Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Gift Guide 2016 (Now with bonus charitable fundraising!)

Charitable, in the post title, autocorrected to irritable, which made me laugh.
So. The holidays. Seriously? Seriously! Because I really don’t want my kids to remember this as the year they reached into their Christmas ( / Hanukkah) stockings and pulled out honorary donations to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, a subscription to the Washington Post, a canvas NPR tote bag, and a book about Hitler’s rise to power even if, yes, that’s what all the grown-ups are getting. More than ever, though, I do want to support writers and artists and musicians: I’m paying for and giving music and books—even though there is the library and Spotify—because we need to invest in the things we care about. Also art and art supplies and, yes, board games. Because non-consumer activities are the key to our salvation. Also, because we like to play new games on Christmas like the good atheist gaming Jews that we are.

The charitable piece: If you click over to Amazon from any of the links in this blog, then I make a significant commission on everything you buy from that round of shopping, whether or not you buy something I actually recommended. We will be donating all that commission money at the end of the month. (I promise it will be way more than the Amazon Smile program would make for your organization—so don’t click over to that, even if Amazon tries to tempt you.) I’ll take a screen shot of the total on December 31st, and you can stay tuned and weigh in on where to give it. (I’ll take a screen shot of the donation too, so you don’t picture me secretly luxuriating in the Bahamas because you bought a jigsaw puzzle.) In fact, if you wanted to leave a comment about that now—where to give the money—I’d be grateful. Planned Parenthood and the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center leap to mind, but there's also Partners in Health and other international organizations that might be suffering, donation-wise, because of our troubles at home. Please share your thoughts. (And for your own giving, this is a great post-election guide.)

Last year's gift ideas are here.
The year before, here.
The year before that, here
And the year before that, here.
As always, the master list of games is here.

Gift Guide 2016

Gifts for Kids, Artists, and Gamers


Cathedral makes a great gift because it’s wooden and lovely and seems kind of heirloomy in that nice holiday way. It's in the game family of Quoridor and Quarto and Gobblet—the games we refer to as "the wood games," as in, "I don't know. Maybe one of the wood games?" when someone asks you what you want to play, and there are only two of you playing. Logic + spatial relations = I rarely win. But I like playing.

photo from the League of Nonsensical Gamers website
Patchwork is another two-person game, which someone recommended here last year, and even though there’s a ton of strategy in it, it’s fairly quick and straightforward, with a fun Blokus-type quilt-themed puzzle element to it. Please note: the game box is depressingly ugly, like a quilt made by somebody’s misanthropic and colorblind great aunt, but the pieces inside are totally different and very attractive. (I am kind of a game aesthetics snob.)


Lanterns is a gorgeous tile-laying game also recommended here last year, by a reader named Amanda. I gave it to the kids last Christmas, and then we went away for two days and played nonstop for two days in our motel room. We’ve played a lot since, too. It’s a matching game crossed with a set-collecting game and, like all good games, every time you play it you feel like you're finally hitting upon the one true strategy—only to find, the next time you play it, that you weren't. It's super-pretty too, and not that hard to learn—certainly not nearly as hard as some board games (Agricola, I’m looking at you.)


My friend Asha’s husband invented the game Tiffin, and it’s a really good game. It’s a total gamer’s game, 2-4 players, fairly complex but not super-long. The (awesome) concept is that each player is delivering hot lunches by bicycle in Mumbai, and you need to make as many deliveries as you can to score points—but, that said, it’s pretty abstract while you’re playing, and it’s more about collecting and timing. It reminds us a little of the also-fabulous Ticket to Ride, if that’s a game you know.

Okay, shhhh, I’m giving Sushi Go Party to Birdy this year. We play a lot of the basic version of Sushi Go when we don’t have a ton of time and can’t think of what else we’d want to play, and that’s partly because it’s a clever, satisfying game, and partly because the cards are so cute with their sushi little cutie faces. This expanded version has more cute cards. I think that’s kind of it! But I feel like we need that in our lives, more cute cards.



