A Week of Simple Holiday Activities

This week I’ve been trying to tailor our activities to match our post-Christmas budget. I want to save some money for a trip we are going on in February. It has proven more difficult this year to find local events without high entrance fees. Even calling into the Christmas market and getting some food and a drink can quickly add up. So, I’ve been trying to centre our activities around what we have at home, memberships we have, nature and places that are free to visit.

At the weekend, I took the girls to the Ulster museum. We parked on the other side of Botanic Gardens so we could walk through the park while it was dry. I think walks in cold weather refresh your mind much more than summer day ones. Inside the museum, we went to the art room. There is a lady who works there whose style I always admire and she is so welcoming and has so much patience for the kids. They usually have a drawing-based activity at the table but at the moment, paper snowflakes have taken over. The girls enjoyed making them and I realised that is a craft we have never done at home. It is so simple and requires no trip to the shop to stock up on craft supplies. The staff had hundreds of snowflakes suspended from the ceiling, and looking at them made me realise how many creative possibilities there are with them. It would make a good afternoon-long activity for bored kids. They were punching hole patterns in the finished snowflakes with needles and my kids were really focussed on creating regular patterns. In the same room, there is a light box with translucent blocks for kids to build with and a dressing up room. My kids ended up making friends with another child and playing in a tent, putting a pretend cat to bed. There were plenty of adults making snowflakes too and the position of the room at the top of the building means you have a good view of the gardens and the neighbouring area.

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Afterwards, we went to the under the sea part, where you walk through a darkened tunnel and look at the underwater creatures. It’s so simple but my kids always find it magical. There is a nature room where kids can use microscopes and touch the displays. Finally, on the bottom floor, we went to the toy room and looked at the old toys and the dolls houses decorated to depict different eras. I always love taking the kids to the museum. In the summer, it is near the rose garden and there is the tropical ravine and palm house right beside it.I have very energetic children so I’m a proponent of any activity that tires out their legs and their minds, and this does both in one visit 🙂

Days at home are a good time for getting out any unopened craft presents your kids might have got for Christmas. Today, they opened a kit to make a clay family. It took a long time but kept them well entertained, especially with all the laughter at how our people turned out. The kit came with little bead eyeballs to add to the dolls and they made a big difference to the appearance of them. It reminded me that you can use different materials combined with play doh to draw out the activity and hold your kids’ interest. I used to give my kids objects to decorate play doh with and they always loved doing that 🙂

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We also had a colouring/coffee/magazines session at the table. I put on some jazz and the girls coloured in and had a drink out of their Christmas cups while I filled my system with caffeine and used an adults’ colouring book 🙂 There were plenty of interruptions, but I find that if I do something in some way creative or using my hands while spending time with my kids, they are much more interested in what I’m doing and it inspires them to do something similar, or to start something else of their own. My older daughter has an adults’ colouring book she has started doing now. I find it holds her attention for longer because it’s more challenging and detailed, and she feels more grown up using it 🙂

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This week, we also finally got round to making salt dough decorations. They aren’t just specific to Christmas and you could used themed cookie cutters to make them for different times of the year. I find if you do anything involving rolling and cutting at the kitchen table it’s easier to manage and kids can do it more independently than standing at a counter. After baking them in the oven, my kids painted the salt dough and then used ridiculously big glitter shakers to decorate them. After letting them dry, I threaded them onto gift ribbons so they could hang them on the tree. You could also package them up to make cute presents for relatives.

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My daughter wanted to paint the pictures that you fold in half to create a full picture. Lots of butterflies were made, and then they progressed to flowers and Santa’s. The mess of craft time with my kids is worth it to me for the enjoyment they get out of it, even if it does sometimes result in my shouting 🙂

I always dread January a little. It feels like a bleak month once all the Christmas lights have been taken down and everyone is on a tighter budget or dieting to make up for feasting at Christmas time. I think it’s important to introduce new ideas and things to look forward to, no matter how simple they are. So, I am going to compile a list of ideas of things to do with my kids, new dishes to make and places of natural beauty to visit. I don’t make New Years resolutions, but this year, I might just aim to come up with inspiring ideas to take the icy edge off January.

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Quick Chocolate and Candy Cane Fudge

I have had so many fudge setting disasters it feels laughable I have a fudge recipe to share that actually worked out 🙂 But this is so quick and tastes pretty good 🙂 It is quite soft and should be kept in the fridge, or add more chocolate if you want it to be more solid in the centre.

