Monday, April 9, 2012

Wise, albeit unasked for, parenting advice

There are a lot of babies being born in my family. Mila and little Sterling Jameson are fun new additions to the Lewellen clan and Alice is the newbie in Jon's family. So lately I've been thinking a lot about parenting advice and what things I wish someone had told me when I was beginning the adventure of parenthood. A lot of thought and a few laughs later, I've got it:

Never. ever. let that sweet child of yours open a box of cereal by themselves. It's just not pretty.

As to the rest of it, well, you'll have fun figuring all that out on your own.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

My testimony of the Savior

Last year I was asked to give a talk in church on the blessings that come through faith on the Lord Jesus Christ. I've thought I'd share with you my talk because I think it also best shares my testimony of the Savior. Happy Easter!

One of my favorite characters in the Book of Mormon is the Brother of Jared. He was a man highly favored of the Lord, but still just a man who forgot to say his prayers sometimes. He was respected enough to speak to the Lord on behalf of his family and community when the language of the people was being confounded. He was humble enough to repent and seek forgiveness when he was in the wrong. He was strong enough and smart enough to go to work and build barges according to the Lord’s instructions, and he had faith enough so that the veil was taken from off his eyes and he saw the finger of the Lord. The Lord acknowledged this faith when he said “Never has man come before me with such exceeding faith as thou hast.” And he had knowledge of the Lord enough that the Lord could show himself and stand before the brother of Jared and they could speak face to face.

As we walk our chosen paths here on earth, there will not be many of us who will stand face to face with the Lord on our journey. For many of us our life here is dedicated to planting those small seeds of faith that Alma talked about for ourselves our families and for future generations. But I believe that each of us have and will be blessed to see the finger of the Lord throughout our lives. The Lord stands ready to bless all those who have faith in Him and obey His law. He also stands ready to steady us as we face the demanding challenges of life here on earth. It is through faith that we reach to the Lord in difficult times and it is through faith on the Lord Jesus Christ that we are obedient to his commandments thus making us candidates for promised blessings. Some would say such blessings are a coincidence, a product of one’s own hard work, or even luck but we know from reading Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21 that there is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundation of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated – and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

In the April 2005 session of General Conference Elder David A. Bednar gave a memorable and now often quoted talk on the topic of tender mercies. Reflecting upon the phrase “the tender mercies of the Lord” Elder Bednar said, “Through personal study, observation, pondering, and prayer, I believe I have come to better understand that the Lord’s tender mercies are the very personal and individualized blessings, strength, protection, assurances, guidance, loving-kindnesses, consolation, support, and spiritual gifts which we receive from and because of and through the Lord Jesus Christ.”

He goes on to say, “We should not underestimate or overlook the power of the Lord’s tender mercies. The simpleness, the sweetness, and the constancy of the tender mercies of the Lord will do much to fortify and protect us in the troubled times in which we do now and will yet live. When words cannot provide the solace we need or express the joy we feel, when it is simply futile to attempt to explain that which is unexplainable, when logic and reason cannot yield adequate understanding about the injustices and inequities of life, when mortal experience and evaluation are insufficient to produce a desired outcome, and when it seems that perhaps we are so totally alone, truly we are blessed by the tender mercies of the Lord and made mighty even unto the power of deliverance.”

Elder Bednar gave a wonderful talk that day and his words provided all of us with hope and a greater understanding of the Lord’s mercy and love. But that is not where I learned to recognize the Lord’s hand. I’d like to share how I came to recognize more fully the blessings of the Lord in my life and that of my family’s. I want you to know that I believe one of the greatest tender mercies in my family’s life has been to be surrounded by those who stand faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, wherever we have lived. Many, and not just those who are members of our church, have shared their beliefs and gospel knowledge with us, and by so doing have strengthened our testimonies of the Savior and His work. I love that we have learned the truths of the gospel taught by dedicated teachers, leaders and friends, people who, while diligent in their callings and with their own desire to serve the Lord, have shown us great love in their service.

