Monday, December 29, 2008

New Years Ideas

This will be our last post before new years. I hope everyone had a fabulous Christmas and/or Hanukkah.

If you're still struggling with what to do and.or what to serve on New Years Eve, I have some suggestions.

Lucky Foods to Serve on New Years

All around the world people eat specific foods on New Year's Eve to bring good luck and good fortune in the upcoming year. We've compiled a round-up garnered from our editors' experiences as world travelers, as well as submissions from our readers. For your convenience, we've included recipe links where we have them.

If you know of other New Year's food traditions that we have not covered in these pages, please post them to the comments sections below. So whether or not you're superstitious, what could it hurt? Eat these foods on New Years Eve to insure that you and yours will have the best year ever!

Click here for the International Lucky New Years Eve Foods List.

New Years Eve Effigy Burning Party

Looking for a unique idea for your next New Year's Party? Here's an activity that makes for a memorable and meaningful experience and also gives your guests the chance to let their creativity shine. The effigy party has been an annual tradition at my New Year's celebrations for some time now and never fails to be a big hit, with children as well as adults.

Here's the theme of the party:
Each person invited is instructed to create and bring to the party an effigy to burn. The doll represents the negative energy/traits/emotions etc. that the person wants to be rid of in the coming year. Sort of like a New Year's resolution in reverse. Making the dolls gives the guests something to bring to the party and they make great conversation pieces while on display before the ceremonial burning. If you host this party year after year, you'll find guests really start getting into it and try to outdo each other from year to year.

The dolls (see photos this page and at the link below) can be made from all kinds of materials. For instance my doll from last year was made of bread dough and sugar frosting as I was trying to curb my carbohydrate addiction. My niece Tracy fashioned her doll out of empty Coca-Cola cans as she wanted to break this habit.

The effigy ceremony can be as whimsical or as serious as each guest chooses and sharing the meaning behind the doll is optional. Most do, but some keep it personal.

Once you know where the party will be hosted, and the limitations of your fire pit, you can better instruct or give effigy creating tips to your guests. For instance, if you have a small indoor fireplace, it is important for guests to bring small sized offerings and to limit themselves to natural materials. This is a good idea in general. Nothing can ruin a successful party atmosphere like the stench of burning toxic plastic fumes.

In past years we have also held this party on the beach with a large bonfire, in which case guests were encouraged to bring life-sized effigies (photo at right).

Intrigued? Click this link for more tips, suggestions and precautions for hosting this party, along with photos of past dolls burned by our guests.

Happy New Year and see you all in 2009!


Monday, December 22, 2008

Gift Wrapping Help and Happy Holidays!

I am doing some late night posting, just before leaving to visit family out of town for the holidays. So I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Yule or whatever other holiday you might be celebrating. I'll see you back here before the New Year.

In the meantime, here are some links that will help you gift wrap with style -- without spending much at all.

Gift Wrap Help from
  • How to gift Wrap a Box -- Here's the low down on how to get a perfect neatly gift wrapped box -- the perfect gift wrapper's blank canvas to adorn as you see fit.
  • Rubber Stamping Gift Wrap Paper -- Simple rubber stamps and brown paper (like recycled grocery bags) make terrific wrapping.
  • How to Make a Curling Ribbon Bow (pictured below right) -- Turn ordinary inexpensive curling ribbon into extraordinary bows for all your gift wrapping needs. Photo instructions show how.
  • Elegant Gift Bags -- Hard to wrap gifts are perfect candidates for this simple sewing project.
  • Candy Cane Gift Tags -- This cute gift tag is made from a rubber stamped image layered on top of various sized squares.
  • Personalized Gift Wrap (pictured at top of this post)-- Chip board letters, ribbon and a glue gun are all you need.
  • Elegant 3-D Stars Gift Wrap (pictured at bottom of this post) -- This design looks intricate, but is actually easy to accomplish.
  • Quilling Strips Gift Ornaments -- These paper bows are unique, stylish, and whimsical, depending on the style, papers, and colors you choose.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rubber Stamping -- Hanukkah Greeting Cards

For these cards I challenged myself to come up with various designs using nothing more than a single rubber stamp and some basic paper crafting supplies. The results are five simple yet stunning cards that anyone would love to receive on Hanukkah.

