What Are We Doing Here*
Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 5:05PM
Cameron Blazer in Hanukkah, christmas, craft, diy, food, handmade, life

© 2009 David Mandel // Ampersand IndustriesI don't usually post pictures of myself. But I think this one captures how I was feeling last week—hopeful and overwhelmed and trying to figure out how I could possibly get it all done. For me (and so many others), this time of year is one of great excitement...and great peril. It's all too easy for me to get sucked into the excitement of projects and decorating and gift-making and—SCREECH—suddenly the joy and good will is replaced with excess and irritability. In our house, this is compounded by the fact that we observe both Hanukkah and Christmas. When, as this year, Hanukkah comes relatively early, the whole month of December can easily become consumed with doing and making and...whew.

I am trying to take it easy. Well, easier. Trying. And it has been more fun this year because my son is old enough to really start absorbing the meaning of these traditions and to get in on the act of making the food and finery that are the hallmarks of the season. And with all that's been going on, we didn't get around to picking out a tree till yesterday. Downsides: there were about 10 trees left, and we just picked up the first Charlie Brown we saw. Upsides: The tree cost $13, and we spent at most 5 minutes out in the bitter cold. I've still gone a little overboard, but my sanity and sense of humor have remained largely in tact, so I'm calling this a victory. 

Without further ado, this is what the blur—I mean last two weeks—has looked like:

Latkes. Photo © 2009 David Mandel // Ampersand Industries Menorah. Photo © 2009 David Mandel // Ampersand IndustriesAs has become our tradition, on the first night of Hanukkah, we indulged in what I have dubbed (sacriligiously, yes) Latkepalooza. In years past I have made full meals to complement the latkes. But this year I got wise. Latkes. Arugula dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. That is all. And you know what? It was awesome. A tradition is re-born. Also? On the first night of Hannukah, I realized that I had no idea where the menorah was about 20 minutes before sundown. So I made a makeshift one using some pretty bud vases (okay, they're really shot glasses, but we don't exactly throw the kind of parties where fancy shot glasses get put to their best use) filled with rock salt. The candles nestled snugly in the salt, which sparkled nicely in the candlelight. Sweet.

Each year for the last 20 or so I have made ornaments—sometimes from silver wire, other times from beads, or paper, or clay. And most of them are given away by the end of the holidays. 

Snowflake © 2009 Cameron Blazer // Cottage IndustrialistBut I saved this one a few years ago. It's one of my favorites, and it always gets a special place on the tree. If you like it, It's dead easy to make, too. Just string clear seed beads and teardrop beads in a fringe pattern on fine beading wire (ex: four seed beads, one teardrop bead, seven seed beads, back through the teardrop bead and two of the seed beads, and so on) until you've created 8 points. Then draw them into a circle, wrap the joint, and create a loop. Voilà!

Menagerie in Progress. Photo © 2009 David MandelThis year, my son and I made salt dough ornaments, inspired by these beauties. We used snowflake and animal cracker cookie cutters. Ours were by no means as lovely as their inspiration, but what they lacked in perfection we have since more than made up for in glitter. Here is what I have learned: crafting with kids can be tough on a type-A mom. While we obsess over color schemes and table scapes, our children just want to smoosh some clay and have a good time. But in glitter there is redemption and satisfaction for all. While my son enjoyed the sparkle and mess, by choosing glitter wisely, we have new ornaments that coordinate with our holiday décor. Shallow? Maybe, but we both had a good time, he's very proud of his glittery lions and elephants and giraffes, and they actually look quite cool.

Snowflake Chandelier. Photo © 2009 David Mandel // Ampersand Industries
As I have written previously, our dining room chandelier—this is an insult to the term chandelier, but you get the idea—was hung about a foot-and-a-half too high. And rather than rectifying this with what would probably be a $100 visit from an electrician, I choose instead to festoon it each year with ornaments that serve to bring it down a bit into better proportion with the room. The other 11 months of the year it just looks as though it's taking all precautions in case of flood.

