Peek Into Our Christmas: Favourite Holiday Movies

There is something so festive about holiday movies. You can watch Les Misérables or Beauty and the Beast any time of year. But Home Alone oozes holiday vibes – it is set at Christmas, after all – and I believe it requires twinkle lights and cozy blankets to truly be appreciated (bonus points if hot chocolate and candy canes are involved).

While I do love a good Hallmark movie, I won’t be listing those here (though I did really enjoy Ice Sculpture Christmas a few years back, FYI).

Today I’m going to talk about our family’s tried-and-true holiday classics. The movies we revisit each year, with characters that feel like long-lost friends. We curl up together and, even though we remember all the nuances of the plots (yes, Marv and Harry are going to end up being carted off to prison) we hold our breath at scary bits and we laugh at the funny jokes and we sing along to the songs we know by heart.

Without further ado, here are a few of our favourite holiday movies. I wouldn’t be surprised if you might find some overlap with well-loved classics in your household.

  • HOME ALONE | My parents were very careful about what media was consumed in our house growing up, yet we watched Home Alone every year. I do think we were watching the TV version, which likely edited out a few of the unsavory parts? I continue to mute a few sections because, well, my kids don’t need to hear or see clips from Angels with Dirty Faces (I’m looking at you: Merry Christmas you filthy animal). We also like Home Alone 2 and Home Alone 3, and the kids chuckled quite a bit during the latest release – Home Sweet Home Alone – but nothing quite beats the original.
  • DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966) | We watch this animated classic every year. It is amazing and I love it more with each re-watching. I have so many memories of this “movie” from Christmases of yore and the kids would be getting lumps of coal in their stockings if they didn’t join me on this bandwagon (thankfully they have, without coercion).
  • THE GRINCH | This was the first movie the kids saw in theatres and it did not disappoint. I am such a huge fan of the 1966 version (see above), but this reboot really did live up to all my expectations. Heartwarming and heartbreaking in all the right ways. It’s also very quotable; for example, “I myself use chocolate explosion” gets repeated regularly in our household and is sure to guarantee a laugh.
  • WHITE CHRISTMAS | Oh, White Christmas, how I love thee. Let me count the ways. I feel like this is either a you-love-it or you-hate-it movie? I happen to love it, but I think a lot of this stems from sentimental attachments to the film from my youth. It also helps that I’ve paired it with a movie-viewing party with one of my best friends each December and I look forward to this night every year. I’ve seen this movie so many times (but now limit it to ONLY ONCE A CHRISTMAS SEASON), and each year when we start watching it, I can’t believe it wasn’t just yesterday we sat down to watch it for the previous year. *Update: this very special movie event is happening tonight. Tonight!! Cue the cozy blankets, warm mugs of decaf chai tea, and singing along to our hearts content.
  • CHARLIE BROWN’S CHRISTMAS | We watch this each year…and each year I find it both awkward and sad (some of the characters are just plain mean) and wonderful. Hearing the Christmas story presented so clearly and in such a wonderful way never ceases to delight.
  • MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET | I have to admit I’m partial to the 1947 version. Just a classic feel-good story, but with lots of twists.
  • ELF | There’s potty humour. There’s awkward family relationships. There’s Zooey Deschanel’s voice. There’s Will Farrell as a human snowball-throwing machine. What more could you want? We just went and watched this movie over the weekend at a local theatre (who is hosting free weekend movies over the Christmas season). So fun.

some other options

Last year The Santa Clause series (with Tim Allan) and Christmas Chronicles (a relatively new set of releases from Netflix) were both hits with the kids, and they watched Merry Christmas Mr. Bean for the first time and it got lots of chuckles as well. I grew up watching Ernest Saves Christmas, though I have to admit it didn’t seem as funny when I re-watched it as an adult?!

I have never seen The Christmas Story but know it’s a classic and I’ll finally get to meet Ralphie and his crew at another of those aforementioned free movie screenings over the holiday season. I’m looking forward to it!

Now tell me – are there any must-see holiday movies in your household?

Header photo by Samira Rahi on Unsplash

Peek Into Our Christmas: Annual Holiday Cards

It is cold and it is wet and I am just not feeling great about it. I had no problem feeling grateful last Friday during our temporary water crisis (that could have been so much worse!) but today…not so much. After what feels like an entire month of cold, grey, soggy days, I’m very much “over” this weather. The 10-day forecast is not helping my optimism. So far today we’ve had: snow, freezing rain, and plain old-fashioned regular rain and that’s basically what’s on tap for as far in the future as the local meteorologists care to speculate. Sigh.

I’m currently in bed with two Magic Bags preparing to take a nap. Now that I think of it…I am grateful for the flexibility of working from home. And, also, it has been too long since I took a nap, so I guess I’m grateful to the rain for pushing me to this state of mind.

But let’s think about happier times, shall we? How about Christmas cards – one of my favourite dopamine hits of the season is opening up our mailbox to see a new stack of cards in the mail. And I got most of mine in the mail last week (my earliest distribution ever).

But, are you ready for this? You do NOT have to circulate Christmas cards. There are no holiday police that will ticket you for not participating in this tradition. Also, if you do it one year (because, through some miracle, you captured a great photo of the whole family looking directly at the camera without giant ketchup stains on their clothes), YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DO IT EVERY YEAR.

I know people that send Valentine’s cards; others send New Year’s cards. Most send no cards of any sort and that is 100% okay.

Now that we have gotten that little disclaimer out of the way…let’s chat about Christmas cards (specifically photocards).

Most of our annual Christmas cards! Apparently, we are Merry and/or Bright most years…
Back side.

