When Christmas Isn’t the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…

Christmas lights. Christmas music. Christmas cookies. Christmas presents. These are all things that usually put us in a joyful and festive mood. Christmas can be a magical season of family reunions and time with friends.

But, for many, Christmas is not magical. It can be the most difficult time of the year. Someone that has recently experienced loss will be filled with grief at the memories of seasons past. A lonely soul might wonder why he or she is not worthy of love. A parent going through a recent divorce might have to endure their first holiday without their children. A family who has just lost a job might not know how to explain to their children that there won’t be any presents this year. The “most wonderful time of the year” becomes a time of sadness, regret, and dread.

If you know someone who won’t be able to enjoy the season because of a situation they’re facing, be the face of encouragement for them. Think of them when nobody else does. Call to say hi, send them a note that you’re thinking of them, pray for them when you can. If a family is in need, drop off some groceries, or even a few small wrapped presents for the kids. A Christmas filled with pain can feel isolating, but a small gesture can make all the difference.

I feel a little sad when I’m at the store around Christmas time, and people are so irritated and caught up in the inconveniences of the moment–finding the “right” gift for their loved ones, picking out the “perfect” menu for company. This year, when you feel the hustle and bustle of the season, stop for a second. Be grateful that you have someone to buy a present for. Be grateful that you have food. Give thanks, and pray for those who are in a difficult season of life. Be the encouragement they need to bring a little joy into their Christmas, and it may just make your own Christmas even more meaningful.

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Operation Christmas Child Boxes on a Budget

My family loves packing Operation Christmas Child Boxes, as it gives my kids a tangible example of giving and generosity. After Junior’s surgery and my surgery earlier this year, however, our Christmas budget is a little tighter than normal. But, using a little creativity and savvy shopping, we were able to fill five boxes this year.

1. Start Early
-This won’t help you much this year, as OCC Boxes are due in the next couple weeks, but it’s never too early to start picking up items for next year’s boxes! I get a small plastic storage bin and keep my items in there, adding to them throughout the year.

-After Christmas, I like to pick up clearanced “Stocking Stuffer” items, and small toys. Target and Michaels are good bets.

-School supply season is the best time to shop for your boxes. This year, by combining coupons and sales, I was able to pick up free crayons, markers, colored pencils, and watercolors. Since several of our boxes are for school aged children (ages 5-9), these school supplies are a great addition.

-Keep an eye on clearance throughout the year. Earlier this year, Target had a coupon for $4 off any two children’s apparel items. Using two coupons, I was able to pick up 4 long-sleeve shirts (regularly $10, but because it was Summer, they were clearanced to $3 each), for only $1 each!

2. Watch For Coupons
-We always add a toothbrush and toothpaste into our boxes, and by using coupons paired with a sale, these items are almost always free at some point. Bar soap is another great box item that can be found inexpensively with a coupon.Target coupons can be combined with manufacturer’s coupons for even more savings! Michael’s 40% coupons are also wonderful for picking up school or art supplies at any time throughout the year.

-Another tip…print your coupons off Swagbucks, and receive 10 Swagbucks for each coupon redeemed. Those add up! Only 450 Swagbucks will get you a $5 gift card…that can be used towards additional OCC items.

3. Go Through Your House 
-Even though you should only add all-new, unused items to your Christmas Child Boxes, chances are you have some unopened, usable things lying around the house. My children were given a lot of Play-Doh instead of candy for Halloween, and since we already have plenty of Play-Doh, I took the unopened cans and put them directly into the boxes. We also had travel sized packs of tissue, unopened pens and pencils, and even some small toys and books I had purchased a while back that were still sitting in our “Gifts to Give” box.

4. Pray for Your Box
-This may sound silly, but it’s probably the most important tip in shopping for an OCC box. God knows what each of these children need, and no matter what you add, or don’t add to your box, it will go to the child that He knows will be blessed most by it.

Here are some of the items in our boxes, and where they were purchased:
-$1 Toothbrush/Toothpaste Kit (Target Travel Section)
-$1 Long Sleeved Shirt (Target using coupon and clearance)
-$0 Play-Doh (received at Halloween from neighbors)
-$0 Crayons/Markers/Colored Pencils (during school supply season at Target using coupons)
-$1 Stuffed Animals or Plush Balls (Dollar Store)
-$0.97 Hot Wheels Car (Target, regular price)
-$2 Flashlight and Extra Batteries (Dollar Store)
-$0.50 Socks (Target, clearance)
-$0 Wind up Toy (in Gifts to Give box, purchased a while ago)
-$0.60 Plain Notebook (used 40% coupon at Michaels, in their Dollar Bin)
-$1 Toy Flute (Target Dollar Spot)
-$1 Hair Ties (Dollar Store)
-$1 Hairbrush (Dollar Store)

Do you pack Operation Christmas Child Boxes? What do you add to yours?

