Celebrating Chinese New Year

With Haddon joining our family, we knew the importance of incorporating his Chinese culture into our family. We do this in a lot of little ways—with the foods we cook, the books we read, the news we pay attention to, the songs we listen to and the places we go, to name a few.

Of course, we started celebrating Chinese New Year.

Last year, we put up a few banners we had purchased in China and ordered takeout from our favorite Chinese restaurant in Milwaukee.

This year we upped our game a little bit. I read up a bit more on the traditions and their meaning (a lot of polytheistic folk religion) and we planned things out a little better. I know our celebration is but a shadow of how Chinese families celebrate, but we are an American family with mixed cultural heritage, including Chinese, and so this is our American Chinese New Year.

On the front door I hung our large Chinese knot. We hung the festive banners we brought back from China in the kitchen.

This past weekend, we hosted a little Chinese New Year play date with two other families with children adopted from China. One of the moms is from Hong Kong, so she led us in making about 150 dumplings. I lost track of how many dumplings Haddon ate, but it was a lot, and he hasn’t stopped asking about them since. Good thing I have a bunch in the freezer and now feel confident that I could make them again on my own.

For the play date, I printed out some Chinese New Year coloring pages for the kids. They kept my kids entertained in the ensuing days as well. I also let them practice using chop sticks by seeing if they could transfer almonds, M&Ms and popcorn kernels from one bowl to another.

I displayed our collection of Chinese books (some from the library) by the fireplace for the kids to peruse. “Emma’s American Chinese New Year” is a particularly good one for us since it’s about a little girl adopted from China (although the slant rhyming in it drives me crazy).

The kids made red paper lanterns and I hung those in our kitchen.

On Chinese New Year’s Eve (the night most families celebrate), we picked up Chinese food and had my sister and her family over for dinner. The kids wore traditional qipao outfits we had purchased in a variety of sizes when we were in China. Basically it was just a regular rousing dinner with family, with kids screaming and running in every direction.

Before bed, I gave the kids lucky money in red envelopes—$2 each. Even numbers except the number four are good luck, and the price of a candy bar is supposed to be an appropriate amount. I wouldn’t pay $2 for a candy bar, but wanted to keep it even (also, really each adult is supposed to individually give each kid lucky money).

Two things I forgot about but had wanted to do—give the kids Mandarin oranges and do sparklers or party poppers. There’s always next year.

This weekend we’re planning on checking out a community Chinese New Year event at our local high school.

And that’s that! It’s been a fun week so far celebrating Chinese traditions and ringing in the Year of the Pig.

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Corban’s 5th birthday party

I have fond memories of my fifth birthday party. It’s always stuck in my mind as one of my favorite childhood birthday parties. I don’t know if there are pictures or videos recording parts of it (probably, but I haven’t seen them in decades) so all that my mind really has is a vague sense of fun and joy, and memories of jumping in a bouncy house in our backyard on a warm summer day.

It’s strange to me that my firstborn is now old enough to have these types of memories for himself—perhaps an internal recording of excitement and happiness that will stick with him in the coming years. With that in mind, I wanted his fifth birthday party to be a special one.

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(I should note it was nearly three months ago, but birthday parties are apparently the one thing I feel obligated to record here regardless of how long it takes me to do so.)

While I wanted the party to be special for Corban, I also wanted it to be really simple for me to plan. After Mara’s Three Little Pigs shindig a few months earlier and his pirate party last year, I wasn’t really up for DIY and creativity. So I booked a party at our favorite local gymnastics place (Swiss Turners) instead of hosting it at our house.

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The party included an hour of gymnastics fun for Corban and a small group of friends followed by a half hour of scarfing down pizza and cupcakes and opening presents in the party room upstairs.

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The kids had a blast in the gym. The two instructors did a great job keeping the little ones in line (with some parental support).

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Pretty much all I did was jazz up the invitations provided by Swiss Turners, bake cupcakes, slice some raw vegetables and make a birthday banner. We didn’t need to do much to the party room.

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I used two tried and true recipes: Fresh Strawberry Cupcakes and Buttermilk Chocolate Cupcakes with this fudge frosting.

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There isn’t much else to say about the party. Corban had a ton of fun with his friends (he said the trampoline “boat” game was his favorite) and it was sweet for me to just sit back and watch him and the other kids run, jump and play.

I shot a bunch of blurry, poorly lit photos to try to capture the moments. Here are some highlights.

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It’s a little late to end by saying “happy birthday, Corban,” so instead I’ll get emotional for a moment after looking back at these photos.

