A Last-Minute Guide to Making Christmas Decorations and Cards

For many families, making Christmas decorations and cards late into December is a tradition on par with watching marathons of A Christmas Story. After all, what are the holidays without stress and Ralphie?

Well, for one, you wouldn't feel compelled to shoulder a slew of worries heavier than Santa's infamous bag. Why do we do it? Most folks enjoy the festive atmosphere, especially at home. Decking the halls and putting up Christmas lights is a surefire way to get caught in a swirl of warmth and good cheer. With a pinch of creativity, there are plenty of DIY Christmas card ideas and ways to make Christmas decorations at home -- even at the last minute.

The key is to scour what you already own for supplies and ideas. There's no need to tack more charges onto an already over-worked credit card. Old fabric scraps, empty vases and backyard goodies can all be used to spice up cards and home decor.

When making Christmas decorations, start by picking a theme based on color, family heritage or your home furnishings. (Example: "Country Christmas" is always popular, using large pinecone accents, hand-painted wooden signs and other rustic items.) This approach gives a concrete starting point and can spark ideas when you're stuck. The same theme can then be applied to personalized Christmas cards, tying your entire holiday persona together with a neat bow.

If the prospect remains daunting, employ your able family elves. Kids on school break will be restless. Rather than post them in front of the TV all day, have them help you create and decorate. Not only will the work go quickly, younger kids especially will enjoy the chance to leave their mark around the home.

If this is your inaugural Christmas as a family, with or without kids, read our post written specifically for you: "Stretching Your First-Christmas Decorating Dollar."

To get the yule log burning, I've gathered 20 last-minute ideas for making Christmas cards and decorations in the cozy confines of your home. All are cost-conscious and can be tweaked to fit your little slice of holiday utopia.

CARDS

Themed cards

1. Themed Cards
If you err on the side of snail mail when sending mass Christmas cards, opt for something beyond pre-made "holiday" themes or expensive templates. Find something in muted earth tones for Southwestern flair or incorporate your interests and heritage -- say, a traditional Italian Christmas song -- with accents like holy or hues of red and green. Remember to include a family photo.

To engage little ones, print your holiday message on plain white paper and let them decorate at will with colored pencils, crayons and glitter. Fold and place inside a simple blank card or use it as the card itself. 

Pop-up cards

2. Pop-Up Cards
Cards are a stellar gift for company parties and a homemade Christmas card adds personality at half the price. The pop-up version from RobertSabuda.com features an evergreen tree and is relatively simple. Follow the step-by-step instructions, then accent at will.

eCard

3. eCards and Invites
Those already reeling from holiday expenses cringe at the thought of shelling out cash for something that gets tossed. (Let's not get started on the dastardly expensive cost of wrapping paper.) Luckily, several websites offer attractive and professional online Christmas cards for free. 123Greetings.com has loads of designs available for unregistered members. Blue Mountain requires a sign-up, but offers a free seven-day trial, animated cards and the option to share through Facebook. Pingg specialize in invites and is perfect for informing others of holiday potlucks or Christmas brunch.

It's a bit tacky to send close family members nothing more than an eCard, but this is an excellent option for coworkers, friends and others who are more likely to check an inbox than the mailbox. 

Elf

4. Elf Yourself
I know, I know: Stick the word "Go" in front and it sounds like a brash holiday insult. But this JibJab-powered, Office Max-sponsored generator takes up to five pictures, superimposes the faces on dancing elf bodies, and sets it all to a yuletide tune. While in college, my mom would often forgo a traditional card and send my brothers and I our elf likenesses through e-mail. It was one of the few highlights of finals week.  

Reindeer poop

5. Reindeer Poop Bags
Again, this sounds crass, but it mixes humor and candy in a way only appropriate during the holidays. When you throw a bash and need guest favors, give the gift of reindeer poop. Place M&M's, jelly beans or chocolate-covered coffee beans in a plastic bag and attach a slip of paper with red ribbon. On the slip, print "Reindeer Poop Bag" in bold near the top, followed by a brief poem: "You've been bad so here's the scoop/All you get is reindeer poop." Obviously, this chuckle-inducer depends on your company, so use discretion with scrooges.

