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Last Minute Oscar Party Planning Ideas That Blend Hollywood Glamour with Glitzy Fun

Last Minute Oscar Party Planning Ideas That Blend Hollywood Glamour with Glitzy Fun

I have a confession: I don’t hate the Oscars. I know I’m supposed to grumble about how you can’t really objectively judge art, but my wife and I watch every year. I’ll also pretend I don’t know who everyone is, saying things like, “What’s a Hayden Panettiere,” or whatever, but I peruse the celeb clickbait articles. Sure, I’ll tell myself that my fingers did so on their own, but we know the truth. When it comes down to it, I still love the glamour of Hollywood.

oscar party invitation
Your invitation to the Oscars | Image courtesy Etsy seller KristenMcGillivray

What I don’t love, is throwing an Oscar party, because the Oscars are kind of weird, right? If you have friends over for the game, you can talk during it. If people are over to watch a movie, you don’t really talk at all (that’s not a hypothetical: you do not talk during movies at my house).

But the Oscars are different. You want to hear what the people are saying so you can joke about it, but you don’t want total silence, since hearing a millionaire thank their investment consultant can get a little tedious. It’s long stretches of tedium punctuated by drama and excitement.

But, I finally realized, that doesn’t have to be limiting for a party. In fact, it’s liberating. It gives you a chance to do some cool stuff as a host to break up the long stretches, and to make sure that everyone is having a good time throughout. I mean, I can’t promise that your guests are going to have as good a night as someone who wins an Oscar. But, they’ll have a much better time than someone whose idea of an Oscar night event used to be fake-complaining to their wife (and, it goes without saying, a way better time than the wife).

Here are a few ways to make sure your party is better-remembered than Crash. Envelope, please?

Oscar Ballots, Red Carpets, and Gift Baskets

Fruit basket prize
A Golden State variety gift basket | Image courtesy Amazon seller Golden State Fruit

This activity is a no-brainer. Have everyone fill out a form picking the winners—but not just the standard categories. Feel free to be creative! Some ideas include:

  • Longest speech
  • First person to mention politics
  • Jokes made by the host that no one laughs at
  • Most revealing dress
  • Times the camera cuts to George Clooney grinning ruefully

Of course, the winner needs a prize. A gift basket is the way to go here, like the bags every attendee of the big show gets to take home. It’s no different than studios wining and dining voters.

And, you can present the prize on its very own “red carpet,” or, basically, a fancy red table runner. This is also where your snacks and appetizers can be shown off, along with whimsically framed photos of celebs, if you’d like. The size differential will let movie stars know that, no matter how famous and beloved they are, pigs in a blanket are always more important.

Elegantly Dressed Appetizers

fondant cake toppers
Fondant makes it easy | Image courtesy Etsy seller SugarDecorByLetty

OK, maybe pigs in a blanket aren’t terribly Hollywood, although they have a permanent place at any of my parties. Here are a few more elegant options:

  • Spinach and goat cheese tartlets: You can change the name of these to “starlets,” if you want to make it more movie-like.
  • Seared steak lettuce cups: The steak makes you think of the decadent glamour of old Hollywood, while the lettuce reminds you of the health-conscious stars of today.
  • Blue crab beignets: Old ideas made fancy. Sound familiar?
  • Ham and cheese croquettes: Every year there’s a movie about a hardscrabble blue-collar family rising above it all. Here’s a tribute to them. Also, it’s ham and cheese, and you literally can’t go wrong with it.  

And, for dessert, just add pre-made Hollywood inspired fondant toppers to homemade (or store bought) cupcakes for an easy way to make them shine brighter than the faux diamonds on all those dresses.

Popcorn: Since the Dawn of the Movie Era

It’s sort of weird that there’s one food explicitly connected with movies, right? When we’re in a movie theater, we feel we must get popcorn. Frankly, I love that. I love movie popcorn to a (literally) unhealthy degree. And so do most people, which is why you should have it at your party.

popcorn bar
Make your Oscar party pop… sorry | Image courtesy Etsy seller penandpaperflowers

Get a popper, get some butter and salt, and, if you’re me, that’s all you need for popcorn bliss.

However, other people seem to want more varieties, which is why popcorn bars have become so popular lately. You’ll need sweets, lots of different seasonings, and classic treat bags. People can have all the popcorn they want, and can really feel like they’re at the movies.

And then, when everyone is settled in their seats, snacks at hand, ballots counted, surprise one or two of your friends with a custom-made Oscar. This has to be planned in advance, of course, but it’s a great way to round out an evening.

The winner of the ballots gets the fruit basket, but you can also pick friends for idiosyncratic awards, like your friend who eats popcorn one kernel at a time, or the friend who shushes everyone at the end of each commercial break. My award would be “Most Likely To Pretend Not to Like Something He’ll Spend Four Hours Reading About Tomorrow.” Everyone can go home with a trophy. And everyone can be a winner, without having to appear on the cover of Us Weekly every time you want to buy some hot dogs.

You can have a great Oscar party at your house, with people whose company you enjoy, to celebrate one of the more harmlessly goofy things in American life: being genuinely happy or upset for people who will be jetting to Paris the next day. You’ll realize, when it’s over, that you may have been reluctant, but it was worth it. It’s an honor just to have friends to spend time with. And you can nominate yourself for that.

Tell us your best Oscar party stories on our Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, or Instagram @Elfstergram. And, for carefree gifting inspiration, browse our gift guides.

Simple and Sweet DIY Coworker Valentine’s Day Gift Ideas for the Office

Simple and Sweet DIY Coworker Valentine’s Day Gift Ideas for the Office

office valentine
Image courtesy Etsy seller KerrysBungalow

There are few questions more fraught in the workplace than, “So, do you have Valentine’s Day plans?” It can lead to some awkward moments. The answer could be, “No, for I have yet to find love,” or, “We’re going skydiving with heart-shaped parachutes,” and then everyone else feels like scrambling to improve their plans. And many people just say, “I don’t really do Valentine’s Day.”

Work relationships are an interesting middle ground in our lives. You spend a ton of time at work, and really get to know people, but being too gushy is sometimes frowned upon. It makes Valentine’s Day delicate.

That’s why you should just have fun with it—and where the idea of a gift exchange can come in. Having a no-pressure, slightly goofy gift exchange on Valentine’s Day means everyone gets something, everyone gives something. After all, there’s nothing worse than being the one kid who didn’t get a card in their little cardboard box. Help your coworkers avoid heartbreak with these Valentine’s Day gift ideas for the office.

The Sweet Tooth Swap

I know, I know: Valentine’s Day comes right after you’ve finally worked through all the candy and sweets at your house from the holidays, but, on the other hand: more candy.

tabletop candy decorations
Sweet desktop decorations turn the office into a candyland | Image courtesy Etsy seller SweetGiftsbyStar

Having a “Sweet Tooth Swap” can be a fun and low-cost office gift exchange. Everyone just brings their favorite candy, whether it’s a tube of Toblerone’s, a bag of assorted Hershey’s Nuggets, or those cool “passport chocolates.” It’s a nice idea because everyone will get some sweet treats, regardless of their relationship status.

