Christmas in the Bus {+Trina’s Top 4 Tips for Online Shopping}

Ha. I got you with that title, didn’t I?

Ya’ll are thinkin’ “Aww, poor Trina! She has to spend Christmas in the Bus?!”

Christmas music is playing and we’re trying to make room for a tree…

I’m kidding. We are headed North by the end of November. But Christmas season will be in full swing by the time I get home, so I have to at least start working on Christmas while in the Bus.

I’d really like to ignore the fact that I have that looming list of Christmas to-dos and I’m stuck here on a bus in Alabama, but with Jeremy streaming the Peaceful Christmas station from our favorite Christian Radio station each evening, it’s a little hard not to feel the countdown.

Then I remind myself that I love to Christmas shop online, and that this can be done from the bus as easily as I do it from home, so I start breathing again. (Aren’t you glad?)

I love¬† online Christmas shopping more every year. I probably do over 75% of my shopping online anymore. It’s fast, easy, and leaves me more time for baking and Christmas crafts and spending time with the people the gifts are for.

So, if you’re like me, and like to to your shopping online, here’s my tips:

  1. Do your homework and scope out Cyber Monday deals ahead of time. (not that, ehem, I’ve done this yet, but I think it’s a great idea! which sales/sites are you watching????)
  2. Take advantage of Amazon’s free shipping! Order stuff in big enough clumps that you qualify for Super Saver Shipping ($25 and up). In my mind that’s the real money saver, because I’m not paying gas to get me to the gifts OR shipping to get the gifts to me.
  3. eBooks are a new way to bless your bookworm friends with the classic gift of a good read. (and cut down costs to mail gifts–just send it in an email!) All my favorite ebooks are in my side bar, BTW ;)
  4. Finally, USE AFFILIATE LINKS! Pardon me for shouting, but I’m trying to drill it through my own head, for Pete’s sake. Did you know that when you use a blogger’s affiliate link to get to Amazon, they receive a percentage on ANY purchase you make–even if it’s not the item they recommended--at no extra cost to you?¬† I totally forgot to do this last year, but I’m committed to using affiliate links for ALL my Christmas shopping this year. It’s a simple way we can bless our favorite bloggers for Christmas!

How about you? Have you started shopping yet? Is the sound of Christmas music playing in Walmart already making your heart skip or stressing you out? How much shopping do you do online? Let’s commiserate on ways to embrace the Christmas to-do lists while reducing stress, shall we?

Oh, and I’m gonna try to be as helpful as I can with your Christmas shopping by hosting at least one amazing giveaway in the next month, as well as letting you in on any good sales that I know you will love!

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight…

P.S. if you’re in the mood to get some shopping done now, here’s my link to Amazon. *wink, wink*



Letters From Home, Volume 3

This has been a unique Christmas Season for our family. As I mentioned in my reasons for a simplified Christmas this year, we drove to Orlando, Florida for a seminar Jeremy was attending, and were gone for 11 days at the beginning of the month. Coming home with just 12 days left to be ready for Christmas — minus 3 days recovering from the stomach flu which hit us on the way home – means Christmas has been even more simply elegant than I’d planned!

Yet I find myself reveling in the calm of a shortened to-do list, sighing in the peacefulness of a simplified schedule. Our celebration of the season has consisted of the daily reading of our Advent book (with all three kids taking turns opening the doors this year!), my tradition of 12 days of gifts for my true love, and a shortened list of Christmas Baking. Which is what the photos in this post illustrate…

Can you tell the girl child is so very excited about cookie decorating?

Everyone has their helping stools pushed close to the kitchen island while mommy finishes mixing the icing.

Mommy scowls in concentration while spreading a sample smear on a sample cookie. Seth presumes this is all for him and begins rooting in excitment.

Thanks to Daddy’s deeper reservoir of patience, Seth is permitted to help decorate.

In his 16 month-old-brain, this is also permission to lick, pick and eat!

Thankfully, Daddy understands his boy, and Seth was permitted to eat his cookie as soon as he finished decorating it!

Of course, this spawned the idea that all the cookies were there for Seth’s express enjoyment. Soon after this photo he was whisked off to the bath while his more mature brother and sister continued decorating.