It was during testimony meeting several years ago that Brother Stockdale shared a story he had read of a mother and of her love for Jesus Christ. He said this mother made a point of teaching her children to recognize His blessings in their family’s life. And she had a specific way of doing that. In her life nothing was a coincidence or luck rather it was a testimony. A little testimony. An example he shared was when she went to the grocery store to buy cheese and it was on sale, she would turn to her children and say “Now there’s a little testimony for ya.” Meaning, “Look children, the Lord knows our needs and is taking care of us.” This story Brother Stockdale shared had a powerful influence on me that day and since then I have loved to look for the little testimonies in my family’s life. It has offered me the chance to see the hand of the Lord and acknowledge his guidance, care and love for my family.

This exercise in learning to recognize the blessings from the Lord works retrospectively too. While I was preparing this talk my husband reminded me of the week before we moved to Michigan. He had just been hired to his first job out of graduate school. We were poor college students living on love, prayer and Jon’s small stipend. The transition was going to be tight and we weren’t exactly sure how we were going to cover certain expenses related to the move before he received his first paycheck. I was with our young son visiting a friend a few days before our move when we heard a loud crash. Looking out the window a few minutes later I could see our car parked a few houses down on the crowded street but could see nothing that would have caused such a loud noise. When her husband returned from school shortly after, he asked if I had been in an accident. I was confused by the question until we all walked to my car and saw that the entire opposite side of it had been bashed in by a hit and run driver. Our insurance provided a rental car and the payment we received from the car the day before we moved exactly covered all the necessary expenses we had been worried about. Looking back it was a little testimony to us that the Lord knows our needs and will provide.

I love the imagery of the Star of David symbol. If a covenant is defined as a promise made between an individual and the Lord then the Star of David is a great illustrator of that promise. One triangle points up symbolizing the covenant we make with the Lord. The other triangle points down symbolizing the covenant the Lord makes with us. When we keep our promise, the Lord keeps his. Our baptismal covenant found in Chapter 18 of Mosiah is a perfect example of this two-way promise. Starting in verse 8, our part is a desire to come into the fold of God, to be called his people and be willing to bear one another’s burdens they may be light, be willing to mourn with those that mourn, comfort those that stand in need of comfort and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things and in all places. When our part is kept, the Lord promises that we will be redeemed of God and be numbered with those of the first resurrection and that we will have eternal life. In verse 10 our part is to witness before him that we have entered into a covenant with him that we will serve him and keep his commandments. The Lord then promises that he will pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon us.

Sometimes we have the opportunity to carry out what will then become a little testimony for someone else. This week our family was able to provide a service for friends in our ward so that their burden would be light. I wanted my children to know the sweet joy of service and to feel the love that comes when you help others in their hour of need. It made my heart happy to see my children anxiously engaged in a good cause. Tasks that at our own house might have been met with, “Do I have to?” were in this case finished thoroughly and even quickly. Later I was able to point to the scripture in Mosiah chapter 2 vs.17 when King Benjamin says I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom, that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God. And since we all know from Alma that one of the best times to learn wisdom is in thy youth, it was a teaching moment I hope my children always remember.

King Benjamin goes on to say in chapter 2 of Mosiah verse 41, and moreover I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual, and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never ending happiness. O remember, remember that these things are true for the Lord God hath spoken it.

Isn’t it great that keeping the commandments brings blessings? One of my favorite scripture passages is in the Doctrine and Covenants in section 59. Blessed are they whose feet stand upon the land of Zion, who have obeyed my gospel, for they shall receive for their reward the good things of the earth, and it shall bring forth in its strength. And they shall also be crowned with blessings from above, yea and with commandments not a few and with revelations in their time, they that are faithful and diligent before me. I have read those words many times, and I am impressed by the boldness with which the Lord says he gives more commandments to those he is blessing. For many more commandments might seem like a bit of a drag. Are you sure Lord, because I think I have enough? But the Lord stands ready to bless us with more commandments according to our faithfulness.