That’s the thing with Valentine’s Day: it’s a centuries-old tradition, but many people think it’s a “made-up” and commercialized holiday and that the various pressures are absurd. But the pressures often still feel real. So a candy exchange is a “sweet” way to lighten the office mood, especially if the gifting includes festive decor and some party activities, like:

  • Decorate desks with candy centerpieces (especially if you can pay for it with company money).
  • Have a goofy toy bow-and-arrow, like Cupid’s, that the person picking a candy gift holds. Tell them not to shoot it at any coworkers—they aren’t actually cupid, after all.  
  • Play games. I know I said not to shoot the arrows at each other, but if you have room in the office, set up a paper heart on the wall and have a competition to see who can hit the center of it with the arrows. Make sure, though, that the arrows are foam.  
  • Have a “Worst Valentine’s Day Ever” story competition. Everyone tells a quick, funny story. We all have them. Mine, for instance, involves a very unfortunately spilled bowl of soup. That way, everyone can laugh at how silly the whole thing can be.

Office Inspired Gift Exchange Ideas

Maybe your office has decided against candy; after all, a lot of workplaces are very concerned with health and wellness these days. But a “granola exchange” rarely sets hearts fluttering. Remember, though, that Valentine’s Day doesn’t just mean hearts: it encompasses affection, kindness, and thoughtfulness for everyone in our life.

des korganizer
A rustic chic look for the office | Image courtesy Etsy seller StacysCountryDesigns

And, it can be really helpful to set up a gift exchange online to make sure that everyone gets something, and that people stay within their spending limits. No need to put more pressure on the occasion.

Here are some simple and fun office gift exchange ideas:

Decorative pen holders. Something desk-related is always appreciated, whether it’s a cool and crafty pen holder, a fun decoration for the cubicle, a stress-reliever, or anything else small and work-appropriate. It’s nice because the recipient will think about the giver multiple times during the day, which helps create possibly unexpected connections in the workplace.

Personalized mugs. Most people you work with drink either coffee or tea. Instead of having a random hodgepodge of mugs around the office, encourage cupid to bring personalized mugs with funny sayings that will be meaningful to the recipient. Maybe they have a catchphrase, or an inside joke, or a funny quote from a client, like “I didn’t know ‘this Thursday” meant this Thursday!” It shows you know something about them, and that you pay attention to them as a human being. That matters, and they’ll think about it with every sip.

downloadable coupons
Downloadable coupon printables from Elfster | Download here

Homemade baked goods. OK, this isn’t totally healthy, but who doesn’t like baked goods. Exchanging these leads to more exchanges, as people swap a few of their mini-cupcakes for cookies or homemade heart-shaped macaroons. And, it may even lead to an intra-office recipe swap!

The classic coupon: Here’s an easy way to make someone’s day a lot better. We know that couples often exchange these, but downloadable Valentine’s coupons can also be great at work. Giving someone a coupon that says, “I’ll take the lead on a client call of your choice,” or “I’ll stay late to teach you Excel,” or “Good for one lunch on me” can make a demonstrable difference in someone’s day. You can also do a White Elephant-type swap on these—someone who needs to learn Excel might really appreciate it.

Valentine’s Day in the workplace should be about bonding, and having fun, and poking a hole in the pressure-filled romance of the day. The point here is to laugh and have a good time. You can turn this sometimes-difficult holiday on its head, and make it great for everyone.

By setting the right mood, and making sure that everyone’s involved, you can craft a Valentine’s Day remembered not for awkwardness and oversharing, but for genuine laughter and camaraderie. And isn’t that what the office should really be about?  

Let us know your work Valentine’s stories on Facebook, Twitter @Elfster, or Instagram @Elfstergram. And don’t forget to download our printable Valentine’s Day coupons!

National Send a Card to a Friend Day: Letter Writing Inspirations and Ideas

National Send a Card to a Friend Day: Letter Writing Inspirations and Ideas

“Oh, my stars! It’s a letter from dear Willeford! He’s writing from far off America!”

3d butterfly card
Say it in 3D | Image courtesy Etsy seller anasdesignshop

You’ve probably watched a scene just like this one on some BBC period drama, with sumptuous clothes and weirdly bad lighting and various viscounts—and a character exclaiming delightedly at receiving a letter.

It’s almost unimaginable that there was a time when you could go months without word from a loved one, instead of reading about the daily life of grade-school acquaintances on social media. But there’s also probably a twinge of regret; regret that you don’t get letters anymore. The mail is often nothing more than ads and bills—there’s no mystery.

We’ve gained so much from instant communication, but we’ve also lost something. That’s why we’re so excited that National Send a Card to a Friend Day is coming around this February 7th. When you send a card, a letter, or an e-greeting, you’re giving so much more than a piece of paper. You’re giving a gift of yourself. You’re giving the gift of words. You’re sending love in an envelope—even if it’s a digital one.

Greeting Cards Are an Unexpected Event

chalkboard style card
Cards that send a message | Image courtesy Amazon seller Note Card Cafe

If you’re like me, when you get a card in the mail, you look at the envelope a few times, almost confused. You see the return address with a familiar name, but it’s not your birthday. It’s not Christmas. It’s just…a day. And that’s when you start to get excited.

You’re excited because it’s unexpected. It could be an invitation to a party, or the announcement of a baby. You open it, and it’s a note. It’s a card, hand-written. It’s heartfelt. It matters because the meaning behind it is that you were thought of.

And it’s the same with an e-card. We get so much junk and nonsense in our inboxes and social media feeds all day that the unexpected ping of something sent just because you’re you makes an enormous difference. The surprise of an e-card cuts through the chaff of our never-emptying inbox, and sends the gift of brightness.

Now, with this holiday, it’s not about everyone getting a card on the 7th. That would be had to coordinate, given the times it takes mail to be delivered. Of course, you can do that with e-cards but, otherwise, we’re looking to send them on the 7th. So get some blank cards, stock up on envelopes, stretch out your hand, and put pen to paper.

Prompts and Inspirations to Send Your Love

Obviously, we can’t tell you exactly what to say, but we can give some ideas, some prompts, some bits of inspiration:

vintage letter art print
Reading a letter used to be an everyday scene | Image courtesy Etsy seller OakwoodView

Send best wishes. Remember that these cards don’t have to be written to your best friend in the whole world. They can be to a relative you don’t talk to enough, an acquaintance with whom your main interaction is the occasional Facebook “like,” or an old neighbor who you used to hang out with until you moved away. Just send a card saying you’re thinking about them, and hope they’re doing well. Tell them you miss them. And that’s enough.

Send something personal. All cards are inherently personal, but make sure that what you’re writing isn’t mass-produced, but directed to a specific person. Ask something about them, let them know that you’re writing with them in mind. We don’t expect this from an invitation or a thank you note from a wedding, but when sending a card out of the blue, take the time to make it a reflection of your relationship.

