Monday, December 31, 2012

One Last Whisper of Christmas

Most of our Christmas decorations have been packed away, but the dining room is still set for one final Christmas celebration.

My father and his wife had planned to join us Christmas Day, but Mary Ashley got sick with a stomach bug right after opening presents that morning. We postponed their visit until this weekend, so we are holding on to this last whisper of Christmas in our dining room.

This year's tablescape pulls in soft shades of pink, gold, green and white. My wedding crystal, Antique Lace by Mikasa, adds a delicate touch to each place setting.

And my great grandmother's Homer Laughlin china looks delicate and sweet, set off by Chantilly silver.

We used my sitting room Christmas tree at our elementary school's recent PTO Teacher Appreciation brunch, and afterward I asked Joe to set it up in the dining room. I intended to center it in the window, but decided I liked it in the corner. I angled the table to highlight the tree. I like the holiday arrangement, but Mary Ashley and Emma can't believe I want the table "crooked."

These pastel ornaments usually find their place in my sitting room, but seem right at home displayed on a platter in this year's dining room tablescape.

A trio of trees line the table. You might remember these from last year's Book Club Christmas.

I love this collection of merry pastels.

In the photo above, you get a glimpse of our dining room chandelier. We have lived for many years with the builders basic brass chandelier that was original to the home, but my father plans to help us install a new fixture this weekend. I can't wait to show you the updated room!

I usually fill this tree with my collection of feminine ornaments but kept the decorations simple and subdued this year with pearl beads, balls and ribbons.

We are ready to light the candles and welcome guests for one last whisper of Christmas!

Best wishes for a safe and happy New Year's Eve!

I invite you to stop by, where I have one of the featured posts on Culinary Chat. Find an easy holiday dessert recipe utilizing ingredients you probably already have on hand, and learn about one of my favorite Southern cooks.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Birthday Surprise


"There are three hundred and sixty-four days
when you might get un-birthday presents,
and only one for birthday presents, you know."
-- Lewis Carroll

Despite any jitters I had about turning 40 yesterday, I enjoyed the loveliest of celebrations. Joe made the day magical with afternoon tea with the family, a romantic dinner for two, fluffy pink birthday cake and sparkling surprises throughout the day.

I think 40th birthdays go better with jewelry, don't you? To celebrate this milestone, I would like to give you a little gift. This line of vintage-inspired gemstone jewelry is precious to me because when our family mourned my mother's passing, I bought rings with her August birth stone for my sister, sister-in-law and me so we could remember the gift of her life. In celebration of birthdays, the white topaz silver necklace pictured is a gift for a follower of A Little Loveliness. Please leave a comment below to enter this giveaway, and I will announce the winner soon (unfortunately, U.S. readers only due to shipping).

Congratulations to mother and high school teacher Cindy, who won last week's Kohl's Cares cookbook giveaway. Cindy, please e-mail me your contact information.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


I have always loved birthdays. If you have spent much time on my blog, you probably know that one of my greatest delights is planning birthday parties. I can spend hours baking, crafting and fussing over the tiniest of details, hoping to make loved ones feel treasured on their special days.

But you might not realize that I have always eagerly anticipated my own birthday, as well. Of course, as a child I counted half-birthdays and quarter-birthdays. I could not wait to be another year older and looked forward to the opportunities each new stage of life would bring. The twelve months from one birthday to the next seemed an eternity away, and my future stretched as far as forever.

As I have grown older, the years seem to pass more quickly. Yet the brightness of my candle-heavy cake has not dimmed my enthusiasm for celebrating birthdays. Although I stopped counting half- and quarter-birthdays years ago, I still look forward to December 27th each year. I recognize that each new day is a gift from God and feel blessed to say I have really lived each year of my life.

I must admit, though, that recently my enthusiasm began to falter. My 40th birthday loomed ahead, and for the life of me I could not figure out how it got here so fast. It seems like just last year I was anticipating turning 25, 13 or even 6. But 40? That was so far away to the 5-year-old who felt like a queen in her sticker-covered paper birthday crown.

My reflection reminds me daily that I am not as young as I used to be, and my body has let me know that I am getting a little older each day. Issues of appearance and aging have troubled me, but with introspection I realize that my greatest sense of unrest has come from dread of the unknown.