Asmodee Timeline: Inventions. The way this game works is that everyone has a hand of cards, and you take turns laying them in order, trying to get the chronology of different inventions right—once you play your card, you get to look at the date on the back. So you might lay “light bulb” between “mammoth-bone weapon” and “ipod nano,” and you’d be right! It’s actually subtler than that—it’s kind of a cross between trivia and deductive reasoning—and I like the inventions version (there are lots of games in the Timeline series) because if I don’t feel as stupid not knowing whether “hair dryer” comes before or after “electric toaster” as I would not knowing whether “Cuban Missile Crisis” comes before or after “The French Revolution.” Also, it’s a very tiny and portable game, and fun to keep in your bag for any waiting you might have to do.


I read about these Paper Games in some fancy gift guide, and got a set for the kids this year: five 150-page pads of tear-off two-person pen-and-paper games, including three-dimensional Tic-Tac-Toe, Dots and Boxes, Hedron, Nim, and Hex. (I think I only know Dots and Boxes!) The presentation is deeply attractive, and I love the idea of keeping a pad or two in the car and in my bag, since you can always draw or write on the backs of the pages.
This is a pad of “artist’s tiles,” which basically means perfect six-inch squares of high-quality paper that tear off perforatedly. They are so nice, and the pad is so chunky, and all in all it seems reasonably priced for such good paper that you can sketch on or fold up into cards or use for writing your elected officials.


And while you’re at it, this is an excellent set of black pens for the artists or writers in your life—a perennial favorite gift of ours. As far as colored pens go, we’ve given many sets of these in the past couple of years, and they are wonderful.

I am beautiful on the inside!
Forgive me if this is too particular/peculiar to be helpful, but Birdy has been wanting and wanting a long-throated stapler, so I am finally giving her one. If you’ve got a person in your family who is forever folding up paper into zines and books and pamphlets, but then they can’t figure out how to get a stapler to reach all the way in to the fold, then this is a gift you might consider.


I’m recommending my friend Kate’s book again here, because the world needs more of Kate’s books, and because it is a profoundly excellent book for anyone of any age: Rad WomenWorldwide. It’s a collection of mini biographies of extraordinary women doing extraordinary, bad-ass things—even more extraordinary than the ordinary things that all of us everyday women are doing so extraordinarily bad-assedly, if you know what I mean. Forty profiles—from the better-known 20th century Mexican painter Frida Kahlo to the lesser-known Grace "Granuaile" O'Malley, a 16th-century Irish sea captain—all illustrated with Miriam Stahl’s incredible paper-cut art. This is the team that brought you Rad American Women A to Z, so you know it’s good.


I also got The Gutsy Girl for Birdy, because even though it looks a lot like a tough-girl version of our belovedly ungendered Unbored, I can’t resist feeding that girl’s love of adventure and courage and independence.

Are you are giving gifts to very small people this year? I’m realizing that I’ve have never had occasion to recommend my three all-time favorite little-kid pretend-play presents, two of which are extremely inexpensive:

Guest check pads (10 for $8). Ben got a pad of guest checks as a party favor when he was a preschooler, and it added a great deal of pizzazz to years and years of the children’s pretend restaurants. This is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your tolerance for sitting on a tiny chair while somebody painfully writes the words “eg sallid sambwidge” on a pad, tears off your copy, and then brings you a plastic crab inside a tiny enamel pot, but still. A set of pretend money is a great accompaniment to this gift.


A roll of generic tickets (these come in lots of colors). Same as above, only for performances: concerts, circuses, magic shows, dance recitals, poetry readings, surrealist plays about LEGO and farm animals. The tickets always lent just the exact right detail of realism that the kids were craving. Again, use your discretion, since maybe you’re not looking to encourage your children to put on even more soul-crushingly meandering and infinite performances than you’re already enduring.

