The Fountain Avenue Kitchen: Homemade vanilla makes a great holiday gift

 Posted: Sunday, November 30, 2014 7:17 am   By ANN FULTON, Correspondent

homemade vanilla

Ninety-nine percent of my issue is coming up with clever ideas. Knowing that I can’t possibly be the only one with this problem, I have developed an assortment of do-it-yourself gifts that are uncomplicated, economical and practical.

During this busy time of year, the small effort behind a gift that can readily be put to use is always much appreciated and creates value beyond what is measured in dollars and cents.

Homemade vanilla extract requires just two ingredients — vanilla beans and alcohol — and makes a useful holiday or hostess gift. For a bigger bang, pair it with a recipe for your favorite cookies or quick bread calling for vanilla. Include the actual baked good if you’re feeling especially industrious.

Good extract takes baked goods to another level, and the sweet aroma is hard to resist. Seeing those little black flecks in your dessert signals quality and something a little special. There really is no substitute for vanilla.

When I first contemplated this DIY project, I hesitated at the high cost of fancy vanilla beans. After doing a little research, I learned that cheaper, Grade B vanilla beans — the ones that look shriveled and dry — are perfectly fine for making extract. Their aroma may be slightly less pronounced than that of Grade A beans, but their lower moisture content means a less diluted final product.

Top-shelf liquor isn’t necessary either, but choose something that you’d like to drink. Though many vanilla extract recipes call for vodka — which is certainly acceptable — I think bourbon offers a more complex flavor. Rum and brandy are good options, too.

Madagascar vanilla beans are ideal for a traditional extract. Doing it yourself, however, creates options. Tahitian beans offer undertones of chocolate and cherry, while Mexican beans are smooth and smoky. For a bolder flavor, Ugandan beans could be used.

Many online sources exist for buying vanilla beans in bulk at a cost that makes for reasonably priced gifts. I have purchased through a site called Beanilla.

Pretty jars can be found at craft stores or online. You can even remove labels from and thoroughly wash empty condiment jars. (For stubborn labels, peel off as much of the paper label as possible, then spread a layer of peanut butter over the sticky adhesive. After sitting for 30 minutes or so, the oil in the peanut butter will dissolve the adhesive, and the goop should rub right off.)


Vanilla Extract

This recipe can be made in any quantity. Simply use the ratio of 5 beans per 8 ounces of alcohol. Though it takes a bit of patience as you wait for the alcohol to extract the flavor from the beans, the process is incredibly easy and the delicious results are well worth the wait.

• 5 vanilla beans (I prefer Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans; see sourcing information below)

• 1 cup (8 ounces) bourbon, vodka, rum or brandy

• 1 (12-ounce or bigger) bottle or jar for soaking

• Glass bottles for packaging (3½- to 4-ounce bottles are a nice size for gift giving)

n Slice halfway through the long side of the beans. (You want a slit all the way down one side of the bean without cutting the bean in half.) Place the beans in a jar or bottle.

• Pour in the alcohol, making sure the beans are covered. If your jar is not tall and narrow enough for the whole beans to be fully submerged in the alcohol, cut the beans in halves or quarters.

• Place the lid tightly on the jar and shake well.

• Store the jar in a cool, dark place, and shake once or twice a week. The flavor will be fully developed in about 8 weeks, although you can begin using the extract after a month.

• The beans can be removed after the waiting period, but this is not essential. If left in, the flavor of the extract will continue to develop.

• If you wish to give the extract as a gift before the waiting period is over, simply make it in the gift jars, noting on the tag that the vanilla will be ready and completely delicious on or after such-and-such date.

Notes: If the beans are left in the jar, you can top off the bottle with additional alcohol as you use the extract. Eventually all the flavor will be extracted from the original vanilla beans, so you’ll want to periodically replace the old beans with fresh ones.

The little flecks of seeds are a nice touch, but the extract may be strained through a coffee filter if a clear extract is preferred.

When the vanilla beans are removed, they can be dried out and placed in a sugar canister to lightly flavor the sugar.

