The dos and don’ts of holiday DIY gifts

Photo courtesy of Regretsy.com
Don’t: Prairie bunt loaf from Regretsy.com

So You Think You Can DIY?  When it comes to handmade holiday gifts, here’s the deal: I don’t want a popsicle-stick gingerbread house that I feel guilty throwing away because you made it, and I don’t want you to resent me because I gave your kid a sock monkey doll that looks like a… sock. If your plan this year is to make your own holiday gifts, follow our suggestions on how to navigate the perilous realms of knitting, sewing, canning etc. Most important: make it simple, stick to what you know, and try to keep it fun. Frustration and tears are holiday Don’ts.


DO: Make Cheese. Who does that?!  You. The web store UrbanCheeseCraft sells kits ($17-50) and offers helpful tips: “you can buy a gallon of milk at the grocery store and be eating your own fresh cheese within an hour!” Mozzarella is a real crowd pleaser, especially if you cut it into cubes, then place in a glass jar with herbs, garlic, and olive oil.

DON’T: Give vegan delicacies to non-vegans. Or anybody, actually. The right vegan recipe can be amazing (thank you, Woody Harrelson) but the holidays are not the time to start cutting butter from your cookies.

DO: Give cookie mixes. Place dry recipe ingredients in mason jars, and write the rest of the instructions on a ribbon tied to the jar (like, “add 2 eggs and 1 cup milk, bake at 350 for 20 minutes”). Package cookies with care and creativity. Put them in a vintage tin from a flea market, Chinese take-out boxes blossoming with tissue paper, or fill up a big clear vase, and cover with colored cellophane.

DO: Give your own Bloody Mary mix. You could become known for it, and then you know you’ll always be invited, no matter what happens with your friendship!  Bring it in a festive but cheap pitcher so you can leave it there and seem gracious. Tie it with a cute ribbon of course! Here is the best Bloody Mary Recipe.

DO: Infuse liquor. So easy. Just put the right thing in the right liquor and let it sit for three days. Examples: ginger in vodka, jalapeños in tequila, vanilla and cherries in rum. If the recipient likes expensive gin, you can actually make some yourself by buying a bottle of cheap-as-you-dare vodka and infusing it with juniper berries. I found an easy recipe at Gourmet, but mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler has this step-by-step guide. Peel off the label of the cheap liquor you bought, slap on your own, and tie the ingredient you infused to the ribbon for extra “oohs and aahs!”

Don't bother mashing your own grapes.
Don’t bother mashing your own grapes.

DON’T: Make your own wine. It requires all this stufffff, and corking and bottling, and here’s the thing: You. Can. Get. Cheap. Wine.

DO: Make your own wine labels. Dress up a $7 bottle by making labels here or here.  It’s also easy enough to just buy some sticky labels at any paper or office store, and do it on your own computer. Then you’re faced with two choices: owning it or faking it. For the former, write something clever, like “You’re such an alcoholic, you don’t even care what wine this is, Happy Holidays.” For a fake-out, make sure you include all the necessary items of information. BTW, 2005 was a good year.


DO: Give personal photos in in photo frames. There are a million ways to decorate cheap frames, and everyone loves a good picture of themselves ensconced in a happy memory. But make sure the photo flatters the recipient—they don’t care if you look good if they have a double chin.

DON’T: Give your amateur knitting projects. Great, you found something to do with your hands during Glee. Don’t make me a annoyed that you every time I meet you I have to wear hat that makes me look like Cousin Eddie’s wife in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

DO: Make a personalized Barbie for your friends. For an opening-night gift, my actress friend Carm’s co-stars bought a brunette Barbie, dressed her up like Carm’s character, and gave it to her in a box they made. Who doesn’t want a collector’s item of themselves?

DON’T: Make candles. I asked a lot of people if they had any sure-to-fail-DIY’s and 87% of the people immediately said “candles.” Second was soap.

DO: Make your own Christmas cards. There are lots of easy ways to do them, and it’s okay if these look homemade. Take some cool pictures of your neighborhood or cat or whatever, print them in black-and-white, and put them on blank cards with these corner tabby things. Or make construction-paper cards like Estherbetty on Etsy. Or, just support a Brooklyn artist and buy from her.

DO: Personalize boring wine glasses with these super-cool chalk stickers!  Then the glasses double as place-cards at a dinner party.

DO: Give your skills as a gift. It’s a recession, and we all need something that someone we know can give: a haircut, a website-building-and-maintaining tutorial, a teeth cleaning.

DON’T: Give the above at the wrong time to the wrong person. Don’t offer résumé help to Uncle Joe just after his house was foreclosed. Don’t go to a cocktail party and tell the hostess she’s entitled to a free pap. And don’t offer a massage and then never give one. That’s annoying.

So that’s my list. If you have more suggestions or links, put ’em in the comments. I’ll be making the gin—the good thing about DIY liquor is that even if it’s not perfect, by the time it’s gone, any imperfections are long forgotten.


  1. And, and, DO: homemade Rice Krispie treats! With, like, peanut butter and chocolate chips, in a nifty tin or cello-wrapped basket. I will be handing these out this year with a card of Roz Chast’s cartoon “the Rice Krispie square” (but not for profit ’cause that’s not my intellectual property). Homemade RKTs are always better than commercial ones anyway!

  2. Deb Sulley

    I gave a bottle of wine and a bottle of organic batter blaster pancake mix (sprays like reddi mix) – in a double wine bag with bows and filled with an assortment of chocolates and holiday candy. Super easy and inexpensive but looked like i put a lot of effort into it!

  3. This is super helpful and creative! These gift ideas save money and show people you care enough to put in a little effort, plus they probably won’t even throw them out because they’re actually useful ideas! I’d be thrilled to receive any of the above. I’m going to infuse whiskey with orages & cinnamon for my whiskey-in-a-jar christmas gifts.

  4. I’m no Woody Harrelson, but I bake vegan cookies for my office fairly often–they’re always quickly consumed and people beg for more/sooner. I never tell folks they’re vegan, but I do warn of nuts (those allergies are deadly, yo). So I would say: DO bake, vegan or otherwise, but DON’T bake without allergy warnings.

  5. anika

    I made homemade limoncello once that was pretty easy, but it took two months to sit infuse according to the recipe. I put it in a really cool old grappa bottle and it looked impressive. Maybe it could be an easter present if you start now …

  6. Clementine

    Great insight! I can’t wait to infuse liquor – the trick is actually gifting it. My family and I also DIY the wrapping paper, which is fun if you’re in on the joke. We try to wrap presents without using tape or actual wrapping paper. It makes things quite interesting for sure.

  7. Allison

    While I am a little sore at the vegan recipe thing—most people don’t even realize the sweets that I have baked them are vegan until they have snarfed them down—I think that these are really creative ideas! The recipe jars are clever and practical, and that way they can choose to make my recipes vegan or non-vegan! :D

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