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Author: Rai C.

Easy Snow Day Sports Crafts for Preschoolers to Make Fun Winter Memories with Kids

Easy Snow Day Sports Crafts for Preschoolers to Make Fun Winter Memories with Kids

baby watching snow
Image courtesy flick’r user Derya

For years I’ve been babysitting my best friend’s kids, Daniel and Nathan, and I feel so lucky to watch their personalities emerge. Now that they’re 4 and 6, we’ve become a big part of each other’s lives—they even call me Auntie Rai.

While we usually spend our time together climbing trees or kicking a ball around the year, the recent snows in our area have made the jungle gyms impassable (and there are only so many snowmen I can handle), so we’ll be making memories indoors for a while. Luckily I’ve found a way to bring some of the boys’ favorite outdoor sports in with a few fun, safe twists.

Pom Pom Soccer

The boys are both avid soccer players—their parents secretly dream of cheering for them from the stands of a college stadium one day. I support the cause by making sure they can enjoy their game even when snow is coating their backyard soccer field. Of course, I don’t think their mom would be too thrilled if I let them kick a ball around the living room, so we had to get a little bit creative.

pom poms
Pom poms make excellent indoor soccer balls | Image courtesy Etsy seller GracieAndMarie

The Materials:

  • Cardboard box
  • Scissors
  • Green construction paper
  • White printer paper
  • Straws
  • Tape
  • String

The How-To:

  1. We started by crafting our soccer field. First, we found a large cardboard box. I cut it in half, horizontally, so the boys were left with the bottom and about four-inch-tall sides.
  2. Next, we glued green construction paper into the bottom of the box for grass. We cut strips of white printer paper and taped them down to make the sidelines and half-field line.
  3. Using straws and tape, we made the frames of the goal boxes, tying string in a crisscross pattern around the straw frame to make a net.

Our homemade indoor soccer pitch looked perfect to me, but Nathan said something was missing. Running to his room, he gathered up a handful of Lego characters and placed them along the sidelines saying, “This is where Mom and Dad stand when we play.” Now we had a life-like model field and an attentive audience.

Daniel chose our pom pom ball—a bright orange one—and Nathan grabbed two straws, one for each of the boys. Serving as referee, I dropped the pom in the middle of the field on the count of three and the game began! Using their straws to blow the pom around the field, the boys battled to see who could get it into the other player’s goal. It was such a fun time that we lost track of the score after the third goal, and played until we were all out of breath!


Indoor Inflatable Tennis

After fun on the floor playing pom pom soccer, Daniel spotted his mom’s tennis racket in the corner and asked, “Can we play with this?” While I wanted to encourage them to try their hand at tennis, I couldn’t consider myself a good babysitter if I let them play with an expensive professional racket—especially indoors. So we came up with an alternative kid-friendly and indoor-safe option.

Brightly colored balloons make great indoor sports balls | Image courtesy Amazon seller Nexci

First, we had to create rackets. Heading to the kitchen, we found paper plates and popsicle sticks. (Well, actually, we found popsicles. To get the sticks, I let the boys enjoy a little pre-game treat.) Popsicles devoured, we glued each stick between two paper plates and voila! We had tennis rackets! Next, we grabbed a balloon and blew it up to serve as a jumbo-sized tennis ball. Finally, I grabbed a bed sheet and draped it over a piece of twine, which I tied to the backs of two chairs at about two feet off the ground.

With rackets, a giant tennis ball, and a makeshift net, the boys were ready for an exciting match of tennis, although the lazy pace of the balloon gave them a chance to practice their over-the-top slow-mo reactions, which repeatedly had us all laughing.

T.P. Stock Cars

After a few games of tennis, the boys and I began discussing other sports. “I want to be a stock car racer,” Nathan said, before convincing me that we should have our own stock car races. Gathering up some empty toilet paper rolls, construction paper, water-based paints, markers, and scissors, we set to work creating our stock cars.

cardboard race car
A fancy, cardboard taxi car | Image courtesy Etsy seller Casagashop

We started by painting the bodies of our cars with the brightly colored paints. Daniel’s was red, Nathan’s was blue, and I went for a bright green. We let the cars dry while we cut out tires from black construction paper. Daniel even cut out a lightning bolt from yellow construction paper to make his car the “Flash Mobile.”

Once the car bodies were dry, we glued on our tires and decor—Nathan added a number to the hood of his car and drew a driver into the front seat. With our stock cars ready, we were all set to race them around challenging obstacles like the couch, ottoman—and the dog—by seeing who could push them around from their hands and knees the fastest.

Even though we weren’t able to enjoy our usual favorite activities outside, our day indoors was a thrill. Though the boys probably look back on that day as just another weekend with Auntie Rai, I look back on it as a time when I found out how passionate Daniel and Nathan truly are about sports, and how quick they are to make creative suggestions all their own.

Who knew two boys born in the technology era could have so much fun with some pom poms, straws, balloons, and empty toilet paper rolls? Not only did I show the boys that they don’t need to be glued to a screen on a snow day, but we got to make some memories that I’ll always cherish and I hope they remember for years and years.

Want more ideas on how to make wonderful memories with your kids? Let the Elves help you get creative for birthdays, holidays, or even fun weekends spent indoors this winter. And get even more ideas on our Facebook page, Instagram @Elfstergram, and Twitter @Elfster

A Kids’ Valentine’s Day Craft Party to DIY Handmade Treats, Cards—and Fun

A Kids’ Valentine’s Day Craft Party to DIY Handmade Treats, Cards—and Fun

handmade valentine card
Handcrafted valentines say so much more | Image courtesy Etsy seller LemonDropsandLilacs

Around this time of year, my friend Sophie and I find ourselves reminiscing about the good ol’ days of elementary school, when we would make construction paper valentines for each of our friends. Though we were clumsy with a bottle of Elmer’s glue and overzealous with the glitter, we worked so hard to create perfect notes and cards that all had unique, personalized touches.

Last year, Sophie didn’t want her two school-aged daughters to have to rely on pre-made valentines featuring cartoon characters. She wanted them to learn the value of making something by hand—and to know just what it’s like to get so passionate about cutting out the perfect (non-lopsided!) paper heart. So we jumped into party-planning mode, and organized a Valentine’s Day gift and snack extravaganza!

The weekend before Valentine’s Day, Sophie invited her daughters’’ best friends and their parents over for a crafting and DIY party. In all, we had about 11 kiddos and 9 parents, each family volunteering to bring one item from a party supply wishlist. And then we all gathered to make delicious Valentine’s Day treats and handmade valentine cards—just like when we were kids.

Heart-Shaped Marshmallow Crispies

Kids (and kids-at-heart) can’t get enough of ooey-gooey marshmallow cereal treats—it’s a staple at most classroom parties. But we thought this classic treat deserved a decorative spin for the holiday of love—so we pulled out the heart-shaped tins and got to work.

handmade marshmallow treats
Marshmallow crispies are always a hit | Image courtesy Etsy seller LilMissCupcakeLady

The Ingredients:

  • 6 tbsp butter, unsalted
  • 80 large marshmallows
  • 12 c. crispy rice cereal
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 c. white chocolate chips
  • Heart-shaped sprinkles

The How-To:

  1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add in the marshmallows and stir continuously until melted and well-mixed. Slowly add in the cereal, stirring continuously for an even mixture.
  2. Spoon the mixture into a heart-shaped cupcake pan coated with non-stick cooking spray. You can also spoon the mixture into a 9 x 13 rectangular glass baking dish and use a cookie cutter to get heart-shaped treats.
  3. Let the treats cool for 5 minutes. Remove the treats from the pan.
  4. Heat the chocolate chips over a double-boiler.
  5. Once the chocolate is thoroughly melted, dip the face of each of the rice crispy treats into the chocolate. Immediately dust with sprinkles and let the chocolate harden.

This recipe makes about 12 treats—and is so easy for the kids to help with!

Hot Chocolate Spoons

chocolate spoons
Image courtesy Etsy seller NicolesTreats

Sophie’s girls love to enjoy cozy treats in the winter months. To warm their little hearts, we made customized hot chocolate dipping spoons.

We started with about three cups of milk chocolate chips, which we melted over the double boiler. Next, we dipped pink plastic spoons into the melted chocolate one at a time. Laying the coated spoons on a sheet of wax paper, we had each partygoer sprinkle a few spoons with mini marshmallows, heart-shaped sprinkles, and crushed peppermint candies. We let the spoons sit for about 15 minutes before wrapping each in a plastic sleeve tied with string.

