Thursday, December 27, 2007

Ella's First Christmas!

For those of you who read the last post, I just wanted to let you know how it went. Our family and friends were completely wonderful with our decision not to 'go all out' with spending money for Christmas gifts. We did, in fact, have gifts for our parents, brother and sister, and grandparents, but they were all done by Simply Sassy Designs (my fledgling business).

For our parents, we made a grandparent's memory book...custom designed, written and illustrated by me. We gave it to them and they are to fill out the prompts and will give it back to Ella one day. It was 20 pages of memories from their own baby days to high school to their wedding and life afterwards. All of our parents loved it and hopefully will create a keepsake for their grandchildren to cherish for years to come.
For others, we gave picture frames and plaques like these:

(*On a side note, these and other custom designed gifts are available for sale. Contact me if you're interested.)

We had a great time with both families, and Ella was a champ through everything. We went to Burlington, NC where my parents have moved temporarily on Sunday afternoon and enjoyed some quality time with them 23-25th. We had our traditional Christmas Eve lunch. We killed some time between lunch and when we were supposed to be with our family at Barnes & Noble sipping coffee and unwinding. Then we went to Aunt Lou's...my father's aunt. There we were joined by 15 other family members and had dinner.

Mom wasn't feeling well, and ended up going to the emergency room because of a number of issues. It was a pretty unfortunate turn to the evening, but she insisted that we didn't go with her and Dad...she didn't want Christmas Eve to be ruined for all of us, so we stayed at home with the baby and made the most of it, although our hearts were with them. We had my cousins over for hot chocolate and a reading of our favorite Christmas story, Cosmic Christmas by Max Lucado. After the story, they left and we went to bed.

On Christmas morning, my aunt Karen knocked on the door with a French Toast casserole and we enjoyed it before heading over to Duke hospital to spend time with Mom and Dad. She had had some IV fluids and X-Rays done to determine what was going on, and seemed to be in much better spirits.

After we finished our visit, we hit the road to Hendersonville, NC to visit with Brandon's family. We spent time at his aunt and uncle's house with the cousins and Papaw before we went to visit his other grandmother in the nursing home.

We finally went back to his parent's house and exchanged a couple gifts. John and Pepper really blessed us with DVDs of video and pictures we took of our trip to Israel in 2006. We spent the rest of the night watching that and another movie on the projection screen at their house. It was really fun.

That night Brandon and I were given a priceless gift...SLEEP! We had Ella upstairs with Mama Nissi and she did the 4am feeding. We got uninterrupted sleep from 1am until 10:30am, and it was a huge blessing. We woke up, had a late breakfast, and went for a long family walk/jog before getting showers and going out to a wonderful steak dinner. Later that night we came home and played Toss Across multiple times, and I believe Pepper took it to all of us.
Here are some other pics of Ella's first Christmas...

Opening up Uncle John and Aunt Pepper's gift to her...

Looking pretty darn cute in it, too!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

An Alternative to Christmas Presents

Disclaimer: I don't really know how to write this without coming across as condemning and self-righteous...Before you read on, please know that it is NOT my heart and that I LOVE Christmas presents and everyone who gives and gets them...

That being said...you probably won't be getting one from us this year.

For the last few years, I've had this icky feeling when fighting the crowds at shopping centers and malls around my town. From Black Friday on, I have been feeling very stressed and unhappy...the feeling of obligation is one I've never warmed up to. I have had this pressing thought in my mind that even people who say that Jesus is the reason for the season don't have a problem putting Him away for a while as they max out their credit cards, get into debt, and worry over what to get for who...

Might so-and-so get me a gift? Should I get one for her just in case?

My ___________(fill in the blank with obscure relative who is coming over for Christmas dinner) will probably spend $_______ (fill in the blank with outrageous amount of money) on me this year, so I have to match that even though it may mean I won't eat for a week.

If ___________ (closer relative's name) gets me a sweater, I should probably get him/her a piece of clothing, too.

And so it goes, all the way until late evening on December 24th.

December 25:

(The sound of wrapping paper being torn and quick "thank you's"--lasting about an hour)

Morning + 1 hour:
(The sound of the newspaper rustling as we try to find the next best sale and make our strategy for taking back a whole bunch of gifts we didn't like)

December 26:

Everyone is walking around in the same Old Navy sweater trying to figure out how to get out of debt while Mr. Old Navy sits back in his cushy lear jet on the way to family vacation in Fiji.

