First, remember that Christmas and other end-of-year holidays are times to get together with friends and family in celebration and affection. Share a meal. Go to a holiday service. Sing. Decorate. Let old feuds subside, at least for a day or two. Focus on creating good times.
Good sources for free or cheap gifts:
- Second-hand stores — retro sweaters, hats, framed artwork, vintage housewares
- Stores where everything costs about a dollar — stocking stuffers
- Freecycling, a, nonprofit, Internet-based network of people offering unneeded items for free (to join a local group, go to www.freecycle.org) — day-by-day offerings might include home furnishings, clothes, bicycles, lumber, even a kitchen sink.
Ideas for young children:
- Coloring books with crayons
- Simple puzzles
- Puzzle books
- Art lessons. The Washington County Museum of Fine Art offers free Saturday morning art classes for ages 6 to 12. Call 301-739-5727 to register.
- Free classical music concerts. The Maryland Symphony Orchestra offers free Kinder Koncerts for preschoolers and their guardians. For more information and a schedule, go to www.marylandsymphony.org.
- Free books, at least for borrowing. Give a child or grandchild a certificate good for a monthly visit with you to the local library. Give the gift of the joy of reading.
- Puzzle blocks. Make these yourself with a set of cheap wooden blocks and some nontoxic acrylic paint. Assemble the blocks into a square and run masking tape along the outside to hold them together. Find a simple picture of a cat or truck or dragon and trace it onto the top of the blocks. Go over the lines with permanent marker, then paint the picture. Add the child's name. Make sure to color the top of every block. Let it dry before removing the tape. Wrap it with the picture showing.
- Young children can play with anything. You give them a fancy gizmo and they play with box it came in, right? So give them a play set of "toys" in a flat storage tub. For 4- to 6-year-olds, buy plastic measuring cups, plastic measuring spoons, a funnel, and several cleaned margarine or yogurt containers in different sizes, plus four bags of dried beans, lentils or rice in different colors. Put all this in a flat storage tub about a foot wide and a foot and a half long. Kids will play with this for hours.
Ideas for older children:
- A blank book for journaling
- Trendy jewelry; consider buying beads from a bead shop and making a bracelet yourself.
- Many kids love to strut their stuff. Buy a plain, colorful T-shirt at a craft store and paint a pithy quote or playful slogan on it with fabric paint or acrylic paint.
- Craft stores are good sources of simple kits you can use for making gifts. Use a soap-making kit and customize the soap by embedding mini-treasures such as little figurines, kitschy bracelets or foreign coins.
- Give an art kit. Buy a set of three brushes, a pad of heavy paper and small tubes of acrylic paint in blue, red, yellow, black and white.
- For a child learning to cook, search dollar stores or second-hand stores for an inexpensive, good-quality set of mixing spoons, mixing bowls, measuring spoons or cups, or other kitchen gear.
- Another idea for a young cook — Ask your family woodworker to cut a 1-inch pine board into an 8-inch-by-10-inch rectangle; now it's a cutting board. Sand the edges for safety, and, if you can, carve or burn the recipient's name in one corner.
- Make an Andy Warhol-style portrait of a child. Find a good photo, then make four 8 1/2-inch-by-11-inch, black-and-white copies. Glue them in two rows — two above and two below — onto poster board or foam-filled art board. Find a book or website showing how Warhol painted his portrait of Marilyn Monroe, then with bright-colored art pencils or acrylic paint, color the hair, skin, clothes and other parts of photocopied portraits, just like a coloring book. Frame the final piece in a modern-style frame.
- Sometimes the best gift is time. "Give" a teen or tween a couple hours of your time and talent. Draw or write a certificate good for a round of baking cookies or homemade dog biscuits; a guitar lesson; a time to listen to each other's favorite CDs; a visit to Washington County Museum of Fine Art or the Washington County Arts Council gallery (both are free).
Ideas for adults:
- Do you have some favorite, family recipes? Give a make-it-yourself kit. Print a recipe on a card. Buy nonperishable ingredients and place them with the recipe in an inexpensive colander, pot or pie pan.
- Give a gift to a beloved family that will also encourage them to spend time together. Many board games cost less than $20.
- Not sure what to give your adult mother or father? Pick a song tune they know and write new lyrics. Write about things you did together or about how they made your life better. Try to follow the original song's rhythm, so your lyrics are singable. But an inexpensive frame from a second-hand store of craft shop. Find a piece of paper that fits the frame and carefully write up the lyrics. Decorate the border if you want — leave white space all around for the frame — then frame it and give it.
- Got boxes of old photos in your attic? You could make a scrapbook with them or simply make a montage on a piece of heavy cardboard or thin plywood. Cut out some figures from photos and consider adding quotes or headlines cut from magazines or newspapers. Use decoupage glue (available in craft stores) to adhere and seal photos and text.