Send your personality. Remember that while you’re sending the card to a person, you’re sending it from yourself. So find a card that reflects who you are, and how you’re feeling. Are you sending warmth and love? Are you feeling goofy? Do you want to send cute animals or cute actors (goslings and Goslings)? The writing is what matters, of course, but you also want to make sure the card makes people think of you with a smile on their face when they see it.

llama greeting card
Hay, girl! There’s a card for any personality | Image courtesy Etsy seller GreymountPaperPress

Send gratitude. Sometimes, you just want to tell a person that you appreciate them. It might be for doing you a solid one time, or it might be because you’re happy they exist, just knowing that they’re out there with their own personalities, with their greatness and their flaws, with their huge heart and goofy laugh. You’re grateful that you know them. Your life is better for knowing them. Because life is measured by the people we let into our hearts, and who we are is shaped by those around us.

Send a photo. I know there are over 82,000 pictures of you online, most of which involve cake of some kind, for some reason. Those are cool, but there’s something great about holding a tangible photo. If you have a real, printed picture of you with a friend or family memeber, whether you printed it off your phone or dug it out of a shoebox, that matters. It moves from ephemeral to tangible. It’s a great thing to get in a card. It’s an amber-captured smile.

Send something funny. I once got a card from an old friend of mine telling me a goofy story that just happened to her. She said that only I would get why it was so funny, and it cracked me up. It reminded me of absurd things happening when we would hang out and how we’d laugh like idiots until everyone else backed off, confused. A card doesn’t have to be ooey-gooey to be meaningful. The funny story reminded me of our friendship, and was an incredible thing to get out of the blue. I felt that old connection every time I looked at it. And I laughed. That’s not a bad deal.

stationary set
A stationary set to inspire | Image courtesy Etsy seller DPanesarillustration

Send a memory. A card is something that you’ll dig up a few years later, buried in a drawer or a scrapbook, and you’ll remember when you got it, and how exciting it was. But the card itself can contain a memory. You can write someone and say, “I was just thinking of that time we drove all night to catch the concert,” or, “I was just remembering how you held me when I found out she was sick,” or anything else. It’s a bond, it’s a remembrance reaching out from the page. Each sentence, each letter, contains the sound of the band or the smell of the salty breeze or the arm wrapped around you in your sorrow—and a gratitude for their friendship.

That’s what’s amazing about sending a letter. You’re making the effort to reach out, to connect in a way outside of the speed and impermanence of our modern world. There is so much to love about the way we communicate in the modern, technological era, but there is also much to love in what we’ve lost.

But you can find it again. This February 7th, sit down and write a letter. You don’t need wax seals or trained birds or a fancy Victorian desk. You just need to think about a person, wonder what they would love to open, and get to writing. A letter is more than a piece of paper. It’s a gift that can only come from one person, and that might be the most meaningful gift of all.

Let us know your most unexpected card story on our Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, or Instagram @Elfstergram. And, for carefree gifting inspiration, browse our gift guides.

A World of Possibilities: How Technology Has Changed the Psychology Behind Gift Giving

A World of Possibilities: How Technology Has Changed the Psychology Behind Gift Giving

A world map of possibilities
Online shopping has given us a new world of gifts, instead of the same Celtic Cross ornament I once bought my mom two years in a row. | Image courtesy Etsy seller SunnyRainFactory

The other day, sitting at my desk at work, I got a whiff of something in the air—maybe it was a dish someone heated in the microwave that had a distinct food court air, or a hint of the outdoor chill lingering in someone’s jacket, or it was just the early-dimming light of a late December afternoon—but I was transported back into a memory.

There I was, wandering around a childhood mall the first year I could drive, trying to find Christmas gifts for my family. This scene repeated itself probably 3 or 4 years in a row: banging around a run-down suburban mall, knowing I’d end up at the bookstore or the Irish tchotchke place, but hoping that I would inadvertently stumble across something with real meaning.

Anyone raised pre-internet likely has a similar gift-giving coming of age story from their teenage years, but recent technological advances have changed many aspects of our lives, including gifting. Possibilities have opened up, and we’ve adjusted our expectations of ourselves and others. As we adapt to this new reality, it’s important to look at the psychology behind how we give, and how it’s being impacted by the Tech Age.

A Change in Possibilities—and Expectations

For a long time, most of history really, two things have happened when someone gave you a Christmas list. It was either physically accessible or it wasn’t, with accessibility very slowly improving over time.

Let’s say you lived in a small town in 1885, for instance, and your daughter wanted a new doll, or a stick with a hoop, or something else old-timey for Christmas. You were left hoping the corner store had it, or you’d be getting her whatever it was they did have in stock for the holiday. It was disappointing, but the reality.

sears roebuck catalog
19th century gifting inspiration | Image courtesy Amazon seller Skyhorse Publishing

Now, say this happens a few years later in 1893. The new Sears-Roebuck catalog, which had just started printing in 1888, arrives at your door. This year it features more than just jewelry, everything from baby carriages and guns to clothes and a whole lot of stuff you never even knew you needed. There were also some toys, including a doll. And, just like that, you weren’t beholden to the local store—you now lived in the massively expanded world of the mail-order catalog. You and your family had higher expectations for gifts, although still tempered by a limited availability.

Fast forward to today and there are suddenly no limitations, except the laws of physics and the astonishing speed of international shipping. You want a doll? What doll in the world do you want? Where do you want it from? And when do you want it? Nearly anything can arrive at your door in a matter of weeks after a search that takes just a matter of minutes.

This is incredibly exciting for gift giving, which now isn’t met with the same sort of dread of letting someone down, or of not getting the right thing, or of guessing. Because not only can you find exactly what your recipient wants, but there doesn’t have to be any vagueness. You can even publicize your wish list online for all to see!

For the gift-giver, of course, this imputes a certain responsibility—you don’t have an excuse to just run to the mall and pick up whatever is available. You also shouldn’t improvise as much, because there is even less a reason to make the gift about yourself. You have a golden opportunity to get someone exactly what they want.

The Downside to Knowing Everything

handmade doll
The doll of any little girl’s dreams | Image courtesy Etsy seller piggyhatespanda

Now, to be sure, there are people who think this alters gift-giving etiquette a bit too much, that the gift-giver just becomes a vessel for wish-fulfillment or a living, breathing Amazon gift card (i.e. person enters what they want, and it appears without spending any money). Where, you might ask, is the surprise? The shock? That squeal of good fortune?

And I think there’s some validity to that argument. After all, there’s a certain anticipatory glow when someone is opening your gift, and you’re wondering if they’re going to like it or not. There’s also the joy that comes when you realize you’ve “nailed it,” and showed someone exactly how much you care about them—and know them. That’s always rewarding.

But then again, isn’t the point the happiness of the recipient? And they will be happy when they open something that sparked their interest enough to add it to a wish list. They won’t be disappointed. You don’t have to worry or panic anymore. You’ll be the person who got them something with meaning, and you did it by doing the most important thing you can during the gift-giving season: listening. That matters. That shows love.

