We're in the transition between the celebration of Christmas and the reevaluation of a new year; here's some of what I've been thinking about.
We just don't know all the long-term effects of our actions... but he does; he who knows the end from the beginning.  He tells us My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee, and "I am God, and there is none like me, 10 Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done" (Isaiah 46:9-10).

I know that God has directed my paths, that I benefit most from this when I pay attention and listen for his counsel and direction.  I'm grateful for the struggles and learning he's helped me through; they prepare me to become more like he is, and to better serve him and his children.

Did you ever learn the song that starts, "Here comes Suzy Snowflake"? Our family was asked to come up with a musical number for a party... and that's what we chose.  And my girls got some great dress-up skirts out of it.  (I told them they're early Christmas presents... and now that we've performed, the skirts get wrapped and put under the tree.)
On the Youtube video below, she shows you a quick way to cut strips of netting: roll the tulle without creating wrinkles; cut the roll into 3” strips.  She used 4 colors, 1 yd each, for a 2-4-year-old’s skirt.  For that shorter skirt, she cuts each strip in half.  She says it takes about 45 minutes to make one; we spent about an hour apiece but that was with my 11-year-old doing most of the tying.
I  used her method but made longer skirts- the biggest of the two was 27" long, the small one was 24" long. So I made the strips 54" long for the first, 48" long for the second. When I got to the fabric store, I found that the more delicate-looking Illusion netting, 108" wide! so I could get twice as many strips per yard- was on sale for $1/yd, so I got that instead of the coarser netting.  I used almost 5 yard for the bigger skirt and about 4 1/2 yards for the smaller one. For the larger snowflake overlay skirt (18" long), I bought turquoise sparkle tulle, folded it in sixths cut a circle with a 22" radius (needed 1 ¼ yds); cut out a circle for the center, and cut it like a very simple snowflake.  The smaller overlay (14" long) only required 1 yard.    By the way, there's a great website that allows you to create snowflakes online and see what they'll look like before having to cut any actual paper.

The snowflake crowns were cut from the bottom of a plastic gallon-sized milk jug, then my girls colored the snowflakes blue.  See the slideshow for photos of that.
Are you trying to eat healthier but really, really crave fudge?  This one uses healthy fats and honey.   It's also dairy-free and gluten-free for those who need to avoid those.  

Avocados are high in three amazing fats: both phytosterols and PFAs (polyhydroxylated fatty alcohols) are documented to be anti-inflammatory, and oleic acid, which helps our digestive tract absorb fat-soluble nutrients.  Coconut oil is healthy for many reasons, including being anti-inflammatory and having a high lauric acid  and medium-chain fatty acids content.  
But enough about that.

The big question is, doesn't avocado totally mess up the flavor here?

No.  I have a pretty discriminating set of tastebuds, and the only way I can detect the avocado is by a faint fruity flavor.  Because of that, some of my favorite variations of this fudge include fruit:  orange zest or oil, chopped dried cherries (and toasted almonds!), and the like.  This fudge is really only a slightly thicker version of my ChocolateTruffle Pie.

The recipe below includes both orange and pecans; if you don't want them, just omit the pecans and orange zest or orange oil.

You can also use this recipe to make truffles; cut into squares, then quickly roll each square into a ball; roll in cocoa powder or chopped nuts to coat.

Orange-Pecan Fudge            makes about 3/4 of a pound 

1 ripe avocado, peel and pit removed
1/4 c. coconut oil
1/4 c. honey
1/4 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 Tbsp. water
zest from half of an orange (about 1/2 Tbsp.), or 2 drops orange essential oil
3/4 tsp. vanilla
pinch of salt (1/16 tsp.)
1/4 c. toasted chopped pecans

Line a 5 1/2 x 3 loaf pan (or 2-cup rectangular or square container) with foil; spray with nonstick cooking spray.   Set aside.
Put the water, zest (should be about 1 Tbsp), honey, coconut oil, cocoa, avocado, vanilla, and salt in a blender or food processor.  Run on high for 1-2 minutes, until smooth.  Pour into prepared pan.  Cover and refrigerate 2-3 hours until set.   

