Free Printable Christmas Countdown

Whatever you celebrate this time of year, one thing is for sure: December always seems to fly. In the midst of the hurry, I love the idea of taking some time to prepare for the holiday. Since we celebrate Christmas, I prepared a little Christmas countdown, which is now hanging in our kitchen. Maybe you have some elaborate advent calendar. That's awesome. I had grand plans for an elaborate advent calendar which somehow never materialized. Go figure. But I still wanted to celebrate the coming holiday, so I designed a little Christmas countdown. It's eight days long, and you can print it today and get started right away! Or if you're stumbling upon this a few days before Christmas, just start wherever you are right now.

You can download and print the pages you need (for free!). There are two days per page, and the PDFs are set up so you just print on an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper or card stock and then cut them right down the middle.

Each day has a passage from the Bible listed at the bottom. You can read them or just read the little excerpt I included on each day. I got the passages from this advent reading list, which has four weeks of Bible passages leading up to Christmas.

There's a prompt on each page ("Today, let's celebrate by...") and space for you to fill in whatever you'd like. I looked at our calendar over the next week and decided on activities that would work with our schedule. For example, tonight we'll be picking my mom up at the airport, but before we do, we're setting aside some time to do a little last-minute shopping as a family. One night we're playing board games, another night we're wrapping presents while watching a Christmas movie. Maybe you want to do a random act of kindness or stuff Christmas cards into envelopes. I just liked the idea of doing something as a family that would help us get in the holiday spirit.

Do you do some kind of advent calendar or countdown for the holidays? Here's the link again if you want to download this calendar for free! Happy holidays!

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tips for taking your own holiday family photos, part 2

This year, we took some holiday photos of our own and I'm sharing ten tips if you want to try this yourself. In case you missed it, you can read the first part of this post HERE. Or read on for tips 6 through 10.

Tip no. 6 / Embrace interior photos this time of year. Let's be real: a bunch of Californians trying to take a pretty photo outside in New England is not cute. I know because we attempted it a few weeks ago, and Ben looks like a hypothermic elf. It's not good. Also, holiday decorations are usually pretty abundant indoors. Plus, everyone's cozy and comfy. Just make sure you're using natural light when possible (see tip no. 6). 

Tip no. 7 / Find the right light. Our Christmas tree is situated in a great spot in our living room, sandwiched between windows on two sides. But when we tried taking pictures directly in front of the tree, we were getting all kinds of shadows on our faces because we getting the right light. So we shifted the tree a few feet and rotated our position so we were facing a window. It took just a minute to move the tree, but it was totally worth it. 

Tip no. 8 / Watch out for weird backgrounds. Initially, I set everyone up directly in front of the Christmas tree, which meant it was sticking straight out of Ben's head. Not cute. So after we shifted the tree, I positioned us off-center in front of it. Much better. Basically, make sure no one looks like they're wearing a wreath on top of their head and look to use asymmetry when it comes to tall trees. 

Tip no. 9 / Take a bunch of photos. This is especially true if kids are involved. Inevitably, someone's eyes are closed, someone's making a hair adjustment, someone looks half asleep. If you take a bunch of pics, your chances of having a good one in the bunch are a lot higher! We took thirty-two photos of the four of us before the baby imploded and melted down completely. Number 32 was pretty great, and there are some fun ones in the group. We're not all looking at the camera, but it's a shot that captures everyone well, so we'll take it!

Tip no. 10 / Get over your fear of having your photo taken. I'm generally not a fan of having my picture taken, but I'm always so happy to actually have a photo with my husband or my kids or a friend or my sister. Since I'm usually the one behind the camera, I'm not in a lot of our family photos. Well, this is a great time of year to get over it, smile and preserve the memory of spending time with the ones you love. 

What about you? Do you and your family or friends take photos this time of year? Do you have any helpful tips of your own? 

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tips for taking your own holiday family photos, part 1

Last week, when Nick's sister and her husband visited us for a few days, my parents-in-law requested a photo of all of us. So I broke out the tripod, Googled how to use the timer on my camera, set up the shot and went to work taking some pictures. After we'd gotten a photo of all of us that worked, Nick and I decided to hand the camera to our brother-in-law and attempt to get a holiday photo of the four of us with our tree in the background. It wasn't perfect, but we got some great shots. It turns out this isn't rocket science, but it can be really daunting if you're not a pro (which I am definitely not!). I learned a few things I thought might be helpful if you want to attempt this yourself. As I started jotting down the ideas for this post, I realized I had a lot to say, so it's broken up in two parts. Read on for my first set of tips.