Five is such a milestone age in my mind. It feels lightyears older than four, and it’s the age at which Corban will go off to school for the first time. (Sob!) Birthdays are such a bittersweet reminder of how quickly the months go by and how fast our little people grow and change. I love this boy so much and am enjoying every stage with him.

Three Little Pigs 3rd birthday party

Every day, Mara asks me to tell her a story. “Three Little Pigs?” I say, knowing the answer.

“Three Little Pigs.”

At Mara’s request, the pigs are girls. Their names are Flopsy, Mopsy and Toesy. Sometimes Flopsy is the smart one who builds her house of brick; sometimes it’s Mopsy. But usually it’s Toesy.

When Mara jumps in to tell the tale, it gets very condensed.

She races on with the story, skipping words in her excitement: “Not by hair my chinny chin. I’ll huff and I’ll blow your house away! [blows] Ahhh!”

So, for Mara’s third birthday, I couldn’t think of a better theme than the Three Little Pigs.

We celebrated with two different parties (more than a month ago now)—one at our house with my parents and a handful of friends and one in Missouri with Peter’s family.

Here are the highlights. I’ll start with my pride and joy, this cake.

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I painted wooden pegs to make the three little pigs (inspired by a photo I saw on another blog) and made a tiny bunting from construction paper.

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The cake is my favorite simple buttermilk chocolate cake recipe (also seen here). Except I multiplied it to make four layers, and added stabilized whipped cream filling.

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Despite wooden skewer reinforcement, it didn’t quite last through the party.

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So maybe next time I’d cut it down to two or three layers. But it was delicious, so no complaints! (Seriously, try that recipe next time you want chocolate cake. I love it so.)

The cake toppers made a second appearance at birthday party no. 2 (I did not make this cake).

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My other pride and joy were these pig party hats I made from construction paper and tissue circles (and lots of Mod Podge).

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There were also a few black and gray wolf hats. Don’t ask how much time I put into them, or why, for that matter, but they were a good excuse to spend a few nights binging on “Bachelor in Paradise.”

We also brought out our traditional Mara birthday banner for both parties (here it is at party no. 1).

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And the party favors were these creepy pig snouts from Oriental Trading.

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We had water balloons—something that my kids are obsessed with, yet still don’t quite know what to do with once they get their hands on some. Praise hands for those contraptions that fill 100 balloons in 10 seconds. Worth it.

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The kids also played “Pig, Pig, Wolf” (Duck, Duck, Goose), set off stomp rockets and built some impressive structures from our giant Jenga set.

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Dinner was Portillo’s Italian beef and chopped salad. Drinks were a few growlers of beer.

Oh, and there was cotton candy! We purchased a small cotton candy machine for the occasion, and I think Mara would have bathed in the stuff if we let her.

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Party no. 2 also featured cotton candy and pig party hats.

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Instead of Italian beef, we ate grilled burgers, hot dogs and pork tenderloin.

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And instead of “Pig, Pig, Wolf” we played lots of baseball.

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Despite this fake pout, Mara had a pretty spectacular double celebration for birthday number three.

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Pirate-themed 4th birthday party

Ever since Halloween, Corban has had his heart set on a pirate birthday party.

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I thought this would be a good age to have his first “kid” birthday party (as opposed to past birthdays where we’ve either just had family or invited all of our friends). We kept it small (by our standards) and resisted the urge to invite everyone we know, instead letting Corban pick a handful of friends and their families.

The invite

Of course every party starts with an invitation, and I’m game for any excuse to mail one. I used this ship font to make it in Photoshop. (This site has a bunch of awesome, free pirate fonts.)

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I wanted to add an interactive element, so I cut bands from red construction paper and tied them around the invites with baker’s twine.

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Inspired by all my reporting on hand lettering (for this story) I attempted a little pirate lettering on the envelopes. Not easy!

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I also get giddy over picking out stamps, and was pleased with this vintage rose option in stock at our post office. I know, nobody notices stamps, but it made me happy.

The decorations

On to the party itself! I think this was the most fun I’ve had planning a party.

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To start, I designed a few posters to get printed as engineering prints (black and white) from Staples.com. Unfortunately there are no Staples stores near us, so although the prints are a steal, the shipping fee is not. Anyone know of a place near Milwaukee for affordable engineering prints?

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For the banner, I just cut 8.5-by-11-inch black paper into quarters and painted the white letters on with a paint brush. The framed skulls and anchor are also just white paint on black paper.

