Favorite Things, and a Wish or Two: Christmas Gift Guide

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I love reading gift guides. They’re a peek into what other people treasure. In case you’re in need of gift ideas, I figured I’d share some of the things I use and enjoy most. Unless otherwise noted, all of the items in this guide are things I’ve purchased (or received as a gift) and that I’d wholeheartedly recommend. There are a few wishes on there as well, because that’s just fun.

I didn’t include anything in the “books” category, because my book reviews are all over this blog, and there’s just so much space and time to write!

For your listening pleasure

oh hellos christmasThe Oh Hellos Family Christmas Album. My older son introduced me to this, saying he knew I’d love it. He’s right. It’s not even Advent, but I’m already playing this. Very homespun sound with tight harmonies. The album has four movements, each of which are medleys of familiar tunes. Play it on repeat — but not on shuffle, since it tells a story. My only complaint? I wish it were longer!

anna nuzzo be loveAnna Nuzzo: Be Love. If you didn’t discover this in 2014 when it came out, be ready to enjoy it now! Subtitled “Songs of Faith, Hope & Love,” this album has my very favorite Anna Nuzzo hymn: “Memorare.” The music is very peaceful and prayerful, with simple piano accompaniment.

TSO Christmas EveTrans-Siberian Orchestra: Christmas Eve and Other Stories. This is the album we cue up every year when we decorate the Christmas tree. I can’t help but conduct an imaginary orchestra during some of the more dramatic pieces. (No, I will not put that on Facebook Live.)

CD Christmas CDA Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. This is my daughter’s favorite study music during final exams. It’s also just about the only jazz I’m willing to listen to. Enjoy this as background music during Christmas dinner.

Movie Time!

CB ChristmasA Charlie Brown Christmas, because it’s not Christmas without watching this one. Who doesn’t love Snoopy’s doghouse decorations and Linus’ creativity in turning his blanket into a costume? And then there’s the best moment in any Christmas movie ever: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

grinchDr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It must be this version — the one with Boris Karloff singing, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” My favorite moments? Anything involving Max — watch his facial expressions. They’re priceless. And I’d love to learn the song the Whos sing, even after they find that their Christmas gifts and decorations have been stolen.

wonderful lifeIt’s a Wonderful Life: the ultimate Christmas romance. Yes, I said romance. When Jimmy Stewart promises to lasso the moon … I do love this movie. George Bailey seems so real, and you really want things to turn out well for him and his family. This version offers both black & white and colorized versions of this iconic holiday movie.

year without a santaThe Year Without a Santa Claus. I’m including this one because it’s my husband’s favorite. Always a weather buff (even before he majored in meteorology in college) he gets the biggest kick out of the Heat Miser and Snow Miser. We still watch this one every single year, just because it’s fun.

last holidayLast Holiday. Not really a Christmas movie but my daughter and I enjoy this sweet rom-com every year during Christmas vacation. Here’s the story: Cautious Georgia learns she has only a few weeks to live, so she cashes in her carefully-saved retirement funds and decides to take her dream trip to a European resort. Meanwhile, the shy coworker who’d been crushing on her doesn’t want to let her slip away.

christmas vacation dvdNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Not for the kids, but oh, so funny. Our family tradition is to watch this one either on the day when Clark Hubs hangs up the outdoor lights or on his last day of work for the calendar year. We know half the lines and laugh at the jokes and gags before they even happen. There’s a little bit of Clark in all of us at Christmas, and watching this movie is a good way to get rid of some of that tension.

In the Kitchen

instant potInstant Pot 6-qt 7-in-1. This is the model I have. I’m still learning how to use it, but so far I’ve had good success with it. The sauté function is terrific for browning roasts before slow-cooking or pressure-cooking them, and this appliance makes it easier to cook potatoes for mashed potatoes (and you can mash them right in the cooking insert!)

oggi utensil holderOGGI utensil holder. I’m short on drawer space in my kitchen, but I have more wooden spoons, spatulas, and other utensils than anyone reasonably needs. This stainless-steel utensil holder accommodates an awful lot of my tools, is easy to clean, and looks pretty on the countertop, too. It measures 7 inches in diameter, and it’s heavy enough that it won’t tip over even if you have a lot of whisks and ladles hanging over the edge.

cuisinart chef's classic 7 pcCuisinart Chef’s Classic cookware. I purchased this cookware two years ago to replace some worn-out Farberware, and I never looked back. It’s dishwasher-safe, oven-safe to 500°, and the pots feature tapered rims for easy pouring.

nordic ware sheet panSheet pans, because sheet-pan cooking is a thing and you can never have enough of them! I’m a fan of these made-in-USA NordicWare half-sheet pans. I use them for cookies, roasting vegetables, and sheet-pan cooking — plus they make great trays in a pinch! I also have a couple of the quarter-sheet size. Sometimes I’ll have one half-sheet and two quarter-sheet pans in the oven all at once. Cover in foil for easy cleanup.

