Holiday Traditions, Nerd Style

Jump to How to Play Dungeons & Dragons with Toddlers

Since my husband only worked a half day on both the 22nd (Yule) and 23rd and was off through the 26th, it felt like he had a whole week off.  He commented that it reminded him of the Christmas breaks we’d have in college and that I had in law school.  So we enjoyed the time being kids with our kids, playing games, eating lots of sweets, and basically basking in all the snuggle time we could get before we hit the years where wanting to hug our kids (especially in public) becomes an attempt to ruin their lives.

Of course, there are always things families do as tradition over the holidays.  Some traditions are pretty, well, traditional.  Many families do it.  Like opening presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.  Some traditions are pretty unique.  Some traditions reflect a particular culture or background.

One really cool thing about traditions is that, when you’re older, keeping parts of the traditions can evoke pleasant childhood memories.

For my husband’s side of the family, Christmas is a pretty solemn event.  But they live in Kenya, where people have bigger things to worry about than who gets an Xbox or the latest Elmo doll.  Like pissed-off Somali terrorists, militant government censorship and government-sanctioned violence against women (and other human and civil rights violations), and whether they or their neighbors or the refugees their country takes in will have enough food and medical care to survive.  For some people in his village, Christmas is one of the few times they can eat meat.  But it’s also a happy time–of singing and celebrating and having a great feast.

kenya 170

A Kenyan city - Image by Mister_Jack via Flickr

So my husband brings to the Christmas traditions of our family singing and dancing with the kids.  He taught us some hymns in Swahili and his tribal language (Kalenjin), which were fun to sing and dance to.  One of his favorites is “Lulu,” which is the Swahili word for “heaven” and is basically about getting there (you can watch the video here) and “Tarajet,” which pretty much has the same message, but in my husband’s language (video here).  I guess we could add to our traditions giving a bit of gratitude for sites like YouTube that let us dredge up obscure Kenyan spirituals (that is, so long as such songs are legitimately available–but I’ll not get on a SOPA-box).

And eating until we feel like we might burst.

From my side of the family, there are certain experiences that take me back to happy times that I want to share with my kids.  Seeing a can of sardines in winter time reminds me of eating sardines on crackers with my father while watching the NFL playoffs.  The smell of anise seeds always takes me back to a late aunt’s kitchen and the amazing Mexican breads and cookies she’d make for Christmas.  And Christmas break meant family game night, especially once I was in my junior year of high school and drowning in a rigorous academic workload (and living on campus).  And family game night in my family meant one of three things: spades or pinochle, dominoes (if extended family was visiting), or Dungeons and Dragons (called “D&D” within the gamer community).

So we watched the New Orleans Saints go down in history again on Monday night while eating sardines with crackers and cheese.  We baked and devoured cookies all weekend (as I mentioned earlier).  And, now that the girls are near preschool age and Starkitten is learning to add, we wanted to introduce them to the world of D&D.

Okay, so the rest of this may sound a bit nerdy.  I will try to explain anything that sounds too technical or supply a link for more info.  Most of this will sound pretty basic to anyone who’s played D&D for a while.

The challenge with D&D is that, at minimum, it is very complicated and would pose a challenge for a small child to learn.  And then there are some PG-rated aspects of the game, depending on the kinds of adversaries the dungeon master, or DM for short, chooses for the player characters (the dungeon master is the person who runs the game, and could also be called a game master, or GM).  Most role-playing games, like D&D are pretty rule-intensive, and it can be very overwhelming for someone new to the game.  But once you play for a little bit, you find that most of the rules are pretty intuitive.

And any good player or DM knows that the rule books aren’t the end-all of the game.  This is extremely important when playing with first-timers and young kids.  And patience is equally important.

How to Play Dungeons & Dragons with Toddlers

Some of our D&D dice

I’d been playing D&D since I was 5 or 6.  My dad, who is something of a nerd himself, felt that his kids would learn D&D, Monopoly (that was more of my mom’s thing), and Stratego while other kids were learning Go Fish, Old Maid, and Candyland.  When we were older, he added Risk and taught us Spades and Pinochle when other kids I knew were learning poker and blackjack (to this day I don’t know how to play poker–but I could hold my own in Magic: The Gathering).  But the version of D&D my father had was the old school first version, which was very simplistic compared to later versions of the game.