Pricing details: As a comparison, a 4-ounce bottle of name-brand (Nielsen-Massey) pure Madagascar vanilla extract retails for $10.95. Eight ounces of the same vanilla costs $19.95. Recently, I purchased a package of 25 Madagascar vanilla beans from for $16.99 with free shipping. Twenty-five beans will allow for 40 ounces of vanilla extract or 10 (4-ounce) bottles. I used an old bottle of bourbon that we had on hand.


Seasonal Stress: Don’t try to do it all yourself at holidays

Set realistic expectations for holidays

  • Peter Fifield, a licensed mental health counselor at Families First Health & Support Center in Portsmouth, talks about holiday stress. Suzanne Laurent photo.By Suzanne Laurent
    Posted Nov. 30, 2014 @ 2:01 am

    Peter Fifield, a licensed mental health counselor at Families First Health & Support Center in Portsmouth, talks about holiday stress. Suzanne Laurent photo.

    The holiday season is now in full swing.

    While it’s a happy time for most, the season can bring dread, especially for those who may have experienced loss or economic setback over the last year. Others may be nervous about being around family members who “push their buttons.”

    Of course, there is a huge media influence that raises expectations, with eager shoppers and movies with picture perfect families around the table.

    “The holidays can be difficult for those who struggle with mental illness and also for those who don’t,” said Dr. Emily Bray, a psychiatrist in Portsmouth Regional Hospital’s behavioral health unit.

    She recommends taking the pressure off yourself.

    “Number one, is to reach out for support from your spouse or other family member to help with things like cooking and shopping,” Bray said. “If plans change or fall through, adjust your expectations.”

    She also recommends putting self-care skills into practice.

    “It’s fine to treat yourself to all the good food offered at gatherings, but try to get back to healthy eating when the party is over,” she said. “Also, it’s important to find ways to exercise indoors during the winter months.”

    There is usually alcohol served at holiday festivities, which can be a problem.

    “Family dynamics can trigger many who are struggling to maintain sobriety,” Bray said.

    If someone must be at a gathering where someone is apt to push your buttons, Bray said to be prepared for the situation.

    “Come with answers ready to shift the conversation,” she said. “Also, be sure the supportive people in your family don’t let you get stuck in the same room with the person causing you stress.”

    Peter Fifield, a licensed mental health counselor at Families First Health & Support Center in Portsmouth, said there is no doubt that the holidays have significant potential to both increase stress and be a trigger for emotional distress.

    “Stress components typically include feelings of having to fit everything in, overspending to please others, or simply being excited about the holiday and subsequently getting less exercise and sleep and indulging in more food and libations,” he said.

    Emotionally, the holidays tend to bring nostalgia about moments we spent with friends and loved ones who are no longer around.

    “Often times this triggers depressive type symptoms or loneliness because we may not be able to spend time with those loved ones like we once did, be it from a death, divorce or simply due to life changes,” Fifield said.

    He added it never hurts to seek someone such as a therapist to work these problems out with as a way to get at the source of the emotional discomfort instead of avoiding it or medicating it.

    “Often times, what works to avoid triggers (for abusing alcohol) is making a plan,” Fifield said. “Typically, binge behaviors are not thought out, they are impulsive.”

    He recommends having a plan and letting others know about your plan to drink responsibly.

    “If you have a plan and others know about it, you are less likely to deviate from the plan and binge drink,” Fifield said.

    Another cause for stress is overspending money you don’t have.

    “It is wise to sit down with a budget of what you can spend for each person,” said Parkie Boley, a parent educator at Families First.

    Boley said the children will remember family traditions when they look back, not what they received as gifts.

    “Make memories by decorating together, playing holiday music and making cookies,” Boley said. “You want the kids to remember the joy of the whole season, not just the gift-giving.”

    Bray added that many people are lonely during the holidays.

    “They are from all walks of life and loneliness is a big concern,” she said. “If someone is lonely, I would encourage them to take advantage of community resources at churches or other gathering places. It’s not only for a meal, but also for companionship.”

    Bray said if someone is really struggling over the holidays, to call his or her primary care practitioner.

    “The hospitals are open 24/7 and there is always a PCP on call,” she said.

