It came this week. THE letter we look for each December. The one from the big guy in red. This year, it came addressed to two little ones in the household and even I got a bit excited when I spotted it sitting in our mailbox amidst a few other holiday cards, a bill or two and a magazine. There is something so magical about seeing this special envelope postmarked the North Pole in our mailbox.
Letter from Santa: Believe
I carefully set the envelope onto the kitchen desk. Aside from the other mail. A place where it would be noticed. When Dylan came home and he spotted it, his eyes lit up. Each year this is so fun for me to watch as a parent, but more so this year because he’s learning to read. “North Pole” in the return address caught his eye immediately. Then he noticed the name typed just above: Santa Claus.

As it was addressed to him and Elise, he ran over to where she was sitting in her high chair and carefully removed the letter from the envelope. Then held it up to show her as he began to read it to her. He only managed the first few words before asking me to take over, but my heart just swelled in that moment watching them together and his excitement.

Letter from Santa 2014

As I read the rest of the letter to them both, I glanced at Dylan’s face several times. The excitement was evident in his eyes and huge smile as I read about how Santa enjoyed seeing him and his friends earlier in the month and how proud he was of what a good big brother Dylan had been to Elise. I wish I had a picture of that moment, but it’s definitely ingrained in my memory because that clearly showed part of the magic of Christmas. The magic of childhood and the magic in believing.

My kids are blessed to have 3 sets of grandparents and everyone invites us for holidays. This year we celebrated Thanksgiving with my dad’s side of the family and spent time with two of their cousins who live across the state from us. It was so fun watching Dylan and the girls play and, of course, the girls loved the chance to meet and hold Elise.

Thanksgiving 2014: Cousins digital layout

Supplies: This Year 2014 Vacation by Shannon McNab; Jolly by Sara Schmutz.

I’ve been documenting our Christmas for the several years inspired by Ali Edwards’s December Daily project. It’s been fun taking a look at how our holiday has been similar and different over the years. Each of these years I focused on creating a page dedicated to each day of December leading up to Christmas. Occasionally including late November and/or days after Christmas if it included part of our holiday celebrations (i.e., getting the tree the day after Thanksgiving or the year we celebrated Christmas with my father on New Years’ Day). One year I made a book dedicated to the antics of our elf, Christopher Pop-in-Kins.

Documenting Christmas

This year, I wanted to continue the tradition, but being home with a new baby, having a kindergartener in school for 2 weeks of the month and Trent at work – I didn’t want to capture every single day. Why? Because honestly I feel stressed in having to have something Christmas related every single day for it. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s how I feel. When I was home with Dylan, it was easy. We had playgroup or a special library story time or would do a holiday craft, etc. These things aren’t happening now. That’s okay. It’s part of the change from year to year.

After contemplating a bit, I decided on another way to tackle this project so I can still capture the memories but not stress so much – I’m making a Shutterfly photo book (affiliate link) with the focus simply on the holiday events/fun/tradition from taking photos for our cards to Christmas celebrations with family later in the month.

Documenting Christmas 2014: Santa visit

I’m uploading photos and creating pages as the month progresses. Adding journaling as I like, but mainly focusing on the pictures. And, yes, adding a digital scrapbook page or two as I’m inspired (and can find the time!).

Are you documenting your Christmas?

We took a break from projects as my due date approached and as we adjusted to life with a newborn again. But just before Thanksgiving, the DIY bug bit and we started up on a couple of projects that have been on our list for some time.

During the summer we completed a full makeover of our small coat closet on the first floor. Best time & money spent. It’s been so functional and nice to open the door and find an organized space! The main coat closet, however, continued to be a mess – until last week.

Lowes: Lumber Shopping

DIY projects are a family affair!

When we moved in, the main coat closet had one wood shelf and a hanging rod. Basic and served the intended use, but I quickly had a full stack of stuff on that top shelf and we had piles on the floor. It was a disaster and a tad embarrassing if a guest came and needed to hang up a coat.

Simple Coat Closet Makeover

Trent took measurements of the existing shelf and supports before we headed to Lowe’s. There we selected whitewood lumber to match and had it all cut to length. This saved us getting out our own saw for such a small project.

