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Homemade for the holidays

Instead of buying last-minute Christmas gifts, make them and create memories at the same time.

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Another idea is to take your child to get his or her first library card and give them a certificate promising to take them to the library once a week for the next year. "You're giving them the gift of time and the gift of reading, and it doesn't cost you anything other than the gas to get to the library," she says.

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One of the favorite traditions in the Coronato family revolves around the library. Instead of buying an Advent calendar, Helen Coronato, an author and environmentalist in New Jersey, wraps 25 books in newspaper and places them in a basket. Every night, her sons choose one, and they read it together.

If you're handy with a needle or a jigsaw, the toys you create can become heirlooms.

When Zenta Kampars's daughters were young, the oldest girl saw a teddy bear she fell in love with – until she saw the $65 price tag. The Union, Mich., mother of four located a pattern and sewed bears for Christmas morning (despite the fact that she disliked sewing). Her now-grown daughter still loves her bear, and Ms. Kampars ended up with a side business making teddy bears, which helped the family through cash-strapped times. When her oldest son was out of work one year, he carved his mother a bear out of wood for Christmas. It's one of her most treasured gifts.

Speaking of wood, for the price of one sheet of plywood and some paint, you can make everything from a fire-engine headboard to a toy workbench to a storage unit with a chessboard top, says Eric Strohmer, author of "Do-It-Yourself Families" and host of HGTV's "Over Your Head." Mr. Strohmer – who calls himself "Santa on steroids" and his three children the elves who have been press-ganged into Santa's workshop – suggests making homemade ornaments every year with your children "as a poignant way to commemorate the passage of time." (After 10 years of homemade ornaments, Advent calendars, and Swedish windmills, this year's edition features a homeowner chasing a carpenter with a two-by-four – the Strohmer household is fully decorated.)

"I think kids can ultimately be introduced [to homemade gifts and decorations] so it can become a tradition to them. Christmas isn't about leafing through the catalogs every year," says Strohmer, who believes that in a technology-driven society, it's easy to "lose the ability to get the essence of that person [that comes from] creating something together with our hands and getting to know who our parents are."

For parents who feel as if they're failing if they can't make their kids' wish list come true this year, Myers-Walls urges them not to be hard on themselves and to explain the situation to their kids. "It's really hard if you've made Santa Claus an ordering service [in the past]," she says. But "kids often help us ... realign our perspectives and remember what is really important and remember how to be joyful with little things." One thing to remember, she says, is that kids do care about their parents, not just what mom or dad can do for them or give to them.

That sentiment is seconded by J.D. Roth, who runs the website Get Rich Slowly. "I grew up in a family where my father was unemployed off and on. One year, he sat us down and said, 'We don't have any money for presents.' " Mr. Roth and his two brothers came up with their own solution: "We found things we thought our brothers would want from our own stuff and wrapped them up and gave them to each other. But the only reason that worked is that he and my mom sat us down and explained stuff."

Roth, who always exchanges homemade gifts with friends – this year it's barbecue sauce kits made with ingredients he and his wife grew and canned themselves – says that when they're grown, children probably won't remember what you bought them anyway. "I think for kids especially, it's the traditions that are the most important. I can't remember anything I received. But I do remember the things that we did."