12/05/2014 01:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Homemade Holidays

When I was growing up, one of our most cherished Christmas traditions was the Tour of Wet Homemade Presents, featuring my older brother as tour guide. "I made you a set of bookends with horses on them, but they're still drying," he would say, as my sister and I descended the basement stairs, trails of discarded Christmas paper and bows littering the family room behind us. "And the key ring holder I made you is almost ready," he'd add to my parents, who followed along behind. "The varnish is still just a little sticky."

Every year, my parents nagged my brother to start making his family presents over Thanksgiving vacation, only to have him finally start sawing and hammering and varnishing on the afternoon of December 24.

Of course we teased him mercilessly about his last-minute approach to Christmas gifts, but even if they were late, the handmade gifts from my brother have stuck around. I still use the coasters he made me in '82 to hold our wine glasses, and the napkin rings he hand carved from a single long wooden branch to hold our napkins. The napkins, I should add, were sewn for me by my sister when I was in high school, blue checkered with half-moons of tiny watermelons. They're threadbare now, but I couldn't get rid of something my brother or sister made for me with their own two hands.


Looking back, there could have been any number of reasons why my parents decreed that we were not allowed to buy Christmas gifts for one another while we were growing up. It was in the days before children had such alarmingly large disposable incomes, or maybe they wanted to encourage our creative impulses. Whatever the reason, the gifts under the family tree each year included items embroidered, sewn, hammered, painted, stuffed and stenciled.

A card table in the basement was Craft Central. Dad set it up in the days after the Thanksgiving turkey had been tamed with an electric knife, and Mom would start dropping art supplies onto it from around the house: glue, glitter, paper, fabric scraps, ribbons. With a tinny FM radio plugged in and playing Top 40 hits by the Bee Gees and Styx, the table was an inviting place to while away a snowy grey afternoon, alone or in the company of friends. We got very good at recognizing the distinctive footsteps of family members coming down the basement steps. "Don't come down here!" I'd shriek as my sister descended in search of a Tab from the downstairs 'fridge. "I'm working on your present!" Then I'd go back to stenciling, enjoying the solitude (and maybe the rare joy of bossing an older sibling.)

Some gifts worked better than others. In a spectacular example of "well, it's something I would have liked to receive" reasoning, I once made my brother a life-size doll out of my mother's discarded nylon hose and cotton stuffing, sewed yellow yarn on its head for hair, drew on a face and dressed it in football garb to match my brother's high school team uniform. I was indignant at his lukewarm response. What 15-year-old boy wouldn't invite his buddies over to see his life-sized doll twin?

Even the better-conceived gifts presented challenges. I once sewed my father a white v-neck sweater out of knit jersey, sort of a Pat Boone look, which was a curious choice for my dad who favored flannel shirts and jeans on the weekend. Luckily, he was spared from ever wearing it, because I laid the fabric in the wrong direction when I cut the pieces so the garment stretched only vertically, not horizontally. It would have been perfect for a basketball player who moonlighted on the Lawrence Welk Show.

But mostly, the homemade Christmas gifts were good practice for hobbies that have followed us into adulthood. My sister is an excellent seamstress and makes mouthwatering gifts from her kitchen for her friends and family: banana bread and brownies and Chinese New Year cookies. All those years of woodworking and building enabled my brother to put in his own backyard pond, build shelves for his living room and turn a piece of siding from our old cabin into a plaque by which to remember the place.

And I doubt there was ever a prouder mother than I, the year my preschool aged daughter wanted to be Rapunzel for Halloween and I managed to whip up a costume on my sewing machine that she thought was more beautiful than even her picture books.

I think the true reason my parent instituted the "Homemade Only" rule is because it shifted the focus of the season squarely to where it belongs: On using your talents to express your appreciation for others, on giving over receiving.

Because you don't spend 23 hours with your sister, piecing together a manly plaid quilt for your brother's college dorm room as a sort of apology for the doll twin, without learning that the gift recipient's delight is the best part of the process.