Brother Safsten asked that in my talk I address how my family’s faith in Jesus Christ has blessed our family. I came to the conclusion pretty quickly that it was because of our faith that we strived to keep His commandments. And it was because we strived to keep His commandments that our family is blessed. Like the brother of Jared we have tried to do as the Lord has commanded, however there are still times when we forget to say our prayers. I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious but I’d like to share some examples from our family of a few commandments we strive to keep, and the little testimonies we enjoy because of our efforts.

There is a scene in The Sound of Music when Maria discovers the children dancing. When she looks surprised, Kurt proudly explains, "The Von Trapp Family dances!" Well, The Johnston Family goes to church every Sunday. This seems to be quite a surprise each week to the youngest member of our family, but I hope he will someday come to love the friendship and fellowship of a ward family,to love the spirit felt when testimonies and the truths of the gospel are shared, and to love the sacred opportunity to partake of the sacrament as we renew our baptismal covenants and witness to our Heavenly Father that we are willing to take upon us the name of His Son and always remember Him, and keep his commandments that we can always have His spirit to be with us.

The Johnston Family has daily family scripture study. Even when we’re tired. And even if it’s only a few verses. Many years ago Jon and I decided that scripture study was going to be an important part of our family's life. Our children learned to read from their pages and have come to be very familiar with the teachings of the prophets and the words of the Savior. They have learned that, on occasion, reminding us at bedtime that we still need to read the scriptures is an acceptable way to stay up a little later. But they know their parents love for the scriptures and I hope they are learning that it is through the scriptures that we draw nearer to God.

The Johnston Family prays together. And then we have a family hug and that is a pretty immediate blessing. Prayer is our families chance to humbly thank our Heavenly Father in Jesus' name for all those little testimonies. I can’t help but think perhaps we should be more specific in thanking Him for our blessings. I’m sure we would never hear from Him, "And thank you for whatever that thing was you did." In 3 Nephi 21 the Savior says Pray in your families unto the Father, always in my name, that your wives and your children may be blessed. What kind of blessings? President Hinckley said “it is important to have individual prayer, but it is a wonderful thing to have family prayer. Pray to your Father in Heaven in faith. Pray in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. You can do nothing better for your children than to have them taking their turn in the family prayer, expressing gratitude for their blessings. If they do that while they are young, they will grow with a spirit of thanksgiving in their hearts” And we all want our children to be more grateful.

The Johnston Family accepts callings and fulfills assignments. Recently our daughter accepted an assignment to speak in Primary. The day before her talk she realized that she had not prepared. I told her she still had plenty of time to prepare but she clung to the excuse that she didn’t know what to say and didn’t have enough time. I told her that if she wanted to call the Primary President and asked to be excused from speaking then it was her decision. The next day Audrey gave a wonderful talk in Primary on temples. Jon and I have been greatly blessed by the callings we have been asked to fulfill. I can’t say they have all been our favorite but we have grown in knowledge and understanding as we have accepted calls to serve. In some assignments and callings we have found that weaknesses really are made stronger because we trusted in the Lord and did our best, which is all the Lord wants us to do.

The Johnston Family tries really hard to hold a weekly Family Home Evening. And sometimes it’s a disaster. But we are really good at the refreshment part of the evening and so for right now we are holding on to that. At the time Family Home Evening was introduced in 1915 the First Presidency said “If the Saints obey this counsel, we promise that great blessings will result. Love at home and obedience to parents will increase. Faith will be developed in the hearts of the youth of Israel, and they will gain power to combat the evil influence and temptations which beset them.”

Sometimes, for any family, the greatest blessing that comes through faith on the Lord Jesus Christ is His grace. We live in time of great discovery and ease but it is coupled with great hardship and strife. The enabling power of the Lord’s grace makes is possible to meet the challenges of our day. It is a little testimony that reveals the Lord’s hand is stretched out to us and His arms are ready to lift us up.