I am someone that sends cards each year. Stacks and stacks of them. One of my favourite modes of communication is through the written word – hence finally starting a blog in 2021. But I have a special place in my heart for letter-writing and already circulate monthly updates to family and friends (and every so often will collate those letters into a bound book). So it feels natural for me to prioritize this form of communication each Christmas.

how do you make your holiday cards?

One year I did design our card from scratch (the year Levi was born as I wasn’t sure if I’d have enough time to get them professionally printed, so I mocked something up and had a local printer run them off), but typically I just use prefab design options; my go-to source is Vistaprint.

I’ve already explained how we capture annual family photos – these are a low-key affair, so I’m not too fussed about the final product, although I do spend an inordinate amount of time debating what fonts to use. I don’t opt for special (expensive!) trimmings like foil or scalloped edges. Standard paper is my frugal jam.

Do you write a message to everyone?

Years ago I jumped on the mass-update bandwagon. I write a 2-page letter that summarizes the highlights from our year and I include that along with most of our Christmas cards (I don’t usually give this epic tome to neighbours or friends we see regularly). I make sure to leave a bit of white space at the bottom of the letter and I’ll include a few sentences that have personalized updates or questions: I might reminisce about seeing a particular family member during the year, inquire about grandkids/pets, or discuss an upcoming event that would be mutually interesting.

You can glimpse a sliver of my update letter under the mound of cards and Canada post paraphernalia. One page, two sides. I use plain printer paper and place some sort of black-and-white silhouette along the top of the front page to dress it up a bit. This particular border was recycled from 2019’s letter…

how much time does all this take?

Hmmm. I would say family pictures take about 2 hours (give or take depending on travel time). Then I spend 2-3 hours selecting and editing pictures and creating the photocard. I likely dedicate over an hour to preparing the annual update letter, and another hour writing personalized notes. This year I outsourced addressing envelopes to Abby (and no, I didn’t pay her!), so maybe another 30 minutes for that process + stuffing/stamping.

Overall, spread out over the course of a month, I likely invest about 10 hours into this holiday tradition. I don’t necessarily enjoy all aspects of the process (getting family photos has, at times, been an exhausting, sweaty, and demoralizing experience – though it’s getting ~1000x easier as the kids get older!), but it’s important to me because I value maintaining connections with family and friends, many of whom we don’t see very often.

So I do it. I’ve done it every year for over a decade and, Lord willing, I will do it for many decades to come!

Without further ado: our 2021 Christmas card. And, once again, we are “Merry.” A good state of mind for the holiday season…

Do you send Christmas cards (or photocards) each year? If so, what’s your process and how do you display the ones you receive?

Casual Friday + A Great Big Birthday Recap

  • You know how you learn a new word and then see it everywhere? It was like that with Ingrid Fetell Lee this week. I heard her interviewed on an episode of the Best of Both Worlds podcast. I saw her TED Talk. And then I followed a link on a new-to-me blog and was redirected to Ingrid’s post titled: A guide to joyful gift-giving. It lingered in my psyche enough that I went back to re-read it and then decided I had to share it here! Insightful and refreshing and inspiring. An anti-gift guide of sorts (that ends up offering some really great gift suggestions).
  • #SecretSantaMugSwap2021. What a delighful surprise to receive a package in the mail on Tuesday from Nicole (and so fast). Again, a huge thanks to San for organizing this fun holiday event. I especially loved the tea included some cheeky math. I really did laugh out loud when I saw the line: And yes, it adds to 100%.
  • Our Christmas cards are officially done. Not only are they done – they’re in the mail. I know it’s early, but as soon as that last stamp was placed, I wanted to get those suckers out the door. There is something immensely satisfying about seeing a finished stack of Christmas cards on the table. #ParentingHack: I had Abby address and stuff most of the cards this year. She loved it, her handwriting is adorable, and it saved me at least an hour of time. Win, win, win.
  • Lest you think I am a freak of nature, we received our first Christmas card on November 16th. November 16th!!!
  • I also want to reiterate there are a lot of other things I skip which pave the way for completing this task on an accelerated timeline. I do always get holiday photocards + an update letter out into the world early (which makes sense based on my values and the other related activities – namely photobooks and regular family udpates – I prioritize during the rest of the year). But we do not make gingerbread houses. We don’t visit Santa. We don’t do Elf on the Shelf. Aside from two trees and a mantle swag, we don’t really even decorate that much. (But we do send cards and watch lots of holiday movies – stay tuned for more about both of these topics next week)!
  • Speaking of the swag…she did it all by herself this year. She waited patiently for me to come upstairs before starting but when I tried to help I got a talking to and was relegated to a perch on the couch to watch. Love the glow!
  • Most years I make a Holiday Fun List. I keep a hard copy – with completed items crossed out in squiggly lines by the kids – in our Christmas box. It’s fun to look back on different activities we’ve done each year. I can’t decide if I want to take the time to make the list or, more importantly, execute on the items on said list. Also, last year, we had a special advent jar – each child wrote down 24 things they loved/appreciated about their sibling and each morning when they opened their chocolate advent they’d also grab a slip of paper from their Advent jar and get a hit of dopamine from sibling love as well. With less than a week to go I’m not sure if I’m going to move the needle on this in time…it feels a bit stale to re-use the same ideas (who am I kidding, the Holiday List would be the exact same this year), but I’m sure the kids won’t care/remember and would appreciate both. I think I need to Lazy Genius my way through this topic…I’m leaning toward not doing it this year. Time will tell.
  • The Christmas/winter reading continues. This week it included a new picture book about Anne of Green Gables – very on point since we’re still reading the first Anne of Green Gables book. I have to admit, it didn’t quite capture the magic for me, but the illustrations were delightful.
  • As part of a promotion through something (I honestly have no idea who/what/when/where/how), John got a big discount on a weeks worth of meal kits. They arrived Monday morning. I have mixed feelings about the kits (we did this once before, early in the pandemic when a friend gave me a code so I got 3 meals for $9.99. For four people. For $9.99 total)! The regular retail price is almost $200, so it’s not something we’ll do regularly. Also, I find the prep/cooking time is basically double what they suggest. Maybe it’s because when I cook my own meals I don’t follow recipes or timing that closely. But every once in a while, this is a lot of fun! Abby was really engaged by the whole experience and was a real help in the kitchen. She loves to cook, but I don’t normally make the time to have her help with main meals. But since we’re kind of on an equal playing field (a new recipe, all the ingredients are right there), it worked out perfectly. So it was a fun week in terms of our culinary experiences. For the meal pictured below she seasoned the orzo, she added the pesto, she stirred in the peas and spinach, she sliced the chicken. And then she rated it an 8/10. Last night, our final meal, was an absolutely delicious Tex-Mex pasta casserole. Levi went back for thirds! The portions are large, too, so we’ve had lots of leftovers which have been amazing for lunches.

