Pascale Lecuire, five, is making a belt rack for her brother. She holds a big-headed nail against a piece of molding, gives it a satisfying whack with a hammer, and shoves the wood aside. "I'm done," she announces. "What's next?"
Is she sure she's done? Her blond ponytail nods assent. Can she show us? Up comes the molding, out goes the single nail. Unfazed, Pascale bends down again and starts to hammer away.
Bryce Churchman, six, is fazed by the belt rack. "I don't enjoy this," he says firmly, lower lip out. "I can't do it." He marches petulantly over to his favorite chair, sits down, glares at the table's occupants and says, "Gimme a beer bottle."
The bottle, under Bryce's more-or-less patient fingers, will be transformed into a vase of straw flowers -- one of five Christmas presents made in an hour by six kids, ages five to 13, for tolerant relatives. A key ingredient of this annual present-making is understanding recipients -- the kind of people who will praise the effort behind the outcome and actually use the gifts in the children's presence.
Over the years, our relatives have had ample opportunity to practise tolerance with such items as the candle that burns at both ends (the wicks wouldn't stay down), and stationery so thick with hand-printed designs that it was actually three-dimensional. Making these presents allows children to give something individual and knocks some of the commercialism out of Christmas.
It also avoids the agony of a 50-cent price limit in a five-dollar world -- an agony some children apparently are willing to face. Jennifer Clark, seven, showed her parents the bagful of crafts for relatives she made with us and said, "Maybe I'll buy some more presents, because these are free."
Free they weren't, but most presents can be made with household odds and ends -- especially if your odds include glitter and glue. Having all the ingredients for your crafts assembled before you begin will help alleviate that feeling of being sucked into the black hole of chaos that afternoon craft sessions so often bring. It also helps to have someone around like Sherry Nyman, our 13-year-old neighbor who was willing to sit on her brother's wilder ideas, explain the crafts to the youngest children and help find the tops to felt-tipped pens -- while completing all five presents herself.
If you're not lucky enough to have a neighborhood Sherry to invite, you can at least shield yourself by picking crafts that suit your child's skills and making sure that the table or floor -- an easier work area for some -- is covered, the glue pot works and there are enough scissors to go around.
Also make sure you can explain the craft in a way your child understands. Pictures help, as do completed examples (though these tend to be intimidating to the child with few skills). Remember that your child's work doesn't have to look exactly like the one in the book.
This year's crafts all required the advanced skills of a five-year-old -- cutting, tying and nailing. Past years' crafts have been as simple as making interesting- looking lumps out of homemade playdough, then inserting straw flowers to make "decorations"; cutting napkin rings out of toilet- paper tubes (with help from Mom) and gluing on ribbon; pulling strings from rectangles of burlap to make placemats. Another present grandparents always seem to appreciate is plaster-cast molds of tiny hands, etched with the name and date.
Now that the kids are bigger, we tried these more advanced crafts: BELT RACKS: These were suggested by Recycleworks in Falls Church, Virginia, which sells picture-frame moldings for 25 cents each. The kids hammered nails into the protruding side of the moldings for hanging belts, keys, tools, etc. One-inch nails with big heads work best, and the kids quickly learn to hold the hammer close to the head. Brave parents can volunteer to hold the nails in place for the unskilled. HOTPLATES: If you -- or a neighbor -- redid a bathroom this year, dig out the extra tiles; five-inch squares will do, preferably in a light color. The kids decorated these with felt-tipped pens, and I sprayed them with a fixative (available at most hardware or art stores). If you happen to have spray shellac on hand, try that instead. Be careful not to spray too close -- the pictures will smear. Connoisseurs will complete this craft by gluing a piece of cork onto the back so that the tile won't harm the table. The kids pronounced this the "best" craft, since they turned out so well. BOOKMARKS: This was both the easiest and least exciting present to make. Using leftover wallpaper, the kids each cut a bookmark-size design, and covered it with clear contact paper. The more creative decided to decorate the unmarked side with sequins and felt shapes, and cover that instead. DECORATED SHOELACES: This was probably the most difficult craft since it involves cutting small pieces. Cut out two designs from colored felt -- baseballs, hearts, Christmas trees, etc. Decorate these with ink, sequins, glitter, more felt. Cut a small hole in the middle of the design, and thread the tip of a shoelace through. Make a knot in the shoelace so the design stays put. Our 13-year-old enjoyed this the most, but all the kids managed to complete it. VASES: Take any bottle or glass with an interesting shape and a reasonably narrow neck (we used "Old Peculiar" brown beer bottles), tie or glue a ribbon around the middle, and fill with straw flowers. This turned out to be a study in American individuality -- it was simpler than the kids wanted. Every one of them did something unique to the ribbon, gluing it in funny ways, decorating it with glitter, putting it on at an odd angle. For all its simplicity -- and their complexity -- the effect was lovely.