Play silks. Over many, many years of dressing up and making believe, this rainbow assortment of silky fabric squares has been everything to my kids: capes and skirts; rivers and forests in theatrical sets; doll slings and hammocks and curtains; tea-party table cloths and fluttering flags. If I were to calculate cost per use, it would be something like one gazillionth of a cent. And Ben and Birdy still use them.

Gifts for Everyone



Hamilton: TheRevolution. What can I say? We got the bug. We listen to the soundtrack day and night, the way normal people did a year ago. And even though this is an expensive book, it’s cheaper than trying to actually go to the show. Total savings: $3775.


These parachute-nylon hammocks are all the rage in our particular outdoor-themed world, and for good reason: they’re light, strong, pretty, comfortable, and super-easy to hang up. We love ours. It would make a great gift for campers or more domestic backyard types.

We are puzzlers of all kinds around here—crossword, logic, and, yes, jigsaw. I know I mentioned this puzzle briefly last December, but this year I’m putting it officially in the gift guide because it’s a perfect puzzle (and because its designer is a reader here). And lest I recommend some crazy puzzle with no cookie theme, this is another great puzzle that we did earlier this year during a multi-family weekend trip. Perfection.

Gifts for Grown-ups: Two Novels, Socks, and Cooking Stuff


Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. If, like me, you’re having a hard time right now with reading matter that falls at all short of life-and-death importance, but you still like a good novel, then this is the book for you. I couldn’t put it down. Get it for yourself, but give it as a wrapped gift and ask to borrow it as soon as the person unwraps it.


After one of my most trusted reading friends recommended it to me, I got the new Zadie Smith book for my dad, in the hopes that I might borrow it more or less asap, as above. I’m sure it will be excellent.


I’ve been giving a pair of these socks to my mother every year because they are wool and they are gorgeous and they come with an unconditional lifetime guarantee. (Um, yeah, hi, I doused my socks in gasoline? And lit a match? And they burned up! So, like, can I get my money back?) I also like that this style is called “witch crew,” since they really do look like the legs sticking out after Dorothy’s house falls onto that wicked somebody.


Yes, this Whiskware Dressing Shaker is a total one-trick pony of a gadget, but I confess to loving it. For the past twenty years, our salad dressing has left leaves oily mason-jar rings on the counter every night. No more! This is a leak-proof glass shaker bottle that has a dripless spout and a weird metal ball in it that looks like a cat toy but pretty well emulsifies your vinaigrette. I know, I know. You’ve already got a free mayonnaise jar, and so do all your friends and relations. But trust me on this.

Mine look more like dirty rags now, but still.
Abeego Beeswax Wrappers. The big ones. My friend Nicole gave these to me for Christmas, either last year or the year before, and I use them every day. They’re great non-plastic bowl covers, yes, and you can wrap cheese in them or anything else, but what I mostly use them for is packing Birdy’s school-lunch sandwiches: they’re easy, reusable, and nontoxic, and they smell pleasantly of beeswax. If you have the kind of friend who would love a great solution to an everyday problem, this is the gift for him or her. Don’t give it to your dad, though, unless he’s, like, Sting. 


This is a huge splurge, but I bought it earlier in the year because Michael was still cooking eggs in a horrible old nonstick pan, and I swore that I would replace it with something that would neither poison us all continually nor be as needy and high-maintenance as our cast-iron pans. Voila. This is my go-to pan for everything. You have to follow the directions lovingly when you first get it—heating it gently with oil or butter, never dry—and then it will love you back, so that even eggs and tofu slide right out. Plus, it’s gorgeous: heavy and lovely, but not fussy. It comes in many colors (and sizes too, though 10 1/4 is what I have and love for a pair of fried eggs or a couple of chops) and is crazy expensive because Le Creuset.