Store in the refrigerator or freezer.  If freezing this, let pieces thaw about 10 minutes before serving.  I don't know how long it will keep in the fridge because it gets eaten so quickly.   But the one piece that survived us for a week and a half was still good.  Any longer than a week, though, it'd be better preserved in the freezer.  Wrap tightly.

photo credit: Alex Grichenko
This December, would you like a daily thought, song, scripture, story, and/or activity to help you feel more of the calm spirit of Christmas?  My friend Amy over at LDS Holistic Living has a Christmas Advent Calendar you can use or download for free.  It's designed specifically with members of the LDS faith in mind, but anyone can find great things in it.  If you're interested, you can get the calendar here.

Meanwhile, here's a sample:

The Real Story Behind the 12 Days of Christmas

Catholics in England were prohibited by law from practicing their faith, both in private and in public from 1558 to 1829. Being a Catholic was treated as a crime. There was no restored gospel at the time, however there were good Christians who knew without doubt the true church was not one that was mainly created merely for the convenience of King Henry the Eighth who wanted to sin and have a church justify his actions. So in secret they continued to teach their children their  religion. 

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written in England during this time frame. It was written to help children learn about their religion. The entire song is writing in symbolism and hidden meanings because it was illegal to have anything in writing that would indicate adherence to the Catholic faith. To be caught could mean imprisonment, hanging, or drawn and quartered.
Christmas referred to a twelve day period that starts with Christmas day. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" referred to a twelve day period that began Christmas day. While the world may have celebrated Christmas for about twelve hours, these Christians celebrated it for twelve days as a reminder that the gifts of God are with us for twelve months of the year. It also represented the idea that we should be thankful for the gifts of God and follow His teachings for all twelve months of the year and not just one day a year. 

The song begins, "On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me..." The "true love" represents God, as our greatest love should be for Him. The word worship means that which we love the most. The "me" who receives these presents is the Christian man or woman.

1. The "partridge in a pear tree" was Jesus Christ who died on a structure made from the wood of a tree. In ancient times a partridge was often used as mythological symbol of a divine, sacred king.

2. The "two turtle doves" were the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God. Doves symbolize peace and the Gospel contained in these scriptures, when practiced, brings peace.

3. The "three French hens" were faith, hope and love - the three gifts of the Spirit that abide (I
Corinthians 13). The French hens can also represent God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost.

4. The "four calling birds" were the four Gospels which sing the song of salvation through Jesus Christ.

5. The "five golden rings" were the first five books of the Bible also called the "Books of Moses."

6. The "six geese a-laying" were the six days of creation.

7. The "seven swans a swimming" were "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (I Corinthians 12:8-11, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4:10-11)

8. The "eight maids a milking" were the eight beatitudes.

9. The "nine ladies dancing" were nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law." (Galatians 5:22)

10. The "ten lords a-leaping" were the Ten Commandments.

11. The "eleven pipers piping" were the eleven faithful disciples.

12. The "twelve drummers drumming" were the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed.
Do you want something simple to give to friends and neighbors?  Here are some quickies; if you have more time you might like Candy Cane Bread, shaped and decorated like a candy cane.  
Recipes for the fudge and the gingerbread syrup are below.

For the jars to pour syrup in, I save jars through the year: spaghetti sauce jars, pickle jars, jelly jars,baby food jars, peanut butter containers (don't use those for anyone with peanut allergies!)...
After Christmas, anything that didn't get used gets put in the recycle bin, and I have cupboard space once again!
Cherry-Almond Fudge

2 c. sugar
1/2 c. milk
7 oz. marshmallow creme (may use 7 oz. marshmallows instead)
12 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
1 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. cherry flavor  (I used wild cherry, and it was amazing!)
1/4 c. dried cherries or cranberries, finely chopped
1/2 c. almonds, chopped

Line an 8x8 pan with parchment or foil; butter well if using foil.  Set aside.  Combine the sugar and milk in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil, stirring often, then boil for 3 minutes.  Pull off the heat, then add marshmallow creme, chocolate chips, almond and cherry extracts, and dried cherries.  Stir until smooth.  Pour into prepared pan, and sprinkle with chopped nuts.  
Refrigerate 1 hour or until firm, then cut into squares.  Store airtight at room temperature.

Makes just over 2 pounds.

Gingerbread Syrup 
(notice this recipe is basically the same as above, only without the marshmallow, and with extra milk to make it pourable)  If you don't have cinnamon chips, use white chocolate chips or butterscotch chips, then add 1-2 Tbsp. ground cinnamon, to taste.

