Posts Tagged ‘holiday’

I Pinned It, I Did It: Guinness, Whiskey & Irish Cream Cupcakes

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

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At my company, there is a girl named Heidi, who makes the most anticipated food item of our entire year – the sausage roll. Every year, we all await the glorious day in December when we receive an e-mail announcing that the sausage-filled pastry has arrived, then we run as fast as we can to the art table to get a slice of our very own. It’s an incredibly fun tradition, and my mouth is watering just thinking about it.

I decided that I wanted to start a tradition of my own – something that I could bake and bring in each year as a thank you to my amazing co-workers. Two years ago, I found a recipe combining two of our favorite things – cake and booze – and my first ever “I Pinned It, I Did It” began with these Guinness, Whiskey & Irish Cream Cupcakes from the Brown Eyed Baker.

This recipe is based on the drink with the not-so-PC name, the Irish Car Bomb. An Irish Car Bomb is a cocktail where whiskey is floated on top of Irish Cream in a shot glass, and the shot glass is then dropped into a pub glass of Guinness. For the cupcake, you start with a Guinness and chocolate cake, fill it with whiskey and chocolate ganache, and then top the whole boozy concoction with an Irish Cream buttercream.

This recipe is incredibly simple, but just requires a bit of extra time to put all the elements together. And the end result is amazing – the cake is moist and the overall booze content is not overpowering.

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The three spirits you will need to have on hand are Guinness (and note that the only thing I could find in a six-pack was the Extra Stout – any type of Guinness works great in this recipe, so don’t worry if you don’t have the original), Baileys and the Irish whiskey of your choice (I prefer Jameson). Since Baileys and whiskey are good staple items to have in your bar anyway, this recipe becomes a winner yet again, because you don’t have to buy some obscure liquor that you may not ever use again.

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I only have a few tips on this recipe.

If you don’t have a cookie cutter or piping tip to carve out the cupcakes, I find a small spoon works just fine. Same with the ganache. If you don’t feel like dealing with the mess that can come from piping it, just use a teaspoon to drop it into the cupcake divot.

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For the ganache, she calls for cutting up chocolate, but I say why not use chocolate chips? It saves you the hassle of having to chop up a chocolate bar. Both times I have made these, I have used chips, and they work great.

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For the icing, you can either use a knife to smoothly apply it, or you can pipe it. One of the greatest tricks I have learned to make filling the bag easier is to stand up the bag with the tip on the bottom of a glass. This keeps the bag standing, and makes it easier to spoon dollops of icing into it with a spatula. As a side-note, if you don’t have piping bags, a freezer bag with the corner cut off works brilliantly.

I prefer to use St. Patrick’s Day cupcake holders, or plain white cups for this, and I top them with simple green sugar that you can find in the baking aisle of most grocery stores.

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The cupcakes were a huge hit when I took them in two years ago, and I already have co-workers claiming dibs on them this year. Have a happy and safe St. Patrick’s Day, and enjoy!

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I Pinned It, I Did It: Red Velvet Birthday Cake

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

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February is the month that two of my “moms” were born – my actual mom and my mother-in-law. My mom lives in Ohio, so we have to celebrate via a phone call and exchanging cards, but my mother-in-law Anne, lives nearby, so this past weekend we headed over to her house for dinner and cake. A cake I was tasked with making. So, I did what I always do – hopped on Pinterest and started searching for ideas.

Anne had no preference to the type of cake she wanted, so I turned to my first love, red velvet. Red velvet is to my rest of the year the way pumpkin is to my fall — I am obsessed. I didn’t have to go far in my search, as I pinned a Valentine’s red velvet cake about a year ago. I decided to step up and finally make it.

The recipe was easy to follow, and I give major kudos to Heather at Sprinkle Bakes for her detail in the instructions. My bigger fear was that the cakes would stick to the pan.

I tried to make a four-layer chocolate cake for my father-in-law last year, and it was a disaster. The cakes stuck, and I may have had a toddler-strength fit about it. I was bound and determined to master the “butter and flour” technique of greasing the pan this time. I took a stick of butter and very liberally rubbed it over the bottom and sides of each pan. I then looked up the best way to flour the pan, and it was very simple. I put about a tablespoon of flour on the bottom of each pan, and then shook and tapped the bottom of the pan until the flour was covering the entire surface. This technique was a huge success. The cakes came out perfectly when I put them on the cooling rack.