However, growing up with D&D at an early age meant I was the family DM by the age of 11.  And, being 8 and 10 years older than my two younger brothers, it gave me an idea of how to include little kids who wanted to play with everyone else.  As a teenager, I figured out how to include kids who couldn’t really read or write yet into the game, and still make it fun for everyone.

Here are a few considerations for playing D&D with young children:

  1. Let go of some of the rules, and fudge the game in the little kid’s favor a bit–not too much, as they need to understand you don’t have to win all the time, but enough to still let them feel like they are doing better than the grown-ups.
  2. Be patient.  Expect to explain things.  But give points of reference.  Start off with monsters and situations that the child can identify with–maybe borrow ideas from his/her favorite cartoons or books.
  3. Animate the story.  And I mean by using descriptive words, maybe gesturing (or even act it out a bit).  Some DMs do this and some don’t, but–explain what the characters see or experience like it’s a story.  Tell it like a storyteller, putting emotion into your words:  “As the party walked down the stone passageway, everything got darker and darker.  Even the torches didn’t seem to bring much light.  The dungeon was quiet.  Maybe too quiet.  They could hear the skittering of the mice darting away before them.  Their own footsteps echoed loudly down the hall.  As they kept walking, they began to pick up a faint acidic odor.  And, soon, the sound of something scraping against stone.”  Seriously, kids love storytellers.
  4. Encourage the child to feel like a part of the story.  Just as much as kids like a good story, they want to be in the spotlight of the story.  Ask him/her, “Is your character scared of the dark hall?  What does your character think is making the scratching noise down the hall?”

    A D&D game session in progress

    A D&D game session in progress - Image via Wikipedia

  5. Let them be silly, especially if it encourages creative thinking.  For instance, when my youngest brother was 4 and learning to play the game, he asked me if his character could vomit into a bucket and toss it on the monster he was fighting, arguing it was acid vomit.  (Yes, this is gross, but that’s little kid thinking for you.)  Sure, why not?  If he can roll a “vomit check” (I picked some arbitrary number based on his character’s wisdom–can he make himself vomit?) then I’d give it the qualities of an acid splash spell.  I don’t remember the outcome of the roll, but it was hilarious for everyone and he had a fantastic time.
  6. You may have to adjust information on the character sheet for him/her, but explain what you are doing and why.  And turn it into a learning experience.  D&D can be a fun way to teach math, strategy, and empathy (once they are ready to learn to role-play).  For instance, have the child count backwards with you as you deduct hit points.
  7. Make the adventures short, until the child demonstrates that he/she can sit for a longer game.  And make the goals of the adventure simple: rescue the princess, find the secret treasure, that kind of thing.  Adventures dealing with mysteries and riddles and more complicated story lines should wait until they are older and/or get the hang of it.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m sure I could think add more, but it’s meant to be a guide.  Also, every kid is different, and as a parent (or other relation) you’ll know best what would work with the child.  And the Number One thing to remember is:  It’s just a game, and the point of the game is to have fun!

That being said, I’ll share a little bit about the game we’re running with Starkitten and Sunfilly.

To begin with, we gave them a point of reference by letting them choose characters styled after their favorite fictional characters.  For Starkitten, that’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and for Sunfilly, it’s Mulan.  So Buffy (who specifically fought the undead and demons) became a human ranger with undead as her favored enemy.  Mulan (a woman warrior) became a human fighter.  See?  Easy enough.  My husband decided to be a cleric, and we let the kids choose his character:  Yoda.  And, since they don’t have… whatever the hell Yoda was in the D&D manual, for the sake of simplicity, we made Yoda be a gnome.  And even though I was the DM, I rolled a character, too, so that they’d get the idea of what you can do in D&D.  I wanted to be Hermione Granger, a human mage, but Starkitten gave an executive veto and insisted I instead be Tinker Bell.  “Tinker Bell” to my girls really means any of the Disney fairies (or any fairy, for that matter), so I went with Rosetta, because she’s spunky, as an elf sorcerer.  I assigned them standard equipment (I gave Buffy an axe and a crossbow, instead of a stake, because on the TV show, when she’s pissed off, she likes to carry huge scary weapons like axes and crossbows).