Birthday recap

Something huge happened. My baby turned 7. Yes, 7!!!

It was a mostly fun weekend, punctuated by some very not-so-fun moments because…that’s life.

We started the party on Friday; after school we packed the kids up in the car and whisked them off to the city (what we Nova Scotians affectionately call Halifax, as it is the only real “city” around) for the weekend. Abby had her suspicions, but Levi was none-the-wiser. We told them we were running errands (technically true) and he was elated when we pulled up outside a hotel – our favourite from a few years ago. (I had packed and hidden the suitcases in the trunk before we left).

Our kids love hotels. We haven’t had much reason to stay in them with a global pandemic raging, and it had been over a year since our adventure (including one horrific motel) along the Cabot Trail.

The experience did not disappoint. But let’s set the stage a bit first for these smiling faces because I went into the evening with pretty low expectations.

Friday had been pretty meh. It was raining – hard – all day. I had an 8:30 am in-person meeting to which I arrived damp. I’m not a fan of rain unless I get to stay inside the whole day.

Then I had to unexpectedly take our car to the mechanic mid-morning (amidst the torrential rain).

Then there was work stress and deadlines for both of us.

And did I mention the rain? That meant that our exterior renovations, delayed for two months and FINALLY started, were halted after about 8 hours of work (they resumed yesterday after a week of near-constant rain or snow and I am beyond excited about this).

Another highlight of the day (read on to sense my tone) included a small temper tantrum that crescendoed to the point a mask was thrown in a puddle when a requested playdate was denied. The conversation went like this:

*Child jumps off school bus*

Child: Can I have a playdate with X. (Obviously not named “X” but I’m not going to start naming my children’s friends on the interwebs).

Me: Not today.

Child: Why?

Me: Because we have a fun birthday surprise planned.

Child: What is it?

Me: It’s a surprise so you’ll have to wait and see…but it will be a lot of fun! [Said in my cheeriest tone as I could sense where this conversation was going.]

Response amid full-blown wailing and tears; there may have even been some gnashing of teeth for good measure.

Child: You’ve done this like 16 times. I. HATE. SURPRISES.

How fun and, note to self, 16 surprises is perhaps too many for a 7-year old lifetime…


Then, en route to the city, there was a rough work call that spilled over into the lobby while we were checking in.

I was feeling pretty emotional and low when we arrived and I was dreading having to jump into a cold pool. I am always cold. The only thing worse than being cold is being cold and wet. Cold swimming pools are a special form of torture.

And then…

I kid you not, the hotel pool was like a hot tub. I was so deliriously happy about the temperature, it re-set my mood for the next 18 hours. Literally. We went swimming in the soft glow of nighttime pool lights and the kids jumped and splashed and floated. It was blissful.

Then we walked across the parking lot to eat at Wendy’s because that was the birthday-boy request; I have not had a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger in almost two years. It tasted delicious.

Then back to the hotel room for the kids to eat snacks in bed and watch videos while I read an ENTIRE book, No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler. Let me repeat that – an entire book!

Saturday morning we did more swimming and then had one of the best hotel breakfasts ever. We loved this hotel for its breakfast the first time we stayed but assumed it would be shut down due to COVID. Not so, friends, not so.

They served people in groups and the food was incredible. The eggs were light and fluffy and seasoned with fresh herbs to perfection. And the pancakes – I am SO picky about my pancakes. Only homemade fluffy ones will do. These were homemade and fluffy. The staff were all so kind and attentive. And when they caught wind it was Levi’s birthday weekend they brought out a slice of cake to the breakfast table (just what he needed at 9 am) with a candle and proceeded to sing Happy Birthday. It was wonderful. We stayed up until the minute of checkout lounging in our enormous room (with vaulted ceilings, a first for me).

And then we trekked to IKEA to get a desk (Levi’s main birthday gift, alongside the hotel adventure) and a few other odds and ends.

Moods frayed after we got home. I prepped birthday food for Sunday. There had been too much sugar and too little sleep at the hotel. There was a meltdown that only LEGO could solve, and even then it was only a partial solution. But we made it through.

Sunday, his actual birthday, was great. Again, I started in a bit of a blue mood. I’m not a big fan of birthday parties but it felt like I was really letting him down this year. Just a few friends. No treat bags. I didn’t even blow up balloons.

We started the day with Baked French Toast – his request, and which I had prepped the night before. After church, we had lunch of meatballs rice and peas (read on to see why this is hilarious). A friend arrived to bring prezzies (as she refers to gifts) – the highlight being a locker/piggy bank that involves both a key AND a combination. Also, she played hide-and-seek for over half an hour while I sat on the couch. So fun. Then three neighbourhood friends arrived.

