Buy a scrapbook as Thanksgiving nears. Then, as the season progresses, tuck in a few photos or meaningful cards. Jot some notes about the foods you ate, the presents you gave, the traditions you kept. The result: a one-stop keepsake that bundles family memories.
We've all opened holiday cards with gusto, then watched them clutter our kitchen tables. This year, turn those cheery images into decor. Use medium- and large-size hole punches from crafts supply stores to create paper circles, then arrange them, overlapping, on a wooden wreath form. Glue them in place; dot with pom-poms. Ribbon glued to the back of the wreath helps with hanging.
Your favorite holiday compact discs are in your car, but when was the last time you sang along with those Christmas classics in public? This year, experience the sense of community that settles over a group of holiday singers by attending special sing-alongs. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra holds an annual "Happy Holidays from the Pops" concert featuring end-of-show sing-alongs. For a more ambitious task, try participating in a sing-along version of Handel's Messiah. Washington University in St. Louis holds a sing-along Messiah, while a "Do-It-Yourself" Messiah takes place each year at the Civic Opera House in Chicago. Want a laid-back venue? Try Biwabik, Minnesota, where visitors sing carols during Weihnachtsfest. Or simply organize your own group of carolers. Stroll the neighborhood in old-fashioned style, or set up a time to regale the residents of a nursing home. You'll be surprised how raising your voice in song lifts your holiday spirits.
Shave cookie-prep time by using store-bought dough, and invite some family to a cookie-decorating party. Use simple circle cutters in different sizes to create easy-to-work-with bases for your creations. Then top these holiday treats with tinted frosting, colored sugars and pretty candies.
Restore romantic frivolity to your home by hanging mistletoe in a doorway and handing out kisses as people pass under it. Mistletoe's history dates back to the Druids, who believed this parasitic shrub with toxic berries had healing qualities. European Victorians decided kissing maidens under mistletoe was a Christmas tradition worth starting; Midwesterners are happy to keep the kissing custom.
Greet your holiday hostess with a homemade gift that is strikingly simple. With a quick trip to a crafts supply store, you can make a centerpiece that shows off a miniature poinsettia (often available by special order from your local florist or online). Paint a peat pot and let it dry. Create a gift-box design on a piece of scrapbook paper and glue it to the front of the peat pot. Remove excess soil from the poinsettia, put the plant into a plastic sandwich bag and place it in the peat pot. Cover the top of the exposed soil with shaved soap or purchased coconut for a fresh-snowfall effect. Place the pot under a large, bell-shape jar decked with ribbon.
Any kid at heart will tell you that the wrapping often is just as much fun as the gift. Get children involved in holiday gift-giving by offering them plain wrapping paper to decorate. Their drawings, cutouts, stamps, glued-on pom-poms and scrawled letters promise personal touches no wrapping-paper company can match.
Spread your love for the season's scents by making spice bags for simmering—then give some to friends! Place star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves and orange zest in empty tea bags (available at tea shops). Trim the tops of the bags with pinking shears, then tie them closed. For gifts, place them in boxes adorned with paper snowflakes.
Maybe it's one of the ornaments you pulled out of the box for your tree. Maybe it's a hymn at church or a Christmas carol on the radio. But more likely than not, something this holiday season will remind you of friends or family members who are no longer with you to celebrate. Rather than push the sadness aside and lose yourself in the season's bustle, remember what made them special and celebrate their impact on your life. Light a candle. Whisper a prayer. Look at old pictures. Tell funny stories about times you spent together. Buy a bouquet of flowers. Make one of their favorite recipes. Listen to their favorite song. Call a friend and reminisce. And give that ornament a special place on your Christmas tree.
The shopping, baking, wrapping and entertaining can wait. Let go of that Midwest work ethic and take one day to rest. Surround yourself with fuzzy blankets and soft pillows. Read a book. Listen to music. Turn off the phone. Nap. Get a foot rub. Whatever you choose, resting curbs holiday stress.
Catch a snowflake on your tongue. Stop and sit on Santa's lap. Listen for reindeer hooves. Remember what Christmas was like when you were a child, and see it that way again.