The ornate dreidel stamp I used for these projects is made by Ruth's Jewish Rubber Stamps, but you could use any appropriate central image you like instead. In fact, use different images for different holidays -- most of the designs will still work well.

The links below will take you to detailed directions on how to make the greeting cards in the photo.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas Tree Tips, Ideas and Resources

The Christmas tree, often the focal point of holiday decorating, can be the source of many a happy holiday tradition, such as decorating parties or ornament collecting. But every tree trimmer's nightmare is the tree that immediately loses all its needles and becomes drier than the Nevada dessert in a mere matter of days -- or even hours. Don't let this happen to your tree. We've got tips for selecting and maintaining a beautiful tree throughout the holiday season.

Selecting the Perfect Christmas Tree
It's not hard to select a good tree. It's like the "Charlie Brown Christmas Tree" - once you adorn them with lights and ornaments, nearly all trees look beautiful. But just in case you want a tree that's more perfect than any of the others, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Before you leave to choose a tree, check the height of the ceiling in the room where it will be displayed. Things have a way of looking smaller outdoors. Select a tree that is at least one foot shorter than your ceiling height.
  • Shake or bounce the tree to check that the needles are firmly attached. Few needles will fall off a fresh tree. The older the tree, the more needle loss you will have. Don't be fanatical about this, there will always be some needles that fall out. Think of it as the difference between normal hair loss versus going bald.
  • If you run your fingers over the branch along the needles, they should adhere to the branch and bend but not break.
  • Check that the bottom of the tree has a trunk at least 6-8 inches long for proper placement in a tree stand.
  • Make sure the trunk is straight so the tree can properly stand.
  • Inspect inside between the branches for insects.

Caring for the Tree at Home

  • If you don't plan on decorating the tree right away, cut about an inch off the base and stand the tree in a bucket of water in a shady outdoor spot.
  • When you bring the tree indoors, cut 1/2 to one inch off of the base of the trunk and place in a tree stand that holds at least one gallon of water.
  • Never place the tree near a fireplace, heater vents or other sources of heat.
  • Always keep the tree supplied with water. Christmas Trees can be thirsty, even going through a quart or more of water a day. Check the water level in the tree stand at least twice a day. Take care to never let the water level fall below the base of the tree as it can seal over and prevent the tree from being able to absorb water later. If this happens, you can take the tree down to cut about an inch off the bottom, which will once again allow for water uptake.
  • A fresh tree supplied with water presents little fire hazard. As long as the tree takes up water, it will be relatively fire resistant.

Fire Safety

  • A fresh tree supplied with water presents little fire hazard. As long as the tree takes up water, it will be relatively fire resistant. Do not allow the water level in the tree stand to fall below the base of the tree (see tips above).
  • Fire Marshall-approved treatments can be sprayed on trees to reduce flammability. These contain borax or other flame-retardants. Check with the salesperson when you purchase your tree, or with the fire department or County Agent for specific fire-retardant treatments.
  • Use only UL-approved lights and nonflammable decorations.
  • Turn off lights when leaving the house or going to bed.

Bugs in the System

  • Be aware of insects that can enter the home on the Christmas tree and emerge in the warm house.
  • Inspect the tree before bringing it inside. Shake and bounce the to dislodge insects that may be hiding. If you find insects, you can spray the tree with an indoor-outdoor aerosol insecticide containing pyrethrins before bringing the tree inside. These are common insecticides available at grocery stores. This same spray can be used if you discover insects after the tree is in the house.