Tip no. 1 / Learn how to use the timer on your camera or phone. Google it. It took about two minutes to figure it out for my DSLR, and it meant we could all be in the shot. If all you have is the camera on your phone, then great! I believe Android phones have a timer built into the camera (correct me if I'm wrong in the comments!). If you're using an iPhone, no worries. Here are five free timer apps for iPhone

Tip no. 2 / Set up the shot. I have a tripod, but in a pinch, use a stack of books, a piece of furniture or anything you can find that's stable and secure. It's a personal preference, but I really prefer when a shot is level. No one likes being photographed from below (hello, double chins!), and I just don't love the look of crooked lines in a photo. So I line up the tripod so it'll shoot everyone straight-on, and I make sure it's level, so the horizontal and vertical lines in the background are straight and not a distraction.

Tip no. 3 / Stage your backdrop. This doesn't have to be a perfectly candid, documentary-style family photo. Those photos in magazines are staged! So do some staging of your own. Use a piece of furniture to create different heights. We used a piano bench in front of our tree so we wouldn't all be standing in a line. Move a prop if needed (we shifted the tree a few feet to one side). Tidy up the living room or move a few things off the mantle. You can always put things back the way they were, but a little tweak in your backdrop can make the difference when you want something that's festive without being distracting. Even a blank wall can make an awesome backdrop.

Tip no. 4 / Take several test shots and make adjustments as needed. I had my sister-in-law sit in the spot where we were shooting and I set up the camera in manual mode, adjusting the shutter speed (high, for the moving kiddos), the aperture and the ISO to get the light I wanted, taking test shots as I made adjustments. You can always shoot in auto or even take a pic with your smart phone, but it's worth taking a few test shots before you gather a group. Doing this allowed me to figure out the right height for the tripod and a good starting point for the camera's settings without the pressure of everyone standing around waiting. Once we gathered the group, we were able to start shooting immediately, which was super helpful with the kiddos.

Tip no. 5 / Designate one person to run the show. Initially, we were all running to the camera to view each picture, which meant we were re-setting up every shot! Pick one person who can be trusted with a camera to take a look at the photos on the digital camera and make adjustments like fixing hair, telling people where to stand, making sure faces aren't hidden, etc. 

Check back tomorrow for my next five tips. I'll show you how we found the light indoors and what we did to get our money shot. 

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tips for simple holiday gift wrapping

I love a beautifully wrapped package, but honestly, wrapping gifts can be stressful for me this time of year. The gifts pile up, I have grand plans for wrapping Pinterest-worthy packages, and then the day before we're heading out of town, I find myself searching for more tape while I wrap a couple dozen presents. Not exactly a recipe for holiday cheer. Over the last few years, I've kind of honed in on some tools and strategies for keeping gift wrapping simple, beautiful, inexpensive and fun. 

ONE / Pick a holiday-neutral color scheme. I used to have wrapping paper for every possible occasion. Babies, weddings, birthdays (boy), birthdays (girl), and Christmas each had unique papers and bags. Ironically, I found that even with all this paper, I was constantly missing what I needed. So I streamlined my supplies by picking a color scheme that works for the entire year. For me, it's kraft, red and white. I use these papers for Christmas, weddings, birthdays and everything in between. This year, I was running low so I added a holiday-specific paper to my collection. If I don't use it all this year, I know it'll work for next year, since it goes with all of my stuff. My ribbon (I use kitchen string) and bags (kraft) also go with the color scheme. Super simple. And if I'm running low on supplies, it takes me no time to go through those giant bins of wrapping paper at Target since I know exactly what I need: red, white, kraft or some combination of those colors.

TWO / Gather your supplies in one place. This is a big one for me, and while it took me years to nail this one down, it's probably intuitive for most of you. I used to have wrapping stuff all over the place: scissors in a kitchen drawer, tissue here, paper there, tags who-knows-where. Last year I bought this organizational item and it seriously changed my approach to gift wrap. Why? Well, it's a standing easel-type thing that hangs in a closet, so it takes up like no room. And it corrals all of my wrapping supplies, which I love. It also limits my supplies. I can't have 47 rolls of wrapping paper because there just isn't room! And when it's time to wrap, I pull my wrapping station out of the closet and it has everything I need: tape, scissors, paper, bags, tissue, boxes, everything. So my advice is to pick a spot, like a drawer or a plastic trash can in a closet, whatever, and store all of your supplies in that one spot. Also, limit your supplies so they fit in your one spot. You'll always have what you need and you'll always know when you're running low.

THREE / Pick your favorite supplies and make them wrapping-specific. What I mean by this is that I have tape and scissors that live with my wrapping stuff. I don't use them for other things, so when it's time to wrap a gift, I know I'll have what I need. Here are my favorite wrapping supplies:
  • wrapping paper in small rolls (I don't use the giant rolls because they don't fit in my storage thing)
  • invisible tape
  • 2-sided tape
  • pretty (and heavy-duty) scissors
  • tissue in white and a color
  • kraft bags
  • a roll of washi tape and a Sharpie
  • kitchen string in my color scheme (I have two rolls: red + white and gold + white)
  • white boxes that come in flat packaging (I buy mine in packages from the dollar store)
FOUR / Keep it simple and inexpensive. Honestly, I bought the kitchen string on clearance at Anthro several years ago and I'm still using it. The small kraft polka dot paper was $1 per roll at Target last year. And for tags? In a pinch, I write a note in Sharpie directly on the paper or a name on washi tape and call it good. It's not a coincidence that when I finally simplified our wrapping supplies, I actually started to enjoy the process of wrapping gifts. I wasn't hunting for supplies or running out of anything. And I think our packages look better than they ever have in the past. It doesn't cost a lot of money, just a little thought, to make wrapping presents less stressful and more beautiful!