Bundle up your family and head outdoors to a holiday festival. Dozens of Midwest towns— including Macomb, Illinois; Lafayette, Indiana; Albia, Iowa; Manistee, Michigan; Garrison, North Dakota; Cambridge, Ohio; and Ripon and Stoughton, Wisconsin— hold annual festivals with a Dickens theme. Admire the decorations from a blanket-wrapped seat in a horse-drawn carriage. Wave to strolling carolers decked in period costumes. Warm your insides with hot cider and cocoa. Tour historic homes dressed tastefully for the holidays. Just a few hours around this living history will show your family why many of these centuries-old traditions have endured.
How many times have we all said, "I should give her a call"? How many Christmas card envelopes have we sealed with a lick— and a healthy amount of guilt— because we didn't have time to do anything more than sign our names? This year, carve an hour from your schedule to contact a friend who has been on your mind but out of your daily life. Call her out of the blue, or buy some pretty stationery and revive the art of letter writing. Let her know that even though you've been out of touch, you hope she's aware of the special place she has had in your life.
Build kids' holiday anticipation with a countdown project that tucks a chocolate kiss and a slip of paper into 12 wrapped and numbered gift boxes. On each slip of paper, write a reason why you love them.
Bring your personal touch to holiday decor with this quick-and-easy tree topper. To make it: Trace diamond shapes onto card-stock-type scrapbooking paper and cut out five of them. Score each piece down the center, or use a ruler to bend them in half. Assemble the pieces into a star shape and fasten them together with clear tape, being careful not to flatten the star. For added sparkle, trim the edges of the star with silvery pipe cleaner. Glue it in place. Roll up a small tube of leftover paper, and glue it to the backside of the star. Then, just slip it on top of your tree and admire your handiwork.
If hosting a big holiday party sends you diving for cover under your flannel sheets, don't fret. Invite friends over for a hot cocoa tasting party. Stock up on a handful of flavors, then prepare a small buffet of whipped cream, toppings and cookies.
Day spas throughout the Midwest help their clients melt away seasonal stress with peppermint-tinged services. Treat yourself to a seasonal pedicure at Mario Tricoci (with locations in the Chicago area, plus Columbus, Ohio).
Send a check to a local food pantry. Donate new toys and clothes to organizations that help struggling families. Buy pre-bagged holiday meals at grocery stores for people in need. Whatever you do this season, reach out when you can to make the holidays better for Midwest families.
With families scattered across the country, gathering for the holidays isn't always possible. As you plan celebrations, try to include someone who might otherwise spend the day alone: an elderly relative, a colleague who is new in town, a widowed neighbor— or servicemen and -women stationed at bases near you, but far from home.
Pick an evening to pack the car with music, cocoa and family, and drive around town to see homes decked with decorations.
Give party nuts a holiday twist by roasting them and choosing one of four flavors: Cocoa-Sugared Mix, Curry-Spiced Mix, Barbecue-Seasoned Mix and Asian Five-Spiced Mix. This prepare-ahead staple makes entertaining easier— or can be a simple, tasteful gift for neighbors or colleagues.
Santa doesn't care if they are homemade or store-bought. So humor him, marvel at the crumbs left behind— and don't forget handwritten wish lists. They make great keepsakes for your new scrapbook.
Temper busy preparations by setting aside time to soothe your spirit and celebrate the season's meaning. Adopt a family in need from your church and provide their holiday meal and gifts. Help decorate your place of worship for its holiday service, or volunteer for one of your church's relief programs. Go for a walk along a snowy hiking trail. Serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Make snow angels. Read A Christmas Carol. Find a frozen pond and go ice skating. Build a snowman. Say "Merry Christmas!" to passers-by.
Candles set a soothing tone, both in our homes and in religious rites. The tradition is long-standing: Ancient cultures believed candles lit during the darkest days of December would help usher in more daylight.
* Bring back an old-world tradition your family has lost. Ask grandparents about how they used to celebrate.
* Take your family for a sleigh ride. Have the driver take your picture to get an annual record of this special time out.
* Preserve a special family holiday recipe by writing it down and giving copies to all the cooks in your clan.
* Make and date an ornament each year. Your Christmas tree will become laden with crafty memories.
* Start a holiday movie night that includes a handful of classics, including Miracle on 34th Street.
* Visit a living nativity scene. Dozens of Midwest cities have them, complete with actors, animals and storytelling.
* Go to a local school's holiday concert or play.
* Gather your family around the tree and have each of them name three ways they were blessed this year.
* If your menu needs a lift, trade the traditional turkey for a new main dish. Find one you like; start a new tradition.