A California Christmas

Christmas 2019 was filled with all of the places and people (and food!) we love.

It began with the Christmas Eve service with our friends at First Baptist College Station. Christmas morning, we headed to the airport to catch our flights to California.

Last year, we flew from CA to TX on Christmas Day. This was the week I met Josh's parents for the first time!

Whichever direction we're headed, it seems a McBrunch is involved.

 2018 in Orange County

2019 in Houston

We arrived in Orange County Christmas afternoon and headed straight to my Papa's where my aunt Gina, cousin Thatcher, and Papa were relaxing after a big breakfast and gifts with Gina's boys. They welcomed us with open arms, a big lunch, and lots of stories from the last few months. It was the perfect start to our week.

From there, we met my Dad and brother for dinner. I wish we'd thought to take a picture, but it was pouring rain when we left, so we said quick goodbyes and ran to our cars. My brother bought me a hilarious Spice Girls coloring book filled with fan art. I was in tears at the table laughing at these terrible sketches someone collected and is now selling.

The following morning, we headed to Bagels and Brew to meet Sammy and her kids. Sammy runs Precious Kids Center, a home for kids with special needs in Kitale, Kenya (also my very favorite place in the world), and was just about to head back to Kenya a few days later. I was so glad our stays overlapped!

Josh and I took turns snuggling Ayla, talking to Zion about his toy train, and asking questions about the PKC world. I'm really hoping next time we'll be catching up over tea in Kitale.

Zion was super chill through all of our breakfast, but as soon as he saw the sign for the Dollar Store, he lost all interest in conversation or photos... he just had to get in that store! (Also, Ayla was not sure what to make of my laugh.)

After lunch, we drove up the coast and back to my mom's. We wrapped presents and prepped for the family Christmas while waiting for my mom and Dave to make it home from their trip to Vegas. (They were caught in a freak snowstorm on the drive home and nearly spent the night in the middle of nowhere!) Fortunately, they were able to get home in time to share a huge order from Big Chopsticks. When I lived in Irvine and Costa Mesa, I'd order from this Chinese restaurant all the time. Finding out I was outside their delivery radius was one of the saddest parts about moving to South County... luckily, we have family in the delivery zone! It was just as good as I remembered.

Friday morning, we headed to Dave's dental office before I met Cathi and Emily for lunch. (Incidentally, if you're in the SoCal area, Dr. David Lester, DDS is the man to see. Sure, he's my step-dad, but he's also a fantastic, honest dentist.) 

That night, we headed to the Hays. The boys gave us a tour of their new trampoline, showed us their tree climbing skills, and told us all about their friends and projects at school. And, of course, made sure their bearded dragon was included in the group photo.

I made sure to give Cohen plenty of zerberts to make up for lost time.

I have so many memories around this table. In other houses, with a wide variety of friends, with first one, then two, and now three Hays boys. It is one of the safest places I know. We've shared laughter and tears and dreams and hurts around this table. (I also had a hilariously terrible second date around this table years ago, but that's a story for another time.)

Being away from these friends--this community--is one of the main reasons I was hoping God would move Josh to CA instead of the other way around. And while I'm thankful for technology... and the commitment these friends have made to connecting frequently from afar, I'm also really, really thankful for the handful of hours we had together, face-to-face, that night. 

Saturday was a jam-packed day. It started with pancakes (Dave wanted to treat Josh to his first Dutch Baby at The Original Pancake House) and ended with our DiLallo Christmas extravaganza. (With three fillings in-between.) You can read more about our Family Christmas traditions here.

Sunday morning, we met the McCaskills for breakfast. Josh and Josh have been best friends since 8th grade and met Shawnda shortly after! Josh was the Best Man at our wedding. They'd had a house filled with guests for a week before we arrived and Shawnda was getting ready for an overnight shift at the hospital... We're so grateful they were willing to sit and catch up with us when what they both really needed was a nice, long nap!

Sunday night we were treated to a delicious dinner at Mastro's. Fish, steak, lamb, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes... my goodness!

But we weren't done yet! Monday morning we met Taffy and Sue back at my favorite California eatery, Bagels and Brew, for breakfast sandwiches and stories of the previous months. One of the first things Taffy said when he met Josh--when we were only dating--was, "If you hurt her, I'll kick your butt!" and then shook his hand, laughed loudly, and sat down to eat with us. So Josh knew right away Taff was going to be a dear friend for life.

