Saturday, December 8, 2012

Christmas Traditions

If you know me, I enjoy traditions and creating them with my family. That's why I love Christmas because, as a family, we get to enjoy the many traditions that we get to partake of during this season. Here are some traditions that some of you have requested that I share.

Day in Chicago
It's been a Post-Thanksgiving tradition since Joshua was born that we spend a day downtown. And this year, we had almost 70-degree weather! I never thought I'd do this, but we pulled Joshua out of school last Monday and took advantage of the "spring-like" weather! Since Joshua started first grade, we don't get many opportunities to have a Family Day on Mondays anymore. But this past week, with the weather being so nice, it was hard to resist.

Outside Macy's
Josh and Jenna got to take turns ringing the Salvation Army bell.
We typically go to Marshall Field's/Macy's and look at the windows. This year's was okay. I've enjoyed previous years better - I like it when there's a story, and you have to go from window-to-window to follow the story. After looking at the windows, we went inside to the lower level to, what I call, Candyland. Even though my kids don't like candy, they had fun scooping up candy and filling up their bags with it (when Jenna wasn't looking, I emptied out her bag...sshh, don't tell her!), and we purchased and shared Joshua's bag.

Placebo effect of a candy high!

After that, we took the elevator to the 8th floor where we oohed-and-aahed at the huge Christmas tree in the Walnut Room (and oogled at the people that were having a nice meal in the restaurant! This year's tree was pretty awesome!

(one day, kids, we'll dine down day...)

Then it was lunch time. This year, we went to a nice cafeteria on the 7th Floor, called Seven on State. This is the first time we had lunch there (we usually go to the cafeteria in the lower level with all the commoners...haha!). It's definitely a lot nicer, more spacious, and the dishes are culinary creations of some pretty well-known chefs. I had Chef Ming's steak sandwich and a delectable seafood gumbo!

Eating at Seven on State.
We then headed to the Christkindlmarket at the Daley Plaza. I guess it's the one day of the year that we try to embrace Jared's German heritage! We told Joshua that he's half German, and I think we just confused the poor kid even more! At the market, I usually get a bag of roasted cinnamon sugar cashews, and the kids love the cheesy popcorn from Garrett's. We capped the day off with our final stop at Argo Tea, and had a Teapuccino. Yum!!

The Christmas tree at the Daley Plaza.
I love how there's a Nativity Scene at the market. Keeping Christ in Christmas!

Advent Calendar
This year, I made my own Advent Calendar. Thank you, Pinterest! It was fun making it, and creating the different activities for each day. Since my kids don't really like candy, I don't have to put little treats in the pockets. Besides, I'd rather they not expect a treat every day. Instead, they look forward to the fun activities that they get to do that day. Some include, having Brinner (code for breakfast for dinner!), having a picnic dinner by the Christmas tree, hanging Christmas lights in the bedroom, etc.

Advent Wreath
I also tried my hand at making my own Advent wreath. I couldn't find purple and pink candles, so I modified. I used purple and pink construction paper to wrap around votive candles that I had. I found an Advent reading schedule along with the lighting of the Advent candles on Focus on the Family's website. I'm sure if you google it, you can find something similar.

Mary & Joseph
Something else that I started this year was taking Mary and Joseph from my nativity set and hiding them. I want to explain to the kids that Mary and Joseph had to travel really far to get to Bethlehem. So, right now, my nativity set has no M & J, and every morning, the kids have to find the happy couple (or weary couple, as I should say...can't imagine being pregnant and having to sit on a donkey!). They get a real kick out of it! I first hid them at the furthest point of the house, and they're slowly making their way towards the manger scene. On Christmas Eve, M & J will finally get to the stable and make the nativity set almost complete. Come Christmas morning, the kids will find Baby Jesus there! And Jesus completes everything, doesn't He!

Here's my Willow Tree Nativity Set, minus Mary and Joseph!

Christmas Card Prayers
As our family receives Christmas cards each day, we take time to pray for the family or person who sent us the card. It's a great way to acknowledge the friends that God has blessed us with!