I am forever grateful to goodly parents who taught me the gospel when I was young. I am grateful for teachers and leaders who loved me and served as stalwart examples. I am grateful for my sweet family and for all the many blessings that a loving Father in Heaven has seen fit to give us. And I am most grateful for my Savior Jesus Christ and for His love for me. I see His hand in my life and in the life of my family. And I hope to someday, like the brother of Jared, stand face to face and thank Him for all the little testimonies.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


A long time ago I learned there was a difference in meaning between the words uninterested and disinterested. The former implies a lack of interest and the latter is more associated with impartiality. Although it seems to me there is an increasing ambiguity between the meanings as oftentimes I hear disinterested used interchangeably with uninterested. What I find particularly humorous is how the use of the word disinterested is an attempt by the user to seemingly elevate their language. Why use the word uninterested, they must be thinking, when disinterested seems so much more ... educated? But I digress.

I love clever. Clever gets me everytime. Because clever means smart and I am attracted to smart. Just ask Jon. So when I first heard of Pinterest I thought, "That is clever." The name explains the premise and intent so perfectly, as do Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or Google. But not Google+. I don't understand the point of Google+. Just by hearing the name Pinterest however I understood its concept. I didn't understand why one needed an invitation, unless it was a veiled way of letting the cool kids have a go at it first. Early adopters can get burned though, remember how cool Groupon and Netflix used to be? Or even worse, MySpace. Now, not so much. But with invites firmly in hand from various sister-in-law/facebook cronies/college roommates I ventured over to take a peek.

And that's when my interest in Pinterest skipped right over disinterest and clung desperately to uninterest. It was as though Dorothy had walked out of her black and white Kansas farmhouse and into the world of Oz only to politely thank the munchkins and the Good Witch Glinda for their hospitality, turn and hightail it back to where she came from. Seriously, how would I ever get anything done for the rest of my life? I could feel my project pile slowly crushing me the longer I stayed discovering all the new things I liked.

Once I took an online quiz aimed at helping the taker discover their style, whether it be traditional, contemporary, or modern. After taking the quiz and answering pages of interior design and decorating questions, the answer came back undecided. That's right, I had confused the computer program. Is it wrong that I like everything? Once I went to a craft day at church having signed up for all the projects. All the projects are currently unfinished, sitting in what I affectionately call "The Craft Room." But what I really mean is "The Room Where Good Ideas Get Started And Then Go To Die." Once I tried redecorating our house but got so bogged down in the details, it took years to eventually regain full use of the dining room, family room, a bathroom (the one with the only shower) and one or three of the bedrooms.

Someday maybe my uninterest in Pinterest will become disinterest. I'll be able to objectively observe all the creativity that so effortlessly streams through the site. But until that day I'll have to find pinspiration the old fashioned way - my own imagination.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A rose for you.

Oh, thus thy beauty,
Loveliest on earth to me,
Dark with no sorrow, shines
And burns, with thee.

- excerpt from "When The Rose Is Faded" by Walter de la Mare

There's something so enchanting about the way a rose dies. The way the velvety edges of its petals darken and curl, their dewy softness overpowered by the slow creep of age. But a rose's beauty is not diminished by death. Even after the tragic death nod, and the fragrance of fallen petals is swept away, the memory of their loveliness lingers.

A little satin, a little fire and an antique button capture what I think is the perfect moment in the life of a rose. Plus these are even heart shaped. I made these pins/hair clips for all the woman and girls in my family with one extra to giveaway for Valentine's Day.

Trace and cut. I cut double of the smallest heart and then cut half down even smaller.

My inner pyro was absolutely delighted with the evening's festivities.

Because I didn't know yet what the centerpiece of the heart would be, I sewed the layers of petals together while I thought about it. Jon suggested metal arrows but I was never able to find any.

And then I discovered Button Button in downtown Vancouver. The owner buys button collections at estate sales and the like and has collected a trove of vintage and antique buttons. The store is a joy to look through (and buy from). Every drawer, and there are a lot, is filled with button treasure. It reminded me of how fun it was to go through my own Grandmother's button box. The owner taught me the difference between vintage (pre 1930) and antique (pre 1903) buttons. Of the sixteen buttons I chose, a few are antique and the rest are vintage. You can tell by looking at the shank on the back of the button. In this case the metal shanks are antique and the molded plastic is vintage.