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I found a bunch of huge black frames in Corban’s closet. I bought them on Clearance from Michael’s YEARS ago and never had a use for them, so decided to put them to use for the party. I desaturated and upped the contrast on some Halloween photos of Corban and us dressed as Jake and his crew and printed them out.

Then, of course, there wasn’t really anywhere to hang them so they ended up as the backdrop for the drink station.

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I also framed some Jake quotes (possibly will be putting the designs in my etsy shop). However, as my mom observed, most of the kids couldn’t read and most of the adults probably didn’t recognize the quotes. Oh well!

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My mom put up crepe paper, which is still hanging because I love how festive it is.

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This was my favorite detail (printable from etsy).

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The food

We kept it really simple. Jimmy John’s sandwiches for lunch (our go-to for parties), chips, veggies, dip, grapes and pirate bananas. I forgot to put out the cheese I bought.

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I saw this pirate ship-from-a-loaf-pan idea on Pinterest and attempted to re-create it using my favorite chocolate cake recipe. The results weren’t quite Pinterest perfect, but still fun. I used this fudge frosting recipe.

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I also made vanilla cupcakes using this recipe (which I will definitely be saving) and this vanilla buttercream frosting. Flags are just toothpicks and red Scotch tape.

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The games

We gave Corban his birthday gift the night before the party—another Jake toy to add to his collection of pirate ships—and I had all of his pirate toys out for the kids to play with as they arrived.

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I also offered each child a red bandana, spyglass, pirate sticker and Jake temporary tattoo.

Peter made a little “walk the plank” game that none of the kids really paid attention to.

We had name tags out with a framed sign to help everyone find their pirate names. Peter’s name was the best—Stinky Creeper Chumbucket. I designed my own version of this and changed a few names.

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The first official game was a treasure hunt. It needed to be appropriate for ages 19 months to 6 years old, so I drew pictures of spots around our house on index cards, with a red “X” on the back of each card. The kids (as a group) had to use the picture to figure out where the next clue was.

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They got pretty into it (at least the older ones did).

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The treasure hunt ended in the basement, with little goodie bags and treasure map sticker activities for everyone.

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I had way too much fun picking out junk for the goodie bags. In each bag there was a bag of fruit snacks, pirate stamper, pirate notepad, gold doubloons and stickers.

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Next we played pin the eye patch on the pirate. The pirate face is a framed engineering print, and I punched the eye patches out of black paper using a 2-inch circle punch and painted the kids’ names on.

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After the party, my heart was full. It means so much to have friends and family who love our kids. Corban and Mara had a blast, and I actually felt like I was able to relax and enjoy it (which can be hard when you’re hosting). It was a really sweet celebration of our boy and we all felt very loved.

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First birthday sign

A garden/bunny-themed first birthday party

Our dear niece Isla turned one last week and over the weekend we attended her birthday party on an especially sunny, warm spring day. So beautiful, in fact, that the party was held outside! (Not something to be taken for granted in April in Chicagoland.)

My sister, Lauren, kept the garden/bunny theme simple and subtle. Here are some of the details that made this party casual yet adorable.

The spread was sandwiches, an incredible salad that included figs, avocado and roasted chickpeas, some addictive dips and popcorn.

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And bunnies!

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Isla’s monthly photos lined the patio door as we swooped inside and outside throughout the afternoon.

First birthday photo collection

First birthday photo collection

Lauren made the cake — strawberry cake with strawberry cream cheese frosting. Isla’s smash cake was blueberry (her favorite food) and Corban enjoyed a dirt cup (“gummy worm cake,” as he called it yesterday when he mentioned out of the blue, “I liked Isla’s cake!”). Pictures of those to come in a minute.

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There were four little ones in attendance and they each received one of these sweet bunny baskets filled with a little seed planting kit, a chocolate bunny and rabbit ears (where were those when I was making Corban’s Halloween costume?!).

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Look at that glorious patio sunshine!

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And pink roses…

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The kids donned their bunny ears for an Easter egg hunt in the backyard.

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Birthday girl and her mama.

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Little Peter Rabbit in full force.

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Isla’s cousin was not cool with wearing his bunny ears or sitting still for the group photo, but no worries… he successfully photobombed it.

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Cake time.

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Step one: remove and consume all blueberries.

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Why are you trying to shove this other junk in my mouth when I see BLUEBERRIES?

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She was not into the cake. Until she was.

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And then she was really into it.

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Baby’s eye view of the remnants:

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Proof that Corban loved his “gummy worm cake.” I don’t blame him; dirt pudding is the best.

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Gratuitous Mara photo.

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And we’ll end with a look back at one year ago. Crazy how much they’ve all changed!

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