Blog: My Little Farm in Town

Living a rich country life in a small Midwestern town.

Showing 10 posts in the Christmas category for this blog.
Frugal Family Fun: Christmas Road Trip Basket
Tuesday, December 28, 2010

When we go to see the bald eagles in January and February or when doing Christmas outings, we’ve found that it saves money to bring your own treats. Most frugal people bring snacks with them when they travel or go on outings, but we like to make it a bit more special.

I brought a special refreshment basket with when we went on our Christmas road trip to the Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee with friends and family.  (Read my Dec. 12 blog.) I took a nice big basket with handles and filled it with International Coffees, flavored cocoas, peppermint candies, teas and honey, ceramic Christmas mugs (and plastic spoons!), printed holiday napkins. We also brought along a pump jug of hot water.  Sometimes we brew a pot of good strong coffee and bring it in a thermos, too. If a bakery is on the itinerary, I don’t bake. Otherwise, the basket may include cookies or muffins. Whatever the drink or baked good is, it just has to be something that everyone will enjoy.

Sometimes we pull over at an overlook and enjoy the scenery along with the refreshments. Other times, we have a snack as we drive along. In warmer weather, we might stop at a park or wayside.

Try putting together a special basket for your next family outing. It will be a source of good memories for your whole family. Begonia


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Frugal Family Fun: Christmas Light Tour
Thursday, December 23, 2010

We started doing Christmas light tours when our boys were young. One year there were an exceptional number of people decorating their homes and yards in our little town. The boys were antsy for Christmas to come, and it was Christmas Eve Eve (December 23). We wanted to do something especially “Christmassy,” and it was our last crack at seeing the sights and lights before going out of town for Christmas Eve to visit relatives.

We stopped at McDonalds and bought shakes and then started driving around town and enjoying the decorations on houses. Many people tend to leave the living room drapes open so that anyone going by on the street can admire their Christmas trees. One of the Lutheran churches puts on a live Nativity each year, and we all make a point of driving by to see it and honk the horn and wave.

We all have our favorite areas of town and over the years have worked out a route that takes us to these places and to houses that year after year put out the best and brightest decorations. Our grown children still look forward to getting a shake and taking the tour once again whenever they can make it home for Christmas! Begonia

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Frugal Family Fun: Christmas Movie Nights at Home
Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I was torn between listing this blog under FFF or Holiday Traditions because it is so cheap—I mean Frugal!—and yet it has been a tradition in our family for almost 20 years.  Every week we watch a favorite Christmas movie together.

We have gotten these movies as 99 cent rentals from the gas station (now we have Redbox), borrowed from the library, or been loaned them by friends.  As the years went by, I slowly began to acquire our favorites from garage and book sales; as gifts; or as they were retired from movie rental stores.

The first movie of the holiday season is always Ernest Saves Christmas. We watch it as we decorate the family tree in the family room. (It is also one of the best Ernest movies.) A Christmas Story makes me want to cover my living room coffee table with tidbits filled with cookies and fudge, eat sweets, and stare at the Christmas tree. (My living room tree is decorated with 30s, 40s, and 50s decorations, glass bead garland, and bubble lights.) It inspires me to bake and make candy!

I have a basket devoted to the Christmas film and TV genre filled to overflowing with our collection:

Some are old favorites: The Bishop’s Wife (with Cary Grant at his most handsome AND David Niven); Holiday Inn and its sequel White Christmas; Little Women (the 1949 and the 1994 versions); Miracle on 34th Street (with Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood); It’s a Wonderful Life; A Christmas Carol (with Alistair Sims); and Little Lord Fauntleroy (with Freddie Bartholomew) a story that includes Christmas—OK, I’ll admit that I watch it mostly because I just love Freddie.  

Others are children’s classics that I grew up with: Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman I and II, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. These were shows that were shown on television once a year when I was a kid and I never missed them. I watched for commercials advertising their coming and made sure I had dibs on the TV (most households only had one on our block) set for the time they would be on. We all knew we had only one chance a year to watch them, and it was serious holiday business, indeed! My boys came along during the era of VHS. Their favorites are also in the basket and include The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppet Family Christmas.

