Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas on a Shoestring Budget


Here we are, just a few weeks from Christmas. I've just returned home from a five day business trip in freezing cold Kentucky and Virginia. Although I had envisioned balmy temps in the 40s, it wasn't so bad. I'm a cold-hearty Northerner, and my friends call me Nanuk of the North 'cause I walk outside no matter how frigid it is. The southern field mice actually decided it was too cold to live outdoors while I was there, however, and one of them greeted me in a hotel bathtub. Quite a sight! It was actually twenty degrees colder down south than it was in Rochester, New York on Tuesday. While it was a good trip from a business point of view, and I did finish the edits on my second Tall Pines mystery in the "down" time, I lost a whole week getting ready for Christmas.

The day after I arrived home, my wife's two brothers called to say they'd be arriving a day early for their four day visit. I love seeing them, and I'm glad they came early to avoid a storm that's been forecast, but I wasn't ready for them, either! I hadn't cleaned, shopped, or planned the menus. 

My son-in-law saved the day by doing the cleaning. Phew. So, off I went to Aldi's, Walmart, and Wegmans (I shop the cheapest place first, then move to my favorite more expensive store last for the real gourmet goodies. I LOVE Wegmans!) to buy stuff for my cooking adventures. 

One of the dishes I made was Sonia Martinez's Fricase de Pollo Estilo Cubano (Cuban Style Chicken Fricase - actually very easy - a one pot meal) with a side salad inspired by travels last week. I chopped cooked beets mixed with a balsamic glaze, set on a bed of finely chopped fennel. Mmm. A new favorite. And now as I write this, I'm kicking myself for not taking a picture of it. Anyway, here's the main dish, and if you want a copy of the recipe, just let me know. Sonia shared this and others on Gather a few years ago (her mother's recipe!) and my family has enjoyed it often.

So while I've been virtually busy as a bumbling bee, I don't have any presents ready, no Christmas lights up, and haven't done Christmas cards for the zillionth year in a row. I did manage to buy a teensy little tree while shopping at Wegmans the other day - a small Austrian pine that we can plant next spring when it's warmer. It's still not decorated. Sigh.

My family decided that this year, since the economy's so bad and we're all pretty darned broke, we'd do handmade gifts all around. Actually, it was little Gordie's idea - he is such a sweetheart. Only seven, he realizes the importance of putting thought into gifts. We all jumped at the idea. Okay, I'll admit finding the time to do it is tough, but the benefits are huge.
So, in the spirit of Kim Smith's article on great gift ideas for writers, here are some ideas that writers and or other creative types might like to consider making for their loved ones. All you need is a printer, some paper, and plenty of ink!

A Family Recipe Book 
 We're creating custom books for each of our three daughters. Thankfully, I don't think they read my blogs, so hopefully they'll be surprised! 

I think everyone has the blogging blues, like Marta mentioned this week. In her article, she referenced always giving something back when you blog, so I thought I'd share this with you.

Here's what my wife and I are doing - we've collected up all of the family favorites, whether they be written on old frayed recipe cards or scraps of paper. We scanned them, including some from the girls' great grandmothers. My wife has written special notes to each child on some of the printouts, referring to memories she has about the traditions that went with the food. I've thankfully taken lots of pictures of our tables laden with goodies over the years, so I'm mixing and matching these with the recipes. 
The neat thing is you can write little stories or poems for each occasion, if you wish, using your creative side while creating an heirloom that your children will hopefully cherish and add to over the years. 

Here's a sample page. Some are just plain old black and white copies - they're not all this fancy. But it's the recipes that matter, right?
After printing out each recipe, I'm putting them in transparent sleeves and storing them in colorful binders with extra sleeves at the end so they can add to them over the years.

Here are a few more ideas for your creative spirits:

For my grandsons, I'm making special books as well. Julian is getting a "story of my life" picture book, where I'll use the same concept as above. Print out photos from his baby years and up, and write little stories beside them telling about our history together. 

Gordie is enamored with Spanish this year. So he's getting a "Spanish" book. I'll print out pictures of various objects with the English and Spanish words above and below. He's just barely reading English now (he's only 7) but he really loves this stuff, so he should be thrilled. 

Here are some more cool ideas:

Homemade Story Books

When you're sitting around with your kids or grandkids and making up stories (come on, I know you do!), type them up either on the fly or later in the day. Keep them in a file all year long, then at Christmas, print them out with some cool graphics or hand drawn designs. 

Special Letters

Buy some of that cool purplish blue construction paper and a silver flair pen. Write Christmas messages to each of your loved ones, mentioning a special event or memory you share. Tell them how much you love them and why you love them. They'll cherish this forever!


If you are totally broke - this one is a big hit with kids. At least in my house, where we have four kids to five adults. They're always clamoring for special "one-on-one" time with the adults. Hand print "coupons" where you pledge special time to cash in later - for example: "one half hour of playing in the snow," or "a special trip to the library, just you and me." Give each child a dozen or so coupons that they can cash in later. But remember - unless you're in the middle of dinner or driving them to school or something, don't refuse them if it's not convenient for you. You must drop everything and give the gift when they ask!
I think this is the best present of all, and it doesn't have to be just for children. You can set aside some special time for your honey - offer them a back rub or foot rub, a special winter picnic, or something that will warm their hearts. After all, the gift of your time is far more precious than spending a ton of money on STUFF. Who really needs more things, anyway? All of those material gifts go by the wayside in a year or two. Well, unless your giving expensive jewelry or something like that. (not my style, LOL) But a handmade gift that is laced with your love and special thoughts will be saved and treasured forever. 

So stop the frantic shopping, get out of those blasted malls, come home armed with a few crafty things, and sit before the fire with a cup of hot chocolate so you can create something beautiful for your loved ones!

A very merry Christmas and holiday wishes to all!

Aaron Paul Lazar

P.S. If you're not crafty and you just can't think of anything to make, and you want to contribute to my paper and ink fund, then buy your family wholesome, heart thumping mysteries. Books are great gifts! Here's the link to LeGarde Mysteries - just follow the left pane down the page and you'll see them all! If you want copies autographed, email me at aaron dot lazar at yahoo dot com and we'll get it done in time for Christmas!

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