For as long as I can remember, my relationship with Christmas has been complicated and wrought. As a child I never truly believed in the concept of this “Santa Claus” entity whom adults were so obsessed with; all my life I had lived in second floor apartments without chimneys, so the logistics of a white-bearded man entering our home unbeknownst to me and my single, ultra-cautious mother was just a bit too much for me to chew. Like any eager-to-please child would, I played along, but I always knew what was really going on behind my Mom’s closed doors on Christmas Eve — it was not a coincidence that Santa’s handwriting on the gift tags of my presents was an exact replica of my mother’s. Add to that the fact that every Thanksgiving, like clockwork, my Mom would start to stress out about money and wonder aloud how she was going to give me a “good Christmas” that year.
Her verbalized anxiety had less to do with debunking the myth of Santa and more to do with cementing Christmas in my mind as a less-than-jolly season — what was there to be excited about, knowing that getting the Peaches & Cream Barbie you had been pining over might be the reason your family didn’t have hot water for a week? I learned early on how to settle for less, how to exaggerate thankfulness and hide disappointment, how to never be the cause of undo stress for my Mom. This was probably easy for me to navigate as a kid because Christmas with my Dad was such a different experience; a boisterous, joyful occasion spent with my cousins and my grandma, my uncles and aunt, opening presents whose cost never concerned me. This was the privilege my Dad got to have; since he only had custody of me for two weekends out of the month, he could make sure that every moment we spent together was precious and perfect. If he struggled with money issues, he only voiced his concerns during the weekdays when I wasn’t around. But this is also the effect of having grandparents who didn’t want to be a part of your life. My white mother had been shunned by her parents for dating outside her race, and they were estranged for most of my childhood. Christmas with just my Mom felt quiet and sad. She did her best to make the day exciting for me, but on a holiday that is supposed to celebrate love, family and togetherness, she could never recreate the experience I had at my Dad’s house. I remember feeling guilty about being excited for my Dad to pick me up to spend Christmas with him — I hated to leave my Mom by herself with nothing to keep her company but our beautiful tree and the never-ending loop of Christmas songs on the radio. The insidious trickle-down effect of racism was never more prevalent for me than during the Christmas holidays.
As an adult, when I was presented with the option of creating my own Christmas traditions with my partner, my instinct was to completely ignore the holiday altogether. I didn’t grow up very religious, and by the time I met Claire, I was becoming more comfortable with identifying as an atheist. Participating in Christmas rituals seemed borderline appropriative, and I also hated the consumerist ideals that the holidays seemed to be synonymous with; a whole childhood spent watching my Mom bust her ass to cover extra shifts at work just so that she could buy us more things in order for us to feel loved and taken care of left a horrible taste in my mouth. But eventually I learned to compromise, because my wife (bless her heart) had nothing but lovely, sweet memories of the holiday season spent with her family, and I needed to make room for her life inside of my own.
My first Christmas with her family was a bottomless crockpot of steaming apple cider, a big Christmas dinner where every chair in the home got pushed into the dining room so that everyone could sit and eat together, Secret Santa gifts being carefully opened as we sat in a circle surrounding a pile of wrapping paper that grew as tall as the Christmas tree. I could appreciate the feelings of of love and thoughtfulness that were present with Claire’s family, and I wondered for the first time if I could develop a relationship with Christmas on my own terms. That’s what being an adult is about, right? Taking what works for you and respectfully discarding what doesn’t? I knew that I wanted to experience the good feelings that are tied in with the holidays, the ones where you celebrate your family and friends, the ones where you show appreciation and love for all the good times you have shared with them. But I also knew that I didn’t want to partake in the mad shopping frenzy that the holiday season had become famous for. So I started racking my brain for fun, easy DIYs that I could create in bulk for Christmas gifts. Over the past several years I’ve fine-tuned my methods, narrowed down my favorite gifts to make and to give, and come up with a pretty decent list of DIYs that all exist on the easy-to-intermediate scale of how-to. I promise, you can do it too!
Give A Mouse A Homemade Cookie
One of the most popular Christmas DIYs of course is to bake: the holiday season is filled with sweets and treats to create a festive, feel-good mood, and nothing says comfort food like COOKIES! My favorite recipe for gifted cookies is one that uses cashew butter because it keeps the cookies slightly soft and moist so they don’t turn into rocks while waiting to be delivered (I made a gigantic batch of these cookies for presents one year, mailed them all across the country and they still showed up soft and edible for the recipients). My go-to recipe is one that I adapted from several recipes and uses cashew butter in place of oil and butter. You can trade out the cashew butter for almond; peanut butter is also fine to use in a pinch, but it changes the final flavor of the cookies.