Other ongoing tradtions include:
Christmas cookies
I enjoy this season because I get to bake! Not that I'm a great baker or anything, but I love trying new recipes. And there's something about having Christmas music on, and spending the day creating something new and yummy to share with family and friends. Joshua usually enjoys helping me, and I'm hoping that this year, Jenna will too.

We typically give a plate of cookies to our neighbors, Tony our mailman, the staff at our pediatrician's office, and to the kids' teachers. Of course, we set out a plate of cookies while we're hosting Christmas get togethers, or just for hunger cravings in the middle of the day!

Let the baking begin!
My first 6 dozen cookies - Christmas Spritz Cookies (thanks to my mother-in-law for giving me her Pampered Chef Cookie Press), making more cookies today!

Christmas movie
Every year, we have our Annual Ahrens Family Movie Night where we invite our kids' friends over for dinner, movie, and popcorn, and watch a Christmas movie. The kids come in their pajamas, bring blankets, and stuffed animals, and have a good ol time having a movie/slumber party! Instead of giving tangible gifts to all our friends, what would parents with kids desire most in this season (or any season, for that matter!)? Jared and I thought it would be appropriate to give our friends the gift of time. So, really the movie night is an excuse for them to drop their kids off at our house, so that they can spend a few hours together doing whatever...Christmas shopping, date night, napping...just some alone adult time! It's a fun tradition, and a way we can serve our friends during the Christmas season. (If you must know, "Elf" is the movie-pick this year!)

Picnic dinner of pizza before the movie.
Movie time!
When I was a teacher, I would rally my friends, and even Jared's parents, and go caroling at my students' homes. Yes, you heard me! I would go to my students' homes and surprise them, and start caroling either outside their front door or in the entry way. Caroling was one of the highlights of my year, and I miss it terribly! I miss my students, and I miss seeing the look of surprise (and to some, horror!) when they realize that their teacher is at their house AND singing to them! I don't do this anymore, but maybe when my kids are older, we can resume this tradition again.

Christmas Eve/Christmas Day
Every Christmas and on Christmas Eve particularly, we give the kids each a book. In the book, Jared and I write a note to the kids, and give a brief synopsis of how they've grown, what they've accomplished, and how proud we are of them. It's a neat way to document their year. So, Joshua has 7 books now since he was born, and it's a wonderful momento for him as he grows up, to see the different books that we've given to him over the years, the blessings that were written to him. And maybe, one day, he'll be able to share these books with his children.

Also on Christmas Eve, the kids get their new Christmas pajamas to put on and sleep in that night. It's fun to pick out pajamas for the kids, because their interests change every year. Joshua has graduated from Thomas the Tank Engine/Wiggles to Legos and Superheroes. Jenna, from Elmo to Princesses. One year, it would be fun to put them all in matching pajamas!

This is a pic from last year...Joshua with Legos Star Wars pjs and Jenna with Tinkerbell.

Christmas morning, we always read the nativity story. And something that we value is that the kids only get 3 gifts. We tell them that since Baby Jesus got three gifts, they get three gifts as well. Fortunately, they understand and accept that.

It's challenging trying to live counter-culturally, especially now that Joshua is exposed to kids from school who are bragging about the 100 things on their Christmas list, and how they're going to get everything that they want for Christmas.

Joshua gets that Christmas is about Jesus and not about presents. And even at such a young age, I see the importance of surrounding your child with friends who are like-minded. For example, I carpool with 2 other families to school. One of the kids is from a Christian family, and the other is not. As I'm driving all 3 of them to school, I get the privilege to eavesdrop on their conversations. In one incident, they were talking about Christmas, and the one kid who's not from a Christian family said that Christmas is about getting all the presents that you want. I literally held my breath as I waited to hear how Joshua was going to respond. And my heart soared when I heard him say, quite vehemently too, "You're wrong! Christmas is about Jesus and celebrating his birthday! It's not all about presents!" And then, Joshua's other friend chimed in with support, "Yeah! It's not about presents, it's about Jesus!". I wanted to stop the car, and give high-fives, and do my happy dance! I remember lifting up a grateful prayer at that moment for the fact that Joshua gets it, but also for the encouragement and beauty of being around fellow-believers who can and will stand up for each other. In some odd way, I feel so much better knowing that Joshua is at school, but he's not alone. He has friends who will look out for him, who will stand up for him, and will fight alongside with him. Even if he's only 6, there is value in Christian community! And I believe that God has placed Joshua's classmate in our carpool, and in our lives, for a reason. Who knows? Maybe Joshua and his other friend's convictions and beliefs will rub off...isn't it neat that our own kids can be witnesses for Christ, even at this age!