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I only have a few tips for this recipe. First, if you are using gel “icing color” (I got it at Michael’s), you will need to use more than the 1 1/2 Tablespoons she recommends to get the color that you want. Also, the batter will look more pink than red, but when it bakes, it darkens, so don’t worry about getting the batter itself the shade of red you are going for. Finally, the icing recipe makes an ample amount to layer and cover your cake. I was very stingy with the icing between the layers, fearing that I would run out when I had to ice the outside, but I had plenty left, so I could have used a bit more inside.

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The end result was gorgeous. The red was a nice bright shade, and it tasted great. My sister-in-law even commented that it was one of the best cakes she had ever tasted. There is nothing more satisfying than making something from scratch, and having everyone comment on how much they love your creation, and then go back for seconds (and thirds).

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Most of all, I wanted it to be a success because I love my mother-in-law. I am really lucky in that regard. From the start of my relationship with Bryan, she has been kind, supportive and wonderful to me. My favorite times with her are when I get to hang out with her one-on-one and hear stories about her life. She grew up in the Midwest, went to the same college my dad did (majoring in art), and even moonlighted as a go-go dancer at one point. She’s a cool lady, and brilliant artist. We have several of her paintings hanging in our home, and we get lots of compliments on them. I also adore her for raising Bryan to be fantastic husband – artistic, sensitive, and not afraid to pitch in and help around the home.

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Happy Birthday to Anne, and cheers to another successful Pinterest baking adventure!

Birthday Freebie Scavenger Hunt

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

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I love bargains. It is so fun to find a great deal and know you got the best price possible. I credit this love, at least in part, to my Aunt Cathy who is the ultimate shopper. She finds amazing deals at pennies on the dollar. We love to play “Guess The Price”, which is our made-up game where one displays an item purchased at a discount and the other tries to guess the price. The better the bargain, the more we squeal and applaud. I’ve seen her pay as little as 2% of the original value. Whenever I find a great deal, I like to call her to get her bargain shopper seal of approval. If Aunt Cathy is impressed by a buy, I know I truly scored.

My favorite day for bargains is my birthday. Every year I go on a little scavenger hunt to find all the birthday freebies I can. It requires some advance planning and a little strategy but if you are willing to do a few things in advance you can score some sweet freebies for your birthday too.

* Step 1: Create a “junk” email account. I use my Yahoo mail for this because you can set up filters and the search feature works pretty well.
* Step 2: Go to your favorite retailers’ websites and see if there’s an e-club, newsletter or mailing list you can join. Hit up sites like freebirthdaystuff.com to learn about more deals and sign up for your e-mail coupons before your birthday.
* Step 3: Create filters in your email account so that all emails from retailers go into a sub-folder. This way you can check periodically to see what deals are out there but your inbox won’t be overrun with spam.
* Step 4: A week before your birthday (but after the 1st of your birthday month) search your Retailers folder for your birthday offers. Often you’ll have to print out a coupon to redeem an offer.
* Step 5: Strategize your plan of attack. Some offers have to be used on your birthday. Other offers don’t expire for a week or two. Once I have everything printed out, I like to sort by expiration date and value. Free product trumps free food. No strings attached deals beat buy-one-get-one coupons.

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Here’s a little glimpse at the offers I received this year. I haven’t redeemed all of them yet and I will probably skip a few for the sake of healthy nutrition, but it’s nice to have options. And free breakfast.

* Denny’s – Free Grand Slam (Birthday Only, no pre-registration required)
* Danny’s Family Car Wash – – Free Car Wash (Birthday Only)
* Jersey Mike’s Subs – – Free sandwich and 22 oz soda (Birthday Only)
* ULTA Beauty – Free CK One mascara, black – $18 value
* World Market – Certificate for $10 off (no minimum purchase)
* First Watch – Free entrée (no purchase necessary)
* IHOP – Free Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity Breakfast (no purchase necessary)
* Cinnabon – Free MochaLatta Chill (no purchase necessary)
* Buca di Beppo – Free Brownie Sundae (no purchase necessary)
* Einstein Bros Bagels – Free Breakfast Sandwich when you buy any drink
* Cold Stone Creamery – Buy-One-Get-One Creation
* Dairy Queen – Buy-One-Get-One Medium Blizzard
* Zoe’s Kitchen – Buy-One-Get-One Entrée
* Sweet Tomatoes – 20% off your entire check
* Payless Shoes – 25% off your purchase, no exclusions

Hopefully my technique helps you find a few bargains of your own for your birthday this year. If you try it, please let us know what sweet deals you scored for your big day.

