Christmas Shopping 2020 – with Giveaway!

The UK is in lockdown again so let’s start thinking about Christmas. It’ll cheer us up.

I’ve written before with ideas for Christmas presents. While all of those remain good ideas, I thought I’d let you know about some of the things I’ve discovered in 2020 (or should’ve told you about before) and highly recommend. This will hopefully be useful if your family members don’t like to let you know what they’d like until 23rd December and you don’t want to wait that long.

Incidentally, if none of these ideas will do please comment below with any present-purchasing predicaments you find yourself in and I’ll try my best to help. (E.g. “What about my single uncle who’s a vegan and doesn’t read?”)

Not to get political about it but you’ll notice that none of my links are to Amazon. I’m not judging you at all if you buy your gifts from Amazon. I use Amazon a lot, but I really do feel that they should pay corporation tax -and this year more than ever I’d like to support smaller businesses where possible.

If you’re looking for budget options, I’ve mentioned some ideas throughout and there’s some at the bottom if you’d like to scroll down. This is a long blog post. It’s clearly a topic which interests me.

This blog post contains zero affiliate links.

Games

If you’ve got a long list of nieces/nephews/godchildren, games can be a great joint present to keep costs down. They also bring great joy! We highly recommend Gamewright card games, particularly Sleeping Queens, Rat-a-tat-Cat and, for a bit more of a challenge (involving dice), Dragonwood. We recently played two of their cooperative board games, Outfoxed and Forbidden Island, where all participants play as a team, which reduces the risk of fighting quite considerably.

We also recently discovered Trivial Pursuit bitesize, which is not only less expensive to buy than the full board game but is also less of a commitment to play. Win, win. (We have the 90’s music edition, which I did indeed win, win.)

BooksGiveaway!

Linda Allcock’s book, Deeper Still, is truly excellent. It would be a blessing to a loved one. I’m more likely to buy it for a woman but I’m sure it would be helpful for men, too. Read my review here. I’ve since finished the book and it was brilliant. I actually wrote, “Hallelujah!” on the last page and not because I was glad the book was finished. At the bottom of this post you’ll find out how to enter my prize drawer to win one of two copies of this treasure.

Black and British, a short, essential history (David Olusoga). is easy to read, fascinating and wonderfully informative. I’d recommend it for children aged 12 and up.

For other book recommendations, click on the Books category on the right.

Music: If you’re buying for Christian families or your own children, I highly recommend the Awesome Cutlery albums. They are just fantastic. My sons also love the wonderful Michael J Tinker, who has just released a new album.

For grown-ups and families there’s a lovely website called Hope and Ginger which sells all kinds of beautiful, encouraging gifts. Last year we bought the Family Prayer Journal for a couple of families we know. They also sell lovely prints which you could frame. I recently bought myself a Christmas tea towel and am tempted to buy myself another! You might think a Christmas tea towel isn’t an exciting present, but that definitely depends on the recipient. I love a nice tea towel, me. (Secretly hoping she doesn’t now receive 12 tea towels for Christmas.) Hope and Ginger is a very small British company and offers free UK delivery on all orders. If you’re sending a gift directly, Cath will even write your card out for you if you ask her. Fabulous.

Thinking outside the box: This probably doesn’t feel like much of a present as it’s nothing to open, but this year we invested in the ‘Simply Piano’ app for our children and it’s worked fantastically well for them. They love practising the piano with it. This would be something which, if they use it, will truly be a gift to them. (You can get similar subscriptions for other instruments, too.) And you could always give them some Maltesers or something to open on the big day!

An unusual option for adults which is quite expensive but worth every penny is toilet twinning. Twin their toilet and you’ll give them a little lift every time they… use it and you’ll be blessing some people who really do need it.

Subscriptions (this may only be helpful for UK readers, sorry!) Subscriptions are a way to give a gift that will last all year and not fill your home with even more plastic tat. If you’re worried about them not having anything to open, you could buy them something small that’s connected. The Beano annuals are not expensive, for example.
We currently receive two comics a week and it always causes exceeding joy when they arrive. It’s not a cheap gift but if you feel it’s worth the investment you can often spread the cost over the year. My children and I recommend: 
Whizz Pop Bang (£39.99/yr) is a monthly magazine made by a small British company and is a great way to inspire your children to love science. Their experiments only require ingredients you’ve probably got at home and they send you an email in advance of each issue to warn you. This is a lifesaver if you don’t want to be asked, “do we have fizzy vitamin tablets?” while you’re trying to cook the dinner. (I’m not kidding, while I’m writing this an ad for fizzy vitamin tablets has popped up on my screen. Coincidence? I told my daughter and she simply said, “digital footprint.” Argh!)
The Beano – of course it’s a classic (the longest running weekly comic); it’s still brilliant and I do feel we should support them so it doesn’t disappear completely! We pay for this in installments so it’s not too painful. (I try not to think about it!)
The Phoenix – My 9 year old son really enjoys this one, too. If you can’t afford to go for a full subscription I think you can get 4 issues for £1, which would still be a lovely gift. (£54.99/6 months; £99/yr)
National Geographic for Kids – If your children like animals they’ll love this. (£37/yr)
If these subscriptions are all too expensive for your budget and you have Tesco Clubcard points you haven’t been able to use this year, Bayard Magazines have subscriptions for different age groups and you can pay for them with your Clubcard points. We’ve had Storybox, Adventure Box and Discovery Box and they’ve all gone down well with the children. They’re expensive and only come out once a month but they are lovely – and when Clubcard are footing the bill it doesn’t hurt too much.