DIY Cookies for A DIY Christmas Recipe:
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tbs ground cinnamon
- 1/4 ground cloves
- 1 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 3 tbs baking molasses
- 1 cup cashew butter
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- candied ginger, finely diced (optional)
- Set oven to 350F
- Whisk the egg and sugar together until well blended. Beat in the baking soda, spices, molasses, cashew butter and lemon zest, then fold in the candied ginger, if using.
- Using a spoon, space 1 1/2 inch balls of dough 2 inches apart on a parchment lined baking sheet.
- Flatten the balls of dough just slightly with your palm or fingers.
- Bake for about 12-13 minutes. The cookies will puff up and just barely begin to get golden on the edges. They will look soft and a little under done, but they will firm up as they cool.
- Cool the cookies for a few minutes on the pan, then transfer to a rack.
To package these cookies, you can stack them into a wide-mouthed jar, or roll a small stack of cookies in parchment paper and tie with string. For mailing, I purchased a small quantity of pastry boxes which came in different widths and heights, and stuffed bits of parchment paper into the boxes around the cookies to keep them fresh.
Truffle Your Way Into Holiday Gifting Glory
Perhaps you don’t want to bake, or you prefer to make a vegan edible instead, seeing as how the cookie recipe calls for eggs, an ingredient that is not easily replaced in this specific recipe (although no one is stopping you from experimenting!). Instead, consider making homemade truffles! There are lot’s of ways that you can make these — as always, google is your friend. I make mine with tempered chocolate because it involves less steps and makes the whole process quicker, and I usually make some sort of ganache to put in the center. The chocolate I use most often is a brand called (don’t laugh) Bada Bing Bada Boom and it’s great; silky smooth when melted, and it firms up into a crispy, melt-in-your-mouth truffle. For me, the art of presentation is just as important as the actual product, so I invested in some silicone molds that give my chocolates a shiny, perfectly smooth finish. Silicone molds are pricier than plastic molds, but they are also easier to use and they work great as molds for other fun projects, too, like making ice cubes, small soaps, and lotions. Depending on the amount of money you have (or don’t have) to spend, you might want to forgo purchasing molds and just hand roll your chocolates into little balls, dust them with cocoa powder and stick a sea salt flake on the top — this visual also packs a big punch, and if you package your truffles up in a little paper box with maybe three or four chocolates inside and wrap the whole thing with a little yarn ribbon, the end result will be so sweet! Chocoley.com has lots of recipes and ideas for holidays treats, so even if you don’t use their brand of chocolate, it’s a great resource for candy making.
Homemade Treats for Bathing Beauties
Bath and beauty products are some of the easiest DIYs I’ve ever done, and it’s my go-to for making fun, unique holiday gifts. Making a gigantic batch of of products can take a bit of time, but you can knock out a lot of presents at once and you can rest assured that the recipients will be incredibly thankful for getting such a unique and thoughtful gift. Gifts like bath bombs and massage oils are cool, but I prefer to make everyday items that I know will get used often. Homemade sunscreen, all-natural deodorant, anti-wrinkle creams and lotion bars are some of my favorite things to make for others and I usually use shea butter as my base, which has a lot of healing properties for all types of skin (lotion bars, by the way, are made with melted butters, oils, essential oils and beeswax, then poured into a mold to cool; the end result is a moisturizing bar in a solid instead of creamy form — lotion bars are great for people who travel on planes often because you can put the bar in your carry on without having to limit yourself to a 3 oz bottle).