Holiday Stress Busters

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

This week I have eleven meetings at work, a potluck/gift exchange, a holiday party, a volunteer event, a doctor’s appointment and a knitting project that has to be done before Santa takes off from the North Pole on Christmas Eve. I have a great idea for a New Year’s Day blog post — you guys are gonna love it — but it isn’t going to write itself. I also need to go to the post office before it’s too late to ship my godson’s gift to Ohio and I only have a couple weeks left to submit the last of the medical receipts before I forfeit the last hundred bucks in my 2013 healthcare spending account. I think my driver’s side front tire has a slow leak and I really need a wheel alignment which is NOT the way anyone wants to spend their dollars in December.

My to-do list, while long, isn’t unique. I’d bet good money that yours looks similar. We all have more stuff to do than time to do it and when we add in Christmas festivities, no matter how fun they might be, it adds a layer of complexity to our already hectic lives. To help keep things in balance I gathered a little list of common sense stress busters that will help during the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

Schedule some down time. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting aside some time to do nothing. If someone invites you to do something during your scheduled down time it is OK to say no. Christmas is supposed to be fun, but if you’re running at full speed from Halloween to Valentine ’s Day, you are probably not having that much fun.

Take it easy on the cookies and booze. Have a drink, have a cookie…heck, have 2 of each. Just don’t have six of either. Overindulging may feel harmless at the time but suffering a hangover or the dreaded cookie belly will only add to your stress level later.

Check out the neighborhood Christmas lights. I do this pretty regularly with my daughter. After dinner, we pile into the car and rock out to Christmas tunes while we scout the neighborhood for new light displays. When I’m feeling super-festive I pull some cookies from my Christmas cookie exchange out of the freezer and brew up a pot of hot cocoa. It takes time that I could be spending crossing off “to-do’s” but I find that it centers me and it creates memories for her. The to-do’s can wait till after her bed time and we are both better for it.

Get a pedicure. Sitting with your feet in warm bubbly water after a long day of shopping and chores is a real treat. Some spots will even treat you to a massage and hot towel. If you are short on time or cash, a manicure is about half the investment of either and it still makes you feel and look great.

Do a good deed. It is so true that service to others warms the heart. You don’t have to do something grandiose and, in my view, it is better if you do your good deeds in secret. The kind deed that nobody else knows you did is the most rewarding. Drop a gift at the Angel Tree. Shovel the neighbor’s snow when you’re doing yours. Feed someone’s parking meter. Whatever you pick — small or large — you will find that your mood lifts just as you uplifted someone else.

Check out what’s on Netflix. Indulge yourself with a little brain candy TV once in a while. Of course a two day Dexter marathon is not going to be helpful but if you’re thinking about checking out one or two episodes of the most recent Sons of Anarchy it really can’t hurt. Just be sure that your Netflix session doesn’t become an all-night Netflix bender.

Get some sleep. Schedule yourself some time to sleep. It does no good to run ragged from now till Christmas day to end up collapsing after the meal and sleeping through the evening festivities. I know you have clandestine operations to execute once the kids are in bed but set some reasonable guidelines about when you’re going to turn in and try to stick to them. Your body needs rest to keep you going strong till the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Just let go. This is probably my most important piece of advice. If you have an idea or project that you just can’t make time for, forget it. Let go. Say no. If you planned to decorate the yard like Clark W Griswold but couldn’t find the time, let it go. Taking that plate of cookies to the neighbor is still a kind thing to do on Dec 27th after the Christmas ruckus dies down. It’s OK. Focus your first efforts on doing the things you really want or need to do. Invest yourself in what you can do well and fully.

Don’t allow social media to set your standard. People post the best, prettiest, most ‘perfect’ parts of their lives but they conveniently leave out the parts where they’re fussing over parking spots at the mall, burning the Christmas cookies and freaking out over their Visa balance. Resist the urge to compare yourself to what you see on others’ social media pages. It is far too easy to get carried away by the picture perfect parties and exaggerated shelf-elf shenanigans and forget that whatever you do to celebrate the season is enough. If you’re enjoying yourself you can be sure you’re doing Christmas right.

Creative Ways to Wrap a Gift Card

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Gift cards and cash (or “the universal gift card,” as my dad calls it) are becoming more and more common to find under the tree or in your stocking during the holiday season. And why not? They are easy to find (most grocery stores have kiosks of cards from dozens of retailers), and, as long as you choose a store the recipient likes, you can avoid the “this is the wrong size/color/style” issue. I am a big fan of gift cards, and so is my family.

Because of this, I give a lot of gift cards around the holidays. But every year I face the same problem — how can I wrap a gift card so that it isn’t obvious that it’s a gift card? And most importantly, how can I do this without using a lot of packaging that will just end up in the trash, OR without spending a lot of money?

