In my family we usually really like each other—not just the obliged-by-blood kind of love, but the liking one another’s cooking, making gross jokes (ask my sister to show you her rabid worm impression) kind of love. My sister (the rabid worm) is the one who laid down the law about holiday gift giving. She didn’t want to spend the few weeks a year when we get to see each other frenzied and wandering the mall, and so, fifteen years ago, we made the decision that the only gifts allowed were the ones we made ourselves.
My family is super-artsy. I’m the exception. My dad and sister are amazing artists and my mom has the patience to make intricate designs, but since I’m a writer, pretty lazy, and not a visual artist, many of my earliest gifts were depressingly lame—think superhero “bolo” ties made from characters I cut out of old Marvel comics. Over time, though, we all came up with at least one or two projects that prove homemade gifts don’t have to suck. Here is my top-ten list.
If you’re a writer who thinks actually sitting down and writing is the worst part of the job, use the holiday as a challenge to finish a new story. Make it into something your friends and family can show off by turning it into a handmade book. Bookbinding can be as simple or as fancy as you want to make it. The first time I tried it I used too much glue and the books weren’t dry enough to read for a week. Thankfully there are experts out there.
2. Make a small-run art print.
Linoleum blocks can be found at almost any art supply store. Choose a simple design with personal significance. My parents do a print every year of an animal they saw in the backyard in Colorado, even the troublesome raccoons that raid our garbage cans (there’s a reason they wear those little burglar masks). Draw or transfer the design onto the linoleum block, cut it in, keeping a backup block handy in case of mistakes, and make a small series of signed and numbered prints. It’s messy and requires a little floor or table space, but once you get the block made you can run off enough prints for everyone. More tips on linocutting and hand-printing here.
3. Make your own monster.
This one is my sister’s invention. She was making “monsters” with some friends’ kids but none of the monsters actually looked scary. Then she realized what they were missing: teeth! Long, sharp, gnashing teeth. Make your own monsters out of colored Sculpy (a clay that doesn’t dry until you fire it in the oven) and don’t forget the horrible teeth. Decorate with feathers, claws, etc. Include, if you want, a card with the monster’s place of residence (under the bed? Inside old shoes?) and any special traits (feeds on dust bunnies). Here are some ideas for plush monsters.
4. Come up with a game you can play in a small group.
In my family we make tiles or cards with strange dictionary words—these can be obscure, dirty, or holiday-sounding as you like. The goal is to come up with the right definition, and everyone votes on the right one before the real definition is revealed. Assign points: Three points for the right definition, one point for every vote your definition gets., etc…If you have decent computer skills you can take a tutorial here for coding your own online “choose-your-own-adventure” game.
5. Make people make their own gifts.
This isn’t as Scrooge-like as it sounds; it’s a great excuse to get everyone doing something together and depending on the age-range can be liberally rum-soaked. Have everyone make something together. You provide the expertise and materials and everyone gets to make or decorate his or her own gift. The disturbingly titled “CraftaholicsAnonymous.com” has a million ideas. As “Linda,” the site’s creator, argues, “crafting is cheaper than therapy.”
6. Bespoke spice blends
Yeah I said it, everything is “bespoke” these days, which basically just means made-to-order or tailor-made. But hear me out and try making individual spice blends, or a signature blend of the year. La Boîte in NYC charges $5,000 for a bespoke spice blend, which, granted, is blended by folks who train in spices the way a perfumer trains in scent blends, and it does come with a monogrammed coat. Or you can learn for free from this lady, who took a class with La Boîte’s Lior Lev Sercarz. Any bulk foods section of the grocery store will have loose dried spices. I like to mix and taste with abandon—prompting some of my friends to claim I just go to the bulk foods section to have lunch.
7. DIY hot sauce
This requires some taste-testing at home. Like spice blends, hot sauces can add mild acidity to a dish or scorch your arse-hairs off. Consider your audience (or don’t!). I recommend coming up with a base recipe and then experimenting with different peppers and ingredients. Warning! Habanero peppers, those brilliant orange babies with the protective coloration and bite of a snake, must be handled with plastic gloves.
8. Upcycled ties for dudes
Hit Goodwill or another cheap thrift store (avoid stores that actually have “vintage” in the title, as they’ll be five times the price) and pick up some skinny ties that don’t have mustard stains. Come up with your own signature design or make a design for each person. Rubber stamps and fabric paint are all you’ll need, but practice on a cloth napkin first to make sure the design is large enough to be clear and to get your stamping-movement down. Make a single iconic stamp (something holiday-related, funny or unexpected) or an all-over design. You can also do this on simple fabric jackets or scarves. Here are some stencils for the anarchist in the family.
9. Hand-painted leather
Source leather purses or ladies’ gloves at these same Goodwill stores and paint your own unique design on them to freshen them up. If you’re good with a needle and thread, you can even sew in a new lining. Growing up, my dad hosted t-shirt painting parties for our birthdays and I still have an old leather purse on which he painted a hummingbird. If you’re not keen on your painting skills, rope in an artistic friend for help or download stencils online. If you’re a confident artist, I’ve seen some amazing hand-painted leather jackets. Here’s “Rusty” with tips for painting on leather with acrylic paint (easy to clean up and mainly non-toxic).
If you live near your family or friend-family or are planning to get together in person, pick something you do well and offer a class. Do you make amazing French bread? Teach a class on the perfect crusty loaf, complete with taste-testing and fancy olive oils. Do you know how to make mead? Bring the basic ingredients to show the process and some pre-made mead to drink and let people spice their own.