Homemade Gifts

I have everything I need to make the soaps and salves I'll give as gifts this year: beeswax, cocoa butter, goat milk soap base, tins and jars, essential oils, and infused oil I made from calendula flowers I collected this past summer.

I avoid shopping malls like the plague this time of year. They are too crowded, too noisy, too hectic, and, often, the hordes out there doing their holiday shopping don't seem to embody the holiday spirit -? especially when it comes to competing for a parking spot!

I'd rather spend a Saturday afternoon making some homemade gifts than fighting the crowds. There are a number of different projects that can be completed in the time it would take to shop for alternative gifts. And because most people are too busy these days to find time to make gifts, homemade items seem all the more appreciated.

Soap. Although making soap from scratch is time-consuming and requires the use of caustic lye, there's an easier way to make "handmade" soap. You can purchase glycerine soap in bulk, melt it down, then mix in some herbs, essential oils, pumice, fragrance oils, ground oatmeal, or flower petals. Pour the mix into soap molds, let it cool and harden, and you've got a special gift. Glycerine soap is available at craft supply stores; you can get goat milk glycerine soap from Pinetree Garden Seeds (http://www.superseeds.com). Lotions and salves are a little more involved to make, but are also welcome gifts.

Homemade notecards. If you have some favorite plant pictures, turn them into notecards by making color copies of the photos. Purchase blank cards and matching envelopes, then cut out the photos and use a glue stick or double-sided tape to attach them to the front of the blank cards. If you have a scanner, you can scan in the photos, resize them as necessary, and even play with photo-editing software for some cool special effects. Another option is to glue plant material, such as leaves, grasses, flower petals, or ferns onto a piece of paper, and photocopy this collage to use on the cards. (The flatter the plant material, the better the photocopy, so avoid large berries or thick seedpods.) Sometimes simpler is better -? a few well-placed grass seed heads can make an elegant and tasteful image.

Herb blends. Using your own homegrown herbs or purchased ones, create special herb mixes. Consult recipe books for common herb combinations, or go out on a limb and make something unusual. Include a recipe card with the blends. Consider sage, rosemary, and thyme for a cream cheese dip mix, or cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves for mulled cider mix. Homemade curry mixes can be made mild or hot, and might include coriander, cumin, turmeric, and cardamom. Taco seasoning might include chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, black pepper, and cayenne. You can purchase herbs and spices in bulk at most natural foods stores.

Candles. Decorate store-bought candles with ferns, leaves, or flower petals. Start by melting a tray of paraffin over a pan of water. Melt it over low heat and watch it carefully! Then use a dab of the melted wax to attach the leaves and petals to the candle. Once you've got it all attached, gently roll the candle in the tray of paraffin to form a coating over the added plant material. Allow it to dry, then buff it with a cloth.

Painted flowerpots. Use acrylic paint to decorate a flowerpot. Terra cotta pots are now available in a range of sizes and shapes, and they are usually relatively inexpensive. You can use stencils or draw something freehand. Or use leaves or fern fronds to "stamp" an image onto the container -- just paint the leaf, then press it against the pot to transfer the paint. You may want to prime the pot first with a water-based primer, and, once you are done decorating, finish it off with coat of clear varnish to protect it.

Kits. If the recipient enjoys crafts, consider putting together kits for these projects. Include all the materials necessary, plus instructions. You might even plan an afternoon soap-making get-together, or an herb blend tasting.

These days, time is a precious commodity, so giving a gift you've made yourself sends a special message of caring to the recipient. And you might be surprised at just how little time it takes to make homemade gifts, especially when you compare it to hours and hours spent at the mall or stuck in traffic!

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