The first thing you want to do is think about your recipient and what they might use that could double as wrapping. In my situation, I have a baker, a cocktail enthusiast, and a coffee fanatic.

For the baker, I found a really cute $3 holiday potholder and snowman cookie cutter combo in the sale bins at Target. I used that to hold the gift card, and then used two sheets of tissue paper and some red ribbon to complete the wrap.

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When finished, you can place it under the tree, or, since it has a hook, you could even hang it in lieu of a stocking on the mantle.

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For the cocktail enthusiast, I found a small plastic shaker in the dollar bins at Target. I then got his favorite candy, M&Ms, a roll of cellophane wrap, and I found a four pack of ribbon in the same discount section.

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I put the gift card in the shaker, covered it with the candy, then wrapped the entire thing in cellophane and tied it with a ribbon. Easy-peasy.

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Finally, for my coffee fanatic, Target had letter mugs on sale for $5, so I picked a B mug, bought some holiday confetti in the dollar section, then used the same cellophane from the shaker purchase, plus another roll of $1 ribbon.

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I put the gift card in the mug, covered it with the confetti, wrapped it in cellophane and then tied it with the ribbon. If you had someone who liked tea, you could easily buy a set of tea bags and cover the gift card with tea instead of confetti. The combination possibilities are endless.

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Don’t be afraid of the time or expense you think creative wrapping will take. I was able to complete all three gifts in an afternoon, and spent less than $20. Just take your time, browse the aisles, or, if you really want to be sure you are spending wisely, head to your local dollar store and get everything there.

What tips do you have for creatively wrapping a gift card? Please share them in the comments below. Happy gifting!

Thrifty Gifting: DIY Bulk Gifts

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Every year it happens. You make your list. You check it twice. You get gifts for everyone, naughty and nice. Then you walk into work to discover that a co-worker has left a gift on your desk. Panic sets in as you realize that there are quite a few people that you didn’t include on your master holiday list that you will want to give a small gift to — co-workers, neighbors, friends you don’t see on a regular basis, etc. How do you cover all your bases without breaking the bank? The answer: DIY bulk gifts.

DIY bulk gifts are economical, time-saving (because you pick one item to mass produce), and are often more meaningful to the recipient, since you took the time to make the item yourself. Pinterest is chock-full of great ideas for bulk gifts — including many non-food items.

Here are my tips for choosing a bulk gift project:

* Before committing to a project, read the instructions in their entirety. Only choose projects you feel you can tackle. The holidays are busy enough as it is, so choosing a complicated project will only lead to frustration (and, if you are like me, tears).
* Decide how you are going to package your gift. Will you use mason jars? Small glass vials? Tins? Decorative take-out containers? Items like salts or oils can be given in a small container with an air tight seal. Cookies, granola or larger perishables can be stored in a larger jar or tin. Items like soaps could be left open and tied with a ribbon.
* Decide if any supplemental items are needed. Supplemental items include a tag with a list of ingredients in the item, how to use the item, or for items like vanilla extract or infused liquors, the date that the recipient can start using it.
* Buy all your items and pick a date for production. Pick something that you can easily knock out in an afternoon, and book that afternoon for yourself ahead of time. If you have kids, picking a project they can help with will make them feel like they are contributing, and could become an annual family tradition.
* Wrapping the items — keep it simple. With a handmade gift, one of the beauties is that elaborate wrapping is not needed. Print a label, or gift tag, and tie the item with a simple bow.

Below are some of my favorite finds for simple, but awesome, homemade gifts that you can produce for your holiday gifts:

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* Chalkboard Mug filled with chalk, hot chocolate, marshmallows and a candy cane
* Raspberry Lemon Sugar Scrub
* Peppermint Soap
* Spice Rubs/Mixtures (Chicken, Pork, Ranch Dressing)
* Homemade Granola (Make sure to check that your recipient doesn’t have a nut or grain allergy before gifting this.)
* Vanilla Salt
* Poppin’ Pedicure Set (This clever spa kit was created by TWG Christina.)

This year I will be making sets of the vanilla salts and vanilla extract from Joy the Baker’s site because I know a lot of people who love to cook and bake. I will put them in jars, and include a list of ways to use the salt, as well as a recipe for Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cookies that Joy recommends using the salt with. If you are doing something like a vanilla salt, where someone may struggle with figuring out a use for it, I find including a recipe or list of suggested uses is a great way to ensure that they feel comfortable trying it out.