“And what about you? What would you like?”

One of the best things I’ve ever received for Christmas: A 5 year, one-line-a-day diary. It’s so good in fact that I’ve written a separate blog post about it here. If you do think you know someone who’d like one, I’d check first in case they don’t want it or they already have one.

On my list this year: Last year I decided I really wanted to delve deeper into the book of Acts so for Christmas I asked for a scripture journal of Acts (this one from 10ofthose.com) and then I used a commentary to read through the book slowly, making notes and trying – with the Holy Spirit’s help – to get my head around it. This year I’ve decided to do the same thing again but with the letter to the Hebrews. So I shall be asking my loved ones for the Hebrews scripture journal and the book, Better, by Jen WIlkin, which will hopefully help me to read and understand Hebrews better (no pun intended). Obviously I’d also like some chocolate and a bottle of Bailey’s.

Ideas for tight budgets

If you’re short on cash this year, firstly I’m sure everyone you love understands and wouldn’t want you to be worrying about their gifts! Also I find that when your budget is tight you are required to put more thought into it, which is really a blessing to the person receiving the gift. If you don’t fancy doing a “secret Santa” idea, or if you’re doing that and you still need lower priced options, here are a few:

Make your gifts. A bag of homemade cookies or fudge in a nice little gift bag is a thoughtful present that nobody ever wants to ‘regift.’ We once made hot chocolate gifts by filling piping bags with hot chocolate powder and marshmallows (sorry to my plastic-free readers) and stuck on googly eyes so that they looked like reindeer. I stole the idea from the World Wide Web and it made people smile.

A nice framed photograph is also very thoughtful and simple frames can be purchased very cheaply in Asda etc. Or you could frame a postcard – Hope and Ginger, 10ofthose and The Good Book Company all sell encouraging Bible-verse postcards.

Word art posters are also really thoughtful gifts and you can print them out yourself to keep costs down. If you search on etsy for word art there are different shapes and colours available. You write down a list of words you associate with your loved one and they email you a pdf to print. Simple!

Most magazines do a £1 for 4 or 6 weeks offer. This would be a lovely gift for a child. (Grown-up magazines do this too, if you need ideas!)

This might not help you for Christmas 2020, but you should always look in the post-Christmas sales for next year’s presents! It comes round every year, you know. (This year, if your family Christmas is postponed you could actually buy your gifts late! Cheeky.)

Giveaway!

Excitingly I have two copies of the brilliant ‘Deeper Still’ to give away. If you’d like to be entered into the prize draw, please see my Facebook page or Instagram account to find out what to do. I’ll be announcing the winners on Facebook and Instagram on Saturday 21st November.

Interview! Sarah Parker

C52F5A79-C51A-4CC4-9910-82682C5A25AA

It’s time for an interview! Sarah Parker is a mum-of-four who has just written a book called Seek and Find: Old Testament Bible Stories. She lives in London with her husband and children, aged 14, 12, 10 and 8. This book is beautifully creative and my 4-year-old daughter loves it. Truth be told, she loves it slightly too much. We’ve done all the pages many times and she’s showing no signs of boredom. Seriously though, it’s fantastic to have a seek-and-find book that’s based on the Bible. Let’s find out more about Sarah:

Hi Sarah! So, four children… how has Lockdown been going for you and your family?
Lockdown for the Parker household has been full of ups and downs. I have dyslexia, so initially the prospect of homeschooling our four children was daunting to say the least.
That said, we started off full of enthusiasm and even excitement at the challenge. We were doing really well in the two weeks leading up to Easter, but having a two-week break derailed our momentum and routine, and in the last couple of weeks we have really struggled to get back into it. The excitement has definitely worn off and it feels much more like a chore for us all. And of course, these feelings are compounded by not being allowed to leave the house.
Perhaps one of the nicest things about Lockdown is that my husband André has been working from home. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to all come together at lunchtime and eat together. We’ve built lunch Bible time into our routine, where we read a section of the Bible and pray as a family. It’s been really important to show our kids that while this world feels very different to the one we’re used to, we still have the same awesome God—a God who knows us so well and knows that we are prone to feeling anxious and so talks about that in his word. It’s been great to lead our kids to these passages.
 
