Embrace the blankness

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Enticing blankness, beckoning. / Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

New year, new opportunities

By Ellen Margulies

When is a blank canvas, a blank screen or a blank piece of paper a good thing? When it’s a blank slate, as in when it’s a metaphor for erasing all the emotional clutter you’ve been collecting and starting anew.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to throw out everything you’ve collected. Figuratively and literally, some things have a place in the “for keeps” pile. But the little shot of mental freshness you get by starting over should not be underestimated.

I’m staying away from anything too resolution-y, because I don’t know how useful those really are. (Unless your resolution is to break any resolutions you make by three days in…) But I do like the ritual of examining the year that’s passing and looking ahead to see what your life might have room for in the coming year. I am particularly interested in exploring the ways in which  our lives can be enhanced by creativity, and using this blog as a way to share those explorations. I’ve already signed up with co-blogger Laura for a book-making class later in the year, and I will probably sign up for an art class or two. I may delve into something completely different for me, like cooking. You can Google “adult enrichment classes” or “community education” and whatever town you live in to get some ideas, or you can look for the usual suspects, like supply stores, community colleges and entrepreneur centers, if you have specific ideas in mind. In Nashville, some of my favorite places to take classes are:

Plaza Art

The Skillery

Nashville Community Education

University School of Nashville

Watkins College of Art and Design

Admittedly, I’ve gotten most of these ideas from Laura. It’s always nice to have someone in your corner egging you on to be more creative, though, right? It gives your creativity a kick in the butt. I write for a living, so I certainly understand the frustration of the cursor blinking accusingly in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, but I have also learned over the years (and decades, and centuries, and millennia…) to just start.

It’s not like you can’t go back and re-do your beginning, and that’s true of most projects. Maybe not, you know, cutting crown moulding for your rec room ceiling, but generally speaking. I’ve gotten to the point where I find the blankness of the page or canvas to be a good thing, an exciting thing, a door opening up onto… who knows what.

I decided to make a fresh start with one of my would-be bulletin boards, just in time for a new year. I’d bought a card/photo holder a few years ago when I was looking for a place to hang some hand-blown glass ornaments I bought in Romania. I hung the ornaments with different colored ribbons, but the little wire curlicues on the rod were too irresistibly empty. Over time I began to wedge photographs, postcards, drawings, save-the-dates, thank-you notes and Christmas cards in there.

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See your Christmas card up there? If not, maybe you should’ve sent me one, you thoughtless bastard. / Photo by Ellen Margulies

As you can see, it was full to bristling with mementoes.

So, I pulled them all out.

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Fresh start for a fresh year. Feel free to send me a card, drawing or photo to help me fill it up again! 1717 Forrest Ave., Nashville, TN 37206/ Photo by Ellen Margulies

Some will be recycled, others will be scrapbooked (a.k.a. thrown into a pile in a shoebox until I can get around to scrapbooking later). And you know what? I couldn’t believe how good it felt to have that fresh, blank “canvas,” as it were, gracing my wall. Just think of all the things I can fill it with.

I can’t wait.

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Writing – it’s not just for writers

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If you can’t write, then by all means, write. / Photo by Caleb Roenigk, Flickr Creative Commons

by Laura M.

Some people (maybe you?) have writer’s block about even trying to write a grocery list. You might have an image in your head of what a writer looks like: arms crossed, hunched over a typewriter, cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth. She tortures herself to craft the perfect turn of phrase. And you think, “Well, if published authors have it that bad, how and why would I even try?”
Here’s the thing: Writing ends up a being an incredible practice in self-discovery and articulation. I find that when I write, by the practice of searching for the most appropriate word in writing, I’m that much better at expressing myself in spoken word. It’s a pretty nifty by-product.
I encourage you to try your hand at writing. Here are a couple more objections you might come up with which I am promptly going to shoot down:
Objection: I don’t have the right tools.

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Photo by David Melchor Diaz/Flickr Creative Commons
Counter-argument: You can use whatever tools suit you best. Some folks like pen and paper, some prefer writing on a computer. If you have dyslexia or poor motor skills, consider using a voice-to-text app on your mobile device.
Objection: I wouldn’t know what to write about.