The Ability to Buy for Anyone Around the World

And that love that you show can now be spread around the world. Our ability to communicate has changed dramatically over the last generation, and even more so this century alone since the introduction of smartphones and the rise of app-based ecosystems. I mean, you’re now able to hold real gatherings, helped by video conferencing, with friends and family a world away!

Elfster app
Appy Christmas! | Elfster app image from itunes.com

Technology, like gift giving and wish list apps, now allow us to create a circle of friends around the country, or even the world. You can easily organize gift exchanges, virtually fulfilling wish lists and opening presents despite the fact you can’t physically be in the same room, everyone sipping their preferred eggnog.

It’s hard to overstate what that means. As life drifts on, we also drift. Friends and family drift apart. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Technology, which in some ways has made us more atomized and pushed us deeper into our own intellectual bubbles, can also do the opposite. It can bring us together, and remind us of who we are, who we love.

We give because we love someone and want them to be happy. We’re now able to ensure that happiness, that their smile is just about them, and not our relief that the thing we found is in the ballpark of their desires. Instead, thanks to technology, it’s exactly what they want. And, importantly, they got it not by pushing a button, but because someone cared enough to gift it to them.

That’s what giving is all about. And now we can gift more freely, without panic, without fear, without the limitations of prairie-store toy aisles, without the store-peeking desperation of teenage procrastination, but with love, friendship, and kindness. There is a purity of our motivations now, made possible by technology, but an essential reality in our hearts.

Let us know how happy gift giving makes you by connecting with us on Facebook, Twitter @Elfster, or Instagram @Elfstergram. And, for carefree gifting inspiration, browse our gift guides for anyone on your list.

‘Tis Better to Give: Reciprocal Altruism and the Psychology of Gift Giving

‘Tis Better to Give: Reciprocal Altruism and the Psychology of Gift Giving

heart in hands
Image courtesy flick’r user Sean McGrath

I used to be terrible at gift giving. I was always prolific in my gifts, sure, but I wasn’t very good at picking them out—I often bought gifts based on what I liked, and what I assumed the recipient should like. “Here!,” I was basically saying, “I loved this book, so you certainly should as well.” And that tends to make for a bad present—not only is it not what the person in question wants, but it puts pressure on them to act like they enjoy it. Your gift becomes a sort of litmus test, even if that’s not your intention.

Because that’s the thing: there’s a psychology to gift giving. There’s a lot of social interplays, expectations, and realities at work behind the scenes. But there’s also a joyful and deeply human reason why we love giving gifts, why giving people something makes us so happy, and why the cliché about how it is better to give than to receive is actually true. In order to really enjoy the entirety of gift giving, though, we have to understand the psychology behind it.

And, it all seems to start with this first lesson: know thyself.

The Concept of Reciprocal Altruism

I’m going to digress here in what seems like a weird tangent. Years ago, I was leaving a girlfriend’s house. It was a cold, midwest morning, so I brushed the snow off her car so she could easily get to work. As I was doing it, I wondered if I was brushing her car off because I was a good guy, or if it was just that I wanted to act like a decent sort of bloke.

custom pendant necklace
Know thyself was the first lesson of the oracles, and, ironically the best way to pick a gift | Image courtesy Etsy seller ExpressioneryPendant

But then I was struck: what’s really the difference? Maybe, just maybe, there isn’t one. I was being selfless (it really was freezing), but for selfish reasons. I wanted her to see me as a gentleman. And yet, regardless, her car was cleaned of the snow. There was a real lesson there—i.e., motivations are complicated.

Indeed, if you look at the theory of reciprocal altruism, popularized by the neuroscientist Stephen Pinker, our inherent generosity is somewhat complicated. The theory is basically that if, in our prehistoric history, you helped someone fight off a lion, at some point they would help you build a fire. It was these mutual chains of dependence, based not on innate selflessness, but on mutual need, that led to our being hardwired for generosity.

A lot of people don’t like this theory. They think it’s too deterministic, too materialistic, and really, just not very romantic. But, just like me heroically brushing some snow off a windshield, it doesn’t really matter what the ultimate motivation is. What matters is that the other person is happy. That’s the real heart of gift giving, and that’s why you have to know yourself.

You have to really think about your motivations. After all, you may ultimately be giving a gift because it makes you feel good to do so, but are you giving a gift to show off how great a gift giver you can be? Or are you doing it to genuinely make the other person feel happy? If it’s the latter, that warm glow you feel for bringing a smile to their face is totally earned.

Mutually-Assured Delight

That’s what I finally managed to do this year. I read, months ago, that the author of a cookbook my wife loved was coming out with a new book. Mimi Thorisson wrote A Kitchen in France, which we had used to make our rustic farmhouse feast. Anyway, Mimi had written a new book, called French Country Cooking. My wife, surprisingly, hadn’t mentioned it, so I assumed she hadn’t heard about it yet.

French Country Cooking | Image courtesy Amazon
French Country Cooking | Image courtesy Amazon

Naturally, I bought the book. Normally I may have bought her some novel I loved, or an album that would show just how deep and interesting and full of good taste I was—because I was making the gift about me. But this was different. This was entirely, 100% about what she wanted, and what would make her happy. And it worked: she let out an audible squeal of glee when she unwrapped it.

Hearing that squeal made me feel good—great even. It’s a feeling I recognized from flickering videos of our early Christmases, when the camera caught one of my parents smiling contentedly as their jittery Irish brood tore nuclear havoc through a flurry of beautiful tissue and wrapping paper. They were happy because we were happy, and their happiness was something genuine and pure. And that’s the right way to give a gift.

The thing is, I think people make two big mistakes when gifting:

  1. They make the gift entirely about themselves, only thinking about the reciprocal part of the altruism; or
  2. They deny themselves the pleasure of giving a gift, making it a miserable exercise in abnegation.

I should say there is no wrong way to give a gift, but both of these do seem wrong to me. When giving a gift, you should recognize and cater to the recipient’s happiness, but be glad that you’ll get enough from it as well.

3 Ways Psychology Affects Your Gifting

There are a few normal human psychological quirks that impact the gifts we give, and how we give them. Recognizing these traits can help you reduce the nervousness that comes with giving.

This is the thin gateway toward mutual happiness | Image courtesy Target
This is the thin gateway toward mutual happiness | Image courtesy Target

1. The fear of looking like there’s something you don’t know: It’s the same reason we sometimes don’t ask, “What do you want for Christmas?” We think it makes us seem like we don’t want to think about ideas on our own—or like we’re unsure of ourselves.

The solution: Ask! Asking someone what they want isn’t a sign that you don’t know them well enough, it’s a sign you love them enough to get them something they truly want. It’s a kindness, not a shortcut.

2. The fear of trying and failing: It’s way easier to imagine you’d be good at something, and not do it, than to do it and fail. So it is with gift giving. If we try to find the perfect gift, and it isn’t, in fact, perfect, we feel deflated, which is why we sometimes deliberately don’t put any thought into a present.