Ingredients

1 can of condensed milk

1 1/2 cups milk chocolate chips

1/2 cup dark chocolate chips

2 Candy Canes
Method

Grease a baking tray and line with baking parchment. I used quite a small, deep tin. If you’re using a larger one, you might want to double the quantities.
Empty the tin of condensed milk and all the chocolate chips into a microwaveable bowl. Heat for one minute. Stir well and heat for another 20 seconds until melted. Heat in 10-20 second increments if it needs extra time, so it doesn’t burn.
Whip the mixture with a metal spoon. Apparently using a metallic one helps it solidify.. I have no idea why.

Put candy canes in a ziplock bag and bash with a rolling pin. You can keep the pieces chunky or beat into tiny shards. I chose to leave the pieces a bit larger. If I had been in a bad mood, I probably would have opted for the latter.
Pour fudge mixture into tin and sprinkle candle canes on top. Allow to set on counter and when cooled keep in fridge. Cut into squares and serve. Give as presents to other people, or to yourself 🙂

Gingerbread Decorating and Wintery Walks

Today I took my kids to Rowallane Gardens. They had a gingerbread decorating event on for kids in the cafe (which is on again tomorrow from 11am until 2pm for anyone that is interested.)
Before we went to the cafe, we walked around the grounds and made some Christmas decorations out of twigs and wool. There are a lot of natural displays around Rowallane (most of the Christmas decorations are handmade or made from found objects.) I found it therapeutic tying twigs together, and it made me think maybe we should try making more of our own decorations next year. The girls enjoyed copying the “how to draw a Christmas tree” picture that was there. They often change the indoor and outdoor activities for kids to match the seasons.

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We went for a walk around the walled garden, which was stripped back and bare looking with the loss of flowers. But it still makes a good hide and seek spot for kids. I was surprised by how tranquil it was there. Maybe the key is to arrive earlier than anyone else can be bothered going out at Christmas time 🙂 We were (almost) the only ones walking in the gardens and it was crisp and refreshing in the quiet winter air.

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At the barn, there is a big Connect Four and giant Jenga. It is conveniently located next door to a second hand bookshop I like to slip into 🙂 They have a good selection of different genres of books and there is an honesty box for payment. They have added a few children’s books too. The shop was dressed up with Christmas puddings painted onto chopped wood and crocheted snowflakes.

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There is a stile my kids like to repeatedly climb over and a little car made out of a tree trunk that they pretend to drive. There is also a natural playground, but we didn’t make it that far today. I noticed the bright red berries on the holly, the sun hanging low in the sky, and the carpet of acorn casings, and it all did my mind good.

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When complaints of tired legs started, we went inside to the warmth so the girls could decorate their gingerbread while I had a quiet coffee, a mince pie and a half-read 🙂 I had thought about venturing into soft play today as a quick way to tire my kids out, but I was glad we went to somewhere natural instead. Fresh air, the contrast of coffee steam and cold fingers and watching my kids cram as many smarties as they could fit onto one baked good was better for my soul today.

 

An Old Fashioned Christmas Outing

Today, I took the girls on an impromptu day out, planning on just having a walk around the Folk Park. It turned out to be the best Christmas event I’ve ever been to. We are members of the Ulster Folk Museum, so the day out was free. We arrived at the park and were greeted by an old fashioned Santa with a bell and a green suit. He had a long chat with my kids about Christmas time and what he “remembered” from last year. We had been given a page with a Christmas hunt and had to find the hidden clues to win a prize. As we started walking into the little town part of the folk park, I thought it had started snowing and the girls got really excited. It turned out there were bubble machines placed around the town that produced realistic snow. It was a misty day and the whole scene reminded me of a Dickensian Christmas.

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Usually when we go to the folk park, it isn’t in full operation. There usually seem to be parts closed off or unoccupied, but everything was open today and staffed, and there was hardly anyone there 🙂 that’s my favourite kind of Christmas outing – one without hoards of people 🙂

I think they mentioned that there had been a candlelight carol service on the previous night, and maybe more people had attended that, so it was the best time to go 🙂

The pub was open and there was live Irish music being played and a choice between alcoholic and non alcoholic mulled wine. My kids had some of the punch and loved it. We sat at an old wobbly table and listened to the music and chatted. I’ve been becoming increasingly bothered by the consumerism of Christmas time. I don’t know if it’s because it starts earlier now and the build-up is heightens it, but I’ve just noticed the madness and poor manners have been worse this year than any I remember. (Maybe I’ve just blotted it out.) I loved the fact that today ran counter to that and I didn’t have to subscribe to the suffering for a little celebration. 