For the class party, we picked up a jumbo-sized box of hot chocolate mix, and one of the parents volunteered to bring in her electric kettle. The students had a blast watching the chocolate melt in their cocoa, releasing marshmallows and sprinkles into their mugs.

Loving Fruit Kabobs

It’s not surprising to find yourself surrounded by delicious sweet treats for kids to enjoy at any Valentine’s Day get-together. And while we couldn’t wait to dig into all the sugary goodness at our DIY party, we also thought the parents would appreciate it if we snuck in some healthy snacks, too. Sophie had the wonderful idea of making heart-shaped fruit kabobs.

watermelon hearts
Perfect heart-shaped bites | Image courtesy flick’r user denise carrasco

The Ingredients:

  • 1 watermelon
  • 1 honeydew
  • 1 cantaloupe
  • 1 pineapple
  • 1 large basket of strawberries
  • 1 bunch of purple grapes
  • A heart-shaped cookie cutter
  • Kabob skewers

The How-To:

  1. Start by cutting the melons into triangular slices. From the triangles, use a small heart-shaped cookie cutter to cut out as many pieces as you can.
  2. Peel and core the pineapple. Cut the pineapple into 1-inch slices. Use a small heart-shaped cookie cutter to remove heart-shaped pineapple pieces.
  3. Wash the strawberries and pull off the stems and leaves. Using a paring knife, cut a V into the top of each strawberry. Cut the strawberry in half from top to bottom so you’re left with two strawberry halves, each shaped like a heart.
  4. Push a kabob skewer through one of each of the different fruit pieces.
  5. Wash the grapes. Cover the pointed end of each skewer with one grape.

We kept the skewers chilled in the refrigerator until the Valentine’s Day party. The heart-shaped pieces were so cute, the students didn’t even seem to notice they were eating something healthy!

Valentines Crafted from the Heart

With the snacks made and looking enticingly delicious, we turned our attention to the actual valentines themselves. Sure, it’s easier to grab a box of pre-made Valentine’s Day cards from a shelf, but that misses the point of Valentine’s Day. We wanted to bring the good ol’ days of construction paper hearts and gluing on glitter to our modern kids.

Each party attendee brought one treat ingredient and one item for the valentines craft table, so we ended up with a great mixture of fun items including:

kids' valentine's day diy craft party
Get creative with your valentines this year | Image courtesy flick’r user GlitterandFrills
  • Multi-colored construction paper
  • Ribbon
  • Lace
  • Glitter
  • Buttons
  • Dried pasta
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Yarn
  • Google eyes
  • Markers
  • Crayons
  • Pattern scissors
  • Glue

It was exciting to watch each student come up with his or her own valentine idea and make a unique card for each of their friends. The kids got to show off their creativity and the parents got to enjoy an afternoon getting to know one another and their children’s friends.

Not only was the Valentine’s DIY party a chance to spend quality time hanging out and chatting, but it was a time to get creative and enjoy the spirit of the holiday. Sophie later told me how each of the students eagerly presented their handmade card to their friends while devouring our treats, and I hear her kids (and their friends) are already clamoring for a similar party this year.

Want more ideas on how to make Valentine’s Day extra special this year? Let the Elves help you get creative and gift straight from the heart with their downloadable coupon printables. Get even more ideas on our Facebook, Instagram @Elfstergram, and Twitter @Elfster

Woo Him with Japanese Valentine’s Day Traditions and Heartfelt Homemade Gifts

Woo Him with Japanese Valentine’s Day Traditions and Heartfelt Homemade Gifts

My husband and I will be celebrating our sixth Valentine’s Day together this year, so the traditional gestures of chocolates, flowers, and a card were beginning to feel a little trite and bland. Our love for each other, however, is not, and I wanted my gifts to reflect this.

As a travel and culture enthusiast, I searched abroad for some international inspiration. Though I always thought of the holiday as an invention of Western culture, the roots of Valentine’s Day actually date back for centuries, and it’s celebrated all over the world in countless ways—but my new favorite traditions come from Japan.

Elevate Chocolate to a New Level

In the early 50s, Japan was buzzing with delight over the arrival of chocolate candies brought over by American soldiers. Commercialized heart-shaped boxes may now be available in every grocery store in the country, but Japanese culture still emphasizes handmade food, especially chocolate. Giri-choco, meaning “obligatory chocolates,” are given to friends and coworkers, while honmei-choco are given to express a desire to be closer to a romantic partner, like this homemade chocolate bark:

homemade chocolate bark
Handmade chocolate from the heart | Image courtesy flick’r user Vegan Feast Catering

The Ingredients:

  • ½ c. coconut oil
  • ½ c. cocoa powder
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 tbs honey
  • ½ c. chopped walnuts, almonds, or macadamia nuts

The How-To:

  1. Prepare a candy mold by lining a cookie sheet or baking dish with wax paper.
  2. Using a saucepan over low heat, melt the coconut oil.
  3. Whisk in the cocoa powder, vanilla extract, and honey. Stir until well blended and smooth.
  4. Stir in the chopped nuts and mix until evenly distributed.
  5. Pour the mixture into your prepared mold, spreading it until the candy layer is about ¼-inch thick.
  6. Refrigerate the candy in the mold for 1 hour.
  7. Break the bark apart into pieces.

Show your partner that you took the time to make something with his or her enjoyment in mind. You didn’t take the easy route—you made a delicious gift from the heart. You can also show off how well you know your lover—try adding in chopped nuts, fresh orange zest, peanut butter, finely ground coffee, or cinnamon, depending on his favorite flavors.

Switch It Up

i love you poster
I love you from here to Japan | Image courtesy Etsy seller HopSkipJumpPaper

Often seen as an opportunity for a man to woo the woman, in Japan Valentine’s Day emerged as a popular holiday at the same time as the major women’s liberation movement and so the two concepts of showing your love and respecting women became intertwined. Today, many Japanese couples celebrate Valentine’s Day by trading gender-assigned responsibilities and experiencing life in the other person’s shoes.

This year, make a swap. If you usually do the cooking while your man is accustomed to bringing home flowers, reverse the roles. Give him the opportunity to cook a romantic meal for two and bring him a special feel-good treat. Experiencing something from the other person’s perspective gives you a new appreciation for your partner.

A Look to the Future and Room for Honesty

Valentine’s Day is an opportunity for couples to sit down together, taking a moment to think about the journey they’ve traveled together so far and to envision a bright future together ahead.

Honesty | Image courtesy Etsy user somethinspecial

Every year seems to bring new challenges and unexpected turns, but the most successful relationships are able to bend and flow with the tides of life. Now is a good time to acknowledge how far you’ve come—and toast to where you want to go. Reflect back over what you’ve done well together and ways that you can improve to prevent past mistakes from repeating themselves. Let go of past hurts and vow to work together to forge a smooth, stable path ahead.

Confession is an important Valentine’s ritual in Japan. It’s a time to be honest with your loved one and say all the things that never seemed to have a right place or right time before. Lovers use the holiday to confess their secrets to one another, to more fully understand each other.

Start a new tradition with your partner of trading three truths each Valentine’s Day. Confess your love, doubts, fears, and past experiences so that you come to appreciate one another for the complex beings you are. Give the gift of intimacy by allowing your partner into the inner secrets that make you unique.

Take the Next Step

In Japanese culture, Valentine’s Day marks a rite of passage for a relationship. Couples make deliberate efforts to cultivate harmony, connect on a deeper level, and improve their communication. It’s also a time to solidify their commitment to each other by taking a new step together.

cheers to the future
Celebrate the past and the future | Image courtesy flick’r user nImAdestiny

For some couples, this means trading house keys, saying, “I want you to be more a part of my life.” For others, it means planning a trip together or meeting each other’s families. But, for all couples, it’s a special time to do something meaningful together that resonates with how you feel about one another. Think about where you would like to be in your relationship in a year from now. What step can you take this holiday to work towards that bright future together?

Some of the best gifts you’ll ever receive can’t be seen, like a confession of love or a gesture of devotion. Valentine’s Day is a time for giving the gift of yourself. Show your dedication to your partner by honoring your relationship in a new way.

