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5 Super Simple Bottled Gifts

I kind of have a thing for jars (who doesn't?).  Baby food jars, mason jars, little Boston round bottles...total sucker.  Here's a list of 5 easy bottled gifts that take a couple minutes each, max.

1. Homemade Vanilla.  There are a thousand "recipes" out there, but basically steep fresh cut vanilla beans in alcohol (we discovered we prefer rum to the more traditional vodka).  It usually takes 6-8 weeks to mature, but if you're short on time, just stick a sliced open bean with the alcohol in the jar you're gifting and write a "ready by" date.  This year, we did a set of extracts - coconut, almond, mint, hazelnut.  Wouldn't it be so fun to get a bunch to try?

2. My beloved coconut honey sugar scrub.  Love this stuff.  It's so simple but seems fance.

3. Rosemary Essential Oil.  I love the millions of uses she has for this.

4. I, for one, would certainly be grateful for this lip balm.

5. Marinated goat cheese.  Seems so special, but is so easy.  Take a chunk of whatever size you like of goat cheese, stick it in a jar and cover with olive oil.  Add whatever herbs you like - I love some fresh rosemary and a whole clove of garlic, with a pinch of red pepper flakes.

10 Holiday Activities in Washington DC

DC has so many fantastic holiday activities.  Music, trains, shows, etc. etc.  It's the best.  Makes for a crazy month, but what is December for if not a little fun-filled exhaustion?  Here are my top 10:

  1. Train display at the US Botanic Gardens - Trains woven in with the gorgeous plants, tons of poinsettias, Christmas trees, etc.  Lovely and fun.
  2. Hot Chocolate - We are serious hot chocolate lovers over here, and tried out Artfully Chocolate for the first time a few days ago.  So many amazing flavors.
  3. Old Town Alexandria - after hot chocolate, you can continue on to Old Town to see the lights, gorgeous window displays, and partake in some old-fashioned holiday cheer.  Old Town is always gorgeous, but especially so at Christmastime.  I highly recommend taking a candlelight tour.  It is just so so lovely (and you can almost always find a deal of some sort, so don't pay full price!).
  4. Christmas concert at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception - We attended another concert here a couple of years ago and the tone and the quality of music was just gorgeous.  Their Christmas concert is always delightful.
  5. Ice skating - The National Gallery sculpture garden gets turned into an ice rink in the winter and, I mean, ice skating at the NATIONAL GALLERY.  It's pretty cool.  Also, the Kettler Capitals Ice Plex in Arlington has county sponsored skate times in which you pay $1 for admission, including skates.
  6. Handel's Messiah - So many sing alongs and performances, it's so so great.  We've attended ones at St. Peter's, Truro Anglican, and the First Baptist Church of DC.  We also always attend the (paid) performance at the Kennedy Center (glorious).  The Kennedy Center also always has a sing along, but since tickets for that one are free, you have to wait in line and it's not quite as family friendly as some of the other sing alongs (we like to take the kids to the sing along, and do the performance as a date.  We're intense about Messiah over here.).
  7. The Nutcracker - Too many performances to name.  We've attended the one put on by BalletNova for the last couple of years and loved it.  It's low-key enough to bring kids if we want (maybe next year) but still really well done with great talent and costumes.  Not a million dollars like some of the professional ones, and we can feel good about supporting local dance education.
  8. Zoolights - I mentioned to Dan that this cost lots of money in another city.  We're so spoiled here with having so many things be free.  Nat was pretty much beside himself with all the lights of animals and such here.  Also includes trains and gingerbread house habitats.
  9. Washington DC Mormon Temple Festival of Lights - So many lights, gorgeous music, a creche exhibit, tons of trees.  Just lovely.
  10. White House tour/National Christmas tree lighting - This last one is the trickiest to figure out, but is worth it.  The lighting is fairly self-explanatory - the lights turn on.  The tour is a little harder; you have to either request tickets from a Congressperson or get them through an agency.  I was lucky enough to perform with a group there this year, so we got to tour, as well, and the Christmas decorations were spectacular.  If you can swing it, do.

DIY Ultra Healing Lip Balm

I have majorly dry skin.  Especially every year when the weather starts to turn cold, my hands turn into total alligators, and my lips get all flaky and cracked; they even started bleeding a bit last week.  Most chap sticks do nothing for me; they make them feel better momentarily, but don't actually do anything to heal them.

A couple years ago, I happened to notice the lanolin sitting on my nightstand and thought that if it helps cracked nipples, it probably helps cracked lips, too.*  If my lips are really bad, I'll sometimes put a little straight lanolin on them before bed, but it's way too thick/tacky to wear by itself during the day, I think.  I also love coconut oil, but I it slides right off in about 4 seconds.  So I meshed them, of course.

