Saturday, November 30, 2013

Creating a Little Town of Bethlehem under Our Christmas Tree

One of our special family holiday traditions is setting up and displaying a little nativity scene under our Christmas tree. When I was a little girl, I logged in hours playing with our nativity scene, and now our family's own little manger sees a lot of activity in the days leading up to Christmas. 
When I lived in Italy, I loved the intricate nativity scenes, and especially the Festa della Befana in Rome's Piazza Navona, where you could find all the nativity figurines you could ever wish for. 
Rome's Festa della Befana Christmas Festival in Piazza Navona
I also had the chance to visit Bethlehem in person: I treasure my visits to the Church of the Nativity and the Milk Grotto, where Mary nursed Jesus (and some say that Jesus may have actually been born in this or a similar grotto). 
Bethlehem's Milk Grotto
Manger scenes in Italy typically include the entire village of Bethlehem. And so each year, it is a tradition in our little family to add two or three new figurines to our nativity scene. Our little town of Bethlehem grows a little bit each year. 

A traditional Italian nativity scene 

I love Fontanini figurines, which were initially recommended by my pal, Valency. Made of polymer, the kids can play with them and I don't have to worry about them breaking. Last year, we added Mary's donkey....

 and a family of cows. 

This year we will add a village well with a working bucket! (I know the kids will love this!)

and a village campfire, to commemorate all the camping we did it 2013.

I also love that the Fontanini Baby Jesus is separate from his crib. He doesn't arrive on our Christmas nativity scene until his birthday on Christmas morning (this is actually another common Italian Christmas tradition).
I order our Fontanini sets from because of their excellent customer service. Give them a phone call and a live person will answer and happily answer any questions you might have and take your order. 

We'll be setting up our nativity scene this Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent. 

 Does your family have any Christmas traditions centered around the nativity scene?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair at the Field Museum

One of my favorite museums in the world is Chicago's very own Field Museum. I've been visiting since I was a kid myself, and entering into the grand hall, where Sue the Dinosaur lives, still fills me with a sense of excitement. Even better now is sharing this excitement with my kids. We visit the museum every couple of months or so, but this week our main goal was to visit the Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair exhibit, which takes visitors back to 1893, to the World’s Colombian Exposition - one of the greatest events in the history of Chicago and the U.S.  

Here's a hint: Before you go, make sure to download the Field Museum's new app, which will give you access to  behind-the-scenes stories that bring Museum objects to life through augmented reality, audio clips, imagery, videos, and appearances by Museum scientists - all at the touch of your fingertips. You can also follow a themed tours, or create your own customized experience by selecting just the objects you want to see.

I really liked using the app to learn more about some of the more iconic objects at the museum, like the Totem Poles in Stanley Field Hall, the Grand Hall. 

Did you know that the Field Museum was founded to commemorate the Fair and that its original collection was made up mostly of objects that were on display at the Fair? The Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair exhibit features more than 200 artifacts and specimens from our city's unforgettable fair, including memorabilia, such as one of the financial ledgers and tickets, Peruvian mummies, 3D printed replicas of figurines found inside one of the mummy bundles, and instruments from the gamelan played at the Javanese village on the Fair’s Midway. I enjoyed reading and learning more about the exhibits at the World's Fair while the kids enjoyed seeing a giant squid looming over our heads, playing some instruments that were introduced to world audiences for the first time at the fair, and looking into the toothy grin of a taxidermied lion. 

Here's an interesting fact I learned: the fair welcomed over 25 million visitors, when America's population hovered around only 67 million. People even took out second mortgages on their home to be able to finance a trip to the fair!

We enjoyed a nice lunch at the Field Museum's newest cafe, the Field Bistro, which features locally grown products, prepared and served to order in an open kitchen format. We sat at a small table overlooking Sue and enjoyed pumpkin ginger soup accompanied by a locally sourced cheese plate with dried fruits and nuts while a pterodactyl flew overhead. I was so impressed with both the quality of the food and the kind service at the Field Bistro. 
The Field's Bistro offers great food with an unbeatable view of the museum. 
Photo: Lunch under the pterodactyl
It's not everyday that you can dine with a pterodactyl flying overhead
Afterwards we hit two of our all-time favorite exhibits: The Ancient Americas and Inside Ancient Egypt. My daughter is currently interested in Mummies, so she especially loved seeing the sarcophagi and mummies of people and even their pets (23 human mummies are on display here). My son who breezed through Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles and knows a thing or two about Egyptian mythology, also always appreciates this exhibit. 