It’s easy to forget the true meaning of a holiday that has become so commercialized by candy, flower, and card companies. That’s why I wanted to take a step back and look at the holiday through a new cultural lens. For people in other parts of the world, it’s a landmark date that opens up a world of possibilities. Acknowledge what you’ve done well together, make room for a little more equality in the relationship, clear the air with honesty, and take a step towards a more committed future together.

Want more ideas on how to make this Valentine’s Day unforgettable? Let the Elves help find the perfect gift or download our free printable coupons to give straight from the heart. Get even more ideas on our Facebook, Instagram @Elfstergram, and Twitter @Elfster

Motivational Gift Ideas: Inspiring Friends to Keep Their 2017 New Year’s Resolutions

Motivational Gift Ideas: Inspiring Friends to Keep Their 2017 New Year’s Resolutions

motivational gift ideas
Wrap up some inspiration for 2017 | Image courtesy Etsy seller Wrappily

March is how far I got in 2016. Come to think of it, March is about how long I can maintain my New Year’s resolutions most years. But wouldn’t it feel amazing to see a New Year’s resolution through for an entire calendar year? I’m determined to tough it out in 2017—I’m in it for the long haul and I know my friends are, too.

From 12-step programs with support groups to exercise buddies counting on you to show up at the trailhead, having someone to meet with and report back to can keep you on the focused path towards achieving any goal. So this year I hosted a gift exchange to help launch a year-long accountability buddy system amongst my besties.

On the morning of December 31st, right as people in the Eastern Hemisphere were beginning to ring in the new year, my three closest friends and I got together to swap motivational gifts with our 2017 accountability buddy—and gear up for a year of achieving our goals together.

Positivity Gives You Super Strength

positive affirmations
Stay positive and capable | Image courtesy Amazon seller Sunny Dawn Johnson

Sometimes we forget how strong we really are. But that’s what our friends are for: to remind us how far we’ve come, what we’ve been able to accomplish, and how much of an impression we’ve left on the world.

Jackie and I have been friends for about three years, and I’ve seen her accomplish some amazing things, from her Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology to having a baby. She’s one of those phenomenal gals we all secretly believe might be Wonder Woman, though she doesn’t always see the resemblance herself.

Now, with 2017 staring her in the face, Jackie is having doubts about whether she’ll be able to achieve her New Year’s resolution of getting accepted into a top Ph.D. program. With a new career to nurture and the sweetest baby son to care for, her confidence sometimes wavers. Luckily, I got to kick off our New Year’s gift exchange by gifting this remarkable woman with a fountain of positivity to keep her spirits high—an audio CD of positive affirmations she can listen to on her commute every day. She loved the CD, but was especially touched by my endless faith in her.

Daily Reminders to Power Through

Daily Inspiration
Maintain your focus | Image courtesy Amazon seller Workman Publishing

We all have bad days, but sometimes those bad days can seep in and become bad weeks. That’s when our New Year’s resolutions are the most at risk of falling by the wayside. For people who suffer from depression, keeping a bad day in check can feel like an impossible feat.

My friend Sara is a married mom with big aspirations for the future, but has struggled with major depressive disorder. Though she’s always been the epitome of hard work and determination, there are times when her depression makes her want to give up.

Knowing that Sara’s resolution this year is to score a big upcoming promotion, Jackie gave her something to help lighten the burden on those bad days: a daily motivational calendar to help her stay positive even when her internal struggles are working against her.

Remember Your Own Strength

life is tough poster
Life’s tough, but you’re tougher | Image courtesy Etsy user PrintableSky

Moms are a special breed of superhero, in my opinion. They spend their lives doing everything they can to make other people happy, nurturing the success of their children and sacrificing for them without hesitation. That’s why I have a profound respect for my friend Diana, a stay-at-home mom of four brilliant children.

Her eldest is 17 and her youngest just 3. Whether she’s searching for a beloved plush toy so the toddler can take her nap or helping her eldest son with his college applications, she’s constantly worrying about and caring for others—she’s given up a lot and postponed her own goals to make sure her children achieve theirs.

But, for once, Diana is doing something just for herself, resolving to lose weight, get in shape, and run a half-marathon by the end of 2017, even though she hasn’t run a mile since high school gym class. It’s going to be a huge challenge, but she has a plan and, most importantly, the endless support of her husband, kids, and friends. To keep Diana motivated, Sara gifted her an inspirational poster, beautifully framed.

Using a calligraphy set her husband got her for Christmas, Sara created a beautifully scripted placard that reads, “Life is tough, my darling, but so are you.” She then framed it to match the style of Diana’s home. Diana plans to hang it in her bedroom so it’s one of the first things she sees in the morning when she wakes up and puts on her new running shoes.

What You Think, You Become

For all of us career women—and those unbelievable ladies who somehow manage to swing a career and mommyhood—our profession is like a monument that we work our entire lives to build. Each year it gets a bit stronger and nicer to look at, but it also becomes more difficult to reach those new heights. As an entrepreneur, I actually worked 44 out of 52 weekends in 2016!

the power of positive thinking
Mind over matter gets you to the finish line | Image courtesy Amazon seller Dr. Norman Vincent Peale

So one of my resolutions is to take better care of myself by giving myself vacation days. I love my job, but I also miss being able to travel, so I’m planning a much-dreamed-of vacation to New York at the end of 2017.

Being the supportive career cheerleader she is, Diana gave me the perfect present: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. I’ve already begun reading my gift and it’s giving me some wonderful tips on how to be kinder to myself while still striving for success. And I know Diana will be there holding me accountable in 2017, helping me reflect on Peale’s motivational lessons so I make it to New York and nurture the non-professional side of my life as well.

Not only did our supportive gift exchange get me even more motivated to meet 2017 head on, but it made me realize that I have a pretty incredible group of friends. I’m lucky to be surrounded by strong, smart women who know what they want in life—and are always willing to help someone else reach their goals, too.

New Year’s resolutions used to feel like a solitary endeavor, making them far more challenging to uphold. This year, I’m not alone. I have an accountability buddy and an entire team of inspiring friends behind me to make sure my New Year’s resolution becomes a reality. So bring it on, 2017! My girls and I are ready to make this our best year yet.

Want more ideas on how to make your 2017 resolutions stick? Let the Elves inspire you with motivational gifts. Get even more ideas on our Facebook page, Instagram @Elfstergram, and Twitter @Elfster

The Legendary Saint of Love: Honoring the History and Traditions of Valentine’s Day

The Legendary Saint of Love: Honoring the History and Traditions of Valentine’s Day

pink heart cloud
Valentine’s Day takes on new meaning | Image courtesy flick’r user Maf04

Around the year 270 A.D., Emperor Claudius II decided that men would make better fighters if they were unwed, so he outlawed marriage for any potential soldier. Seeing this as a crime against humanity—and love—Saint Valentine secretly performed marriages for young men and their lovers. Infuriated, Emperor Claudius II had St. Valentine thrown into jail and sentenced to a horrible death, which was carried out on February 14th, according to legend.

As the wife of a former Airman, I’m personally grateful for Saint Valentine’s dedication to unifying soldiers with their true and forever loves. His brave actions protecting the freedom to marry and love turned him into a martyr. To honor his heroic story, we celebrate Valentine’s Day each year with simple, but meaningful traditions that carry on his mission of putting true love above all else.

The Beauty of the Written Word

handwritten note
A gorgeous love letter to mark the occasion | Image courtesy Etsy seller MedievalJourney

Sentenced to death for his devotion to the young couples in his community, Saint Valentine spent many months in jail awaiting his execution. All the while, he never forgot the importance of love.

Legend claims that he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter who would visit him in his jail cell. Though he was destined for death, she unswervingly gave her heart to him. In return, he wrote her beautiful love notes signed, “from your Valentine.”

Inspired by Saint Valentine’s sweet gesture, the only thing he had to offer his beloved, I wanted to give my valentine a memento that would endure through time as well. I wrote out a love letter and had it transcribed in old calligraphy on vintage paper. Not only is it a message from my heart, but even its appearance speaks to the strength of our love as a promise that will last through the ages.