    It is important to observe all directions, restrictions and precautions on pesticide labels and to keep pesticides out of reach of children and animals.
More on Christmas Trees

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Elegant Yet Easy Wallpaper Scrap Bows and Projects

These bows look so elegant and expensive, but they're actually made from paper strips! While you could use any kind of paper you like to cut your strips, we used embossed striped paper from wallpaper samples.

Go to most any paint or home improvement store and you'll find that they're usually thrilled to give away old sample books of wallpaper. That's right, give them away, as in for free, gratis, nada. This represents an incredible find for creative crafters -- free supplies! The sample books provide wonderful papers for all kinds of craft projects, and once you start flipping through the pages, you'll come up with all kinds of uses for the various designs.

For these bows, we went to samples of elegant papers in a striped design. Wallpaper sample books are usually filled with this popular style, and often the striped papers are conveniently in gold, silver, or other metallics, or even in satin finishes that really look like ribbon when cut.

The results are stunning, and once the paper strips are cut, this project is easy enough for kids to do.

Once we made our bows, we used them for elegant fits wraps and greeting cards. The links below will take you to step-by-step photo instructions that show how to make these easy, yet impressive projects.

Monday, December 8, 2008

North Pole Christmas Decoration

If you purchased a North Pole decoration at a Christmas shop it would run you around $30.00. Lisa Dodez's creative version will cost pennies (she even uses items that might otherwise be discarded) and is very easy to make.

You Will Need:
flower pot
cardboard tube from wrapping paper
small scrap piece of candy stripe gift wrap paper
hot glue gun
floral foam (enough to fill flower pot)
red plastic ball shaped ornament for top of pole
Christmas drape (cotton sheets made to resemble snow available wherever gift wraps and decorations are sold)
extras for decorations -- tissue paper, small bits of ribbon, toys, etc.

1. To make the base, hot glue floral foam, pot and cardboard tube together as shown in photo 1.
2. Use tape to wrap the cardboard tube with the wrapping paper scrap. Make sure to fold over the edge of the paper for a crisp, clean line.

3. Wrap flower pot base with Christmas drape to replicate snow and use hot glue to secure. If you don't have Christmas drape you could also use tissue paper, fabric and/or garland.

4. Photo 4 shows a close up of the wrapped pot.

5. Hot glue plastic ornament to top of pole.

6. Gather extra decorations you have hanging around that match the color scheme of your North Pole sign.
7. Attach decorative touches with hot glue.
8. Make the flag. We printed 2 pieces of sign artwork so you could see it from all angles. You can find the links to print out the North Pole sign artwork at the bottom of the page at this link. Print both then cut a flag like the one shown at the top of this page from your paper pieces. Glue the two pieces together, leaving about a 1/2 inch margin on the sides that you will use to attach the flag to the pole. Fold the margin pieces outward, apply hot glue and attach the flag to the pole.

Congratulations, your North Pole Christmas decoration is now complete!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Gift Wrapping -- How to Make Big Fluffy Round Bows

These big fluffy bows are great to use on packages, in centerpieces, or even as Christmas tree topper. You can make them as large or as small as you need by differing the length of the bow loops, and make it as full as you like by adding more loops. It's all up to you.

For a bow that really holds its shape, use wired edged ribbon (we did in the photo below). This bow will work with regular ribbon too, it will just give you a softer look.

You Will Need:

  • ribbon -- the amount you need will depend on the size bow you want
  • a wire tie like those used to close bread or produce bags
  • a piece of cardstock, double the length of a single bow loop
  • scissors
Gather your supplies. For a template, cut a length of cardstock that double the length you want a single loop on the bow to be.

Using your template, begin wrapping the ribbon around. The more times you wrap, the fuller your finished bow will be. For the bow in the photo at the top of this post, we wrapped about 8 times.

Holding the ends, carefully remove the wrapped ribbons from the cardstock template. Flatten out the wrapped ribbons, then take your scissors and cut a small notch in the middle of the ribbon, one notch cut from each side. This step is optional, you can often get away without it, but it will make finishing the bow a little easier.

Use the wire tie to cinch the ribbon together where you cut the notches.

