Monday, July 21, 2008

Planning Ahead for Holiday Gifts

I dread the holiday gift-giving season. There are several reasons for this. First off, I don't enjoy shopping of any kind, unless it's for cooking ingredients. Not many people on my list enjoy getting cooking ingredients as gifts. Believe me, I've tried, and found those ingredients in their cupboards months or years later. Secondly, I don't enjoy getting gifts from other people unless it's something I really want or will find useful. I would always prefer to receive no gift at all, rather than get something I have no interest in. I feel badly that someone has spent money or even a little time on getting me something that I never wanted and for which I can only muster socially polite appreciation. And I absolutely hate the fact that the gift-giver felt so obligated to conform to the custom, even though they didn't know me well enough to pick something I'd appreciate (or know I'd be perfectly happy with no gift at all). I've tried communicating this to people as politely as possible. It seems though that the almighty holiday gift giving spirit is impervious to all logic or social pleas. Lastly, the indifference that results from too many gifts - those I give and those I receive - bothers me. I've stopped giving my nephew anything for his birthday or Christmas, because he gets far too much on those occasions. Instead, I give him stuff at random times during the year.

Still, as much as I resist and resent the holidays, I do find myself trying to come up with gift ideas throughout the year. This year I have a few ideas for do it yourself gifts. I like these ideas because they won't cost me much money, but they will show my affection because they involve my time and effort.

So here are a few ideas I've been keeping on the back burner for homemade gifts.

Homemade vanilla sugar and/or vanilla extract. I while ago, I purchased a quantity of vanilla beans to make my own vanilla extract, after noting how terribly high its unit price was. While vanilla beans and vodka - the only ingredients in vanilla extract - are expensive, they're still a lot cheaper than the finished product. Following these instructions, I made a large batch for my own use and have enjoyed baking with it. The rest of the beans from my order have been stored in cane sugar to preserve them. That sugar now packs an incredible wallop of vanilla flavor. While I might not have enough nice bottles to make a lot of vanilla extract, we have plenty of canning jars to hold vanilla sugar. Slap a nice ribbon on the lid, with a handwritten label, and there's a cheap but thoughtful homemade gift. Even people who don't cook much can usually find a use for vanilla sugar. This is the cheapest and easiest of my potential gift ideas.

I got into making solid perfume shortly before I kicked into frugal mode, and spent a small fortune on essential oils and botanical extracts. Making solid perfume is a pretty easy process, but people seem fascinated when I give them some and tell them I made it myself. And it's not just women either. My male cousin expressed interest and perhaps even a tinge of jealousy when I gave his wife a batch scented only with grapefruit essential oil. He said it smelled nice and he'd happily use something like that on his hands at night. The stuff can be called solid perfume, but, containing beeswax and jojoba oil, it's also a lot like a salve or a balm. I have enough materials to make gifts of this stuff for several people.

Garden stepping stones. I found an easy project for making stepping stones with botanical designs on them in a garden DIY book called Garden Patterns & Mosaics. I experimented by making a few of them last summer. All that's required are some simple wooden frames, mortar mix, and some pretty foliage to press into the surface to make the design. This wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, but I know a few people who might like to have one or two of these for a pathway or their gardens. I'm going to make a few more of these this summer and see if I can turn out some nice enough to give away as gifts.

Ultimate sawhorses, made with scavenged 2x4's pulled out of dumpsters. Last fall, looking at all the wood we'd dumpster dived for, I figured the obvious thing was to find a plan for some sawhorses. I hit the jackpot with this page, which although it wildly underestimates the time needed to build the sawhorses, does give good instructions for the novice carpenter. I first made a pair of these for myself, and they are indeed rock solid. Then a family member wanted a pair, which I duly built. Now there's another person who could use a pair. If we can find enough halfway decent wood in dumpsters this year, I'll seriously consider making another pair. I also found some other nice but simple woodworking projects in the book, Dream Backyards, at my local library. There's a nice design for a planter box. It would be a great use of scavenged materials as a gift for someone who enjoys container gardening.