We finished off the day--and our trip--with dinner and games at the Maguires. For over a decade, the Maguire's have been like family. Going from a nearly weekly dinner to months in-between visits was definitely jarring... I don't think I'd let myself feel just how much I'd missed them until we were back in their living room eating homemade cookies and playing card games. As soon as we got in the car, Josh said, "We gotta figure out how to live near them again someday!"

I was really, really nervous that spending a week in California would stir up some long-repressed homesickness that made me want to convince Josh to pack it up and move back. While I loved our time--and was reminded of how deeply I love my people--walking in the door when we made it back to Texas, I was grateful to feel at home. 

O Christmas Tree

Here's something you should know about me: I like to have a (real) Christmas tree in my house as long as I possibly can. I'm talking the day after Thanksgiving until the first weekend in the New Year. 

I love a good tree. So there was no light so bright as the one at the end of our Thanksgiving lockdown signaling it was time to pick out our Christmas tree! 

Here's something else you should know: I like a full Christmas tree. Like, so full there might be a woodland creature nestled inside. (Cut to Josh pulling out several trees in the Lowe's parking lot as we hunt for the biggest, fullest tree in the bunch.)

Last year, I waited until Josh was in California for the weekend so we could pick out and decorate the tree in my apartment. 

Then, already understanding my deep love of trees, Josh sent me a tiny Christmas tree to decorate my desk at work. (Way, way, way better than flowers!)

He also put up a fake tree decorated with printed photos of us to give his home a little more holiday spirit for my visit over New Year's Weekend.

But this was our first tree together! 

This would be decorated with our ornaments, in our house, and we’d have night after night to sit together beside it.

Add that to the stir-craziness of being sick on the couch for a week... I was EXCITED about this tree!

Now. There's one major (unexpected) difference between shopping for a tree in Southern California and shopping for a tree in Southern Texas.

In our part of town, those who purchase their trees from a lot, take it home in a pick-up truck... not a Toyota Camry (like we did).

The poor Lowe's employee was at a loss for how to tie this massive tree atop our tiny car. He attempted a few times (backward...the top of the tree toward the front, which really made for some interesting wind-resistance on the drive home) before we thanked him and drove over to Chick-Fil-A so Josh could tighten the ropes while I grabbed us some sandwiches.

We got our tree home safely and learned a little for next year!

Up next, decorations!

In July, we moved my things into the townhouse Josh had been living in for a few years and he left for Summer Camp two days later. I had three uninterrupted days to do what I love: organize! I emptied every box, drawer, and cabinet in the house and did my best to merge our belongings into one happy (albeit, full) home.

This has not only made it easier to find things like batteries and winter hats, but it also meant that all of our Christmas decorations (lights, ornaments, stockings, and wreaths) were in one big (massive) tub ready and waiting for this day.

It was fun to share stories of where each of our ornaments had come from as we hung them on the tree. But it was the most fun to hang those we've picked out together.

We've made it our tradition to buy an ornament as a souvenir and/or to mark a special occasion. Our hope is that over time the tree will have more and more ornaments linked to stories and memories we share. We've been together just over a year and we already have a pretty decent collection.

(The round, wooden Love Nerds is from my bridal shower. The red T-Rex is from the day we got engaged. The little round calendar was a wedding gift, it's marked with our wedding date. The bottle caps wreath is from our honeymoon in Jamaica. And the giant wooden Texas was part of my Christmas gift from Josh last year.)

I loved watching our tree come together. I stopped more than a few times to take it in and snap a photo. 

Once it was complete, we sat on the couch with warm cups of coffee and watched a few episodes of The Holiday Baking Championship. (I want to remember this as the year Josh became very interested in baking shows. We watched five seasons in about a month... choosing our favorite competitors, booing when they were sent home and cheering when he or she won.)

Last year, we started another holiday tradition: a living room fort. 

We string lights inside and spend the majority of the holiday week in there taking naps, watching shows, playing cards. It’s the best.

Here’s us, year 1:

Since we were headed to California for the week between Christmas and New Year, we built our fort a little early this year. It was also quite a bit bigger than last year's to make sure we could see our beautiful tree while we watched Christmas movies, stitched presents, and ate breakfast for dinner (in keeping with tradition.) 

Here's us, year two. (The photos are rough, but the memories are great.)