Drink Up

aeropressAeropress. Make individual cups of coffee quickly and without a lot of mess. You can adjust the brew time to customize the taste of your coffee. These are easy to use, easy to clean and don’t take up a lot of space on the counter. If, like me, you don’t have a large kitchen, this is a big consideration!

marhet coffee frotherMilk frother. This Marhet frother is about the third one I’ve tried and it’s lasted longer than the others. I heat the milk in the microwave, froth it, and then add coffee for a fake “latte” that makes a nice treat. I usually replace the batteries once a month if I use the frother daily.

swell bottleS’well bottles really do keep beverages cold; I’ve had ice cubes last 24 hours in it! My daughter gave me one of these for Christmas last year. I’ll drink water if it’s icy cold, and I carry this bottle around with me everywhere. These bottles look nice and are easy to clean.

pop up straw capThe only thing I didn’t like about the S’well bottle is the cap. The screw top had no handle, so it wasn’t easy to carry the bottle around, and it required two hands to open the bottle and drink. I discovered this Iconiq Pop-Up Straw Cap that fits the S’well bottle. I can slide one finger through the loop and tote that bottle around even with full hands. It’s easy to flip the top up to drink.

Gadgets and Fun Stuff

Kindle Paperwhite. This is my second Kindle. I have a tablet with the Kindle app, but the Paperwhite’s lighting is much easier on my eyes. Being able to change the lighting as well as the font size is a game-changer, and since the Paperwhite isn’t backlit, it’s easy to use outdoors even in full sun.

bluetooth earbudsBluetooth earbuds. It’s nice having earbuds that are not tethered to your phone with a cord; I always got tangled up with that! These are great for walking and comfortable to wear. They recharge pretty quickly too.

pencil wrapA pencil wrap that holds up to 72 colored pencils, gel ink pens or markers is great for the coloring-book fan. I bought this one because I liked the way it looks, and that it folds up to about the size of a paperback book. It doesn’t come with pencils, so make sure you fill it!

staedtler triplusStaedtler Triplus Fineliners are my new favorite pens, and they come in a terrific range of colors. They don’t bleed through most paper and they dry very quickly, so they’re almost smear-proof.

This sturdy Baggalini hobo tote is great for travel or just running errands. It has pockets on both sides as well as front and back, and a key fob on the inside as well as a small change purse. I have it in charcoal (like you see here) but it comes in tons of colors. Mine is bright pink on the inside, which is nice because you can see things in it — they don’t get lost at the dark bottom of the purse. This bag is big enough to hold an iPad Mini either inside or in the front pocket, and my S’well bottle fits in the side pocket.

Fill the Stockings with Socks!

 These are my favorite socks–they’re so soft and comfortable. They’re a little higher than a crew sock; perfect for booties if you like wearing those. They’re all-cotton but have that ragg pattern like many wool socks, so if you like this look but don’t like itchy socks, these are for you!

I also like these fun patterned socks. I already own a set of these Flora & Fred Nordic-patterned socks, but I wish-listed the pattern pictured here too! These are a thinner and slightly shorter sock, great with a dressier shoe or loafer and super cute.

For the Kids

playmobil nativityPlaymobil Nativity Set. Let your kids play with this Nativity set! They can arrange the figures and animals however they like. If your kids are anything like my kids, the Fisher-Price School Bus will arrive at the manger for a field trip … but that’s fine!

wits and wagersWits & Wagers is a fun party game that mixes trivia with bets to see which person has the right answer — which is always a number. You can win the game without even getting one question right! It’s quick to play, too. There are other editions of this game, but this Family Edition is fun for kids and grownups.

