After returning from our impromptu trip to Utah we poured our remaining energy into getting ready for Christmas morning.
As evening fell we drank hot chocolate, ate cheese fondue, read stories, the girls danced while Jess sang "The Twelve Days of Christmas," they opened their presents for each other, and then we ushered them off to bed.
After several hours of wrapping presents and rearranging furniture the house was ready for Christmas morning and Jess and I were ready to catch a few hours of sleep in the meantime.
Christmas morning the girls, amazingly, were not up until ~6:45. And then the party began. I set up a video call with Mom and Mollie so they could join our festivities since Mom's house was rather quiet that morning.
And the following several days have been filled with recuperating, game playing, house cleaning, book reading, and wishing that vacation would last a little longer.
This year I cobbled together a water-level sensor for the Christmas-tree stand. For several years I've looked for such a sensor, but never found anything that could do the job. I've found water sensors, but they're designed to "trigger" when wet and often times emit an alarm. Other water sensors might have given me an acceptable wet/dry signal, but were built as a single unit which can't be submerged in the stand.
So I used a standard Zigbee door sensor to accomplish the task. I used this one by Third Reality. It uses 2 AAA batteries, which I preferred over a button battery model since I'll only use it for about a month each year and I can use rechargeable batteries.
The premise is to use a float which will fall into range of the sensor when the water level drops and rise up out of range when water is added. So when the sensor signals that it is "closed" that means the tree needs water.
This sensor is connected to my Home Assistant smart-home manager which I have running on a Raspberry Pi 3. It uses the Zigbee Home Automation integration which I'm using with a ConBee II dongle. I've been really happy with this set up so far, I've had zero issues pairing devices or keeping their connections active.
The sensor, as shown, is made up of two pieces. The actual electronics are in the left part and the piece on the right is just plastic housing around a magnet. I removed the magnet and hot-glued it to a Ping-Pong ball which acts as a float. I also cut a piece of a plastic straw and glued that to the Ping-Pong ball which will be the guide for the float. Using the rest of the straw I slit it length-wise which caused it to curl into itself just a little allowing the float-guide to slip over it and slide smoothly up and down.
I attached one more piece of straw to the float to prevent it from spinning (which would pull the magnet away from the sensor). Then I hot-glued the long piece of straw into the tree stand along one of the support posts, which are hollow.
I paired the sensor to my Home Assistant set up and then used some Velcro stickers to stick the sensor to the inside of the support post and then adjusted the height through trial and error to get the "dry" alert when I wanted it. I didn't want it to be actually dry because I wanted there to be a grace period from when it says, "I need water" before it actually goes dry.
I don't have a picture of this part because I got it set up and didn't take a picture and now the tree's in the stand and there's no way to see the bottom. Which also means there's no way to change the batteries while the tree is up. The manufacturer claims "up to 2 years" battery life, so getting a month shouldn't be a problem. The sensor also reports battery level, and it hasn't dropped a single percentage since I installed it.
Next I reconfigured the "device" in Home Assistant and told it to treat it as a "moisture sensor" instead of an "open/closed sensor." So now instead of saying "open/closed" in the user interface it says "wet/dry." I used the "Configuration -> Customizations" GUI to set this up:
And, finally, I added an "automation" which triggers when the sensor detects the magnet (indicating "dry") and uses the "call service" action to send an alert to my tablet and/or phone which says "I'm Thirsty." I used the "Configuration -> Automations" GUI to set this up:
All of this is running entirely local to my own home. No Internet required, no external servers in the mix and I don't have to wonder whether some company will decide to shut down their systems and break all my stuff.
I am greatly amused by this set up, especially because it actually just worked with almost no fussing around. And now I'll be going about my day and get a notification on my tablet from my tree asking for water. I live in the future.
Leading into Christmas the epidemiological situation escalated continually. This was expected since a lot of travel happened for Thanksgiving despite warnings and public-health orders. We got this emergency alert notification on the 18th:
Jess went out for a final grocery trip on either the 21st or 22nd and then we hunkered down. The new lock-down orders cancelled social-bubble buddies so we didn't hang out with friends. They also closed pretty much any entertainment centers (including zoos) and reduced store-occupancy limits. However, I don't know if anyone was enforcing any of these requirements. And if they weren't then it was really only so much hot air.