The  pop culture points of reference are helpful in teaching the kids to role-play.  They know how Buffy would react to a scary situation (fight first, ask questions later), versus how Mulan would (come up with a plan, don’t jump right into the fray).  They know Yoda will stick back (they have only seen the original Star Wars, when Yoda is more of a teacher with “magic” powers–the Force) and guide the fighters.  And they know that Rosetta is little and fragile, and so most likely to be squished, but she has useful magical talents.  So when it finally did become battle time, we would ask the girls, “What would Buffy do?” or “What would Mulan do?”  It’s the first step towards imaginative role-playing.

We rolled stats for a very simplistic home-made character sheet (which I have made available for you here if you wanted to look at it and/or use it).  Starkitten read the numbers off the die and we guided her in adding them up: “The first dice reads what number?  4.  And the second one reads…?  5.  And the third?  5.  Let’s count.  4 plus 5 is 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.  9 plus 5 is 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.  So we have 14.”

For experience, to keep engaging the kids with math, we changed it to “kill counts.”  So they just count the number of monsters that the party kills (we decided to go with party kills as opposed to individual kills to encourage a teamwork mentality).  To reach level 2, the party needs to kill 50 monsters.  Tough monsters, arguably, could count as more than one kill, but I don’t think the kids are at that point of understanding.

In the back of my mind, I was keeping up with all the more complex rules, like their saving throws and that sort of thing.  This way, there is still some consistency to the game and it could still be enjoyable for my husband and me.

The fun part for the girls, especially Sunfilly, was the actual playing of the game.  We just made a very simple, “let’s run through the dungeon and find treasure” adventure, as the kids have seen my husband play games like Zelda and Gauntlet and have a good idea of what that means.  And, since Starkitten has a huge fascination with zombies, why not let the kids imagine themselves running through the dungeon killing some zombies.

So I made paper tokens for the characters and the monsters using a spreadsheet I created (I’m sharing the blank template with instructions in Excel 2008 format here, and a PDF sample orc template here and zombies/kobolds here).  For a dungeon map, we just used the cardboard map pieces to a dungeon set I’d had for almost 10 years (but you can make your own or find one online).

Close-up of the kobold tokens

Then it was time to tell a story and set the scene.  The girls enjoyed the story, but seemed the most engaged once we got to the part where the party was ambushed by zombies hungry for braaaaiiiiiiiiiins.  Starkitten knew just what to do:  “Buffy wants to squish the zombies with her sword.”  I explained that she had an axe and showed her a picture of an axe, and she then called it an axe.  We acted out how we were fighting the zombies.  Sunfilly really enjoyed rolling the dice, so much so that I’d let her roll for the zombies as well.

Sadly, the zombies had no treasure, but I explained that the characters got a little wiser from fighting the zombies.  They got experienced:  “How many zombies did we kill?  Let’s count the tokens on the side here.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.  We killed 6 zombies.  Good job!  Let’s write it down as our experience.”

Then the party wandered into another part of the dungeon and found a different set of monsters (kobolds) which had a different reason to attack the party (we were stealing things from their dungeon) and a different way to fight.  This helped the kids to understand that “bad guys” may have different motivations to want to fight a protagonist in any story: the zombies were just hungry, and the kobolds were just defending their dungeon (but they really don’t like meeting new friends or sharing and want to kill you if you try to visit them, and that’s not very nice, either).  We really did have a brief discussion about this.

Two encounters were all the kids could sit through before getting restless, as toddlers tend to do, so we called it a night and went back to dancing ourselves silly to “Tarajet.”

It was, overall, a great bonding event.  Everyone had a good time, and I think the kids could see that it was something my husband and I enjoyed playing.  Even now Starkitten is counting down until the weekend when she can be Buffy and “Buffy squishes more zombies and finds the secret pirate treasure.”  Pirates?  I guess I need to make some pirate tokens.  Arrrr!

This is what one of our battles looked like. I could totally imagine Buffy and Mulan tearing through those orcs and kobolds like they were paper dolls.

Christmas Leftovers

Jump to Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

Jump to Madras Hot Curry Powder

The week of Yule and Christmas ran by very quickly.  I was busy–as most people were–with cleaning and cooking and cleaning and cooking and enjoying time with family–and I had so many ideas of things to share with you on this blog.

And then today happened.

Snow Cat

Image by clickclique via Flickr

I was sitting down with a cup of coffee, watching after-breakfast Sesame Street with the kids as I groggily shifted into gear to complete all the chores on my to-do list, when I noticed the rain turning into some of that scary fluffy white stuff: snow.

“Oh lawks,” I groaned.