Same here! More time with Dad is such a blessing.
I love your new book, Seek & Find. How did it come about? 
The idea for the book stemmed from a childhood love of treasure-hunt books. As someone with dyslexia these kinds of books engaged me in a way that other books just didn’t. I then rediscovered my passion for treasure-hunt books after having my own children. I loved the intimacy and the interaction they afforded as you settled down together to spend time in the pages.
This made me wonder if it would be possible to combine a treasure-hunt book with the awesomeness of the Bible. Cogs started to turn and the ideas started to flow. I wanted to captivate young learners with beautiful and engaging artwork while also getting them excited about the Bible and God’s great attributes.
Any top tips for Lockdown with children? (We’re desperate!)
Lockdown hasn’t been all bad. It’s forced us to think outside of the box and get creative. We’ve done things that we wouldn’t have done otherwise.
One night we had a Lockdown party, turning our loft room into a dance floor! The Christmas lights were pulled out and put on flash mode. The kids danced to tunes on the smart speaker at full volume (sorry neighbours) or lounged by the “bar” with a bottle of J2O!
On another evening our girls waited on me and my husband as we had a “date night”. They got dressed up to set the table, serve our meal and pour our drinks.
As a family we love camping. The weather has been great and in different circumstances we’d have definitely gone away for the night. So instead, the kids decided to sleep out in the garden in a tent on a couple of occasions! It was so sweet watching them pack their bags and make preparations.
We’ve had four birthdays over Lockdown so finding ways to make them memorable has been a fun challenge. Our eldest daughter turned 14 – she absolutely loves sushi so we turned our kitchen into a sushi bar for her! Maggie, our youngest daughter turned 10. She’s a keen baker, her life’s ambition being to own a restaurant called the Magpie Café – her Dad’s nickname for her is Magpie! We painted big posters of her logo and again transformed our kitchen, spending the whole day baking with her!
Our youngest son Jacob has a bossy streak and kind of rules the roost. On his birthday we made it official and made him King Jacob for the day – complete with crown and throne! We acted as his humble servants and his every wish was our command. (Within reason, although he was happy to test the limits!) We had a lot of fun and if anything it made the ‘Lockdown birthdays’ more special and definitely memorable!
Wow. That sounds amazingly creative (and slightly intimidating)! We’ve got three birthdays coming up in the next month so you’ve inspired me to try something special. Thank you so much for your book! I hope there’ll be a New Testament one coming soon. Readers, you can pick up a copy for your children and godchildren here. Enjoy!

Freedom

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. Galatians 5:13-15.

We’ve been using the Lent Prayer Tree prayer guide from Hope and Ginger. The other day it suggested we prayed for “people you find challenging.” Of course we all prayed for each other! Who sees the worst side of me? Who gets the least patient version of me? My poor, dear family. And now we’ve been sentenced to at least 12 weeks of family confinement. I mentioned I’m reading A Gentleman in Moscow – that’s about a man who’s living under house arrest. Little did I know when I began reading it how apt it would be. But he’s in a massive hotel and he has more than 5 people to talk to! Who knew I’d end up envying him, just a little bit? (I’m kidding… of course…)

I’m not complaining about my family. But I give them plenty of reasons to complain about me. The truth is, though, that it is challenging spending so much time with other sinners. This morning I read the children the passage above from Galatians. We talked about how we can spend the day (metaphorically?) biting chunks off each other, but if in the end we’ll all be “consumed.” There’ll be nothing left of us! Or we can choose to obey God and love each other as we love ourselves. So we prayed that the Lord would change our hearts and help us to do that instead.

I think when we read commands about loving and serving other people and showing generosity and grace, it’s easy to think about people “out there.” Especially now, when many people out there are genuinely in need of help. And helping people is the right thing to do, of course, but I think I often neglect to see that there are people right under my nose who need love, generosity and grace. And if they’re the only people I’m going to see today (other than on a screen), then this seems the perfect opportunity to start praying for supernatural love for them.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23

I just wanted to add as a bit of a disclaimer: when I tell you about how things are going here I do spare you many messy details. The reason for this is that it wouldn’t be fair on my children to broadcast their struggles. I’m usually happy to share my own failings, but that’s my choice. It’s also not very encouraging to hear about someone else’s ugliness. But I just want you to know that when I share with you a craft or an activity that’s worked well, it may not have been all happiness and harmony along the way. We, like you, are works very much in progress. Some days go beautifully; some evenings require a brisk and fervent prayer walk. Most days are a bit of both.

Here are some things we’ve tried:

We’ve now got a “Shake Up 2” playlist which is: “Who’s the King of the Jungle?” Colin Buchanan, “Tell it to Jesus” (very apt) by Randall Goodgame and “Dr Jesus” by Awesome Cutlery. All available on YouTube with lyrics.