– See more at:


‘Do-It-Yourself’ Christmas Decoration

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Yuletide Centerpiece.

CHRISTMAS is just around the corner! With all the decorations you have hidden in your storage space, chances are you have piled up more than you intended to keep over the years. Stumped on what to do with the extras? Get creative and take a gander on some of these quick and easy do-it-yourself Christmas decoration ideas.

Yuletide centerpiece

The fun part of making this, like all DIY projects, is using whatever you have in your home. Be sure to use a sturdy vase. You can use real twigs or the artificial kind and paint them your desired color. Adding more Christmas balls gives it volume while the ribbon complements the entire adornment. For the final touch, use either crystal beads or Christmas ball chains to hang onto the twigs. It can be used as a centerpiece, a hallway prop or can be placed at the front door.

Mason jars for sweet treats

Mason jars are used not just for food storage but also in DIY projects. In keeping with the Christmas spirit, put to good use whatever jar or empty container you have lying around the house. One way to use the jar is to make it into a centerpiece filled with candy and other Christmas treats. And if you’re opting for a more romantic setting at your house, use it as a candle holder to set the mood. You can even use it as a party favor for your Christmas parties. Adding glitter, ribbons and Christmas balls, small stockings or poinsettias will give it a festive look.

Christmas umbrellas

On its own, it looks just like an ordinary umbrella. But add some ornaments at the spike such as some Christmas balls, poinsettias and ribbons and you’ve got another addition to your holiday adornment. Aside from lace fabrics, look for red or green umbrellas and add the ornaments next. Decorate the stick of the umbrella as well with ribbons if you want. This looks best hooked on the ceiling or, depending on the size of the umbrella, can be used as another decoration on your Christmas tree.

Bag stand Christmas tree

Who knew using a bag stand and garlands to customize your very own Christmas tree actually works? Well, it does, and no need to use the wires on this one. Just tie the leaves to the bag stand and make sure to spread the garlands evenly. You can either twist it around or tie it vertically. The important thing is to make sure that you use just enough garlands to bulk up the decoration; at the same time, it’s not too heavy that it will collapse.

Christmas bouquet

This decoration is so easy and it will take you less than five minutes. Find clean empty bottles you can use to put the ornaments. Choose the ones with a wide rim so you can put a lot into it to make it big and bulky. This would look so great placed on the dining table, on a mantel, or console table for the holidays.

Greetings in medallion

This is a medallion-inspired decoration which you can hang on your wall. All you need is paint, thick pieces of paper or cartolina, styrofoam and glitter to make the sign. Choose colors fit for the occasion. To make this, you will need to evenly fold the paper as precisely as you possibly can, glue ends of paper chain together to form a circle then gather the circle together in the center, press down on the center of the circle until it comes out flat and from there you’re good to go.

DIY holiday gifts for under $10


Juliana Goodwin, News-Leader1:32 p.m. CST November 26, 2014

cocoa ornament.jpg

(Photo: Juliana Goodwin)

This is the first Christmas since college that I have not been working full time so I have more time to devote holiday joy. And that means I am making a lot of homemade gifts this year (so if we’re related, stop reading this column).

I love homemade gifts, but I want to give something people will actually use. I’ve come up with several fun, easy presents and all these do-it-yourself (DIY) ideas cost $10 or less. I have specific directions for lovely gifts like a rosemary, lemon, sugar scrub, and then some precious ideas I found online. If you’re someone who has a basic amount of supplies, like glue, stickers, leftover ribbon, then these ideas will probably cost you even less.

When looking for supplies — from vases to frames and glue — a dollar store is an excellent place to start. Deals is another good choice for inspiration.

A holiday centerpiece is a great gift and can easily be put together for $10 or less. I went to Dollar Tree and bought a vase and LED pillar light. I filled the bottom of the vase with cranberries and tied a piece of ribbon leftover from last year’s Christmas and have an instant centerpiece. Those make nice hostess gifts.

Michael’s sells beautiful journals for $1 and I bought one for my grandmother-in-law and I am going to ask her to fill it with memories of people in her family- ancestors my daughter will never meet. When it’s full, she can give it back to us for my daughter to read when she grows up.