I had a list of errands that I planned to run tomorrow, but if it’s snowing, I didn’t want to be out in it.  I checked the weather forecast, and it said that it was going to be snowing off and on for the next few days.  And, like anyone who learned to drive in the South, the thought of driving in the snow scares the crap out of me.

I called my mother, who learned to drive in Chicago.  She helped me prepare for this frightening task:  “The ground isn’t frozen yet?…  Then you don’t have to worry about ice in the road until it gets colder.  Just keep a good distance between you and the other vehicles.  If you hit ice, turn your wheels in the direction of the spin.  Don’t brake on ice.  Before you hit your brakes, let the vehicle slow down first.”

So the kids and I put on our winter coats and headed out the door to run our errands.  Fortunately, the snow turned to rain and the drive into the nearest city (a good 40 minutes of driving on a sunny day) was uneventful, although longer than usual, because I drove slower.  This annoyed the Yankees greatly.

The challenge came when I had several places to drive to and it started snowing again.  We came out unscathed, but the snow started falling hard and even the Yankees were driving slowly.

Taken in Megeve, France

Image by Joss Dude via Wikipedia

I kept telling myself, “Breathebreathebreathe.  Drive like a granny.  Is that a polar bear?  Keep several car lengths between you and the next vehicle.  Slow down before braking.  Ice is everywhere and it’s out to kill you.  Don’t punch the accelerator like the Texan-in-the-big-behemoth-truck stereotype–there is no time to squish puny cars.  Drive slowly.  Remember to breathe.  Omigod what is all that white stuff and why does it hate me?!

It was hard to not think of C.S. Lewis‘ classic villain, the White Witch.  She was making all this happen and she knew I have a weakness for sweets.

I soon realized it was well past lunchtime (in a trip that would normally have been done hours ago), and so stopped between errands to pick up lunch for the kids.  No sweets allowed, lest they have been bribes from the White Witch.  But while sitting down at our table, Sunfilly demanded to take off her coat by herself, and in a rage at her stuck zipper, pulled at her coat before I could turn to help her, and broke her zipper.  I think the White Witch knew I was onto her.

I had to add one more stop to my trip:  a store to buy a new coat.

That extra trip to the store turned into going to three different stores, as I couldn’t find a coat that fit either girl at the first two.  All this while driving through crazy scary fluffy white stuff falling from the heavens.

One of the stores I wound up going to was the dreaded Wal-Mart.  Even though they didn’t have any toddler-sized winter coats in stock, I did what any good Southerner would do when the apocalypse dust is falling from the sky and bought a bunch of non-perishables.  I mean, after all, it looks like the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl again, and last time that happened, 49 of the 50 states suffered from the white apocalypse dust (remember Snowmageddon?).

So what should have been a two- or three-hour venture turned into a six-hour venture.  In the snow.  It was dinnertime when we arrived home.  And I needed another pot of coffee.

And did I add the kids didn’t nap?  Oi!

English: Small trees after heavy snowing.

Image by Emr via Wikipedia

There was silver lining.  In the sea of white that was now the farmlands I passed on the way home, there were many ponds, which have not yet frozen over.  In one of them swam a pair of swans.  I was in awe of their beauty, and even more impressed at how large they were.  I realized I never would have seen them had I stayed at home and hated snowy roads.

And I gained confidence in driving in the snow.  You see, by the time I got home, I realized I was driving confidently.  I wasn’t terrified anymore.

That being said, it was leftovers for dinner tonight.  And, as I had plans to write about so many other things that went on over Yule and Christmas, I felt that I could save it for next time, as my first time driving with my kids in the snow was a fairly frightening event for me.  (I had driven in Dallas snowstorms a couple times, when I was supposed to go to work.  I wound up calling in.  That is how much snow on the road terrifies me.)

But, as we all know, dealing with leftover turkey requires a bit of creativity, and so I figured I’d share tonight’s culinary creation.

Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

In short, we cooked a huge bird for Christmas dinner and I was running out of ideas for traditional ways to prepare leftovers.  And I was going through some serious curry cravings.

Here it is, while the curry paste is melting.

The ingredients I used were:

  • 3 cups of diced or shredded leftover turkey meat
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 cup turkey drippings
  • 1 can of carrots
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 tablespoons curry paste

And for the couscous, which I served as a side, I used:

  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 teaspoons Madras hot curry powder
  • 1 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 can chickpeas

Quite simply, I diced/shredded (I really did a combination, depending on how cooperative the meat was) leftover turkey into 1-inch cubes and sauteéd it with some onions and olive oil in a large pan.  I’d saved the drippings from when I initially cooked the bird on Christmas, and so I added a cup of refrigerated drippings to the mixture, along with a drained can of carrots.

