Homemade for the holidays

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

Courtesy of Linda Tetzloff
Linda Tetzloff crafted fused glass bowls for friends.
From the heart: Tough financial times are encouraging more Americans to make holiday gifts, such as teddy bears.

This year, as Linda Tetzloff marks off gifts on her Christmas list, she heads for the kiln, not the store. She's making fused-glass bowls for friends and a dragon with stained-glass wings for her son.

Handmade gifts have been a tradition among her circle of friends for years, explains the executive assistant from Kalamazoo, Mich. The reasons aren't necessarily financial (although that's certainly a side benefit). Ms. Tetzloff says the creativity and the colored glass help see her through months of frigid temperatures and lake-effect snow.

But this year, with daily reports of layoffs and the country heading into a second year of recession, 1 out of 6 Americans decided to dust off their craft skills and see if the Grinch was right: "Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store."

That doesn't surprise Judith Myers-Walls, a professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

"I think everyone's going to wake up to this a little more," she says. "When you think back to the origins of the holidays, we're not talking extravagance or going broke to give someone a gift. We're talking about generosity and sharing with others and seeing what would please others."

But what, you may be wondering, if your handicraft skills don't extend past the glitter macaroni sculpture you made in second grade?

For youngsters, Professor Myers-Walls suggests ideas such as prop boxes filled with items found around the home or at Goodwill stores, such as a beauty-parlor kit with curlers, brush and comb, sparkly nail polish, and a broken hair dryer. Or a spy kit with an old cellphone, a trench coat, and instructions on how to make invisible messages with lemon juice.

"[Kids] may not be as excited when they first open it," she cautions. "It helps to put it in a nice box with some signs." And the best way "to get them started is to play with them."

If you can write, make up a story starring your child. If you're handy with a computer, you can make scrapbooks, calendars, or photo storybooks on sites such as Hoorray.com or Serif.com. She also suggests giving homemade gift certificates for "a game night," or "one hour of book reading" or "date night with Mom or Dad."

If you have a limited budget and daughters with a literary bent, retired children's librarian Virginia Allain suggests creating an old-fashioned "Little House" Christmas.

"Instead of making it sound like 'You're going to be deprived this Christmas and aren't going to get any toys,' " she says, "it's more of an adventure: 'We're all going to play together and have a pioneer Christmas.' "

Ms. Allain says to start by reading the Christmas chapter in "Little House on the Prairie," by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Activities in it include decorating a tree with strings of popcorn and cranberries, making gingerbread as a family, and singing carols by a fire. Christmas morning, give the type of gifts Laura and Mary got: a rag doll and a stocking filled with hard candy and an orange.

Homemade presents were always a part of Allain's childhood holidays in Kansas. She still has the Monopoly board her dad hand-painted on Masonite one Christmas, and her sister treasures the doll's clothes her mother sewed out of fabric left over from making curtains.

Allain sees the recession as an opportunity for families to think less about shopping and more about the making memories with their kids. "Do you want them to remember that you got in line at 4 a.m.?" she asks.

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.

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."

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