The holidays are a great time to visit the Field Museum, when the grand hall is decked out in lights and wreaths. That said, be sure to arrive early and consider purchasing a membership before you go, so you can breeze through the members' line and have your coat checked for free. 

For more information on the Field Museum, or to plan your visit, head over to

post signatureI was selected for this opportunity by Clever Girls Collective, however all content and opinions expressed here are my own.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cyber Deals and Giveaways: Radio Flyer

Radio Flyer is one of the brands that offers quality toys - the kind that you can count on passing on to your grandkids. My daughter still adores her Scoot N'Zoom, and she rides her Ziggle around our home all the time - it's her official car (Check out our recent review of the Ziggle). Here are some great holiday cyber deals and giveaways available at

Monday, November 25, 2013

#Giveaway! Unique Holiday Gifts from NOVICA

One of my favorite websites for unique, thoughtful and affordable gifts throughout the year is Novica, in association with National Geographic, connects shoppers with artisans from around the world. The artisans featured on Novica set their own prices and receive fair compensation for their work. Take a look at this video to see exactly how Novica works. 

Novica has a great gift guide that makes selecting that perfect gift even easier. There are so many filters you are guaranteed to find something quickly and easily. 

The holiday ornaments are so beautifully crafted and unique - if you're looking for an interesting hostess gift or just a few new ornaments to trim your tree, check out Novica's beautiful fair trade Christmas ornament shop
Here's a cute gift idea for your mom  a soapstone mother owl, who holds a baby owl within. I purchased a similar owl to this on a year ago, and it is one of my treasured home decor items.

But I also love the clothing. This past Mother's Day, I treated myself to a tunic by Indian designer Isha Jain.

Novica is also unveiling a new giftwrap service. They're currently offering it from Bali, Thailand and India right now, and very soon will be offering it from all of our regions. This isn't just nice gift wrap, this is the kind of *WOW* gift wrap that will look beautiful on the gifts waiting to be opened under the tree. 

I have a $40 giftcode to give away - just in time for some last-minute holiday shopping. Just leave a comment below letting me know your favorite product from Novica's giftfinder. I'll be choosing a winner using I'll be accepting entries until Monday, December 2 at Noon. Thanks for entering and good luck!

UPDATE: The winner of the Novica gift code is....  BECCA F.! Thanks to everyone who entered! 


Chiara put 2 and 2 together and realized that she could put all those letters that she's been learning together, to form words (!!!), that she can use to write letters (!!!).

She surprised me with this special little letter addressed to me - with a beautiful picture inside.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Review: Transformers Construct-Bots

Disclosure: Special thanks to Mom It Forward for sponsoring this post. All opinions are my own. 

Here's a creative new take on that all-time toy favorite - The Transformers - just in time for the holidays: Transformers Construct-Bots, just recently released by Hasbro, let you build your very own Transformers!  

Soccer for Dummies - Book Review

Looking for a good book for your soccer playing kid? Soccer for Dummies, one of the latest in the popular For Dummies series, makes for a great holiday gift for any kid that aspires to become the next David Beckham or Mia Hamm. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Become an Illinois Farm Families Field Mom

Have you ever visited a farm? A real, working family farm?

Are interested in finding out more about how your food gets from the fields to your table?

As a parent, learning how your food is grown can help you make important decisions for feeding your family. 

This past year, I have had the opportunity to explore Illinois farms and the food chain that leads from the farm to my table thanks to the Illinois Farm Families Field Moms program. I followed an acre of soybeans, an acre of corn and a pen of pigs, both in person and online

Now it's your turn to meet the farmers behind your food and visit real family farms! To learn more, or to apply for this enriching program, visit
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Celebrate Buy Nothing Day This Black Friday

Buy Nothing Day ClassicIt's that time of year again...Buy Nothing Day, a day that my family has celebrated year after year with much joy. What do we do on Buy Nothing Day? We don't buy anything - on Black Friday.

