Christmas Day

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Let me tell you what’s depressing. Jumping in the car the morning after Christmas to run a quick errand and finding that the radio station that’s been playing Christmas carols the past month is now streaming dentist office soft rock. Basically John Tesh ruined my day today. But I’m a fighter, so I’ma get it back. (*Note: Wouldn’t suggest editing your Christmas morning pictures to the soundtrack of Little Women either, because I tried it and, listen, things are sentimental enough right now.)

That said, Brett took the week off, and we let Christmas unfold into an entire week of family time–good food and movies and going out strong before shifting to the new year. We’re in no hurry to clean up and jump ahead, so we’re sitting right here, enjoying…

…the last traditions before Christmas day–cookie decorating and our annual trip to see Santa which turned out to be a 4-hour wait, so we canned the big guy and filled the space with family time.

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Dash found a pop gun, and I can’t stop laughing at this picture.

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Playing Rock, Paper, Scissors with Daddy.

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Yes, I’m aware that we met our 2016 plaid quota in one day.

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And Christmas Eve…games and movies, appetizers and chocolate cake.

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A full couch makes me so happy.

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Setting up the reindeer runway…

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…and my favorite Christmas Eve scene every year. I put them to sleep together every year on Christmas Eve even thought they don’t usually last that way for the entire night.

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My dad and Gary stayed the night Christmas Eve, and we all stayed up late constructing toys and finishing the wrapping. But I always make sure I’m the last one to bed because I love a moment alone on Christmas Eve, with everyone else asleep. I love to take in the scene and think about how special this all is.

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Santa’s big gift for the kids is always left with a note and a string to follow.

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They lasted until 7:00 Christmas morning before we let them loose. All three are still under the spell of belief.

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Reindeer hoof prints in the driveway…

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…and love scenes around the tree.

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Santa made Lainey climb for her presents this year.

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Once Nella opened her Nutella, she ditched all her other gifts. Don’t blame her.

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Santa made Dash an honorary policeman this year. There’s been lots of ticket writing and handcuffing since.

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I dream in family table scenes. It’s where all the goodness comes out.

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There will be many more hours this week of playing restaurant and policeman and Barbies and Legos and soaking up everything that makes life so good.

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Cheers to this cozy week cushion between two big celebrations, and all the feels of wrapping up one year and making room for the next.

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Happy Christmas, from our family to yours.

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Big City Christmas (One of My Most Favorite Trips Ever)

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 Disclaimer: This is a long post. A lot of pictures, a lot of story, a very special trip I’m aching to write about and want to remember. I was going to break it up into a couple of posts and be brief because any guide to “successful blogging” will tell you that. But this one’s for me. Feel free to scroll through quickly and wait for another brief post. Or stay. Bundle up. And come along for a story about a holiday wonderland.

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When I was a teenager and my dad came back into my life after many years of being separated, he and Gary took me to Chicago the weekend before Christmas as an early birthday present. We walked the snowy streets together, visited the top of the Sears tower, stood in long lines just to get our hands on hot Garrett popcorn, and huddled up in window seats of little restaurants at night to watch the lights and scenes at dinner. It was magic. We stayed on a high floor in an old hotel–a budget deal but charming, nonetheless–and on our last night there, I climbed up above the heater into the narrow window ledge overlooking the city lights and wrote in my journal about every sight and sound and feeling I experienced that weekend. I remember my dad waking up to find me in the window.

“Aren’t you going to go to bed?” he asked.

“I don’t want it to end,” I answered, a story he now retells when mocking my tendency to go overboard on “seize the day.” For the record, I’m learning the balance of “seize the day” and “end it while it’s good”.

That weekend started a tradition of many trips that followed and planted a seed of an appreciation for Chicago at Christmas that would grow into what it is today–a full blown love affair. My last December trip there was when Brett and I were dating. We went ice skating, drank hot chocolate, took lots of snowy pictures and feck yeah, I came home and spent three hours scrap booking all the memories with overpriced glitter stickers that said dorky things like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Bundle Up.”

Think I’m joking? Look. I found them.

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By the way, I don’t bullshit about important things like scrap booking. I’d also like to note my appreciation for the fact that I took the time to double mount some typed print that said “ICE SKATING” and stick it next to the ice skating pic, lest you not realize that two people with skates on their feet gliding on an ice rink are “ICE SKATING.” I was a very thorough scrap booker, okay?

In the midst of all that holiday magic over the years in that city, I remember one recurring thought, especially watching little girls all bundled up, walking out of American Girl, cradling new dolls*: I can’t wait to be a mom, and I can’t wait to bring my kids here someday at Christmas.

