Alexandra Jones takes on the challenge of making an entire Christmas herself. Here’s how she did it and the lessons she learned along the way
Photography: Mark Harrison
A few weeks ago, I was tasked with taking the corporate out of Christmas by hand-making the whole thing myself.
In these uncertain times, with a Trump presidency looming and Article 50 promising to snip-snip us out of the European Union, there’s something particularly appealing about celebrating the festive season in an authentic, heartfelt and honest way.
In fact, ‘authenticity’ has been something of a buzzword in 2016 (in business, in our relationships, in the products we buy). Personalisation has been embraced by everyone from Gucci (whose ‘DIY’ customisation service launched in the brand’s Bond Street store in October) to the likes of Gap, Anthropologie and Uniqlo – who all offer monogrammed products.
And if it’s good enough for Gucci…
As well as four gifts, a treeful of baubles, wrapping, and cards, I would host four of my friends for a festive shindig. According to music brand Sonos, 80% of us attend a #friendsmas, an “unconventional and stress-free pre-Christmas get-together,” in the first two weeks of December. But instead of the usual six bowls of crisps and a bottle of port – merry crispmas, one and all – I vowed to my pals that, this year, I’d do the occasion justice.
Given a week away from my desk and the same amount of money that the average person spends on a ‘normal’ Christmas (£868 according to debit card company Switch), could I really hand-make an entire Christmas and survive?
My journey towards a handmade Christmas was a veritable tombola of emotions: I was shunted from soaring highs to anxious, sleepless lows by such varying existential questions as, “Does Spray Mount work on felt?”, “What caused my polystyrene stars to melt?” and “Will there ever not be glitter?”
At one point, I found myself sitting on my living room floor, crying self-pitying tears, surrounded by a dizzying array of foodstuffs (sprouts, four bags of salad, three packets of smoked salmon, five cuts of beef, flour, beetroot, nuts, asparagus, and one gargantuan wheel of brie, growing ever gooier by the minute). The previous night I’d woken in a cold sweat from a dream in which I was being chased by a man-eating felt bird (don’t spray mount in enclosed spaces, people).
And yet, soon after, I successfully baked and iced 36 biscuit ornaments. Standing back, admiring my handiwork I felt empowered: ‘This,’ I thought to myself, ‘Is how Mr Kipling must feel every day.’
The day itself, without blowing my own trumpet too hard, was a roaring success. Wrapping the gifts, setting the table and then watching my friends’ mouths pop open in awe when they arrived was particularly gratifying. But I never expected to feel so proud of myself. I’d gone into the whole experiment with a fairly laissez-faire attitude. By the end – after all the fretting, I really did want it to be a success. And like all solo projects, you’re never sure if you’ve pulled it off until someone surveys your work and goes “When did you learn to make pastry?!”
So, while there is something undoubtedly pleasurable in refusing to hand over your Christmas to Waitrose, Marks & Spencer or John Lewis, if you plan to create your own handmade Christmas this year, save yourself a lot of sleepless nights by heeding my seven, heard-earned lessons.
Lesson one: get inspired (but not overwhelmed)
It took me about a day to gather sufficient inspiration for an entire handmade Christmas but I could have saved myself time if I’d been more selective. Instead, I hurtled into my challenge like an excitable Labrador on a snowy day. I started a Christmas moodboard, clicking at random on anything that caught my eye on Pinterest – irrespective of complexity or relevance. Nice picture of a sequinned table cloth? Pinned. Jazzy wall-mounted neon sign? Pinned. An afternoon went by, then an evening. It was dark by the time I called my craftiest friend to ask her opinion of my vision for a handmade Christmas. “It’s nice,” she says looking at my board. “But how long have you got?” I explained that I have six days and big, big ambitions. “OK. Well, in that case, crafting on this scale is all about the three Ps: planning, planning and planning.” (I didn’t want to be sour and point out that, in fact, this was one P, repeated, but she did have a point.)
If you find yourself stumped, try @hankandhunt on Pinterest or blogs such as creatingreallyawesomefunthings.com, helloglow.co and liagriffith.com. But be aware that with so many ideas out there, this is as much a process of curation as it is collection: there are some makes that are just too time-consuming, fiddly or random. What you don’t want is to get crafter’s fatigue* half way through, a serious consideration if your goal is to DIY an entire Christmas. I’d suggest picking a colour theme, or one amazing interior shot to act as an anchor for your planning stages: an image that pulls all your varying ideas together and means you won’t end up with a room that looks like Santa’s grotto on acid. (Unless that’s the look you’re going for, in which case – more power to you.)