Contrary to how it may sound, turkey drippings aren’t that greasy, and it adds a nice flavor to the bird.  The drippings gel when refrigerated, and the gel is heterogeneous, with the fat forming a white layer at the top.  If you want, you can scrape that part off before using it.

Then I added a substantial amount of curry paste and stirred thoroughly.  (You can usually buy some form of curry paste at most grocery stores, usually in the Asian food section.  If you want to make your own, I recommend this recipe for Thai curry paste.  It’s rather spicy, so when I cook for the kids, I usually halve what the recipe calls for on chillies and excluded the shrimp paste/mountain sauce ingredient and it still came out great.)

Then it’s just a matter of cooking until everything is warmed up and mixed well.

This is everything but the actual couscous, waiting to boil.

For the couscous, when boiling 1 cup of water, I added 1-1/2 teaspoon of Madras hot curry powder, 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 tablespoons of pine nuts, and a drained can of chickpeas.  When the water was boiling and the chickpeas were cooked, I added 1 cup of couscous, mixed thoroughly, and let it sit (as you’d usually prepare couscous).

Madras Hot Curry Powder

To make the curry powder, you need:

  • 8 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 6 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seed
  • 4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 8 tablespoons peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves
  • 2 tablespoons ground cardamom
  • 2 tablespoons turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne (or less, depending on how much heat you can handle)
  • 1 Mason jar

Directions

  1. In a dry skillet over very low heat, place the coriander, cumin, mustard and fennel seeds. Roast the seeds gently, shaking the pan occasionally, until they begin to pop.
  2. When about half the seeds have popped, add everything else.  Continue to heat and stir gently until the mixture is hot.  Be careful not to burn it, though.
  3. Pour the mixture into a dry blender.  Grind into a fine powder.  You may need to pause, remove the blender from the machine, and shake it up to keep from clumping in the blades.  (If you have a lot of patience and want to do it the old-fashioned way, you could break out the mortar and pestle.)
  4. Wait until the mixture cools off, and then you can store it into an empty jar.

That’s all there is to it.

The end result was oh-so-delicious.

And at the end of the day, the snow turned to wind and rain.  So I scared myself onto the road for naught.  But at the end of it all, I had a story to tell, about driving through the snow for the first time and seeing swans for the first time.

I guess the snow isn’t all that evil.

English: Swans in the snow

I wonder what they taste like. - Image by Michael Preston via Wikipedia

Keeping the Winter Holidays Simple

Jump to Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

Jump to Homemade Holiday Stockings

Winter is one of those seasons that always seems so magical.  Maybe it’s because I’ve rarely seen snow and I love being lost in the sparkling, snowy winter worlds in books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or White Fang or Dragons of Winter Night and Christmastime television programming like It’s A Wonderful Life or the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (or pretty much anything else that takes me back to nostalgia about my childhood).  As a young adult, I’d often imagined myself in some snowy countryside cottage, drinking hot cocoa while sitting next to a roaring fire with a book in my hand and a cat on my lap.  And that would be a perfect way to spend a winter’s day for me.

Well things had changed a lot since my young adult years, but I still find myself unusually fascinated with snow.  And now that I have kids, I can relive the magic of this time of year with them.

Some of that weird white sparkly stuff shuts down Dallas when it strikes.

Usually in Texas, we’d get a day or two of snow.  It would shut down the entire city, because we Southerners are not very confident about driving in the snow.  In Louisiana, it was an even rarer occurrence and would lead to a greater freak-out and shut-down of things.  Heck, if it was predicted that a snow- or icestorm would be nigh, the local Wal-Mart would be packed with people stocking up on food, water, bullets, and whatever else will help them survive this hellish weather.  That’s “Yankee weather.”  Give us some triple-digit heat, 90% humidity, and sweet tea and we will feel much more comfortable.  Give us that weird white stuff, and we panic.

Of course, as I’m typing this, we are having an ice storm (and since I’m out in the country, it’s killing my internet connection–my link to the outside world).  And of course I’ve made sure to have an eon’s supply of food and water in case the world ends.  Because, like I said, winter weather makes Southerners nervous.