Some of the best my best Christmas memories are attached to Chicagoland children’s shows that only broadcasted certain shorts during the holiday season:  Here Comes Suzie Snowflake  Hardrock and Coco and Joe  Frosty the Snowman

(I don’t have these in my collection yet, but I’m working on it—for now they can be viewed on Youtube!)

Others were TV episodes I have recorded or on VHS: Little House on the Prairie: The Christmas They Never Forgot, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends: Thomas’ Christmas Party and Other Favorite Stories, The Twilight Zone: Night of the Meek, Red Green Christmas Specials, and Burt Wolf’s Christmas at the Biltmore.

We do have a few newer movies in the collection (and it continues to grow) like The Polar Express and Family Man, which is a favorite of my husband’s (sort of a combined remake of It’s a Wonderful Life and Groundhog Day with less humor and a harder edge.) I’d like to add the most recent A Christmas Carol to our collection soon. (It is the most like the book, thanks to modern animation, if you overlook the crazy, way-too-long Disneyesque hearse chase, which I will click through when I watch it). Take Peace: A Corgi Cottage Christmas with Tasha Tudor is my favorite recently produced Christmas classic. (I am slowly collecting all of Tasha’s Christmas books as well. She illustrated The Night Before Christmas at least four times—they are delightful, and I love her cats and owls.)

No Christmas season would be complete without at least one viewing of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians! I found my copy in a giant cardboard discount bin at a big box computer store some years ago. I love how they spray painted and glued together scuba gear and old football helmets (worn backward) to create the Martians’ headgear.  The DVD also features a collection of really dreadful shorts that I skip over to watch the1950s and 1960s toy commercials interspersed throughout the disc.

If you don’t already have this holiday tradition at your house, make some popcorn, dim the lights, and watch a favorite Christmas movie together tonight and start a new family tradition. Begonia


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Christmas Traditions: Gingerbread Houses
Wednesday, December 22, 2010

As a family we try to do seasonal things together that don’t cost a lot of money. That way we can do them each year whether the economy (or cash flow) is good or bad and continue to build a store of good memories in ourselves and our children.

One of the things we started doing a few years ago was to visit the historic District One School House in our town to view the entries in the annual gingerbread house contest. This activity costs us $1 per person and then we go out for a treat afterward and do a little Christmas shopping downtown.

Entries fall into several categories. For the entry fee, you can vote for your favorite. There is a silent auction of Christmas items from local merchants, and a special money gingerbread house is raffled off to raise funds for restoration of the school. Children can decorate a gingerbread cookie to take home or eat right there, and Christmas cookies are for sale as well.

We enjoy discussing the relative merits of the entries and seeing who won the rosettes each year. We also like to see the progress that has been made in restoring the building. Some years we walk downtown and back and others like this year, when the wind chill was 0°F and below, we drive even though it is only a half mile walk.

Perhaps you have something like this in your town. Feel free to comment and add your pictures to mine. The more the merrier, especially at Christmas time! Begonia


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Holiday Traditions: A Visit to the Wisconsin State Capitol Christmas tree
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Every family has holiday traditions. Our traditions include a yearly visit to the state capitol to see the Christmas tree erected in the rotunda. (It always seems like the coldest day as we walk up the windy street to the capitol after parking and feeding the meter!) The tree is always huge and beautifully decorated! They have to bundle it very tightly to get it through the entrance doors, and sometimes they break it in the process and have to mend it a little before they can decorate it!

This year’s tree was, as usual, huge and beautifully decorated with ornaments made by the state’s school children. One year we came early in the month and caught them decorating the tree. They already had most of the lights on and were in the process of putting on the thousands of handmade ornaments. The tree was ringed with scaffolding and the train wasn’t set up yet.

On the years when we viewed the tree on a weekend, there has always been some kind of musical event in progress. One year it was carolers and brass quintets.  Another year it was a huge gathering of tuba players (over 70!) all playing Christmas carols at an impossibly low register. (I plugged my ears to better hear the melody!) They and their instruments were decorated with stuffed reindeer antlers, shiny noses, and lights. This year a couple was getting married and a lone violinist was playing, among other classical pieces, Pachelbel’s Cannon in D.