Advent Wreaths

These are in the “wish” category. We have an Advent wreath that has been in Hubs’ family since he was a kid — so we’ll never get rid of that. The plastic greenery is getting kind of tired, and I’ve tried to spiff it up by adding a few embellishments. That’s probably the best I can do. But since a girl can dream, I like these three …

journey to bethlehem wreathJourney to Bethlehem Advent wreath — this is a very pretty Advent wreath. I like how they show it filled with ornaments on the inside; I’d never considered doing that, but it looks lovely.

anticipation advent wreathAnticipation Advent wreath — this one is carved wood. Love the look!

believe holy family advent wreathBelieve Holy Family Advent wreath — this is so cute!

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Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz


Wear it like you mean it, plus a Catholic T-Shirt Box review

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

I was running errands over the weekend, and on one of my stops, a sales clerk asked me about the T-shirt I was wearing. Behind a tall counter, he was too far away to read the whole message.

“Pray, hope and don’t worry,” I told him. “It’s Padre Pio.”

He complimented the quote on the shirt, then backed up. “Oh no–I shouldn’t have said anything.”

He explained that earlier that day, he’d asked someone else about the message on her shirt. Even though he had also been complimentary in that instance, the customer had reported him to the manager.

“I don’t get it,” I replied. “If you’re going to wear a shirt with a message, you should be ready to talk about it.”

I got that T-shirt from the Catholic T-Shirt Club.

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

This subscription-box service offers an exclusive monthly T-shirt design in a variety of combinations with sacramentals, prayer cards and children’s books, depending on the subscription you choose. Boxes range in price from $16/month for the children’s “Little Saint” box to $49 for the “Cardinal” box with two of everything: T-shirts plus several sacramentals. Shipping is $3 except for the larger “Cardinal” boxes, which ship for $5.

The box shown above is the “Bishop” box; it included the soft, brown Padre Pio-themed T-shirt, a vial of holy oil with information about its use, a prayer card containing a third-class relic of Saint Pio, and a Saint Pio medal. The sacramentals are not blessed, so those will need to be taken to a priest or deacon before use.

The card in the top of the box features a prayer written by Padre Pio on the front (shown in the images here) and a reflection about that prayer on the reverse side.

Part of the fun of a monthly subscription box is the element of surprise. As a subscriber, you’ll receive your box around the 20th of each month. There is no long-term commitment; you can cancel at any time by accessing your account online. Learn more at the Catholic T-Shirt Club FAQ.

Are you a member of a Catholic group or affiliated with a Catholic school? Check out their fundraising option!

Wear it like you mean it.


I received a sample box from the Catholic T-Shirt Club for the purpose of this review. No compensation was received. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

"Wear it like you mean it: Catholic T-Shirt Club review" by Barb Szyszkiewicz (franciscanmom.com)
Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.


Heads Up: Printable Catholic Planner Sale

The Catholic Through The Year Planner by Martina Kreitzer of Catholic Sistas is on sale today for 50% off the usual price!

I’ve reviewed this planner before, and all the things I find super useful are still in it. There are four sections, and you can choose some or all of them: Calendar, Homeschool, Blogger and Household Management. To get the full package, choose the Whole Enchilada.

Being a Hybrid Girl when it comes to planning systems, I need to write things down–and rewrite them–and rearrange them–and I like things to look nice. So the ability to reprint a page after I’ve drawn circles and arrows and crossed things out is definitely a bonus.

This planner is made to be printed out and kept in a binder (or you could take it to an office-supply store and have it spiral bound). I don’t do that. I keep mine on my clipboards–one for family-related items and one for work stuff. I also have the two-page monthly spread printed smaller, on a single page (after I figured out how to do that) and I tacked the current month and the following month onto my office bulletin board.

A previous year's meal plan calendar on my trusty clipboard. Make this planner work for you!
A previous year’s meal plan calendar on my trusty clipboard. Make this planner work for you!

But that’s the cool thing about this planner. You can use it any way you like–whatever works for you. The 2-page weekly spread, for example, has 3 boxes per date, and a space for you to write in your own label. It can be “Home/Family/Work” or whatever you want it to be–and it can change from week to week. For example, I don’t homeschool, but the Lesson Plan pages from that bundle can be used in a ton of other ways. Be creative!

Even at the regular price, this downloadable planner is a steal at $18 for the Whole Enchilada ($7.50 for just the calendar and $5 per bundle) but today’s 50% off price can’t be beat! To get the discount, use the coupon code for each individual product – CALENDAR, HOUSEHOLD, HOMESCHOOL, BLOGGER, or ENCHILADA for all the files to get 50% off at the Catholic Sistas store.