This is the first year in a while that I didn't recommend you buy your *kids* some or other crazy knife! 
Years ago, I recommended a little Kyocera ceramic paring knife—which I stand by; it is a wonderful knife—and now I’m recommending the 5½ inch knife in the same series. I basically never use my metal knives any more because this knife is always sharp and great and exactly what I want to use. I love it, love it, love it, and recommend it as a gift for your cooking friends and family. Plus, it comes in lots of pretty colors!


One last thing: this calendar. I bought it for myself at Paper Source (my favorite store of things) and it was a huge splurge because for the past twelve years we've been using the free Norman Rockwell calendar from the bank, so every day when I go to write "root canal" or "set self on fire because of the election" I am stuck looking at a basket of puppies or a rosy-cheeked boy bent over so that the teacher who's scolding him can also be whapping his behind with a paddle. Suffice it to say: I am IN LOVE with this calendar. Every page is some perfectly gorgeous arrangement of paint chips, and it's huge, and it's very matte and lovely to write on. I bought one as a present too.

Okay. I'm excited. I hope you end up with some awesome gifts and that we end up with a lot of money to give too! To that end, please share this guide as widely as possible! <3 p="">

46 comments:

  1. Thank you! I was hoping you would post your gift recs soon. I just purchased 8 items on your list, and saved 2 others. I vote for Planned Parenthood, but I trust your instinct on who needs money/attention most. You're the best! xo

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  2. In addition to the ACLU & Southern Poverty Law Center, we are donating the Violence Policy Center (fighting the NRA), and Environmental Defense. I love your gift suggestions. I'm giving my 13 year old an ice cream scoop -- he eats walloping huge bowls of ice cream every day and our one scoop is always languishing in the dishwasher. xo

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  3. Kelly7:08 AM

    You are hilarious and I think I love you? I am cracking up at your "atheist gaming Jews" line. Thanks for that. And thanks for the awesome gift ideas! I have the puzzle and dressing shaker in my cart.

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  4. Me too! Me too with the "Hamilton" bug!! My fam thinks I am deranged. I can't stop listening...And yes, I know I'm like a year and a half late to the party.

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  5. I've just spent an hour digging back through all your old guides. If I order from a link from a few years back, does it still work for the donations? I've given lots of Waiting for Birdy this year, and also your recipe for lentil soup. Thank you!

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    1. I think an old link *does* still work! Thank you. xo

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  6. Thank you! We are NOT big gamers, but the Timeline ones sound like something we would like, so I got a couple different ones. And I'll probably be back for some of the cooking stuff. Plus I already HAD stuff in my Amazon cart but hadn't hit "place order" yet, so that probably all counted too :)

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  7. I am adding so many things to my Amazon wish list....Thank you!!

    The only recommendation I have is anything by Lush because bath bombs and shower jelly are amazing.

    I finally bought my first real piece of Le Creuset 2 years ago and have NOT regretted it at all. I have my eye on 2 more pieces.

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  8. What a great gift-idea list. Favorite part: "...even if, yes, that’s what all the grown-ups are getting."

    My vote for the charity would be the ACLU, or Plan.org.

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  9. Thank you! We, too, have Hamilaria. Love your site-for-donation list, and might also suggest Doctors without Borders and Volunteers of Legal Service/Immigration Project, http://www.volsprobono.org/projects/immigration-project. I'll be back for the links to the trampoline, Whitehead book, maybe witch socks . . . what's not to like? Board games--Dixit is an interesting one, and I thought of you because it is very pretty in addition to being thoughtful. It has a strange crowd-voting element which takes some time to figure out, but is a simple game to play. I think I've mentioned Word on the Street, Citadels, and Code Names before, which is what we've been playing the most. Here's to games (and perhaps latkes) on Christmas!

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    1. We went through a huge dixit phase, and then kind of forgot about it. Other games here I don't know! Looking into...