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Photo by Anselm23/Flickr Creative Commons
Counter-argument: Writing prompts! Or stream-of-consciousness writing. With a writing prompt, you write about whatever subject the prompt is. With stream-of-consciousness, you write about whatever pops into your head for a set amount of time[say, 5 or 10 minutes].The trick there is to never stop writing. No pausing to think about what to write. You can even write “I don’t know what to write about.”
For starters, why not try writing your own bio? I’ve actually had loads of practice at this since I’m single and use online dating. Here are some common questions you can answer to flesh out your bio:
What are you doing with your life?
What are you really good at?
What is the first thing that people usually notice about you?
What are some of your favorite books, movies, TV shows, music, food?
What are six things you could never do without?
What do you spend a lot of time thinking about?
You know where you can stick this fancy new bio of yours? On Facebook! They now have a section where you can write a brief bio. Post it there and let us know if you get any feedback from friends. They’ll probably learn something about you that you didn’t know. Feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

Glitter my world

 

Escape into a shiny happy village

By Ellen Margulies

See this tiny pink and purple house? That’s where I live.

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This is how my real house should look. /Photo by Ellen Margulies

 

It is actually a model replica of my real, non-glittered house which has touches of purple on the door and window trim but is not, sadly, a glitzy pink house. Not sure how my neighbors would feel about that anyway, but it’s the sort of thing that would make my heart go pitter-pat. There’s even a little cat silhouette in the window.

My sister Karen made it, as she has turned out to be quite the tiny architect, or architect of tiny homes at least, in her spare time. What started out as a yuletide craft project and sister-bonding time a couple of Christmases ago turned out to be a kind of a fail for me but has morphed into a seasonal obsession for Karen. I did attempt a couple of houses in the beginning, but there are some foundation-buckling issues and for someone who is not good at cutting or drawing a straight line, ehrm, well, let’s just say the exacting window-work made me cuss.

We were inspired by the German-American putz houses (which by the 1960s were made in Japan, of course) that decorated our Christmas tree growing up. We always loved those tiny, shiny houses, and we rediscovered, around the same time in the Age of Pinterest, that people were making their own. Karen may claim she stumbled upon them first, and that’s fine because she’s SO GOOD at making them that I’m going to let her have that one. After I gave up, Karen kept going. She’s made models of my parents’ home, her home, friends’ homes and a variety of schools, churches and mid-century modern stuff. She loves it, and who am I to discourage anyone from gifting me with handmade glittered awesomeness?

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Fences, stepping stones, vellum window panes and hand-glittered trees give life to your little houses. / Photos by Ellen Margulies

You can find really great templates online here, here and here as well as all over the aforementioned Pinterest, dozens on Karen’s and my shared board alone. I gave up on all but the aesthetic touches, but Karen has learned a lot of tips and tricks along the way, which she agreed to share with you, our 9.75 million blog readers (that’s just an estimate; margin of error is plus/minus 9.75 million…).
Here are Karen’s tips if you’d like to attempt your own Putz house:

20151114_185211The right tools are a must. You’ll need a good straight edge, possibly one with circles for detail work; a very sharp utility knife for which you should change the blades frequently, especially when doing detail work; a metal ruler; and a self-healing cutting mat.

When you download your templates, trace them onto good, heavy paper like Strathmore Bristol. Some people say to build these houses out of cereal boxes. We tried this at first, but the cardboard is a bit shoddy and tends to bow and buckle when glued. You’re going to be happier using card stock or heavy paper.

Avoid spray adhesive; that stuff goes everywhere. Ailene’s Tacky Glue works well, but you can use any white glue that dries clear.

When you first glue the house together (before glittering, btw), you will have to hold the house together for a few minutes with a clothespin, paper clip or document clip. When it comes to roofs, you may have to just hold it on by hand.

Here’s how your workflow should look: cut, paint, put vellum in windows with double-sided roller tape, assemble walls, then apply roof. Once everything is dry and all embellishments like shutters are on, then glue to base.

Gluing the house to the base is the last step. To mount your house on a base, run a bead of glue along the edges of the house, and press down gently. You’ll want to hold it there for a minute or two.

To decide base size, which is often not included in the template, figure out what you want on it. A fence? Go a bit larger. A tree or two? See how far they should be from the house. Use common sense and plan your yard beforehand.