Looking into the 40s, I have worried about what challenges this decade might bring. While in my 30s our household grew to welcome two daughters, in my 40s three out of four children will graduate high school and leave the nest. My mother was in her 40s when she was diagnosed with cancer, and I wonder sometimes if I will begin a decade of grueling treatments like she endured. And if I think about the health problems my husband has faced in the past few years, in my darkest moments I worry that during this decade he will die and leave me to continue this earthly journey without him.

I must admit, for a time I let fear steal much of my joy for the birthday that comes unbidden today.

My 30s were so good, I found myself thinking. Why can't I just stay here?

But recently a few things have become clear. First of all, my 30s were good. Despite years of back problems that culminated in a major surgery and extensive recovery, I look back and say that my 30s were good. Within months of my surgery, we lost my mother to multiple myeloma. And within weeks of her funeral, Joe was hospitalized with kidney failure. One after another the challenges came during that tumultuous few months, but throughout it all I knew that God was with me. Throughout the storms, I could feel His steadying hand. I was OK, God was in control, and life was still good.

I take strength from passages like Isaiah 43:1-3, which reminds me that God will never forsake me: "But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, 'Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior ... ." As the popular adage suggests, if God brings you to it He will bring you through it.

Second, God loves to bless me. I take such delight in planning birthday surprises for my children, but my generosity and love cannot compare to that of my Father in heaven. Matthew 7:11 reminds me, "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!" God has blessed me beyond my wildest dreams, and His joys are new every morning. I can look forward to the days to come, knowing that He promises "a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11). And that even during difficult times, He will find new ways to demonstrate His boundless love.

Third, worries over losing loved ones are quieted with the realization that I will never be without love in my life. God's love is ever-present, but Psalm 68:6 also tells us that "God sets the lonely in families." Those dearest to me may grow up, grow away, move away or pass away, but God has set me in a forever family in adding me to His church.

My mind goes to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Scripture does not mention her husband, Joseph, during the latter events of Jesus' life, so most scholars assume he died at some point before Jesus' death. In the final moments of His life, Jesus asked a friend to care for Mary. How heart-shattering it must have been for Mary to bear witness to the brutal crucifixion of her perfect Son, yet her story does not end with Jesus' death. After His resurrection and transfiguration, Mary is listed among the faithful when we read about the early church in the book of Acts (Acts 1:14). How comforting it is to leave her, not weeping at the foot of the cross or lingering in the empty tomb, but living for Jesus in the bosom of His spiritual family. As part of God's family, I can rest assured that come what may, I can have all the love my heart can hold.

And finally, another year gives me more time to grow into the fullness of the person God wants me to be. What a blessing it will be to look back on my 40s if I am growing spiritually throughout this decade. If I am prayerful and devoted to His Word, imagine how much closer I will be to my Father in 10 years. Ephesians 4:15 tells us "we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ." If I greet each day of my 40s eager to learn, stretch and serve, just imagine the person I will become.

Even as I see my outer beauty fading, my inner beauty can shine brighter than ever. First Peter 3:3-4 cautions, "And let not your adornment be merely external -- braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God." That sounds like just the girl I long to be.

Forty. The big 4-0. Ready or not, here it comes. Although I still can't believe I have reached this number so fast, I no longer view it as a millstone to dread but a milestone to celebrate. I am grateful for the gift of another year and look forward to unwrapping it day by day.

So light the candles, make a wish and throw the confetti. Forty is fabulous!

Be sure to stop in tomorrow for a sparkly birthday surprise -- a little gift for you. And as excited as I am to turn 40, I am willing to accept comments of surprise that I am not 25.

(Photo from BigStock Photos. Used with permission.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas 2012

May God's blessings cover you like sands on the seashore.

Merry Christmas from the Lester Family!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Elf Movie Christmas Party

Saturday night friends Garrison, Gavin, Emma and Lizzy joined us for our annual Christmas party. In years past we have hosted this party on the day the kids got out of school, but Mary Ashley came home from school sick. She fell asleep about 3:15 in the afternoon on Thursday and hardly opened her eyes until Saturday morning. Our Sleeping Beauty needed rest after this hectic week leading up to Christmas vacation!