2 c. sugar (can use brown sugar for deeper flavor, or add 1 Tbsp. molasses)
1 c. plus 2 Tbsp. milk
12 oz. cinnamon chips (I used Hershey's brand)
1 tsp. ground ginger OR 1 drop ginger essential oil
1/2 tsp. ground cloves OR 1 toothpick of clove oil
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 c. pecans, toasted and finely chopped

In a medium saucepan, bring the sugar and milk to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Boil for 1 minute, then remove from heat.  Stir in cinnamon chips, ginger, cloves, salt, and stir until smooth.  Stir in pecans, then pour syrup into jars.  Store in the refrigerator.  Warm before serving.  (If too thick, microwave briefly.)

Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

Tonight I stood in the kitchen with my 10-year-old daughter; I kneaded bread rhythmically on the counter while she prepared pumpkin for the first time, scooping out seeds, cutting carefully into cubes to be steamed.  We had music playing in the corner, Handel's masterpiece "Messiah" emanating from a  pink Barbie CD player.   Nevermind that my daughter was in charge of the pumpkin because she'd poked holes in it with a pencil (a smiley face, but now it wouldn't store through the winter) or that it was 11pm and both of us would have liked to been asleep.  Some days the schedule just goes out the window.  But as I showed her what to do - and not do!- then watched while she eagerly and carefully cut the pumpkin- I had the feeling I think every mother gets every now and again.  The feeling that this  is what life is about.  Joy in learning.  Joy in being with family.  Joy in seeing abilities and confidence bloom in someone you love.  Joy in working together, in passing skills on to the next generation, and in helping them see the results of honest effort.  Joy in beautiful music and gratitude for those who created such uplifting works.  Joy in my Savior, his life and example.    
Joy to the world!  -for all these joys are available to everyone to some degree.
If you'd like to hear the whole Messiah- which is the best way to hear and understand its message- here you go.
Notice the music above is over two hours long... it's the entire work.  Handel wrote this in only 24 days- hundreds of pages of music for choir and instruments. It was written to help the listeners understand more about Jesus Christ, the Messiah.  The lyrics are taken directly from the Old and New Testament, and go through His life, from before his birth, clear through his sufferings, Atonement, resurrection, and glory.  A good, short video giving some of the background can be found here, or see a fantastic blog post here.  I love to feel the power of the music and the message.    At one point while this music was being composed, a friend came to visit and found Handel sobbing with emotion after writing the Hallelujah chorus. Handel is quoted as saying "I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself."   It is customary to stand while that chorus is sung... but did you know the chorus is referring to Christ's Second Coming?  The scriptures this chorus comes from are Revelations 19:6, 16, and 11:15.  It, like the "Christmas" song Joy To the World (which Handel wrote the music for), are really a celebration of the future day when Christ rules as the righteous King of kings. (You can read more about the background of the custom of standing here.)
  He signed the work "S.D.G":  Soli Deo gloria, or "glory to God alone".

Most people claim the best-known bit, the "Hallelujah Chorus", as their favorite, but the two below are my favorites.
Isn't this what you hope for? 
A smile, a gift willingly given, and gratitude when it's opened.

We found that our children too often got the "gimmies" (Gimmie, gimmie, gimmie...)--
Tear one present open, toss it behind them, and reach to see what's next.  Some presents never got played with or appreciated, relegated to the side of the room forever, in favor of something more exciting.  To help eliminate that, we started a Christmas tradition a few years ago.   

There's no rule on when they're allowed to get up- but present-opening won't start until 8 a.m.  Stockings, and only stockings,  are free game before that.  Each of the kids gets a box of cereal as part of their stocking (set to the side, no, they don't fit inside!), so that pretty much takes care of breakfast.  (If you'd like fresh cinnamon rolls, see the Refrigerator Rolls post.)  Right before opening presents, we read the Christmas story in Luke Chapter 2, and have our usual family song and prayer for the day.
We take turns opening one present each hour, on the hour- only one package opened at a time, going from youngest to oldest, each person choosing what to open.  We also open 1-2 family gifts, depending on how many are under the tree.  We spend the next hour looking at, playing with, or reading whatever our gift was, or the kids play together with something.  We meet under the Christmas tree an hour later, to do this again. 