Baked goodies. I'm a pretty good baker and cook. Good enough that family members pay me for various breads and prepared foods for parties. So I know they want these items. Therefore it's a no-brainer for me to gift them a few loaves of bread, scones, holiday cookies, or whatever. Maybe not the most exciting gift they receive, but at least I know they want it and will use it. And it costs me very little in materials.

What about you? What creative strategies do you have for giving gifts that don't cost a fortune but are genuinely appreciated by the recipients?


Anonymous said...

Do you have more details or a good reference for me on making the solid perfume? That sounds like a great holiday gift. We're really re-thinking Christmas this year, but I am hesitant to completely cut off the present giving...

Kate said...

Claire, you could look for a book called Scents & Sensibilities, by Mandy Aftel. I recommend you look for it at the library and through inter-library loan if necessary. While it covers solid perfumes thoroughly, there really isn't all that much to it. So if it were me I wouldn't want to spend the money. You can take notes on what interests you. Your notes probably won't be too extensive. Mine aren't.

Let me know if you end up making any, and what scents you like, especially if you combine them.

cafenowhere said...

Hi, Kate. Followed you here from Trent's Simple Dollar.

I recently received homemade solid perfume for my birthday and loved it. I'm even more impressed now that I know it's a frugal craft!

The vanilla gift ideas sound like a lot of bang for the buck (very Martha), as do the garden paving stones. Thanks for providing the inspiration!

Kate said...

Lisa, I suppose I should caution you a little bit about getting in to making solid perfume. It can be very tempting to buy more and more essential oils so that you can experiment with exotic combinations and such. The essential oils are the most costly ingredient in the final product. I made this mistake and I now have several bottles that will probably never get used up.

So my suggestion is to buy no more than four or five oils and use those. If there's a commercial soap or moisturizer that you like, check the label. It may tell you what the scents are, and you can then just buy those essential oils to reproduce the scent.

I find that one scent alone, or just two mixed together, produces a very pleasant result. I would recommend a citrus scent like orange, grapefruit, or lime, as well as lemongrass, clary sage, rose geranium, and lavender. None of these should be too expensive, and they all smell fantastic.

Have fun with it!


Baughface said...

So would you still be able to use the vanilla beans stored in the sugar for another batch of vanilla extract?

Kate said...

@Jamie. Yes, that's my understanding. I haven't tried it yet myself because the first batch of vanilla extract I made is so large that I'm still working my way through it. The vanilla beans I've been storing this way are still very fragrant. Even though the sugar they're stored in is intensely flavored by them, the beans seem to also retain plenty of their essential flavor and aroma.

Baughface said...

And one other question, where did you get your brown or green bottles for the vanilla extract? I found a store on the internet where you can just buy a dozen brown bottles and lids, but I'd rather reuse. So brown beer bottles are an obvious choice, but what do you do about a lid? The beer lids obviously can't go back on. Would cork work for the extract? Any other suggestions for lids, or anything else for that matter, since I'd like to undertake this project?

Kate said...

Jamie, I'm sure a cork would work just fine in a beer bottle, if it fits tightly. I happened to have an old fashioned clamp lid beer bottle with a rubber gasket, so that's what I used. A lot of wine bottles now come with screw top lids. I'm sure one of those would work just fine too, though it would be a big batch of extract.

jt said...

i have an unusual request...I have an old comode (toilet) that i can't find a place to dump.hahahaha.But really , i am looking for an alternative use for it!!! its bright white...Help, any suggestions? Jeannette

Anonymous said...

Hello, Recently found your blog, and loving it!!

Can you let me know what your source is for vanilla beans, followed your link for the tutorial and I am overwhelmed.

Barbara barbaraj2000 @ hotmail. com

Kate said...

Barbara, I buy from Vanilla Saffron Imports at That's all they sell. They know those two products deeply and offer good value for them.