Heavy-duty art board works best for a base; it’s a bit thicker than poster board. Cut the size you want, then take a piece of glitter paper (you can buy it by the sheet, and these also make fun roofs), cut it the same size as your base board and attach it with a generous amount of glue. Sign the bottom of your piece before attaching the house.

You can buy bare trees and glitter them yourself. Pre-packaged wreaths tend to be the wrong scale, so you can cut them down to size by snipping it near the top center and squeezing it into a smaller ring. A bit of glue or bow re-positioning will do wonders.

Be smart: Glitter over folded paper so you can funnel unused glitter back into the bottle.

20151114_185141Patience, patience, patience. Mishaps happen. You may get hangers when you try to cut a window frame, or paste your roof on wonky. Take a deep breath. Re-cut your windows; take the roof off and re-glue it to your liking.

When you assemble your house, don’t strive for perfection. Most of us will end up with imperfections, and that’s ok; just enjoy what you do.

***

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You know you want to stroll through my glitter village. / Photo by Ellen Margulies

We hope you’ve enjoyed our 12 Days of Christmas creativity blogs. We’ll be back again next week, and every week after that, with something new to kick your creative tendencies into gear!

 

 

 

 

 

Curing the holiday blues

by Laura M.
I’m not a researcher. Nor do I claim to be an expert on anything. I’m like a lot of people: I know a little bit about a lot. So what I’m about to share is not scientifically proven. It’s not backed up with statistics. It’s just what works for me. Which I think is kinda the point of a blog – sharing personal stories in the hope that someone else can relate.

Here’s the deal: If you’ve lost someone dear to you, especially if it’s recent, the holidays can be rough. I don’t think that bears further explanation. So I’m just going to jump into some creative things you can do (and not do) to lighten your spirit.

Holiday cards

You get a pass on sending out holiday cards. Hands down. I enjoy receiving the Christmas missives (see here for a creative way to display them!) But when I’m feeling blue I have to pay attention to the inward groan I hear that is conjured by the thought of having to send out Christmas cards. I mean, it’s a lot of work. Picking out the cards, getting the address book and stamps out and then if you write a personal note – even more time! So I’m here to tell you: you’re off the hook. If you’re feeling heavy and writing cards doesn’t lift your spirits – don’t do it! No one’s keeping tally. And if they are – you don’t need those kinds of people in your life!

See the light(s)

My brother died 3 weeks before Christmas several years ago. On the anniversary of his death I was having a hard time. I mentioned it to a dear friend and she proposed what was probably the only thing that could have cheered me up: She offered to come pick me up and drive me around so that we could look at all the Christmas lights. With hot chocolate. And let me tell you what – it really did the trick. I highly recommend it. You could even bring along your holiday playlist that you made (see what I did there?).

imagephoto credit: J. Proffitt

Forget telepathy

December is a busy time of year. Folks got some shopping to do, decorating, school plays, family dinners to plan, etc. It’s perfectly understandable if they may not notice you moping in your cubicle. So, verbalize to others that you’re having a hard time. Those closest to you will want to know and may offer a great diversion that will end up making you feel better. Maybe driving around looking at Christmas tree lights???

Forgive

Everybody handles grief differently. Which means that those around you are kind of playing roulette in figuring out what the best things are to say and do for you. So if their actions/words don’t hit the mark, forgive them. They’re just trying their best. A dear friend of mine recently lost his wife of 50+ years. A friend of his has been sending him a ‘thinking of you’ card every month for the past few months. It’s a beautiful gesture. Only, for him, it’s yet another reminder that his wife is gone. But he’s gracious about it. He understands the love and caring behind it. On the flip side, I got the nicest e-mail from a close friend, acknowledging that she remembered this was the time of Angus’ passing. It meant the world to me that she was thinking of me.

Laugh

When you’re feeling blue, sometimes it’s hard to think of anything that would make you laugh. But you should really take the time to search for it. My recommendations:

Mike Birbiglia – stand-up comedian, author, actor. I appreciate Birbigs’ humor because it’s always self-deprecating and never mean-spirited. He’s got some Comedy Central specials (I think.) You could look for him on iTunes or Netflix, etc. Or check out another comedian at your local improv troupe.