Last year, I was in the midst of my first trimester of pregnancy. Me and Mr. Toilet Bowl were good friends by then. My husband was experiencing his first major event at work that he was in charge of and was putting in 80+ hours/week for the entire month of December. We were living in an apartment but trying our hardest to save money so we could buy a house before this baby arrived. I was out in the stores, looking for the perfect gift. Buying for both of our families...not wanting to forget anyone.

I remember standing in a store that had potpourri burning, and I had to ask to be let up to the front of the line because the scent was going to make me puke. But I couldn't leave without buying the gift...it was for an office mate and had to be a certain amount of money. The next day the office would exchange gifts, and I couldn't bail out now. I barely knew this person, and felt compelled to do spend $25 of my hard-earned money--it wasn't out of love. I hated it.
My mom and dad, exhausted from a year and a half of battling Pulmonary Hypertension, dragged themselves out to the stores, through the traffic, etc...and paid for it by being laid out for a day on the couch afterwards.

Brandon didn't even know what we bought for his family. His only shopping opportunity came at 7pm on December 23rd...after he had pulled off Holiday Hope--feeding over 4,000 people and organizing Toys for Tots for all the families. He had been out of the house since 5am, was absolutely exhausted and had to go out and buy his wife gifts afterwards. He didn't get home till after midnight, and spent the rest of the night trying to wrap them as I slept. The next day when we went to my parents' house, he was so tired and couldn't really enjoy the time together.

So this year, as we were anticipating another hectic Christmas season, I felt that sick feeling in my stomach...and I wasn't pregnant this time. We had a beautiful baby girl and had bought that house this year. Our monthly budget had less than $50 of wiggle room...hardly enough to buy presents that were as good, if not better than last year. I still haven't mastered going shopping with an infant in tow in between the two hour window her schedule allows. I was NOT looking forward to Christmas. The shopping and everything put such a viel over the celebration of a perfect Savior who came to earth to set me free. I didn't feel free. I felt trapped in society's expectations.

So, I decided we weren't going to do it. We weren't going to be trapped, in debt, and stressed this year. We talked to our family members about it and explained our situation briefly and also offered them the opportunity to not have to buy presents for us either.I didn't want to be a scrooge...don't get me wrong. I just recognized that everyone we love has a lot of stuff...There wasn't anyone in our family who needs another sweater or a book to go on their shelves or really anything. We certainly didn't NEED anything. As I sit at my laptop in our beautiful home which God has provided, I am unbelievably blessed.

But not everyone is as blessed. There are people in Africa and in Asia and in the inner city of Greenville, SC and all over who need things. They need education and clothing and food and hope. So we decided to take Brandon's bonus, which last year went to paying off a portion our credit card Christmas spending, and investing it in a life...

Meet Brian Otieno. This picture was taken in March 2004 when I was in Mbita, Kenya on a mission trip. I fell in love with this little guy (who has grown up a bit since then, I'm sure) and took the opportunity to support him through Christ's Gift Academy, a Christian school that my old church, Seacoast Church, supports in a holistic manner. This year, our money went to make sure that he is going to have an education, food, clothing, and medical care in 2008.

We also spent money on items to throw 2 parties so we could spend quality time with friends during this season. I had a diva drop-in for my girlfriends in the area, and my sister-in-law came down to help out...It was AWESOME! Later, we were able to open our home and bless some friends who are expecting their second son by throwing a baby shower for them and hosting the get-together well into the night.

Finally, I was able to use my creativity in making one-of-a-kind gifts for our closest family members. I won't get into it yet because it's a surprise, but I wanted to let them know that we love them and are willing to put time, thought, creativity and love into their gifts this year.

I have had more time, energy and excitement about spending time with those I love this year than last.

I also was given another idea from my cousin, Tracy, concerning Christmas presents. Tracy and her husband, Chris, are pretty amazing business people. To say they are well off may be an understatment. They have 3 precious children who could probably have anything they wanted if money was the only concern. I was talking to Tracy yesterday, asking her what the kids were asking for for Christmas. She said her youngest (who is maybe 5 or 6) said he didn't want anything.