 

IMG_4377

I’ve started reading Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo with the older three and we’re going to do crafts and things along the way. If you’ve got a good children’s book that you enjoy, this is a great way to inspire activities because you can use the text as a springboard for all sorts of crafts/drama/writing. So far this has included making paper boats and painting some Japanese numbers – we did that thing with wax crayons and watercolours, which turned out nicely! I feel like I did that a lot in primary school. And you probably know this but twinkl.co.uk is a great place for resources and ideas.

7B8459DD-9D7E-4B4A-81C6-AE8335361599

I just want to give a little shout-out to Post-It notes. Give a child a Post-It note to write something on, and he’s pretty chuffed. Plus it’s a way of sticking things to the wall which (I hope) doesn’t do any damage. I’ve started using them to plan out the day – so we all have some idea of what’s going on – and today I used some to remind me to help my daughter learn these sounds:

image

Day One in the Big Brooks House

IMG_4345
The thrill of a care package

I expected to be writing this blog post on Monday evening but homeschooling started early for the Brookses. My son developed a dry cough last night so we decided it would be best to keep them off school and quarantine ourselves. This was a really sad start to the day as we had to break the news to our daughter who was very upset to miss the last day of school.

It’s all a bit daunting. If you feel overwhelmed by social media input at this time, you’re not alone! I hope and pray that my blog will simply encourage you and share ideas – and hopefully give you a chance to laugh (kindly) at my misfortune at times.

I think as a mum I feel really responsible for holding it together and keeping my children happy. This is quite a burden to bear so I was delighted to be reminded of something when reading Galatians: So also Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’ (Chapter 3 v 6). It reminds me of Romans 1.17 which I’ve written about here. (There is overlap between the pressure of making Christmas special and making quarantine special, for sure!)  The bottom line is this: we’re righteous by faith, not by works. So we don’t need to be amazing. Which is great news for me because I’m not.

One complication of starting to homeschool early is that I had Bible study (via the Zoom app) at 10am so of course we had to resort to putting a film on for the kids. Sigh. We lasted about 70 minutes before resorting to screen time! But such is real life.

I find it helpful to have a rough plan of timings but we didn’t stick to it so I’ll just let you know what we did today (in case it’s helpful):

Film: Two by Two. No idea how good it is.  A thoroughly inaccurate portrayal of Noah’s ark. Not exactly how I’d envisaged kicking off our theological programme of study!
Maths – Numeracy Ninjas (see below) and the maths workbooks I frantically bought them in Waterstone’s the other day. With Martha (3) I played a game of Dotty Dinosaurs (Orchard Toys) which is good for shape recognition. We also baked cookies later which I reckon counts as maths!
Lunch, then a bit of TV while I had a quick lie down.
Art” – we made a giant banner for our neighbour who turned 4 today. We also received party bags from them so teh children had lots of fun playing with their little toys and eating sweets. 10y-old also made playdough as birthday present for neighbour.
Harry Potter Game with Dad.

A friend recommended Numeracy Ninjas to me, where you can print off free worksheets for your children to do each day.

IMG_4351

I guess if you wanted to make a big banner but it wasn’t someone’s birthday, you could just make up a random reason. A bible verse maybe, or a cheery slogan of some sort? The children did enjoy this.

Later in the day we received work packs from school, which I found completely overwhelming. They have written out a (thankfully) “suggested” timetable. It’s similar to mine but involves more screen time (albeit educational), which I’m keen to avoid unless desperate. I’d rather reserve it for when I’m feeling unwell or trying to lead a Bible study. There’s also no way I can teach my three children three different history topics. I’m sure their teachers will understand – it’s the children I need to convince!

So today has had its ups and downs.

Our Tesco delivery arrived today, mostly intact. No rice or pasta but plenty of fresh food. I’m so grateful for God’s timing as we won’t be able to go and buy food for 2 weeks.

I’m thankful for friends who are willing to bring us things from the shops/pharmacy.

And I’m reminded of the importance of not wasting food. I hate waste anyway but when you’re into sure when you’ll next get to buy oranges (or rice) it does make you extra careful.

I also wasn’t 100% sure we were right quarantine ourselves but this afternoon I saw a GP I know had written on Instagram that you can’t be too cautious because the choices you make today affect people in ICU in 2 weeks’ time. So I think we did the right thing.

Praying that you, dear reader, would be trusting in the Lord’s provision today.

Busy going nowhere

FF5AD889-0740-4633-BA45-8963CAE35E67

For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.  And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. Hebrews 13:14-17

From this weekend our children will be off school until further notice.

As I write this, we are still allowed to go outside but we assume it’s not helpful to do so other than to buy food or to help someone in need. Therefore we are facing at least a month (possibly 3 or longer) inside our 3-bed flat.