Isn't it too much fun to imagine how these buttons were used?

For packaging, I lined a white jewelry box with black satin. "Black, like your soul." Jon said. He finds it funny that I think black goes hand and hand with Valentine's Day. To me, nothing says 'I love you' better than metallic lettered sentiment on black cardstock. Well, maybe black lingerie. Zing.

Happy Valentine's Day ladies!

If you want a chance to be chosen as the lucky lady, or guy, who gets the extra heart shaped rose, tell me about the most creative Valentine you ever gave or received. You have until Thursday at 6pm when I will chose at random from all the entries. Leave your story in the comments below.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

For Marie('s daughter)

Today is my sister's birthday. Happy Birthday Marie!

I thought about Marie a lot today. This is her first birthday as a new momma. In a few years, that will mean her daughter will bring her breakfast in bed. And on the homemade card she receives there will be a stick figure drawing of a pretty woman holding a little girl's hand. And there will probably be lots of flowers and hearts drawn around the border. And the card will say Hppy Berthday Mommy! And she will think it is the most wonderful present anyone has ever given her. And she will be right.

But her sweet baby girl has to get bigger first. So Marie will spend her birthday in the hospital, watching over her daughter, knowing this is the most wonderful present anyone has ever given her. And she will be right.

In honor of Marie's birthday, today my new friend Lisa and I got together and had a sewing party for Marie's new baby. We made preemie smocks using a pattern I found here. These are actually for 3-7 lb babies, so she will have to grow into them, but I tried to make them extra cute as an incentive. With the leftover fabric we made rick rack rimmed blankets, the perfect size for a preemie. The smock with no blanket was made from the extra fabric that Audrey and her grandma used to make a blanket this past summer.

(Thank you to Kymy at for sharing her pattern, to Sarah P. for teaching me how to make a rick rack blanket, and to Lisa B. for hanging out and sewing with me today.)

Happy Birthday Marie!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Chocolate inspired good works

"Aren't phantoms dark and scary like dementors?" Audrey asked. "Sometimes," I replied, "but not this phantom."  "This phantom is pink and squishy." "But if you're lucky The Valentine Phantom will still suck your face," Jon quipped.  He's always been pretty quick with the double entendre.

It's February!  And, true to tradition, The Valentine Phantom stopped by.  Maybe it's a sign of the times but The Phantom's acts of service routine has become more user friendly.  Actually more user generated. 

This year if we want a treat from The Phantom's goodie jar, then we need to recognize the good deeds going on in the family.  Tonight when I noticed Audrey willfully and cheerfully volunteering to clean up after dinner, I gave her a treat from the jar.  Ulterior motives aside, it was nice to have kids falling over themselves to be helpful.

I bet The Valentine Phantom hopes this new way helps us see all the good that goes on in our family.  A chocolate inspired eye-opening.

So, go on. Do something nice for someone else.  And when you notice another's good deeds, be grateful for their goodness. Maybe even give them a chocolate.

Did someone do something nice for you today?  

Monday, January 23, 2012

More China fun than last year.

2012, Year of the Dragon

Happy Chinese New Year!

We celebrate Chinese New Year because we like Chinese food. Particularly fortune cookies. Which is funny since they aren't even Chinese. But we still enjoy the celebration. Being new in town this year, we took a chance on our neighbourhood Chinese restaurant and were very pleased to discover it was delicious.

Goodbye China Fun in Michigan, Hello Burnaby Palace in BC.

This year I also took a chance on making my own fortune cookies. After watching several You Tube videos, I determined I was skilled enough to attempt the endeavor. I chose the recipe over at When you get there, do a search for Chinese New Year Rainbow Fortune Cookies. It's a pretty straight forward recipe and I had all the ingredients. Nothing fancy. All the recipes I looked at were fairly similar to it. I modified this one by adding 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract. This recipe made exactly 20 cookies.