I love the colorful touches on the planner this year–the page borders on some sections like the monthly menu planner look like they were done in watercolor. So pretty! (That reminds me, I need to make a planner note to purchase some color ink cartridges for my printer so I can have these pages in color. I had to use black and white for them right now, which is why I’m not showing you this year’s page in the photo above.)

Go ahead over to Catholic Sistas to see lots of photos of the planner pages and purchase your copy.

The cover, though–it’s a coloring page! How cool is that? Get out your markers or colored pencils and make your planner even prettier.

Want a sample? Download some free weekly pages here. Try it out! All you need to do in return is share information about the planner with a friend or via social media. Super easy!

Photo courtesy of CatholicSistas.com. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy of CatholicSistas.com. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

The Fine Print I received a review copy of the “Whole Enchilada” version of the CTTY planner and no other compensation for this review. All opinions are my own.

Little Drops of Water: Perfect for Easter Baskets!

Have you figured out what’s going in your children’s Easter baskets this year? Why not tuck in a little something that’s a real reminder of their faith, along with the jelly beans and chocolate bunny?

When I saw the prototypes for the Little Drops of Water figurines this past summer at the Catholic Marketing Network trade show, I was captivated. They are adorable!

little drops of water (1) sm

The founder of Little Drops of Water, Miguel Amaral, told me the fascinating story behind this product: it was dreamed up by his daughter, Anna, who’s a young teenager now, and who wanted to help introduce the stories of the saints to her younger brother and his classmates. The figurines began as drawings and are available as now toys, charms, refrigerator magnets and snow globes. There’s even a Nativity set coming soon!

These cute little resin statues stand about 3 inches high and are just right for little hands to hold onto. Plus, they’re not breakable like the religious statues my children were given as gifts. Those fragile statues were “look, but don’t touch” items that had to be kept on high shelves, away from little hands–and little eyes couldn’t see them (and still, somehow, the hands broke off the Blessed Mother.) Little Drops of Water are made to be handled by young children, and their cute little faces will make them irresistible.

At Eastertime, you might like the Divine Mercy fridge magnet! You’ll also find such favorites as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope Francis, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Anthony, St. Patrick and St. Therese of Lisieux among the many collectible choices. In addition to the 24 statues in the original product line, 26 more are planned for this year and some of those are already available.

Check out their Facebook page for more photos, including pictures of statues in production–that was cool to see!

Little Drops of Water statues sell for about $15 and last a whole lot longer than a chocolate bunny! They’d be a great gift for First Communicants as well.

As for me, I’ve got the Holy Family statue sitting on my kitchen windowsill. What a great reminder to pray for my own family–and I don’t have to worry that it will break if it falls down into the sink.

You can purchase Little Drops of Water at their online shop, through The Catholic Company or at your favorite religious-goods store.

little drops of water (3) sm

The fine print: I received product samples for the purpose of my review, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Review of Saints and Heroes: Francis, the Knight of Assisi

On the heels of Pope Francis’ visit to the USA, here’s a way to keep your young children enthusiastic about serving the Church by helping others. CCC of America has bundled its Saints and Heroes video about St. Francis of Assisi with a fun activity poster with puzzles and word games about Saint Francis on one side and a commemorative Pope Francis mitre to fold and wear on the other.

ccc of america Francis

The video, in English, Spanish and French, clocks in at just over 25 minutes and presents the story of St. Francis’ change of heart and eventual founding of the Franciscan Order in a way children 8 and under can understand. One of the best moments came in the middle of the video, when Francis’ mother tells him that “God comes first–only He can tell you your destiny;” then Francis prays in the tumbledown chapel at San Damiano and is given the commission to build up the Church. (Of course, he misinteprets this at first, and the video shows how he later learns the true meaning of his mission.) Francis is shown preaching the Gospel, especially the Beatitudes, and being kind to strangers and to the poor.

My friends Cole and Ryan check out the video and activity poster.
My friends’ sons, Cole and Ryan, check out the video and activity poster.

As my own children are teenagers and young adults, I brought the movie and poster to church to ask my friends’ sons, who are are just the right age for the movie and activities in this bundle pack, to share their impressions of the video and poster. Their favorite part was the word-search activity on the back of the poster.

C and R with Francis activities 1

This movie would be an excellent addition to a religious-education program as well as a family video library.

To purchase your copy of this Special Edition: Francis, the Knight of Assisi + Pope Francis Commemorative Poster at a special price, use coupon code BLOGGER30 at checkout. You’ll save 30% off the regular price!

saints and heroes bundle pack

Product images courtesy of CCC of America.
Other photos copyright Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS. All rights reserved.