A Medieval Feast for Lovers

Saint Valentine’s story has survived more than 1,700 years because a single man taught the world that love should always come first. As the tale of his life, and death, spread throughout Western Europe, inspiring everyone who believed in true love, Saint Valentine became the leader of a movement with an enormous following, despite his cruel sentence and execution. To honor his unceasing dedication to star-crossed lovers, friends and families across the European continent would gather each year to celebrate kindness and love with a massive feast in the middle of February.

To honor that age-old tradition, I thought it would be fitting for my love and me to have our own Valentine’s Day feast in the form of a romantic, home-cooked meal—something that our busy schedules rarely allow for. I wanted to maintain the theme of honoring the days of old, so I designed the meal with ancient dishes in mind—a honeyed capon, black bread, buttered carrots, iced blueberries in sweet cream for dessert, and, of course, red wine.

valentine's day dinner
A romantic Valentine’s Day feast | Image courtesy flick’r user Matheusswanson

The honeyed capon was a first for me—and certainly set the Medieval mood. A capon is a domesticated rooster, with a similar taste and texture to chicken. They’re available in most specialty meat shops here in Texas where my husband and I live, but if you’re unable to find one at your local shop, a chicken makes a perfect substitute.

The Ingredients:

  • A whole capon, about 6 pounds
  • 3 tbs unsalted butter
  • 1 c. apple cider vinegar
  • ¾ c. honey
  • 2 tsp fresh mint, chopped
  • ½ c. currants or raisins
  • Salt

The Cooking Instructions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 450-degrees F
  2. Place the capon in a roasting pan, rubbing the outside with 2 tbs of the unsalted butter, melted, before sprinkling with salt.
  3. Put the capon in the oven for 60 minutes, or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast registers at least 165-degrees F. The juices should run clear when the thermometer is removed.
  4. While the capon is roasting, prepare the sauce. Combine the remaining 1 tbs unsalted butter, apple cider vinegar, honey, mint, and currants in a saucepan. Allow the sauce to simmer about 20-30 minutes, reducing to about half its original volume. The currants will plump up and the sauce will become thick.
  5. Once the capon is done, brush half of the sauce over the outside of the capon. Let the capon rest for about 5 minutes while the sauce forms a glaze.
  6. Carve the breast meat and serve it with a dollop of the remaining sauce.

Not only does a rustic meal remind me of the early days of the holiday, but it makes the occasion extra special. It’s not every day that I roast a capon in the Medieval tradition!

A Quote from One of the Greats

neruda quote framed
The perfect quote transformed into a romantic keepsake | Image courtesy Etsy seller EunoiaStudios

Love is such a complex emotion that requires a master wordsmith to explain. As the traditions inspired by Saint Valentine’s devotion grew in popularity over the decades, the importance of the holiday spread to the nobility. Before long, kings began hiring writers to compose sweetly worded notes to their lovers.

When I have a hard time finding the right words for everything I’m feeling, I, like the kings of yesteryear, turn to some of the greatest romance writers of the past few centuries. The poetic voices of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few, have immortalized some of the most vivid love stories ever told.

This year, instead of buying a card off the shelf, I chose a heartwarming quote from one of the great romance poets of all time—Pablo Neruda. Using some heavy card stock in a sepia tone color, I wrote my chosen quote in my own handwriting, signing it at the bottom. I placed it in a simple black frame and set it on the dinner table to serve as my Valentine’s Day card—and a deep statement of my love.

Love Is All Around

As the story goes, during the early years of the Valentine’s Day festivals and feasts, young Roman women would write their names on slips of paper and toss them into a giant urn. The young men would then choose a name from the urn at random. The matched pair would get to know each other for a year, often resulting in marriage. I love this idea of leaving matches up to fate, so I thought it would be fun to organize a friends-focused version of the Roman tradition in the form of a gift exchange.

wood heart sign
Here’s to a magical Valentine’s Day | Image courtesy Etsy seller SplendorInTheRough

We used an online gift exchange site to help us randomly pick names and, after Valentine’s Day, we all got together at my house for coffee and pastries—and to swap stories of our most romantic moments, as well as our gifts.

The gifts were small, but meaningful, many handmade. It was a wonderful time for us to show each other that even though we all get distracted by the great loves in our lives from time to time, we should always make the extra effort to show our appreciation for our friends, our pillars of support through it all.

I’ve always loved Valentine’s Day—wondering if I’ll get surprised with flowers or trying not to get caught sneaking a little love note into my husband’s lunch box. But getting to know the history of St. Valentine’s Day has made it all the more meaningful for me. It’s no longer a Hallmark holiday for me—it represents the importance of taking a moment to acknowledge all the love in my daily life, amongst my friends, and in today’s complex society.

Valentine’s Day was born out of a desperate need to save the practice of marriage for couples who were deeply in love. Saint Valentine valued companionship and true devotion more than his own life, continuing to live with an open heart until his final days, despite a promise of certain death. With the many lessons on love that make up his story fresh in my mind, I plan to celebrate every Valentine’s Day with a deep sense of thankfulness, compassion, and hope towards all my relationships, from friends to family to my one true love.

Want more ideas on how to make Valentine’s Day spectacular for you and your beloved? Let the Elves help find the perfect gift or download our free printable coupons for a gift straight from the heart. Get even more ideas on our Facebook page, on Instagram @Elfstergram, and on Twitter @Elfster

DIY Silver Anniversary Gifts That Sparkle and Shine Without a Big Spend

DIY Silver Anniversary Gifts That Sparkle and Shine Without a Big Spend

silver key ring
25 years of love | Image courtesy of Etsy user SoSimplyQuaint

When I see couples hitting those big marital milestones, I can’t help by fawn over how strong their relationship must be to last through all those years. My aunt and uncle recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a lovely garden party. They’re a traditional couple, so I wanted to honor their big milestone in a classic way.

A 25-year anniversary calls for gifts of silver. This tradition began in the Germanic region of Europe when husbands would give their wives garlands of silver after 25 years of marriage. The silver represented the harmony that the couple shared after being united for a quarter of a century. It’s also traditional for couples to take special vacations or renew their wedding vows at the 25-year mark— it strikes me as a time for romance and appreciating one another.

In the spirit of this beautiful tradition, I wanted to give my aunt and uncle something they could use to celebrate their love, not just for one night, but for the rest of their many years together. So I came up with three DIY, romance-themed anniversary gifts that stay true to the silver-inspired traditions, without breaking the bank.


Silver-Painted Wine Glasses

Wine glasses offer a special kind of duality. Not only is wine commonly associated with romance, but it’s also a symbol of celebration. With that in mind, I wanted my aunt and uncle to be able to toast to their long lives together with a glass of wine from their silver anniversary wine glasses.

silver wine glasses
Toast to a long and happy life together | Image courtesy of Etsy user InaSpinNiquesWay

The Materials:

  • Two clear wine glasses
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Painter’s tape or masking tape
  • Heat-dry enamel paint in silver and any other accent colors you wish to add
  • ½-inch paint brush for the base coat
  • Fine detail paint brush

The How-To:

  1. Start by washing the wine glasses with soap and water. Dry thoroughly.
  2. Using a paper towel, wipe each wine glass down completely with rubbing alcohol. This will remove any fingerprints, soap film, or other tiny details that could ruin your paint job. Let the wine glasses air dry for 5 to 10 minutes.
  3. Place a strip of masking tape around the rim of the wine glass so at least one inch of the glass is covered. This will be the area that stays free of paint and be safe to drink from. Also cover the stem of the glass (or anywhere else you don’t want paint).
  4. Start by applying the base layer of silver paint. This will be the background for any details, lettering, or designs you want to add later. Let the base coat dry for 15 to 30 minutes before adding the next layer. If you need to make corrections, use nail polish remover to remove the paint before it dries.
  5. With the base coat done, add painted details to the glass. You can write the couple’s names and anniversary date, intertwine their initials, draw a whimsical heart and arrow, or add abstract patterns. For fine details and thin lines, use a toothpick dipped in paint. Add dots with a toothpick or the handle of your paintbrush.
  6. Once your design is complete, let the wine glasses air dry for 24 hours.
  7. To make sure the paint is safe to wash, you’ll need to heat set it. Flip the wine glasses upside down on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven. Turn the oven to 350 degrees F and let the glasses slowly warm as the oven reaches temperature. This allows the glass to adjust gradually and prevents breaking.
  8. Once the oven reaches 350 degrees, set a timer for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, turn off the oven, but leave the glasses inside. Let them cool in the warm oven for another 10 minutes so they don’t crack when you take them out.
  9. Now your painted wine glasses are ready to be used, washed, and cherished for years to come!


