Present danger

Present danger

’Tis the season to buy. And buy and buy and buy. Who cares if nobody on your gift list needs anything? And never mind that you don’t have the means to pay for all those overpriced goods anyway. But hey, we’re not here to talk you out of giving. We like presents. 
How’s about trying this, though: Forget about maxing out your credit cards on a load of nary-used stuff. Instead, make something for Mom this year. Or do a favor for your best friend. Or spend some quality time with Grandma.

No, we haven’t gone all Oprah-meets-Martha on you. (Well, O.K., maybe a little.) But we promise that the following list of do-it-yourself gift ideas—21 of them!—won’t be a complete waste of time. For starters, they’ll keep more of that cash in the pockets of its rightful owner: you. Even better, they might provide an opportunity to give someone a present that’ll actually mean something—a present that’s useful, isn’t the wrong color and won’t become outdated. So drop the attitude already, and fire up that glue gun.  

Hostess with the mostest

Everybody loves a party—as long as someone else throws it. That’s where you come in. Offer to take charge of a gathering—birthday, anniversary, the UVA-Tech game. Send the invites and shop for food and beverages. Deck the halls and clean the joint up. Of course you’ll need a budget from the giftee, who, alas, gets stuck with the bill. But let him know you’re willing to do all the pre-, during- and post-party scut work—gratis. Heck, you’ll even scour the town for Chippendale types if the occasion calls for it. That’s how much you care.


We know you have no interest in wasting an unseasonably warm January day at the grocery store, doing yard work and painting the bathroom. It is, however, the season of giving. With that in mind, put together some good old-fashioned coupon books. Offer to rake leaves, babysit or clean toilets. Face it: The gift of your time—so others can go hiking or to the movies—is more valuable than three dozen of those cloying aromatherapy relaxation candles you were fixing to dole out.

Bead it

Necklaces, bracelets and earrings, oh my. No, we’re not suggesting you paw through the “15 items for $5” bin at Claire’s. It’s custom-made baubles or nothing, baby. Whadaya mean you don’t even know how to thread a needle? Sounds like it’s time for somebody to score a spot in the basic beading workshop at Studio Baboo on the Downtown Mall. It’ll run you $25, but you’ll come away with lots of know-how and some fine-looking jewelry. And if you’re inspired to try a wire-wrapped pendant class, flower workshop or Japanese beaded braiding class, all the better.  

Drive, she said

Some days it’s a struggle to get from here to there. More so for some than others. So why not offer to schlep your niece to her ballet lessons? Or take your best friend’s son to his soccer match. Maybe Granddad needs a lift to his hearing-aid appointments. Your mom could certainly use some help hauling your bratty step-siblings around town. Possible unexpected upside? A new skill. Like tying ballet slippers onto a restless 6-year-old, or conversing in a shout with certain family members. (That would be the step-siblings, of course.)

Art in the box

Head for Michael’s, Target, K-mart, Wal-Mart and The Dollar Store in search of paint, crayons, colored pencils, stickers, glitter glue, felt, construction paper, stencils…well, you get the idea. None of this stuff’ll run you more than a couple bucks per item, so you can pop for a wide variety of materials for the budding Picassos in your life. Throw it all in a hand-decorated box and add a bow. Revel in the look of pure delight on nieces’ and nephews’ faces. Completely disregard the panic their parents display. Refuse to entertain suggestions that the art box be stored and used at your place.


Baby, it’s cold outside. Not much you can do about that. But with a few yards of polar fleece (the lightweight micro stuff works best), a yardstick, fabric pen and a pair of scissors, you can warm the necks of everyone on your list. Lay the fleece out on a table, good side down. Do a shot of tequila. Decide how long and wide you want your scarf to be. Measure out a rectangle with the proper dimensions, leaving about 6" extra 3" of fringe on each end. Do another shot. Cut out the scarf and add fringe. (Fleece doesn’t fray, so you don’t have to worry about finishing any edges.) Get a bandage to staunch the blood flow from the fingers you’ve sliced because you’re drunk. Take some time to sober up; don’t bleed on the presents. Make several scarves of differing lengths and patterns. Roll up each one and tie it with a ribbon. Place the entire collection in a fancy basket. Have a glass of water.

Where have all the flowers gone?

The trees are bare and the ground is frozen. The world is a pretty dreary place. You, however, have the power to sell spring to even the most Eeyorish of your pals. Comb the aisles at Target, T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Your prey? Interesting and colorful empty vessels like pots, oversized coffee cups, jars, canisters, vases and bowls. Fill each of your finds with potting soil, taking time between fillings to craft a mudpie or two. Add bulbs or plants such as impatiens or begonias, which will bloom all winter in a sunny spot. Type or write care instructions in a fancy font on a pretty piece of paper. Attach it to the plant’s container with a bow. 

A spoonful of chocolate

Frigid days and nights mean one thing. Actually, they mean lots of things. But when the temps drop, warm beverages come to mind. The more chocolatey, the better. And that’s where spoons come in. Yes, spoons! Buy a bunch of them. Plastic will work, but we recommend metal spoons because, well, plastic’s tacky. Stock up on chocolate and extracts or liqueurs. Melt the chocolate. (Hint: it liquefies better at lower temperatures in a double boiler or a bowl suspended over a pot of boiling water.) Add whatever you want to spice it up (peppermint? Kahlua?). Dip your spoons in the chocolate. Let them dry. Dip them again. Quickly coat them with colored sprinkles or crushed candies. Eat your fill of said sprinkles or candies. Then lick the bowl. Now that you’re slightly nauseated, wrap the spoons in colored cellophane. Tie a bundled bunch with a ribbon. Place in a decorative mug, and deliver with a side of powdered cocoa, coffee or something stronger. Isn’t gift-giving fun? And caloric, too!