(*Motherhood is not a snow globe scene where everything is so dreamy. But sometimes it is.)

Fast forward to three weeks ago. My sister texted me and my dad that she was going to be in Chicago the weekend of 17th. “I wish so bad we could all be there.”

On a whim, I checked Expedia and there, as if she was waiting for me to come back to her all this time, was Chicago in all her glory, manifested in a crazy cheap ticket price that was practically begging me to book it. Mind you, it was Spirit Bare Fare which is like booking some folding chair seats duct taped to the back of the plane and paying extra per ounce of clothing you’re wearing, but whatever. I would agree to being duct taped–naked–to the outside of the plane to go to Chicago in December.

I asked Brett to go, but he checked the weather and said, “F@#k no. See if your dad wants to go.” Also he had to work.

I had three weeks to plan a 2-day trip to the tundra. Fortunately, we have a lot of clothes for cold weather. I’ve saved everything we’ve bought for a few trips to Michigan when Lainey was little and have picked up a couple more coats from thrift shops, always in the hopes that we’d have another trip someday and I’d be able to say, “Thank God I bought those coats.” As soon as I booked the tickets, I bought some yarn and crocheted each of the kids a scarf for the trip because it’s the only crocheting I know how to do (straight lines!), and I don’t often get the opportunity to pretend I’m a real crocheter.  Also, when my friend in Chicago heard we were coming, she pulled more boots, coats and snow pants, covering every size because she has 4 kids and a lot of hand-me-downs. She also invited us to stay in her city apartment which turned out to be magic. MAGIC, I tell you. As if Kathleen Kelly herself turned over her keys.

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Of course, once we got to Chicago, I wanted to do it ALL. I knew I’d have to pare down my list and enjoy being together more than going, doing, seeing, but I also wanted the kids to experience a nice “sampler platter” of Chicago at Christmas.

My lofty list I knew we’d have to cut down looked like:

  • Ice Skating and Hot Cocoa in Millenium Park
  • Carriage Ride by Water Tower
  • Top of John Hancock Building
  • State Street Macy’s Window Displays
  • Christkindlmarket 
  • Garrett Popcorn
  • Deep Dish Pizza (Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s)
  • Train Ride (there’s also the Polar Express train that leaves from Union Station, but it was all booked up long ago)
  • See decorations in The Drake Hotel or The Peninsula
  • The American Girl Store

I bought tickets online to 360 Chicago (at the top of John Hancock Building), and then left everything else wide open.  I knew it was going to be exceptionally cold, and if we needed to spend most of the weekend huddled somewhere inside, watching it snow from the windows, so be it.

I waited until last minute to surprise the kids. They thought they were headed to school Friday morning. Instead, I told them suitcases were packed and in the car–we were on our way to pick up Poppa, grab breakfast and head to the airport.

The rest was MAGIC. And by magic I mean, of course, with all the expected hassles of taking three kids–one of whom’s name rhymes with CRASH–to a cold big city. Hassles included fits from fingers not going in the right glove holes, not being able to play in the rotating doors for as long as you want, getting help walking across a crazy busy street when you wanted to wander across yourself, not getting to push all the buttons on the elevator and being told you cant get on the escalator backwards. There. I think that about covers it all.

Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff.

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I’m sure all the passengers between Dash’s seat (with my dad) and ours appreciated Dash’s constant whack-a-mole pop-ups. “MOM! MOM! MOM!” (insert smile and wave).

A,4.

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Part of the fun of surprising them was packing an epic travel backpack with a couple new travel games, crayons, books and favorite snacks. We played these games all weekend.

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And then, as we started to descend, you could see it in the window…snow. Piled on rooftops, blanketing fields. We were not cool and calm about it at all. My dad actually pulled out his bluetooth speaker and played White Christmas’ “Snow” for a 19 row stretch of passengers to hear, and it didn’t embarrass me one bit. In fact, I could not stop smiling.

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And when the taxi approaches the city and you can finally see that beautiful skyline? I get butterflies in my stomach for just a tiny second. There she is, the beauty.

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We barely settled in on the first day and as the sun set, it happened…thick flakes started falling fast. “I can’t believe this is happening,” I told my dad.

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One of my very favorite moments from the trip: When the kids were all jammied up, I decided to venture out in the cold to the market to get a few things. Lainey saw me bundling up and asked if she could come too. “It’s going to be super cold, are you sure?”

“I’m positive.”