Please note: The red nose is washable marker. It was all his idea. He was being Rudolph, dontchaknow. Oh, look – it’s our Christmas tree in the background! Let’s look closer…

 I usually have a theme for my tree. This is what a simplified Christmas tree theme looks like. One and a half strands of popcorn garland and half the usual ornaments. And it’s still beautiful. Amazing, isn’t it? I could get used to this….
This will be the last you’ll hear from me till after Christmas, when we’ll enjoy series of short posts highlighting the best content from the blog from the past year, with follow up on a few topics, and a hint of what’s to come in the new year!

Merry Christmas to you and yours!!!

How to Make Your Own Vanilla Extract

This is the ultimate One Size Fits Most gift. It’s appropriate for anyone from 10 to 100, male or female, as long as they
a) love baking
b) love baked goods.
It’s readily available, and can be found in almost everyone’s cupboards already. BUT you can make a superior product for less money in your own kitchen that will wow and bless all your friends.

What am I talking about? What is this amazing gift item?

Vanilla Extract
And now, at the risk of being tacky, I’m gonna answer all your questions about Making Your Own Vanilla Extract (those of you who will receive a bottle from me please dis-remember this post, ok? Cause my mom taught me it was tacky to tell how much you spent on a gift!)

Can you really make your own vanilla extract? Yes! And it’s crazy simple. I think the only reason more people don’t do it is ’cause it can be a little tricky sourcing the ingredients. That’s why I’m gonna tell you exactly where I got everything. :)

What do I need to make my own Vanilla Extract? Three things:
1. Vanilla Beans
2. Vodka
3. A Bottle to put it in.

What kind of Vanilla Beans should I buy?

To my understanding, there are three main types of vanilla beans. I use the Madagascar or Bourbon bean as it creates the same flavor as you would normally get in the grocery store, and is in the middle price range. I purchase my beans in bulk from Amazon this year – 1 Lb (90-100 beans) for $31.95, plus I got a bonus pack of beans ’cause my order was over $30. The beans were extremely fragrant and moist, and came out to $0.32 each.

What kind of Vodka do I use to make Vanilla Extract? The key word here is “cheap”. Any brand will do. I buy it in the largest bottle my liquor store carries, when it’s on sale (I watch our local Pennysaver ads). I got a 60 oz bottle for $17.82.  For those who’ve never been in a liquor store or bought hooch before (like me) it’s clear, like water, and my bottle looks like this…Feel free to inform the cashier what you’re really going to do with 3 gallons of Vodka while you check out if it makes you feel less guilty. ;)

What do I put my Vanilla Extract in? I like to buy little 4 oz. bottles for gifting, but if your making it for yourself you can use any old jar. I bought beautiful, blue, recycled glass jars with corks last year, but this year I got amber jars with a nice little screw cap from Frontier for $0.80 each, half the cost of last year’s jars. If you don’t have acccess to Frontier through your local co-op, these bottles on Amazon were similar in style and price.

How do I make my Vanilla Extract? Pay close attention ’cause this is really simple. 

  1. Cut one vanilla bean in half, then in half again lengthwise. (scissors work great)
  2. Put all four pieces into your 4 oz bottle. 
  3. Fill bottle with Vodka
  4. Cap bottle, label, and wrap ribbon or raffia around for gifting. 

Is that it? Well, the vanilla needs to steep for 4-6 weeks, with an occasional shake. Last year I made my extract in October so it was all ready for my recipients to use in their holiday baking. Didn’t get to it that soon this year, so I’m just telling people to save it till January. They don’t seem to mind and like feeling involved in the process (shake it once in a while! I tell them). I also tell my friends that when the bottle gets half empty, they can add more vodka to get the most out of the beans.

How much does it cost to make my own Vanilla Extract? Well, if you buy your beans in bulk, vodka on sale, and jars by the case, this is the breakdown of what you may end up spending per bottle…
Jars -       $0.80
Beans –    $0.32
Hooch -   $1.15
Total -     $2.27

I know — it’s almost laughable. A comparable product (pure, without any additives) on Amazon goes for $13.

The best part about making and gifting your own Vanilla Extract is the thanks you’ll receive for the rest of the year, ’cause this stuff really is superior to your run-of-the-mill extract. Your friends will adore it, savor it, save it for their favorite recipes, and thank you every time they see you for this little bottle of elixir. (If the raving seems to be over the top, it may be because they drank the whole thing right before they called you, but I have yet to have that happen)

If you want to make a large batch of Vanilla Extract for your own use, you can just put 12-15 beans, snipped lengthwise, straight into a 60 oz bottle of Vodka, or pour it into a quart jar or two like Sarah of Real Food Outlaws did. She has a very informative post about Vanilla Extract over at her blog, which you can check out if I haven’t answered all your questions. 