Sad but true, we can’t resist those fabric-covered, ribbon-crossed bulletin boards in the Pottery Barn Kids catalog that seems to arrive in our mail every other week. But who says you have to pay those ridiculous Pottery Barn prices? Instead, buy a cheapo bulletin board at your favorite discount store. You’ll also need enough fabric to cover it, as well as several yards of ribbon. A hammer, glue, paint and paint brushes will come in handy too. Pull the frame off the bulletin board, using your hammer (or brute strength). Cover the board with fabric, overlapping it about two inches. Glue the fabric to the edges of the bulletin board. Stripe the ribbon diagonally across the board, and glue it down at the edges. Paint the frame of the bulletin board to coordinate with the ribbon and fabric. Reattach it with small nails or a hot glue gun. Jam some images of Jesse McCartney beneath the ribbons. Viola! ’Tween girl nirvana.

Photo finish

Face it, we never tire of looking at the mugs of those we love. (Well, there was that rather unflattering haircut your boyfriend sported a few years back after an unfortunate incident with a razor and a dare-happy pal.) Barring any image-marring disasters, a family photograph is as close to a sure thing, giftwise, as you’ll find this holiday season. Once you’ve captured the perfect shot, custom frame it. By custom, we mean buy one of those inexpensive numbers from a craft or discount store. Then distinguish it with sea glass, buttons, puzzle pieces, snippets of poetry or anything else you fancy. Insert photo. Not the crafty type? Peruse the frame offerings at antique and second-hand stores. 

Skill set

You may think you’re talent-free, but we think you’re being modest—or lazy. Isn’t it about time you teach your stepson to play the piano or the guitar? Or school your best friend’s kid in the fine arts of baseball, basketball or soccer? Create a coupon book good for six cooking lessons from Chef You. Offer to teach your mom how to paint. Give Dad some pointers on taking a decent photograph. Maybe your roommate wants to learn to dance, ice skate, rollerblade, ski or skateboard. How cool would it be to see your 75-year-old grandmother up on a jet ski, zipping around Lake Anna? O.K., bad idea. Perhaps a tutorial on navigating the Internet is more Granny’s speed.

You’re soaking in it

Muslin, oatmeal and essential oils may not sound like the makings for a pampering, take-you-away kind of gift, but trust us. Lay out several small squares of muslin and add a couple tablespoons of oatmeal mixed well with a few drops of an appealing essential oil. Secure the packets. Display them in a decorative box or mug. Advise the recipient to drop one bag into running bathwater. Suggest she queue up some Johnny Hartman and pour a glass of Chianti.  Include a “Do Not Disturb” sign for the bathroom door. Double her pleasure and include a coupon for a post-bath foot massage—by John Grisham. Kidding.

A touch of glass

One person’s therapy is another’s handmade gift. Or so we tell ourselves whenever we wander into The Glass Palette on Fifth Street. Sign up for one of the ongoing classes, and you’ll get the scoop on fusing, slumping, glass cutting and design, while using different shapes, sizes and colors of glass to create everything from jewelry and hair accessories to picture frames and stained glass. At $200 and up, the tuition is pretty steep for some, but you’ll walk away wiser and with a piece of giftable art to show for it. You’re also welcome to walk in anytime and have a go at making something a bit simpler, which’ll run you anywhere from $12 for a pair of earrings to $60 for a set of four 10′ plates.


At a recent craft fair we noticed a mason jar layered with sugar, flour and chocolate chips. A cute tag let us know that the “cookies in a jar” could be had for a scant $10. We’re no Alan Greenspan, but coughing up that much money for about 50 cents worth of ingredients seems economically unsound. Besides, you can do it yourself for a lot less—money, that is. The amount of mess is completely up to you. Layer a clear, one-liter jar with ¾ cup packed brown sugar, ¼ cup white sugar, 1 ½ cups mini M&Ms or chocolate chips and a mixture of 2 cups all-purpose flour, ½ teaspoon baking soda and ¼ teaspoon salt. Attach a card with the following instructions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Empty the jar’s contents into a bowl and mix until everything is well combined. Add ¾ cup softened butter or margarine, one egg and one teaspoon vanilla extract. Shape the dough into one-inch balls and place them two inches apart on a greased baking sheet. Slightly flatten the balls and bake for 10 to 14 minutes. Makes two dozen cookies and a swell gift.
Basket cases

Thanks to the Internal Revenue Service, goody bags were history at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Fortunately, the IRS has no say about who gets what at your house this December. And who doesn’t love a grab-bag filled with unexpected treasures? When putting one of these beauties together, your first stop should be Sam’s Club, where you’ll find a mess of bulk items that can be easily divvied up among the bags or baskets.  Don’t shy away from possible treasures at the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Take the time to peruse the offerings at The Dollar Store, Marshalls, T.J. Maxx and other discount emporiums. Do not bust into the massive bag of M&Ms you’ve just purchased. Wipe out the rest of the Halloween candy instead. 


Where have all the handwritten letters gone? Nowadays communication’s all about e-mail, text messaging and IM-ing. Stop the madness! Invest in a good pen and some high-quality paper. Take a load off in a comfortable chair beneath a good light. Write. Here, we’ll get you started: “Dear Whomever.” Let Whomever know how much he means to you. Bring up that time you drove cross-country together, sampling corned-beef hash at all the diners of America. Oh, yeah: Tell him how much you love him.