We walked in the snow–just me and her, stopping so she could kneel down, take her gloves off and feel the snow in her hands. She didn’t complain about the cold once, and I swear under those corner lights, with that snow falling and catching in her hair, with the city swirling around her, she looked prettier than she’s ever looked.

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We walked slow and pointed out every Christmas tree visible from apartment windows. From one window, you could see a whole mess of people laughing.

“Look, Lainey! A Christmas party!”

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We caught snowflakes on our tongue. We slid our boots on slippery spots to pretend we were skating. We bought milk and wine and juice at the most charming market that was, of course, playing the best Christmas music. And then she looked up at me in that snow storm and said, “I feel like we’re in a Christmas movie, Mom,” and I knew I’d remember that moment forever.

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As for Poppa and the littles, turns out they didn’t need the milk and wine.

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This window was definitely a favorite spot.

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And the stoop. It couldn’t have been more picturesque–snow lightly dusted in all the right spots. I mean, come on.

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(This little hat has always been a favorite since Dash wore it as a baby on a trip to Syracuse. We dropped it in Macy’s on the last day, though, and never found it, so boo.)

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Nella took a particular liking to “the man”.

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The city waking up…

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(Big City Rule #124: Visit a church. At least one.)

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Dash would have wandered that city all by himself, no problem, if we let him. He didn’t want to hold hands, he wasn’t overstimulated, he seemed to know where he was going, he owned it. He Kevin McCallistered those streets like it was his job.

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You’re THREE, Dash.

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A definite favorite of the trip: 360 Chicago, the observatory at the top of the John Hancock Building. We were at the door when they opened and for a good hour, there was hardly anyone there but us. There was something so special about nearly having the place to ourselves; being warm, looking out at the city on such a cold day; the Christmas music playing overhead amid the quiet of the scene.

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There’s a little cafe in the corner overlooking Lake Michigan (the entire floor is windows). I was playing with the kids in another corner when my dad hollered, “Kelle! Come here! I got us coffees! With WHISKEY!” And so I ran.

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Tissue please.

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The kids didn’t want to leave, so we just hung out at the top of the city, doing puzzles, drinking coffee and eventually running around and wrestling on the floor (Brett would die).

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I did brave the Tilt experience as well, a set of windows that you position yourself in and then get tilted over the city for downward views. Sweaty palms, man. But I did it.

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American Girl Store. Rite of passage in the city and so much fun, but LORD were there ever a lot of people in there. A lot of bored dads huddling by the doors too.

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For the record, Dash is not taking money in this photo, but putting some in. I clarify because the former was the case with him once.

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We wanted the kids to experience the train. They loved it so much, we sat and relaxed on it, taking it outside the city and then back in, just for fun.

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When in Rome. Giordanos, baby.

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My sister and my cousin–another favorite moment. We had drinks at The Peninsula, and the Christmas vibe was ON POINT. Total Christmas Party Hop.

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The walk back to the apartment that night was so enchanting. Snow falling, people huddled behind windows of cozy taverns in early holiday celebrations. Christmas lights, evergreen garlands, horse and carriages taking night owls back to the their hotels. My sentimental heart beats wildly.

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Our last day…up early so we could drink it all in before we left.

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Nella loved being able to see her breath.

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We spent the last day in the theater district, mainly at Macy’s because it is Christmas wonderland, and the kids didn’t want to leave.

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(Dash is obsessed with my sister. Obsessed, I tell you.)

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There are 8 floors, all connected with escalators that the kids wanted to ride repeatedly. Each floor highlights something different–Santa on 6, Holiday Lane on 7 and The Walnut Room (world famous Chicago restaurant–since 1907!) and the best view to an epic Christmas tree on 8. Holiday Lane was my favorite. That scene in Elf when Buddy stays up all night and creates a Christmas wonderland in the store? This is the store. Holiday Lane is his masterpiece.

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(8th floor tree view, looking down on The Walnut Room.)

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And the window displays. Add Chicago Macy’s Christmas Window Display Decorator to the jobs I’d like to have someday (along with “The Christmas Heloise” Tip Columnist for Village Gazette of a small Stars Hollow-ish town, Hospital Nursery Baby Rocker and Sherwin Williams’ Paint Color Name Colorer).

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Here’s what I have to tell you: Want to do something special with your family next Christmas? Chicago. Even if it’s freezing.

It was magic, a moment in motherhood for me that I will always remember, when all three of my kids were still enraptured by all the imaginative delights of Christmas. When the inconvenience of cold couldn’t hold a flame to the wonder this city offered. When this one could still sit comfortably on my hip and shield her face from the cold in my scarf.