On the day of final-outings, Jess made a trip to the pharmacy to pick up one of her medications and said that the outlet-mall parking lot (which she could see on her way) was packed. Which just boggles my mind. Maybe because it's an "open air" mall people thought that made it safe? I don't know, but unsurprisingly the situation continues to deteriorate.
But, on to happier things.
I suppose this is a bit of gallows humor given that our family has remained unaffected by Covid-19 (other than inconvenience), but we got these ornaments to commemorate the year that we won't likely ever forget.
Mom sent us this one:
And this cartoon sums things up for our family pretty well:
We wanted to try and really make things feel different than the 9 months we've spent cooped up at home so this year we put the Christmas tree in the family room and bought some garland to put up around the house and Jess made bows out of ribbon to put up. This really spread out the Christmas cheer which previously had been pretty isolated to the living room.
We bought artificial wreaths to put on the interior doors throughout the house. I bought a poinsettia, which I don't normally do. And we even got out Jess' "Christmas Mouse" night-light thing (see picture of fireplace below). We've never set that up before. It has two, small 10-watt incandescent bulbs in the base which then glow through translucent bits of plastic. But because the lights are in the base and quite weak only the bottom part would glow and it was still quite dim. I decided to upgrade it to the 21st century. I bought a length of cuttable LED lighting with a dimmer switch and replaced the incandescent bulbs with the LED strip wrapped all around the wreath. Now the whole things glows quite nicely, is dimmable, and probably uses 1/10th the electricity.
On the 23rd my siblings and parents played Trivial Pursuit via video conference while I worked on my bûche de Noël. On Christmas Eve I spent most of the day baking baguettes, rolls, and cinnamon rolls and Jess made another chocolate-cream pie and sweet-potato casserole. For dinner we had cheese fondue (with the baguettes, crackers, and fruits). I read The Polar Express and Heather read The Night Before Christmas. And the girls opened presents from each other: lightfuries for both of them!
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day involved long-lived, casual video conferences with many of my family members to try and help make people feel connected to what's happening when most of us weren't going to travel and congregate.
On Christmas morning the girls woke up at their usual 5 o'clock time. Since this is a normal time for them we felt it would be cruel to tell them to wait and let us sleep longer. So up we got--very, very tiredly.
Santa puts up streamers at the end of the hallway to remind the girls the need to wait before diving into new, exciting things they see. So they very excitedly peer into the room to evaluate the situation.
I've had a hammock in a box for at least 13 years. Never used because I never had anywhere to put it. Jess said she wanted a hammock stand for Christmas and that's just what she got (thanks Mom & Dad). So now we have a place to put the hammock, and now we just need a (real) place to put the hammock stand. For now it moves between the kitchen and the family room.
I found these customizable mugs at Uncommon Goods and designed a set for Jess. I think they're neat. Jess has a stack of books, I'm holding a camera, Heather is painting on an easel, and Corinne is wearing reindeer horns.
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit uses a small R/C car to bring the racing action into our own home. You set up a course and then drive it using the Switch which produces an augmented reality race via a camera on the car. It's a clever set up.
It was a good day, if exhausting. And every day since then has been more playing.
On the 16th we went to look at lights around town with friends. It was even a bit chilly.
Christmas Eve at home with cheese fondue with fresh bread and hot chocolate. And a couple of terrible, low-light pictures of the girls opening gifts to each other. Heather received a fossil dig kit and Corinne received 2 Magna-Tile plates (she ran around the house screaming she was so excited).
We added an alicorn and a narwhal to our Christmas lights this year. The alicorn immediately required replacement supports as it would fall over in a slight breeze and its lights are already having issues. So it may have to be returned. But the girls _loved_ it.
And I upgraded our "fire" with some flame-effect lights mounted on a board at the back of the fireplace. Surprisingly convincing in peripheral vision.
I made another Bûche de Noël this year. Unlike last year I skipped all the hazelnut parts and went with a filling of dark-chocolate creme & chocolate-chips with dark-chocolate ganache frosting and chocolate chips for garnish. It was pretty good.