Our Christmas

Here are some pictures from our Christmas, in no particular order. You might notice an Ipad in a picture or two, featuring my sister Sophie. She’s currently doing medical mission work in Africa, and was able to Skype in to our celebration. Not as good as having her here, but much better than not seeing her at all. I’m afraid we might have given her motion sickness carrying her all around the room, trying to bring her into the midst of the party. We had a really good past few days. I hope you did too! (As usual, you can click on each photo to see it in a larger size.)

All that’s left is the waiting

Stuffed French Toast Strata (Christmas breakfast recipe)

I’m bringing this recipe forward from 2006 for folks who may not have seen it yet.  We still make it on Christmas Eve morning every year!

Here’s our traditional Christmas breakfast. I love that we can make it the night before and just stick it in the oven in the morning! It can be made egg-free, by adding a little more milk instead of the eggs. If you need it to be gluten free, just cube up a loaf of gluten-free bread instead of french bread.

Stuffed French Toast Strata (Christmas breakfast recipe)

Stuffed French Toast Strata (Christmas breakfast recipe)


  • 1 pound of French bread
  • 8 ounce package cream cheese, cubed
  • 8 eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon


  1. Cut French bread loaf into cubes (about 12 cups bread cubes). Grease a 13x9 inch baking pan. In the prepared pan place half of the bread cubes. Top with the cream cheese cubes and then the remaining bread cubes.
  2. Whisk together eggs, milk, melted butter, maple syrup and cinnamon until well combined. Pour the egg mixture evenly over bread and cheese cubes. Using a spatula, slightly press layers down to moisten.
  3. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours. Remove plastic wrap and bake in a 325 degree oven for 40-45 minutes or until the center appears to be set and the eggs are golden. Let stand for 10 minutes. Makes 6-8 servings.
  4. Note: If you'd like to make this with blueberries, just sprinkle a cup or two of berries on top of the cubed cream cheese and serve with blueberry syrup.
    For more affordable recipes, check out Mary's cookbook Family Feasts for $75 a Week


Here’s a video of me making this recipe for ParentsTV a few years back.  Begin around 2:30 to jump straight to the recipe tutorial.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Pin It

Preparing for the big day

I might be scarce over the next few days as I enjoy vacation with my family and do some last minute things. But I wanted to share a few things with you.

First of all, the winner of ‘The Sparkle Box‘ is commenter #22, Robin. Send me your address, and we’ll see if we can get that book to you before Christmas!

Next, I saw this lovely fruit arrangement and am wondering if possibly the girls and I could pull it off for at least one of our family gatherings. Isn’t it great??


Another project that I’ll be trying over the next few days is this lovely gluten free chocolate cake. Think there’s any chance I could sub coconut oil instead of butter so it would work for my dairy-free sisters? I’ll give it a shot.


And finally, I have to share a favorite Christmas song with you. Wonderful, beautiful truth.

“Baby Boy”

If you told me all about your sorrows
I’d tell you about a cure
If you told me you can’t fight the battle
There’s a Baby Boy who won the war
The war was won by a Baby Boy

Alleluia, we can sing it
Alleluia, Heaven’s ringing
Endless hope and relentless joy started with a Baby Boy

Oh, before that silent night
No Savior and no Jesus Christ
The world cried out so desperately
And the Baby Boy was the reply,
Yes, Heaven’s reply was a baby boy

Alleluia, we can sing it
Alleluia, Heaven’s ringing
Endless hope and relentless joy started with a Baby Boy

See, the King is coming down
And He’s here without a crown
The Baby Boy without a bed
Giving life back to the dead
And hear the angels shout it out
As the people come and bow.
Unexpected majesty
Alleluia, what a King

Alleluia, we can sing it
Alleluia, Heaven’s ringing
Endless hope and relentless joy started with a Baby Boy

Alleluia, we can sing it!
Alleluia, yeah, Heaven’s ringing!
Endless hope and relentless joy started with a Baby Boy

Moments to treasure


We’ve had such good, precious moments this weekend.

Sunday morning my heart swelled watching three of our sons help with choruses at church, one on drums and two on guitar. My 14 year old still feels a little awkward up on stage–for all his obsession with the guitar he’s more comfortable behind the scenes. But all three of them truly love music– they’re the type who grab their instruments and play at odd times of the day, just for fun. Music and faith are so important to me– to see that love in the boys too is just the best.

