Presents You Make Yourself

Gilded oyster shells make attractive jewelry holders with a seaside feeling. Photo courtesy of Eva Baxter

There’s plenty to look forward to during the holiday season — spending quality time with family and loved ones, preparing and enjoying good food together, partaking in cherished traditions. The spirit of giving is, of course, central to the season, a way to show friends, family and other important people in our lives that they are loved and appreciated. Finding unique and thoughtful gifts for everyone on our lists is never easy, and it’s also not cheap. With many people still feeling the effects of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, budgeting for gift buying will be more of a challenge than ever this year. But as travel and other restrictions remain in place to help keep infection rates low, many people are also finding they still have more time on their hands and more hours spent at home than usual, making it the perfect year to consider filling those gift lists with homemade, do-it-yourself creations. While the crafters among us have long been whipping up whimsical, Etsy-worthy items with knitting needles or tackling projects with high degrees of difficulty, there are plenty of great gifts that can be created by even the most novice of crafters and those who typically shy away from the letters DIY.

Homemade elderberry syrup. Michael Heller photo

 Homemade Elderberry Syrup

With the coronavirus still raging throughout the country, personal health and wellness is at the top of everyone’s mind, and doing whatever it takes to avoid contracting even a common cold is a higher priority than ever. Homemade elderberry syrup is a gift that perfectly fits the 2020 mood. Elderberries, abundant in vitamins, are considered a natural remedy to help prevent illnesses like flu and the common cold, and can be taken when sick to help speed recovery. Elderberry syrup that’s sold online and in health food stores can be expensive, but homemade varieties are easy to put together and are much more cost effective. Dried elderberries are readily available in bulk on, and there are several tweaks that can be made to a recipe to suite specific tastes. East Hampton resident Cheryl Keller made elderberry syrup last year for the teachers of her two young sons, and said it was a big hit. She used a recipe from that called for water, dried elderberries, grated ginger, cinnamon sticks, ground cloves and raw honey, although sweeteners like agave syrup can be substituted as well. Water, elderberries, ginger, cinnamon and cloves are combined in a saucepan, brought to a boil, and then simmered for an hour. After that, the mixture is removed from heat, and allowed to cool enough to handle. The berries then must be mashed carefully with a spoon or flat utensil, and then the mixture is poured through a strainer into a glass jar or bowl. When it is no longer hot, honey or another sweetener can be mixed in, and the syrup can be divided among separate mason jars. It can be stored in the fridge for several weeks, or even frozen. A teaspoon daily for an adult or half a teaspoon for a child is the recommended amount for preventative measures, while more can be taken if it’s being use during an illness.

There are plenty ways to personalize the gift — adding a ribbon or twine around the jar with homemade note cards is one suggestion. Leftover jam or other glass jars can be “up-cycled” to use as storage units for the syrup. Sourcing honey from a local apiary as the sweetener is a way to support a local business. Keller suggested using manuka honey as a sweetener to further boost the medicinal properties of the syrup, or even throwing in a dash of vanilla extract to enhance flavor. Like any homemade gift, Keller said making the syrup was “a bit time consuming,” but said it was well worth the effort, adding that she had her children help her and felt it was a nice way for them to be more invested in the gift-giving process.

“It’s more thoughtful than just giving something you buy in a store,” she said. “And especially when you’re doing it with your kids, it’s more meaningful.”

A salt dough star ornament courtesy of Margaret Rose Comber.

Salt Dough Ornaments

Another homemade gift that’s perfect for small hands — quite literally — is a salt dough ornament. Sag Harbor resident Margaret Rose Comber made them last year with her daughter, using a simple recipe from, that calls for just three ingredients: table salt, all-purpose flour, and water. Cookie cutters can help create shapes, and acrylic craft paint or even washable tempura paint works well for decorating. Ribbon or twine to thread through the hole is the only other necessary item, but many recipes recommend preserving the ornaments by coating them with a layer of Mod Podge or spraying with a sealer.

Comber appreciated that it was a gift even a very young child could be part of and enjoy.

“She made the dough, rolled it, and cut it into hearts, and then we put her handprint on each heart,” she said. “Then we baked them, and after they set, she painted them. It was a wonderful experience because she was part of the entire process.”

Comber added that they made both Christmas and Hanukkah themed ornaments to give to friends.