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The last stoop pic before climbing in our Uber to the airport. Dash cried, “But I don’t want to go home.”

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Happy to be warm and home, looking forward to the wonder this week holds, and remembering all the memories.

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And a crappily filmed video (I didn’t video a lot, but there was enough to stash this in our memory archives).

chicago best from ETST on Vimeo.

Now if only we can convince Brett that the cold is worth it to do this trip again someday. After seeing the pictures and hearing our stories, he says “Maybe.” HOPE!

Let’s Go to the North Pole

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Oh hey, Christmas friends. I’m drunk on cocoa and sugar high’in from marshmallows and cookies, but I’m here. In red plaid jammies if you must know.

We had our sixth annual North Pole Party this past weekend and, after editing all the pictures, I’m feelin’ the feels. Why is it that December brings out so many feels? It’s like a month long push on a bruise–the hurts are hurtier; the goods are goodier. We let those feelings come to the surface as they may in December, and we throw parties to celebrate all of it. Six years in now, this little North Pole party holds some nostalgia. It’s hard not to look out at the crowd of kids listening to the Christmas story and remember every one of them when they were in that same spot six years ago–chubbier cheeks and imaginations unshackled by all that the world tells them that is possible. At the same time, it is such a celebration of growth and change and a solid reminder to be grateful–all these kids, all these mamas, all these years. We’re healthy, we’ve grown in numbers, we’re bound by friendship and love.

So, here we go. Some holiday cheer for you–kids and jammies and Christmas and cookies.

Wait. Quick. Go make some cocoa. With marshmallows. I’ll wait.

….

….

Back? Now light a candle. And you’ll need some Christmas music, so I took the liberty of making you a playlist of our absolute favorites.

Click play.

Welcome to the North Pole.

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I am unwilling to try any other Christmas sugar cookie recipe because I can’t imagine this one being topped. It’s Better Homes & Gardens cookbook recipe (page 200 in mine–the page is all crusted with flour and falling out of my book). I roll out the dough pretty thick so that they’re soft and chewy, and I pull those feckers out of the oven when they are just barely brown around the edges. Our frosting might not be the smoothest/prettiest frosting, but it tastes so much better than the royal icing recipes I’ve seen that make picture perfect cookies. I don’t measure. I just soften a stick of butter, add a shit ton of powdered sugar, a teaspoon or so of vanilla and then enough milk to get the consistency I want. It sets enough to be able to stack cookies and yet your teeth can still sink into it.

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Also, I’d like to throw out a big Thank You to our hot cocoa bar for staining Dash’s brand new white Hanna Andersson jammies. Hoping Oxy Clean pulls through for me.

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We do an ornament station at the party, and I’ve found that these work great as a self-run craft station. Cover a table with butcher paper. Put all the supplies out. Write step-by-step directions on the paper. (porcelain ornaments, Michaels–as well as the minis, currently 70% off)

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These adorable hot cocoa ornaments (Target) were the take home treat and made the cutest garland.

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Brett sets up our beach tent in the front yard every year and strings Christmas lights all over it. We put blankets under it, and it makes the perfect gathering spot.

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I remember driving to the hospital, a week before I delivered Nella, to hold these these twin boys.

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Little finished ornament projects drying. Swoon.

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We do an outside scavenger hunt in the dark every year, but we switched it up a bit this year so it didn’t get too redundant. Two hundred candy canes were hidden along our street, and the kids ran with flashlights to find them all.

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My dad read a Christmas story to the kids again, and all I can think watching him is “You will remember this forever.”

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My favorite thing about this year? Nella fitting in. In past years, she’s kept her distance, often choosing to go read alone or hang with an adult away from the crowd. Not this year. Sister found her place. Ran with the kids on the scavenger hunt, weaseled through the crowd to get her cookies, sat with friends under the light tent, laughing and drinking it all in.

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So many times throughout the night, my dad, Brett and I all found each other and whispered, smiling, “Look at Nella. She’s so happy.”

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And that, my friends, is Christmas.

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Also, I should share that a kid gift exchange with 24 kids of different ages and genders is a shit show, and that I fail miserably at orchestrating it, but that’s half the fun. Because the adults all laugh amid the chaos and say, “This is a mess. We should never do this again.” But we do. And we will. Because tradition.

I love this night, I love these kids, I love these memories.

(Party aftermath…Dash grazing the leftovers).

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To see past years’ parties–North Pole Party Archives: 20152014, 2013, 2012, 2011.