We had a great pre-Christmas week in our holiday-ed home. And we're already talking about some small tweaks we can make to up our game next winter!

What about you? Do you prefer a real or fake tree? With store-bought sets of decorations or an assorted mismatched collection? Any tips for a really comfortable, long-lasting living room fort?

Top 5 Thursday: The Blessings And Challenges Of My Youth Ministry Background

I grew up in a healthy, thriving Youth Ministry. 

I joined the team at my home church first as an intern during college and, shortly after graduating, as a full-time staff member on the Junior High team. 

 (That's me--second from the left.)

(There I am, in the purple shirt... with black hair.)

About 6 years later, I was hired by another local church where I served in the High School Ministry before joining the Worship Department. 

Even in my years as a Worship Leader, I led a High School small group.

You would think all this experience would be nothing but good news in my new marriage to my Youth Pastor Husband, but there are definitely a few thorns among those roses...

Here are 5 Blessings and Challenges of my Youth Ministry background:

::: Blessings :::
1. I have a heart for teenagers.

2. I understand the desire to put in the extra hours, to answer phone calls during "off hours", to go to football games and dance recitals and five graduation parties in a single Saturday... there's always more to do... I get it.

3. I have ideas... and like to brainstorm events and series and volunteer care.

4. I speak 'ministry'. Hype, care, you name it. This comes in handy with parents, leaders, students, and my husband.

5. I've had the advantage of watching many, many marriages in the church... most of them really close-up and over long stretches of years. I've learned a lot as I’ve seen them balancing Youth Ministry schedules, budgets, and parenting.

::: Challenges :::
1. Since I like teenagers, it's easy for me to jump in and serve in Student Ministries. But in the last few years, I've found other ministries within the Church I've loved. Finding my place in our new church--exploring new ministries and serve opportunities--has been tricky because it's fun, safe, and comfortable to serve alongside my husband.

2. There are two of us who could spend an entire date night talking about students, leader care, and upcoming events.

3. I have ideas and a ton of opinions... not to mention pretty high expectations. You can imagine what this can do to my poor husband!

4. I know what it is to be on staff at a church (show up early, stay late, model enthusiasm and support to the congregation)... but I also know the joys of simply being an attendee. (If I'm honest, there are days I really miss having the option to sleep in and stream the message later in the week.)

5. From what I remember, a majority of those Youth Ministry marriages started around the same time, so they were figuring out this newlyweds-in-ministry life together. Nobody had kids yet, nobody had any money, everyone was really into the "Must See TV" lineup on NBC. I can't help but feel a little envious of the world they lived in: a lot of friends in the same life stage in the same church. 

Make, Take, or Bake. Our Christmas Tradition

Christmas morning was always such a special day for our family because my mom was really, really good at playing Santa. 

She'd pin a sheet across the doorway leading into the living room where the tree was so, if we woke up early, we couldn't peek at the gifts he'd left. There would always be a mix of things we needed (new toothbrush, the big bottle of our favorite scent of shampoo, a massive box of our favorite cereal) and things we wanted (a tree-shaped Reese's, new video game, and one year, a bike). It was magical and exciting... honestly, even into our early teens.

And it only got better from there. 

Once we'd finished opening our gifts at home, we'd pack up and head over to Bum and Papa's (my mom's parents). My mom is the oldest of five girls (the youngest was only 6 when I was born), so their house would be filled with Christmas morning energy and anticipation by the time we arrived. 

There were more stockings to open and gifts to unwrap, but my favorite part was giving the gifts we'd specially picked out for each person... and watching them unwrap the gifts their sisters had chosen for them.

The tradition has always been that everyone buys for everyone. And, starting from youngest to oldest, we give out gifts one-by-one, each watching the others to see what they've received. 

It takes hours

And there are several breaks for bathroom runs, coffee refills, or more food. 

But it is my very, very event of the entire year.

As the years went on—as sisters married and/or gave birth—the house became more and more full and the list, and, thus, the expense, became greater and greater. 

So we switched things up.

We went with the classic: Secret Santa. We pulled names at Thanksgiving and purchased one $50 gift per person. But some people broke the rules and bought more expensive things (think Michael Scott and the iPod) and others went the opposite direction and brought me a bag of clothes from the back of their closet. (Thanks a lot, Creed!)

So we switched it up again... and it worked really well for us!