They played video games for an hour. Then they played soccer in the hallway. I still felt lame. I grabbed a few handfuls of leftover Halloween candy and called Abby upstairs to hide them.

When the boys emerged from the basement, sweating from their soccer game, they asked for Cheezie’s and promptly devoured a bowl. Things were looking brighter. Then they caught wind of the candy hunt, which was a real crowdpleaser. Things were looking even better!

Then we sat around the supper table and ate meatballs, rice, peas, and corn. Yes, my son asked (he didn’t think I’d say yes!) for the SAME meal for lunch and supper on his birthday. So that’s what he got. One visitor ate 10 meatballs and took home a doggy bag. Success.

The cake was delicious (one of those no-flour cakes that has so much butter, eggs, and chocolate that a few bites brings on a sugar coma – thankfully I only make it once a year and it’s a small recipe). We sang Happy Birthday. There were candles on the cake and on the table and it suddenly felt like the perfect birthday in its own imperfect way. It was small and laid-back and everyone just looked so happy (sugar does have that effect).

There were two gift bags to open instead of the usual mound – and they were perfect. One child topped their gift with a bunch of balloons – it’s like they knew I was failing at this birthday thing and wanted to make sure he got balloons. He also got a Star Wars LEGO set and two practical hands-on games (Jenga and a Slinky). And then the kids proceeded to play on the floor in the living room for almost an hour. Laughing and hitting balloons and playing Wink, Murderer and Noodle and Statue and all sorts of other games I don’t really know but that sure seemed to be a lot of fun.

Everyone was sad to go home and it was just…a great birthday. I treasure the memories, but also… birthdays are stressful. I’m glad he’s 7, glad he had fun, and glad to peek my head in the door and see him working on LEGO at his new desk.

Look at that little shadow on the wall!

Here’s A Thought: Have a Running (Christmas) Gift List

Years ago, when my sisters were attending university in the US, they would get stopped going through the border on their way back to school in January. In addition to extra passengers and a year’s worth of clothing and supplies, they always had a trunk full of gifts for extended family. The border agent would chuckle and make some joke about people getting their gifts a bit late this year. And then my sisters would calmly explain these were actually gifts for next year.

I started Christmas shopping “late” this year. I usually start buying (and wrapping) items over the summer. But this time I’m committed to keeping things as minimal as possible. I want to buy things that are going to be appreciated and used – practical items, fun consumables, experiences, or something to honour special requests.

So far it’s going well. One of the biggest advantages – my digital list of gift ideas.

Hanging his Christmas Eve ornament – more on this fun tradition coming soon.

Last Christmas was one of my favourites. We weren’t sure if my parents were going to be able to join us because of provincial border closures. At the last minute (December 23rd to be exact) we learned they could come! It was an extra special celebration because I thought we would be spending Christmas alone (which would have been fine, but it’s always more fun to share the holidays with loved ones).

One major coup was streamlining meals. Instead of trying to cram all our favourite edible delights into a 3-4 day period around Christmas, we spread out the culinary experiences.

Christmas Day we had a nice breakfast, a simple (but delicious) charcuterie board + potato salad for lunch, and we put meatballs (a family favourite) in the slow cooker for supper. Then we headed off to Peggy’s Cove. It was 18 degrees Celcius – practically bathing suit weather – and it was so much fun to go on a Christmas Day adventure.

We have always done a turkey with all the fixings on Christmas Day, but meatballs were delicious and a lot less work (my Mom prepped them in advance and brought them over frozen)! Instead we cooked a turkey on Boxing Day and invited a widowed friend for an afternoon of food and card games, which was relaxing and delicious and fun.

Anyway…back to the aforementioned gift list. While we were en route to Peggy’s Cove I started writing down a dozen or so gift ideas for Christmas 2021. As in an event exactly 365 days away. Little hints people had dropped (a friend liked my long sundae spoons, Abby was interested in receiving a daytimer) or lingering ideas for items that hadn’t made it under the tree in 2020.

Throughout the year I’ve added to the list. I try to enter items as soon as I think of them and the triggers can come from anywhere at anytime – on the beach, in the middle of the night, during a rain storm (I kid you not, heavy rains just triggered me to go add – “Umbrella” to Levi’s wishlist; he’s been asking for one for months and I never wrote it down). *Update: I finally bought him an umbrella over the weekend, after I drafted this post*

I haven’t purchased all the items on my list* – some are no longer relevant and a few I sourced for birthdays instead – but it was so nice to sit down in November and place a big Amazon order for the Codenames game I realized my daughter wanted back on New Year’s Day, the silicone baking sheets my Mom had admired over Christmas 2020 and those long sundae spoons I’d been eyeing for a friend.

*I have been using the AnyList app for years and absolutely love it – I actually wrote another post about why I have so many running lists. This is the main screen of my account. It’s easy to add items to a list, and you just swipe to delete. At this point I have 17 items remaining on my Christmas list; at one point it was at 35. I think (?) there is a Pro account, but I’ve always just used the free portion and it has been more than sufficient.

I’m excited for people to open their gifts this Christmas. I think I’ve had some good ideas (can’t share yet because a few people getting gifts read this blog so any reveals will have to wait until the New Year).

But even with bits of wrapping paper still scattered on the floor, Christmas tunes pumping through the speakers, and a turkey roasting in the oven – I suspect this December 25th you’ll find me starting my list for Christmas 2022.

Bonus: Check out this podcast episode from Best of Both Worlds that talks about having an active gift list + the benefits of stockpiling a few extras (e.g. for impromptu birthday parties).

