Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

January 7, 2017

Our First Gingerbread House


Daddy’s contribution.

One of the things we wanted to do this past Holiday season, and never seemed to get around to, was decorating gingerbread houses. We bought the kits on Black Friday (and saved $1, wahoo!), and they’ve been on our kitchen counter ever since.

No time like the present, right? It’s not like the kids care that the holiday has already passed.

Nicole has been asking about the gingerbread kits since they first appeared on the counter back in November. She’s always had a love for all things creative. Combining crafts with candy? Pure perfection. The first thing she asked me this morning was whether I remembered promising we would decorate the gingerbread houses today. She was not going to let me forget!

Nicole and I set up while Alexis was napping. Mommy was on construction, while Nicole inspecting the quantity and quality of the different types of candy. When Alexis woke up, Nicole ran to go show her that everything had been set up and we were ready to start. I asked Alexis if she wanted to decorate the gingerbread house. Alexis replied, “No, Alexis eat it!”

Both kids had a blast. I wasn’t sure what to expect (besides copious candy consumption). I was really impressed with the ideas Nicole came up with. She made a Christmas light strand out of mini gum drops, and put holly in the windows. Even Alexis got into putting candies on her house and not just in her mouth, eventually. I predict a start of a new tradition.

Lessons for next time:

– Use a knife to shave down the sides of the ginger bread prior to assembly. I have vague recollections of doing this when I was growing up. It didn’t occur to me to shave down the excess gingerbread along the edges until the first time a house collapsed. The excess gingerbread prevented all the edges from touching at once, making it harder to hold together the house while the icing set.

– Assemble overnight and give plenty of time to set. The instructions indicated the icing only needed 15 minutes, but that wasn’t my experience. Over an hour after assembly and decoration I moved the houses so I could take a photo of each of them. As I was moving Nicole’s it collapsed. Nicole heard my “oh no!” from the family room and came running. I was really proud of her for not getting overly upset. She didn’t cry, and understood it was an accident. I’m not sure I would have had that level of maturity at four.

I did manage to get it back together, but it’s a lot harder once the icing has partially set, and it collapsed a third time on me.

– Extra candy is not really needed. At least not when one of your kids is just two. Another vague recollection I had from decorating gingerbread houses as a child was that the candy the houses came with wasn’t enough, so I bought some extra candies. My fear was premature. Alexis could really only eat the gum drops that came with the kit, so we supplemented her with left over holiday m&ms. That meant there was a lot of extra kit candy for Nicole. I plan to hold on to the supplemental candy set for next year since there’s no expiration date. It may get a little stale and maybe even chewy, but the kids won’t mind.

– Extra icing, on the other hand, is an excellent idea. The kit comes with a large tube of thick royal icing. I had two kits and two tubes, and only needed one. The challenge is that the tube is really hard for little kids to handle. The grocery store sells tubes of icing that are actually much easier for little kids and rather inexpensive. I could also make my own icing and use icing bags, but that seems likely to dramatically increase the mess factor.

December 19, 2016

Coming Together

Don’t you just love it when things work out?

santababy

There’s nothing like waiting until the last minute to ratcheted that stress level up to eleventy. Today starts our winter vacation, tomorrow we get on a plane to visit family. Before leaving I wanted to get a nice photo of the girls in their Christmas pjs to print and frame. I have been planning this for a few weeks. Today was our first attempt, you know, hours before I needed the photo. I am smart. S-M-R-T.

The chips were stacked against us. The thermostat went a little AWOL last night again, and the low extra temperature combined with Christmas vacation excitement meant for light sleep all around. The girls were a little wired to begin with, and not in the most cooperative moods though happy(ish). We did have a few temper tantrums today, not going to lie. Such is life with over tired little kids.

I took 110 frames in 8 minutes and 22 seconds (fastest shutter finger in the West, thank you very much), and most were pretty bad. Alexis thought it would be fun to pull her hat down completely over her head. Big sister thought it was hilarious and started copying, just as we convinced Alexis to leave her hat atop her head. At various times one or both of the girls would leap up from in front of the tree and run away. We got 109 frames of out takes and one perfect shot. I was shooting in continuous mode, like always, and this is still the only frame of both girls looking directly at the camera and smiling. The fact that it’s also the best cropped photo in the bunch and in focus? Icing on the cake.