So here you have it. Some of our Christmas traditions. Ultimately, it has been and always will be our desire is to teach our children how to be more others-focused, not only at Christmas time, but at all times. Even in our Advent activities, there are more activities about serving others than there are about things done for ourselves. I pray that my children will have the eyes and heart of Jesus, and seek to love others.

May you be blessed this Christmas, and may you be a blessing to those around you!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Family Reading Night

I recently instated Family Reading Night.  Both Jared and I are big readers, and lately, it's been difficult to carve out time just to read.  I mean, real reading.  Reading for fun.  Not Goodnight Moon or Brown Bear, Brown Bear every night for the last 6 years (I think most moms can attest to the fact that they can recite these books in their sleep!). 

I do get to read before bed every night.  But I cannot tell you when the last time I actually got through a whole chapter without falling asleep.  Typically, I get through one paragraph (if I'm lucky enough), and my eyes start to close.  And then I wake up, and read that same paragraph over again.  And I'm pretty sure that I would've read the paragraph 3 or 4 times before I finally drop the book and fall asleep (and sometimes my sweet Jared will take the book from me, take my glasses off, and turn off my light).

We love reading so much that when we would go on vacation (and this was before kids!), the first thing we'd do is find a local coffee shop where we could go to read.  And sometimes we'd feel like we've hit the jackpot if it's a coffee shop and bookstore all-in-one (like "The Bridge" in Door County)!  When we first got married and lived on campus at Trinity, we would spend long summer afternoons sitting in (the then) Borders on Waukegan Road reading.  When we were on our honeymoon, we'd read by the pool, on the beach, etc.  I always joked that there were 3 of us on our honeymoon - Jared, me, and Aragon (I was rereading the LOTR trilogy).  Our "go to" mini vacation place is Lake Geneva, and we love the library there, especially in the winter time, because there's a reading area that overlooks the frozen lake, and we've spent hours reading and enjoying the view of people ice-fishing or having fun on the frozen lake.  In between our "reading sessions", we'd walk over to Caribou for coffee. 

Anyway, I could go on and on about all our favorite reading spots.  Now that we have kids, I want to create a new favorite reading spot - our home!  Why not?  It's cozy, and we've got the Keurig machine!  And what a better way to instill the love for reading in our kids than to set the example ourselves.  So, now that Joshua has a reading log from school that he needs to fill in every day, it just all came together for me, and I thought it would be fun to have Family Reading Nights!  We're obviously not doing this every night, but Friday nights seem to be working best for us.  A great way to cap off the week!

Last Christmas, I had "subscription to Real Simple magazine" on my Christmas list, which I was very happy to receive.  Recently, my new favorite magazine is the National Geographic Traveler.  I saw a Groupon for it, and immediately purchased it.  It helps fuel my love for traveling, and I always love reading about different places, their history, etc.  I enjoy reminescing about the places that I've already been to, and dream about the places that I still want to go.  So, for those few minutes as I'm reading, I get to escape and let my mind wander off to Italy or India.


 Florence, Italy

 Ah, the Tuscan countryside!
The Ganges River in India
Even though it's only for a few minutes, these moments of time carved out for reading has been enriching, fulfilling, and a blessed time of rest.  I pray that my children will be inspired and become life-long readers as they see the value of how literature, both fiction, non-fiction, historical, current events, etc. will expand their lives and make them more knowledgable and well-rounded. 
And I won't judge what some people are reading... (as long as they're reading, right!?)

Sunday, September 23, 2012


As a proud mama, I just need to brag!  Joshua scored his first goal at soccer in yesterday's game!  He's been wanting to do this for sooo long now, ever since he started playing in the league a couple of years ago.  So, I'm glad that he was able to kick the goal that he's been waiting for.  This will do wonders for his confidence, and with the rocky start at school, soccer has been the silver lining that we've been looking for.