Header photo by Superkitina on Unsplash

Casual Friday + On Birthday’s and Doing Things for the Last Time

  • I know it doesn’t need to be completed on any timeline but when the final months of the year start ticking by I get anxious to tackle our annual photobook. I’m now officially done up to October and it feels…great. Most years Blurb has a post-Christmas sale, which I always miss. I would LOVE to order this on New Years Eve (because I’m fun like that). We shall see.
  • We have some special plans to celebrate a birthday – #7 for a certain little boy in our household! On alternate years our kids get big (8-10ish friends) and small (1-3 friends) parties – this is the year for a “small” party. His request? To invite three neighbourhood friends for video games and cake and supper. So, basically like any other day minus the video games and cake! There is always a contingent of neighbourhood kids floating around our house…and it’s not infrequent someone stays for a meal.
  • The week involved domino structures. It was a fun activity – sort of. At least 75% of the time I accidently set off my domino arrangement prematurely which Levi found hilarious…and I found shockingly frustrating.
  • I did not get the downstairs artificial tree up yet. The last few years I’ve aimed to get it up in the family room before Levi’s birthday. I had the time, I just didn’t really feel ready to launch the Christmas decorations hoopla. Renos are finally in full swing (after about a month of delays; we’re just lucky our contractors came as I know many peope couldn’t get supplies or labour this year), and so I think I’m craving all the extra peace, quiet, and calm I can get. Update! The kids and I did this in an unexpected burst of holiday enthusiam. Plan it in and do it anyway, right? And a cheery, twinkly glow is our reward.
I bought this tree on clearance for $20 at Zellers just after getting married. It has cast a festive glow over our family every Christmas since. It’s a bit of a Charlie-Brown tree and every year it loses more and more of those flimsy, plastic needles…but I love it – especially laden with all the homemade ornaments from preschool days of yore.
  • Speaking of holiday enthusiasm – I just wrapped up my #SecretSantaMugSwap2021 gift and it’s ready for a trip across the country via Canada Post. A huge shout-out to San for organizing this very fun event.
  • This week we had homemade chicken noodle soup (delicious), walked to school in winter coats (brrr), read winter-themed picture books (cozy), sourced festive postage stamps for sending out our family photocards (whimsical), and bought pecan pies for Christmas dinner (yum). The holidays are coming, y’all.
Children picture books are one of my favourite things. Christmas is another of my favourite things. So I am elated when both interests collide. It is officially holiday book season in our house and I couldn’t be happier.
  • My oldest sister is currently en route to Ironman Cozumel. She will swim 3.8 km, she will bike 180 km, and then she will finish things off with a leisurely 42.2 km run. I, on the other hand, will try to make it up one hill without complaining. It really does blow my mind she can/will do this! I’m also very jealous of the warm weather – we had snow/flurries twice this week. #notreadyforwinter.

ON birthdays and LAST TIMEs

Coming home from the hospital.

This time of year holds a lot of memories for me. Seven years ago today I was scared. I was two days away from knowing the answer to a question that had haunted me for months. After a relatively normal pregnancy, we were shocked to learn at the mid-way point that our baby could be facing some serious health complications. The ensuing months were an exhausting haze of appointments and tears.

My whole body was literally shaking on our final drive to the hospital. I knew answers were coming soon and I wasn’t feeling ready. It was like a surreal dream – life was moving in slow motion while hurtling ahead at warp speed. It’s an experience unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since and I still have flashbacks to so many details from that 24-hour period; they come into sharpest relief as we near his birthday.

It’s been seven years since that morning when I found myself lying in the operating room praying the words of Philippians 4:4-7 over and over – even when my heart was full of fear – until I literally felt the peace of God which defied all understanding and human logic. And then the miracle and joy of life and health.

This time of year I also find myself reflecting on how fleeting life is. A vapour, the Bible says.

I spent time the other night looking at baby pictures; he looks impossibly small. It feels like forever ago and yesterday at the same time.

It can be a hard balance – living in the present while being mindful that life is short and we’re all a heartbeat away from a complete and utter transformation in our experience. And that, even in little things, there is always a last time.

As I had been musing on this very topic, Jenny mentioned a recent David Cain article titled The Last Time Always Happens Now where he writes “It turns out that ordinary days are full of experiences you expect will keep happening forever, and of course none of them will.” This same day I read Laura Vanderkam’s tragic reminder that life can change in an instant. And the central premise of the Oliver Burkeman book I recently finished – Four Thousand Weeks – is based around this idea.

Memento mori, indeed.

There was a last time I washed a baby bottle. There was a last time they sat in a stroller and high chair. There was a last time I stumbled through a middle-of-the-night-feeding and diaper change. There were last goodbyes at preschool and final nights in a pack-and-play. I don’t have the dates of any of these events recorded; I likely didn’t know it was the “last” time. Or, after years of strollers and diapers and bottles and preschool pickup, the end may have felt like a relief.

And it’s not that I miss diaper changes at 2 am, but I do miss what they represent. Those days are gone. There really is an end to all things.

Like when did our baby exchange plush coats with those universally heart-melting ears…

…for fashionable puffer coats with faux fur? In the blink of an eye.

Almost every time I pick him up, I wonder when I’ll do it for the last time. And there will be a “last” time. I wonder if I’ll recognize it as such? Somehow I doubt it, and that makes me sad.

I’ve talked about that odd sense of loss I can feel in the midst of joy (I tear up at this post) and the complicated wave of emotions I get watching them sleep at night. So I try to keep this notion of “last” times in mind, while treasuring (and capturing) the moments now, as I’m able, knowing that there is good stuff ahead, too.

Hopefully, someday, I’ll pick up their children* and the cycle will continue, as it does.