Our tradition is to host a little party for our favorite pair of brothers and favorite pair of sisters so the kids can spend time with their friends and channel their boundless holiday excitement into a planned activity. In years past, we have decorated gingerbread houses, painted Christmas canvases at our p-ART-y, and rocked the night away with a Jingle Bell Rock.

This week's schedule included coordinating our elementary school's teacher appreciation brunch, a night out with friends, cooking for and attending the children's classroom parties, plus assorted sporting events throughout the week. I was not sure we could pull off a party after all these other activities, but choosing an easy theme and taking lots of shortcuts helped us pull everything together.

We love the movie Elf, so decided to offer dinner and a movie for this year's party. This was such a fun, easy theme to carry out, and much of the preparation could be carried out earlier this month.


A wrapping paper runner added festive color to our table, topped with peppermint-striped plates from Walmart (purchased last year). Polka dot napkins, Walmart.

I found darling elves at Books-a-Million and purchased three so we could keep one and send the others home with the Lyles and Browns.

Elf Movie Party Menu

Popcorn & Bottled Root Beer

Tossed Salad
Spaghetti Casserole
Garlic Bread Sticks

Hot Cocoa Bar


We enjoyed a three-course meal at our party. I had popcorn and bottled root beers ready for the kids when they arrived. We were eager to start the movie, and while they munched on their appetizers I finished up supper.

Here is a view of the coffee table set up for movie time. Buddy the Elf printables from Anders Ruff were adorable and helped me pull of this year's party. I ordered the digital files this fall and had them printed at a local copy shop this week. When I found these designs I knew they would be perfect!

Fun Anders-Ruff printables turn these popcorn boxes from the dollar section at Target into festive holiday packages.

Last week I shared the Christmas gift we gave our teachers: spaghetti casserole prepared in a casserole dish they can keep. (See that post and recipe here.) Well, during my big night of cooking a couple of weeks ago, I put together a large casserole to serve at our Elf viewing party. We timed an intermission for dinner perfectly -- right after Buddy and family enjoyed their spaghetti dinner in the movie. We did forgo the syrup on our spaghetti, but I think Buddy would have been pleased. I put together a tossed salad while the casserole cooked and served it alongside garlic bread sticks I picked up from my grocer's freezer.

Our dessert was so cute I had to display it on the table as part of our tablescape. Ordering cookies from Lisa at Batches saved me so much time, and it is always such a delight to open the box and see how she has brought our party theme to life.

To go along with our cookies, I set up a hot cocoa bar on a small table we pulled into the kitchen. The kids were eager to visit the Candy Cane Forest for some sweet treats.

Lisa's cookies were so cute with elf hats, elf shoes and presents that coordinated with the printables from Anders Ruff. I have a few cookies left to serve on Christmas Day.

The children loved fixing up their hot chocolate with marshmallows, Heath crumbles, sprinkles, chocolate chips, candy canes and whipped cream. I like to make homemade hot chocolate, but store-bought instant hot chocolate was a time saver. Carson poured the canister into an apothecary jar for me, and we ladled it into the cups with a pretty spoon.

We plan to serve  hot chocolate again Christmas Day, but I will add a few more toppings to tempt our group.

Here is a view of our kitchen, ready for a party.

I just need to fill the vase in the middle of the table with fresh, hot bread sticks, and we will be set to celebrate.

Here are the sweet children who make our parties so special.  I got choked up before we said the prayer before our meal because I am literally watching these children grow up before my eyes. I can't wait to celebrate with them next year.

And you'd better believe, I am already thinking about what we will do for our annual Christmas break party with our dear friends the Browns and the Lyles.

"Santa's coming!
I know him! I know him!"
~ Buddy the Elf

Happy Christmas Eve!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Cookies, Cookbooks & a Cause

This tempting recipe for chocolate crinkles comes from Kohl's Cares, a merchandise program featuring exclusive hardcover books including favorites such as The Wizard of Oz and The Night Before Christmas with. Each hardcover book comes with a coordinating plush toy for $5. Kohl’s donates 100 percent of the net profit to children’s health and education initiatives nationwide. Find out more about the program here. Register below to enter a giveaway for two Good Housekeeping cookbooks offered in the Kohl's Cares program.

