If the local newscast (egged on by local retail merchants) tells me one more time exactly how many "shopping days" are left until Christmas, I'll scream! No matter what the count, there are never enough days to shop for/buy/craft/bake gifts for family and friends--and this year of all years, disposable income is in short supply.
Solution: Christmas Cheats. These spending short-cuts save time, money, energy and aggravation during the holiday season. With clever solutions for gift-giving, they're the frugal way to celebrate like Santa but spend like Scrooge. Ready to outwit that old Christmas shopping demon? Try these strategies to get the most delight from your holiday spending dollar:
Back to Basics
Some basic principles underlie the concept of a Christmas Cheat. First and foremost:"special" means more than "expensive." Better a tiny, beloved jewel than a big, costly item that'll end up in the recipient's next yard sale.
[Rule of thumb: avoid all gift items displayed on red-covered tables that block every aisle at the department store. Nine times out of ten, you're looking at Yard Sale Inventory, come July.]
Second concept: consider time, not just money. The classic Christmas Cheat is both inexpensive and quick to produce. You'll have to get over the idea of hand-embroidered guest towels, plastic-canvas tree ornaments, and crocheted anything. Ditto hand-iced and decorated cookies, elaborate multi-step fruitcakes, and anything requiring a pastry tube.
The obvious corollary: think multiple! What you do for a Christmas Cheat, do a lot!
Last point: presentation is everything. This does not mean investing a fortune in overpriced holiday-colored this and holiday-decorated that, or sweet little baskets that cost more than the gift inside. Even simple drop cookies have more impact presented nestled in a foil-covered candy box than a zipper food storage bag!
Cheat Central: Catalogs
How do we put these principles to work? For inspiration and guidance, go to the source, the fountainhead, the wellspring of the Christmas Cheat: mail order catalogs. Preferably from Gumps, Neiman Marcus, or tiny over-priced boutiques.
No, we're not going to buy from these fine commercial entities! As Cheaters, we're here to rip off ideas, plain and simple.
Take a perfect Christmas Cheat: pint-sized canning jars filled with colorful layers of dried beans. The lid's been embellished with a simple cut circle of Christmas fabric and tied with a bow. A gift tag lists the recipe for "15-bean soup"--and the catalog price--$5.95 plus shipping, handling and sales tax.
So we'll make our own! You'll need a case of half-pint jelly canning jars (and do get the decorated jelly jars), a half-yard of Christmas fabric, two rounds of inexpensive Christmas ribbon from the craft store, and 10 to 15 bags of dried beans. Choose the beans by the color, including yellow and green split-peas, white kidney beans, red kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans--as wide a selection as you can obtain at the super-market. Add a jar of beef bouillon cubes to the shopping cart, and you're ready to Cheat.
Open the jars, and fill them in layers: a half-inch of green split peas, a half-inch of red kidneys, and so on. Choose the most colorful beans for the bottom layers, as they'll show the most. Toss any leftovers in a zipper storage bag for your family's 15 bean soup! Toss two foil-wrapped bouillon cubes on top of each jar of beans.
Lay the inner lid on top of the jar. Cut 12 6-inch circles from the Christmas fabric and place one fabric circle over each jar. Screw the outer lid over the fabric
Now to apply Cheat Concept Three: presentation is everything! Go to your computer, and use any word processor to make small gift tags. Include a basic recipe for bean soup, but be sure to name it after yourself! Add a nice little graphic and use your fanciest font. (Or print out our own Confetti Bean Soup Gift Tag to save even more time!)
Punch a hole in the corner of the tag, and tie to the jars with a ribbon. Voila! Christmas Cheat: twelve gifts you can give anyone, teachers to neighbors, with a minimal investment of money, time and effort. A classic!
The same catalog that led to the Bean Soup Cheat also featured--for $12.95!!!--quart canning jars containing oatmeal and chocolate chip cookie ingredients. Also prettily layered. Also topped with holiday fabric and clever gift tag. Also a perfect candidate for the Christmas Cheat!
Find more recipes and printable gift tags for gifts in a jar here.