The solution: Try anyway. If you try to give a loved one something that matters, but come up short, that still means a lot more than giving a default, thoughtless gift. The effort actually does matter. Don’t let that “I don’t want to be wrong” voice overpower your “I want to do my best” voice.

3. The need to one-up yourself: Think of a basketball player who is really good at shooting three-pointers. They’ve gotten so good at it that the ability loses value for them, and they begin to think they also need to start trying to dunk more—a skill beyond their reach. We do that to ourselves by thinking that if we gave a great gift last year, we have to give a better one this year—and it has to be something completely different.

The solution: Don’t. Don’t do this to yourself. I’m not saying you should give the same thing every year. But don’t think, “Well, he really liked that subscription I got him to Foreign Policy, but now I have to change gears entirely!” If someone liked something, they liked it. It isn’t about the novelty, it’s about their tastes. Keep that in mind, and you’ll feel great about what you give.

It’s not selfish or inhuman to want to feel good about something you’ve done for someone else. It gets to the heart of gift giving, whether you see it as a tradition dating back to the earliest human stalking around the savannah, or your coworkers playing Secret Santa at the office Christmas party. You’re happy because you made someone else happy. You smile because you created a smile.

And you know what? That means the recipient of the gift gave you one as well. And then, your happiness becomes a secondary gift back to them. It’s mutual, it’s circular, it’s something both parties enjoy, and it’s what ultimately makes us human by reminding us that we’re all in this together—that love, mutual respect, and seeing another person as worthy of a gift, of a smile, of basic kindness, is the only way we can make it through the sometimes dark and lion-filled plains of life. And understanding that is maybe the greatest gift of all.

Let us know how happy gift giving makes you by connecting with us on Facebook, Twitter @Elfster, or Instagram @Elfstergram. And, for carefree gifting inspiration, browse our gift guides.

Christmas Wrapping Party Ideas to Get Organized While Getting in the Spirit

Christmas Wrapping Party Ideas to Get Organized While Getting in the Spirit

festive wrapping supplies
The key to organization is the right festive supplies.

Gifts are my favorite Christmas decoration. Each present is its own story—mysterious and offering the promise of joy—and the wrapping paper is the prologue. Watching as they are opened, and the heartfelt gifts inside discovered, is the beautiful conclusion. Each box or bag is filled with potential, symbols of upcoming happiness that embody the giddy anticipation of the holiday season. So, yeah, I love wrapped gifts. But actually wrapping them, that’s a whole other story.

Wrapping a Christmas’ worth of gifts can be time-consuming and stressful. Really, it used to be the worst part of the season for me. I enjoy wrapping each individual one, but all of them together? Too much. So, last year I decided that I’d really buckle down and find a way to make it fun. I’d be organized to save time, have a plan to reduce stress, and make it an all-out event so that rather than be opposed to the Christmas spirit, wrapping helped to create the spirit inside of me.

I quickly realized a blend of organization techniques and seasonal fun would be required to reduce my stress. I also tried to keep in mind that what I was doing would end in joy, and sincere appreciation. By organizing my wrapping workstation, and inviting in the festive feelings, wrapping was no longer a chore—for me, it’s become a warm and vital part of my Christmas traditions.

Start with Organization to Find the Fun

Creating a designated space was the very first thing I did last year. I went into my basement and set up a table specifically for wrapping—a folding table and chair are essential. If you have a craft table in a spare room, or a room specifically for crafts, you’re ahead of the game. But if not, don’t think that you can get away with sitting on the floor. You’ll be very uncomfortable and sore after a few hours.

glow-in-the-dark gift bags
Glow-in-the-dark bags help your kids find their gifts when they wake up before dawn | Image courtesy Amazon seller Christmas Delights

Next, make sure you have a comprehensive checklist. You aren’t going to want to go out and get more supplies halfway through your gifts. Here’s my basic checklist:

  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • Wrapping paper
  • Gift tags
  • Markers
  • Ribbon
  • White tissue paper
  • Gift bags with matching tissue paper, for those hard-to-wrap items

For a long time, I didn’t really use gift boxes. After all, most of what I bought was in a box, and if it wasn’t, I’d just wrap a very oddly-shaped present. But I’ve definitely begun to recognize the power of the gift box. I make sure to keep any box I accrue throughout the year for use at Christmastime—shoeboxes work great for this, and they can continue to be reused for years.

A theme—one specific color or general pattern—can also help you stay on task, and cut down on your needed number of supplies. This year I’m doing brown paper packages tied up with string. It’s not bland, it’s like something out of a Dickens’ novel. Using cool twine adds a surprising, modern pop to this vintage look.

Sounds of the Season to Up the Spirit

Now that you’ve gotten organized to help make the wrapping go more quickly, you may start to realize that you don’t need it to go faster. Indeed, taking your time and really getting into the spirit of the task should become an essential part of the season. In fact, you can make a party out of it!

That’s right, this year I’ve decided to go all out—I’m inviting friends over for a wrap party. We’re going to have a few workstations, with all of the organizational stuff listed above, so that everything runs smoothly. And, I’ll be making a Christmas tunes playlist—my house, my carols. I always include everything from the classics to the quirky:

Christmas movies and music
The sounds of the season.
  • White Christmas” by Bing Crosby. I mean, of course. It’s the best Christmas song ever.
  • Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” by Sufjan Stevens. A sweet and classic-seeming quirkfest from the most Christmas-y alt-rocker.
  • Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag” by Hollyridge Strings. Often played, this mid-60s strings-version feels like you’re in Don Draper’s apartment.
  • Christmastime Blues” by John Lee Hooker. Celebrate Christmas—in a bayou blues shack.
  • Christmas on Riverside Drive” by August Darnell. Have yourself a very funky Christmas.
  • Christmas in Hollis” by Run DMC. One of the first, great early rap Christmas songs.
  • Christmas Rappin” by Kurtis Blow. From 1979, this actually might be the first Christmas rap song.
  • It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Mr. Johnny Cash. My favorite Christmas song, sung with perfect awe by the Man in Black.
  • Christmas Island” by The Andrews Sisters. A cool, tropical song that makes you feel like you’re listening while thinking of your best girl waiting for you to get home from war.
  • Sleigh Ride” by the Ronettes. If you’re going to listen to classic songs, why not go with a “Wall-of-Sound” style girl band from the 60s?

There’s been some talk of showing our favorite Christmas movies in the background, whether Elf or It’s a Wonderful Life. Having a movie on is a great tip, especially if you’re working by yourself. You’ll be surprised at how little you notice the job.