I'm just bummed that I wasn't there to witness it (I was at a baby shower that morning).  Jared texted me, and I was jumping up and down as if I was there (maybe it was a good thing I wasn't, I would've embarassed the entire family with my happy dance!).  Nevertheless, we celebrated Joshua later that day at dinner, as we always do with small or big accomplishments. 

Just wanted to share!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

First Day of Preschool

Dear Jenna,

I can't believe the day has come - your first day of preschool! You have been so excited, and have been waiting so long to "go to school", just like your big brother. Ever since Joshua started going back to school, you've been wanting to put on your backpack and go too. Well, the day has come, and it's your turn baby girl!

So, on Thursday, September 13th, you had your first day of preschool at Conant High School! You were so cute in your brand new owl outfit, and your ladybug backpack!

Before Joshua went to school, we took some pictures of you and him.

And before we had to go to Conant, I took you to Chick-Fil-A for a traditional back-to-school breakfast! We had fun just hanging out together, and you kept asking me if we're going to school yet.

At 10am, we drove to Conant, and as we pulled up, we saw Aaron Shogren and his mommy. I'm so glad that you have a good buddy to go to school with. You both look so cute, and so ready to go to preschool.

Very soon, you walked into the classroom, you put your backpack in the cubbie that had your name on it, and you started playing with the other kids and with the high school "teachers".

We chose this program for you because of this - that you would have your own "teacher" to help you along the way. You've not participated in many classes at the park district or anything formal. So, this is all new to you. But I believe that you will thrive in this program, and learn a lot, both academically and socially.

As I watched you play, with your new friends and by yourself, I can't help but fight back the tears as I realized how big you've gotten. You're no longer a baby, but a big girl. You've become so independent, and sometimes you don't even want me around. I know that God has blessed you with a spirited nature, wonderful spunkiness, a sense of adventure and fearlessness. These are all excellent traits. I want God to bless me with the ability to let you go...not too quickly, though. I have a feeling that you'll be the first one out of your siblings to "take flight". And while I want you to be the person whom God has called you to be, I know that I will have a hard time letting you go.

And today is the first day of doing just that...letting go. Sometimes I feel like you've already gone. But it comforts my aching heart when you turn around, give me a little wave and smile your precious smile. Because that tells me that you're making sure that I'm still close-by, and still able to watch over you. And I will. I will be there for you, whenever you need me.

I love you, Jenna!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Becca's 1st Birthday!

Our baby Becca turned one last weekend!  I really don't know where this past year has gone.  Nevertheless, God blessed our family with a wonderful first year with our cutie-patootie.  We saw her grow and develop into her own, from infant to now toddler, she truly is a personification of her middle name, Joy!  Her happy smile lights up the room, and she just simply exudes pure joy wherever she goes.

For her birthday, I came up with a ladybug theme.  I was sewing matching ladybug outfts for both Jenna and Becca, and I thought it turned out pretty cute, so I just went with that.

I borrowed my friend's Cricut machine, and created this wall collage of Becca's first year.

I went on Pinterest to get some ladybug ideas for the party.  Most of it, I felt was a little over the top, and there was no way that I would have the time, resources, nor the talent to recreate.  So, I modified some ideas and came up with my own red-and-black themes like this...

I did find this ladybug appetizer recipe on Pinterest.  Isn't it cute?  I was suppose to add black dots on to the tomatoes by tinting cream cheese...yeah, I don't think so...too much effort!

Target has been my go-to place every year, and interestingly enough, the same lady has made all my kids' birthday cakes!  I really should find out her name!  So, I ordered a ladybug cake for Becca, and as usual (and another reason why I LOVE this place!), Target delivered!  This cake is too cute!

And can I tell you how relieved Jared and I were when we saw Becca chowing down on her birthday cake?!  She's our best eater, and I'm glad that she'll be enjoying food like her momma!

We had a fun weekend celebrating Becca's birthay!  From a family party on Saturday to a picnic lunch on Sunday, to more ensuing festivities, like going to the Children's Museum, we truly were able to celebrate Becca, for the gift of who she is.

Happy first birthday to our snuggle bug!