The interior of the rotunda where the tree is displayed is dimly lit, so the impact of the multicolored LED lights covering the tree when approaching via the long entrance hall is rich and startling. (Sorry, my pictures don't do it justice.) The base of the tree has a train running around it. People’s voices echo as they talk to each other and their children, but it is never too difficult to hear the music, and there is always the low whirring sound of the large train circling the tree. The children are fascinated by the train and the size of the tree. I always like to study the ornaments. It is obvious that kids of all ages have made them. I hope some of their parents brought them in to see their creations displayed on this great tree. Begonia


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Christmas Day Trips: Wisconsin Governor's Mansion and the Pabst Mansion
Sunday, December 12, 2010

We went to a couple of festive places this past week. The first was the Wisconsin Governor’s Mansion on Lake Monona, and the other was the Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee.

My daughter and a good friend were the first people through the holiday display at the Governor’s mansion. ( It was a bright freezing day in the teens Fahrenheit, and we walked briskly up to the front door as soon as the gate was opened. I pulled the door open, stuck my head in, and asked if we could come in because it was freezing outside!

The governor’s mansion was conservatively decorated. There was a tree in the dining room with ornaments from each county and another in the room next to it where the state’s First Lady Jessica Doyle was shaking hands. I was a bit surprised to be at the head of the receiving line—the poor woman had to introduce herself! There were a couple of trees in the living room area covered with Wisconsin products ornaments , another In the den/library, and then one in a sun room on the way out with ornaments representing nonprofit groups. It was a nice bright house, and it really felt like a family home in an upscale residential neighborhood with some extra big public rooms for entertaining.

There were nice lake views from every room on that side of the house. I saw geese, ducks, and a pair of big white swans feeding in the water. It could have been any wealthy person’s home on a nice lakeside, estate-size lot. (I can’t believe the incoming Governor is talking about selling it! Where are we going to entertain visitors to our state—in a well-insulated Morton pole shed or some tacky hotel banquet room?)

I’m a museum and historical site nut. The Pabst Mansion was grand! ( This is one mansion I’ve always wanted to visit during the Christmas season. They had the music room filled with a collection of nutcrackers, and there were Christmas trees decorated like the family had enjoyed them during the early part of the twentieth century—totally covered with tinsel and old ornaments. One of the upstairs bedrooms had one of the neatest doll houses I’ve seen, complete with an attic full of bedsprings and trunks and a cellar with a boiler room and an old guy cracking crabs on newspaper for dinner! It had been the bedroom of a granddaughter they adopted and raised.  

The Pabst family had the mansion built in the Flemish Renaissance Revival style. Capt. Frederick Pabst only lived there for four or five years before his death in 1904. The family sold the mansion in 1908 to the  archdiocese of Milwaukee. The new owners painted most of the wood and fancy plastered ceilings above the first floor WHITE. They did leave the woodwork on the main floor alone, and the original colors and fixtures are still in place on the upper floors, though under several layers of paint. The upper floors are not totally renovated because a lot of the donations and grant money have been put into conserving the foundation and exterior of the building. The main floor rooms and the stairwells and the main hall on the second floor are all finished, and the master suite is the next area in line for attention.

One of the best things about the house was the guy who had it built: Capt. Frederick Pabst. You can judge rich people by how well they treat the servants. The servant dining room and butler’s pantry were much nicer than even than those I’ve seen in a Vanderbilt mansion. Frederick Pabst was by all accounts a really decent, generous, and kind human being.  What greater legacy can we leave behind than a good name and reputation? Begonia


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Thrifty Christmas: Christmas Greetings
Wednesday, December 08, 2010

I’ve been sending out handwritten Christmas cards since I was in grade school. I bought my cards through Current, Inc., because the price went down if you could get a big enough order. At that time, they had a wide variety of really lovely stationary and note cards. I used to send postcards because both the cost of the cards and the postage were lower (this is still true).