Chocolate Crinkles

This cookie takes its name from its interesting shape. As the rich, sugar-coated dough bakes, it spreads into puffy rounds with small cracks on top.

Active time 25 minutes plus chilling
Bake time 8 minutes per batch
Makes 48 cookies

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¹⁄8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 square (1 ounce) unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup confectioners sugar

In small bowl, stir together flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In large bowl, with mixer on medium speed, beat butter, granulated sugar, and corn syrup until combined. On low speed, beat in chocolate, egg, and vanilla until well blended. Beat in flour mixture until combined, scraping bowl occasionally with rubber spatula. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place confectioners sugar in small bowl. With hands, shape dough into 1-inch balls; roll in confectioners sugar. Place balls, 1 inch apart, on ungreased large cookie sheet. Bake until set, 8 minutes. With wide metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough and confectioners sugar. Store cookies in cookie jar up to 1 week.

Each cookie About 35 calories, 1g protein, 6g carbohydrate, 1g total fat (1g saturated), 0.5g fiber, 7mg cholesterol, 35mg sodium

    This full-color cookbook is sure to inspire cookie baking with its full-color photography and abundance of new and classic recipes.      

And for the chocolate lover, this book is sure to please with a variety of desserts that celebrate the rich decadence of our favorite sweet. The chocolate crinkles recipe above is reprinted from Chocolate!

Kohl's Cares is offering both Christmas Cookies! and Chocolate! to a reader of A Little Loveliness. Leave separate comments below for each entry you choose. This giveaway ties in nicely with this week of posts dedicated to honoring educators at Christmastime, so let's continue the fun.

(1) Leave a comment telling me about your favorite teacher.
(2) Leave a second comment if you are a teacher, school administrator, staff member or volunteer.

Due to shipping costs, this giveaway is open to U. S. readers only. I will announce the winner next week!

Congratulations to Rach, who won last week's giveaway of the bookazine Sweet Gifts by Bella Baker.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Teacher Gift to Savor

I prepared this year's Christmas gifts for teachers early in the season, in hopes that we could help ease some holiday stress. I decided to give the teachers casserole dishes filled with a family-friendly recipe they could bake or freeze during the busy weeks leading up to the break.

I found these pretty lime-green covered baking dishes at World Market. I like these for the holidays but think they would be a fresh choice throughout the year.

A little poem explains our gift to savor. I deleted our name from the card in case you could use it for a teacher gift.

(Click to copy.)


My family has been on a spaghetti kick lately, so I made a huge pot of spaghetti sauce recently -- enough to feed our family supper, make spaghetti casseroles for the teachers, and set aside two more casseroles for a holiday party. Find my spaghetti casserole recipe below. My mother used to make this, and it is a family favorite. It freezes well, so I often put together a casserole or two when I make spaghetti.

Spaghetti Casserole
Use with your favorite spaghetti sauce.

4 tablespoons margarine
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1 pound Velveeta cheese
Spaghetti noodles, cooked al dente and drained

Make white sauce using 4 tablespoons margarine, 4 tablespoons flour and 2 cups milk. Add 1 pound chopped Velveeta cheese, and stir over medium heat until sauce thickens and cheese melts. Layer in a 9x13 baking dish, noodles, cheese sauce and spaghetti sauce. Cook at 350 degrees 30-40 minutes or until bubbly. (Note: You may freeze before baking.)

A fluffy bow, ornament and name tag finished off each lid. I delivered the final casserole today to one of Christian's teachers. She was out of town for a school field trip when I prepared the dishes. Poor Mrs. Parmer; she went to the bright lights of New York City not knowing she could have stayed home in Wetumpka to eat spaghetti casserole. But it all worked out. She got to have her NYC and eat her casserole, too.

One teacher thanked me for the meal yesterday and said when her husband pulled the unfamiliar baking dish out of the dishwasher, she reminded him of my gift. "If we give it back to her," he quipped, "will she fill it up again?"

Stop in tomorrow for another giveaway, plus the announcement of last week's winner.

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