We want to be obedient and thankful, rejoicing in the Lord each day.  We want our children to look back on this as a a bit of an adventure. I’d like them to be able to say that although we were probably a bit stressed (!), we remained cheerful and that in a surprising way it was a really special time.

So we’re going to need to pray and depend on God.

I’ve also been thinking of a structure which I hope is realistic and will help us all to stay positive and not slip into despair.

Here are some unusual blessings:
We also live on top of a pharmacy and a supermarket, which means food and medicine are accessible – although this won’t allow for much of a leg-stretch when we need supplies.
We share a front door with another family, whose children will be referred to on this blog as the Oompa Loompas.
We have a large outside space, which is unusual for an urban flat.

So here is my plan. I hope to be able to share with you frequent updates in case it can be of any help. Please do share your ideas in the comments below.
I’ve never home schooled so this might be completely ridiculous. However, since we can’t go out anywhere I’ve planned more in than I would do if I were actually homeschooling long term.

“School Day” Routine

9.15: Prayer and “shake up to wake up” (Singing some lively praise songs, see below)
9.30: English (Phonics for the EYFS*); Comprehension/Handwriting/Spellings
10.00: Maths (Shapes/counting for the EYFS); Maths workbooks/schoolwork
10.30: Fruit break and run around outside
10.45-11.45: EYFS ‘Choosing’ (e.g. playdough/dressing up/colouring/blocks/train set); KS1/2** Humanities
11.45-12.15: Bible teaching and related activities
12.15: Helping to prepare lunch.
12.30-1pm: Lunch
1-1.45: PE/Games (I’m hoping my husband will be in charge of this!)
1.45-2: Silent reading (Story time for EYFS)
2-3.30: Art/Cookery/Science (Messy things)
3.30-3.45: Tidy up time; Closing prayer

3.45-4.30: Quiet time (please!)

Songs for the Shake Up: “My God is so Big” and “Super Saviour” by Colin Buchanan and “A New New Day” and “We are the Church” By Awesome Cutlery. All are available on YouTube with singalong lyrics. 

Things I’m hoping to do:
Tie-dye: my 10-yr-old daughter has been talking about doing this for a while. I’ve ordered a kit… I’ll let you know how it goes!
I’d love to try making cinnamon buns.
Lots of baking cakes – although we really will need to keep up the exercise to compensate.
Learn (along with my children) to knit.
Finally give the children some piano and guitar lessons.
This may only make me happy, not anyone else, but I’d really like to chuck some of our stuff away! It’s good for the soul.
My sweet younger daughter turns 4 in April – I do hope we can make it a fun celebration for her.

Wish list for keeping our cheer:
Praying each day – giving thanks and praying for those going through difficult times. I’d like the children to keep little log books of things they enjoyed each day and things to be thankful for. 

Evening activities:
I think we’re going to get Disney Plus for a few months
Board games (we’ve bought some news ones)
Letter writing – to relatives and friends we haven’t seen for weeks!

If you’d like some ideas for teaching the children – including Easter-themed stuff – please click on the Teaching category below. There is always loads of great stuff on the Faith in Kids website too.

I’ll let you know how it’s going!

*EYFS stands for Early Years Foundation Stage. It includes Nursery and Reception children, which in our case is my child no. 4 and the Oompa Loompas.
**Key Stage 1 is Years 1-2 (ages 5-7); Key Stage 2 is Years 3-6 (ages 7-11)

On your marks, get set, Bake!

PHOTO-2018-11-17-19-47-46 2

How to Throw a Junior Bake-Off Birthday Party

I recently organised a Junior Bake-Off party for my daughter’s ninth birthday, and I thought I’d tell you about it in case you might want to do something similar.  If not, then at least in six year’s time I can read this blog post and do it again for my younger daughter.

I’ll say right off the bat that this was quite a tiring thing to do, and there were lots of little bits to remember.  However, I actually enjoyed it and much more importantly, the children loved it.  It actually felt like the real thing! Plus, a great big, huge, enormous thank you to the unsuspecting mums who came along and ended up helping with a lot of clearing up – not to mention rescuing burning bakes from the oven.

There’s a list below of everything you’ll need to prepare and buy in advance, but first I’ll tell you what actually happened.  It looks more complicated than it actually was because I’ve tried to write absolutely everything down.  Please don’t be put off!

PHOTO-2018-11-17-19-47-47

What we did:
We set it up like the real Bake-Off, with a Signature Challenge, a Technical and a Show-Stopper:
Signature: Pizzas
Technical: Fork Biscuits
Show-Stopper: Cupcake Decorating

For the Signature, I emailed the parents in advance to ask what toppings the children would like.  I bought pizza topping sauce (although I could have made some), grated cheese (lazy, I know) and whatever toppings they’d chosen.  I made the dough the day before (but you could buy bases).