Sunday afternoon all the kids (with grandbabies in tow) came to our house for a meal and a few gifts.  Erika and Israel are spending Christmas with his family this year, so we had the perfect excuse to do some of our celebrating early.

As always, I treasured the time with all our kids here under our roof, older and younger interacting, babies looking around and trying to figure out all the hubbbub. I just couldn’t look at everyone’s faces enough. There are times when some of the adult kids are busy and can’t come to our weekend dinners. I understand that and truly have peace with it. But, when everyone is here, I breathe out and in with an added sense of thanksgiving.


Sunday evening was the Christmas program at church.  Our teens mostly had supporting/ helping roles. Since our youngest two are now 8 and 10, their parts were bigger than they’d ever had been before. They did a great job– knew when to come in and go out, enjoyed working together with their friends.

When the tiny kids came out to sing Away in a Manger, complete with rocking-baby and look-up-in-the sky hand motions, I realized it was probably the first year since 1992 or so that we had no one in the tiny-kiddo class.  Our kids are growing. It gave me a little pang, but mostly I felt content. God must be giving me peace about all this growing and changing.  Years ago I thought I’d never be a mom who felt ‘done’ with babies.  But the grandbabies are filling that ‘baby’ space in my heart these days, and when they’re not around, my gangly 8 year old still crawls into my arms. I really am so very content with this stage.

Monday morning I was at Erika and Israel’s house bright and early to drive them to the airport.  They still had a dab of gathering to do, so of course I scooped up little Ranger for a snuggle. I told them only half jokingly that he was actually the reason I’d agreed to drive them to the airport. 🙂 At one point we were snuggled cheek to cheek, with him facing out on my lap so I wasn’t quite able to see his face. Erika came into the room and laughed. She said he had the most smug little contented smile as he sat with his cheek against mine.

“Babies know when people adore them,” I said with a laugh.  And again, that feeling of blessing, rich and warm, wrapped me like a blanket.

Not every moment is good, or easy. This evening John and I got the youngest 6 together for a game of Phase Ten. Cordiality from 14 year olds (we have 3) sometimes feels like a pie-in-the-sky dream. They didn’t want to play games with mom and dad and little sisters. Many unhappy words were mixed in with the game play, lots of stern reminders. And yet we persevered and jollied them up, John and I– me biting back frustration, and John smiling steadily with iron behind his grin. Somehow by the end there were real grins and real laughter, and even the grumpiest ended up feeling cherished, I think.  And that time too, by God’s grace, was anointed with blessing.

Between all the precious golden bits of my life, there are so many hard ones, times full of worry and concern, stress and anxiety. Some days the hard overwhelms me. But when I remember to hold onto the good times, to remember my Savior, and to really see all He has given us, my heart settles back down, gets back to that place of gratitude where balance is so much easier to find.

Never would I say my life is perfect. But oh, we are so blessed.

PS– Wanna help a widow raise her children with dignity? Check out the awesome new sponsorship program just launched by Bring Love In.

Giveaway: The Sparkle Box

Sad happenings like the school shooting on Friday can often leave you feeling like there just isn’t enough good in this hard old world.  The book I got in the mail today encouraged me by offering a way to inspire ourselves and our children to spread some light in this world.  The Sparkle Box shows how giving to others is a way we can give Jesus a gift this Christmas.  At a time when many children’s minds are buzzing over gifts that they hope to receive, this book truly has heart-changing potential.

Our little girls enjoyed hearing this story, and especially loved that the storybook comes with a sparkle box of its own.  Once you read the story to your child, you can set the sparkle box under the Christmas tree and work with your kids on spreading light in the world!

To enter to win a copy, comment below and share an idea or two that would bless someone else this Christmas.  For an additional entry,  ‘like’ The Sparkle Box  and/or Owlhaven on facebook.  I’ll be closing this giveaway on Wednesday, so comment away!  Let’s talk about ways we can be lights in a dark world.

Graham cracker houses

It’s ten on a Wednesday morning, and six kids and I drive into the church parking lot with our big old van. We unlock the church and head into the fellowship hall with baskets and bags and packages. We’ve got graham crackers and frosting and red hots and gummy bears and smarties and licorice and almost anything else you can think of that’s colorful and sugar-laden. The kids set down their goodies and start lining long tables together. Soon other friends stream in, similarly sugar-laden. After everyone trickles in, there are 27 kids. Our homeschool craft co-op gets together every month, but candy houses at Christmas are the kids’ favorite, no contest.

