As the holidays approach, we could all use a dash or two of cheer after this lump-of-coal year.

Festivities will be different, to be sure, as we may be separated from loved ones and miss out on annual traditions. But that doesn’t mean the holidays should be canceled. In fact, there are many DIY gifts, decorations and treats that will help the season feel merry, even if you are celebrating in a very scaled-back fashion.

For ideas, we consulted Kellie Phelan, the founder of The Works Seattle, an adult education school that specializes in hands-on craft and gardening classes. During the pandemic, The Works has pivoted to selling DIY kits that let you create things such as wreaths, mochi and gemstone soap.

Kellie Phelan is the founder of The Works Seattle, an adult education school that specializes in hands-on craft and gardening classes. (Courtesy of Kellie Phelan)
Kellie Phelan is the founder of The Works Seattle, an adult education school that specializes in hands-on craft and gardening classes. (Courtesy of Kellie Phelan)

Here are Phelan’s ideas for activities, seasonal decor and easy recipes that can make spirits bright as we close out a year that definitely has not made the nice list. 

Q: What are some of your favorite DIY methods for decorating and celebrating the holidays? 

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A: There are so many amazing greens for foraging around Seattle! Make friends with your neighbors and ask if you can take clippings of their rosemary, evergreens or holly bushes. Once you learn the basics, DIY wreath making is a fun family tradition. 

Crafting instructor Kellie Phelan counts wreath-making as a top holiday tradition, thanks to the ease of finding beautiful greens in Seattle. (iStock)
Crafting instructor Kellie Phelan counts wreath-making as a top holiday tradition, thanks to the ease of finding beautiful greens in Seattle. (iStock)

Also, try creating a holiday wall hanging with driftwood and seasonal greens. Grab your boots and use this as an excuse to visit your favorite beach. If you already have a space in mind for where you want to hang the piece, look for driftwood that size. If not, just look for a piece that inspires you. (Note that driftwood cannot be salvaged from Seattle parks or state parks; check your local regulations before gathering.) 

Grab some natural twine (or fishing line for a “floating” effect) and your foraged greens. Bundle together sets of greenery and attach them to the driftwood, leaving 2 to 24 inches of length, depending on the look you’re going for. You can even stagger the bundles for a varied look. 

To finish, tie a long piece of twine to each end of the driftwood and hang it from the middle. Fresh greens will keep inside for a few weeks or outside most of the season. To prolong the life of your greens, spritz them with water daily. 

Q: Many people’s gatherings will be smaller than usual. What can we do to keep things festive?

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A: When celebrating alone or just with a significant other or roommate, little things can really bring cheer and make a big difference during the holiday season. Making a plan to cut down a tree or bake cookies are great things to look forward to.

One of our favorite ways to connect and feel the holiday spirit takes just an ounce of pre-planning. Write creative questions on index cards and hide them under each person’s plate. Then, throughout the meal, each person can reveal their card and answer the question. This is a great way to spark conversation and learn things you didn’t know about friends and family (even when you’ve known them a lifetime!).

No big gathering this year? Don’t cancel your celebration. Even an intimate holiday dinner can feel extra special with a tablescape loaded with candles and natural elements like pine cones or fresh fruit. (iStock)
No big gathering this year? Don’t cancel your celebration. Even an intimate holiday dinner can feel extra special with a tablescape loaded with candles and natural elements like pine cones or fresh fruit. (iStock)

Q: What are some fun ways to enhance the tablescapes and meals that define the holidays?

A: A classic tablespace that looks amazing and is easy to DIY includes three simple ingredients: greenery, candles and seasonal fruit. Whether you’re hosting friends and family, or just enjoying a special meal by yourself, this is a great way to create a beautiful tablescape without breaking your budget.

Start by walking through your yard or neighborhood and noticing what’s in season. Bring your scissors and clip a bundle of at least three different styles of greenery, or more if they speak to you. Christmas tree lots and, in a pinch, Trader Joe’s also have great affordable greenery to choose from.