Frugal Ingredients I Always Have on Hand and Recipes

Inspired by an old post “10 Non-Perishables I Always Have In My Pantry“, I decided to share the perishables I purchase almost every week in order to make frugal meals. These are my staples, and things I can use to whip up a meal at a moment’s notice.

-Make a quick salad for a side or main dish, or use in sandwiches.

-6 Meal Ideas for Eggs

-Add to soups or stews to stretch your meat, have a baked potato bar using leftover veggies or chili from the week, make oven fries for a quick side, or twice baked potatoes.

-Use in smoothies using leftover or frozen fruit, make breakfast for dinner with waffles or pancakes or simple french toast.

*Garlic and Onions
-This is my favorite frugal ingredient combination there is. Use as a starter for soups, or pasta sauces, or whip up a batch of slow cooker black beans or refried beans.

-We go through a lot of tortillas, mostly because leftovers always seem to find their way into one. Quesadillas, burritos, soft tacos, enchiladas, lettuce wraps, and breakfast burritos are some of my family’s favorite ways to use up these little round holders of culinary joy.

-You can use cheese in just about everything, and while it’s not a cheap ingredient, per se, a little cheese makes a big difference in a frugal meal. Top chili, baked potatoes, or omelets with cheese, make homemade pizza using english muffins or homemade pizza dough

*Carrots and Celery
-Along with garlic and onions, carrots and celery make up the base of any combination of soups you can imagine including minestrone, meatball, and chicken noodle. 

What foods do you always have on hand? I’d love to hear your family favorites as well!!

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Book Review: City on Fire

As most of my readers already know, I love history, and when I have the chance to read, I usually dive in for a work of historical fiction. I immediately scooped up City on Fire, a novel of Pomeii and read it in just a few sittings.

City on Fire, written by Tracy Higley, introduces us to Ariella, a Jewish teenager who witnesses firsthand the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD. Her parents are killed in the attacks, and her younger brother is in the chaos.
The story picks up about 9 years later, where Ariella is a household slave in Rome. She escapes and pretends to be a man to begin her life as a gladiator, eventually making her way to Pompeii…Simultaneously, Roman politician Quintus Cato also arrives in Pompeii, eager to step out of the political forum and into the wine making industry.
The majority of the book describes Ariella’s (or Ari’s) attempts to keep her gender a secret while training as a gladiator, as well as Cato’s own fight against the political corruption in Pompeii. At the same time, a group of early Christians make their mark on both characters, and their paths eventually cross.
City on Fire was well-written and while an easy read, still had plenty of action to keep me interested. It gave a good representation of the days of early Christianity, and the struggles and dangers that the early Christians had to endure. The character development was very good, and I felt myself connected to the characters. My only (very picky) qualm was that the rest of the book was so well-written with so much development, that the ending seemed a little hasty. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, however, and look forward to reading more of Ms. Higley’s writings in the future.  
*While I was graciously provided a copy of this book from the publisher via BookSneeze, all opinions are my own and have not been influenced in any way.

An Update, an Apology, and Encouragement

First of all, I apologize to all my readers for being largely MIA the last few weeks. May was an insane month. I had three days the entire month, including weekends, with nothing on the calendar. Junior had between 3 and 5 doctor/therapies appointments every week, and Stinker filled in the gaps with gymnastics and soccer. Plus, Junior celebrated his first birthday. We celebrated his coming through so much, but the future is still unknown. Tests are out to determine whether he has any genetic conditions or syndromes that will cause a degenerative effect in many of the things we take for granted…vision, range of motion, walking, etc. I haven’t been able to rest or stop worrying, but we likely won’t receive results for several months. I would definitely appreciate your prayers for Junior’s continued health and that he has no additional issues besides the hearing loss.

I hope to be back on a regular blogging schedule in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, let me leave you with some encouragement:

I know what it’s like to be exhausted, and helpless, and discouraged. When nothing is going your way, and just breathing in and out is an accomplishment. I know grief and pain, and anger and frustration. I have known those things all too well since the start of last year. I say “I trust God with my life”, but actually feeling at peace when so many circumstances are out of my control is a different story. A friend of mine shared this verse not too long ago, and it gave me a little burst of encouragement.

Psalm 34:10 says:
The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

God knows everything that’s happening, and if He hasn’t given us something right now, it’s because He has something even better planned for us. So very, very hard to believe when everything is “going wrong”, but tuck that away and know that He knows our struggles and pain and despite it all, He has plans to prosper and not harm, no matter what is happening in our lives. Sometimes you just have to know and believe and let the feelings follow later.