A Cozy, Romantic Throw for Cuddling

cozy throw blanket
Image courtesy of Etsy user KeyLimeOnline

After 25 years, a spouse is more than just a partner—they become a source of comfort and strength. I wanted my aunt and uncle to remember that they’re so good together because they take the time to care for one another, so I gave them something they can use to keep warm during their long, soul-healing cuddles on the couch: a personalized throw blanket.

The hardest part was deciding how to customize their gift. I could have included their names and anniversary date, their initials, or even a special quote. In the end, I decided to embellish a little bit to emphasize the 25-year landmark. I found some silver stitching thread and I added a border around a large fleece throw that would match their home décor. Then I used a fine felt tip marker and drew “Steve and Barbara” and “25 Years of Comfort” in one corner. Finally, I embroidered the blanket by tracing the ink to create a hand-sewn, personalized tribute to their union.

Sparkling Silver Candles

I can just picture it. Two love birds, wrapped up in a personalized blanket, toasting each other with hand painted wine glasses. The only thing that’s missing from the romantic picture is a set of candles to illuminate the moment. I decided to transform a set of twelve short white tapers into silver ones. Now, instead of worrying about burning down one cherished candle, the couple has a whole set to use for many romantic nights ahead.

silver tapers
Silver candles pay tribute to the silver anniversary | Image courtesy of Etsy user HellNotesforBeauty

The Materials:

  • A large double boiler or wax pitcher
  • 2 lbs of paraffin wax
  • Silver metallic pigment dye
  • White candles (I recommend pillar or small taper candles)
  • Wax paper

The How-To:

  1. Fill the bottom of your double boiler two-thirds full with water. Turn the burner to high heat until the water boils, then reduce the heat to simmer.
  2. Pour two pounds of paraffin wax into the top of your double boiler and set it on the simmering water.
  3. While the wax is melting, stir it occasionally.
  4. Add about ⅔ to 1 ounce of silver dye to the melting wax, stirring together until thoroughly melted and blended.
  5. Hold the candles by the wicks and dip them into the melted wax, covering them completely. Do not allow the silver wax to cover the wicks—or touch your fingertips.
  6. Stand the candles on wax paper to dry. If they won’t stand, hang them by their wicks with clothespins.
  7. Once the wax layer is dry, you can re-dip the candles for a darker color if you’d like—just make sure to let the candles completely dry between layers.

While I was making these gifts, I felt a growing sense of appreciation for the 25 years my aunt and uncle spent together. For some people, celebrating an anniversary is left to the couple. But I’m so glad they decided to throw a party in celebration of all their years together. I was inspired to see them look just as in love as they must have when they first started out on this long journey together.  

In a world filled with so many uncertainties, it’s important to take the time to show your appreciation for the things you can count on. For me, my aunt and uncle are dual pillars of support that I know I can lean on, take advice from, and aspire to be. It was an honor to be a part of their celebration—and I look forward to seeing where the next 25 years will take them.

Trying to find the perfect present for that favorite couple in your life? Let the Elves help you honor them by browsing our gift guides. Get even more ideas on our Facebook page, on Instagram @Elfstergram, or at Twitter @Elfster.

New Year’s Resolution Gift Ideas to Help You Refocus, Recenter, and Succeed

New Year’s Resolution Gift Ideas to Help You Refocus, Recenter, and Succeed

silver bracelet
New Year, New You | Image courtesy Etsy seller LiftYourFork

A cultural phenomenon in Ancient Rome, throughout the Christian Empire, and in our modern, tech-hungry society of today, setting New Year’s resolutions, in fact, dates back to the Babylonians, who lived more than 4,000 years ago. Though they celebrated the new year in mid-March according to the lunar calendar, the Babylonians treated it as a time to make promises and improvements for the year to come.

Despite its long history, only about 8% of Americans will actually keep their resolutions this year, although 46% of us will maintain them through June. So what makes it so hard to keep up the dedication and commitment for the entire 12 months?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the key to making your New Year’s resolutions stick is to start small and change one behavior at a time. I’m as guilty as anyone of starting the year off with a bang by saying I’m going to eat healthier, exercise more, and read 30 books in the coming year. But those goals are way too vague—and probably not realistic. So I’m starting 2017 off right with a few gifts for myself, and some resolutions I know I can stick to.

A Meaningful Resolution Matters

In order for a New Year’s resolution to last an entire calendar year, it has to be something you’re passionate about. Sure, everyone wants to eat healthier and be fitter, but why? Knowing why something is important to you makes it far more meaningful—and far more likely that you’ll hold fast to your goal as the months roll by.

handmade leather journal
Track your transformation | Image courtesy Etsy seller MedievalJourney

It’s not always easy to answer those deep questions, though. That’s why I love journaling. Oftentimes, I’ll sit down to write in my journal and begin by rattling off the events of the day. Then, somewhere in that process, I begin to see things differently. Maybe I’ll notice a particular behavior pattern or a specific thought or emotion that comes up again and again.

Journaling is more than just writing down whatever comes to mind. It forces you to acknowledge and make sense of your thoughts in a logical way. Rather than jumping from idea to idea in your mind, it requires you to put those abstract thoughts into a logical string of words, which gives you a deeper level of self-understanding.

A research study published in the International Journal for Human Caring found that structured, self-reflective journaling promotes better self-awareness and professional growth. In self-reflective journaling, the goal is to answer the following questions every day as honestly as possible:

  • What is your daily life like? How do you strive to achieve your goals? Write about your day and how your goals fit into it.
  • What are you coming to know about yourself today?
  • What are your relationships with friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintances like? Are they helping or hindering your goals?

As 2016 winds down, I decided to treat myself to a little post-Christmas gift: a handmade leather-bound journal. When the New Year arrives, I’ll be ready to dig into all the internal roadblocks that try to get in the way of maintaining my New Year’s resolutions. Also, because this journal feels so special and meaningful to me, I’ll be more motivated to write in and read from it every day.

Break Big Goals Down to Small Tasks

downloadable goal trackers
Organize and prioritize for a successful 2017 | Image courtesy Etsy seller PeekandPonder

I tend to give myself abstract, lofty goals, so I decided if I had any hope of making it past March with my resolutions in tact, I needed to get organized. I found these printable worksheets online that help you identify your goals and break them down into smaller steps so that they’re measurable and achievable. For example, one of my New Year’s resolutions is always to exercise more because who doesn’t want to be stronger, leaner, and healthier? But that’s a pretty broad goal. What does it mean to just “exercise more?” More than what? And how much exercise is enough?

Using the worksheets, I was able to break down my big, broad goal into more concrete details. Since I currently go for two or three long walks each week, I decided I wanted to increase my weekly activity to three runs and three walks. Getting even more specific, I figured out that I should run for 30 minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and walk for 45 minutes on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Alternating days will give my sore muscles time to recover from running, while staying active with a walk. Knowing that I usually like to have at least one lazy day per week, I gave myself Sundays off.

Now I have specific, quantifiable goals that I can implement every day. When I journal each evening, I can give myself credit for sticking to my plan or, if something happens to throw me off course, I can figure out why I couldn’t squeeze in my 30-45 minute exercise session that day. What got in the way? Am I giving other activities or responsibilities more priority than exercise? Is that OK, or do I need to re-evaluate my priorities? It’s easier to figure out why a specific goal is or isn’t working rather than trying to understand why you haven’t been “exercising more.”

Of course, there are going to be days when I falter and I don’t stick to my new exercise routine. Things happen! But it’s important to focus on what you’re doing well. The key is to do better than yesterday, not to be perfect every day. Even on days when you don’t hit every single goal on your list, there’s still a lot to be grateful for. With an optimistic attitude, it’s easier to stay committed to achieving those New Year’s resolutions and to forget about throwing in the towel.

Reward Yourself Along the Way

Treat yourself to an at-home spa day | Image courtesy Amazon seller Freida Joe
Treat yourself to an at-home spa day | Image courtesy Amazon seller Freida Joe

When you do have a day, week, or month when you’ve hit all your goals, it’s time to celebrate. Before the new year even begins, establish rewards for specific checkpoints. For example, I decided that whenever I have a week when I’ve completed all three of my 30-minute runs and my 45-minute walks, I’ll get to enjoy a tall latte from Starbucks. If I’m able to stick to my goal for an entire month, I’ll pamper myself with an at-home spa day. And if I’m able to stick to my goal for a 3-month stretch, I’ll get a new workout outfit!