Bill Bryson – author. My favorite book of his is titled “In A Sunburnt Country.” I read it 2 weeks after my brother died. In a feat that I didn’t think was possible, this book made me laugh.out.loud. I mean, think about it: If it could make me laugh at the worst time in my life, a regular person should be howling.

Elf – movie. Again, a personal favorite. Hopefully there’s a funny movie that you love to watch over and over. Beethoven is a very close second for me.

This SNL skit. I’ve watched it over a dozen times, and each time it makes me cry with laughter. It feels good.

Get a cat

I’m actually serious about this. If you don’t already have a pet, let me tell you what: there’s nothing like caring for a furry critter to make you feel better. I adopted 2 kitties after my brother’s death, and they saved me from the depths of my grief. Nothing else had worked. Not talk therapy, not art therapy, hoola hooping, or anti-depressants. But when I got those cats, man, my whole world turned around.

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Lexie and Parker. My dearies who are quickly eclipsing me in the number of Facebook followers.

It’s hard to be sad at a time of year that is supposed to be filled with joy. Just know it’s ok to feel both. Once again: all of the above is what works for me. I would love to hear what works for you. Sharing is caring.

I made my mom’s cookie recipe, and you won’t believe what happened!

 

A Christmas cookie that stands the test of time

By Ellen Margulies

Just kidding about that top headline, BTW. And now for our regularly scheduled blog:

For every Christmas since I can remember, one cookie has always made an appearance somewhere within the Margulies enclave: the Peanut Blossom, typically plainer than its rolled and cookie-cuttered brethren and, unlike its sprinklier sisters, adorned only with a single chocolate kiss.

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Probably the Christmas cookie preferred by the Baby Jesus.

It’s such an ingrained holiday tradition in my family that we tend not to eat it any other time of year. There are lots of recipes out there to choose from, some of which call for things like shortening (no), milk (nope) or almond flour (hell no) and everything in the centers from Rolos (no) to peppermint (hopefully not with peanut butter).

As for me, I thought I’d stick with Mom’s classic. She’s been using this recipe since the 1960s, and it’s a good one. I had to fight with her to give up the recipe — “You’re going to post this on the Internet, aren’t you!” — but she ultimately relented because I am her favorite (sorry, Jan, Karen, Paul, Cyd, Nola, William, Josh and especially Kaiti).

Granted, I did go a little off-book today. My dough seemed really crumbly when I was rolling the balls, so I either over-floured or under-peanut buttered. Before rolling the second batch, I added in a heaping spoon of peanut butter and remixed the dough. Things went much more smoothly after that. All told, I ended up using about three-quarters of a cup of peanut butter instead of the half-cup called for in the recipe.

dough and sugars
The dough was a bit too crumbly-wumbly, as the Brits would say; go ahead and try some colored sugars. But try the basic recipe first!

I also experimented with red and green sugar sprinkles, because Christmas, and for the last four cookies at the end I went completely wild and stuffed two with red-and-green M&Ms and did the traditional cross-hatch on the other two.

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Home cookies, not suitable for public outings.

 

All told, I got 40 cookies, with all but the test dry-crumbly batch and the last 4 wonky experimental cookies going to the client office party tonight. Also, these things are a total beyotch to transport. Cookies be breaking apart, kisses be falling off. I suggest doing this as a fun togetherness activity with kids or when you plan to feed a big crew at home. Unless you have the money and cargo space to load about 4 at a time into a tray to take them wherever you’re going.

 

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We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

I also got the warm fuzzies from remembering all those Christmases of yore — did I ever mention I’m from Yore, NC? — and getting into an argument with my mom about why she should always, always share the recipe. (Love you, Mom! MWAH! You’re my favorite mom of all time!!!)

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Chocolately, peanut-buttery perfection.