A Perfectly Festive Holiday Drink

Eggnog. Latte. Need I say more? I’ve got my espresso maker tuned up and ready to go. It’s a really easy recipe as well—just milk, eggnog, and some nutmeg.

christmas gift box
A box that embodies the Christmas spirit | Image courtesy Etsy seller SweetSights

Add 1/3 of a cup of milk to 2/3 a cup of eggnog. Put the milk and eggnog blend in a pan and heat it to 150 degrees, then add a shot (1.5 oz) of espresso. Use the wand if you have an espresso maker to create a tasty foam, then sprinkle with nutmeg. It’s delicious, and may be the taste of the season.

Have you ever thought about how Christmas, coming right after the solstice, is one of the longest and darkest nights of the year? The weeks leading up to it get progressively gloomier as the sun sort of slips away into an unmotivated gray—it gets up late, and goes to bed early. It could be a sad time.

But somehow it isn’t. Somehow, it’s one of the most magical times of the year. It’s a season filled with love, and constant surprises. And that love, that spirit of joy, comes from within us because of the love we have for each other.

That’s why wrapping gifts should be a fun and joyful undertaking. It’s an expression of our hearts. Being organized, and making it into an event, lets the spirit of the season in. You’re closing up boxes that are filled with limitless joy, ready to be torn open in a blizzard of squeals and smiles and the truest expression of childlike glee.

Doing wrapping right, then, isn’t about closing. It’s about opening: opening the delirious anticipation of Christmas morning, and opening yourself to the joys of the season.

Now that we’ve wrapped up, you can get started! Let Elfster help you pick the perfect gift from any of our featured wish lists—and be sure to connect with us on Facebook, find us on Instagram at @Elfstergram, and on twitter @elfster, for more gift giving and party hosting tips and tricks.

Thoughtful Gift Ideas for Seniors, from the Inexpensive to the Unexpected

Thoughtful Gift Ideas for Seniors, from the Inexpensive to the Unexpected

solmate socks
Warm socks come from the heart—and can warm the soul | Image courtesy Amazon seller Solmate Socks

Buying gifts for seniors, whether your parents or another special person in your life, always seems strangely difficult, even as it feels more vital and urgent—and I think I’ve figured out why.

They’ve had a lifetime to accumulate things. More than that, though, I’m always worried about getting something that seems too common, too basic, and not weighted with the thoughtfulness they deserve. There is so much I want to express with my gifts—love, appreciation, respect, a quiet thanks for everything they’ve done through the years—that tossing an Amazon gift card into an envelope seems almost inappropriate. But, through a series of gift giving fiascos, I’ve learned something that is a bit counterintuitive: it’s not just the thought that counts.

OK, the thought does count. Giving someone a gift is a great way to demonstrate that you love them, that you care about them, and that you’re thinking of them. Many older adults are scared of loneliness, and can feel isolated, so even a small token of appreciation and love can brighten a day. So, the thought counts, of course, but it especially counts if the gift demonstrates real thoughtfulness. Getting someone a gift is great, but it’s much better if you get them something that they need or genuinely want. Recognizing this has made gift-buying a lot less stressful for me. So, here are a few gift-giving ideas for seniors, so that you can show them the love you feel.

Gifts That Warm, from Heart to Toes

You know that feeling when you come in from the cold, into a warm house, and you start to feel that warmth seep deliciously into your body? I can never decide if I’m getting warm from the inside out, or the outside in. It’s just a slow-spreading pleasant tingle.

That’s why I love buying cozy gifts for the seniors in my life. When people get older, their metabolism tends to slow. That’s just science, and an inevitability of aging. But giving them something warm and helpful can be a way to show that you care about their comfort, and a way to have that warmth spread throughout their body. A gift like that creates the feeling of plunging indoors from a snowy day, and feeling like you’re coming alive.

A few ideas for warming gifts include:

handmade knit scarf
Warm and stylish | Image courtesy Etsy seller AngelaGardnerStudio
  • Socks. I love warm socks—instant coziness. I’ve noticed that older generations tend to stick with pretty basic white socks, usually cotton. When I first gave my parents warm, wool socks, they were surprised, but, after trying them on, became very appreciative. Now that’s all they like to wear! And, socks can have just as much style as anything else you wear.
  • Smart thermostats. Staying on our theme of all things warm, a smart thermostat is one that learns the habits of a home, adjusting itself to the time of day, occupancy of the residence, and personal patterns. One of the most popular, the Nest, saves money and increases energy efficiency while keeping a house at the right temperature for the comfort of an older adult. For people on a budget, HVAC experts think you can recoup the initial cost of a smart thermostat in as little as a year!
  • Scarves. When my grandmother’s arthritis made it too hard for her to sew or knit, we started buying her scarves, cowls, and other accessories she used to make for herself. We bought pretty bland ones, strictly functional—for some reason, it took us years to remember that she was a person who made amazingly creative scarves.

That’s important to remember: the practical doesn’t have to be drab. If you’re going to buy a scarf, buy a pretty one that’ll make them happy to wear it. Being older doesn’t mean someone stops caring altogether about looking nice.

Practical Gifts That Are Anything but Boring

A gift that gives the grip of gardening | Image courtesy Amazon seller A'BLE
A gift that gives the grip of gardening | Image courtesy Amazon seller A’BLE

In some ways, we live in an incredible time for the elderly, maybe one of the best times in history. The tools available to make lives easier, more productive, and more independent are astonishing. There’s a multitude of gifts that can address the specific needs of seniors, and show an older loved one that you actually understand their concerns and need for a little help.

I have a neighbor who was having trouble with arthritic hands. It’s really frustrating for him, since he loved tending to the garden in our courtyard. But he was often in a lot of pain and having a hard time holding onto things. So, last Christmas I got him a set of easy-grip gardening tools that allowed him to plant and dig without putting too much strain on his wrists.

While we’re being practical, let’s not forget helping to keep someone healthy and active—it reduces isolation, improves cardiovascular health, increases strength and balance, and helps people lead better lives. Recumbent bikes, treadmills, ellipticals, and more are great ways to encourage health, as well as yoga mats, DVDs, or even gifting a gym membership. These are all practical gifts that are also fun.

Impractical, but Magical, Gifts for a Senior

Of course, there is more to life than just having the basic necessities of warmth and yoga mats. Sometimes, a gift is nice simply because it makes someone happy. These might seem impractical, or unnecessary, but sometimes that makes for the best gifts of all.

Music

There are about a million ways to enjoy music now, from streaming on a smartphone to breaking out the old LPs (record players are back in a big way, and you can order one just about anywhere). Not too long ago, I added my dad to my Spotify family plan so he could find albums and playlists of music from back in his day: a lot of big band, a lot of jazz, and a LOT of Frank.

modern record player
We’ve got one turntable and a new iPhone | Image courtesy Amazon seller Electrohome

This was a pretty simple gift, but it gave him a chance to find some music he hadn’t heard in decades. That’s the power of a song: it can transport you back, and make anyone happy. So find a medium, find a distribution method, and find the music the older adult in your life will love.

Pets

Obviously, this one depends a lot on circumstance, rules where they live, and personal predilections and ability to take care of a pet. But, pets can be amazing, and an enormous ray of light in the lives of an older adult.