*And then I will hand my grandchildren back, head home and get a full night of sleep and allow my children to experience the wonder of middle-of-the-night wakings and diaper changes…

Parenting Hack: Read Books With Accompanying Movies

I love reading books aloud to my children. It’s something I value and one of the few areas of parenting where I feel almost zero guilt. Whenever I hear some affirmation of the benefits of reading to children, I get a swell of contentment. They don’t eat organic produce, they definitely don’t floss enough, and I raise my voice more than I should.

But reading? I’ve got that covered.

We’ve read a lot of books over the years, but our recent selections have had a common theme – they all have accompanying movies.

I don’t read through books as quickly as I used to – we’re busier, John’s not traveling much (pre-COVID, I would read to the kids at breakfast, supper and bedtime), but it’s been such a treat to read each of these books knowing we’re going to supplement the experience with a movie.

Books we’ve read in the last 18 months that have a movie/tv SHOW

  • Heidi: loved, loved, loved the book; so far we’ve only watched the 1930’s Shirley Temple version, but we plan to watch some of the newer iterations as well.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: A great book; the movie was so-so.
  • The Fantastic Mr. Fox: LOVED the book, but I’m not a fan of the movie.
  • Matilda: Solid book, but I didn’t love the movie (the kids did though).
  • James and the Giant Peach: Meh about both.
  • The BFG: Better than James and the Giant Peach, but not my favourite. This is a rare case where I think the movie was better than the book.
  • Harry Potter: I grew up reading and loving these books, but I’m not a fan of the movies. Abby read all the books, but Levi only read the first two and has only seen some of the movies. I find they get really dark (literally and figureatively). The kids love the books and the movies. Abby listens to Harry Potter audiobooks daily.
  • Pollyanna: Good book; I didn’t actually watch this movie with the kids!
  • The Swiss Family Robinson: My all-time favourite book from childhood; we only watched the movie, but there are some well-reviewed serialized versions as well.
  • Charlotte’s Web: It’s such a classic, but definitely not my favourite.
  • Little House on the Prairie: Another classic series (and we read all of them). I love some of the books and find others a very hard slog. We’ve only watched a few of the made-for-TV specials, not any of the main show.
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The kids actually listened to this via audio-book (a slight cheat on my part?) – they’ve watched, and really enjoyed, all the movies. I find Tilda Swinton terrifying in any movie setting, and she’s a great White Witch.
  • The Wizard of Oz: Really fantastic book. Great movie.

There are a lot more book/movie combos we haven’t tackled; I’m not sure how much longer we’ll keep up this trend, but for now it’s really working.

After we finish up Anne of Green Gables (and assuming we don’t go on to Book #2), I’d like to read Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol as we near the Christmas season. I absolutely loved listening to Gretchen Rubin’s audio version of this last year and am itching to read it out loud to the kids. And I’ve never watched anything other than Mickey’s Christmas Carol, so I am overdue for an acclaimed movie adaptation of this Christmas classic!

Other thoughts:

  • Little Women
  • Beverly Cleary novels (various)
  • All Creatures Great and Small (or others by James Herriot)
  • Stuart Little
  • Peter Pan
  • The Secret Garden
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • Because of Winn-Dixie
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy (I know someone who read this to her kids when they were about my kiddos current ages; I love these books, but feels a bit dense and dark for their age category…and I’m not ready for them to watch screen-adpated Orcs at this point. Can you say nightmares?!)
  • A Wrinkle in Time

Any suggestions of other combos to try?

Header photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

How We Capture Family Photos Inexpensively (and Yes, It Can Involve Tears)

I am not a fan of having my picture taken.

This is actually a major understatement. I have always loathed it. I don’t feel comfortable in front of the camera, struggle to smile authentically and, as I’ve mentioned before, almost always have my eyes half or fully closed.

We take a lot of pictures in the course of a year and get a lot of great shots of the kids. These are almost entirely candid, which I actually prefer, but when it comes to getting decent photos of the whole family – well that just doesn’t happen without significant planning.

A few Q&A’s along with some behind-the-scenes pictures from past family photoshoots.

Who takes your photos?

Okay, so we lucked out with this one. One of my closest friends is an excellent amateur photographer and has kindly volunteered to take our photos year after year.* She’s a saint. She is so good with the kids – very patient and kind. Ditto with the adults. *For two years before I met her, we had other friends take our family photos. Actually, we have never hired a professional photographer (the mother of one of my bridesmaids did our wedding photos).

If you know someone willing to help, not only does it significantly reduce costs (I give gift cards each year and/or have provided a meal), it can also make things more flexible. Meeting up at odd hours, changing locations, dealing with a child having a tantrum – these can be a lot less stressful if you’re not working under contract with a professional.

What sort of camera gets used?

We’ve always just had our friends use their cameras (everyone has owned decent DSLRs in the past). For the last two sessions, we’ve actually used our iPhones because it’s just so much easier for us to have the originals and decide what ones we want to keep/edit etc. The camera functions on newer phones are phenomenal. We’re not looking for something to go on the cover of Vogue, so iPhone pictures are likely the way forward for us.

Love this picture – an iPhone shot.

where do you go?

We’ve always stayed pretty close to home; nothing further than a 30-minute drive. I’m looking for relatively neutral backgrounds, and we often return to the same places. I like to find something with heavy architecture – a brick wall, concrete steps, a colourful door, solid greenery.

Brick wall…
Steps – check. Door – check. Interesting background – check. Elisabeth with half-closed eyes – definitely check. Sigh.