Lesson two: everyone was new once, don’t stress about asking the basic questions.
I ended up with a shopping list that read: twine, a hula hoop, spray paint, acrylic paint, felt (varying colours), jars (varying sizes), card, wooden kebab skewers, brown paper, potatoes, a glue gun, ribbon, paint brushes, wool, glitter, lino, ink, ink pad, pliers, almond oil, a bag of lemons, beads, gardening wire, spray mount. (This is an edited version.)
Rounding up materials was undoubtedly the most disorienting part of the whole process. (Not helped by the fact that I hit up Amazon and in my haste order £200 of craft supplies to my old address and had to retrieve four enormously heavy boxes the next day in an Uber).
Not being of a crafty persuasion, it seemed like a closed world: how do you know which glue cartridges (are they even called cartridges?) go with which type of glue gun? Or are they all the same?
To my rescue come the likes of San Franciscan duo Erica Chan Coffman and Lauren Kolodny (of fashion and crafts blog HonestlyWTF). I found them through frantic Pinterest scrolling (they have 6million followers and their profile is a paean to a particularly East Coast brand of chic handmade homewares and fashion, plenty of acid-brights and sunshine). Their blog managed to answer the basic (as well as far more esoteric) questions that repeatedly stopped me in my tracks in the paint aisle of Hobbycraft.
I also found a very nice sales assistant in art supply store, London Graphic Centre. “This is going to seem like a ridiculous question…” I warned him, as I held up two types of glue. He put a hand up, nodded serenely and said “everyone was new once…” I could have hugged him.
Lesson three: get a crafting table
I set up a crafting corner on the floor in my bedroom. I soon lived to regret this because sitting on the floor hunched over a glue gun for eight hours a day is quite a strain on the lower back. Invest in one of those tray tables that families in the Nineties used to eat their TV dinners off. It’ll save you in chiropractic costs.
Lesson four: be agile
Time can slip like water through your fingers if you’re not careful. Don’t waste it by sticking to makes that just aren’t working.
For instance: inspired by a post from pared-back craft blog This Heart Of Mine (thisheartofmineblog.com), I planned to make felt Christmas tree decorations. They seemed fairly straightforward: cut out felt squares in ever decreasing sizes. Once stacked one on top of the other, they should have looked like mini Christmas trees. Thread some cotton through the middle and ta-da – chic tree hanging. Or not.
I spent the best part of a morning cutting felt into squares but when I stacked them all together they look more like shapeless felt splodges. I had to think fast; I was two and a half days down at this point and I had nothing to show for my efforts. I pushed down the panic and did a quick online search in which I come across some handsome DIY felt doves (care of chelseagardener.com). I drew two templates onto card – a simple dove body and a wing – and set about cutting these out.
I aimed for 12 doves, but quite frankly, that turned out to be ridiculous because the cutting-out required frightening levels of dexterity. With eight done (and three hours gone), I sprayed them with glue, stuck the wings on and sewed golden beaks using thick cotton so they can be hung. It was a small victory, but it made me realise that I’d have to eschew some of my more complex makes in favour of quicker, more impactful things: like a string of blue and white pompoms. Obviously.
Lesson five: style it out (aka pretend you meant to do it that way)
Agility also proved to be a particularly valuable skill when my oven broke the day before #friendsmas.
For reasons of freshness I left all food preparation until last, hitting Waitrose early on day six. I didn’t buy a turkey because no-one actually likes turkey (it is a dry, pointless meat). So I decided to make beef wellingtons instead. Given that beef wellington is served in the plushest establishments (The Riding House Café, The Savoy Grill, Bob Bob Ricard, the list is endless) it seemed to be a suitably celebratory choice.
But at home, surrounded by my accrued foodstuffs, I began to doubt my abilities. The day before, I noticed my oven was struggling. On food prep day, I realised that it wasn’t just a bit broken (like flick the switches on and off, jiggle the timer, broken) but actually, technically, kaput. I fired off a WhatsApp to a pal: “Fairly overwhelmed because I can’t cook and the oven’s broken anyway.” He replied with a laughing emoji and with that I succumbed to proper sobs.
It is in this state of abject self-pity that my housemate happens upon me. “I mean… you could just make some ‘winter salads’?”