INDOOR DECORATIONS

Stocking

6. Stockings
Stockings naturally lend themselves to DIY projects. Unlike sweaters and more complex clothing, the shape is simple. Craft a couple from spare cloth, old blankets or even curtains. Outdated jeans make particularly good material. Snag a worn pair from each family member, sew a quick stocking, and accent with colorful fabric on top. It fulfills your urge for both frugality and nostalgia much better than a torn stocking from the thrift store.

If knitting is your thing (and you have the time), scour the Internet for patterns. The craft blog Pick In and Throw In offers two designs simple enough for beginners and time-crunched experts.

Wreath

7. Wreath
An entryway is the first thing many will see when they visit your home. What they won't notice, however, is a price tag. A homemade wreath can incorporate many things, including fresh pine boughs, dried fruit, colored lights and more. Again, working with a theme gives you total control and can be as simple or intricate as you care to make it.

For a basic, fresh Christmas wreath, buy a wreath frame or shape a wire coat hanger into a circle. Take bundles of evergreen tips, pinecones and other items from your backyard for the body. Attach them with floral wire, wrapping it securely around the frame as you go. Thicker, overlapped bundles make for a fuller wreath.

A dried apple wreath takes more effort and likely won't last past one holiday, but it carries a welcoming scent reminiscent of cider. Follow these basic instructions from DIY Life, improvising when you see fit.

Candle

8. Candles
There's no easier way to add warmth and cheer during the holidays than some well-placed candles. Votive candles are especially handy due to their small size and cheap cost. Buy them in bulk at hobby shops, dollar stores or with craft store free shipping codes. One supply should last for years.

As to decor, candles alone aren't extremely compelling to the eye, but some simple tricks can transform a room. For larger candles, give a staggered look by cutting them to different heights or placing them on serving trays. A simple wreath or handful of pine branches at the base immediately sparks interest. If you can spare the fruit, use apples or pears as candle holders. Cut a small circular hole in the top of each fruit and place a short votive candle inside. Before you light anything, be sure the makeshift stand is stable.

Mini-tree

9. Miniature Trees
A family tree is arguably the cornerstone of any Christmas decorating scheme, but that doesn't mean it should get all the glory. Miniature imitation trees are portable, long-lasting and cheap -- $20 at Target for the two-foot unlit variety. They add quick holiday flavor to a kids room, an office desk or the bathroom counter, especially when decorated to reflect a theme or personality. (The one in my room is topped with tiny plastic snowboards.) Get started early to make them as gifts and you'll have Christmas trees galore.

Garland

10. Garland
Like mini-trees, garlands are another affordable way to spruce up any space (pun intended). You can attempt to string one together on your own, but when pressed for a time, buying a cheap imitation garland is less of a headache. The options for decorating here are endless: Wrap in a string of white lights and hang over a doorframe; attach pinecones, ball ornaments and colorful ribbons for the mantle; lace two colors together and weave through a banister; use as a lasso to corral wayward reindeer. You get the picture.

Popsicle nativity

11. Popsicle-Stick Holiday Scenes
When the kids get bored shoveling snow and chopping firewood (yeah, right), entertain them with easy-to-make Christmas decorations using craft supplies. My dad collects nativity scenes and in elementary school I made one using popsicle sticks, markers and hot glue. To this day, it still comes out with the rest of the lot. Hot glue is a no-go for the littlest ones, but there's always Elmer's. Ideas include a wintery playground with cotton-ball snowmen or a mountain resort with pinecone skiers. 

Centerpiece

12. Centerpieces
Along with candles, a festive centerpiece can become the talk of the table during a holiday dinner. Take an unused glass bowl or vase, fill with multi-colored ball ornaments, and tie a bright bow around the stem. The same can be done with dried fruits, nuts and pine boughs. Place a stable votive candle in the middle for an encore of ooh's and aah's. Your guests will never know how simple it was.