The tiny successes are just as important as the bigger goal because without the little achievements there would be no big ones. Establishing predetermined rewards also gives you something to look forward to and keeps you grounded when you don’t feel like pushing through a rough patch.

New Year’s is a time for reflecting on all the good you did in the year gone by and planning for all the wonderful things you can do in the year to come. I certainly had some proud moments in 2016, like preparing more meals at home, cutting back on red meat and cheese, and making exercise part of my routine. I’ve come a long way in creating a healthier lifestyle for myself and my family. But, I still have a lot of room for improvement, and that’s what 2017 is for.

Thanks to journaling, I’ve realized what’s truly important to me. I want to be around for a long time to enjoy my loved ones. I also have a lot of traveling to do and sights to see, which will be much easier and more enjoyable if I live a long, healthy life. Drawing on inspiration from the Babylonians, I’m doing everything I can to keep moving onwards and upwards in the year to come.

Want more ideas on how to make 2017 great for you and your loved ones? Let the Elves help you get creative and make some memories. Get ideas on our Facebook page, on Instagram @Elfstergram, and on Twitter @Elfster.

How to Add a Personalized Surprise to a Wedding Gift Straight from the Registry

How to Add a Personalized Surprise to a Wedding Gift Straight from the Registry

gift bag
A sweetly packaged present | Image courtesy flick’r user Shari’s Berries

Scrolling through another politely-requested online gift registry, I see the usual suspects: a crockpot, a distinct china pattern set, a brightly-colored stand mixer. The difference, this time, was that it was a dear friend from college who had become engaged. While I was thrilled for her (and who doesn’t love to attend a wedding), I was disappointed with the gift registry—she was asking me, one of her closest friends, to buy her a stock gift off of a registry list.

Kathy and I were more than best friends in college—we were so alike that people often asked us if we were sisters, which we played along with for a few laughs. After graduation, we ended up living in different cities and eventually different states, but we’ve stayed close over the years. So now that my collegiate bestie was getting married, how could I get her a gift with no thought, no meaning behind it that just anyone could give her? I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

The Dilemma: Fighting the Urge to Make Their Gift About You

kitchenAid mixer
A colorful and fun mixer to inspire kitchen creativity | Image courtesy Amazon seller KitchenAid

A recent study found that your closest friends are the ones who are least likely to buy you a gift from your registry. And it makes sense. When you make a gift registry, you’re telling people exactly what to buy for you, as if they were strangers to your likes and tastes. But your closest friends want to stand out. They want their gifts to proclaim, “Look how well I know you! Here’s a lovely gift you weren’t expecting, that you would never have asked for, but that is absolutely you.”

The problem is the gift giver is thinking of him or herself, not the recipient. A wedding, an incredibly special and personal event meant to be all about the newly married couple, now becomes focused on the gift-giver. Is that really the message we want to send to our friends and loved ones? Interestingly, though, “When gift-giving is anonymous,” the study found, “close friends are now OK with buying off of a registry,” an idea that reiterates the notion it’s a selfish response to try to avoid buying gifts from a registry.

“I think people do get sort of disappointed when their close friends don’t listen to their preferences,” says researcher Morgan Ward. From the recipient’s perspective, an off-the-registry gift might appear as though you are saying, “I know you, and what you want, better than you know yourself.” So the dilemma becomes how to give a meaningful gift while respecting the wishes of the recipients.

The Solution: Adding a Personal Touch to Pre-Picked Presents

ravioli making kit
Ravioli making set for homemade dishes that WOW | Image courtesy Amazon seller William & Douglas

As Kathy’s wedding day approached, I felt the pressure building in my chest and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t let Kathy down by giving her something as silly as $100 bills folded into origami swans. Without any other ideas, I started shuffling through her gift registry, certain it would be a dead end. Her list was mostly kitchen items: a new flatware set, a large-capacity coffee maker, a pasta roller, a ravioli kit, and a set of new barbecue tools (probably for her hubby-to-be).

As I scrolled, I tried to think about how I would feel if I were in her (white and sparkly) shoes. Knowing Kathy, I was sure she’d spent a lot of time picking out her registry and making sure everything she added was something she and her new husband could use to start to build their new life together.

Then I thought about Kathy getting married in the blindingly white, floor-length halter gown I had helped her pick out. I thought about the upcoming reception, with the inevitable toasts and all the knives clinking against glass urging the new couple to kiss. I imagined them driving off in a flashy car with writing on the windows and streamers flowing everywhere as they sped off into the sunset. I thought about what their life would be like together.

handmade apron
A stylish and functional pasta-making accessory | Image courtesy Etsy seller StitchedbyBeverly

I knew they were planning to buy a house right away—she’d been sending me Zillow listings asking for my no-BS best friend opinion. Were they going to have kids soon as well? It seemed like Kathy was stepping out of my world and into a romance novel with white picket fences, children’s toys littering the lawn, and an ice cream truck jingling by. And that was when I knew I had to shop for her in this new world, not our old one of dorm rooms and college cafeterias.

I revisited her registry and put the items she’d selected in their proper place in the imaginary future world I’d created. That’s when everything seemed to come together. I saw Kathy making a ravioli dish for her husband while he grilled chicken and vegetables on the barbecue before sitting down to enjoy their meal together (with their new flatware, of course). It was perfect. And they were perfect together. And I wanted to help them bring the life they’ve been dreaming of to fruition by giving them the perfect gifts—a blend of their requests with a couple complimentary surprises thrown in.

To protect Kathy’s stylish wardrobe from rouge flour bombs, I got her an adorable chef’s apron in her native Italian flag colors. To guide her on her new, courageous attempts at pasta making, I found her an easy-to-follow pasta cookbook. Then, to show her I care (and listen), I bought her the pasta roller and ravioli kit straight off of her gift registry.

kitchen dishtowel
The thin, flour-sack material of this towel makes it easy to tie into a bow | Image courtesy Target

Finally, after carefully bundling her presents in a neat box and using the customary nuptial-themed wrapping paper, I added a last little touch. Instead of spending four bucks on a plastic bow that would likely get thrown away, I spent less on a reusable printed floursack kitchen towel. I wound some shimmering gold ribbon around the box and tied the towel into a bow around the ribbon for a sweet, and practical, clue about what was inside.

Weddings are all about celebrating the love of the couple and giving them the support, encouragement, and funds needed to start their new life journey together. Putting your own, simple twist on gifts from their registry can show the newlyweds you’ve thought about the adventures awaiting them in the future. Kathy ended up loving my gift because I both listened to and surprised her—and showed her I saw great happiness (and delicious pasta) for her in the days ahead.

Let Elfster help you create a wedding wish list, or pick the perfect wedding gift from any of our featured gift guides. Then be sure to connect with us on Facebook, find us on Instagram at @Elfstergram, and on twitter @elfster for more thoughtful gifting tips and tricks.

Honoring Diverse Cultural Traditions for a Christmas Around the World Party

Honoring Diverse Cultural Traditions for a Christmas Around the World Party

Sometimes, the best gift is simply being appreciated for who you are and where you come from. My alma mater, in the Bay Area, attracted a diverse student population—the racial makeup of our student body was like a youthful United Nations. Come Christmas, there was no right or wrong way to celebrate, as long as we all came together in peace, friendship, and joy.

My dormmates and I started a tradition of celebrating an eclectic Christmas together and, while each holiday was memorable, my sophomore year was a little extra special as a bunch of us got together to throw a “Christmas Around the World” party. We all came from different cultural backgrounds, so each of us chose a different party essential, from drinks to decor, to transform into a cultural monument to our heritage. The end result was a unique holiday I won’t soon forget, and the feeling that I had finally recognized an invisible part of who I am.

Scottish Plaids to Celebrate the Christmas Spirit

Decking the halls is my favorite part of Christmas, so I lucked out by getting to dress up our common room with Scottish-inspired decorations. Scotts are known for a love of plaid—each clan has their own tartan, a unique pattern that represents the family, much like a coat of arms.

scottish Christmas Banner
Fun and festive décor inspired by Scotland | Image courtesy Etsy seller bananers4banners

Luckily for me, my family’s tartan involves an intricate blend of green, red, and gold, which made it the perfect pattern for Christmas festivities. While I couldn’t find my family’s exact tartan pattern at the local fabric shop, I found a close match that would double as a lovely holiday accent—and then I got to work on the decorations.