A few years ago, my wife and I got my mom a snake. No fooling: she loves snakes, and always wanted one, so we surprised her one year with a real live North American corn snake. It’s goofy and weird—and makes her happy every day.

Homemade Signs

Remember when you gave your parents a clay ashtray, even if they didn’t smoke? Well, I suppose I just dated myself there—kids probably don’t make those in art class anymore. Regardless, a handmade gift brought home from school was generally less than professional, or even comprehensible, but was always warmly received.

personalized family sign
A personalized sign is a reflection of love | Image courtesy Etsy seller McKennaMadeIt2013

You can do the same thing now, only better. Home decorations, like personalized signs, can mean so much to an older adult. After all, you’re taking the time to make something for them, something that sends a message, literally, about who you both are, and the bond between you.

Giving a gift is rarely about the gift itself, but about the thoughtfulness behind it. But, when you’re giving to someone older—especially someone who was integral to your life, who raised you, or helped you grow and turn into the person you are—taking thoughtfulness to the next level means so much more.

It means more because it’s unexpected. We all know that it gets harder to get gifts for people as they get older; you’ve probably noticed it in your own life. So when you get an older adult something that will make a difference to them, whether it’s the ability to hear the nearly-forgotten songs that have tripped at the edge of their minds for decades, or a blanket that fights away the cold, you’re making their world warmer. You’re creating a hearth between the two of you. You’re reminding them that now, and always, they truly matter. It’s the gift of appreciation. Even if it isn’t handmade, it is forged in the heart.

Ready to buy the perfect gift to show your love to a senior in your life? Let Elfster help you pick from any of our featured gift guides—and be sure to connect with us on Facebook, find us on Instagram at @Elfstergram, and on twitter @elfster for more gifting and hosting ideas.

Unwrapping Japanese Gift Giving Traditions: Simple Generosity and Artful Presentations

Unwrapping Japanese Gift Giving Traditions: Simple Generosity and Artful Presentations

When I first started dating the woman who would become my wife, we were young, irresponsible, and worked low-paying jobs. Consequently, and not helped by our love for going out to dinner, we were generally strapped for cash.

Her birthday happened to fall a month after we both realized we were in a this-is-the-one relationship, and it plunged me into an indecisive, Hamlet-esque agony. Did I scrimp and save to get something extravagant? Or did I just not get her a present this year? Because, I thought, some cheap little trinket would be far worse than no gift at all.

small blue harmonica
I was far from the Blues King that night—maybe the Duke of Being Grateful? Image courtesy Amazon seller Johnson Guitars.

Then I remembered a pretty low-key birthday from a few years ago, just some friends and I. At some point in the evening, one of my buddies very quietly handed me a small package with a harmonica inside. “I thought you might like to play,” was his simple explanation.

He was right—sort of. I have zero musical talent. I can’t even hum along to music without feeling like the singer is somehow disgusted with me. But it was, truly, the thought that counted. That he thought, “I bet Brian would like this,” far outweighed my musical inaptitude. It was a very inexpensive gift, but it meant the world.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my friend was honoring a Japanese custom where it isn’t the gift, but the presentation, that counts. The ritual. The thoughtfulness—in a very literal sense. The idea that you are thinking about and valuing someone—and how that can change the entire experience of not only receiving, but giving, gifts.

Understanding Japanese Gift Giving Rituals

Chicago cufflinks
Gifts are very important for people who have traveled. Image from Etsy seller ElegantCuff.

There are a couple of different ways to understand the word “ritual.” There’s a negative view which implies a sort of rote following of barely-understood customs, but then the word “ritual” can also connote a certain wisdom passed through the ages—a ceremony that has been imbued with real and true importance through the collected weight and love of those for whom it has meaning.

In many ways, the latter is what Japanese gift giving embodies. It’s filled with old traditions and customs, the most important of which is that the gift itself barely matters. It’s the act of giving, of showing someone that you actually care about them as a person, that’s important.

Because when you get down to it, gift giving is a sacrifice. A small one, but still. The culture doesn’t demand big gifts, and indeed encourages small ones—it’s truly the thought that counts.

Simple Rules for Gifting in Japan

Of course, every ritual is built around, in essence, a set of rules—and there are some important ones in Japan:

wrapping with fabric book
Learn how to wrap with fabric, in the Japanese tradition. Image courtesy Amazon seller Etsuko Yamada.
  • Giving gifts is very important among colleagues. We all work, some in an office where we get to know each other intimately, and some in telecommuting jobs where you have to make an effort to know people. Our co-workers sometimes annoy us. We complain about them more than nearly anyone, it sometimes seems. But the reason, I think, is that we don’t always see them as people with their own lives, their own hopes, fears, and little gnawing sadnesses. But what if you invited them into the gift giving ritual of Japan?

In Japan, gift giving between co-workers is common on both January 1st and on July 15th. This builds a connection, requiring you to think about what they might want, and, as a result, about who they are outside your shared office space. In this context, gift giving becomes a way to extend empathy and acceptance.

  • Gifts should be beautifully or creatively wrapped. One of the most important parts of gift giving in Japan is the wrapping, or presentation. Gifts are expected to be incredibly well-wrapped, often in cloth called furoshiki. I know—it seems like way too much effort for a simple gift. Most of us are still like children, ripping off the paper without a thought to see what’s underneath. But Japan’s wrapping ritual asks you to take a step back and realize that the gift is secondary to the act of giving itself. It’s customary to appreciate the wrapping, and to imply that you won’t be disappointed by the gift, because the actual object isn’t really what’s of value.

A note on wrapping, if you are gifting in Japan. Be aware of the importance of colors. You could be giving off some unintentional, and unwelcome, vibes.

  • Gifts are opened in private. For many of us, this is maddening. We give a gift and we can’t wait to see eyes open big, and get a huge, gushing thank you, because it’s just what they always wanted. But is that actually why we give gifts, to get that validation? There’s nothing wrong with that, honestly, but maybe we’d be able to separate ourselves from one-upmanship and anxiety if we recognized that the mere act of handing over a gift was the end of our story, instead of desiring the gratification that comes with gratitude.

Bringing the Gift Giving Into Our Own Lives

There are many, many rules in the Japanese gift giving experience, and if you are traveling for work, pleasure, or engaging with the culture in any real way, you should take the time to learn the detailed ins and outs of the ritual—I barely scratched the surface of its complexity or richness.

vintage inspired record player
A vintage-inspired record player. Image courtesy Target.

But I think we can bring some of these ideas into our own life. That’s what I did with my then girlfriend and now wife. I ended up going to a used record store and finding albums by some old musicians that she always mentioned. She already had a cool, vintage record player—and a love for music.

Here’s the thing: any other time I’ve bought a gift for someone, especially a girl I was courting, I went all out buying gifts—gifts that would show how interesting I was, something that they wouldn’t be expecting, but that would blow their mind, and force them to realize how lucky they were to have me in their life.