Let me preface this by stating that anyone who knows me well knows that I hate shopping. I really just find zero joy in shlepping to a mall, trying on clothes, dragging my kids around from store to store, and buying, buying, buying. So I just don't do it. If I have to shop, I'll shop online.

When it comes to gift giving, I prefer to give my kids and nieces and nephews experience type gifts. For example, last year, I took my niece to experience the Shedd Aquarium's Trainer-for-a-Day program. I'm gifting my parents with tickets to a holiday show. This Christmas, one of the main gifts that Santa will be gifting both my kids are ski  lessons. We also have so many fun outings planning over the holidays, too: Christmas Day is always the best of all, but the days leading up the big day will be filled with so many fun and festive happenings - none of which have to do with shopping.

It saddens me that the day after Thanksgiving, a day that people should be at home spending time with family or out and about enjoying a day off, has become a day of shopping as a sport. I feel sorry for the employees that are forced to leave their families on Thanksgiving evening to head back into work to deal with outrageous shoppers.

I just can't understand parents that overspend on their kids, or people who wait in line to buy items that no one truly needs in the first place. Let's face it: most of the gifts that your kids receive this year will wind up in that sad land of toys that are never played with - the attic or the basement. I know my kids appreciate the gifts they receive on Christmas morning, but more than that, they really do love the time we spend together as a family over the holidays. So I am renewing that promise this year, and focusing on giving my children the gift of my time: board games, cooking together, watching movies together - all that fun family stuff that lasts longer than any "stuff".

This Black Friday my family and I will be at home preparing a big meal together, a repeat of Thanksgiving, and enjoying a long, drawn out lunch with our extended family.

What will you being doing on Black Friday? Join me in celebrating Buy Nothing Day 2013!
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Review: NYC New York Color's Smooch Proof 16-Hour Lip Stain

Disclosure: NYC New York Color sent me samples for review. I was not asked to write about this product. All opinions are my own. 

Finally - a lip color that last my enter looooong day, without fading: NYC New York Color's Smooch-Proof 16 hour Lip Stain.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

3 Things I'm thankful for this week #ThankfulThursday

Every Thursday, I'll be highlighting three things I'm thankful for. Join me by sharing three things you're thankful for, too. #ThankfulThursday

1. I am so thankful to have a four-year-old in my life - my daughter! Having a conversation with a 4-year-old is always interesting, and my daughter has a very unique take on life, like most 4-year-olds! A few days ago she told me she wants to be a mom one day. I can't lie: It warms my heart to think that someday I might just be lucky enough to be a...Grandma(!@#)%*!)%*!). I asked her how many kids she was planning on having and what she was going to name them. She told me she was having two boys, and naming them "Giftwrap" and "Halloween", and a girl, named "Snowflake". Why? "Because I love the holidays!" Of course I let her know that those are the most fantastic names *ever*. 

2. I am thankful for yoga. I *always* feel better after yoga! Tonight I am headed to my favorite studio to try out "Deep Relaxation Yoga Nidra". Can't wait!

3. I'm thankful that I have a son who loves to read. I don't even want to calculate how much I've spent on books for him over the years but no matter - I know how awful it is to be without a good book - and he is finally branching out and reading more challenging novels on more challenging subjects. It's a joy to see him curling up with a good book! 
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What's Your Favorite Scent of the Season? Beautiful Hair with Suave Naturals #suavescents

Disclosure: Special thanks to Global Influence and Suave for sponsoring this post. 

What's Your Favorite Scent of the Season? 

For me, it's the scent of a freshly cut Balsam Fir Christmas tree, when it's first brought into the home and strung with lights. 
My daughter, last year, giving our giant Christmas tree a big hug after it was strung with lights. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Our Encounter with the Beluga at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium

Last Saturday morning, my son and I had an amazing experience: we donned waders and stepped behind-the-scenes and into the chilly waters of the  Shedd Aquarium's beluga habitat, where we got up close and personal with the beluga whales. We got so up close and personal that Daniel even *kissed* a beluga. Smooch! How many people can say that they have kissed a Beluga Whale!?