How rare is it to get a photo I’m completely happy with? Let’s put it this way, I’m getting quite good at head swapping. The one with the good expression is the one where my camera settings are wrong, or it’s poorly framed. As long as it’s not a motion blur or depth of field issue I can usually fix it up in post processing. That’s usually my goal: fixable in post processing.

The above exposure is one of those rare times where the good expression coincides with the good settings and the good cropping. I brightened the image a scotch to post it online, but the original raw was what I used for both family and face book.

The good thing about taking a lot of photos? Sometimes you get lucky!

December 16, 2016

Finally Trimmed

I was on top of things last year. This year? Hah.

treetrimmed

“Santa” brought our Trees after Thanksgiving. Normally Santa sets them up before going to bed, but got tired before trimming our main tree. Three weeks later, on the day of the kid’s Christmas party at school, and four days before flying out, I finally found the time to finish our last tree.

Nicole and Alexis noticed the difference right away. Alexis kept pointing and screaming “Tree! Tree”! Nicole wanted to know “Who did that?!”

“Santa?” I propose.

“No, Mommy!”

Someone is already on to me. Adding insult to injury, we purchased two of those little foil trees to put on the girl’s dressers. I wanted to claim Santa put those up as well, but Nicole caught me sneaking into her room. She was quite annoyed at me when I tried to convince her she was mistaken, that it was actually Santa disguised as Mommy.

I am not ready for the Christmas magic to be over yet!

Trimming our main tree this year proved to be a little more challenging because I just didn’t like the ornaments we had.

Our white light tree uses shatter proof ornaments, as does the kids’ tree. The later was out of necessity, the former because I fell in love with the champagne set that only came in the shatterproof variety. They’re realistic enough to pass for typical balls. Shatterproof ornaments have come a long way. You used to be able to spot them at a distance. Now you have to get close, and even then it’s not always obvious. I can attest that they are, indeed, quite hardy. I dropped two on the hard wood floor with the kind of thunk you would have thought would wake the kids. Ornament survived. Not so sure about my hardwood floor.

Sadly many of our non shattered resistent ornaments have bitten the dust over the years, and what we’ve been left with is a miss match collection of balls for our main tree. So miss-match hodgepodge-y that it’s noticeable, even on our tree with five different color lights and collection of non-ball, non-collection ornaments. We barely put any balls on our main tree last year, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it again this year. As I was going through the ornament box I discovered two sets of shatter resistent mini balls I had purchased a few years ago in an after Christmas sale. It was forty little balls, just red, green and white/silver, but it worked. I think I’ll probably stick to the same color scheme. While the mini balls really make the hallmark ornaments stand out, I think I want to experiment with some traditional sized balls as well.

Alas, the store does not have any in the right color pallet. Trends tend to change from year to year. The ones I have are deep green and slightly blue tint. The current green ones at the store are leaning more into a lime direction. I dislike yellow greens, and fuschia pinks and neon oranges which appear all the rage these days. It may take a few years for the colors I like to come back in style, so I’ll have to wait.

I finished Christmas shopping yesterday, and the cards went out earlier this week. That just leaves baking, and getting some Christmas themed photos of the girls. I can do this.

December 13, 2016

Our Sunshines

sunshines

Last Last weekend it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t done anything in terms of Holiday cards.

I do everything for the cards, from concept to design and photography. It’s a lot of work, and the effort to payoff ratio isn’t always there, but I take pride in it. In the past I’ve queued up a bunch of different designs, which helps reduce the December time work load. In good years I not only have a concept in mind but have already taken the family photo. (Recently the family photo happens in early to mid December.) This year I had… nothing.

Since time was running out I decided to do things a little differently this year. Rather than one big family photo, I decided to use the individual head shots of the girls I had been working on the past month. (At least it’s a recent photo, if not a holiday themed one, right?) I was initially going to get a similar style photo of Domingo and I, and do a three-photo card. (It’s a lot easier to get a good photo of adults on cue than it is to get one of the kids!) After a little design work I decided to just forgo that idea.

I dub this year’s card “My Sunshines.” Not exactly Christmas themed, but I like it. Call it “California Christmas.”

I finished the card a week ago Monday. I figured I’d print them and address the envelopes one of the days the kids are in school. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

When I finally got around to printing the cards this afternoon I discovered we were out of ink. Out printer is pretty old at this point, and finding ink for it is getting harder these days. I usually have to buy it online, but I didn’t want to wait for shipping. Fine, I’ll use one of the local print shops. Queue eye ball popping, you are charging how much?! for a five by seven realization. Ugh. And there was no time to bulk print online. ARGH.