Some tips I gleaned from a morning of watching YouTube videos on how to make fortune cookies:
  • Don't use cooking spray, use butter or shortening to grease the pan.
  • Turn your cookie sheet over and use the bottom so the lip of the pan doesn't get in the way.
  • Use a metal spatula. (I don't have one, so I used a cheese slicer and it worked fine)
  • Add a little water to your batter if it is too thick. It should be like a thin pancake batter.
  • Spoon the batter onto the pan by tablespoons and then using the back of your spoon make a 3 to 4 inch circle with the batter.
  • When the cookies are done don't take the pan out of the oven. Remove the cookies one at a time directly from the oven, keeping the oven door open until you have removed them all.
  • Work fast.
  • Expect the tips of your fingers to get a little burned.
  • Reapply shortening between batches.
  • Don't bake more than four at a time.
  • Bake the cookies for long enough that they are brown around the edges, about 7 minutes at 350 degrees. If you don't then the cookie will be chewy and not crispy, however, it will still be pretty.
  • When you remove the cookie from the pan, transfer it to wax paper for the folding part.
  • After you have shaped the cookie, place it in one of the cups of a muffin tin to hold the corners together.

Some pictures:

I went with three colors that best symbolized the dragon - red, orange and yellow. Except my red was more pink, so I guess it's a girl dragon.

Freshly baked and ready to be removed.

The next batch ready to go in the oven.

The fortunes all ready to go in the cookies. The fortunes I used/wrote are included at the bottom of this post.

I found that the larger muffin tin was too big and didn't hold the corners of the cookie close together enough, so I used a mini muffin tin. It worked a lot better.

A hot cookie ready to be folded around a fortune. And honestly, in the time it took me to take this picture, the cookie had cooled enough that it wasn't perfectly pliable.

This is a different cookie, folded in half.

And yet another cookie, folded over the edge of a glass.

A pretty palette of fortune cookies.

We ordered Ginger Beef, Spicy Pork Green Beans, Steamed Dumplings and Orange Chicken.

真鲜! (Delicious!)

Here are the fortunes I used. I wanted them to be original and funny, but I'm not so clever that I could come up with legit fortunes on my own. I found a site with lists of them and then just added a little something to the ones I wanted to use. The italics are those additions. Enjoy!

A thrilling time is in your immediate future. 'Cause guess what? You’re doing the dishes! (Except, guess who got this one. Yah, me. Not what I had hoped for.)
Your everlasting patience will be rewarded sooner or later. But probably later, so it’s a good thing you’re patient.
Something you lost will soon turn up. Right where you put it so you wouldn’t lose it.
Excitement and intrigue follow you closely wherever you go! (So turn around very slowly, they’re right behind you)
A pleasant surprise is in store for you. I’m not sure which store, so you’re on your own as to finding it.
May life throw you a pleasant curve. And may your brakes not fail when it does.
As the purse is emptied the heart is filled. Unless it’s my purse and in that case I want my money back.
Be mischievous and you will not be lonesome. Because you'll be in detention, and there will probably be a teacher in the room.
Your many hidden talents will become obvious to those around you. Especially when you sneak up behind them and shout, “Surprise, my talents aren’t hiding anymore!”
Fame, riches, and romance are yours for the asking. Really, it’s that easy. I don’t know why you haven’t done it already.
Someone is speaking well of you. Can you hear them? Shhh, be very quiet. Quieter. Do you hear that? No? Ah well, you’ll have to take my word for it.
A member of your family will soon do something that will make you proud. The Uchtdorf approved proud, not the other kind.
Strong and bitter words indicate a weak cause. They also indicate that your mother is really mad.
A quiet evening with friends is the best tonic for a long day. So is chocolate. And a good Cary Grant movie. Also snuggly blankets. OK, never mind about the quiet evening with friends.
A single word will keep one warm for years. As will a coat. But also the word thing.
Generosity and perfection are your everlasting goals. No pressure.
If your desires are not extravagant they will be granted. Go ahead, ask for that 20,000 dollar raise. And when you do, tell your boss, “Hey, I’m not asking for 40,000.”
Let there be magic in your smile and firmness in your handshake. Let your mouth be closed when you chew and your zipper always up.
Nature, time and patience are the three best physicians. Dr. Deprez was pretty good too.
Happy news is on its way to you. And when it gets here you better share it.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

11 favorite pics from '11

Love her smile.

