the unexpected. No matter how much preparation you put in to your trip, no matter how well it is planned, unforeseen circumstances will arise. Bring your patience and a sense of humor, and the journey surely will be half of the adventure.

The Pros and Cons of Having Two Children Close In Age

Jacob week 1 - 0449As we quickly approach the birth of our third child (holy moly we’re in the single-digit countdown now–9 WEEKS TO GO!) I keep thinking about how this time around will be different from when our boys were born. David and Jacob were born 21 months apart and, now that they’re independent 5 and 3 1/2 year olds, I know that adding another baby to our family will be a completely different experience. I finally have the time and space to reflect on what that stage with two-under-the-age-of-two was like…and simultaneously panic about how it’s all about to change again.

You see, having two children close in age has many benefits. It also has many challenges. For instance:

Pro: you never leave the baby stage between children
The fact that one child is still in diapers (and possibly still nursing) by the time baby #2 arrives on the scene means that you never get complacent in a new (more simple) stage of life before it is disrupted again. You learn to thrive survive on a concoction of caffeine, adrenaline, and silent prayers. Another added bonus in those early years: at least one of your children, probably both of them, still nap: CHA-CHING!

Con: you never leave the baby stage between children
You basically live in a fog for 2 or 3 years and if it weren’t for smartphones and social media you probably wouldn’t have a single recollection of the whole experience. You forget what sleep is, you don’t even know what it’s like to eat a hot meal (let alone a meal where you can use both of your own hands to feed yourself), and your clothes constantly sport some sort of kid-splatter. You never leave the house without your giant diaper bag and double stroller–there is always so. Much. Stuff.

Pro: your children have similar age-appropriate interests
You never have to question if an activity or an outing will be appropriate for both children because, chances are, if it’s good for one of them, it will work for both of them. When they’re toddlers, you can still take both of them to Gymboree and toddler story time at the library–and they both actually enjoy it. When they’re older you can take them to little tikes soccer, and they’re in the same age group so you don’t have to wait around for multiple practices. If they’re like my boys, they LOVE having their sibling with them as the camaraderie helps ease the transition from “our things” to “their things”.

Con: your children have similar age-appropriate interests
You’ve seen Finding Nemo, right? Remember the seagulls? “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!…”

Pro: your kids can share clothes
Laundry multiplies exponentially with each child you add to your family. Thankfully, with kids close in age it’s never a huge concern if half of their clothes are still biding their time in dirty clothes purgatory: just grab an extra shirt or clean pair of pants out of their sibling’s drawer and call it good.

Con: your kids can share clothes
…but they don’t want to. They both want to wear the exact same thing errrrrrrrrrrry day. Oh, he’s wearing the green Ninja Turtle t-shirt? I want to wear the Ninja Turtle t-shirt! NOOOOOO! Not a BLUE one–the GREEN ONE!!!! And since you’re sanity is worth more than a $6 t-shirt from Target, you go out and buy another dang green Ninja Turtle t-shirt.

Pro: your kids will grow up and leave the nest at about the same time
Because of the timing of our boys’ birthdays, they will only be one year apart in school. So, when David is getting ready to graduate as a senior in high school, Jacob will be sending off his college applications. David will turn 18 and supposedly move out to begin his own adult life (at this point in my life it’s difficult for me to even imagine that this day will possibly even happen in the future, but I hear that this time does come…). Then, 12 short months later, Jacob will do the same. Which, if my math is correct, means that in just 13 years we will go from a household of three young children to a household with one independent teenager and two semi-free parents. Crazy.

Con: your kids will grow up and leave the nest at about the same time.
Although I kinda like the idea of my kids growing up and becoming independent adults, I actually can’t think about it for too long or my eyes start to perspire. My BABIES will GROW UP and they will LEAVE ME. I just can’t even.

For all the joys and all the trials of having two children close in age, I wouldn’t change a thing. Those early years were some of the most difficult and most rewarding years of my life, and I can’t wait to see what the years ahead will bring us. For better or worse.

 

 

How To Not Suck At Disneyland With Young Children

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We just returned from one of our most epic family vacations ever: our first visit to Disneyland with children. And, although Jon and I have been to Disneyland several times before, this was our first time taking our kids (ages 3 and 5) with us.

I purposefully did not plan too much for this vacation because I knew that we were going at one of the worst times of the year (crowd-wise, anyway) and I just wanted to go with the flow since this would be the boys’ first visit. That being said, I picked up a few useful ideas during our time at The Happiest Place on Earth. Read on to see how to NOT suck at Disneyland when you’re bringing young children along for the ride.

Timing, timing, timing

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There are certain times of the year where the park is virtually empty (these dates usually align with when most students are in school). There are also certain times of the year where the park is so busy that they literally lock the gates once the park reaches full capacity (we chose to go during the latter).

Unless you enjoy waiting in obscenely long lines and losing sight of your children in a sea of people, choosing a not-so-busy time will probably be in your favor. Several websites keep track of crowd volume at Disneyland so you can plan your trip for a less-busy time of the year (I liked the crowd forecast predictor at isitpacked.com).