Before installing, Dylan & I painted the pieces in semi-gloss white. Each piece took 2-3 coats to get a nice clean finish. After allowing time to dry, Trent took care of the installation. I then followed up with filling the holes & joints.

Coat Closet Makeover: Shelf Installed

Finally, we began returning the “mess” of stuff to the closet (minus a few items removed during the process) in a much more orderly fashion. I had asked Trent to place the new shelf high enough to fit the drinkware storage containers so those were placed first and then I filled in with assorted adult/older child board games (the “kid” ones are in the playroom); a plastic bin of cables (really need to slim that down – who needs that many tv & computer cables?); and our instruction manual binders.

Coat Closet Makeover: Shelves Filled

Cost breakdown: approximately $14
– wood for new shelving
– paint (already owned)
– nails (already owned)
- wood filler (already owned)

Most of our playgroup met up last week for our annual Santa Claus photo. It’s so fun watching the kids grow. The older boys are pros now and will walk right up to Santa. Dylan even strolled up on his own and gave Santa a hug. We had one little guy who had no interest in getting near Santa at all. One little girl who had a meltdown (there is at least one each year). And Elise started to cry just after the photo. But we got the picture and another great memory. All the kids were rewarded afterward with a train rain and play time in the new mall play area. A few even rode the carousel.

Hello, Santa digital scrapbook page

Supplies: For the Love Of by Just Jaimee; Right Now and Holiday Word Art by Karla Dudley; Letters to Santa by Meredith Cardall; Fun & Festive and Holly Jolly by Robyn Meierotto; Authentic by Laura Passage; Christmas Magic by Karen Funk; Naughty Christmas by Gennifer Bursett; Love Actually by Anita Designs; Pixels & Company Here We Come a Caroling and More or Less collaborations; Jolly by Sara Schmutz; December Deer by Jennifer Peebles; Holiday Fun by Kate Teague. Scraplift of Dear, Santa by Sophie Crespy.

I was excited when approached by #SharkCleaning to try their new Rotator Powered Lift-Away vacuum cleaner and write a review. Confession – we’ve always purchased pretty basic, inexpensive vacuum cleaners from a big box store and replaced after they died with another basic, inexpensive model. I always took the “a vacuum cleaner is a vacuum cleaner approach.” No more. The Shark Rotator Powered Lift-Away has completely changed my opinion.

Shark Rotator Powered Lift-Away Review

Our house has a mix of flooring (laminate, sheet vinyl, wood & carpet) and weird angles in a few spots like the stairway and upstairs hallway. I was curious to see if the Rotator Powered Lift-Away was a single vacuum that could handle all of these areas and was pleased to see it not only could, but did so very easily and effectively.

I initially tried the Powered Lift-Away on the laminate flooring in our family room. Since moving to this house 2 years ago, we’ve always swept the entire first floor with a broom and then used a dry duster or mop behind as needed. Our existing vacuum wasn’t really a good match for hard floors so I wanted to see how well the Hard-Floor Genie attachment on the Shark Rotator worked. Not only is it easy to attach to the wand, it glides smoothly across the floors even tackling the colorful foam squares where we sit and play in front of the fire (yes, I’m in need of a good area rug or carpeting in that room but that’s another post!).

The furniture arrangement gave me a good opportunity to see how well the Powered Lift-Away wand swivels to handle tight spaces. I could easily turn it, slide between the couch and side table; straighten to vacuum; and turn again to pull it back out and continue on the open floor. With previous vacuums I had to move the furniture. That’s extra time and energy I do not currently have with a 5 year old and 6 week old (hello, sleep deprivation).

Shark: Tackling tight spaces

The suction area at the front of the Hard-Floor Genie attachment sucked up the dirt I could see and plenty of hair and dust bunnies I hadn’t noticed while the soft, machine washable microfiber pad collected even more dust and hair. It was a bit gross, but also “Wow! Now the floors are really clean” sort of moment. I really love that now I have a quick, single step process for cleaning our entire first floor instead of broom + dry duster.

The second floor of our house and stairs are carpeted (minus the bathrooms, of course). At home with a newborn, I was struggling to find time to squeeze in testing the Powered Lift-Away on both floors and calming a baby in need of a nap until an idea hit me – why couldn’t I do both at once? Thanks to our baby wrap, I snuggled Elise up to me where she quickly settled down. I was concerned at first that the noise would startle her, but it’s much quieter than our older vacuum. She napped through me cleaning our entire second floor!