I don’t think that was a conscious decision or expectation, but I think we can all easily fall into that trap—and it’s the opposite focus from Japanese traditions. What I’ve learned is that a gift shouldn’t have to be enormous, and, most of all, it shouldn’t be about the giver. It should be about the person receiving it, and simply acknowledging how much they mean to you. That you care about them. That you see them and love them.

That might be the most important thing I learned about gift giving. It’s not about getting appreciation, it’s about showing it.

However you want to show your gratitude by gifting, Elfster can help, from our gift guides and wish lists, to tips and tricks on Facebook, Twitter @Elfster, and Instagram @Elfstergram.

Urbanite Inspirations for a Rustic Farmhouse Dinner Party

Urbanite Inspirations for a Rustic Farmhouse Dinner Party

embroidered leaf table runner
Falling leaves, even on a towel, means it is time to get inside. Image courtesy Etsy seller EmbroideryByJudy.

Rolling up the sleeves on my flannel, and feeling the creeping cold rustling through my beard, I picked up the bale of hay, and threw it over my shoulder. “You look,” my wife said, “absolutely ridiculous.”

I admit she had a point. After all, I was pulling the hay out of our compact sedan, which I had just parallel parked on our busy city street, and was preparing to carry it up to our third-floor urban apartment. It’s safe to say this was one of the first times hay had been introduced into the building.

But there was a reason. We were having a dinner party. And not just any dinner party. We wanted to craft a feast that transported our guests, to imbue our city walk-up with an atmosphere that ignored the horns and sirens, tall buildings and streetlights. A dinner that made us all forget that our jobs depended on the ticking of a clock, and not the rising of the sun. In short, we wanted a farmhouse dinner party.

Preparing Your House for the Harvest

We hoped to imitate how it must have felt at the end of the harvest season—all the smells and flavors of a chill air descending on now-barren fields, with warmth provided by a roaring fire (or candles), great food, and the convivial love felt for each other as we passed around dinner plates and bottles of wine. When we first started thinking about how we would go about this, we decided to focus on the colors, specifically the orange of late harvest combined with the thatchy, dried-husk look of early November.

fall flower mason jar centerpieces
Centerpieces command attention, but shouldn’t distract. Image courtesy Etsy.

See, I’m obsessed with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, especially the weirdly melancholic scenes of Snoopy imagining the South of France, and walking across its harvested fields. It appealed to me as a child, a rural and changing world I never knew. I wanted that look.

So to the country we went! At a rural pumpkin patch, we bought tall cornstalks, bereft of corn, of course, but that added to the mood—it was postharvest, after all. We didn’t even try to resist bringing home the bundles of hay big enough to sit on.

Allison and I both thought bringing the country back into the city with us was pretty cool, though admittedly I was a bit more into it. Arranging our stalks and bales around our apartment, especially in the dining room, made fall seem more real—it’s a season of transformation, and our apartment, too, became a changed place.

Actually, it was pretty close to idyllic. The leaves were in full glory at that point, and had really started to fall, blowing around the sky and rattling at our windows. We brought those harvest colors in by displaying fall flowers in rustic-looking mason jars on the dining table.

We’re lucky enough to have a beautiful reclaimed farm table that one of our more handy friends made us for a wedding gift. With wood from the Wisconsin Northwoods that actually did once belong to a barn (granted, an old horse barn in the city, but still), it gave the dinner an authentic feel.

There was something about the whole atmosphere, augmented by apple-scented candles and plenty of gourds, that truly did transport us—our four guests all commented on how the room felt strangely out of time, that we didn’t just decorate, but actually created something new and strange.

Granted, all the old wood and fall-themed runners in the world won’t do anything if you’re serving frozen pizza. So we dug into our cookbooks and found something with the feel of a feast after a long season of hard work.

The Fall Farm Menu

Our hearty meal was greatly inspired by one of my wife’s favorite food writers, Mimi Thorisson, and her book A Kitchen in France: My Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse. Mimi pretty much has the life we both want: huge French farmhouse, beautiful kitchen, amazing ingredients everywhere, and a knack for experimenting while remaining true to her roots. Our dinner was pretty French-inspired (another nod to Snoopy) but really, yours doesn’t have to be specific.

A Kitchen in France: My Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse
A Kitchen in France: My Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse. Image courtesy Amazon seller Mimi Thorisson.

The Soup

Our first course was a soup she called “L’Ami Jean Parmesan Soup.” This is a rich and hearty soup, made with butter, cheese, and heavy cream. It’s not super healthy, but after working in the fields for months, you’ve earned it!

There’s a ritual to serving this soup. You make the soup (which also has chicken stock, salt, and pepper), put it in a tureen, but then bring out bowls with croutons, chives, crumbled bacon, and shallots in the middle, in four quarters. It sort of looks like, as one of our guests put it, “a deconstructed soup.” Then you ladle the actual soup in, and there’s a sudden warmth in the air as the flavors come together and delicious smells pour forth.

The Main Course

After the soup settled, we had a nice salad—a very light arugula, apple, and parsnip mix with a not-too-light buttermilk dressing. It had a very fall taste, and also served as a nice palate cleanser. Then, after some more wine, it was time for the main course.

 

 

I had spent most of the last two days preparing a large cider-brined pork roast. The brine, which sits overnight, consisted of:

pumpkin soup bowl
Yes, we used a pumpkin, just like on a real farm. Image courtesy Amazon seller Boston International.
  • Brown sugar
  • Slat
  • Bay leaves
  • Coriander seeds
  • Peppercorn
  • Cider

The day of the meal, I made a coriander rub, decorated the roast with bay leaves, put it in a roasting pan, threw in quartered potatoes and onions, and let it cook for a couple of hours (after browning, of course). It sat for a half hour after coming out of the oven, which turned out to be the perfect time to serve the salad! It struck me as a lucky break, but I guess chefs know what they’re doing. Our roast turned out beautifully! And one of our friends was wonderful enough to bring a spiced bundt cake with apple caramel sauce. That was the decadent finale.

The Highlight of the Feast

I know what you might be thinking—what’s the highlight after all those yummies? Well, it turned out that the food was secondary to the evening. It was the center point, it was what was on the table, it was the ostensible reason for being there, but it wasn’t what brought us to the table.

giant roasting pan
This wouldn’t have been possible without a big roasting pan. Image courtesy Amazon.

No, what brought us to the table was our friendship, the time we had spent together in the past, and the time that, as we grow older, we spend apart. Maybe fall is perfect for that. Maybe fall is meant for that. The leaves turn colors and drop, and the seasons pass. You don’t really notice it sometimes, until suddenly it’s winter.

That’s something we want to avoid with our friends and loved ones. We want to hold them close, and sit around a warm table, protected from the wind outside—but still able to notice it, and appreciate the table and its warmth all the more for it.

Maybe we don’t harvest anymore, most of us anyway. But the farm feast reminds us of a different time, a time when what mattered most was gathering close to those you love and sharing a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, a pork roast if you were lucky, and just being happy to be near one another. Unlike the leaves and the seasons, that never changes.

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