This has really helped our children notice and appreciate each gift better. 

Since we have a large family, all the kids buy or make small gifts for each other, and grandparents give gifts, everyone actually has about ten presents.  Rather than taking ten hours to open, though, we open the rest of them at about hour #5.  

I recently read someone's else's method; they have each person gather the gifts they are GIVING, and distribute those themselves.  The point of this is to focus on the giving, more than the receiving.  This year we'll combine the two ideas, letting one person each hour give out all their gifts.  (After-Christmas- update:  I LOVED doing this, and the kids were really excited to give their gifts out in one round .  Next year I'll let the teenagers give last, though, so they  end on a grateful/happy note.  I made the mistake of having them ) 

And this year, with Christmas on Sunday, our kids voted to have just the filled stockings for Christmas morning, and "Christmas" on Monday.  They want this because there are household rules on the types of play on the Sabbath (i.e., no bike riding, rollerblading, or trampoline jumping!), and they figure they can FULLY enjoy whatever they're getting if there are fewer limitations.  I'm voting for this because then we can hopefully focus more on Christ that day, including watching the video links, below.

May you have a Merry Christmas, filled with happiness, peace, appreciation, and love for your family and our Savior.

For some beautiful, newly-released Bible videos on the original Christmas, from The Annunciation to The Wise Men and in between, see here.

It's that time of year...

to make gingerbread houses!  Whether you want to make one for a competition, or just make something fun with your children, here's my family's tried-and-tested favorite recipe for eating AND building. (See here for a gluten-free recipe, or just substitute a GF flour blend in place of regular flour.)  We have a yearly tradition of everyone in the family decorating a small house.  If you want a recipe that will bake up thin yet strong, suitable for competition-level houses, the next couple pictures are of this one.  The eating/building recipe has more leavening and therefore a lighter crunch.  The 'building' recipe, below, is also good, but more dense.  Be sure to roll this one thinly!!!

See here for Part 2- Assembling and Decorating

For the full recipe, along with more instructions, tips, and things I've learned, it's also on the link above.  Put in a large bowl or medium saucepan: 1 1/2 c. light corn syrup, 1 1/4 c. brown sugar, and 1 cup butter.  This will be easiest if you cut each cube of butter into 5-6 chunks.

Heat in the microwave about a minute or until everything melts and can be stirred together.  If using a saucepan, heat over medium-high, stirring until the sugar and butter melt.

Add the dry ingredients to the bowl:
6 3/4 c. flour, 1 Tbsp. cinnamon, 1 1/2 tsp. ginger, 1/2 tsp. salt.

I like to grab the dry stuff with my fingers and mix lightly before mixing it with the wet, this saves the step of pre-stirring all the dry ingredients in a separate bowl first.  

Stir until everything is mixed well.

This dough will be warm and firm yet soft; it gets stiffer as it cools.  It's easiest to roll out while still warm. 
If it gets too stiff, return to the microwave for 30 seconds to rewarm it.    

Divide dough into 2 or three pieces.  Working with one a time, roll  directly onto parchment, if at all possible.  This will save you immeasurable aggravation! 

Try to get it an even 1/8" thick.  As you can see, this is quite thin.  The corn syrup gives this dough a lot of strength.

Put your pattern on top of the dough, and cut around each piece.  Try to have each piece touching as much as possible.  The easiest way to cut them, by far, is to use a pizza cutter or pastry wheel.

Bake until golden brown and firm to the touch.  Pull out of the oven, and IMMEDIATELY re-cut the pieces, if you need them to be exact.  They will have spread a little bit.  If you're making eight houses for your family, you can skip this step! 

My favorite part of baking gingerbread houses: eating the 'twigs', the skinny little pieces trimmed off the house parts.  They are addictive!    

To make stand-up trees, cut out two for each tree.  Cut a section out of the middle of one of the pieces, as wide as your dough is thick.  You'll 'glue' one  of these halves on the front of the whole tree, the other half on the back.        

Cool on a cooling rack.  When all the way cool, I like to stack all the pieces for one house in each stack.  Here are five houses, ready to put together.

Next is the really fun part- decorating!  That will be another post in a couple days.
It's the little details that make gingerbread so fun!