I send out 38 or 40 cards a year, and I keep track of who I receive cards from as well as who I am sending cards to. My Lang address book has a Christmas card record. Hallmark address books also have had them in the past. For years, I have used five-year Christmas card record books put out by Current. I keep my Christmas card record next to my address book all year so that I can keep them both update.( I will start using my new Lang address book for that purpose next year and that will eliminate the repetition!) If I don’t get a card, letter, e-mail, or telephone call from a person on my card list for two holiday seasons in succession, I don’t send out a card the following year unless they are elderly, sick, or family. It sounds Grinchy, but it keeps costs down and the number of cards I send out manageable.

 I like to enclose a handwritten note or letter with each card. I start on cards right after Thanksgiving. If I can personally wish someone a Merry Christmas, I don’t send a card. I make some time to greet them in person. My husband and I keep our cards separate. He already had an extensive Christmas card list when I married him. I have met but don’t have a personal relationship with most of the people on his list. He likes to send a yearly Christmas letter, which I help him with by addressing envelopes and keeping track of his list along with mine.

I found half of this year’s Christmas cards (20) at the St. Vincent DePaul thrift store for $1.70. They have a vintage Christmas sale every year in November at their westside Madison location. I used to wait in line for it until they started raising their prices and selling off the best stuff on eBay! (Times are hard, and I don’t blame them for trying to make the most money for charity—but I do miss the great stuff I used to find there!) Since they start the sale midweek, I usually go in at some point on the first day, and there is still plenty to pick through. 

I also pick up a lot of my cards (stickers and note paper) at garage sales during the summer. I run across whole boxes of cards at garage sales for 25 and 50 cents each!  Most people don’t like to send out the same card two years in a row (or ever!), which means there are always beautiful cards to pick up for very little. (The same holds true for wrapping paper and gift bags!) I hold my odds-and- ends cards for three or four years and then use them again. Most people don’t remember the design of the card they sent out three years ago much less the one I sent out!

I donated a bunch of cards I’d found at garage sales to my church for their Christmas Basket kindness this year. (They weren’t spreading any Christmas cheer sitting in a box in my basement!) Then there are the freebie cards, address labels, gift tags, stickers, and note paper that come unsolicited in the mail. It pays to open some of your junk mail! Begonia


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Basket of (Mostly) Home Grown Christmas Gifts
Wednesday, December 01, 2010

 My mother is not a hard person to give gifts to. She is gracious, appreciative, and undemanding. She is also 86 years old and doesn’t need any more “stuff.” So she is a terribly hard person to buy gifts for nowadays.

This year I decided to give her a gift of stuff that I had grown in the yard, canned during the summer, or that she could watch grow and bloom in the house. I found an amaryllis on sale in a color that she’s never grown before and added it to a big basket I found at a garage sale for $1.

I filled in around the edges with herbs I had dried and packaged in repurposed jam, jelly, and mustard jars from which I’d soaked and scrubbed the labels. These jars have interesting shapes and can be reused or returned to me for refilling! This was a good year for herbs with its abundant rain and warm spells of weather. I harvested and dried a lot of sage, parsley, dill, thyme, and oregano.  

My mom enjoys eating hot breakfast cereal, so I got out my trusty little manual grain mill and ground her some farina from wheat I’d bought at our favorite bulk food store. (See my Nov. 24, Grinding Your Own Breakfast Cereal blog.) This cereal is great with some cinnamon added just before serving on a cold December morning.

I did a little bit of jelly making this year: cherry and wild black raspberry. I added a jar of each of those. I also made a couple batches of salsa, so I added a jar of that as well. (I would have canned a lot more tomato products if I could have gotten my hands on some more tomatoes! )

I also did a little drying this year. I included a couple of small jars of dried cherries (a neighbor generously supplied the fruit) and cherry tomatoes. I think those cherries are going to find their way into some hot breakfast cereal pretty soon!

Since my mom loves cats and letter writing, I added a box of Lang stationary packaged in a nice reusable box with a hinged lid. She can use up the stationary and have a practical but pretty storage container for paper clips!