For the Technical, I used Mary Berry’s Fork Biscuits recipe, which is available online.  I halved the recipe, so each child made eight cookies.  They could choose whether to make chocolate or plain.  I then needed to prepare a tray each with margarine, sugar, flour and the recipe.  (The optional cocoa was a the front of the room.)  This is a recipe that all the children (aged 7-9) could manage.  They found it challenging, but they enjoyed it and they came out well.

For the Show-Stopper, I made cupcakes in advance (I used Nigella’s Christmas Cupcake recipe but you could use any), and bought icing and sprinkles. I provided disposable piping bags and cutters for ready-to-roll icing.  You should really have trays ready with all of the stuff they need for this.  I didn’t, so it became a bit chaotic at this point.  (Cue helpful mums.)

PHOTO-2018-11-17-19-47-47 2

At the end, we put the cupcakes onto a cupcake stand, stuck candles in it and sang happy birthday.  They ate their pizzas and a cupcake each, and I gave out prizes.  I’d come up with four prize categories as we went along, so that everyone got an award for something, (such as ‘most imaginative Show-Stopper’).  For the prizes, I bought personalised wooden spoons from Not on the Highstreet – see pic below.  If you wanted to do something cheaper, you could try getting plain aprons from Baker Ross (£5 for two), and ironing on a star or something.  But since the party on the whole wasn’t expensive, I didn’t mind paying £20 for the prizes (£5 each).

To prepare in advance: 
Email the parents to ask for the pizza toppings and give them an equipment list to bring. This will depend on what you have at home, e.g. I had enough rolling pins, but you might not.  Also, ask them if they can stay to help their child if possible.
Find a judge or two.  They need to be fun, or at least pretend to be.
Try to find some people to help with the washing up!
Make pizza dough
Make cupcakes – we gave them four each
Print out recipes for Techincal
Print out timings for yourself, otherwise you’ll get confused.
Save margarine tubs and other containers because each child will need their own margarine, sugar and flour

To buy:
Pizza toppings
Enough flour, butter/margarine, sugar and cocoa for everyone in the Technical.  The quantities are not huge.
Greaseproof paper (we used this for pizzas and biscuits)
Butter icing, ready to roll icing, various sprinkles, disposable piping bags.  (My daughter went through three piping bags and I’m sorry but they’re a pain to clean.)
Salad and fruit for the meal, if you wish
Candles if you don’t have any
Prizes.  If you’re keeping costs down, I’m sure some biscuits or pretty cupcake cases or something would be just as lovely.

PHOTO-2018-11-17-19-47-45

To set up:
I used four long tables and put all the equipment and the pizza toppings on top, ready to use
If you have enough trays, get the trays for the Technical and the Show-Stopper ready before the party starts
Have a table at the front of the room for the judging of the Technical. I got them to write their names on little cards which went in front of their bakes, so that they knew whose were being judged, but the judge couldn’t see.  (On the show they have photos for this.)
I put a big bowl of soapy water and some flannels at the back, for hand washing

Equipment List:
Aprons
Rolling pins
Kitchen scales
Sieves (for cocoa)
Piping nozzles (if you’re using disposable bags, you probably can manage with just one set of nozzles as you won’t need the collar)
Mixing bowls
Wooden spoons
Cutlery
Small scissors – one pair each
Ask each child to bring a box to carry their goods home in
Cupcake stand (or just use a plate)

PHOTO-2018-11-17-19-47-45 2

Running Order:
Write name cards
Introduce Signature – give them 10 minutes.  Remember to say, “On your marks, get set, bake!”
Pizzas in the oven
Technical – they need about 20 minutes for this. You can give them longer if they need it!
Biscuits in – meanwhile, judge the Signature.  Put the pizzas on the benches and the judge goes round and tries each one and gives feedback.  Remember to say, “tell me about your pizza.”
(There may be a pause here while the children try their own pizzas/wash their hands/wipe down their benches)
Now judge the technical by putting the biscuits on the front table and getting the children to sit in a row while the judge makes comments about each one.  They could choose a winner for this, although my judge didn’t.
Showstopper – decorate four cupcakes. I thought this would be quick but they spent ages on it.  Allow as much or as little time as you wish!  Tell them they will be marked purely on presentation, and that they can do them all the same or four different styles.
Judging – get them to bring up their four cupcakes on a plate and comment on them.
Now put the cupcakes into the stand and light candles, sing happy birthday etc.

Eat!

Prize giving.

Now do a lot of washing up.

If you try this, please let me know!  I do hope it helps somebody else to have a happy birthday.

PHOTO-2018-11-17-19-47-46

Thanks for Coming

IMG_7487

Christmas is so messy.