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Gather as many candles as you can find — I recommend at least three. It’s OK if they are all different shapes and sizes — in fact, that can liven up the table even more. Lay your candles down the middle of the table, perhaps with a large center candle and then smaller clusters of three. Lay your foraged greens flat around the candles. If you have a rectangular table, I like the look of making a line of greenery down the length of the table. And if you have a circular table, group things together toward the middle. 

Once you have your candles and your greens placed, accent your tablescape with seasonal fruit. In December, that means apples, pears, citrus and pomegranate. You can leave your fruit intact or halve some of the pieces to expose the beauty inside. (If halving fruit, I suggest waiting until the day of.)

Handmade gifts, such as homemade jam or unique pickles, show your love. If you missed the summer canning season, you can use frozen fruit or fall vegetables. (iStock)
Handmade gifts, such as homemade jam or unique pickles, show your love. If you missed the summer canning season, you can use frozen fruit or fall vegetables. (iStock)

Q: What are some ideas for DIY gifts people can make from home and give/send to loved ones this year?

A: We are big fans of homemade gifts around here. There is no better way to show your love and appreciation than by making something yourself. One of our favorite things to do is bottle up some love with a big batch of our favorite homemade jam or some unique pickles. If you’re thinking, “I missed the season,” not to worry! Frozen fruit works amazingly well for jamming, and fall produce like carrots and cauliflower also make great pickles. 

Many people in The Works’ community love to collect and tend to houseplants. Propagating new plants from cuttings is an easy DIY project; you can even handpaint terra-cotta pots for gifting in. The thought of something grown in your home, now living and being tended to by a loved one, is heartwarming, especially when we can’t all gather together in each other’s homes right now.

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Q: What’s the best homemade gift you’ve ever received?

A: One year, my dad created a photo book of all of the backpacking trips we’d done together when I was a kid. He transcribed all of the entries from our hiking journal and paired them with photos from our trips. To this day, it is the most thoughtful homemade gift I’ve ever received. 

For holiday decor that lasts from Thanksgiving through the new year, opt for minimalist Scandinavian-styles. (Courtesy of Pottery Barn)
For holiday decor that lasts from Thanksgiving through the new year, opt for minimalist Scandinavian-styles. (Courtesy of Pottery Barn)

Q: Are there things people can make/decorate with to celebrate fall that can transition to winter holidays?

A: Minimalist, Scandinavian-style decorations like wooden bead garlands, pine cones and white paper lanterns will carry across Thanksgiving, the December holidays and into the new year.

Q: 2020 has been tough. What are some things you are most thankful for this year?

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A: I am thankful for my family, our health and the micro joys that fill our days. 2020 has been incredibly hard for everyone on so many levels, but nothing will force you to be in the present moment faster — and most likely enjoy a few laughs — than hanging out with 2-year-old twins. Having the opportunity to keep The Works not just alive but thriving is something I’m also incredibly thankful for.

Peppermint bark is a holiday classic that is also super easy to make at home, says The Works Seattle founder Kellie Phelan. (iStock)
Peppermint bark is a holiday classic that is also super easy to make at home, says The Works Seattle founder Kellie Phelan. (iStock)

An easy holiday treat

Peppermint bark is a holiday classic that is also super-easy to make at home, Phelan says. Here is her recipe for the seasonal treat.

Ingredients: 

16 ounces dark chocolate, chopped

16 ounces white chocolate, chopped

6 ounces candy canes, unwrapped and crushed

Directions: 

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Place the dark chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl and microwave on 50% power in 30-second increments, stirring after each, until completely melted. (Or create a double boiler and stir until melted.)

3. Spread the melted chocolate in an even layer on the prepared cookie sheet. Place the cookie sheet in the refrigerator while you prepare the white chocolate.

4. Place the white chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl and microwave on 50% power in 30-second increments, stirring after each, until completely melted. (Or create a double boiler and stir until melted.)

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5. Spread the melted white chocolate in an even layer on top of the dark chocolate layer.

6. Immediately sprinkle the crushed candy canes on top of the melted white chocolate.

7. Refrigerate until completely hard and set, at least 30 minutes. Using a large, sharp knife, break into pieces and enjoy! Store the bark in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one month.