How do you like to get your wrapping done? Do you have any tips or tricks? I'd love to hear them. Happy wrapping!

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what I'm reading right now

For the first time in a long time I'm devouring books, usually about two a week. Within two weeks of moving to Rhode Island, I got a library card and checked out like six books in one trip. Since then, I make a trip to the library about twice a week. I go once with the kids and Ben and I both check out books. I make another trip by myself, with my notebooks, laptop, and books and I spend a few hours reading and working. I adore the quiet: the gentle crinkle of turning pages, the muffled sound of a distant cough across the building and the low hum of computers. And our library lets me check out my own books. Jackpot. I love scanning a barcode, thank you very much.

So I thought I'd share what's been on my shelf lately:

Mindy Kaling's book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? / I laughed out loud and I read it in two days. I literally carried it around the house and read it while brushing my teeth and stirring oatmeal. So funny that I went back and traded it in for...

Judy Greer's memoir, I Don't Know What You Know Me From / I know her from a million rom-coms plus Arrested Development, but this one is also really funny. Liked it a lot.

Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott / I've never read anything by Ann Lamott and have wanted to for year. I haven't cracked it open yet, but it's next on my list, right after...

Laura Vanderkam's 168 Hours / The subtitle is "You have more time than you think." We'll see about that. Got through the first couple of chapters last night and I have to say that I'm hooked. If you're intrigued by productivity stuff, it might be a winner. And speaking of productivity, I just finished...

Getting Things Done by David Allen / I went through most of his whole process, and it actually was helpful in managing the million "to-dos" swimming around in my head. I'm now using an app that's helped me corral the little lists around the house. I'll count it as a win simply because I feel significantly less stressed after reading it.

Honorable mention goes to Ina Garten's latest release, Make It Ahead / It's not a library book, but I had to include it since I'm reading through it this week. I received this as a birthday gift (thank you, Donna!) and while I will most definitely start to cook some of the recipes, I actually love reading cookbooks like normal books. 

I just realized, while proofreading this post, that I'm clearly on a non-fiction kick! Do you have any non-fiction recommendations? What are you reading these days?

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december daily planner printable

This year I've committed to completing a December Daily mini-album. The project was started (and, I believe, trademarked) by Ali Edwards. Essentially, the final product is a little album of memorabilia, photos and journaling about the month of December. People create albums in different sizes with different materials, but the gist is that you create a layout or a page documenting 25 December days. I've wanted to do this for a few years and have never gotten around to it. Well, this is the year. I'm using the Paislee Press digital kit, which you can find HERE. It's beautiful, simple and I can't wait to start getting the layouts put together. I thought it would be helpful to have a way to keep track of what I plan to document as we go through the month, so I put together a little planner - just one sheet - which is taped to the wall in my office. It's also a reminder to take meaningful photos and it'll provide a really simple framework when I sit down to create the individual layouts. 

If you'd like to check out the planner, click HERE to download it for FREE!

Happy December, friends!

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loving december

And just like that, December is my favorite month. While the food coma from Thanksgiving is still lingering (hello, leftovers), the December decorations, music and mood are in full effect in our house. We approach December from a religious perspective, celebrating Christmas as the birth of Jesus, so there's a hope and a promise inherent in how we should experience this time of year. That said, I have, in the past, been really stressed about Christmas: the pressure of gifts, the travel, the wrapping, the card-mailing. Rather than see those things as enjoyable, I've put them on the "to-do" list and worried about getting it all done.

Last week, I listened to this podcast, which got me thinking about simplifying our holiday this year. What if December could be one big fat celebration? What if it could be fun and enjoyable? I've realized there are two areas this time of year that cause a lot of stress in our family: time and money. This season, I'm making a concerted effort to not take on too much in either area, by focusing on two things. First, I'm leaving room in our calendar. We need margins to be able to cook, bake, wrap gifts, shop, making new year's resolutions. We can't do all those things with something on the schedule every night. Second, I'm being really intentional about gifts. We took advantage of the weekend sales and got the bulk of our shopping done. We're not getting as many things as we usually do (more on that later this month), but we got things we're really excited to give. I think it's starting to pay off already. When I turned the page in my planner to "December" last night, I didn't feel any anxiety, just excitement. Here's to an excellent month, for all of us, to less of what doesn't matter and more of what does. Happy December, friends!

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