When shopping for shea butter, it might be important to you to find a company that specializes in fair trade agreements with the mostly women who farm and process the products overseas. I found a company called Better Shea Butter that at one point had an informative page on their site that discussed their dedication to fair trade with group of West African women who manufactured the shea butter from start to finish, but I can’t find that information anymore and I am not positive that they are still operating off those same standards. As always, do your research if this is important to you! There are lots of other places to buy organic fair trade shea butter, whether at a physical store or online (africantradesociety.com looks promising and I will probably purchase there next time I need to re-up). Even if you don’t purchase your shea butter from bettersheabutter.com, they have a fantastic FREE book of recipes that you can download as a PDF, and Pinterest is also a great source for DIY organic bath and beauty products. These products work beautifully, you can create your own smell with your favorite essential oils, and often they inspire other people to start learning how to make their own products — sometimes I even stick a handwritten recipe book with info on the products I made for them so that they can try their hand at making the products themselves. Packaging these items is really fun and gives you another chance to be creative. When I gave these products as gifts, I designed a simple logo for our “brand” (we called it SugarbootyBlackout), printed them onto round sticker labels, then attached them to the BPA-free plastic jars I bought. But you don’t have to get that fancy; you can buy some chalkboard paper, cut little labels out in fun shapes, and then stick those onto the containers, writing the product names in chalk, or you can just use decorative paper and tape. You also don’t have to purchase plastic containers to fill up with DIY goodness — small jars work beautifully for the lotions and creams, and baby food jars in particular are a great size because most of the recipes are made for 4 oz sizes or less (just double/triple/quadruple the recipes to make bigger quantities).
Soap is another super easy and fun gift to make and give for the holidays. If any of you are lucky enough to have been at A-Camp this past summer then you might have had the opportunity to take Laura’s awesome DIY soap class; she is the real deal of soap makers — she uses lye! — and I wish I had a chance to learn from her! I make soap the easy way, by buying a block of soap base which is basically already lyed-up and ready for sudsing. (Here is an example of a popular soap base, but there are lots more brands and places to buy from). Like pretty much all the other DIY bath and beauty products, all you have to do is melt the soap base in a double boiler, add your essential oils and soap coloring and/or exfoliants (if using), pour it into your mold and then let it cool; also, using special molds in the shapes of letters or flowers or animals adds a little oomph to a super simple DIY make. Laura’s method gives you way more bragging rights and lets you cater every single ingredient to your tastes, but using a soap base is totally acceptable, too; do whatever fits into your time, budget and skill set. When making things like soaps and lotion bars, I like to wrap them up in a bit of brown paper or even plastic/saran wrap if I have any on hand, then tie it with some pretty ribbon or yarn (if you haven’t noticed, I tie EVERYTHING up with pretty ribbon or yarn); the bars keep their shape in this packaging and they make everything around it smell good!
A Million Outfits in One Wrap
Nowadays, lots of the holiday gifts that I make are garments that I sew myself, but the projects are very time-consuming (gifted clothing is pretty much all I have been working on since October). For the sake of making quick and simple DIY Christmas gifts, sewing labor-intensive garments is not recommended, but there are some cool garment related gifts you can make that don’t require an advanced understanding of sewing or needlecraft. One such item is the Bina Bianca wrap, named after it’s creator, and the concept is super simple: three fabric panels made of varying widths are sewn together with space for one hole at each of the two seam lines. The wrap can then be styled dozens of different ways, with the holes of the wrap being used for the arms or the head. You can drape it into a shawl, a top, a scarf, a hooded blouse — the possibilities are endless, and there’s youtube videos and a couple of blogs dedicated to showing news ways to fashion the wrap.
Anyone with even a modicum of sewing machine know-how can easily put this together, but according to the information on the website, there is a no-sew version of this wrap, too; because the pattern calls for a knit jersey material, which is stretchy and forgiving, the cut edges of the fabric won’t fringe, unravel or come undone, so the slits you cut for the head/arm holes will maintain their shape. I love this pattern so much that I actually bought enough knit jersey material to make three of them: one for myself and two for holiday gifts. You don’t need any measurements for this garment other than the straight width of the hips (not circumference), and the whole wrap has a loose enough shape that it doesn’t need to be exact — you can probably guesstimate that number based on your own measurements. I imagine that this wrap will take no more than 15 minutes to cut and sew together, but despite the quick make, I think it could become a staple for anyone who was lucky enough to receive it. I appreciate all the different shapes that this one piece can create; it’s a cool accessory that can fit a whole spectrum of looks and styles.
