Christmas is Coming!

I love Christmas. It’s glittery, sparkly, and warm. You get to spend time indoors with tea or cocoa or spiced wine and tasty baked goods and share it all with the people you love. And it’s so fun to make or choose the perfect gift for people that deserve something special.

As per our usual tradition, we got our Christmas tree from Gethsemane Garden Center on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This year, we had Grandpa Olsen join us. The day was crisp and cold and sunny – a perfect winter day. Gethsemane was bustling with other families on their Christmas tree mission, but it wasn’t so swamped that it was impossible to get around. After much deliberation, we chose a five foot Fraser fir. I think this is the second year in a row we’ve gotten a Fraser Fir. In my opinion, you just can’t beat the color, fragrance and lasting ability of them.

In addition to the tree, we also wanted some greenery for the back deck. We selected two bunches of pine boughs for the window box, as well as some branches of wintergreen. We also got an 18 inch round boxwood wreath.

We laid the pine boughs and some of the wintergreen into the window box, securing them down with landscape pins. In the planter in front of our bedroom window where we have the dwarf creeping juniper dwarf blue spruce planted, we also laid some of the pine boughs down in front where a few gourds were previously. We also stuck a few wintergreen branches vertically in back for a little height. For the wreath, I wound a glittery red ribbon around it and we hung it on the back door. And I had intended to post pictures, but we forgot about taking them while it was still daylight and now we’ll have to wait until the next weekend since it gets dark at four o’clock. (I really do intend to start posting photos here again!)

While the tree was opening up, I put around all my Christmas tchotchkes – nutcrackers, candles, figurines and such. I hung the stockings in their place of honor on our bookcases. And then trimmed our tree with colored lights and our ever-growing collection of hand-blown and vintage Shiny Brite ornaments. The house is looking quite festive!

I also got started on some of my Christmas crafting – I’ve got fabric pieces cut for four gifts, and have to cut fabric for another four gifts in the next week, so everything is all ready to sew up at once. I also started crocheting another gift, and will be taking my crochet tote on the train this week in order to get a few things done during the commute. Let the games begin!

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Holiday Wine Guide

A bottle of wine makes a great gift – for the hostess, people who have everything or professionals that you’d like to give a holiday present to. I’m still at the basics level when choosing wine, but fortunately Natalie McLean has some entertaining suggestions for which kind of wine to share this holiday season.

 “Wine is one of the few presents that makes both the giver and the receiver look good,” says Natalie MacLean, the red-nosed e-sommelier behind http://www.nataliemaclean.com, one of the largest wine web sites. “You look like you spent a bundle on the gift (even if you didn’t) and the recipients are happy that you think they know something about wine (even if they don’t).”

This holiday season, anyone can tap into MacLean’s expertise via her free web site and mobile apps for iPhone, BlackBerry, Droid and other smartphones. They help consumers with a whole new type of pairing: wine with the people on your Christmas shopping list. The app and site also pair wines to thousands of dishes, including holiday favorites, such as turkey, goose, duck, and even partridge in a pear tree.

“When you give wine, doubles are fine, there are no wrong sizes and you can always find something good in stock,” MacLean adds. “Vintage gifts will get anyone into the holiday spirits.”

Natalie’s Top Ten Gift Wines for Your …   

1. Hairdresser: For the person who combines humor and optimism every time she styles your mop. Go for a light, gulpable wine like a dry rosé. It’s versatile and fuss-free—a great quaff for your coif. 

2. Psychiatrist: Of course, he’ll analyze whatever you give him so choose a wine that’s all about balance. Easy-drinking pinot noir is medium-bodied yet packed with flavor. Surprise him with a large-format bottle, like a magnum. Big thinking means big progress for you. This wine also works for psychologists, marriage counselors and bartenders.

3. The Boss: Pick too pricey a wine and your boss will think your last raise was too much; go cheap, and she’ll think you lack judgement. Focus on a label with a lot of white space since that makes the bottle look more expensive. A castle in the distance also works, but avoid fluffy animals.

4. Personal Trainer: Think a muscular, robust red would work? Hold that position. Instead, try riesling: this light white wine pairs well with a health-nut diet of salad and seafood, plus it’s low in alcohol. You can also give it to Pilates instructors, yoga masters and Tai Chi coaches.

5. Financial Planner: You and he both know it’s going to take decades before your portfolio recovers after the crash of 2008. With that long-term view, vintage port makes the perfect gift. This fortified wine from northern Portugal, with its long aging potential, will be around for both of you into your retirements.