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We went a cottage where a lady had made vegetable soup on the stove and served some to us. I was surprised how quickly it vanished from the girls’ cups. Maybe I need to get a stranger to cook for us to get them to eat 🙂 It was already dark inside and the fire and candlelight were cosy.
Afterwards, we went to the old schoolhouse where the girls got to write Santa letters. A man in costume who worked there helped them stamp the letters to be posted at the post office later on our walk.

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There is a thatched cottage with gardens that are beautiful in the summer. We heard music coming from inside and when we went in there was a group of musicians playing. They played Jingle Bells just for the kids and were making a wooden toy dance. The guitarist had a willow, woven star hanging from her guitar and they were dressed in fancy clothes. A lady had been cooking in a pot over the fire and we got to try a steamed Christmas cake filled with currants. It reminded me of a boiled cake my granny used to make.

In the printers, a man showed us the process of printing Christmas cards with a printing press. He also made bookmarks and pictures. He talked to us about the differences between now and then and said that Christmas cards used to be made of paper and folded twice to make them stand upright. He let the girls make simple cards of their own with traditional stampers.

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We walked to the post office and the girls posted their Santa letters in the post box. Next door, in the house adjoining the bank, there was a lady making chutney and she offered some crackers and apple chutney to the girls. She told us about the two kinds of ovens they had, to bake and to roast in and talked me through how to make your own Christmas pudding. She had made her own pudding and cakes, decorated with holly.

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The girls danced in the pretend snow again and then we passed some people roasting chestnuts. My daughter loved pulling the outer shell off and trying them. We called into the picture house where they were showing silent movie clips about preparations for Christmas. It made me realise how much calmer things seemed then and today gave me a glimpse of it. I think modern society has ruined the traditions of Christmas by going overboard and it just makes people feel rushed and angry. When I looked around the streets, none of the houses had elaborate decorations. The smaller houses had handmade wreaths and pillar candles and the wealthier homes had simple Christmas trees with a few decorations on them. As I was noticing the small signals of Christmas, I also noticed how much simpler life was with fewer possessions. We have so many and I get overwhelmed by the clutter everywhere. The experience has put me in the mood to further simplify life and made me realise how excessive it all is. Happiness has nothing to do with things; in fact I think the presence of too many things and the pressure to buy them makes us a bit miserable.

The day ended with the girls getting a few chocolate coins for their efforts in the Christmas tree hunt and I’ve never seen them happier.

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A Christmassy Day without the Chaos

Today I was talking to my mum about cutting out all of the Christmas chaos. There are so many Christmas events you could be signing up and paying out for, and parental guilt struck me when I realised I hadn’t booked anything for the girls over Christmas. Then I arrived at the conclusion that there are few of them I have actually enjoyed. Unless it is off the beaten track and not overly populated, most Christmas events are overwhelming, so I might stick to making salt dough at home and going for Wintery walks in the countryside instead.

I’ve been trying to walk my kids to school every morning. It’s about a mile from our house and it just feels calmer than fighting our way through traffic to struggle to find a parking space. Along the way, you notice more than you would in a car, like the cheerful lollipop man, the window displays, the fruit shop hanging out wreaths and mistletoe and the Christmas lights. There is a house my kids love to stop at every day because they have a festive display along with lots of toys in the front yard. They call it “our favourite garden.” I noticed a holly tree while we were walking and I think the icy air clears your head before you start your day too. I actually talk to my kids properly on the walk too, which rarely happens when I’m stressed behind the wheel.

Today, I decided to bypass my writing and coffee date with myself and stay in instead. I turned the Christmas lights on along with the National Lampoons and made some costa coffee at home with mini mince pies. (I had to have two because they were small :)) I tackled some of the present wrapping I had left to do and enjoyed it with the absence of demands and interruptions while my kids were at school.

When my younger daughter got home, we made some chocolate fudge with crushed candy canes in it. I’m hoping it sets properly because fudge always confuses my brain, but my daughter enjoyed making it. She had the job of bashing the candy canes with a rolling pin and she’s an expert on tray greasing 🙂

Tonight, once my kids were in their pyjamas, I surprised them with our drive to see the Christmas lights. They brought milk and gingerbread men in the car, listened to Christmas songs and enjoyed driving all over the city and looking for the most over-the-top light displays 🙂 If I knew how to climb ladders and hang lights properly, ours would probably look like a Christmas grotto too 🙂 I always loved multicoloured fairy lights and tacky Santa’s and some things don’t change with age 🙂

Ways to Keep Christmas Calm

Like most introverts, I find the build-up to Christmas a bit overwhelming. Once you have kids it seems to quadruple the number of events you can’t talk your way out of. Sometimes I just need to hear the quiet and calm down the frenzied festivities. Last weekend, I made a point of not signing up for any Santa-themed, city-centre based activities and we just did our own things before my head exploded like a Christmas cracker 🙂

I’d planned on staying in for most of the weekend, but as always, the idea of that was easier than the execution of it. I stopped at the pound shop before collecting the girls and picked up some Christmas activity packs, DVDs and baking things.