I’ll let you into a (non)secret: I’m not so good at housework.  Right now I’m supposed to be cleaning, but as you can see, I’m not.  And at Christmas, there’s more stuff around, plus there’s more stuff to do which in this home takes priority over housework.  So our already-not-exactly-neat home is now even more messy.  It’s littered with Christmas crafts, envelopes, scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon, and pine needles.  Yesterday I had several ribbons sellotape to the sole of my slipper for longer than is reasonable before I addressed the issue.

It’s messy in other ways too.  Around about mid October I begin to dread the Christmas fair.  This year it lived up to my dire expectations, once again.  It’s not that I disagree with it in principle, but rather it is too overwhelming for me and my kin.  We cannot cope with it at all.  This year, only half of my children cried throughout.  I left in such a hurry that when I realised we had one toddler welly missing, I refused to go back in.  “I’ll buy new wellies if I have to!” said I.

Here is a text I sent a friend the week before the Christmas fair:

“This week we had to bring in a cup of sweets each on Monday, email the school some photos of us doing some ‘extreme reading’ (but safely), bring in some bread from our culture tomorrow and a gift for the school fair, wearing our own clothes, on Friday… I’m always aware it would be less mad if I only had 1 or 2 children at school, so it’s not really the school’s fault.  Plus it’s fun.  Although the other parents seem confused too.  ‘This time do we wrap it? Do they wear spots? Have I missed the shoe box deadline?’ (yes)…”

I will inevitably drop several balls in December.  Last week I was supposed to watch my daughter’s gymnastics assessment, but I forgot.  She was very gracious about it, but it didn’t feel good.  I wonder what I’ll forget to do this week.  Hopefully nothing life-threatening or childhood-scarring.  And my poor husband is bombarded with crazy text messages as I try to get him to help me to remember everything.

However, the biggest mess I see at Christmas, as I experience this pressure-cooker of festivity and reflect on the year gone by, is in my own heart.  I’m still selfish, I’m still trying to be self-sufficient, I’m still self-centred.  God is changing me, by his grace.  But folks, progress is slow.

And yet, God himself came down to meet me in this mess.

The tragedy of carol services is how overfamiliar we become with the awesome words of Scripture.  I mean, just look at this:

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[f] because he will save his people from their sins.’

22 All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’[g](which means ‘God with us’). (Matthew 1)

He came down to save us from our sins.  To deal with our mess.  He came to be with us.  I don’t deserve that, but oh how I need it.

Thank you, thank you, thank you Jesus.  Thank you for coming.

Close Quarters, Creative Quarters?

IMG_2150

I’ve been thinking about space.

First, a word or two about the size of my home.  It’s a 3-bed flat, which is quite extravagant in central London, and it’s quite spacious for a 3-bed flat in Central London.  So we’re very grateful for our flat.  Without it, we wouldn’t live here.  That sounds obvious but it’s true.  So please don’t hear the following as a complaint, but rather a reality of our family life.

I think it is fair to say that our home is quite a small space for six people to live in.  I don’t think anyone would rebuke me for finding it crowded – which I do.  I sometimes wonder whether we’re just being completely ridiculous, trying to raise four children in this flat.  I mean, I think my brother’s hallway in Glasgow is bigger than my living room (which also serves as a dining room/craft room/play room/Bible study room/homework room).

I have no laundry room, no second bathroom (master/children’s/guest or other), no mud room, no yarn room.  I only mention these rooms I don’t have because they’re all mentioned in blogs or parenting books I’ve read.  And sometimes it seems hard to apply the priniciples from those blogs/podcasts/books to my own situation, since I don’t have the facilities to which those authors have become accustomed.

So does it matter?  Is parenting basically the same whether you have a games room in the basement or, well, not (i.e. no basement, or loft, or garage, or driveway, or porch)?

Well, one thing I’m realising more and more is that everyone’s situation is different.  Even living in identical houses in the same town, two families are never going to be the same.  This is obvious, almost embarrassing to point out, and yet I think we often worry when we notice differences in our families, as if that’s not a good thing.  So we can take encouragement from other families, but we shouldn’t expect to or even try to be carbon copies of them.  God designs diversity.

I was listening recently to a podcast where two mums were talking about being creative and wanting their children to be creative.  And I agreed with them, and I want that for my children, but I felt a bit sad thinking about how hard it is to be creative when there isn’t any room at home to swing a cat, never mind build one out of papier mache.  When my children want to do something with glitter, or glue, or even just wool, inwardly I groan because they can’t do it far away enough from my toddler, and also it’ll soon be a mealtime and we’ll have to move it all out of the way so we can eat.

And I don’t want to be the inward groaner.

But one thing occurred to me.  I can help my children to be creative, but I need to figure that out for my own situation.  In other words, I need to think creatively about how to enable and encourage creativity in my home, because of the fact that my home is small  (small and lacking in ventilation).  It also occurred to me that it might be a blessing for my children to have a mother who has thought creatively about how to help them with this.  Maybe it will flex some creative muscles in me that will make me a more creative mother. 