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  10. I would vote for ACLU or Partners in Health. Your gift guides save my bacon all the time! xox

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  11. Danielle H4:48 PM

    Yay! I was hoping for your gift guide to be posted soon. All the adults on our gift list are getting donations to ACLU and NRDC made in their honor. BUT -- we do have a family grab bag and of course, kiddos to buy for! We love games, a few of our favorites are Stone Soup from Peaceable Kingdom and Sleeping Queens! Last year my daughter got the awesome pens you recommended (for spirograph I think) and she still loves them!!

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  12. Anonymous5:29 PM

    I love your gift suggestions every year. Have you tried Codenames? We played with family last week and we couldn't stop playing until 2am! So fun.

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  14. I swear to God my mother called me this afternoon and asked what she could get me for Christmas besides the subscription to NY Times that I had requested. I told her a donation to the ACLU, which led to a discussion of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Love this! Maybe I should add a copy of Hamilton to the list just for kicks.

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  15. Thank you! Some of our best games have come from your recommendations. (Ticket to Ride, Sushi Go...).

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  16. annette7:00 PM

    I love that you do this every year - both list and donation. Thank you!! I also held onto that Jezebel list - maybe consider EarthJustice in the mix. And CAIR?

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  17. I purchase more than one thing from this list every year, and all friends and family are lucky for it. This year, I declare the list THE BEST EVER. :) Thanks for featuring my puzzle! If they like that one, I have two other designs too. ;)

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  18. Julia9:00 PM

    I love your guides--anomia from a few years ago is my favorite.

    One book that your crew might like is Rejected Princesses. It's for older children/adults, not young children, but wonderfully colorful and talks about inspirational women.

    https://www.amazon.com/Rejected-Princesses-Historys-Heroines-Hellions/dp/0062405373

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  19. Planned Parenthood! I requested a donation to PP in the sibling gift exchange this Christmas. And I made a donation to Doctors Without Borders in a sibling's honor.

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  20. Just looking at the pages works for donations? 'cause I'll look lots, but 'fraid can't bring myself to pay the shipping costs to Canada - but will look elsewhere for lots of it.

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  21. I just bought basically everything and now I am basically finished with holiday shopping and I thank you. It's so satisfying to give creative gifts! Really, thank you.

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  22. Can I just say that knowing there are people like Catherine Newman in the world makes it possible for me to uncoil from the fetal position each day and function somewhat normally. Sad days and I'm definitely not in the mood for effing Christmas. xo

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  23. Anonymous11:38 AM

    Hi Catherine. A few years ago you recommended a De Buyer mineral b pan. Do you prefer the Le Creuset? Thanks for your recommendations!

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    1. I am not Catherine, but I've been using a DB mineral b frying pan as my main pan for a couple years, and I LOVE it. I cook eggs in it every single morning, reheat things, make stir fry, etc. For the price I think it is a workhorse that's well worth it!

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    2. Thank you, Erin! I still love my DB pan and use it for many things. It's huge, though, and requires a little TLC, and I wanted a smaller pan that you could just sponge off and go. . . so, I really use both of them! xo

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  24. Allyson Tanis7:33 PM

    Thanks for this, Catherine! We are getting the kids regular old gifts this year, but we're also giving donations in their honor. Planned Parenthood for my 16-year-old daughter, and ACLU or SPLC for my son. My dad (God help me) is a Republican, so we make a donation in his and his wife's name to Heifer International, since it's pretty non-controversial, but I love what they do. I'm still in my fetal position over here (my chronic depression has been very much aggravated by events of the last 3 weeks), but I'm trying.

    By the way, one of my favorite personal holiday season traditions is to reread your beautiful piece in "O" about Birdy and the cr├Ęche. I cry every time.

    Happy multiple holidays from a fellow half-Jew!

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  25. Great idea about donating the profit from Amazon links! Thank you!

    I just wanted to add to the guest check and ticket idea: my aunt got me a shoebox filled with a receipt book, invoice book, date stamp, etc. when I was little. I LOVED it and used that stuff for years! My "officer's supply kit" (as I called it) was complete when my grandad gave me a book of checks from a closed bank account, and I could write checks to people for millions of dollars! It was a blast.