I guess the key to giving the best gifts is thinking about what the recipient really enjoys and how the gift will fit into their life. (I don’t know what my recent request  for a rice cooker says about me!) Begonia


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2010 Nightmare Before Christmas: A Family Tradition
Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Every November my side of the family kicks off the holiday season by gathering to share good food, good company, and attractively wrapped atrocities. Other families with warped senses of humor have similar gatherings and call them White Elephant exchanges. We call our party simply—THE NIGHTMARE.

Each year I clean my house and put up several tacky plastic trees which I have come to love dearly (Blog to follow!)  My guests arrive, we visit, eat lunch, and then gather in the family room in front of a brightly lit Christmas tree surrounded by sometimes oddly shaped but attractively wrapped Presents of Horror. Each person picks a number, and the presents are chosen and opened in that order. There is no stealing  or exchanging of wrapped or unwrapped presents—no one would want to!—just a lot of laughter and expressions of horror and dismay as each ghastly present is revealed. (No off-color gag gifts or regifting from the previous year’s Nightmare is allowed.)

When all gifts have been viewed and the first shock has worn off, the voting begins. The giver of the gift with the most votes for nastiest present of the year wins the grand prize. My eldest sister always donates the prize, which is actually something nice. Then we all share who gave what present, were it was found, its cost, and any story connected to the purchase of each fiendish Violation of the Christmas Spirit.

Our gifts are not simply unique, off beat, or tacky. They are disturbing, horrific, creepy—sometimes even panic inducing. We garage sale and thrift shop each year with the upcoming Nightmare always lurking in the back of our minds. When we run across that perfect gift, there is no hesitation, just an overwhelming urge to purchase at the lowest possible price. One year it may be a creepy chalk clown head (which my Mom stored on a shelf at the bottom of the basement stairs after the party, until she had to get rid of it by popular demand. It was freaking out everyone who went downstairs for potatoes.) Another year it might be a spectacularly tasteless five-foot-long oil-spouting swag lamp with scantily clad nymphs in gold plastic. My favorite was the exquisitely wrought “butt brick,” a hefty hunk of wax molded from the bottom half of an ancient bas relief of the three Graces (Hey, it was Art!).

 Some gifts were destined to become bizarre garden ornaments or equally distressing household décor because some small child instantly fell in love with them, such as the famous owl lamp with built in peanut dish (or was it an ash tray?) or this year’s fluffy fun fur owl-on-a -stick. Other gifts are quietly deposited  in the first available dumpster.

Each gift has its provenance, such as the stuffed rattle snake I found last year and purchased for the princely sum of $3. It was a gift requested by a five-year-old boy whose parents were going away on an anniversary trip to the Southwest. He wanted them to bring back for him a pair of cowboy boots and a rattle snake. They honored both his requests. The snake now graces the science classroom of a Catholic grade school in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Surprisingly, the rattler did not earn me the grand prize that year—I am still bitter.

The first winner of this nightmare competition was what we called “The Bordello Lamp” with its giant, bulbous, amber-glass base with malfunctioning night light and scarlet shade shaped like a saloon girl’s corset and skirt, complete with dingle-berry trim. It had a commanding presence, standing nearly four and a half feet tall. (It ended up becoming an anonymous cabin warming gift at several hunting camps up north.)

The most recent (and I think most repugnant) winner was a set of cattle hooves made into pillar candle holders. (I actually felt my gorge rise when I got my first good look at them. Gulp!) They looked and smelled vile (that rhymes with bile). My sister caught her Golden Retriever slinking off to bury one of the pair in the woods the week before our get together! The aroma that rose from the wrapped gift had our cat Bert sniffing around under the tree as well.