Now it''s time to separate the loops. Grab the top loop and pull it away from the others, giving it a half-twist as you do so. Continue separating and twisting the loops until they're all separated.

Arrange and fluff out the loops to make a full bow like in the photo below.

More on this project -- Click here for our full feature on this bow, including how to use it for a Christmas Tree topper.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Christmas Trees Part I -- Upside-Down Trees

With the holidays upon us, I thought it would be a good idea to explore some interesting tree decorating ideas. And none is more interesting than the upside-down tree.

At first a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, suspended upside-down can be a bit disconcerting – surreal even. But this unique presentation actually has many practical benefits, beyond shocking holiday guests.

Contrary to popular belief, the upside-down tree was not invented by modern hipsters, but rather dates back to 12th century Europe. Today, upside-down trees elicit strong responses – people seem to either love them or hate them. Count me firmly in the first camp.

For the most part, today’s inverted trees are artificial. They can be hung from a ceiling bracket, or stood in a special weighted base (most trees come with such a base), that provides stability.

Advantages of an Upside-down Christmas Tree

  • Easier to keep fragile ornaments away from little kid’s hands.
  • Easier to keep fragile ornaments out of the way of dogs or other earthbound pets.
  • Easier to display large ornaments, as they hang down like a chandelier.
  • More room for ornaments at eye level.
  • Takes up less floor space than traditional trees – you can even wedge an upside-down tree between pieces of furniture.
  • More room for packages underneath.
Professional Decorating Tips for Upside-down Trees
We went to designer Lisa Dodez, a woman who takes Christmas seriously (she usually tries to limit herself to 4 or 5 trees each year, in addition to an ambitious household-wide decorating frenzy), for advice on decorating an upside-down tree. In addition to imparting lots of general tips and wisdom, she also came up with the Children’s Fantasy theme tree you see on this page.
  • While large heavy ornaments traditionally need to hang on the sturdier branches, the structure of the upside-down tree allows for more space to hang larger ornaments, plus the bottom of the tree, is now the top. Decorate accordingly.
  • The tree should be three dimensional – wrap lights around each branch with cords in the center near the trunk, unless your tree came prelit (most do).
  • You can never have too many lights.
  • Decorate from the inside out – start near the trunk and work towards outer branches.
  • Save your favorite ornaments for last so they are on the outside of the tree, put lesser ornaments inside towards the trunk of the tree.
  • Look for ornaments in unexpected places – raid the kid’s toy box, go to the candy store, rework your scrapbooking supplies, etc.
  • Consider a rotating tree stand. Lisa’s advice on this topic is “you get what you pay for.” She once bought a low cost stand for $30.00 that burned out in one season, another she paid $200.00 for she’s had for 6 years and it’s still going strong.
  • For an easy classic elegant look, take inspiration from the upside-down tree’s “chandelier” shape and decorate it like a chandelier. Think white or crystal -- white lights with white or crystal ornaments hanging down. Use white wire edged ribbon as garland.

Designing the Children’s Toyland Fantasy Upside-down Christmas Tree
Lisa designed this bright fairytale tree you see on this page. Her first intention was to go with the upside-down design at the top of the tree, meaning she wanted the bottom at the top. She arranged the now top of the tree with a huge variety of toys – stuffed animals, dolls, trains, wind-up toys, cars, planes, etc. She then filled in with gift wrapped boxes. A flying Santa Claus and Reindeer, soaring off the edge of the tree, completes the top (middle right photo). For more details on the unique tree decorating plan, click here to our full Upside-Down Christmas tree article.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Making Punch Art Christmas Cards & Gift Wrap

To make these gorgeous, intricate, three dimensional cards, I put a paper punch to a new and innovative use. The punch used was not a traditional Christmas tree, but rather a punch of a bare branched tree. Put lots of these punched elements together and you come up with the designs for the cards on this page. For the cards above we built paper wreath frames to set off some favorite photos. These are like little mini Christmas scrapbooks you can mail to friends and family, and give them a chance to visually catch up with your family.