If I was going to pay a lot, I decided I was going to get something extra out of it. I decided to use Shutterfly* and have them mail the cards directly.

* Disclaimer, that’s an affiliate link. If anyone clicks on it and signs up I can order more discounted Christmas cards.

Entering the mailing address was a giant pain in butt, but all the addresses were saved, which should make this much easier in future years, should we decide to do it again. The final per-card price ended up being about 40 cents more than printing locally would have been, which seems worth it. Next year I’ll keep an eye out for a coupon. I’m sure the prices are better much earlier in the season.

christmastree2015

I am so grateful I decided to attack that Christmas to-do list early. I kept up the momentum from Monday, and completed the Cinnamon rolls, and that hand print craft project before the girls had off from School, which meant I could go to bed early and get plenty of rest. Or at least that was the theory. You know what they say about the difference between theory and practice: in theory there is no difference, in practice there always is. As long as the kids are small, getting as much done early as possible will be a necessity.

But what we’re lacking in sleep, we’re making up for in good memories.

We did a Mommy, Daughter bake-a-thon! Nicole has been taking a cooking class at school, and was eager to help me with both the cinnamon rolls and the cookies. She brushed the melted butter on the rolls, sprinkled on the cinnamon sugar mixture, and cracked the eggs. She was my very eager little sous chef.

We visited Santa! The last two years Nicole has been a bit wary of the bearded guy in the red suit. She was excited to meet the big guy last year, up until the moment came to sit on his lap. Nicole was a mix of nervous and excited again this year, but this time it was the excitement that won out. She asked Santa for a “purple present” and a “blue present”. We never did get a smile out of Alexis, but she didn’t cry either. I think having Nicole near by was the only thing that kept the tears at bay.

We did Photos! Well, we tried at least, and we have funny out takes. Maybe taking our family photo after Christmas like last year will become our tradition.

Hope you all have a wonderful Holiday & Happy New Year!

December 20, 2015

Ready for Saint Nick

whitelighttee
Playing with angles

After finishing the Christmas cards just last Wednesday, I decided to power through the rest of my to-do list. I stayed up late finishing the rest of our (online) shopping, and have been carving out little blocks of time to wrap presents. For the first time in a long time I am actually d.o.n.e with our Christmas preparations well in advance of the actual day. Getting things done actually helped with my burn out, which is a bit ironic because once I’m feeling burnt out I don’t really want to do anything. I’m evening having fun picking up my camera again.

There’s still a few photos I want to take. I know, I know, I am hopeless. The highest priority photo for me is a family photo by the tree. Last year it was taken a few days after Christmas, and we can certainty do that again, but it’d be nice to have the presents in the background. I also want to do another round of Cookies by the tree. We did some by the white light tree this morning, but my camera settings weren’t quite right. Something tells me I’ll have two willing participants to retake those any time I choose. *grin*

I decided to push back the non-Christmas crafts & photos until the new year. After all, The girls footprints will likely be the same size in January as they are now. I say likely because a little miss is now in size 3 shoes.

Now I can sit back and relax in the evenings (or, more realistically, work on my start-up) and go to bed at a reasonable hour so I can actually enjoy the big day with my family. I may even have enough time bake a batch of Grandma’s Cinnamon Rolls. I haven’t made them in years.

December 5, 2015

Her Tree

The first two of our Christmas trees went up Thanksgiving night. With my parents staying in the playroom, we thought it best to wait for this weekend before putting the kid’s tree up.

treeproud
So proud of tree

I’m so glad we decided to go the three tree route. Daycare’s been strongly encouraging independence lately, and she was so excited to get to decorate her tree all by herself. She picked the placement of all the ornaments herself, and put all but one on the tree herself. Cookie Monster ended up being a little heavier than the rest and with a shorter string, so she supervised Mommy’s placement of him.

decorating

She had 12 ornaments, which ended up being a fine amount. She could have kept going, but wasn’t upset that there were no more ornaments to put up.