Beach Themed Ornaments

The nearest bay or ocean beach is a great source for the makings of a beautiful homemade gift. Last year, Westhampton Beach resident Elyse Kessler made holiday ornaments with her sons from clamshells, beach glass, and driftwood they gathered during their frequent walks and visits to the beach. They gave them to teachers and family, and even sold several of their creations at a holiday boutique held at Margarita Grille restaurant in Westhampton Beach. Kessler said she allowed the driftwood to dry out for a few days, cleaned out the shells, and then used a hot glue gun to adhere shells and beach glass to pieces of driftwood. One ornament had three pieces of green beach glass stacked in size order with a small piece of brown beach glass at the bottom, and a tiny piece of blue beach glass at the top to resemble a Christmas tree, with a red ribbon affixed to the top of the “tree” and some twine glued to the back for hanging. They created a snowman ornament by stacking three small white clamshells, and using a felt tip black pen to draw on eyes, a mouth, and three buttons, and an orange pen to draw a triangle carrot nose.

“It was super easy, and the boys were so proud of them,” Kessler said.

Homemade Snow Globes

Rebekah Goforth, who lives in Maryland and is an experienced and prolific crafter, said that homemade snow globes are a great gift and can run the gamut, depending on how detailed you want to go and how much time and money you’re willing to devote to the project. A container is the first and most obvious necessity, while clear drying epoxy glue, some kind of decorative object to place inside the globe, and glitter for the “snow” are all necessary elements as well. Sandpaper, watertight sealer, and glycerine can all be used to help improve the finished product. Empty snow globes can be found at most craft stores like Michael’s, but Goforth cautioned the cheaper ones can be harder to seal, while the $7 options that are sold at Michael’s are generally easier to work with. There is also the option of up-cycling any cleaned-out glass jar with a lid.

The options for the interior decorative centerpiece are “limitless,” Goforth said. Old ornaments can be used, although plastic is preferable over metal, which can rust. For the globes Goforth made last Christmas for her nieces in East Quogue, she molded rainbows out of epoxy clay (by request). Goforth had plenty of helpful tips and pointers for making the globes.

“If you’re using a regular jar, the inner lid surface that the decorative centerpiece will be attached to should be roughened with sandpaper for improved retention,” she said. The clear-drying epoxy glue or any strong craft glue is used to affix the centerpiece to the lid/base, and needs 24 hours or more to fully dry.

Assembling the snow globe once the centerpiece had dried involves a few steps, the first of which is testing for the ideal liquid amount (and remembering that the centerpiece will displace some liquid). Once you have the desired amount of water, you should add roughly two teaspoons per cup of water — which means an equal amount of water must be removed to maintain the desired liquid level. Glycerine (found in the baking section), slows the movement of the glitter, creating a nice effect, but too much can cause the glitter to clump at the bottom, Goforth said.

Before assembly, it’s necessary to place super glue or create a watertight seal to the threads of the jar. Then, the jar is filled with the water-glycerine mix, and the glitter is added. While holding the jar steady, the glue-ready lid with affixed centerpiece is then placed into the jar and tightened. Another 24-hour drying period for the glue is necessary. After that, it’s ready for that always satisfying snowfall shake.

Oyster Shell Jewelry Holders

Oyster shell jewelry holders are another gift that makes good use of the ocean’s bounty. Sag Harbor resident Eva Baxter — another experienced crafter who, like many, became even more prolific with her creations during the pandemic — made several for her friends and family last year, collecting oyster shells and turning them into glamorous little gifts perfect for holding rings or earrings on a bedside night table. Baxter suggested saving oyster shells after eating them, or asking restaurants or seafood markets for leftover oyster shells if they aren’t readily available at the beach. After cleaning and drying the shells, Baxter took a gold paint pen (available at any craft store or online) and painted the rough bottom of the shells. She then used tiny faux pearls, which she bought at the Sag Harbor Variety Store, and glued them, using a strong, clear glue (she recommends 575 or Gorilla Glue) to the gold-painted side of the shell, to serve as “feet” for the jewelry holder. Figuring out a good, balanced placement with three pearls on the bottom of the shell is important before gluing them, she said. Baxter pointed out that the project would also work with bay scallop shells, and round beads or metal ball bearings could be used as feet instead of pearls, while different colored paint pens can also help customize the look.

Homemade Candles

Another gift that presents the opportunity to both upcycle old jars and create different customizations is a homemade candle. Shereen Bar-or, an Art Therapist based in Brooklyn, has been making homemade candles for friends and family for years, and also sells them, promoting them through her professional account on Instagram, @atcbklyn. She enjoys customizing the candles for people using different scents and other add-ons. Wax, wicks, essentials oils and containers (old glass jars are a great option) are the basics, and the tools necessary to double-boil the wax, in the same way chocolate or cheese would be double-boiled, is also important. Bar-Or said she’s learned certain tricks along the way, such as letting the wax cool a bit before pouring it in the vessel, which helps make a nice and smooth surface, she said. Bar-Or said she also regularly dries herbs like eucalyptus, rosemary and lavender to put on the tops of her candles, and also loves to add rosebud teas to the candles as well, for aesthetic purposes. Much like the jarred elderberry syrups, the candles can be decorated with customized gift tags and ribbon.