Another journal idea is to buy a “G” for grandma or grandpa and ask all the grandkids to write down their favorite memories with that grandparent or why they love that grandparents. That will mean a lot more than a pair of slippers.

Michael’s has a great selection of dollar bins with a variety of items including spice jars. I plan to fill several spice jars with my own herb blends that people can use to dip with olive oil.

I found an adorable homemade tea wreath at, which could be easily be put together for $10 for the tea lover in your life. You need clothes pins for this wreath and the Dollar Tree sells clothespins for $1. If you don’t know a tea lover, this wreath could be transformed for a chocolate lover. Simply replace tea bags with Ghirardelli chocolate bites or your favorite chocolate with similar packaging. This is an excellent idea:

Aside from what I found, I also asked the experts for their picks. Dee Komas, floral designer at Michael’s, said the store had a large selection of ornaments — from glass to wood — that can be personalized and are less than $10.

She also suggested taking an assortment of the $1 items and making a gift basket.

I found vintage looking miniature frames in the dollar bins and I plan to hot glue magnets on the back and fill the frames with photos of my daughter to make refrigerator frames. With printing and magnets, that will cost me less than $2 each. Black and white photos of grandparents are wonderful in these.

Rob Benedict, store manager at Hobby Lobby on West Kearney Street, said if you have a baby or toddler, you can buy kits to make their handprints in plaster, which are $10 or less (those are great keepsakes).

Another idea is to buy clear glass ornaments and personalize them with photos, sand, whatever fits your theme.

Speaking of ornaments, I have directions for a hot cocoa ornament that I found on Pinterest that would be nice for a child or co-worker. Another fun idea with this is to make it with your kids, place several of the ornaments around the tree and every Friday night in December, take one down and make the hot cocoa together.

Hobby Lobby and Big Lots sell a variety of inexpensive plain onesies, shirts, aprons, that you can personalize with a child’s handprints or a poem or family saying. You can buy special paint or markers for clothes, but you should look for the 40 percent off Hobby Lobby runs in the Sunday News-Leader or this idea will break your budget.

Here’s a fun idea for the bird lover in your life or someone who’s homebound: bake a loaf bread (can use refrigerated dough) in the shape of a wreath and press a ton of birdseed into the bread before you bake it. They can put the wreath outside for the birds.

And finally, I’ve always loved decorated wine bottles filled with Christmas lights and this year decided to make my own. I’ve seen painted ones at craft shows, but I am not artistic so I decided to create my own easy designs. I used stickers on one; made Rudolph for another and wrapped one in red netting. If you are artistic, you could paint a snowman, Santa, cross, whatever you can manage. If you need inspiration, just go to Pinterest and type in decorative wine bottles. There are tons of ideas.

If you don’t drink you can ask friends, coworkers or a restaurant for used bottles or corks. Enjoy making these:

Cork Trivet

You’ll need: 9-12 assorted corks, 1 (4 x 6) photo frame, glue

You can make this with larger frames, like 11 x 13, but the corks don’t fit perfectly so you will need to cut corks to fit. I suggest buying a knife at Dollar Tree because you need a sharp knife and using it on cork will dull it. Be careful when cutting cork because it can slip. It’s best to boil the cork for 3-4 minutes before you cut it, to tenderize it.

I like the 4 x 6 frame because corks fit perfectly. I bought a $1 frame from Dollar Tree and spent $1 in glue. I lined up the corks to make sure they fit and then glued them individually to the glass on the frame. You can remove glass, if desired, but be sure to keep the cardboard there. Then I placed a light pot on top of the corks while the glue dried. That’s it.

Rosemary, Lemon, Sugar Scrub

If you’ve ever bought a sugar scrub you probably paid upwards of $10, but you can make it for much less. If you’re not familiar with a sugar scrub, it’s basically an exfoliant. Rub it all over your hands or feet and then rinse it off. It leaves your skin feeling smooth. I adore this gift and had all the ingredients on hand. I bought this container at Michael’s for $2.99 but an alternative is to buy two or three spice jars from the store’s $1 section and give smaller portions of this scrub to two or three people.