I’ve made the making and gifting of Vanilla Extract a yearly tradition at our house for many reasons, but my favorite thing about it is that it’s something my kids can do with me. Jesse snipped the beans all by himself this year while I poured the Vodka in the bottles. We did this together with a friends last week and between 3 kids (ages 5-7) with scissors and two mommies we made 30 jars of vanilla in 20 min. And boy, did we all smell good when we were done!

This is just one of the many ways I simplify Christmas so that I don’t get totally stressed out during the holidays. I’m sharing all my secrets with you this week ’cause I want you to have a peaceful Christmas, too!

What’s your best strategy for simplifying Christmas? Ya’ll have been sharing some great ideas in the comments – I appreciate all the feedback and am takin’ notes! 

This post included affiliate links. Using a blogger’s affiliate links to amazon or elsewhere for your shopping is a great way to bless your blogging friends at Christmas time!

My Bestest Tip for Simplyfying Christmas {for real this time}

You knew I was kidding yesterday, right? It is truly my aim each year to simplify our Christmas as much as possible, otherwise I wouldn’t have time for the tradtions that are most meaningful to us.

I mean, if I’m wrapping presents till 2 am on Christmas, then I wouldn’t be able to join in on the big, family, sleep-over under the Christmas tree, now would I?

And if I’m spending too much time on everyone else on my list, I won’t have creative juices left for my husband’s all time favorite tradition (which you can read more about over in my post at Passionate Homemaking this week). That would be a crying shame. 

But I DO love gift giving, and my list is as long as yours of people I love whom I want to bless in this season. So what do I do?

Well, at the risk of revealing all my secrets for friends and family this year, I’m gonna share my #1 tip for simplifying Christmas.

Are you ready?

I call it “One Size Fits Most” gifting.

Here’s what I do:

  1. Find a great little something that fits multiple people on my list.
  2. Then I just buy or make in Bulk. 

Amazingly simple, and stunningly efficient.

Here’s some of my favorite One Size Fits Most gifts for each person on your list…

For Kids: Homemade Playdough. Packaged in Jam jars with a shiny new cookie cutter tied around it. So fun and yet simple – you could make a dozen jars in less than an hour, and have gifts for every child under 10 on your list. Check out this cute idea for Candy Cane Playdough from The Artful Parent!

For Guys: There is nothing wrong with gift cards, people. (I have to keep reminding myself) Especially for guys. Especially if it involves food. How about a “Five Guys Burgers” card? Mmmmm. I’d like one of those myself. Another great idea? Gloves. This is not corny. I don’t know a single guy who wouldn’t appreciate a nice pair of work or winter gloves. Find them at Lowes or Home Depot in packs and individually wrap a pair for each of your brothers or uncles.

For the Whole Family: OK, this one isn’t cheap, but it really does cover everyone in one fell swoop! I’m talking about a World Magazine Subscription. Both of our extended families love getting news from a Christian world news for an entire year. And, as the giftee, I got access to World Magazine Online for the entire duration of the gift subscription. (Although I much prefered reading the hard copy at my MIL’s after Sunday dinner!)

For Girls: Have you seen these yet? Oh. My. Word. I received one of The June Bride’s handcrafted felt flowers from the Tiny Twig at Relevant last month, and I’ve been wearing it ever since. I even want to sleep with it. (I know that may be taking things too far, but it’s Cashmere, people – purple cashmere!) Her flowers are exquisite, reasonably priced ($12-$15 each, compared to some I saw in a boutique last month for $22!) and would work for young women and mature ladies both! Oh, and free shipping. Yes. Perfect. Pin to your winter coat, snag it on a scarf, or accessorize your favorite purse! OK, I’ll stop raving now.

Are we done yet? Have you got something for everyone now? Still a few gaps? I know just what to fill it with. I’ve got one more “One Size Fits Most” gift to share with you, but I’m gonna hold off till tomorrow. Can you stand it? It’s gonna be worth it, ’cause I’m gonna share my biggest secret yet. ‘Cause I love you. And I want you to enjoy Christmas, ya know?

Merry Christmas!!!

Do you do any ‘one size fits most’ gifting? What are some of your favorite gifts to give? Do you ever give the same gift year after year?