Ornaments

13. Ornaments
You're practically guaranteed to receive a few ornaments as gifts every Christmas, so there's little need to spend cash on store-bought ones. If your tree feels empty, pull out the red or green ribbon and start attaching it to anything remotely holiday-esque. Some quick ideas: Those good old standby pinecones; a tennis ball wrapped in festive cloth with holly; cardboard stars covered in foil or felt; and a child's popsicle-stick picture frame. Such ornaments may not grace the main Tannenbaum, but they're great for covering those room-specific mini-trees.

Tablecloth

14. Tablecloth
A tablecloth can be as simple or intricate as you like. On one end of the spectrum, buy a length of holiday-themed cloth and fit it to your table. On the opposite end, create an intricate runner featuring ribbon and sleigh bells. Instructions from Good Housekeeping walk you through the steps and measurements (it's number three in the slideshow.) 

Luminarias 

15. Luminarias
Luminarias are miniature paper lanterns decorated with cut-out figures and colored paper. Grab some brown lunch bags and punch out a row of holes a third of the way up. If you like, try mixing different colored bags to cast different shadows and light. Many people use luminarias to line sidewalks and driveways, but they also make stellar accents for a mantelpiece. Use electric lights rather than candles (if possible). Fill the bottoms with sand, if placing outside.  

Tree skirt

16. Tree Skirt
Think of your tree skirt as a tablecloth for the ground, with wrapped boxes in place of silverware and plates. Basically, it can be a quick job or intricate endeavor. When crafting yours, be sure it's large enough to cover whatever base is holding the tree and, if you prefer a real evergreen, leave enough room to easily access the water basin. A very cheap tree skirt ($2 to $5) can be made from a length of netting purchased from a fabric store.

Stained-glass cookies

17. Stained-Glass Cookies
These little bits of edible art were a childhood favorite of mine, but after only a week they usually become too hard to eat. Luckily, they're naturally suited to become decorations. Follow this reliable recipe and, before baking, punch a small opening to string ribbon or wire. Coat them once with clear acrylic spray and hang from the tree, a chandelier or in your windows. A word on the recipe: One big complaint is that the cookies stick to the pan. Cover the bottom with oven-safe wax paper for a quick remedy.

Cinnamon-stick setting

18. Cinnamon-Stick Place Settings
Although reindeer poop bags can be used as place settings, there are more delicate ways to let people know where to sit for Christmas dinner. Gather the materials below plus any additional touches (think about connecting with your overall theme). Bundle four cinnamon sticks, a few twigs and other accents together, wind the wire tightly around the center, and tie the ribbon into a bow to cover the wire. Print name tags on colored paper and place them with the bundles on individual plates.

Four cinnamon sticks per bunch
Several small pine twigs
Small (unbreakable) Christmas decorations
Red ribbon
Copper wire

OUTDOOR DECORATIONS

Elf entrance

19. Elf Entrance
This teensy doorway for Santa's helpers is clever and infinitely cheaper than gaudy inflatables. Cut a three-foot-tall doorframe from cardboard, paint it red, and label it "Elves Only." Tape it next to your front door and decorate it with whatever holiday goodies come to mind. For a doormat, wrap a square of cardboard in an old dishcloth and place in front of the miniature entrance. Keep an eye out for trolls disguised as elves. They get cold and ornery this time of year.   

Outside lights

20. Wreaths, Lights and More
A good chunk of the previous decorations -- wreaths, mini-trees, garland, luminarias and more -- can all be adapted for life outdoors. Be sure to use hardy materials and attach everything securely, especially if the weather in your area is finicky.

If loads of lights, a la Christmas Vacation, isn't your style, a simple way to perk up the exterior of your abode is to replace porch and security lights with red and green bulbs. Also try tying a large bow on your mailbox and doorknob. It takes all of 30 seconds but adds gobs of holiday spirit.

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