As for the tree itself, well, we ended up purchasing it at half price and I can’t say it was worth much more than that. The construction of the tree is fine, it was the perfect height, but the light placement is very odd. It’s a pre-lit tree. Usually with pre-lit trees the light strand runs along each branch, and goes between branches near the “trunk” so the cord isn’t visible. For whatever reason the lights on this tree goes between branches towards at the tip of some of the branches. Not only is the cord visible, but it makes fluffing out the tree impossible because the tips of neighboring branches are practically tied together. It’s not a big deal. I was able to remove the cord from the branches and re-string it, but I really shouldn’t have to.

decorating2

I’ve already promised to take her to the craft store tomorrow so we can make some ornaments for her tree. I definitely have a little mini me on my hands!

peekaboo
Alexis may be a bit young to help decorate the trees, but she sure does seem to enjoy them too!
November 21, 2015

Taking Chances

Poor Domingo. I have dragged him all over town the past couple of weeks looking for our third tree, our main tree. We’ve been to Lowes (twice!), Home Depot (twice!), Sears, JCPenney, Walmart… If they sold an artificial tree we were there.

We wanted a 7 1/2 foot, tree with colored lights. I had visions of something that reminded me of the Christmas trees of my childhood, like our old tree. The height was proving to be the easy feature.

I believe our last tree was a Holiday Living tree from Lowes. I remember purchasing it at a home improvement store, and the Holiday Living line – a lowes brand – had the same foot on/off switch, and the same tree base. I wanted to like the new Holiday Living Trees. We even picked out a tree (box 18). But when Domingo went to put one of the boxes in our cart I hesitated. They had no less than five Box 18 trees. We could afford to keep searching a few more days, I reasoned.

The problem was that it wasn’t a tree with purely colored lights. Like most trees we found with colored LED lights, it also had the ability to switch to pure white lights. This is accomplished by multiple leds in a clear bulb, rather than a clear light in a colored bulb. As a result they had far fewer colors: blue, green, yellow and red. For a tree with color lights, it seemed rather lacking in color. What I really needed was a tree with old fashioned incandescent lights.

But those we found with the incandescent lights looked decidedly artificial. The nicer looking trees all had LEDs. I guess incandescent lights are considered lesser.

We were out of options, and with Turkey day approaching, out of time. I started looking online at Amazon Prime eligible trees. At least then I could find some trees that matched both the height and light type criteria. Each listing included the number of branch tips, but branch quality was a bit of a question mark. PE (molded) or PVC (cut-out)? Both? And if so, in what ratio? I prefer to see my trees in person. Not all cuts/molds are equal in my mind.

In the end I decided the lights mattered more to be than branch tips, so I decided to take a chance.

Tree ordered, sight unseen.

Here’s hoping.


Edited to add:

newtree

I’m happy. It has a bit more “filler” branches than I would have wanted at the price point. It is much closer to the tree in our mind’s eye than any of the others we’ve seen, and that counts for a lot.

How did I get so far behind? Wasn’t it just October? And now it’s already almost mid November? Adding insult to injury, most of the stores I frequent have already started their holiday deals and I haven’t even figured out when I’m on the hunt for yet!

One thing I know I need more of is ornaments. It’s no secret that I’m quite addicted to Christmas Tree, and Christmas ornaments. Every year I buy at least a couple new ornaments for our tree. Pretty much every year since Domingo and I first started dating he has been teasing me about the ornaments that will one day grace my tree. We’d be at Hallmark store and he’d point to the Twilight Ornament, or the Hanna Montana Ornament. One day, he’d warn, our future kids would want those. The notion of kid centric ornaments on our tree didn’t bother me, per se. I do love me some Dr. Suess, as evident from Nicole’s first birthday party. But I do cringe a little at the idea of tween pop culture on the tree. I could do without vampire romance, thank you very much.

The big driver for ornaments this year is the second tree I’ve been pinning over. As we were discussing where the trees will go in our new home it finally dawned on us; why stop there? We can get a third kid-height, narrow tree for the playroom. The kids can have total say of what goes on the tree, and decorate it to their hearts content. Domingo and I plan to put up the other two trees and decorate them with the fragile ornaments Thanksgiving night after the girls go to sleep, per tradition. Then, the following morning, we’ll let the girls direct the show when setting up their own tree. It’s all the magic of “Santa” bringing the tree, with all the family fun of setting it up together.

Three trees it is!

Yesterday evening I found the multi-colored light tree on Target.com, equivalent to one we really liked when we saw it in person. The website were stacking sales, including “a buy three, get an additional 15% off” ending that night. I did the frugal thing: searched by sale items, sorted by price, and added two $1 ornament hooks to my card for an additional $9 in savings. This morning I couldn’t help myself. I logged back on to target.com and found the tree had a whole new set of stackable sales, and was now about $5 lower. My order, made just hours before, couldn’t be canceled. My two choices were to suck it up, or call the customer help line and ask for a price reduction. I’m sure you can guess which option I picked. The kind customer sales agent refunded my order the requested amount seemingly without verifying the exact price difference.