I started by taking the four yards of fabric I’d bought and cutting it lengthwise to create a 12-foot by one-foot runner for the buffet table. I then cut the remaining piece widthwise into as many two- and three-inch strips as I could get, about 55.

Using 20 of the strips, I tied festive bows around everything in sight: chair backs, wall sconces, door knobs, a ladle handle, and so on. With the remaining ribbons, I created a long garland. I started by tying the fabric strips every six inches across a length of twine about 18-feet long so the plaid pieces would hang down like neckties. In between each strand of plaid, I tied spare gift-wrapping ribbons in matching colors like green, gold, and red. Using a few push pins, I hung the garland along the first wall partygoers would see when they walked into the common room. Though it took less than 30 minutes to make, my garland created a rustic, homey atmosphere that honored my Scottish heritage.

As my fellow dormmates slipped in to add their own cultural offerings, everyone was delighted by the Christmas plaid banner. It was such a hit that when one of the partygoers brought her a Santa figurine to serve as a centerpiece for the buffet table, we secured a spare swatch of plaid around Santa’s waist to give him a faux kilt!

South of the Border Meets the North Pole

Once I was done adding my Scottish flare, Arturo, whose family hails from Mexico, was ready to set up our main entertainment for the evening. While most people think of a piñata as a children’s birthday party game, it’s actually a traditional Christmas festivity in Mexico. I was lucky enough to get to help make the paper mache effigy of that year’s festivities, which we fashioned in the shape of a snowman.

Mexican traditional Christmas piñata
Bust Frosty for some delicious holiday treats | Image courtesy Amazon seller CoolGlow

The Materials:

  • Two round balloons
  • Newspaper cut into 1-2” strips
  • A medium mixing bowl
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tbs salt
  • Multi-colored construction paper
  • Scissors
  • Cardboard
  • White crepe paper
  • Glue
  • Candy
  • Masking tape

The How-To:

  1. Blow up the balloons, making one smaller than the other. Tie the balloons closed.
  2. Mix the flour, water, and salt together in a mixing bowl to create the paper mache paste, stirring the mixture until it thickens and there are no clumps.
  3. Dip the cut strips of newspaper into the paper mache paste and run your fingers along each strip to remove excess paste.
  4. Apply the strip to a balloon, making sure to leave the balloon knot uncovered.
  5. Repeat step 4, making a crisscross pattern, until both balloons are covered in a single layer.
  6. Letting each layer dry between applications, apply 3-4 more layers to each of the balloons, then let dry completely.
  7. Pop the balloons by cutting off the knot of each one. Glue the cut edges of the smaller balloon to the top of the larger balloon to create a snowman shape. Make sure the bottom balloon’s hole is facing down.
  8. Glue white crepe paper to the piñata. We decided to bunch the paper up to create more volume for a snowball-like effect.
  9. Cut buttons, eyes, a mouth, a nose, and a scarf out of construction paper and glue them to the piñata. Then cut a hat brim and sides from the cardboard and paste on black construction paper to make a hat.
  10. Fill the bottom, bigger balloon with Christmas-themed candy like caramels, mini candy canes, and chocolates, then cross two pieces of masking tape over the hole and cover with white crepe paper.
  11. Using the tip of the scissors, make two small holes in the back of the piñata near the top. Thread some ribbon through the holes—and hang the piñata!

There were no comical accidents to submit to America’s Funniest Home Videos, thankfully, but the piñata, and Arturo’s DIY skills, were a huge success.

Paying Homage to the Island Life

pineapple upside down cake
Upgrade your fruitcake recipe with pineapple upside down cake | Image courtesy flick’r user

As a West Coast school, the student body included a large number of Hawaiian students, many of whom lived in my dorm. We even had a Hawaiian Student Organization on campus, which would organize events around the year to bring the island life to California—and offered to cook for our holiday party.

Our spread was full of Hawaiian delicacies like lumpia, BBQ pork, fried shrimp, and potstickers. But the real hit of the party was the dessert—a spin on a Christmas classic that transformed the dreaded fruitcake into a delicious pineapple upside down cake. It was so special that I begged for the recipe.

What made this “fruitcake” incredible were all the extra Hawaiian treats added in, like macadamia nuts and banana. For an added Christmas surprise, cranberries replaced the Maraschino cherries. Our party dessert was a tribute to island culture—and all the wonderful goodies the tropics have to offer.

Delightful German Drinks to Warm the Spirit

a cloved orange for wassail
Cloven oranges infuse any mulled beverage with complex, cozy flavors | Image courtesy flick’r user robef

My roommate, Cassie, loves her German heritage and jumped at the chance to brew her mom’s traditional German wassail. Wassail, I learned, is a type of warm, spiced cider made with a combination of fruit juices.

Germans like to sip warm wassail while singing their favorite Christmas melodies out in the cold winter air. It’s such a simple and easy recipe that packs a ton of flavor into one comforting cup.

Cassie borrowed her mom’s crockpot and added two cups apple cider, two cups pineapple juice, two cups cranberry juice, eight cinnamon sticks, one teaspoon of ground nutmeg, and one small slice of ginger to the pot. Then she stuck two oranges with cloves (about 40 per orange) and let the cloved oranges soak in the mixture. After an hour on low heat, we were all served mugs of the most delicious wassail I’ve ever had.

A Warm-Footed Brazilian Gift Exchange

That year’s clever gift exchange was organized by Lara, whose family is from Brazil where Santa Claus is known as Papai Noel. According to Brazilian tradition, if a child leaves a sock in the window during Christmas time, Papai Noel will come and exchange it for a present.

Christmas sock exchange
Keep cozy this Christmas with festive footwear | Image courtesy Etsy seller HitsKnits

Lara came up with the fabulous idea of turning this special Brazilian experience into a fun gift exchange. Before the party, everyone was asked to bring a pair of Christmas socks, as well as a wrapped gift, capped at $30 for us broke college kids.

As each guest arrived, they’d pin their name to their pair of socks and put them somewhere around the room, hung like ornaments or hidden in cushions or under tables. Throughout the night, if you saw a pair of socks you liked, you would swap them for the gift you’d brought, pinning the original sock owner’s name to your wrapped present.

Towards the end of the night, everyone had to find the gift with their name tag attached, resulting in a few comical pictures that made the yearbook—especially the one of the poor freshman whose present was balanced at the top of the tree! Everyone got to leave with a new pair of Christmas socks and a gift from a secret Papai Noel.

I’ll always be grateful for how willing my dormmates were to open up and share something personal from their heritage. Learning about their holiday traditions left me with a new appreciation for each person—and each culture—that I will always cherish. While I haven’t made a pineapple upside down cake in a couple of years, I do follow the Brazilian tradition of hanging a sock for Papai Noel with my kids, and never let a Christmas season slip past without a mug or two of wassail!

Christmas is a chance to unite all the people in your life, even if everyone comes from a different background. If you’re looking for ways to make your Christmas truly unique, check out more great ideas on our Facebook page, Instagram @Elfstergram, or Twitter @Elfster.

Easy Projects to Transform Reclaimed Scrap Wood into Rustic DIY Christmas Gifts

Easy Projects to Transform Reclaimed Scrap Wood into Rustic DIY Christmas Gifts

barnwood christmas
Christmas stables | Image courtesy flick’r user Thomas James Caldwell

Fall is my favorite time of year—the leaves change colors, the weather starts to cool, and there’s always a lovely autumn breeze. But every once in awhile, in my little Texas town surrounded by nothing but wide open plains, that lovely autumn breeze turns into a gust of destruction.  

About two weeks ago, we were bombarded with winds that were just too much for our old weather-beaten fence to stand up to. A section broke free from the support posts and began flailing about, hanging on only by a few nails near the ground. Bundled up against the cold, my husband and I went out and removed all of the fence boards and posts that seemed like they were on their last days. Now, with a heap of scrap wood at hand, the fun begins.