But, in Texas, that day or two of snow would usually fall sometime between Yule and the Super Bowl (like how last year’s snowstorm in Dallas killed the city’s economy because the local businesses were counting on the Super Bowl commerce to pull them out of the recession), which is really when you’d want snow to fall, anyways.  It feels timely.  Even in that freak spring of 2010 when it snowed right after the Saints won the Super Bowl.

I learned that in Ohio, it can snow in November.

Not that it really bothers me, or that it shocked me.  It just felt weird to see snow when I was still recovering from overindulging on Thanksgiving fare.

It was a sleepy afternoon, when the kids and I had finished off the last of the leftover turkey, pumpkin pie, and stuffing.  The tryptophan had taken over, and we’d snuggled up with the dog in my bed.  When we awoke from our nap, which was longer than usual, the first thing I did was groggily lead the dog to the front door so he could do his business.

Starkitten, who stood behind me, screamed what she observed:  “SNOW!!!”

And the dog–a four-pound chihuahua–decided he wasn’t going to do any business in that fluffy, cold, white stuff, even if you threatened to put him in the pot to be tonight’s supper.

I guess I got part of my young adult winter fantasy: I'm certainly enjoying the snowy countryside! And, clearly, so are the kids.

The kids had the opposite reaction.  It took a lot to convince them to get appropriately dressed for the snow, but it was worth it.  As if by instinct, they started having snowball fights, making snow angels, and tried to build a snow-T. rex (apparently a snowman is overrated).

All that frolicking in the snow got me into the holiday spirit.  We put up the tree the next day and baked cookies and played in the snow some more.

By “holiday spirit,” I don’t mean wanting to go out and buy a bunch of things.  I think the commercialized version of Christmas is insulting to everything the holiday–and all winter holidays–stands for.

This is a depressing time of year: shorter days mean lower melatonin levels.  Some people suffer mood changes from this–and it’s an actual affliction that doctors treat, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or, endearingly, SAD).  The world is still and quiet–something that didn’t really hit me until this winter, when living in the snowy North made me notice why our ancestors had such a need for winter holidays.  The world really does seem dead.  And the snow that blankets the earth, while beautiful and sparkly, is also blinding.  And seeing so much white and black and gray (very much unlike the cozy world of Whoville) makes me instead feel like I’m living in a German expressionist painting or a third-rate knockoff to a Tim Burton film (as in no Johnny Deppto make it better).

One of the candles I used to illuminate my home for Yule last year. I think this picture speaks to what winter holidays mean: a light in the darkness. Hope. Peace.

It’s no wonder our ancestors needed a celebration of lights to get through the winter.  Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, is probably the first thing people think about in terms of winter holidays.  Despite the fact that Jesus was most likely born in the summertime, his birth is traditionally celebrated in winter.  There is much historical literature which suggests that this was to make it easier for people to convert to Christianity, as older holidays occurred during midwinter: the Jewish celebration of Chanukah and the pagan holidays of Yule (Celtic/Germanic) and Saturnalia (Roman).   All of these holidays, at the core, are joyous celebrations of hope, whether it be the birth of the Sun or Son (of God), Oak King or King of Kings.  Or about getting through oppression (i.e. Chanukah and Saturnalia).  Heck, even New Year’s is a culmination of sorts, filled with lights and merrymaking (even the Chinese New Year falls in the cold-as-hell months).

The winter months are depressing.  People need something happy to help them get through it.

That’s why I must admit the terrible commercialization of Christmas is a bit off-putting to me, and I’m not the Christian in my family.  It’s disgusting because the focus on material things detracts from the hope the holiday (whichever holiday one observes) offers.  Gift-giving is fine, but there is no reason to pepper spray a stranger because you really have to get that Xbox for your kids or trample a kid because you have to be the one to snag that expensive video game on sale (and Black Friday at Wal-Mart tends to be marred with violence).  Of course, some people have to go overboard with gifts, such as by wrapping presents with money or giving a pen encased in pure diamonds.  And, of course, we are inundated with commercials on TV and the radio (and ads on the internet if you don’t use an ad-blocking software) that say, “If you love him/her, you will buy [insert unnecessary and expensive item].”

The holiday season ought to be about togetherness, about celebrating whatever deity/deities you worship, and–especially in this crummy economy–about weathering it through another year.

Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

There are several lists like this out there, but I figured it’s worth sharing again.  There are so many things that you can make for someone or pay for that would be incredibly meaningful to them and much less materialistic than, say, a diamond-encrusted pen or an Xbox.

Here are a few of my ideas for inexpensive but meaningful gifts:

  • Bake his/her favorite cookies, bread, or pie.
  • Knit a scarf, pair of socks, or mittens.
  • Make a “coupon book” of IOUs, such as for a night of free babysitting or pet-sitting, housecleaning, and so on.  If you are skilled in a profession (ex. a massage therapist or computer expert), maybe toss in a few freebies related to that profession.
  • If you grow herbs, you could make aromatherapy tea bags or sachets or even infuse them into candles or soaps.
  • If you are a photographer, make a framed collage of the recipient’s name in art.
  • If you are an artist, use your talent to make something special for that person.
  • Make a fun, framed photo collage–maybe even include newspaper clippings or maps from the town where you and the recipient first met (hometown for family members, maybe the town where you went to school with your BFF, that sort of thing)
  • Make magnets.  For instance, if you have a friend who is obsessed with Doctor Who, print out 1-inch pictures of the Doctor in each of his incarnations, and maybe the TARDIS, laminate them, and glue them onto square-shaped magnets.
  • You can even make your own greeting cards.
For those who are pressed for time (or shipping is ridiculously high) or don’t have confidence in their talents, there are some unique options out there:
  • Give the gift of experience:  Movie tickets or scuba lessons (or a gift certificate to a spa or getaway cabin, if you have the money to spend) are such an example.  Think of something that would mean a lot to the recipient, and such an experience will be something that he/she will remember forever.
  • Order personalized calendars–there are several companies out there that will make them.  Some will even let you add “family holidays,” like Grandma’s birthday or the annual family reunion, to the printed calendar.
  • Donate to a charity in your loved one’s honor.  There are charities like the ASPCA and Oxfam America (an international charity where you can choose exactly what the money goes to–like educating midwives or buying mosquito nets and vaccines) which will send a holiday card to your loved one saying that you gave the gift of hope in their honor.  You can also check local charities–there are women’s shelters, homeless shelters, animal shelters, veterans’ groups, and the like who will do the same thing.
  • Order a personalized travel coffee mug.
  • Name a star after him/her.
  • Go to a local embroiderer and get monogrammed towels, gloves, or something else practical.  You help local business and please those who prefer practical gifts.


Homemade Holiday Stockings

That being said, I’ve never been a fan of buying those really big Christmas stockings, because they demand to be overfilled.  And overfilling them requires spending a lot of money.  And overfilling also means giving a lot of gifts, which perpetuates the entitlement culture that has become associated with this time of the year (and that reminds me of an annoying eBay commercial that aired this year with some whiny tween dictating what her gifts should be).

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have a lot, and so we usually didn’t get much for Christmas.  A tradition we had, which was fun, was that when we put up the tree, each of the kids had a small stocking to hang on the tree (it was the size of a small child’s sock).  Every night, “Santa” (a.k.a. my mother) would place a small candy or toy (like a race car or wind-up toy or nifty pencil) into each stocking.  This way, when Christmas rolled around, it was more about the warm fuzzies of togetherness than getting gifts.

My husband and I decided to carry that tradition over, now that the kids are old enough to get an idea of this whole time of year.  Since all I could find were those obnoxiously big stockings (of which I am ashamed to admit to own a few, for winters past, but mostly for decoration than function), I decided to make the little mini-stockings myself.

All I needed was:

Stocking-making tools

  • a toddler sock that had been missing its mate and was still in good condition
  • glitter glue
  • rhinestones
  • snowflake confetti
  • colorful string
  • Gorilla glue

Then came the decorating:

  1. I first wrote the first initial of each girl’s name on her appropriate stocking.
  2. It helps to do this over some newspaper, so as to avoid getting glue all over the table that has been in your family for three generations.  Because that stuff is a pain in the arse to get off.
  3. With Starkitten’s help, I decorated with more glitter glue.
  4. Then we added the rhinestones and confetti, attaching them with Gorilla glue.  (I actually did not let Starkitten touch them once I put on the Gorilla glue, but she directed where I should place what.)
  5. Then I folded up some colorful string and glue it to the back corner of the sock so that it could hang from the tree.

Starkitten's stocking--Her initial smeared a bit because Sunfilly wanted to poke the pretty sparkles.

Sunfilly's Stocking

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