If you don't have any photos you want to use in your cards, no problem. You can use the same punch to create elegant Christmas Tree cards like the ones at right. Whether your recipient is the old fashioned type or a hipster, you can use the same punch to create a unique card in either style.

Paper Punch Christmas Cards and Gift Wrap
For Detailed instructions on how to make the cards on this page, as well as a gift wrap using the same technique, click the links below.

Shop for Paper Punches at

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Book Feature - The Pastry Queen Christmas

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. While fine pastry recipes are definitely well represented in these pages, there's much, much more. There are holiday recipes of all kinds - from cocktail party appetizers to the formal main feast to thoughtful gifts you make in your own kitchen. Author Rebecca Rather also shares party plans for five unique holiday get togethers: Holiday Open House, Ranch Barn Brunch, Christmas Even, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve.

Since the author is the Pastry Queen of Fredericksburg, Texas (in the hill country) and owner of the Rather Sweet Bakery and Cafe, the book really shines when it comes to desserts. You'll find many spectacular, reputation making recipes you'll turn to over and over again, whenever you need to impress. There's also a substantial chapter on making gingerbread houses, so your holiday treats will look as good as they taste.

Rebecca's recipes are clear and well thought out, so you don't have to be a chef to get great results. Peppered throughout the pages are her tips and ideas for holiday decorating, gift giving, entertaining and fun. And while the subtitle of this book is "Big Hearted Entertaining Texas Style," the recipes and party ideas will work equally well outside the Lone Star State.

Click here for more information or to order through

Sample Recipes from The Pastry Queen Christmas: Big Hearted Entertaining Texas Style

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Thanksgiving History and Traditions

Have you ever been curious about why we celebrate holidays the way we do? Today I thought we'd explore the history behind Thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims may be the quintessential symbol of Thanksgiving, but the truth is, the Pilgrims never held a "Thanksgiving" feast.

The actual "First Thanksgiving" most likely refers to a mid October feast the pilgrims held in 1621, after their first successful harvest in the new land. Since the pilgrims never repeated the celebration, it can't really be called the start of a tradition. It is also doubtful that the devoutly religious Pilgrims would have had termed it a "Thanksgiving feast" either, as giving thanks would have called for a day of fasting and prayer.

A Native American named Squanto was said to befriend the Pilgrims and it is doubtful they would have survived the first harsh New England winter without him. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to tap maple trees for sap, how to plant Indian corn and other crops as well as which plants in the surrounding areas were poisonous and which had healing powers.

The resulting October harvest was so successful, the Pilgrims had stored enough food to sustain them through the winter with plenty to spare. There were smoked cured meats, fish packed in salt cures, fruits, vegetables and the American staff of life, corn.

We do know a few facts about the first feast. For instance it can be assumed that it was held in the great outdoors, as the colonists didn't have buildings large enough to accommodate the large number of guests. If you've ever spent an autumn in New England, you know this can be a chilly proposition. Turkey was probably served, as was pumpkin or squash in one form or another. One entree that hasn't stood the test of time is venison, a staple of the ninety or so Native Americans who were invited to the celebration, including Squanto and Chief Massasoit.

The first feast was, in essence, a big pot luck dinner that went on for three (count them) days! In addition to turkeys and venison, the dinner probably included ducks, geese and even swans. There were games, races and demonstrations of skills with bows and arrows and muskets, making a true festival atmosphere.

Customs of celebrating an annual day of Thanksgiving after the autumn harvest began to spring up in the colonies, but didn't get national recognition until the late 1770's when it was suggested by the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. New York officially adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom in 1817, and many other states soon followed suit, but it wasn't until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national day of Thanksgiving. Since then, each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, usually designating the fourth Thursday of each November as the holiday.

Our neighbors in Canada celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October, a time closer in fact to the date of the first feast. Official Canadian observance of Thanksgiving began in 1879.