You’ll need: 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup coconut oil or extra virgin olive oil, zest from 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon dried rosemary, small glass container with airtight lid or a two mini mason jars (like mini jelly size)

Note: You can make this coconut or olive oil. Coconut is a little more moisturizing but it costs $8-$10 a container. If you plan to give away two or three of these, it’s worth buying a bottle. Olive oil works great, too, and lends a nice yellow hue to this scrub.

You can find a variety of recipes for sugar scrubs online, but be careful because some recommend adding ingredients that could be harmful to sensitive skin, such as dish soak or extracts used in baking. I have highly sensitive skin and adapted this recipe and it has worked for me.

Directions: Stir together sugar and olive oil. Zest one lemon and mince 1 tablespoon dried rosemary. Stir rind and rosemary into sugar mixture and mix until well combined. Place in an airtight container. Wrap up and give it away.

Homemade Vanilla

If you know someone who enjoys baking, they will probably love this homemade vanilla. It’s wonderful, but needs to be started today because it takes a couple of weeks and improves with age. I usually only use one vanilla bean and let it rest for six weeks, but since I got a late start this year, I used two beans because I don’t have as much time to age the vanilla. If you want to tell the recipient of your gift not to use it until January, then you can use only one vanilla bean per container. You can buy very inexpensive vodka to make this. Don’t waste your money on the good stuff.

You’ll need: 1 mini decorative bottle, 2 vanilla beans, enough vodka to fill the bottle

Rinse bottle and set aside. Slice vanilla beans in half and place on vanilla bean inside the bottle. Scrape some of the inside seeds out of the other vanilla bean and place the seeds in the bottle with the second vanilla bean. Fill with vodka, seal bottle and set in a dark place for three weeks. Give vodka with pod still in it.

Ornament filled with hot cocoa

You’ll need: 1 clear glass or plastic ornament (available at Walmart or craft stores. Average $1 each), 2 packets hot chocolate mix with marshmallows, Christmas sticker, curly ribbon to decorate

I saw this idea on Pinterest and thought it was easy and cute. It’s perfect when you want to give a small gift and kids can help. This costs about $2 to make. I decorated it with a sticker and ribbon but you can leave it plain or use something else.

Remove the top of the ornament and carefully fill it with two packets of hot cocoa. This is the hardest part of the process. Then put the top back on, add a sticker to the front of the glass and tie a ribbon around the top of ornament. When you give this, attach a label saying there are two servings of hot cocoa in each ornament.

Stepping Stone

If you have a toddler, a stepping stone is a wonderful keepsake. You can buy complete stepping stone kits at craft stores for around $10, but those only make one. I’ve found it more affordable to buy a stepping stone mix ($5.99 at Hobby Lobby), and then go to Dollar Tree and buy little gems and stones for $1 a bag and use a disposable tin cake pan for the mold (also available at Dollar Tree for $1). Lowes has stepping stone mix, too. If you only want to make one you can buy a kit, but if you plan to make several, you’re much better off doing it yourself.

NOTE: You must use a tin, disposable pan, not a real cake pan or you will not get the mold out once it has dried.

You’ll need: 1 box stepping stone mix, tin or disposable cake pan, spatula, white glitter (optional), decorative stones

Stir the mix according to package directions. Pour into desired mold, I find an 8 x8 cake pan or round pan works best. Smooth the top of mixture with a spatula. Sometimes, I add white glitter to the mix. If you want to do that, sprinkle it over the mold now.

Help your child make a footprint into the mold, pressing down firmly. I keep wet paper towels nearby to immediately wipe off their feet. If you’re not happy with the mold, smooth it over with a spatula and redo it. Then, press decorative stones in desired pattern around the print. When done, set it somewhere where it will not be disturbed for 2-3 days. Check it and be sure it is solid. I usually wait an extra day to make sure it’s set all the way through. Demold and you’re done. I can often use the same mold twice.