Shark Cleaning - clean while baby wearing!

Besides how much quieter it is, I appreciated how easy the Rotator Powered Lift-Away was for me to operate with one hand. It has some serious power to it and, while it weighs a tad more than our old vacuum, it glides across the carpet with ease. It also rotates easily (as the name implies) and tackled the angled corners in our upstairs hallway in one sweep. Thanks to the long cord, I  was able to completely vacuum 3 of the 4 bedrooms and the hallway plus part of the master before having to turn off and replug in a new location.

With two kids, one cat and numerous DIY projects as we turn this foreclosure into our home, we constantly have some sort of mess to clean up and I can confidently say that we finally have a vacuum that can keep up with us.

Shark Rotator Powered Lift-Away: tackles stairs with ease

One final great feature is the filtration system. Considering the dust some of our DIY projects kick up plus the fact I suffer from asthma and just don’t want my kids breathing in bad air for obvious reasons, I love the sealed HEPA system with washable filters. Our house actually smells fresher and cleaner after I’ve vacuumed and I know the filter is helping retain the dust picked up and not just stirring it up or kicking it back out. A huge plus.

For the record, our previous “basic” vacuum has officially been donated to our local thrift shop. I’m sure it will find a good new home and be useful, but we’re completely converted to the power behind our new Powered Lift-Away now.

Find all of the “official” details about the Shark Rotator Powered Lift-Away on Shark’s website here.

Disclosure: I received the Shark Rotator Powered Lift-Away vacuum free for review. The opinions expressed are are strictly my own.

Prior to our purchase of this house, it went through several years of renters and neglect. Part of this resulted in the kitchen appliances being in sad shape to put it mildly.

Kitchen: Before

The refrigerator we replaced immediately as it was full of spills and mold – the nasty fuzzy type and a LOT of it. I wish that was an exaggeration. A few months later, we replaced the dishwasher. Most of the prongs in the existing one were rusted and started staining our white dishes.

The oven was in a bit better condition. It looks worn and clearly has been. The handle nearly fell completely off shortly after we moved in. I found and ordered a replacement part which allowed me to repair it for very little cost. A plus as, at the time, we had planned to purchase a new washer & dryer when we moved but suddenly were also buying a new refrigerator and dishwasher. We really didn’t want to spend the money on another appliance. Two years later, the oven is still working (and still without a functioning light but that’s more my laziness for not replacing the bulb) so we’re still using it. Although I look forward to the day we replace it!

We did finally decide to replace the microwave. Like the oven, it was still functioning so we were planning to wait until it quit. However, as we’ve started making plans to complete the backsplash, we knew we needed to go ahead and replace the microwave as sizes can vary and we want to be sure we tile to the right height. Plus all those current “up to 40%” appliance sales happening got our attention.

Kitchen: New Microwave

During a recent trip to Lowe’s, we decided to take a look at the options and prices. We narrowed it down to 2 by Whirlpool to match our other appliances and spoke with the department manager while trying to make a decision. I had noticed that there were a lot of appliances in the clearance section and commented to Trent that we should take a look there too. The manager then offered up that if we found something we liked, to make an offer (i.e., he could go lower). I had no idea! Needless to say, we made an offer and he accepted. I almost didn’t believe it was true until the cashier rang it up at the reduced price without question.

Now, quick tip on buying a clearance appliance – double check that all parts are included before buying. A lot of the appliances in that section were either floor models or had dents in them. In our case, we found one of the two models we had been considering and it was simply an open box item. Talking to the department manager, we learned it was taken for an install but was the wrong model so it was returned to the store. What we didn’t realize until we got home was it was missing some hardware and the under cabinet mounting template had been trimmed for use. Neither of these were a big deal. Trent figured out how to place the template and use it even though it wasn’t complete; and we were able to reuse the hardware from our old microwave to complete the installation.

Kitchen: New Microwave

All in all we’re pleased with our purchase. The new microwave not only looks a lot nicer, but it functions so much better too! And I’ll be stalking the clearance section on future visits for a new oven. In the meantime, we’re saving up for the tile to complete the backsplash.