In general, an uncluttered background is going to show better in photos. Lighting is key, so if you’re wondering about how a certain location will photograph, try visiting at the appointed time to scope it out (for example, light dappling through trees can cast very weird shadows on people’s faces). The golden hour in the evening is generally the nicest time though cloudy days often provide the best results. Because we’ve always been working with young kids, we tend to do morning shoots to avoid interfering with naps or mealtimes.

2021 – on location at a local garden and green space. No naps to work around this year…
One year we went to a fishing village about 30 minutes away; the red barn and stone retaining walls made for great backdrops.
A stone wall on the side of the Grand Pré church has been the main feature for two different family photo sessions.

What do you wear & how else do you prepare?

I am not into fashion. We always shop our closets (I think maybe one year I bought a sweater, second-hand, to match what everyone else was wearing), which are mostly thrift-store finds.

I like to go neutral. Blues, blacks, grey – sometimes with a pop of colour. A red headband for Abby, sparkly shoes. I try to coordinate things we already have. Everyone in blue jeans is a great place to start.

When the kids were younger I made sure we had a fully stocked bag – diaper necessities when they were really little, snacks, water, WetWipes. We’ve never had a full-blown stain catastrophe, but maybe for really little ones a backup of clothes might be a good idea?

We always talk to the kids in advance. Sometimes I have them practice smiling. Honestly, it’s hit or miss. A few years ago, one kid liked to look sideways – with a huge smile. We’d say look at the camera and the smile would come…but the eyes would never follow. Oh well.

How do you get your kids to cooperate?

Okay. Here’s the bad news. We all dread this day. A few years it involved tears. It almost always involves some sort of candy bribe.

I don’t have a good answer on this one. We are constantly nagging the kids to sit down, stand up, look up, look down, smile, open your eyes. I think that’s why my favourite shots tend to be the really candid ones where no one was trying too hard. What can I say – we’re not into being photographed, and it likely shows.

One thing that can help is having a prop: we’ve used apples several times so the kids can eat; holding a kite or carrying around a cute stuffed animal could be fun and provide entertainment.

He carted around this apple for ages; it’s hidden from view in most of the shots, but it’s fine when it makes an appearance, too.
I can tell by the bulged cheeks the kids had both already been bribed with some small candy treat.

Also, it helps to indulge some shots they want.

Like a stop to pose with this lobster we encountered en route.

Or this shot from a few weeks ago when he promised to smile if I would just let him do a goofy pose right afterward. Guess what – I love the goofy pose. It perfectly sums him up at this stage in life!

Why go to all the trouble?

I think we make the whole experience as minimally invasive as possible. We don’t buy coordinating outfits, travel to obscure locations, or spend hours with a professional photographer. Still, it’s not a process I enjoy.

But I love having the pictures.

They go in our photobooks and I also use them on annual photocards at Christmas. We have a lot of family scattered geographically, and this is a great way to keep everyone up-to-date on the transitions. A few more gray hairs for the parents, and a few (or a lot) more inches for the kids (I, sadly, have maxed out in the height department).

What sort of poses do you try to get?

I love candid portraits. I try to get pictures of all the relevant combinations. Levi alone, Levi with Abby, Levi with Mommy, Levi with Daddy.

One of my favourite pictures of him – ever. And there’s another apple!
Ditto above. I have prints of both these pictures hanging up in my hallway. She was playing peekaboo around some columns.

I like pictures taken at different angles, from a distance, and with shadowing.

I’ve always loved this photo; Abby woke up with croup about 4 am and we were all bone tired. Somehow knowing that makes this photo shoot all the more memorable.
Hard to believe this was a decade ago. I still wear that dress!
When I was pregnant with Levi…his tiny Puma’s made it into the shot.
And here he is, a year later, hamming it up for the camera.

I even like downright silly poses.

This was a completely genuine reaction to his sister’s kiss…it ended up being a photobook cover one year.

2021 came and went. I promised the family it would be low-key. I gathered our outfits with minutes to spare; I threw my still-wet hair up in a bun.

Is it going to win awards? Probably not. But we’re all in the picture together, as a family.

It’s worth the tears (though this year there were exactly ZERO tears shed; yay for small victories). It’s worth the bribes. It’s even worth risking horizontal stripes and wet hair.

Now excuse me while I heave a massive sigh of relief that it’s approximately 350 days until we need to think about this again…

I’m A Memory Keeper: Photobooks + How I Organize My Pictures.

Earlier this summer I took some time to identify things I value. It took a while to get the proverbial ball rolling but, once I did, the list kept growing. I accepted the fact that I value time alone, calm, and order. I value date nights and having 1-on-1 time with my kids. I value home aesthetics, cultural experiences, and connecting with seniors.

I also value my role as our family memory keeper and a huge component of that involves photos and photobooks.

My Dad was the resident photographer in my house growing up; he was constantly gathering us for awkwardly posed shots, especially if we had extended family visiting. The resulting photos are objectively dreadful – awkward photographs of everyone standing on the front porch, inside a museum lobby, or by our fireplace bedecked with Christmas stockings. Several people always have their eyes closed. Candid photos were not in his repertoire. But one of my favourite things to do as a kid was flip through our family photo albums. Page after page filled with memories; most fun but a few sad (rest in peace, Thumper).

As a teenager I went through a stint of scrapbooking with my older sister, but that didn’t last long (too much clutter for my liking). For years my photos mostly hung out in a digital purgatory; accessible, but not without effort and excessive screen time.

And then, when our oldest was born, I discovered photobooks.

Why Photobooks?

I love the ritual of sitting down and flipping through an album. Accessing photos digitally is fine, but I prefer when the viewing experience involves tactile senses. Because of the sheer number of photos we take each year (and would want in hard-copy), it’s prohibitive to develop them all as prints.