Daniel kisses his beluga pal

We learned so much about belugas, as a Shedd trainer showed us how these amazing creatures are cared for on a daily basis.  

I can't even describe how odd it felt to be standing in the same swimming pool as the belugas, to touch their "melons" and to see them swimming so playfully about!

Daniel and I laughed so much together and it really turned out to be an unforgettable Mommy/Son moment, moments I value as my son is about to enter his teen years (!!!).
Daniel and I in the beluga habitat

We won this experience by participating in the Chicago Park District's Park Points Program. Are you familiar with it?

Park Points™ is your opportunity to be rewarded for your loyalty to the Chicago Park District.  Engage with us, and our partners, to gain access to amazing experiences.whether it's checking-in at some of the most popular locations, “liking” one of our new programs on Facebook, tweeting about your favorite Park activity, or sharing a photo from one of our partners, you have a chance to earn and accumulate Park Points™.  
But even if you don't participate in Park Points, you can still arrange a Beluga Encounter at the Shedd on your own. This is a wonderful experience for the tween or tween in your life, and would make a great Christmas present!
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Modnique: An Online Shopping Destination for International Style

Disclosure: Special thanks to Modnique for sponsoring this post.

A couple of weeks ago, I checked out a new flash sale website, Modnique

Modnique considers itself an online shopping destination for international style. Headquartered in Redondo Beach, CA, Modnique specializes in sourcing and shipping brands from around the world, with everything discounted up to 85% off. New merchandise arrives daily and is featured in 36-72 hour events, and there are also curated shops with house inventory without expiration.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tour de Donut: Visiting Chicago's Top Three Donut Shops - by Bike!

This post originally appeared on

Firecakes DonutsWith a 12-year-old son always up for adventure, creating food and bike excursions around the city will always have him jump to his feet, onto his bicycle, and snap on his helmet, ready to go. We set off from our Logan Square home with one goal in mind: to visit three of the top new donut shops in Chicago, by bike. And so we embarked on our own adventure: our Tour de Donut had begun.

Glazed & Infused (1576 N Milwaukee Ave)

Glazed and Infused

First stop: Glazed and Infused in Wicker Park (with many other locations around the city, too). Glazed and Infused prides itself on crafting its classic American donuts in-house. We pulled our bikes up to the fun We Can Donut mural and stepped up to the window to place our orders. We split a Maple Bacon Long John, which was rich and slightly spicy thanks to the peppery bacon. This delightful Long John managed to encapsulate all the yummy flavors of breakfast - bacon, maple syrup, pancakes - in one delicious donut. 
Boy Bike Bridge

Fueled with donut energy, we hopped back on our bikes and pedaled down Milwaukee Avenue towards our next donut destination, enjoying a small section of protected bike lanes along the way secure enough to make every Chicago biker feel just a bit safer. 

The Doughnut Vault(401 1/2 N Franklin St)

Doughnut Vault Exterior

We crossed the Chicago River, stopping to admire the bridges, then hit our next stop: The Doughnut Vault at 401 1/2 N Franklin St. We were shocked to see a long line snaking out the door, even though by this time it was drizzling. Evidently, a little bit of rain is not enough to deter Doughnut Vault aficionados. As we sought cover from the drizzle under a nearby awning, a family munching on donuts told us they had over-ordered and would be happy to share. How lucky were we?! They regaled us with a gingerbread cake donut and a chocolate glazed donut: both were obviously fresh from the oven; they tasted like heaven. Here's a tip: French-pressed Metropolis Coffee is just $1 here. 

Firecakes (68 West Hubbard) 

Firecakes Donuts

Our final stop: Firecakes. The donuts on display here looked nothing short of decadent. And there was no line whatsoever! Indeed the donuts looked so delicious it was hard to choose! We settled on a Coconut Cream and a Peanut Butter Cup. The Coconut Cream was paradise: a soft as-air-donut filled with creamy coconut pudding and topped with crispy fresh coconut flakes. The Peanut Butter Cup was to-die for: another light-as-air donut filled with a creamy, rich peanut butter cream and topped with dark chocolate ganache. Indeed of the three donut shops we visited on our Tour de Donut 2013, Firecakes was the best. 
Firecakes Donuts