Do you have any appliance buying tips?

We’re preparing for our annual visit from our Christmas Elf, Christopher Pop-in-Kins. Last year I eased the late night panic attacks of “oh no, where is he moving tonight??” by creating a Christmas Elf Calendar filled with daily plans. This year I decided to do the same and once again share. Some of the ideas are repeats from last year (Snowman donuts are always a hit!) and some are new.

Christmas Elf Calendar 2014

One of my favorite new ideas? To have you elf wearing Mickey Ears! Colleen at Classy Mommy shares How to Make Mickey Ears for your elf. Such a clever idea! We have a Santa hat ornament with Mickey ears from a past trip to Walt Disney World that I plan to use (assuming it will fit on Christopher’s head – if not, he might just be playing with it!).

Another new idea is to leave Elf Kisses (i.e., Hershey’s Kisses). Kimberly at Kandy Kreations has a cute Elf Kisses Free Printable to pair with this treat.

Download the 2014 Christmas Elf Calendar here.

What’s your favorite Christmas Elf hiding place or activity?

My favorite part of decorating for the holidays is putting up our Christmas tree and hanging the ornaments. So many tell a story of a special time in our lives. There are ornaments to commemorate our first Christmas together, our cats, our alma mater, etc. And this year we need to add a new one to mark the newest addition to our family. Seeing as my own first Christmas ornament and her older brother’s came from Hallmark, it was only fitting that Elise get hers from there too.

Hallmark #KeepsakeIt Ornament Review & Giveaway

When Dylan was born, I quickly selected a Hallmark #KeepsakeIt photo holder ornament with zoo animals framing the picture – perfect for our little boy with the zoo themed nursery. I still smile at the memory of my 5 month old little boy wearing the knit Santa hat and excitedly seeing a Christmas tree for the first time.

Hallmark KeepsakeIt 2009 Baby's First Christmas

This year I knew I wanted to get a first Christmas ornament for Elise from Hallmark as well and, naturally, went straight to the Keepsake Ornaments section on Hallmark’s website to see what options were available. I was happy to find a photo holder ornament so both kids could have similar ones and Hallmark kindly sent it to me for her (I still need to add her photo):

Hallmark KeepsakeIt One Cute Cookie Ornament

The ornament looked great online and is just a beautiful in person. The colors are bright & cheerful and the single piece frame is very sturdy. While Dylan’s has a spinning center piece, the 2014 version is completely fixed except for the dangling heart with “one cute cookie” on the bottom. On the back you can add birth details such as date of birth, weight and length.

Hallmark is looking to share in the fun of the holidays this year with multiple giveaways and a sweepstakes. Share your Hallmark #KeepsakeIt memory with Hallmark’s #KeepsakeIt Sweepstakes here for your chance to win weekly prizes as well as the grand prize of Keepsake Ornaments and a family vacation. Contest ends 12/18/14.

And, Hallmark is giving one of my readers a #KeepsakeIt ornament. Hallmark will be choosing the ornament and sending it to the winner. Enter now until 12/12/14 using the Rafflecopter form below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

If you are looking to get a special ornament or gift now, Hallmark currently has a $5 off a purchase of $15 or more coupon available. It expires 12/8/14. Perfect for holiday shopping or to treat yourself!

Disclosure: Hallmark provided me with one free Keepsake Ornament for review. No further compensation was provided. All opinions are strictly my own.

On Monday we celebrated my birthday and Elise turning one month. Still in a bit of disbelief we’ve already reached that milestone and also hard to imagine our family ever without her. We’re so blessed and grateful for our little girl. Even Dylan adores his baby sister.

Inspired by the November template challenge at Pixels & Company, I created this page for her album to mark the one month milestone:

One Month Layout

Supplies: P&Co November 2014 Template by Lynnette; Love, Actually: Part 1 and In Good Company collaboration kits from Pixels & Company; Simply You kit by Kim Broedelet; Spring Freebie Collection by Just Jaimee; The Scary Stuff mini kit by Dawn by Design; A Lovely Day: Two by Sugarplum Paperie; Scary Stuff Sampler by Miss Mint.