Hopefully, these will inspire you to try this recipe or share your own baking tradition with us (hop on in those comments — don’t be shy!). Don’t forget to check out Laura’s blog from yesterday, which is also all about dat Christmas cookie. Next up for me, baking-wise? Wrestling my mom’s shortbread recipe away from her. Maybe if I promise not to post that one…

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Mickey’s Super-Secret Totally Awesome Peanut Blossoms: The Ellen Edition

1 3/4 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup room-temperature butter

1/2 to 3/4 cup peanut butter, add more as needed to make dough pliable

1/2 cup sugar, plus another ½ cup for rolling

1/2 firmly-packed brown sugar

1 unbeaten room temperature cage-free egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

Assorted sprinkles or sugars in smaller bowls if you’re feeling funky

40 or so unwrapped Hershey’s candy kisses, plus more for snacking I mean quality control

  1. Pre-heat oven to 375.
  2. Sift together first three ingredients. Or, if it’s no longer 1968 where you live, put them in a medium bowl and shake them around a bit.
  3. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and peanut butter.
  4. Gradually add the brown sugar and the ½ cup of white sugar.
  5. Add the egg and vanilla, then blend flour mixture in gradually, mixing thoroughly.
  6. Shape dough into balls using rounded rounded spoonfuls. These won’t necessarily be perfect orbs, which is fine because you’ll be flattening them later.
  7. Put remaining half-cup of sugar in a shallow pasta bowl or on a dinner plate. Roll each ball in sugar, place on ungreased cookie sheet. (I lined mine with parchment paper.)
  8. Bake for 8 minutes, remove sheet from oven, place candy kiss on top, pressing down firmly until cookie cracks around the edges. Return to oven 2-5 minutes until golden brown. Makes about 3 dozen, plus a few more at the end to play with.

 

 

Random tips for better baking

Expect a couple of mishaps — a kitchen covered completely in sugar, including a floor that crunches when you walk, and maybe a cookie that accidentally slides off the spatula and falls into the stove, possibly. It’s all part of the holiday fun.

Don’t worry that you don’t have a fancy-ass Kitchenaid mixer or a large kitchen; I have neither of those things.

I treat myself to new baking ingredients every December, so don’t be trying to bake with some crusty old baking powder you’ve had since 2008. Your cookies will taste like crap, and it will not be my fault or, as much as we enjoy blaming her for stuff, my mom’s.

Do have the kisses unwrapped and a cooling wire tray at the ready. You can use the same cookie sheet over and over, or have two to swap out (but who wants that extra washing-up?).  

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Plan for a 10%-20% loss/theft of unwrapped kisses per person in your household.

Make sure you leave the butter and the egg out long enough to come down to room temp; it really makes a difference. I used Land O’Lakes salted butter — get the good stuff. And I’m serious about those cage-free eggs, folks. We’ve got to start taking some responsibility around here. Harumph.

 

For your first batch, maybe don’t fill up the tray. Does anybody’s first batch of a recipe really turn out? I went ahead and baked off a dozen, just to see how my oven would react, etc., but I should have just baked six at first.

Happy cookie-baking!

Cookies that Wow

by Laura M.

The holidays can put a lot of pressure on people. Cards to be written and mailed, trees and your home to be decorated, perfect gifts to be bought for all your loved ones and…finding the most unique cookie to make for that cookie swap.

I mean, you could just phone it in. Make the standard sugar cookie with icing. But secretly, deep down inside, you want yours to be the one that everyone ooohs and ahhhhs over.

Limitations on tools, ingredients, or a well-proven family recipe might leave you feeling locked in. Just remember that you can always make things up as you go along.

Here are a few suggestions:

Mary Mayer’s Raspberry Linzer Tarts

This recipe comes from a lovely cookbook called “Recipes Remembered” curated by June Hersh. Not only does the book have yummy recipes but it also shares the inspiring stories of families who survived the Holocaust. I gave the cookbook to my friend Alecia as a Hanukkah gift but before giving it to her, I tried out this recipe. It turned out to be a nice lesson in improv.

I wanted to make my Linzer tarts in the shape of the Star of David. But I didn’t have a cookie cutter in that shape. Brilliant bestie Darla suggested I just draw it on a piece of paper and use that as a template. Why didn’t I think of that??? 🙂

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Then I used some sort of utensil, I don’t even know what you call it, to cut the shape of the cookie. It’s a device that came with a cheeseboard. You could always use a regular knife:

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I bring this up in case you ever want to improvise your own cookie shape. Don’t be deterred just because you don’t have a cookie cutter!