When my kids got home, they painted ceramic snowmen, did scratch pictures, coloured and played with stickers. My friend had sent me some hot chocolate bombes as a gift and we used those. My kids were amazed when they erupted in the cup, producing mini marshmallows. I put on calm music and they didn’t even ask to watch TV (which is rare!)

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My daughter decided she wanted to write Christmas cards for her class. I usually avoid this tradition but watching her do it made me realise how it could be therapeutic and a good way to focus your attention on something less brash and materialistic. I always saw the obligation side to writing cards before and thought it was just a box ticking exercise, but watching how attentively she did it slowed my mind down and helped me see the thoughtful side to it.

We baked some Christmas cupcakes. They had orange zest and juice inside them and cinnamon for a Christmassy flavour 🙂 They turned into mermaid cupcakes when my kids plastered them with icing and sprinkles but they still tasted good 🙂

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Once the cabin fever set in, we went to the beach. It was bitterly cold and we seemed to be the only ones there, apart from a few dog walkers passing through, but I like going to the sea even more when it’s a wild than when it’s like a holiday scene. The air tired the girls out and they had the playground to themselves 🙂 I brought tea with us and some snacks. The tide was in and we spent a long time sitting watching the seagulls “surfing” on the waves. It reminded me that I need to allow myself more time to stare into space and watch things and tune out. I think it’s important for your mental health, plus that’s when the ideas usually come to you 🙂 The girls were really interested in watching the seagulls bobbing over the waves and it showed me how little time there is for stillness nowadays. But just because it isn’t popular or right in front of us, doesn’t mean we can’t claim it. After a weekend away from the Christmas rush, I felt (almost) refreshed enough to face it again.

Budget Christmas Activities with Kids

This weekend, I took my kids to an enchanted garden at Antrim Castle Gardens. There are so many Santa experiences and winter wonderland—type events on now; you have to pick and choose what to attend if you’re on a budget. So, I decided to turn the enchanted garden trip into a mini day trip and make it a spending day for us.
We drove to a shopping outlet with a park and ride at it. My kids get inexpressibly excited by bus journeys. I guess we tend to walk or drive everywhere, so it feels like a treat to them. We stopped for hot chocolate and gingerbread men before getting the bus. I have one daughter that always likes the idea of hot chocolate better than the taste of it so I spent most of the time trying to persuade her to drink it 😀 but it was a nice idea 🙂 

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We took the bus to the garden and I was impressed by how elaborate it was. We spent nearly three hours there. You could buy tokens for the various old-fashioned rides, one of which was a train to meet Santa. There were food and coffee stalls and we had some Chinese food at the picnic benches. It was surprisingly quiet so I think choosing to go early in December was a good idea. There were no interminable queues for rides or stampedes for donuts.

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There was a Santa’s workshop where the kids were given selection boxes. As well as the main features, there were separate lighted woods and hedges, fairies and princes and princesses on stilts and Christmas music playing throughout the gardens. I’ve decided I find outdoor activities with my kids much less stressful – the walking tires them out and everything feels less crowded. It was one of those events where you spend ten pounds for entry and thirty inside the gates, but I think it’s excusable as a one-off day out 🙂 It will give me incentive to seek out free events and activities to do at home for a while 🙂

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The next day we were in need of a day in the house, so we made some Christmas cookies and played board games. I like to look out for board games throughout the year in charity shops. You can find a wide range of them for a couple of pounds and build up a collection for wintry days. I got some Halloween sprinkles for 10p this week, so we used them. If you aren’t perfectionistic about that type of thing, it’s a good way to buy sprinkles etc for nothing. (I like anything with skulls on it anyway :)) 

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We watched The Grinch with the Christmas lights on, on what was a dark afternoon before going out to a free lantern parade near our house. The kids had made lanterns a couple of weeks earlier at a workshop. The parade walked about a mile led by a Santa sleigh and drummers, and we bumped into everyone we knew 🙂 It finished with a fireworks display that I was impressed by for such a small-scale event. I think I’m ready for some hibernation now and no spend weekends ahead after the busy nature of this weekend 🙂

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