6. Travel Agent: She’s been everywhere and seen everything, so go local with your choice of wine. Even better, if you live close to the winery, get the bottle signed by the winemaker.

7. Teacher: If you can’t find a suitably obscure wine with a Latin name, there’s always cream sherry. It’s the tipple of Oxford dons, not to mention the centerpiece of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story The Case of the Amontillado.

8. Mail Deliverer: Go for a winery that’s consistent year after year in producing a wine that can be enjoyed in snow, rain, sleet or hail. Try an Australian shiraz or Argentine malbec.

9. Mechanic: Yes, there’s a wine called Red Truck, but try to be more imaginative. Why not give a wine made by Mario Andretti in California or Ferrari in Italy?

10. Online Date: So you’re on your second or third rendezvous with the person you met on eHarmony or Dating.com. If you’re not sure yet whether marriage is a possibility, try something middle-of-the-road, like merlot. Yes, it’s the soft jazz of wine, but until you know, play it safe.

And after all that shopping, don’t forget yourself: even Santa’s little helpers need more than milk and cookies. Try something with high-alcohol like Italian Amarone or Rhone syrah: these big reds easily drown out tone-deaf caroling and pair beautifully with tired feet.

For Natalie’s favorite wineries, tasting notes and recipe matches for all the wine types mentioned above, please visit: http://bit.ly/GiftWine

With Natalie’s great suggestions in mind, for a little extra holiday flair, think gift wrap. There are countless styles of wine gift bags on the market, but customizing your own is easy. You can find plain white or brown gift bags at craft stores or the Container Store.

For a simple classy bag, you can’t go wrong with gold. I like to take a brown bag and turn it into a faux bois masterpiece with a little gold acrylic paint and a faux bois tool. Using a foam brush, paint a thin layer of paint onto the front of the bag, then gently drag the faux bois tool down the paint, gently rocking it, as you drag it toward you in one stroke. It takes a little practice, so try it out on a few scrap sheets first until you get the look you want. When the front of the bag dries, do the same on the back side. Paired with green velvet ribbon and some frosted pinecones, it’s a sophisticated way to present a quality bottle of wine.

You can also use a hole punch to add a border to the top of your bag – snowflakes or scrolls are both festive choices. And you can find a multitude of rubber stamps these days – you can use traditional ink with these, or stamp into adhesive so that you can emboss, glitter or flock the image.

However you choose to present your wine, keep these easy suggestions in mind this year while doing your holiday shopping – your recipients will be glad you did when they’re able to pop a cork after the hustle and bustle of season and enjoy a glass that was picked just for them.

Let Them Eat Gifts!

Tis the season for giving, and what better gift to give than one that’s edible? Something you craft yourself is more special than a random something chosen from an over-crowded store, and for those who have everything, you can’t go wrong with food or beverage.

Some excellent food gift items that have caught my attention recently are –

– custom blended spice or marinade mixes

gingerbread or cranberry scone dry mix

home made marshmallows with chile spiked hot chocolate

– home baked rye crackers with a bottle of wine (bonus points if you make the wine yourself)

– custom blended herbal tea mix

candy cane bark

– chocolate dipped anything

red velvet whoopee pies

– a trio of mini breads (cranberry, gingerbread and pumpkin are great)

limoncello

– schnapps

peanut butter balls

– custom blended popcorn seasonings

home made oatmeal cream pies

– cocoa brownie dry mix

– orzo, couscous or rice mixes

– cornbread dry mix with custom blended chili seasoning

For recipes for some of the gifts above, you can look for the Food Gifts magazine by Better Homes & Gardens. Items in green above can be found inside, as well as a lot more and great packaging ideas. Yes, it’s $10.00 but treat it like a book and keep it on your reference shelf – you’ll come back to these ideas year after year.

And of course, if you thought ahead this past summer and fall, you might have jams, jellies, pickles and such that always make great gifts. And think about those things that everyone asks you to cook – can you turn it into a dry mix you can share? And you can never go wrong with a box of cookies, fudge, nut brittles or breads. These are often treats that nearly everyone loves, but most people won’t make for themselves – making them coveted little luxuries. And if you’re really interested in doing something unique, if you start now there’s just enough time for you to brew a batch of beer or wine in time for Christmas.

I’ve got an idea as to what I’ll be handing out this year, but my lips are sealed since this is a public forum and all – so I’ll have to catch you up after the fact on what made the cut. But rest assured, I’ll be food crafting up a storm over the next six weeks!