I should mention that the reason these cookies are such a great pick is that you probably already have all the ingredients in your cupboard:

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Stained Glass Window Cookie

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Let’s all take a moment to appreciate how PRETTY these cookies are! And how clever to melt Jolly Ranchers in the middle to make them look like stained glass windows – amiright?

I found this recipe in the latest Cooking Light issue, which I purchased to help my friend Heather’s kiddo earn money for his classroom. You can find the recipe here.

Dark Chocolate Stars

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These are also quite pretty. And easy to pass off as your own, especially when you serve them in your Grandmother’s beautiful glass dish. OK, you guessed it – they’re from Trader Joe’s. Hey – I won’t tell if you don’t.

Check in tomorrow to learn about Ellen’s favorite family Christmas cookie recipe. And feel free to share your favorite in the comments below!

Small budget, big impact

 

9 cheap ideas and 3 for Oprah

By Ellen Margulies

We’ve had an actual reader request! I’m very excited about this. L.P. (not her real name) writes, “How can I decorate my small condo for Christmas on a very tight budget?” Glad you asked, L.P.

There’s been many a Christmas when I had next to nothing to scrape together, so I’ve learned a few things about decking halls with found objects and such. It helps if you’re a pack rat who never throws anything away, but even if you’re not, there’s hope.

Here are several ways to jolly up your house without breaking the bank:

 

$10 or less

  • Christmas brooches are often on sale this time of year. Pin one to a solid-color throw pillow (just remember not to nap on that one) or a curtain tie-back. You can use a big cocktail ring the same way.
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Pillow fabulousness / by Ellen Margulies
  • Make your own greenery swag: A few errant branches off a pine tree (ask a neighbor or friend if you don’t have one in your yard), thin enough to cut with scissors. Pretend you’re gathering a bouquet of flowers to get a good guideline on lengths. Bundle together at the top with a festive bow in your favorite Christmas color and attach it to your door or hang it over a mirror or mantle.
  • Assorted bits of Christmas greenery arranged in a vase with a few holiday floral picks can cheer up any little corner.

 

$5 or less

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My dream car, although I will really have to lose a lot of weight to drive this. / by Ellen Margulies
  • Being a big fan of using what you’ve got, I sometimes create little Christmas tableaux around the house. I got this 1967 Mustang as a joke one Christmas because I put it on my list. It lives on my bookcase year round, and at Christmas time, I tie a little Christmas tree on top with a piece of baker’s twine. A package of a half-dozen 3-inch trees is $1.99 at your local craft store.
  • Buy a plain white, red or green coffee mug at Target or similar, fill with King Leo peppermint sticks.
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    Mom gave me this dish, I SWEAR. / by Ellen Margulies

    Speaking of candy, they have these Santa hat Hershey’s kisses at Target, but even the green and red wrappers would be nice. Choose a pretty glass bowl or your favorite candy dish that you remember from childhood that you may or may not have wheedled your mother into giving you. Fill ‘er up, perch on a shelf.  

 

 

Free

  • Take a walk in the yard, a nearby park or some woods on the side of the road. This time of year you can find some really beautiful things if you look hard enough. Dried winter grasses, peeling birch bark
  • Wrapping-paper scraps can be used to wrap wine bottles, picture frames or other objects you have on hand. Finish off with a bit of twine or cut out a Christmas tree shape from a paper bag and tape to the wrapped object. Voila, instant Christmas!
  • String fishing line, kitchen twine or similar across the top of a doorway or windowsill. Tie Christmas ornaments to varying lengths of ribbon or use hooks to  hand straight across. 

So you see, reader L.P., with just a little bit of imagination and ingenuity, you can brighten up your house and get it ready for Santa. Of course, I was assuming by “tight budget,” you meant $10 and under. Obviously, you can adjust your decorating scheme to fit whatever “tight budget” means to you.

So, if your budget is Oprah-tight, you might consider:

  • Blue fur pom pom ornament from Harrod’s, for about $75 U.S.
  • Balsam Hill 9-foot noble fir, for a mere $1,299
  • A gingerbread house custom-baked to look like your home, adorned with 150 mm South Sea pearls and a 5-carat Mozambique ruby from luxury online retailer Very First To. It will set you back nearly $78,000 but is surely worth it.

lux xmas

Happy decorating!