He's a keeper.


A hot August night at the fair.

Our Michigan home.

Like Charlie Chaplin, only better.

My peonies.

Effigy Mounds National Park in Iowa overlooking the Mississippi River

An ancestor never to be forgotten.

A cell - the only one in his class not made out of a Styrofoam ball.

Sadly, the shoes never recovered.

You know. For elves.

Today is New Year's Day, and we all know what that means, right? Yep, it's time to open the gingerbread houses! Awesome.

The making of a gingerbread house is a merry way of celebrating the Christmas season. The tradition goes back many centuries, originating in Germany and coming to America during colonial times. The Grimm brother's tale of Hansel and Gretel popularized the idea of building houses of gingerbread, especially ones decorated with sweet treats on which to nibble.

Queen Victoria and her prince-charming Albert popularized the tradition of building gingerbread houses for the Christmas holiday. Our family's Christmas tradition of gingerbread building has devolved into graham cracker houses - and this year, pretzels - but the candy is the key and with enough chocolate, royal icing, and gumdrops, it's easy to cover up the difference. Besides, it's not what's happening on the outside, but what's happening inside the house that really matters.

Elves enjoy a good vacation after the rush and bustle of Christmas. So keep that in mind when you're creating your gingerbread (or graham cracker) masterpiece - the better looking your house the more talented your vacationing elf. You see gingerbread houses are where elves holiday the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve. Don't disappoint the elves with shoddy construction, or worse, skimp on the application of candy. Be sure to allow for the comfort of your elf. Elves want a place to feel at home, a place where they can put their feet up, relax and enjoy a little peace and quiet.

New Year's Day is the culmination of the gingerbread house season. Building your gingerbread house can be done anytime during December before Christmas Day, but opening your house can only be done after the elves have all left. So no peeking before the clock strikes 12 on New Year's Eve - elves are fickle that way and you don't want to open an empty house. If you have treated your elf well, he or she will have left a trinket or gift expressing their gratitude for your gracious hospitality. If they're feeling exceedingly generous and their gift doesn't fit inside the house, than a note is left directing you to the location of your gift.

May you never look at your gingerbread house again, without also wondering about the elf that is enjoying the candies of your labor. Here's how our gingerbread house building, demolishing, devouring and rejoicing went this year:

The supplies: Lots of chocolate and candy, enough royal icing so you don't have to stop and make more, graham crackers (or gingerbread if your ambitious) and a platform for your house.

We also included three cute kids, just for grins and giggles. The middle one's elvish grin is befitting considering where a lot of the candy ended up.

Namely in his mouth. And obviously by the handful.

Some of it managed to end up on the house. This is what I meant when I said if you throw enough candy on the outside, you can't tell if gingerbread or graham crackers were used. I feared collapse, but the royal icing kept the walls secured.

A geometric architectural choice. Notice the octagonal shape of the walls. She built supports inside to hold up the roof. Genius.

The roof on this beauty would have caved into the middle if not for the gumdrops counteracting the weight of the graham cracker roof.

A mod pod.

I would live here if I could.

A smashing good time. The note read:

Your candy castle delight
Was such a lovely sight!
My after Christmas stay
(in each and every way)
Exceeded expectation,
so I made a gift - a token of my appreciation.
(Psst, it's in a table, run if you're able)
Love, Your Elf

He found that after finding this:

This little elf just wants to say -
Thanks for the awesome house you built for my stay!

A gift I have made you -
It's on a kitchen shelf.

I hope that you like it.

Signed, One Grateful Elf

His gift actually fit in his house. But the elf left a note anyway.

A phone for you,
Call your father.
Really, I promise
It isn't a bother.

A phone for you,
Call your mother.
No, really.
Call your mother.

From, Your Elf

Happy New Year!