The snowflakes are just chipboard cutouts that have been liberally doused in glitter. And I painted the bottoms of the silver balls with craft glue and sprinkled them with the same aquamarine glitter. Synergy!

(An aside: the reason for all of this color scheming—other than that I am an anal-retentive nutjob—is that our Christmas tree—and most of our other Christmas decorations—lives in our dining room. With the dining room rug. Which is one of my favorite things in our house, but which is also a mix of rusty orange, aquamarine, and moss green—not exactly a good combo with the traditional holiday red and green. But silver and gold and aquamarine still catch the wintry glow of the season quite nicely, I think.)

The other project that has consumed the better part of two weekends was preparing the gift baskets we made for my son's teachers. My son is only three, but he goes to a full day Montessori. It is really hard to send your baby off at 8:30 in the morning and pick him up again after 5. But it is a lot easier when you have wonderful teachers like the pair he lucked into this year. Last year this time, he was at a different school. And while nothing was wrong, it just wasn't right. We didn't realize just how out of whack things had gotten until we settled into his new school this summer, and we got our happy, well-adjusted child back. So, needless to say, we are very thankful for his teachers who have done so much to make that possible. We wanted to give a gift that would match their sweetness. Thus the candy making. And making. And making. And making. Here's what we ended up with:

Basket of Sweets © 2009 Cameron Blazer // Cottage IndustrialistWe made hot chocolate mix (which is really just finely hand-ground chocolate with a bit of vanilla), a box of candies (peppermint bark, spiced pecan brittle, chocolate truffles, and chocolate caramels), caramel popcorn, and, most importantly, marshmallows. My son's teachers often call him Marsh-mellow, so those were a must. A simple white basket and some coordinating tags, and that was that. I hope his teachers take a well-deserved break with their feet up, a steaming cup of hot chocolate warming their hands, and bonbons all around.

But you know, I don't believe in sharing only the successes. In every crafty project, there is a craftastrophe waiting to strike. With candymaking, especially, I was mostly afraid of burning myself. But in all, the only real misstep was that the chocolate caramels were a bit gooey-er than I'd planned (I stopped the cooking at about 245° rather than the suggested 255° because I didn't want them to crack people's teeth) so they had to be wrapped in paper and foil to keep their shape. We had a bunch of them leftover after the baskets were packed, so I experimented. I don't think you can fix a caramel that you overcook, but it turns out you absolutely can fix a caramel you undercook. I dumped them all in a pan, heated them to 255°, and now they're perfect! Craftastrophe averted!

There are still last-minute items on my list:

1. I need to replace last year's Christmas stocking. Speaking of failures, it was, um, pathetic. Stitched of leftover polar fleece at 2:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve, it looked terrible and performed its duties even less impressively. This year I have some beautiful wool felt. I think I'm going to do a reverse applique. But we'll see.

2. Fabric gift bags. I don't give a ton of presents. But for the ones I do give, I take the wrapping seriously. (You're shocked, I know.) This year, I am experimenting with several fabric wrapping techniques. One exists only in my head, but if it pans out, I'll be sure to share a tutorial soon.

3. Pajama pants. I've already made on pair for my son out of my winter animals fabric. But I'm planning more. Because there's little cuter on earth than my boy in jammies with rumply hair. Since he's off from school for two weeks (pity I don't get that same break!) I figure he'll have several mornings that stretch into afternoons in PJs.

4. It's a secret!

5. I am still at work on my 2010 printable calendar. I love it, but it is taking FOREVER. I'm thinking of releasing it in 3-month increments to take some of the pressure off to finish by Christmas—what do you think? (If you look over here, I'll give you a sneak peek!)

6. It's a secret!

What's left on your making and doing list? Got any triumphs or superfails to share? Any crafty New Year's resolutions? Do tell (and link to your blog posts) in the comments!

*This title is courtesy of, and with apologies to, the late Bruce Chatwin. Have you read his books? If you haven't, I suggest first reading his obituary (no, really!) by Salman Rushdie (collected in this anthology). If you can resist reading his books after that, they were not, I think, meant for you.

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