I perked up and got to making. I also managed to knock-up my own rough-puff pastry (many thanks bbcgoodfood.com), which didn’t disintegrate even though, due to the oven debacle, I had to leave the wellingtons sitting in the fridge overnight until I could borrow a friend’s oven to bake them. Despite my brief moment of despair, the food was the easiest part by far. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been feeding myself for 10 years now, but cooking seemed like familiar territory.
What’s more, the food I made was fairly idiot-proof (asparagus and Parma ham, butter-glazed vegetables, candied walnut, goat’s cheese and beetroot salad). I realised if I stuck to foods that require ‘assembly’ rather than ‘cooking’, everything would be OK.
And when my friends moaned about having salad with their Christmas dinner, I told them it was a bid to have a ‘lean and green’ festive period (it did not go down well).
Lesson six: batch making is your friend
Personalised presents have been the height of covetability since Burberry offered to emblazon its cashmere scarves – softer-than-a-new-born-lamb – with your initials. After all, we all want to be the givers of heartfelt, dynamic gifts.
But in a world where almost everyone we know, has almost everything they really need, the likelihood of giving a gift, which packs any kind of emotional punch is slim. Handmade adds significance to what could have become – through years of friendship – a perfunctory ritual. It says “I have spent time on you; I have exerted myself to give you something that no-one else in the world has, something that is as unique as you.” (Cue waterworks).
Having said that, I didn’t actually have loads of time so I quickly whipped up four lemon and thyme sea-salt body scrubs (a tip from the Stylist beauty team – mix sea salt and almond oil to a slushy consistency then, per jar, add the zest of one lemon and a teaspoon of fresh thyme). It took all of 15 minutes, they smelled zingy and delicious and altogether cost around £20. I’d highly recommend, they’re pretty and practical (my mum will find one in her stocking this year).
Lesson seven: lino print
While there are certain makes that I probably wouldn’t attempt again (felt doves. In fact, any felt decorations, much too fiddly), I did thoroughly enjoy lino printing.
It was the most soothing part of the entire crafting-Christmas bonanza. I made each person their own design and framed it. I found that there was something particularly gratifying about carving with a sharp implement. It felt a bit dangerous. And when you’re spending your days baking and sewing, you do start to crave a bit of danger. It made me wonder how exactly Kirstie Allsopp gets her kicks…
Lesson eight: get your pals involved
If I attempted handmade Christmas again I’d also rope in some friends. Having someone to share the burden would have made it all vastly more manageable. It’s just nice to have someone to turn to when you successfully pop up your first origami Christmas tree and go, “Look! It stands on its own!”
Ultimately, the drunker they got the more effusive my friends became about my success. “How did you ice all those biscuits?” (Badly, don’t look too close). “What did you use to glaze the mushrooms?” (Were they glazed?) And I guess there’s a lesson in this too: ply them with enough booze, and your friends will love anything you make this Christmas.
*an entirely made-up syndrome
How feasible is it really?
Not all of us can take a week off work, but with some careful planning, a handmade Christmas can be yours too
I blocked out a whole week to hand-make my Christmas and got everything just about done. You obviously don’t need to do it all in one go. About 40% of my time was devoted to crafts – it was by far the biggest task.
I had £217 left from my budget of £868. I’m not used to paying for all the food (I usually spend Christmas at my mum’s house) and feeding five people took about a third of my total spend. Gifts, decorations and table settings cost £351 in total –more than I’d usually spend on gifts. But as I owned no craft supplies to start with this bumped up the cost slightly.
My week was intense. I made three types of bauble (gingerbread, felt and paper origami), a table centrepiece, a series of miniature wreaths, one giant wreath from a hula hoop and twine, tree garlands and a star. I also fashioned my own wrapping paper and created my own gifts. At the end, my room – littered with the detritus of six days’ worth of crafting – resembled a post-apocalyptic Hobbycraft (if I listened hard enough I could make out the throaty moans of a zombie Neil Buchanan emanating from under a pile of discarded felt). There were times I felt more stressed than when I do my usual quick online shop. But in the end, it was the most rewarding gift-giving experience I’ve had and was actually a good way to put my own spin on Christmas.
Prop Stylist: Tara Holmes
Fashion: Sophie Henderson
Hair, Make-Up and Nails: Rose Angus at S Management using Mac Pro and Bumble and Bumble