There could be several reasons why Target issued me a flat price adjustment. Perhaps they have a minimum price for which they want to sell the item, and my price adjustment was still north of it. (If my math is correct, I came out 11 cents ahead of today’s sale price.) Or perhaps they view it as a means of customer retention. In retail there’s a notion of customer lifetime value. It’s often cheaper to retain a customer than to acquire a new one. There’s also a growing field in Customer Analytics, analytics derived from customer data. Target knows a surprising amount about me. They know my credit card information and address from the online order. From there they can easily figure out how many other purchases I’ve made using the same card or shipping to the same address. From my purchase history they can predict things about me, and my future consumer behaviors. They can predict how profitable I’m likely to continue to be. That assessment cam lead to special perks. It’s a practice that’s been around for ages (think Casino “comps”), but is becoming more frequent with the advent of big data.

It’s hard to know for sure what a company considers my worth to be. Eleven cents extra doesn’t tell you much. I tend to think of myself as not a very profitable customer. I like to think I’m pretty good about ferreting out the best possible deals. I’m clearly the kind of person who double checks sale prices after a purchase, and requests price matching even when it’s just a few dollars. Each dollar I save is a dollar the retailer doesn’t earn. The margins on me can’t be very good. Domingo keeps reminding me it’s not just the margins retailers care about, but the reduction of inventory. In that regard I’m a golden goose, what with my three trees and two Halloween costumes per child. In my own analysis, I did point out that I paid slightly more ($5-7 per child) than average.

This year I’m sure the models will tell the retailers I’m anything but frugal. I’m going to try and hold off on the bulk of my holiday decorations until the after sales, but we will need at least some ornaments for our new trees.

January 1, 2015

Newborn Photos by the Tree

Happy New Year! Are you tired of Christmas yet? I’m sure not (although this is probably my last Christmas related posted until next December.) One thing I can’t get enough of is photographing Christmas Trees.

There are two ways of doing tree photos: shallow focus (wide aperture, short exposure) and deep focus (narrow aperture, long exposure). Personally I like the wide aperture when shooting up close. It makes our artificial tree look less artificial, and means I don’t need to use a tripod. When shooting from a distance, however, I just love the way the narrow aperture gives a nice star effect to the tree lights.

treelights
Aperture and Christmas Tree Lights

I love Christmas, and I love newborns, so naturally I wanted some newborn Christmas photos by the tree.

christmasnewborn
So Dreamy
F/16, 15 second exposure, 50mm prime lens, ISO-125

The setup was really simple. I used a pillow on top of one of our storage boxes to raise Alexis high enough that the Christmas tree would fill the entire background. Under the blanket is a water proof sheet, and under that a heating pad. I used Nick Kelsh’s tip of white Christmas tree lights (sans pizza box) to cast a nice soft glow on Alexis. I wanted the Christmas light star effect, so I needed a narrow aperture and long exposure. That meant turning off most of the other lights in our living room, and cranking the ISO way down.

christmastreesetup
The pull back. Ignore the scattered toys, my home is in perpetual mess state these days.

A long exposure requires a (mostly) still baby. Breathing is obviously okay. No babies should be harmed in the making of this photo! Once I put Alexis down I gave her a good 15 minutes to get into a nice deep sleep. Don’t forget your safety spotter! Even newborns will sometimes roll, especially if the surface their on is uneven.

Once she was asleep I needed to act quick. From start to finish I only had 28 minutes before Alexis was stirring too much for me to continue. In order to ensure I’d end up with some usable frames I made only one adjustment between frames. Between one frame I might straighten out the blanket under Alexis’ head. Before another I might move her hand away from blocking her mouth. That way there’s less risk of her waking enough to stir, and also I’m guaranteed to have some photos to fall back on in the event that she does wake up.

For comparison, here is one of the first photos I took of Alexis and the tree (barely a week old!) with wide aperture. She’s not asleep. One of the nice things about fast shutter speeds, you can catch those eyes closed, fleeting smiles moments!

christmasnewborn2
f/2, 1/50 sec, ISO-1000
(not using Nick Kelsh’s tree light trick)

My favorite photos are always from Christmas time.

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