Note: links to CCC of America are affiliate links. Thanks for sponsoring my blog through your purchase!

Neat and Tidy

Here’s my MESSY desk as it usually looks!

My desk is always a mess. I think what I really need is one of those desks the size of a twin bed; failing that, one with a hutch on top of it that reaches about as high as I can without leaving my chair. I’m a visual person, so I like the stuff I need to be on top of the desk and easily at hand.

Since I don’t have my desk in a room where I can shut the door and hide the mess, but rather in the family room, right by the front door, where anyone who walks in can see just how cluttered my desk can be, I knew that I had to do something about it.  But there’s just nowhere to put all the things I like to keep within easy reach.

So I started hunting around for a desktop organizer that would leave me enough room for my laptop, iPod speakers, planner and coffee cup.   And I found this cool organizer at CSN Stores:  the Safco Products Three-Way Radius Front Corner Organizer.  You can set this organizer three different ways on your desk, depending on the space you want to create.  Assembly was required, but it took only about 15 minutes and required NO tools:  the whole thing is put together with glue-coated pegs that needed only water to activate.  (I did find a rubber mallet useful to get the larger sides inserted all the way.)

Nice and neat!

This desk organizer has space for everything!  I tried it all three ways before I decided on the way it fits my desk best, and if I ever move this desk to a different space, I can adjust the orientation of the organizer to fit that location.  There’s room to keep all those little things like Post-it pads and iPod cords, and a flat surface on top where I keep my phone when it’s charging, a little jar of candy, my mug of small change, and the cup of chore sticks, which deserve a post of their own.

I’ve got a neat desk now, and it’s pretty easy to keep it that way!

Full disclosure: I was provided with a credit to CSN Stores and chose this product for my review. I was not compensated for the review in any other fashion other than the free product.

Tiber River Review: Sacred Hymns Collection by L’Angelus

Recorded by a group of young-adult siblings, the Sacred Hymns Collection by L’Angelus contains twelve beautiful and reverent treatments of familiar Catholic hymns. The instruments used are unique: piano, guitar, strings, mandolin, steel guitar and even accordion are featured on this CD; organ is only used in three of the tracks. The artists are clearly very gifted, and they perform the hymns flawlessly, with excellent harmony and beautiful accompaniment. The music is extremely peaceful and uplifting.

Song selection includes: Ave Maria; This Day God Gives Me; J’irai la Voir un Joir; Sing of Mary; Tantum Ergo; The Kind of Love My Shepherd Is; Salve Regina; Panis Angelicus; Muerto Para el Mundo; Jesus My Lord, My God, My All; Holy God We Praise Thy Name; Be Thou My Vision.

After previewing this CD at home, I brought it with me to a meeting of my Secular Franciscan fraternity, to be played during our social time. Many among the group commented on the beautiful music and were heard singing along. I found these arrangements very “welcoming” in that regard, because the hymns are not performed in a range that only trained singers can attain. The music is traditional, but the arrangements are fresh and unique rather than stuffy, and that makes these familiar hymns accessible to listeners who might normally shy away from the choir-and-organ arrangements generally associated with most of these titles. The artists have done church music a great service in this regard, opening the door to new listeners who are tired of the vapid contemporary church music to which they are normally exposed.

The Sacred Hymns Collection by L’Angelus is appropriate and highly recommended for listeners of any age.

I wrote this review of Sacred Hymns for the Tiber River Blogger Review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods. For more information and to purchase, please visit Aquinas and More Catholic Goods.

Tiber River is the first Catholic book review site, started in 2000 to help you make informed decisions about Catholic book purchases.

This is a non-compensated review. A review copy of the CD was provided to me.

Product Review: Urban Tie-Dye Sheet Set

When Big Brother returns from Boy Scout Camp on Saturday, he will be very happy to sleep in his own bed again after spending a week on one of those camp-issue cots.

He’ll be even happier to discover that he has a new sheet set from BeddingSets.com! Why settle for plain sheets when you can have olive-green tie-dye?

These sheets are really soft and nicely finished on the edge of the pillowcase and top edge of the flat sheet with matching, solid-color piping. I was disappointed, though, that the pillowcase was not finished all the way around, but only on the one side.

This product retails for $62.50 at BeddingSets.com, who graciously provided the sample sheet set described here.