Once the tables and chairs are lined up, paper bowls are set down the whole length of the mega-table, then filled with candy, candy, and more candy. Some moms scurry around handing out graham crackers and frosting, while others whip royal icing, the glue-like frosting used to construct the graham cracker houses.

Kids choose foil-cover rectangles of cardboard for the bases of their houses. Most are the size of a sheet of paper, but one of my 14yo sons, planning a castle, chooses one twice that size.  House construction is done with royal icing piped onto graham cracker edges from ziplocks with holes snipped in one corner. Candy is glued on with regular frosting from tubs.

Little ones get construction help from parents and older siblings. Once the base of each house is constructed and given 5 minutes or so to set, the houses will be sturdy. But the initial bits of construction take more hands and more skill than most younger kids possess. This year my 10 year old puts hers together on her own. My 8 year old still needs lots of help.

Chaos builds as houses get to the candy stage. Fingers are sticky. Kids call for more royal icing and more of favorite sweets.  Moms scurry around helping here and there as needed.

Houses begin to take shape. There’s a happy sugar-hum in the room.

Once the little kids have the most complicated building done, moms sit back and relax a bit. There’s a round ‘mom’ table set next to the long one, and a coffee pot brews on another table. Visiting happens in between hopping up to help kids. I’m not sure if all the moms were seated at the same time ever, but as always, we enjoy our stolen moments of visiting in the midst of the chaos.

Graham crackers disappear and my son asks for more and more and more.  His building is bigger than I’ve ever seen a graham cracker house to be.  I wonder if it will stand, or if he will use all the crackers in the place and run out before finishing. But other kids seem to have enough, and are busy adding candy, not walls.  So I hand him one of the last packs of crackers, and he builds on.

Others aim for more modest houses, just as charming.

My youngest pours sprinkles on the roof of her creation, all concentration and sticky fingers.

The row of houses is truly impressive.

My son, one of the last to be done, smiles in victory behind his castle. The construction took so long that he got less candy on it than is typical for him. But the scale of his creation more than makes up for the lack of decor. Even more amazing is the fact that he later got it home without it falling apart.

Finished projects are carried carefully to the ‘done’ table, and end up looking like a bright crazy little village, each house as unique as its owner. We moms may end up doubting the wisdom of so much candy consumption in a day. But somehow I think that this morning and others like it will be in their memory banks when they’re grown and have kids of their own. Maybe they’ll make similar memories with their own children.

Come to think of it, some of them already are. Here’s my daughter and her little guy with the house ‘they’ did this year.

Kitchen tools I adore

Do you have newlyweds or new grads on your Christmas list, or maybe just folks who love kitchen gadgets? Here are some cool tools I absolutely adore and wouldn’t want to be without. The best part? Every single one costs less than $20.

1. Every cook needs a good garlic press.  Here’s one that works beautifully, is easy to clean, and doesn’t take too much arm muscle.  Combine this press with a bunch of garlic in a tiny burlap bag and you’ve got a sweet gift.


2.  Here’s a reusable Solofill Cup, Keurig K-Cupthat lets you brew any type of coffee for much less expense than the prefilled one-use cups.  I use mine every single day and love it because it lets me brew my favorite Ethiopian coffee a cup at a time.  Pair this one with a pound of your favorite coffee and you’ve got a winner of a gift.


3. I have an absolute love affair with cast iron.  I have a 12 inch Lodge skillet exactly like the one shown below and a mammoth 16-inch skillet that I have a hard time lifting when it’s full of food.  In my opinion there’s nothing like cast iron for getting a good sear on meat and for holding heat.   I also love being able to begin cooking on the stovetop and then moving the pan to the oven to finish cooking, like for this chicken pot pie.  I’d load this skillet with some taco seasoning packs and maybe a couple of new hot pads for a really fun gift.

4. I’ve told you before about these delightful Swiss peelers.  I teach my kids to begin peeling veggies as preschoolers, and these great peelers are easy and very safe to use.  Tie a set of these peelers with a ribbon atop a new cookbook –maybe Family Feasts for $75 a Week? 🙂  — for a fun gift.

Do you have a kitchen gadget you love that cost less than $20?  Do you combine it with something else to make it extra fun?  Tell us about it!