And that reminded me that God, our Heavenly Father, actually could give us a bigger home if he thought it would be good for us.  He’s not dismayed or baffled by my home.  So maybe he’s using it for our spiritual good.  And when I say maybe, I mean of course he is.

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6v31-34.

(Or you might say, “Do not worry, saying “where will they sit?” “how will they sleep?” or “what if they want to learn the drums?” For parents in the world run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them (perhaps not the drums).  But follow Jesus, and teach them to follow Jesus, and things will work out well for you, according to His will. So don’t worry!”)

Win When Your Singing

IMG_0668

Sometimes I have a really bad idea.  Like when I think that my child can travel a long distance on a balance bike.  Or when I think that I can get on the tube in rush hour with a child, a child’s bike and a baby.   It seems that “overreaching” is often my downfall.  Ever the optimist.

But sometimes, less often, I have a really good idea.  My good ideas tend to come in musical form.  I think of a song, usually to help in a difficult situation, and it sticks. And rather than keep these songs to myself, I thought I’d share them with you in case they can be of any use in your family.  And perhaps you’d like to share with us any songs or other useful brainwaves of your own?

My most recent composition (she chuckles), is a teeth-brushing song.  A song for when one is brushing one’s teeth.  Or rather, for when your toddler is reluctantly brushing his/hers.  While I’m helping/encouraging my 3 year old to brush his teeth, I sing this song, to the tune of “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair” from South Pacific:
“I’m gonna brush that [weetabix] out of your teeth,
I’m gonna brush those [shreddies] out of your teeth,
I’m gonna brush that [yogurt] out of your teeth,
And send it on its way.”
You just insert whatever they’ve eaten into the song, obvs.  I’ve also discovered that as a bonus, this actually helps them with sequencing!  If we do the food in order (or reverse order), apparently that helps them with maths.  Whoop!  My son loves this, and it certainly distracts him from the fact that he doesn’t want to brush his teeth.

An old favourite of mine was partly thanks to Rachel Jankovic, who I think in her book “Loving the Little Years” writes about having little ropes or ribbons attached to her pushchair for her older children to hold onto while they walked around the shops.  She called them “stations”, but we’re not as fun as that.  Anyway, I tied a red plaited rope to my Maclaren and encouraged my then-2-year-old daughter to hold it while we walked along, to keep her close.  She wasn’t always keen, so I came up with this song to the tune of “Frere Jacques“:
“Red rope, Red Rope, 
Hold on tight, hold on tight,
Keeping up with mummy,
Keeping up with mummy,
Good girl, good girl.”
This worked a treat, as again it made her forget that she didn’t actually want to be obedient.  We still sing it sometimes, and the children fight over the red rope nowadays (sigh).

This one is a bit gross I suppose, so if you don’t have kids yet, stop reading now!  But when I was potty training my eldest and she was too small to sit on a normal sized toilet, but we were out somewhere and she had to use a normal sized toilet, I would hold her over the loo and sing this, to the tune of “London’s Burning
“Mummy’s got you, Mummy’s got you,
Do a wee wee, do a wee wee,
Well done! Well done!
Wipe your bottom, flush the toilet!”
Again, it got me out of some sticky situations if she was scared she’d fall in but clearly needed to go.  I would say, “come on, you’ll be fine.  I’ll sing the song!”  So dignified.

Another song which I’ve found really useful is the “Oh and Don’t forget” song from Show Me, Show Me on CBeebies.  It’s a great one to use on long car journeys.  I can’t find a link to the tune, but if you know it, you can make up verses like this:
“Steering, steering, hands upon the wheel,
Steering, steering, oh and don’t forget:
Windows, windows, wind them up and down,
Windows windows, wind them up and down (back to steering)
Wipers, wipers, swish away the rain,
Wipers, wipers, swish away the rain (back to windows, then steering, then another verse)”
Sorry if I’ve lost you on that one!

Another one I’ve stolen but definitely can’t take credit for is “I wanna hold your hand” by the Beatles, which sometimes helps my children to hold my hand when they really would rather just run in the opposite direction or into traffic.  (They do like to run towards traffic.)

We have other songs, but they’re more family specific, like the song about our door number (in case the kids ever need it!), and songs about our children.  I’ve mentioned before that Mike made up a song about dirty nappies to the tune of the South African National Anthem, but I’m not sure we know each other well enough for me to share that here.  But I would definitely recommend singing to alleviate boredom (such as when pushing your child on a swiiiing), or to cheer everyone up when things are hard (like when you’re not allowed to run into the busy road even though you really want to).  And when everyone’s in a really bad mood, you’ve got to whip out a Seeds Family Worship number or other memory verse song to give yourself some perspective, am I right?

So how about you?