That being said, I did not take my own advice on this one. Jon had the whole week of Thanksgiving off work and we wanted to squeeze in a vacation before Christmas and baby arrive, so we decided to bite the bullet and go during one of the busiest weeks of the year. Knowing ahead of time that the park would be crowded, however, saved us a lot of headaches and gave us a proper perspective for what to expect!

Keep track of your stroller

strollersFirst of all, BRING A STROLLER. Even if your kids are bigger and don’t usually ride in a stroller any more, bring one if they can still possibly fit. Little legs still get tired of walking (and standing in lines), and sometimes it’s just nice to throw them in there and get to where you’re going without complaining/wailing/gnashing of teeth. Strollers are also a handy spot to spare jackets, snacks, sunscreen, extra water bottles…all those things you don’t necessarily want to lug around in a backpack.

There are literally thousands of strollers at Disneyland on any given day, which can make parking and locating YOUR stroller a bit of a puzzle. Especially when you go to the park at a particularly crowded time like we did and the Cast Members (Disney employees) will oh-so-“helpfully” “relocate” your stroller without your knowledge so they can make room for more strollers.

To help reduce the panic-inducing surprise of returning to retrieve a stroller that is no longer where you left it, make sure you always park in a designated stroller parking zone. You can also try using a “marker” to easily locate your stroller amongst the masses: tie a helium balloon to the stroller’s handlebars so you can spot it from a distance, and hang a family identification card on the back of the stroller so you’ll know which burnt orange Bob Duallie is yours (find some cute free printable Disney stroller tags here).
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Ask for helpCast_Member_2The Disney cast members want you to enjoy your magical experience. So, if you have a problem, seek one of them out. In my experience, they’ll do whatever they can to help you–whether it’s locating your “relocated” stroller or finding the nearest potty.

We had one experience where a cast member totally saved the day (or, at least, our sanity). We were about halfway through the line for Pirates of The Caribbean when both boys simultaneously announced that they had to go potty. NOW. I ducked out of line with the boys and ran to the nearest restroom while Jon kept our spot in line. Right before we returned, however, the line went inside a building and Jon had to step out of line to wait for us–and now the line had grown to over an hour-long wait. When I told a cast member at the entrance what had happened she ushered us to a separate entrance and allowed us to get right onto the ride. Hey, if you never ask, you may never get!

Get Fastpasses and Rider Switch Passes

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Most of the major rides at Disneyland have Fastpasses available. A Fastpass allows you to skip the regular line and go through a shorter Fastpass line, which can save you a lot of waiting. As soon as you arrive, get a Fastpass for the ride you want to go on most and, as soon as you are able to, get a second Fastpass for another ride you want to make sure you get on (the times for when you can use your Fastpass and when you can pick up another one will be printed on your Fastpass ticket).

Since only 2 out of the 4 of us could go on the Fastpass rides (Jacob was too short and I was too pregnant), I just got 4 Fastpasses to each ride so Jon and David could go twice in a row if they wanted to.

Related to the Fastpass is the Rider Switch Pass. If you have one or more children who are unable to ride on a Fastpass ride and one parent has to stay behind with the littles, you can request a Rider Switch Pass at the ride so that the other parent can return and go on the ride without waiting in line. We never actually did this since the other parent, me, couldn’t go on the Fastpass rides either–definitely worth remembering for next time, though!

Download the Disney app

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There is a free Disney app that we found really useful. The app showed real-time ride wait times, times and locations of character appearances, special events, and park maps.

There are also apps (and the Disney website) where you can purchase park tickets ahead of time to avoid additional lines at the ticket counter.

Bring snacks and water

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Let’s be honest: kids are just tiny snack monsters. They want to eat all day long–especially if there are tempting treats they can view in every snack kiosk and restaurant you pass. With a cup of grapes costing $6 inside the park, however, you may go broke before you fill those little tummies.

You are allowed to bring in any foods and beverages you want into the park, so pack up a cooler (or two) and save a buck (or 100). We brought granola bars, fresh fruit, Uncrustables sandwiches, crackers, fruit snacks, bottled water, juice boxes–even McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches and leftover Halloween candy. With their appetites (mostly) satiated, we were able to pass (most) food temptations without much of a fuss, allowing us to splurge for a few giant corn dogs and bags of sticky cotton candy.

Dress for the weather

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Southern California is not known for it’s terrible weather, but it is known for one thing: sunshine. Make sure to bring all of your sun gear (hats, sunglasses, sunscreen). No matter how hot it is during the day, however, nights can cool off dramatically. I was really glad that I brought warm jackets and long pants for us to change into in the evening so we could stick around for the nighttime parades and firework shows in comfort. Also, double-check the weather forecast before you leave home to see if you’ll need rain gear (precipitation  happen)–the last thing you want is to be walking around in a rain storm with your flip flops and sun visor!

Don’t go on the teacups

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Because they’ll make you puke. Oh, just me? Alrighty, then. Moving on.

Find lodging close to the park

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I’m usually the queen of finding obscure, affordable housing when we go on vacation. For this trip, however, I just wanted to be CLOSE. I knew that we would have long days at the park and we’d be toting around a lot of gear, so I wanted a hotel that was close enough for us to just walk to the park and not have to deal with traffic or parking.