Have any great bulk gift ideas that you have made or received in the past that aren’t mentioned here? Leave your comments below. Happy gifting!

Hosting a Gift-Wrapping Party

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

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I had never heard of a gift-wrapping party until I was invited to one three years ago. From that day on I was hooked, and now it is one of the holiday events I most look forward to.

What is a gift-wrapping party? It’s exactly what it sounds like. You get together with a group of friends, have refreshments, and wrap your presents. It’s an incredibly fun way to knock out what is usually a very isolated task.

Although the party itself can vary based on the host’s preferences, there is one basic rule that should be included on your invitation — each attendee should bring at least one roll of wrapping paper, a set of gift tags, and a package of ribbons& bows to share.

For someone like me, who usually likes to theme her wrapping, this was a tough rule to follow. My first year, I brought my own wrap, and just picked up an extra roll of paper, tags and bows to donate to the party. When I arrived and saw all the exciting new papers available, I got into the spirit of the party and started to mix and match.

As the host, you have a lot of different ways you can run the party. Some of us love to plan every little detail — a menu of finger foods and desserts from Pinterest, a festive tablescape, wrapping station tables set-up around the house, and a custom Christmas playlist. Some hostesses even have a prize at the end for the guest whose gift is voted “best wrapped” by her fellow partygoers.

Your first step in planning any party is to send out the invitation. Unlike my fellow Wilderness Girls Rachael and Christina, I tend to not be a paper invitation girl – I love me some evites. There are a few reasons for this. First, I always have my phone or tablet with me. So, an electronic invite is great because I can easily RSVP whenever it’s convenient, and as long as I keep the link to the evite, I won’t ever have to worry about leaving the house without the directions, and having to turn back. As a host, I like having the ability to update the entire attendee list through the website. A final benefit is that it’s a green alternative to a paper invitation, but honestly, the green that I get concerned about is the cost to buy invitations and mail them, so saving money is another great reason to go electronic with your invitations.

Now that your invitation is out, you want to think menu and décor. Some of my favorite finds from Pinterest for parties are holiday sangria, and hearty finger foods that you could avoid touching or that aren’t too messy (since you will be wrapping presents) – salami & cheese skewers, hummus and veggies in a cup, strawberry shortcake bites and white chocolate popcorn.

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For décor, I love using Christmas scrapbooking paper for a flag banner (inspired by this pin), and chain garland for the food table. Everything else tablecloths, napkins, etc., you can pick up at your local dollar store, or the dollar bins at Target. 

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Finally, as the host, make sure you pick up a few extra pairs of scissors and rolls of tape. The dollar store carries both of these items as well, so pick them up there, or remember to ask each attendee to bring her own. You can either designate a table to hold all the rolls of paper/ribbons/tags that people are not using, or you can get a wire trash can to hold the rolls and use bins or baskets that you have around the house to hold the tags, ribbons, etc.

And that’s it! Again, the beauty of this party is that you can make it as fancy and elaborate, or casual and laid back as you want. If you have any tips or ideas for a gift-wrapping party that you would like to share, please do so in the comments below. Have a happy holiday season!

Advent Calendars

Monday, November 18th, 2013

The tradition of Advent means different things for different people.  For some, an advent calendar is just a countdown to Christmas and there is nothing wrong with that, but for me Advent is much more. This is the time of year time when Lutheran Christians excitedly await the arrival of the Christ Child on Christmas morning.  In addition, Advent is the beginning of our liturgical year (the church calendar). Since we now have a daughter, it feels like time to upgrade the cheap-o snowman themed countdown calendar Jacob and I have used for a decade in favor of something more.

December 1st is fast upon us so I turned to the only place a person in this situation can turn: the Internet. Specifically, Pinterest. In my search, I found several types of advent calendars from super simple to over-the-top.  I prefer the simple crafty calendars made with natural or recyclable materials. I was particularly fond of those designed for re-use year after year.  I love the sustainable aspect of that, but, even more so, I love the element of tradition that exists in bringing out the family advent calendar each year.

Here are a few of my favorites organized by material type:

Recyclable Materials (diverted from landfill)

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Design and photo by Morning Creativity

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Design by Nadine Reeves Photography by Ryan Brook/TC Media for Canadian Living

Reusable Fabric Bags

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Design and photo by SevernHomemade on Etsy

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Design and photo by womaninreallife.com

Paper-free “Paper” Chains

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Design and photo by lovestitches

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Design and photo by humbleBea on Etsy

Now to make a decision and get crafting. Which of these do you like best? Have you checked out the plethora of advent calendar options on Pinterest? Share your ideas in the comments below.