What 5 year old doesn't want anything? I've never seen it with my eyes, especially at Christmastime.

She said that each of the kids usually get about 2-3 small presents and then the rest of the things under the tree are IOU's...wrapped up like gifts. They are for activites with the family, like a bike ride or an ice cream cone or special alone time with Mom and Dad.

I thought it was brilliant. It values family, quality time spent together, and memories over materialistic things that end up at the bottom of the toy box. I think I might steal that idea from her when Ella and her future siblings are old enough to understand what society says Christmas should be.

I know this is a LONG post. If you made it this far, my hat goes off to you. I appreciate you trudging through my thoughts, and I would love to hear your thoughts as well (please comment, no matter whether you agree or disagree with me). I also want to thank my family and friends who usually find a store-bought gift under the tree from us and won't this year. Thanks for your support and your understanding.

Brandon, Ella, and I want to wish everyone a BERRY Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. May the reality of our Savior's grace, love and hope overwhelm you this season.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Serious Conversation

Having a built in friend for Ella has been wonderful. Avery is one month younger, but seems to be right on par with her verbal skills...here is a short video of the girls chatting it up at our house the other night.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What Ella Thinks of the 3 Time National Champs...

Pepper came down this week to help out with a party that I was throwing, and to spend some time with us and her favorite niece. As always, she came bearing gifts (a wild perk of being her first and only niece!). This time, it was an Appalachian State t-shirt.

Pepper and John both graduated from App State and still live in Boone, NC about 5 minutes from campus. App State has been, in the past, a big rival for our beloved Furman Paladins. When Brandon played football for Furman, the App State game was usually the most exciting. However, I'll be quick to admit that it's been a WHILE since we've beat the Mountianeers. Still, we like to keep the rivalry fires burning with John and Pepper even though we know the truth.

Well, the Apps have done it again. They made it to the national championship, which was played on Friday night while we were at the Redemption Gala (Brandon's office Christmas party). Pepper was babysitting and of course wanted to take advantage of our new cable system, so she and Ella could cheer on her alma mater together. Of course, all good fans need a t-shirt to sport while watching the game. Both had theirs on.

But apparently, Mom and Dad have already taught Ella what to do when she comes across a rival...SPIT UP ON IT!

Not only did she christen her own shirt, but also her favorite Aunt's shirt, too!
As a side note, the App State Mountaineers went on to win their third consecutive national title. So, fan or not, they deserve a nice round of applause...

...even from a Paladin.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Grove Park Inn

Our friends, Jodie and David Smith (Avery's Parents) have a tradition of going to the Grove Park Inn every year at Christmas time in order to enjoy the deocrations, atmosphere, and of course, the gingerbread houses that were entered in the National Gingerbread House Competition. This year, they invited us to join along.

We had a trio of older couples, you know...the ones where the women all wear Christmas sweaters and the men walk around with cameras around their necks...approach us as we were about to take pictures by this sleigh. It's in one of the two giant fireplaces in the inn, and there are about 5 lighted trees and a nice scene. So these people must have an affinity to babies or something, because they hung around us for a good half hour...every time we thought they'd go on, they'd come back to look at the babies again or ask the typical baby questions. The men offered to be our paparazzi...with our camera, the Smith's camera and their own cameras. Apparently, the guy who had my camera has a day job he's not planning on leaving because this was the best shot he could get. Notice the large amounts of rock fireplace, small amounts of lighted Christmas trees, reindeer's rear, and the flash umbrella that the real photographer left all framing us...wow!

We also got pics of each family....

The Berrys

The Smiths

And this is our little Russian baby that we picked up...at GapKids. Thanks to Grandma (Mama Nissi).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Moo-y Christmas, Everyone!

Mom keeps telling me I need to take more video of Ella so others who don't get to see her often can have a chance to see her cute mannerisms. So, Mom, here we go...

This is Ella at 4 months enjoying her first Christmas toy...a caroling cow. We've already changed the batteries in this bad boy since we got him a couple of days after Thanksgiving from Dennis and Karen. My mother-in-law might have found the secret to a serene baby...keep playing this dude over and over and over....and Ella loves it! Sometimes she sings along (in her own special way, of course) and sometimes she just wants to try to eat him, but either way she is content.