Enter photobooks. I often end up getting well over 1,000 pictures crammed into each book. I keep my layouts simple and use very little text. It’s a place for the photos to shine and tell the story of our life that year.

What publisher do You use?

Judging by the width of the binding, you can tell each year I just keep adding more and more pictures. I have books going all the way back to 2011, so I’ve officially hit the decade mark.

For the last 5 years I’ve been using Blurb. When MyPublisher (my original go-to) was absorbed by Shutterfly, I tried out a lot of different programs. I ended up settling on Blurb because it had desktop software that would allow me to build the book offline, dragging and dropping pictures from my desktop.

Once the book is complete, I simply upload the whole thing at once. There are great previewing features offline to help me identify layout issues, spelling mistakes, etcetera.

Blurb’s paper quality isn’t as good as some other companies (there is obvious shadowing/bleedthrough on thinner paper weights), but the reasonable prices (low per-page pricing + lots of great sales) and ability to print large books (I make books of 200+ pages) make it a great option for my needs.

How do You organize YOUR pictures?

The first step to creating a photobook…is managing your photos. There are a lot of different ways to approach this, but the following system works well for me.

  1. During each calendar month I regularly go through the photos on my phone. I’ll do this when I’m waiting in line or need to unwind for a few minutes. I’ll edit them – remove duplicates, boost the colour, straighten crooked images – before I move the best ones over to their permanent folder which leads me to #2…
  2. At the end of every month I move all my photos from that month off my iPhone and into folders in OneDrive (once they’re backed up to the cloud, I delete them off my phone).
  3. I have four master folders within each calendar year (Jan – Mar; Apr – Jun; Jul – Sept; Oct – Dec). Within each of those quarterly folders, I have a series of subfolders. For example, Oct – Dec would include folders like: Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas (which would likely have further subfolders like Christmas Tree, Christmas Eve, Decorations), Levi’s Birthday, Outside Play, Friends, School, Sledding. I have a lot of nested folders. Because of the sheer number of photos we take, I find it much easier to organize photos this way. Also, if I put all of the pictures in one cateogorized place (say pictures of the kids with their friends), it’s easier to identify the best shots to highlight in the photobook. Within a photobook I often do themed pages – say a spread of an outdoor activity like sledding or skating – and will regularly have photos from various dates on a single page.
  4. I try to sift through the categorized pictures several times before the end of the year, slowly whittling it down to my absolute favourites. It makes the next step – creating a photobook – so much more efficient.

what’s your process for creating a photobook?

Tip #1. It helps to have well-organized pictures! See above, or find a system of your own that works for you.

  • I go through the year chronologically and tackle one folder/subfolder at a time. I came up with some of my own templates within Bookwright – the software from Blurb – and just drag and drop photos.

Tip #2. Have a highlights page. Some people hand-write their captions and others include long descriptors to accompany each spread. You do you. But I find having a “Highlights” page is a great way to summarize the major events from the year, leaving the pictures free to speak for themselves. I like to put a few fun pictures on this page to signify special memories.

I have a Highlights page at the beginning of each photobook. I’ll write about how we celebrated birthdays, trips we took as a family, career milestones, and other little tidbits I don’t want to forget.
  • I really like interspersing portrait shots of the kids with detail shots of our surroundings. So a picture of the kids fishing AND a picture of their tackle box. This obviously requires capturing certain types of photos, but I do think it makes a more striking photobook. This is very much personal preference, though!
One page (of many) from Grand Lake 2020. This is all I do for captions, so the pages that follow from Grand Lake won’t have any text at all…

Tip #3. Consider using auto-fill features. If you’re not particularly fussed about having things “just so,” there are some great auto-fill modes for most photobook companies where you can dump in photos and they’ll arrange them chronologically or by theme. I’ve never used these features, but know others do with great success.

this sounds like a lot of work!

It is. The way I do things, it generally takes about 30-40 hours (!!) to complete a book. This doesn’t include the many hours spent taking, editing, and organizing photos. 40 hours is a lot of time to dedicate to a single project. But it’s a labour of love and I genuinely enjoy the process (most of the time; even for me it can start feeling tedious after a while).

It can also be significantly faster! Some of the auto-fill features could help you create a book in under an hour. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the done. Most companies now allow you to hire a designer to help you create the books; some even provide subscription monthly books. (I’d hate having that many separate books, but a friend of mine did exactly that. She was living in New Zealand with her newborn and made monthly photobooks and had them shipped to both sets of grandparents who were living back in Canada).

Grand Lake 2019 – the year of drone shots and visiting cousins…

How much does this all cost?

Photobooks can be pricy, but to me they are worth every penny.

I usually pay for a hardcover photo-wrap cover. It’s a few steps above the basic softcover option, but there are other premium features available. You can buy matching protective sleeves, get the book bound in linen or other fabrics and more. There are different gauges of paper, each with their own price point (which can impact the final cost significantly). You can get lay-flat pages (beautiful but expensive and almost always severely limits page count), gloss vs. matte, and various other upgrades and tweaks.

I like to highlight favourite pictures, so don’t necessarily maximize the space on pages. I like uncluttered aesthetics and am happy to pay more for extra pages to get the desired effect.

With Blurb I typically opt for one of their more expensive paper options (still some bleedthrough, but better than the basic paper), but always wait for a sale. Sometimes I’ll sit on a completed book for over a month. I have never had to order a book with less than 30% off; I’ve even managed to combine promotions and get a percentage off + free shipping.

Last year my book, with a discount and including shipping, was $115 CAD. Not bad for a custom photobook with 1,000+ pictures. I’d pay double that without hesitation.

I’m deeply nostalgic. I love photos and I love my crew. Put it all together and what have you got – a permanent position for me as head memory-keeper, with photobooks being one of my greatest allies.