How To Create Your Own Tour De Donut: Divvy Bikeshare 

It was a good thing we rode our bicycles, because several donuts later our bellies were full and it was time to burn some calories! We pedaled home through the city, enjoying the sights and sounds and the fun of riding a bike. All of the donut shops we visited are an easy biking distance from the Loop or the Mag Mile, with Glazed and Confused the farthest afield in Wicker Park. If you're in Chicago and craving a good donut and a fun bike ride, hop on a Divvy Bike and set off to explore some of our fantastic new donut shops! Here's a great 5-step guide to Chicago's Divvy Bikeshare program by my fellow blogger to get you started.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

Traditional Skillet Cornbread - Recipe for a Quick, Easy and Healthy Bread

Disclosure: Special thanks to Stonyfield for sponsoring this post. 

Looking to make your holidays just a little bit healthier?

One of the best ways to cut down on calories over the holidays is to substitute yogurt for commonly used ingredients like butter, oil, sour cream, mayonnaise, etc. Yogurt is packed with nutrients like live active cultures, protein, calcium, vitamins D, B2 and B12, potassium and magnesium.  Stonyfield, my go-to yogurt brand, offers plain organic yogurt in three fat levels (whole milk, lowfat and nonfat), as well as in a Greek option (even more protein), so you can customize your yogurt to your dietary needs. (For a great guide to using yogurt as a substitute, check out the Stonyfield Yogurt Substitution Guide.) Stonyfield challenged me to substitute yogurt in one of our family's traditional holiday recipes, and so I made our traditional skillet cornbread with yogurt. If you're looking for a quick and easy cornbread, this is the recipe for you. Note that you can substitute any type of yogurt, even a fruity yogurt for a sweeter breakfast-style cornbread. 


Easy Skillet Cornbread 

For whatever reason, cornbread just tastes better when prepared in a cast iron skillet. Spread some homemade jam on top of a warm slice for a delicious afterschool or breakfast treat.

In your food processor, blend the buttermilk and egg. Add 5 TBS of butter, melted in the microwave (save the other three TBS to coat your cast iron skillet. Add the cornmeal, flour, sugar, and baking powder, and process just until blended. 

In the oven, melt the butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet, making sure that the bottom and sides are coated. Pour the batter into the skillet and bake at 435 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes.  

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#makesmesmilemondays The House Theatre's Nutcracker - a Don't-Miss Holiday Show

Last night, the kids and I headed out after the storm calmed down to see the  House Theatre's The Nutcracker, now playing at the Chopin Theater. Our favorite Christmas show is by far this reinvention of the holiday classic, which focuses on Clara’s journey to save her family, reeling from the wartime death of her brother, from the Rat King.  Chiara, age 4, was absolutely entranced, and Daniel, age 12, laughed out loud throughout. We were sitting in the front row of this intimate theater space, and at several points during the show the cast members spoke or sang directly at my kids which of course was a thrill for both of them. At intermission, several people came up to me to tell me how they enjoyed watching my kids' reactions to the show as much as the show! 

A good holiday show will have you laughing and tearing up, one after the other and this version of the Nutcracker is both hilarious and heartwarming. Behind the outstanding song and dance numbers and the unforgettable performances by each and every one of the cast members, this show tells the story of a brother and a sister bound for life despite death. Of course I cried a bit here and there because I couldn't help but to be reminded of the brother and sister duo seated beside me: One of the sweetest parts of being a mother, for me at least, has been witnessing the love between these two. My daughter has taught my son patience, unconditional love and joy, and he in turn has taught her some of the most essential skills in life, i.e. how to dunk cookies in milk, how to play scrabble and Connect4, how to pick apples and blueberries - I can't even count the many things my son has taught my daughter.  During the show, when Fritz (Clara's older brother) tells her that he had a vision of the future and saw her bouncing her very own baby boy on her lap, to comfort her as a reminder of all the happy Christmases to come, I couldn't help but to tear up (and I wasn't the only one!). 

The kids with cast member Brenda Barrie. 

The delightful Nutcracker, now playing at the Chopin Theatre

Don't miss the House Theatre's The Nutcracker, now playing at the Chopin Theater.