Pin It

Things I’m mulling over…opinions?

Something about the Christmas season always gets lots of projects aswirl in my brain. Here’s some of what’s been going on around here.

  1. I’ve been working on a really fun bathroom cabinet project that I’ll show you soon. After doing a bit of hunting online, today I bought what I hope will be just the right drawer pulls to jazz up the project. So much fun to see something new coming together in a space that has looked tired for awhile.
  2. I’m in the midst of my yearly struggle to keep gift-giving moderate, to not go overboard on spending.  But it’s really hard.  Gift-giving is one of my love languages, and when I see things kids would enjoy, I just want to buy them all the moon, hang the cost. I do try to keep to a dollar limit.  But just today I found a great price on an item that I KNOW one of my big kids would use and use and use.  After some discussion, John and I decided to go for it even tho it was over the budget for that kid, and maybe do a bit less when that one’s birthday comes around.  If I remember.  Ha.
  3. I’ve also been gradually collecting little stocking-stuffer items.  Actually, I started this summer, and am almost done.  Things I’ve done in past years include chapstick, stretchy gloves, toothbrushes, mechanical pencils, peanuts, Hershey’s kisses, and flashlights.  What do you like to put in kids’ stockings?
  4. This year Erika and her husband and baby will be with Israel’s family over Christmas.  So we’re planning a before-Christmas mini-celebration so that we can all enjoy watching the babies open gifts together.  Erika and Israel will be getting their gifts from us then.  All the kids will be doing a gift exchange that day too.  When they were small, John and I brought them to the dollar store to choose one gift for each sibling.  A couple years ago, after some discussion, they decided to go with the name-drawing system and buy one larger gift for one sibling each instead of tiny ones for everyone.  It seems to be going well.  Much excitement is buzzing here among the kids at the idea that they’ll be getting to open at least one item each before Christmas.  I imagine this will all get more complicated as our family grows and more of the kids get married. What do you do to get together with family when some of them are traveling?
  5. Christmas always gets me thinking lots about traditions.  I want traditions and warm memories more at this time of year more than any other. Teenagers don’t always appreciate my efforts to do the same things over and over each Christmas.  They look cranky when I suggest the yearly viewing of  ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’  They’re not so thrilled about helping with cookie-baking. They’re bored with puzzles. They do tend to enthuse over our annual gingerbread houses– but that’s mostly because of the candy and the fact that we do that activity with friends, not just family.  I’ve just decided to ignore their resistance, and gently require their presence during family times.  Our grown kids like the traditions just fine– in fact, they seem to appreciate them more the older they get.  So we’ll hope that this current batch eventually gets over their boredom and come to appreciate what I’m trying to do with these little routines.  But still, I’d love to hear your hints for encouraging teenagers  (especially 14 year olds– heaven help me, I have three!) to appreciate traditions and time spend with family during the holidays.

Christmas books for teens, preteens and reluctant readers


Is there a preteen or a teenager on your Christmas list? Have you thought of giving them books but wonder what they’d enjoy? I’ve found it can be especially challenging to pick books for kids who don’t enjoy reading much in the first place.   Here are some books that my preteens and teens have loved, both the avid readers, and the ones who’d rather be playing video games.  These books are lively, interesting page-turners that appeal to both boys and girls.



1. Inheritance 4-Book Set (Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, Inheritance) by Christopher Paolini is about a farm boy who discovers he is really a dragon rider.



2.Percy Jackson and the Olympians (5 books) by Rick Riordan is a story about a boy who has adventures with Greek gods and sea monsters.



3. Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix is based on the premise of a society where each family is allowed only two children, forcing any subsequent children to live in hiding.


4. Inkheart Trilogy by Cornelia Funke is about a girl catapulted into peril when a story read by her father surprisingly comes to life. These books have some bad language, but the storyline is utterly intriguing.


5.  The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games. This series is about a boy who discovers a world under New York City where he is forced to fight giant rats, spiders, and bats, and in the process becomes an unexpected hero.

I hope some of these book ideas help you with your Christmas shopping.  If you know of books that are inspiring and interesting for teens, I’d love for you to tell me about them in comments, below.  As always, I encourage you to do some research and don’t be afraid to trust your instincts when deciding  what is appropriate for your kids to read at various ages.


Related: Why we skipped The Hunger Games 

Pin It