This is definitely not a holiday tradition for the faint hearted, but even my 87-year-old mother looks forward to it annually (amazing considering that she took home a repulsive, grass-skirt-clad coconut monkey this year). Soon four generations will again begin to taunt each other and drop dark hints about the “gift” that will surely earn them the grand prize next year. Season’s Greetings! Begonia


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Frugal gifts: It's the Thought that Counts
Sunday, December 20, 2009

I had a wonderful afternoon visiting with neighbors and giving and receiving gifts. I find most of my gifts at garage sales and thrift shops. Other presents I make from things that I find at garage sales and thrift shops. When I find something I think a particular friend will enjoy, I set it aside for them.  I have a gift closet where I put all of these things so I can easily keep track of them. I suppose that a lot of you do the same kind of thing.

I was brought up in a big family with very little money. My first job was cleaning a neighbor's house each Saturday morning. I'd get up early and watch as many cartoons as I could, and then I would go across the street (I was in second grade)  to Mrs. Shoppe's house and clean for a couple of hours: vacuum, sweep, wash dishes, make beds, clean the bathroom, and dust. She would pay me 50 cents, give me some hard candy, and send me home. This is not meant to be a sob story--it's just the way it was and I was glad to have the money.

I'd use some of this money in December to buy or make Christmas presents.  My mom taught me to think of the person I was giving the gift to and let the gift fit the person.She was brought up during the Depression when a piece of fruit or a fountain pen was a wonderful gift. If I didn't want to or couldn't afford to give everyone a gift, it was okay. No one in our family took offense, and we were all taught to appreciate any gift given to us. I remember giving my mom a wooden spoon for Christmas one year, and she treated it as if it were gold. She knew that I'd had to work hard to earn the money to buy that simple gift and she knew how much I loved her.

Here are just a few ideas for thoughtful gifts: 

  • Family Box: This idea came from my pen pal in Kentucky. Fill a box with things that families can do together and give a family gift rather than a bunch of individual gifts:sledding/skating--mittens, hats, scarves, hot cocoa mix, marshmallows, candy canes, everything needed to dress a snowman; game night--board games, snacks, small prizes; movie night--DVD or VHS family movie(s), popcorn, a liter or more of pop or drink powder, candy; nature outing--trail maps of local county or state parks, water bottles, gorp, some inexpensive guide books or info downloaded from web sites.
  • Books! Check out the web sites of libraries in your area. Most of them have books sales annually, and some have them monthly. A good book sale in my area sells children's books for 25 cents, hardcovers for a dollar, and soft cover books for 50 cents. (If you volunteer to sort or carry books for these events, you are usually given an opportunity to have "first picks.") You find books at these sales that are out of print or so unusual that you wouldn't have guessed that they existed--I found a book of bridges with pictures and schematic diagrams that cost me one dollar for the structural engineer in my life. She was thrilled--I was too! There are also the independent and chain book stores that take books in trade and sell them for half the cover price. Sometimes I buy books when I find them in good condition for 10 cents each at garage sales and then trade them in at these stores for cash, more books, or gift certificates.
  • Custom Cookbooks: I made one of these for a friend today. This friend was a bit downhearted because they found that her husband  was allergic to dairy and nuts this year, and all her favorite family Christmas cookie recipes contained butter and nuts! I bought a can of butter flavored shortening then got on the computer and searched using for  recipes containing butter flavored shortening. I filled a binder with free recipes and used a piece of Christmas stationary to make a cover. It is all wrapped and under the tree right now.
  • Food Kits:There are lots of make-a-mix recipes for soups, muffins, bars, cookies, tea breads, drinks, flavored rice, etc. on the web or that you can get from the public library. I like to give these kinds of gifts to the mail carriers and neighbors. They make good "guy" gifts. I have quite a library of these types of books and pamphlets that I have picked up at book sales and garage sales. I "mine" them regularly for gift ideas.
  • Things you make or grow: I have been given gifts of seeds, garlands of pine cones for my mantle, strings of popcorn for the wild birds, favorite poems in handmade cards. My mother likes to get gifts of herbs from my garden. This year my sister and I with my daughter's help picked apples from a tree that we had given my dad for Father's Day over 20 years ago. I dried a half bushel of them and returned some to my mother as a gift.

I'm sure that you have other great ideas for thoughtful gifts. If you want to share them, feel free to respond to this post.

Merry Christmas, Begonia.



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