While that covers the traditions of modern Thanksgiving in a nutshell, the day's true history actually goes back far before the Pilgrims arrived in the New World. Harvest festivals were held by many ancient civilizations. The ancient Greeks honored Demeter, the goddess of grains, each autumn at the festival of Thesmosphoria. The Romans celebrated a harvest festival called Cehrefia, which honored Ceres their goddess of corn. The harvest festival, Chung Ch'ui was celebrated by the ancient Chinese with the full moon that fell on the 15th day of the 8th month. Hebrew families have celebrated a harvest festival called Sukkoth for over 3000 years. The ancient Egyptians celebrated their harvest festival in the spring to honor Min, their god of vegetation and fertility.

So this Thanksgiving when you sit down to feast, think about the ancient tradition that is still kept alive today through the sharing of food, family, friends, and love.

More on Thanksgiving

The Care and Cleaning of Rubber Stamps and Ink Pads

Care for your rubber stamps and ink pads and they will last a long, long, long time.

Storing Rubber Stamps
The most important thing to remember is to store your rubber stamps away from direct sunlight as this can eventually damage the rubber. Other than that, where you keep them is up to you. Many people like shallow boxes where the stamps can be stored in a single, easy to look at, layer. I use hanging clear shoe bags to store a lot of stamps in the closet. If you have a creative stamp storage solution, let us know!

Cleaning Rubber Stamps
It's important to keep your rubber stamps clean, otherwise the ink from one project is likely to bleed onto the prints of another. That said, some inks stain and will be impossible to get completely clean. Learn the difference between a stain, which won't effect future use of the stamp, and dried on ink, which will.

Try to clean rubber stamps as soon after using them as possible. If you clean your stamps quickly, water is often all that's necessary. You can also buy special stamp cleaning fluid from your crafts store (this is especially necessary when using solvent inks.

Another handy item available at your stamp or craft supply store is a stamp cleaning pad. This resembles a large white ink pad but instead of foam it has a fabric scrubbing surface. You spray your stamps with cleaning fluid, then scrub it back and forth on one side of the scrubber pad to get the ink off, then the other side to dry the stamp.

A couple of household items can also come in handy when cleaning rubber stamps. An old toothbrush can help to gently scrub stubborn ink out of detail areas of a stamp.

Baby wipes also do a good job of cleaning inked rubber stamps, providing they are alcohol and lint free.

Storing and Caring for Stamp Pads
Old stamp pads never die -- they just get re-inked. Don't throw out your stamp pads, you can buy bottles of refill ink and bring them back to life. Inks come in small squeeze bottles. To re-ink your pad, spread a thin layer of ink as evenly as possible over the pad, then use a stiff piece of card stock or a piece of heavy plastic (such as an old credit card) to drag across the pad and spread the ink.

There is no need to store foam pads upside down, although felt dye based ink pads can benefit from this. Be careful storing rainbow pads -- keep them level or their inks could run together.

More on Rubber Stamping

Autumn Leaves Greeting Card

This easy to make greeting card is perfect for Thanksgiving or any autumn occasion.

You Will Need:
green blank card to match your envelope size
coordinating green paper for mat
maple leaf rubber stamp and ink
ribbon scraps
small pop dots adhesives
glue stick or adhesive of choice
ribbon threading punch or craft knife
leaves background stamp (optional)

Cut and fold card blank.

Cut a piece of coordinating green paper for mat.

If desired, use a leafy background stamp and dark green ink to stamp a background pattern on the green papers (this is a subtle effect that is barely visible in the photo). Use the same dark green ink to ink the edges of the front of the card and the mat. You could, alternatively, leave the green paper blank.

Stamp 3 small maple leaves, color them with markers and cut out. Use pop dot adhesives to attach the leaves in a 3-dimensional form to the front of the card as shown.

Use a ribbon punch or a craft knife to cut small parallel slits in the paper through which to thread your ribbon. Tie top ribbon in a bow as shown in the photo above.