A gift to remember


Surprise balls are as fun to make as they are to get, probably

By Ellen Margulies

For a while there, a small spiky dinosaur was at an undisclosed location somewhere inside my house. This did not bode well for my tender feet, the cat who had absconded with it and my nephew’s Christmas surprise, which was intended to include a pair of battle dinosaurs. I mean, how can a guy be expected to wage an awesome battle with only one freaking dinosaur?

That’s the kind of chance you’ll take when you wrap up dollar-store toys, candies and whatnot in a couple hundred feet of crepe paper when there are felines around. I was in the midst of creating these softball-sized presents for my 6- and 4-year-old niece and nephew when suddenly, out of nowhere, dino attack!

This is why we can’t have nice things. /Photo by Ellen Margulies

I’m happy to report that the dino was ultimately located without injury and subsequently wrapped in my nephew’s surprise package, although I fear a small finger light is still at large. It’s also possibly wrapped up in my niece’s surprise ball; when you’re dealing with that many moving parts, it can be difficult to keep track.

A few of these were edited out because I didn’t want to send watermelon-sized surprise balls. 

Nola and William, my brother’s kids, live overseas, and I don’t get to see them very much (which sucks). The idea behind the surprise balls is to give them a fun experience when they open presents. They may not remember the toys inside (God knows I don’t), but I’m hoping they’ll always recall their Auntie Ellen going to all this trouble to find presents and candy and wrap them painstakingly in ribbon, crepe paper, raffia or sometimes all three. They start unwrapping, and every few feet, a new surprise is revealed. They’re really fun to make, and I bet they’re really fun to get! Here’s what my finished product looks like:


You can customize these any way you like, obviously. The most important element is to strategize before you start wrapping. I always decide on a core present first. It should ideally be no more than 3 inches square when you’re shooting for a softball-sized surprise ball. You’ll want to start with your biggest couple of items first, then start sizing down. Aaaand then back up again if needed.

Candies should be chosen based on tinyness, so you can wrap them in plastic wrap and cup them around the ball shape. Think M&Ms, gummies, Sixlets, jelly beans. (Stickers also work well in the wrap-around, as do window clings.) I’ve used bulky candies in the past, but as you can imagine, a Hershey’s kiss placed near the end or top of the surprise ball can take yards and yards to cover, because you really don’t want to send a surprise ball with a nipple on it to a 6-year-old. Nobody has the money for that kind of therapy. Also, you have to get the ball back into spherical shape every time you wrap an item. Weirdly, when the ball starts getting to be about the size of a baseball, you can start adding back bigger items like lip balms, if they’re flat enough.

Single-layer those candies so you can flex them around the ball. Might have to test a couple of quality control purposes, of course. 

These have to be shipped overseas, so I try to be careful about what’s included in them. And if you’re giving these to the tiny people in your life, you may want to include a list and any pertinent instructions for the parental overlords. You don’t want things to be TOO surprising. For this package, for instance, I will alert my brother and sister-in-law that the dinos come with a bunch of battle accessories like shields and helmets; Nola is getting a fistful of stick-on earrings and rings; both kids got two window clings each (a total of four parts) that may sort of look like gummy candy but are NOT gummy candy; each got a grow-in-water critter (William got a polar bear and Nola got a snowman, which I belatedly realize as I’m writing this should have been the other way around, because when Nola was a baby my mother called her Nola-bear polar bear. Ah, hindsight. I’m sure a tiny fist-fight will break out.). Said critters could take up to 10 DAYS to grow to full size; would NOT have known that without the instructions. They’re also reusable. Weird.

grow a snowman

The surprise balls include roughly equivalent packages of M&Ms and Iddy Biddy Santas (these are a real thing), and roughly equivalent numbers of toys/treats. William had a lot of dino battle armor (God I hope the kid likes dinosaurs), so I sprinkled Nola’s package with an equal-ish number of star-shaped hair clips. Sibling rivalry, peeps: The struggle is REAL.

They both also got a pair of socks. In my defense, they’re CUTE — hers are Frozen, his are Cars — and I really needed them to sphericalize the spiky dino at the core of William’s surprise. I’m hoping they like them. If not, I won’t be remembered as the cool and awesome auntie who shipped them surprise balls full of treats every Christmas; I’ll be remembered as the lame old lady who sent them stoopid socks.

20151204_231629 (1)
Would you want to step on this at 3 a.m.?

Ok. Now, here’s how you can make your own.

Surprise Ball

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This is about 60 feet of crepe paper.

(Surprise — all this stuff makes just 1 ball! That’s why the dollar store is your friend.)

Materials & tools:

—5-6 toys no bigger than the palm of your hand. Think Matchbox minis, little-girl nail polish, sticky notes, earbuds, temporary tattoos, and so on.

—Small candies

—80-100 feet of crepe paper, raffia or other ribbon. Aim for too much, always!

—Tissue paper in case you need to sphericalize any odd-shaped treats



—Daniel Craig movie or similar playing in the background

—Possible ninja to keep cats at bay


  1. Take everything out of the packaging and arrange it according to size. You may have to edit as you go along. Choose your core item first. Think about how the treats will be unwrapped — you want a big finish!
  2. Cut squares of press-and-seal or plastic wrap and arrange small candies in a single layer. Wrap tightly and seal all edges. These candy packages should also fit in the palm of your hand.
  3. Start snugly wrapping your core item, randomly changing the direction of the ribbon as you go until you can no longer see the item. Go to your next bulky item, place it on the largest surface area and continue wrapping the same way.
  4. Intersperse with candies every few presents. These wrap neatly around your in-progress surprise ball and are great for evening out the inevitable lopsidedness that will occur unless you’re some kind of surprise-ball savant.
  5. If you want to switch up ribbon colors or types, simply tape it off to secure the ball and start a new wrap (no need for tape when you start wrapping again). I’ve been known to use 7 or 8 different ribbons for my niece’s present, which she could then repurpose as hair ribbons.
  6. When you’ve added everything, adjusting to make the ball as ball-shaped as possible as you go, tape off the ribbon or secure it with a sticker or bow (just make sure the adhesive is ON THERE — nothing is sadder than an unraveled surprise ball).

Assorted hints:

— It’s a good idea to document the present list in some way, either with a photo or a list, and make sure you take note of any special instructions.

— Your ribbon or crepe paper or raffia is going to twist up on you. Or your damn cat is going to grab an end of the raffia and go tearing down the hall like a rabid Saint Bernard, not that that’s ever happened to me. Just breathe. This is why God invented scissors and tape. Snip it, tape it, and start wrapping again.

— Please do not wrap live animals. Hamsters can suffocate, and you wouldn’t believe how expensive it is to wrap a horse in crepe paper.


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