Super Cute Finger-knit Scarf/Necklace
Another fashion accessory DIY gift (and the basis for a class I taught at A-Camp this past summer!) is finger knitting. It’s a close relative of knitting, but you don’t need anything other than five fingers on one hand and some yarn to complete it. The yarn you use for this project should be super bulky (meaning the width of the yarn is very thick), squishy and soft, and because of this, the project works up super fast — in our hour and a half long class most people had twice the length needed for one finger knitted chain scarf. You can find everything you need to learn how to finger knit online, and depending on how you learn best, this video is super helpful — slow and repetitious to guide even the most non-crafty people to finger knitting success. These chains of yarn can be connected at the ends to make a cute, funky necklace, lengthened significantly to make a long skinny scarf , or used as decoration around the house — I have even made a finger knit chain in white to hang on our tree. There are a whole list of fun ways to use this simple make once it’s finished, but even better, the process is really fun. Finger knitting is meditative in the way that knitting and crochet can be, and you can even do it while you’re watching TV!
Sweet Homemade Holiday Cards
The last DIY holiday gift idea I have to share is so simple that I am sure most readers will have already done it at some point in their lives, but I don’t think that should diminish it’s impact. Handmade Christmas cards are another of my favorite things to make during the holidays because they don’t take a lot of time to create, and people seem to absolutely love them! In the packages I sent last year, I got not one. but TWO emails thanking me specifically for the “beautiful hand painted” cards we made (and I assure you that they were nothing special). My wife and I had about twenty cards to knock out, so we bought a box of blank greeting cards with envelopes, laid them out on the table, and then took turns passing over each card with a few strokes of our paint brush. We came up with a super simple motif — several strokes of green paint to resemble the silhouette of a tree, quick blobs of red, blue and yellow for ornaments, a few painted squares at the bottom to resemble presents, and one bright flash of gold at the top for the star. It took us no time at all to get through all of the cards, but they still looked really impressive with their simple shapes and spare use of paint. Of course, to make a holiday card you wouldn’t have to use the image of a tree or use paints or even use blank greeting cards. Cut outs of Christmas-inspired images from magazines glued onto thick paper would be really cool looking, and so would re-using pieces of paper bags decorated with glitter and glue. You don’t even have to stay with the Christmas theme — years ago when I was struggling so much with how to participate in Christmas cheer without actually celebrating the holiday, I sent out Happy New Year cards instead of Christmas cards. I wanted people to know that I loved them and that they were important to me without feeling like I was doing something I no longer felt comfortable with.
Now that I’m in my mid-thirties, I’ve had plenty of time to test the boundaries of how much or how little Christmas-ing I can handle, and, as with most things, I have found myself somewhere in the middle. My wife and I decided early on to alternate our Christmases with our family and ourselves: one year is spent with her family, one with mine, and then one with just us, where we usually take a trip to some place beautiful, quiet, and relaxing. When we’re spending Christmas with family I long for Hawaii, and when we’re by ourselves on the beach I long for a Christmas tree. I’m sure that it’s this balance that has allowed me to fully explore what this holiday means to me as an adult, all the ways my past has influenced the season for me and all the ways the future will continue to change it. Already my Christmases are different from my childhood memories. My mother still worries and complains about having enough money to buy everyone good Christmas gifts, but this year when we visit her in Florida, we’ll be spending part of the day with her parents, whom she reunited with several years ago. My father will fly down from Alabama to spend the holiday with us, too, because he wants to be close to his kids, and he considers my mother a part of his family even though they aren’t together anymore. And now we have the chance to introduce Christmas to a new member of our family: Baby Levi, the firstborn of my brother and his wife, a child who has made me more excited about going home and dealing with family drama than I ever thought possible.
I will land in Florida with a suitcase full of handmade gifts that have taken me months and months to make, gifts that I have worried over and struggled to complete in time. But for every second that I was hemming a skirt, I thought of my Mom and how much she was going to like the fabric I chose for her. For every button that I sewed onto the Henley I made for my brother, so barrel chested and stocky that he can’t find well-fitting shirts in stores, I thought about how happy he was going to be to finally have the perfect sleeve length.
For every day that I’ve hunched over the wheel in my pottery class, churning out bowl after mug after vase, I think about how thrilled my best friend will be to display it on his windowsill, how happy my Dad is going to be when he drinks out of the handmade coffee mug that I made just for him. Every single moment of my gift giving is focused on how much I adore the person I’m making it for, of my favorite moments with them and how much our time together means to me.
I’m filled with happiness when I think about all the loves in my life, and how lucky I am to have so many people to make gifts for that I have to ration my time out. Is Christmas about being overwhelmed with gratitude and love and appreciation for all the amazing people in your life? For the sacrifices they have made for you, for the ones you have made for them (and would continue to make, again and again?)
If so, consider me Santa’s Helper.