We stayed right across the street from Disneyland at the Howard Johnson on Harbor Boulevard and it was perfect. Our room had a Queen-size bed for Mom and Dad, and bunk beds for the boys. As a bonus, there was a water playground at the hotel with a pirate ship feature that doubled as a Disneyland fireworks vantage point.

Kids will be kids

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Kids are KIDS…even at Disneyland. No matter how much you plan, no matter how much fun you’re having, no matter how magical the place is…kids are still kids. They will melt down. They will throw fits. They will get tired and cranky and hot and cold and hungry. Just go with it. This, too, shall pass. And, unless you’re like me and you get some sort of sadistic enjoyment from documenting these moments on film, nobody will probably even remember the meltdowns.

Leave space
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I have a tendency to plan, plan, plan–especially when we’re going somewhere that will cost as much as a mortgage payment. Since this was our first time bringing the boys to Disneyland, however, I purposefully chose NOT to plan. I wanted to allow the kids to explore at their own pace and to do what they wanted to do without having to stick to some sort of prescribed schedule or optimal timeline.

As a result, some of my favorite moments on this trip came from allowing the kids their own space. They wanted to ride the Buzz Lightyear ride 3 times in a row, so we did. They wanted to leave early the first night and have some time to swim at the hotel, so we did. They wanted to skip the (truly mesmerizing) firework show and look at a Toy Story-inspired shop window for 20 straight minutes, so we did. This trip was about them, not us, so we let them take the lead.

Now go forth and embrace the magic–happy travels!

My Favorite Family Christmas Traditions

Christmas is finally upon us, and it truly is the most wonderful time of the year! During this magical season I love making special memories with my kids. Part of that memory-making involves creating new traditions–or reviving favorites from the past–with your own family. Our family has several Christmas traditions that we begin each December. If you’re looking for some new ideas to add to your own family’s repertoire, here are a few of my favorites!

Wrapped Christmas BooksIMG_8383Every day in December the boys take turns unwrapping a special book for us to read together (after all, tearing off wrapping paper is one of the most exciting parts of Christmas!). The first book is a new book–an actual gift–and the rest are favorite books that we already own. Over the years I’ve collected enough Christmas and winter books to last us through the month, but any books would work just as well (or, if you’re looking to add to your collection, just check out your local used book or thrift stores).

Advent Chain

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Kids love counting down to Christmas–and parents love having a tangible way to show them how much longer they have to wait for their most anticipated day of the year! I’ve tried several countdowns, but my favorite is a simple advent chain. This year we are using a Jesus Storybook Bible countdown chain that uses stories and scripture references from the Jesus Storybook Bible (our favorite kids’ Bible) each day to tell the story of Jesus’ coming.

My Secret Angel And Me
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This is a Christian alternative to the ever-popular Elf on a Shelf. The Secret Angel kit comes with a book about the true meaning of Christmas and a plush angel that “flies” to a new spot in your house each night. The kids have fun looking for their angel each morning, and I like that the focus with this kit is still on Jesus.

DecemBear Activity
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When Jon was growing up his mom made this charming activity board for him and his sister. Every day of December you move the little bear to a new designated spot on the activity board so he can look for Christmas (our version is made of fabric and the bear attaches with Velcro). In all of her resourcefulness, my mother-in-law created extra sets of the DecemBear activity so she could pass them on to her children when they were grown and had families of their own. While you can buy your own DecemBear fabric on Etsy for a small fortune, your wallet might be better off making your own countdown with clipart and a printer.

Felt Christmas Tree
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Jon’s sister Stefanie made this for the boys a couple of years ago and they LOVE playing with it! The tree and ornaments are all made from felt, and the ornaments attach to the tree with Velcro. We have several personalized ornaments with the boys’ names and favorite characters. Find DIY instructions here.

Fisher Price Little People Nativity Set
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I bought this set a few years ago when David was a toddler, but he (and little brother Jacob) still enjoys playing with it. The pieces are all made of durable plastic so it’s perfect for keeping within reach of curious hands. All of the pieces are movable (you can even make the angel spin across the top of the stable and, if you spin her fast enough, you can even spin her right OFF the top of the stable. HIL-AR-I-OUS). Plus, it can play music (I still haven’t told the boys about his particular feature. Because noise.).

Christmas Dates
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When I was growing up my parents always took each of us kids out for a special one-on-one date during the year: a date with Dad for our birthday and a date with Mom for Christmas. My first mom-and-daughter Christmas date happened when I was about 4 years old, and we haven’t missed an annual date since then! Every year our date is different: going to the Nutcracker ballet, seeing a play or a musical, riding on the Christmas ships, spending time at the spa (guess which one this preggo is doing this year?!). Jon and I are continuing the date tradition with our kids, and I’m looking forward to spending this special time with each of them as they grow.

Santa Photos
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This is another tradition that my parents started with me when I was a baby and that I am carrying on with my kids. It’s amazing to look at our collection of photos each year and see how the kids–and our family–has grown and changed over the years.

Now it’s your turn–what are some of YOUR favorite holiday traditions?