I really should've taken a before/after, but of course I forgot.  You'll just have to take my word for it that this stuff works dang miracles.
Here's the not-really-a-tutorial-at-all:
1 part lanolin
1 part coconut oil
1-2 drops honey
Mix ingredients in a small container.  (You only need a teensy bit, so I used probably about 1/2 teaspoon of the lanolin/coconut oil.)  Heat in the microwave for 15-20 seconds until smooth and mix it all together.  Apply to croc lips and watch the miracles unfold.

*I've never actually needed it for nursing so it didn't weird me out to put it on my lips...if that just brings back too many painful memories for you, feel free to pass this right on by.

Crockpot Chipotle Four Bean & Butternut Chili

(Foreward: chili never ever photographs well.  End.)

For a long time, I've been wanting to figure out an easy crockpot chili that uses dry beans.  They're cheaper and better for you and I far prefer the texture, especially after they've been cooked into a chili.  But pre-cooking the beans adds an extra 30 seconds of putting them in the pressure cooker that I evidently don't have, what with all my reading of Christmas books and snitching of (still) leftover Halloween candy.

My schedule, I know.  It astounds you.

For those of you similarly afflicted, this chili is it.  THE chili.  Lots of beans, veggies, great smoky flavor even while being vegetarian.  And uses plain old dry beans!  Hallelujah.

Crockpot Chipotle Four Bean & Butternut Chili

1/2 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry black beans
1/2 cup dry white beans (I used Great Northern)
1/2 cup dry kidney beans
1/2 cup dry garbanzo beans (I've also subbed quinoa for one kind of beans)
1 small or 1/2 one large butternut squash, peeled and diced
2 large carrots, diced
1 large sweet potato, peeled & diced*
1 chipotle chile in adobo sauce, minced (or two if you like a little more kick)
2 T cumin
1 T unsweetened cocoa powder 
2 t cinnamon
2 t oregano
2 t salt
6-7 cups water (enough to cover your beans by about half an inch)

Add everything to the crockpot and stir.  Cook on low for 8-9 hours or on high for 4-5 hours.  Serve with cornbread and a big salad.

*I've also thrown in other assorted root veggies we've had lying around from our CSA - most notably turnips, which fit in just fine, bless everything, since we have them coming out our ears.

A Christ-Centered Advent for Toddlers

(Disclaimer: I realized after writing this that it maybe sounded like I was dissing (pretty sure that's geriatric-speak by now) other advent calenders, or ones that are more "fun"-focused?  Because I'm not at ALL.  This is just what works for us - not perfectly, but it's a good goal.  Also, the Interwebs makes me want to slap a disclaimer on everything.) 

I will probably get all kinds of flak for this, but we don't do Santa.

I know.  I'm crazy.

I just never believed in Santa growing up, and I'd much rather focus on real things for my favorite season.  I'm not opposed to having fun with it and recognizing it as a sweet tradition, knowing that while the magic is fun, it's also pretend.  I feel zero desire to actually try to make my children believe the jolly man is real.

Instead, I love taking the advent season to take time each day to reflect on my Savior.  I have this terrible habit of trying to do too much and staying up too late and being grumpy with my children and then wanting to lay around and do nothing all day.  I feel pressured to come up with ideas, but then am too tired to execute them.  I forget what ACTUALLY most important about this season.

Last year was the first time we did an advent calender and it was, by far, my favorite Christmas tradition.  There are lots of different calendars out there, but I wanted to incorporate several together.  It was important to me to have some short scriptures, a song, a book, a simple (and toddler-friendly) act of service, and maybe an easy craft each day.  And treats, of course (some special ones, hot chocolate, s'mores in our fireplace, etc.).

Last year, I had an idea of all these traditions.  This year, I have my giant master list of daily activities, as well as special outings and activities (performances, parties, sing alongs, etc.).  I am so excited for all those things, but mostly, I'm thrilled for the 10 or so minutes we'll spend as a family each night reflecting on our Savior.  It was so lovely having this leading up to Christmas Day last year.

Each day has just enough to help two toddlers learn a little about the meaning of Christmas, but is short enough to keep their attention.  Each day has:
There are also activities, but to me, those are less important than the special "Jesus time" in the evening.  There's also a talk from a Church leader for Dan and I to read together after the kids are in bed.  I print out the whole list, cut it into strips, and put the strip for each day in the appropriate bag.

I just really love it, and hope it helps someone else organize their Christmas reflection, too.

Here's the link to my master doc!