I love working with reclaimed scrap wood because the possibilities are endless. And with the holidays coming up, my loved ones are going to get some whimsically woodsy homemade gifts! Depending on where the wood came from—old pallets, a broken tree branch, a new construction project in the neighborhood—I like to let the character of the wood speak to what I can transform it into. And our recent fence troubles told me I was going to get to make some new Christmas home décor items for my family and friends.

Prepping the Wood for a Transformation

old, broken fence
Lord bless ‘The Menders of Fences’ | Image courtesy flick’r user Bobby McKay

The first step of any reclaimed wood project is to make it safe for the indoors. When wood is left outside for a long while, it can become a home for insects and bacteria that your gift recipients probably don’t want in their houses.

The easiest way I’ve found to prep wood is to bake it in the oven at 250 degrees for an hour. I usually use this option when the scraps I have to work with are small, or I’ve already cut the pieces to size for my project. When the pieces are long, I soak the wood in a bleach solution of one part bleach to 30 parts water. Sometimes I even bake and bleach the wood.

Then, with the rustic boards prepped and ready to become something new, I’m ready to dive into a world of possibilities.

Christmas Tea Light Candle Holders

I decided to make tea light holders for my aunt who loves the cozy atmosphere candles create. This was also the easiest project on my to-do list, so I tackled it first.

wood tea light holders
Reclaimed wood candle holder | Image courtesy Etsy seller GFTWoodcraft

The Materials:

  • A 15-inch piece of 4’x4’ fence post
  • A miter, circular, or hand saw
  • A 1.5-inch diameter self-feed bit or spade bit
  • Sandpaper, 80 grit
  • Wood stain
  • A 1 to 3-inch paintbrush
  • 3 tea lights

The How-To:

  1. Using a saw, cut the fence post into three unequal lengths. I prefer to decorate in sets of 3 or 5, so I cut my 15-inch piece of post into 4-inch, 5-inch, and 6-inch pieces.
  2. Using a 1.5-inch bit, drill into the top of each piece about 1/4 to 3/8-inch deep. Most tea lights are about 3/8-inch tall so, for safety, don’t drill more than 3/8-inch into the wood or the tea light will sit too low and could catch fire.
  3. Sand each piece to remove any rough patches and splinters. Sanding also exposes the inner layers of the wood and makes the grain pop. This is a great opportunity to bang up the pieces a bit. I like to take a chisel to the corners and give any flat faces some personality by hitting them with a ball-peen hammer. Make sure to blow on each piece to remove any dust and debris before the next step.
  4. With your paintbrush, apply the stain to each piece. Don’t forget to stain the depression (where the tea light will sit), as well as the bottom. It’s best to do this step outside or in a well-ventilated garage because the stain gives off fumes.
  5. Let the stain soak into each piece for about 5 minutes—a little longer for a darker color, shorter for a lighter one. Then, wipe each piece with an old rag or paper towel to remove the excess stain and let the pieces sit outside or in a well-ventilated area for several hours to dry.
  6. Once the pieces are dry, place one tea light in each piece, wrap thoughtfully and beautifully, and place under the tree.

To make these really festive, I decided to tie fabric ribbon around each one and used a hot glue gun to add fake berries and a small twig from a pine tree. Now my aunt can arrange these on her coffee table, mantle, or dining table as a lovely winter decoration.  

Wall Sconces to Warm up the Winter

With so many planks of scrap wood from the broken fence, I was tempted to make sconces for every member of my family, but I started with a pair for my best friend, Jodie, who just moved into a new home and is looking for some rustic wall décor.

rustic wood wall sconces
Rustic wall sconce | Image courtesy Etsy seller KrohnDesigns

The Materials:

  • 2 fence boards
  • A miter, circular, or hand saw
  • A drill and drill bit
  • 1.5-inch drywall or wood screws
  • Wood glue
  • Sandpaper, 80 grit
  • A level
  • Clamps

The How-To:

  1. Choose two of the straightest fence boards available—these need to be able to lie flat against a wall.
  2. From your fence boards, cut two 16-inch wall pieces, two 5-inch platform pieces, and two 2-inch support pieces.
  3. Cut off each end of the support pieces at a 45-degree angle.
  4. Sand each of your pieces, making sure there are no sharp edges or splinters.
  5. Add a string of wood glue to one of the 45-degree edges of one support piece. Affix the support piece 2-inches from the base of the wall piece, making sure it is centered and vertically level. Use a clamp to hold the piece in place while the glue dries.
  6. While the glue is drying, drill one pilot hole through the wall piece and into the support piece. Your drill bit should be slightly smaller than the width of the screws you’re using. Then insert the screw into the pilot hole.
  7. Add a string of wood glue to the upward-facing edge of the support piece and to the back edge of a platform piece. Then affix the platform piece to the wall and support pieces and clamp it in place.
  8. While the glue is drying, drill three pilot holes through the wall piece and into the platform piece and insert screws into the pilot holes.
  9. Keep the platform piece clamped to the support piece until the glue dries completely.
  10. Repeat steps 5 through 11 for the second sconce.
  11. Finally, drill two holes in the wall piece of each sconce, one centered at the top and one centered at the bottom. These will be used to mount the sconces.

These sconces are fast and easy to make, and will add charm and personality to my friend’s home. I used black drywall screws to make mine since they have more threads to give your sconce a stronger construction. Plus, the black adds a rustic touch. I also put two extra drywall screws and two drywall anchors in a plastic bag so Jodie has all that she needs to hang these as soon as she opens my present!

A Versatile, Year Round Centerpiece Box

Centerpiece boxes let you change out your decorations again and again while still having that country barn appeal. My mother-in-law loves to host dinner parties for her friends, so I thought this would make a nice gift for her so she can display her creativity at each party.

reclaimed wood centerpiece box
Reclaimed wood crate box | Image courtesy Etsy seller Love4PawsCafe

The Materials:

  • 2 fence boards
  • A miter, circular, or hand saw
  • Drill and drill bit
  • 1.5-inch drywall or wood screws
  • Wood glue
  • Sandpaper, 80 grit
  • Level or carpenter’s square
  • Clamps

The How-To:

  1. Choose two of the straighter fence boards you have and cut three 18-inch pieces for the bottom and long sides, as well as two 5-inch pieces for the short sides.
  2. Sand each piece until there are no sharp edges or splinters.
  3. Add a strand of wood glue to the edge of one of the short sides. Using a level or carpenter’s square, affix the short side to the long side, making sure the pieces meet at a 90-degree angle. Use a clamp to hold the side in place.
  4. While the glue is drying, drill two pilot holes through the long side and into the short side edge.
  5. Insert two screws into the pilot holes.
  6. Repeat steps 4 through 6 to attach the second short side to the same long side.
  7. To attach the second long side, add a strand of wood glue to the free edges of both short sides. Again, make sure the pieces meet at 90-degree angles and use a clamp to hold the sides in place.
  8. Drill two pilot holes for each short side, going through the long side and into the short side edge, then insert screws into the pilot holes.
  9. To attach the bottom, flip the box upside down. Add a strand of wood glue to the edges of the two short sides. Use a clamp to hold the base in place.
  10. Drill two pilot holes for each short side, going through the base piece and into the short side edge, then insert screws into the pilot holes.
  11. Let the glue dry before filling your centerpiece box with decorations or gifting to someone extra special, and creative.

Depending on the look of the wood, I might stain the boxes after sanding. But sometimes the raw, unstained piece is perfect—my mother-in-law can stain it herself to match the other wooden furniture in her home.

When the weather kicks up and makes a mess of my yard, it’s tempting to just toss all the debris and be done with it. But I’m glad we took the time to repurpose our old fence wood. Not only did I have a blast getting creative and making some new items, but I now have several gifts that I can check off my list this holiday season.

With a more people to tend to on my Christmas gift list, I’m sure I’ll be returning to the pile of scrap wood a few more times. Making gifts by hand makes this joyous time of year even more meaningful, and I know my gifts will be memorable. When the shreds of wrapping paper are all cleaned up, and everyone has had their fill of Christmas goodies, what’s really important is letting your loved ones know you care. And what better way than by gifting them something made by your own two hands?

Too often we get stressed out about gift giving, especially around the holidays. During this special time of year, giving gifts should be a source of joy—not stress. If you’re running short on ideas, let the elves help you make magic this season. Browse Elfster’s Gift Guides for everyone on your list, or connect with us on Facebook, Instagram @Elfstergram, and Twitter @Elfster