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  26. Just ordered 3 things from this list! Thank you!

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  27. Nick Kristof had a good list of charities in the NYT the other day. I'm thinking we are going to choose one or two from this list in addition to our usual few others. I'm going to try to paste the link here. I hope it works!

    'http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/01/opinion/gifts-that-make-a-difference.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region

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  28. Me again...I just bought two books, the dressing shaker (your comment about the oily rings gave me the last push I needed to just do it!), and Lanterns. Very exciting! And in case the link to the Nicholas Kristof piece in my last comment doesn't work (it kind of looks like it might not), two of his suggestions were The Syrian-American Medical Society (www.sams-usa.net), which supports more than 100 medical facilities in Syria (including many "underground" hospitals where doctors from the US and other countries are treating civilian casualties), and Fonkoze (www.fonkoze.org), which works with women in Haiti to help them earn regular incomes...always necessary there, but even moreso after the destruction caused by the recent hurricane.

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  29. Yay! I'm SO excited you tried Lanterns! I knew you'd love it! I haven't seen Tiffin, but it looks cool. I'll have to check it out. I'm a sucker for games with nice artwork. Check out Morels if you are too! It's only a two-player game, but the artwork feels like a tarot card deck.

    I decided I needed more color in my life last winter and bought a duo of colorful puzzles - one was a rainbow of macaroons and one was cupcakes. It still makes me so happy and I think I'll do them again this winter.

    https://www.thepaperstore.com/p/ceaco-macaroons-and-cupcakes-puzzle-set/35057900005

    Let us know how Sushi Go Party is. We like the regular one, but haven't splurged on the new edition yet.

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  30. Anonymous2:11 PM

    Love the gift suggestions. I've looked at them all once already and imagine I will look at them all several more times before I decide. All for good cause! --Cathy K

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  31. Lakshmi4:05 PM

    Maybe a silly question: If I have things in my cart and click over from here to purchase them, do you get credit? Or do I have to place them in my cart after clicking over?

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    1. No, it's not a silly question. I'm not actually sure. It might be the latter, which would be a pain. : /

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  33. Thank you! Just ordered several things off your list for nieces and nephews. All the adults in my family are getting Penzeys spices this year. :)

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  34. Rebecca7:10 PM

    I buy almost everything for the holidays on amazon, so when I do my shopping this year I will make sure to link from your site first so you get all the commission! That will make me feel slightly better about the ridiculous amount I always end up spending. Love the recommendations as usual. May I also suggest wool needle felting. Like the wool buddies kits, but you can get the supplies separately and make your own. My 12 year old son has made everything form forest animals to pokemon.

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  35. Hi Catherine! I cannot find your eggnog cheesecake recipe anywhere and I loved it so much. Please repost!

    Also, I will definitely be getting the Gutsy Girl book for my niece!

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    1. Let me look into reposting. In the meantime, I think it was based on this http://www.marthastewart.com/349144/elizabeths-eggnog-cheesecake-bars
      but with a gingersnap crust. . . does that help?

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    2. I posted it for you! : )

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  36. I love this list! And ahhhh the sweet torture of playing restaurant with little kids... sob! Sigh. By the way I love the idea of my Christmas presents helping you lounge in the Bahamas. Is there a separate link for that? ;)

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  37. Great list. Maybe Sierra Club or other climate change-fighting organization.

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  38. I'm coming way back in time to tell you that I got myself a ceramic knife for Christmas, and it's the best thing that's ever happened to me. Only a slight exaggeration. I love it so much. My family now knows to leave the kitchen when I'm making dinner because all I will talk about for 40 minutes is how sharp my new knife is. My father in law stopped by yesterday and I was so happy to have a new victim to show the knife. :) Thank you for the ideas!

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