For the last nearly ten years, we’ve done a Make, Take, or Bake Christmas. You can create the gift from scratch, wrap something from your home, or cook up something excellent... the one rule is: you can’t spend more than $5 per person.

It’s been so fun to see everyone’s clever spin. 

My cousins have created incredible works of art from clay, metal, and wood. My aunt drove all over the county to find street signs with each of our names and gave us each a framed photo of ours. My Papa gave each of us a beautiful, hardback book from his collection with a personalized inscription inside. 

One year, I made "About Me" journals for my Bum and Papa and asked that they fill it in and gift it, completed, to me the following year. It took two years for my grandmother to complete it since her childhood was pretty painful for her to recount. On the morning she passed away, it was sitting on her bedside table. It's now, my most treasured possession--the thing I would run back into a burning house to save.

People think about it all year long. For the last three years, Papa has gifted volumes of his life story. He spends all year writing and editing then has a copy printed and bound for each of us. What a treasure they are... and something he may not have done had we not switched to these kinds of gifts.

Needless to say, there's a lot of bragging at the pre-Christmas family gatherings when someone has figured out what they’re going to make everyone that year. (My aunt Gina is known to have her mind made up as early as Easter!)

This year, I decided to cross-stitch something special for each person. (This is part of the reason I’ve been a little MIA in this space... every spare minute was spent making sure these were ready.)

Side story: A friend of mine recently saw me stitching one of the bigger pieces and commented, “Oh, I used to love cross-stitching when we were newly married. I would stitch while we watched LOST!” 

I laughed and told her I’m about 10 years behind her since we’re currently watching LOST and I’m big into cross-stitch.

She laughed and said, “Enjoy this season, because it’s short... then you’ll have kids and wonder what happened to all of the time you once had!” 

(When I relayed the story to Josh, he said, “Oh, she’s right... maybe we shouldn’t have any kids!") 

I thought it might be fun to share them here... if for no other reason than to commemorate the holiday season I had all the time in the world. 

• • • • • 

For my aunt Debby and her two sweet dogs 

For my aunt Sarah and uncle Scott, who met Josh for the first time last Christmas and told me about a week later that they went straight home and looked up Josh’s birthday on Facebook so they could check our astrological compatibility.

My cousin Elijah traditionally makes dozens of pancakes for breakfast one morning during our family weekends in Palm Springs. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up at Le Cordon Bleu. He can look back on this and remember when he was just starting out.

For my cousin Sunny who has celebrated her birthday at Sushi restaurants since she was three and has taught me so much about the history of women in politics—especially as she’s taken class after class at UC Santa Cruz.

Sunny and her boyfriend, Derek, went to Spain this summer. This gift for him felt like a sweet little keepsake to remember the trip. 

My brother runs a record label called Doom Trip Records, which releases albums primarily on cassette.

And for my cousin Thatcher who is the perfect blend of surfer and artist.

Logan is an avid Orioles fan. (In my family, mentioning you really like something means you’ll receive anything and everything people see with that logo. Hence the dozens of Abe Lincoln books, stamps, and banks I have displayed in my home!)

Logan’s girlfriend, Jamie, loves Alice in Wonderland. This was the last piece I made, but maybe the most fun. I finished one character each night and really loved watching it come together. And she cried when she opened it, so I'd say she liked it, too.

My aunt Gina got two because I couldn't choose between this one:

And this one. (They were both too perfect for her!)

For my mom--who has beaten me and my brother in every game of Dr. Mario we've played since the early '90s. She made up words to the background music, so I stitched those around his little face. (They just bought an arcade game archive for their living room, so Josh and I played Dr. Mario while we were in CA over the holidays. The skill is in my blood--I dominated every round!)

For her husband, Dave. He loves a good martini! This now hangs in their bar.

The more I stitched, the more inquisitive Josh grew. He'd lean over while I was working on a piece and ask questions like, "how do you know where to start? How do you make the little 'x'?"

Then lo and behold, Christmas morning, I opened this little beauty. (He's desperate for my logo to be a T-Rex wearing a space helmet.) Sure, it's a little rough and ready, but it's also so dear.

I love our family Christmas traditions. (Even when it takes six hours to give open presents.) I'm grateful to be part of a thoughtful and generous family who knows and loves each other enough to give great gifts! (A big recap of our Christmas in California to come!)

Have you ever made all of your Christmas gifts? What did you create? What's the best gift someone has made for you?