Decorated Wine Bottles

You’ll need: Wine bottles, strand of lights (20-50 bulbs), stickers, bows, ribbon, glue

I pulled wine bottles out of our recycling and tried to carefully pull off the label. Some were easy; some were impossible. Then, I soaked the bottle in warm soapy water and then washed it. Once the labels are off, you need to be sure to wipe off the glue residue. I used a combination of rubbing alcohol and Windex. Be sure your bottle is streak free before you start to decorate it because streaks will show through the glass when the lights shine inside.

I suggest strands of lights that range from 20-50 lights (any more is too much). You don’t want a cord that has a connection for another strand on one end, or it won’t fit. Dollar Stores, Deals and Dollar Tree all sell Christmas lights for $1. You will want to keep the bottle near the outlet because the cord will not be long.

For red one: I bought red netting in the Christmas section at Dollar Tree and wrapped it around the cleaned wine bottle. I used a rubber band on the top to hold the netting in place; and glue and tape around the bottom to secure it. I have tons of leftover netting, which I plan to use as a table runner. This cost me $2 to make, including lights. Then gently tuck a string of lights into the bottle being sure to leave enough cord out to reach the outlet.

Rudolph: You will need 4-5 brown craft brown pipe cleaners for the ears; google eyes, a red nose (use bow or pomp om) and white paint to make a mouth. I bought everything at Dollar Tree, except the paint. I had old paint; I did not have a brush so I just used a Q-tip instead. Glue eyes on clean bottle and then glue on a nose or use a red bow for nose. Paint on eyebrows and a mouth. If you have bells or a scarf, you could use those around the base of the bottle.

Gems: This is the easiest one of all. I bought gem stickers in the scrapbook section, but snowflake stickers would be nice, too. Then I tied a ribbon around the stem of the bottle. I plan to fill it with white lights.

Snowman: First, I painted a snowman on the glass, then I used glue all over the bottle to make dots and sprinkled white glitter on the glue. Snowflake stickers would have been nicer. When the snowman was dry, I drew a face on and tied a snowflake ornament around the neck of the bottle. I filled the bottle with lights.

From vintage to city chic: holiday decor trends

  • In this photo provided by Pier 1 Imports, Jazz Age-style motifs are a strong trend this holiday, and this beaded tree swag ornament hits the trend head on. For those who love to decorate, there’s no time like the holidays for adding some fun, festive touches to our living spaces. Photo: Pier 1 Imports, AP / Pier 1 Imports

    Photo By Pier 1 Imports/AP  In this photo provided by Pier 1 Imports, Jazz Age-style motifs are a strong trend this holiday, and this beaded tree swag ornament hits the trend head on. For those who love to decorate, there’s no time like the holidays for adding some fun, festive touches to our living spaces.

For those who love to decorate, there’s no time like the holidays for adding fun, festive touches to our living spaces. This year, there’s something for many tastes and styles.

A look at the trends you’ll see at stores:


The 1920s inspire a lot of holiday décor, with West Elm offering glittery Art Deco letter ornaments and star garlands, as well as Deco-patterned, mercury-glass hurricanes in silver and midnight blue. Elegant, gold, blown-glass animals fit the vibe.

At Pier 1, you’ll find beaded tree swags, as well as ornaments encrusted with sequins or glass mosaics. Beaded metallic pillars, champagne glasses and bottles, and chevron-patterned pendants add Jazz Age style.

Throw pillows and signs printed with a vintage-style chalkboard Christmas greeting hold charm at Pottery Barn, where the design is also available in a door mat. Here too, a decorative collection of old-fashioned village homes, churches and schoolhouses evokes turn-of-the-century German ornaments similarly made of cardboard and silver glitter. Purchases from the collection support shelters nationwide through the Give aLittle Hope organization.

For a more midcentury look, consider Crate & Barrel’s teardrop ornaments in a sexy, red matte glass. If you’re into making some of your own midcentury modern Christmas decorations, check out the DIY Network‘s website for suggestions including stockings and ornaments.


LED lighting is now in just about anything, including holiday décorations. Ikea’s Strala collection includes a garland of pierced gold balls fitted with LEDs, and a bright red tree mat has built-in LEDs.

Frontgate’s Meteor light set twinkles, showers, shimmers and glows at the touch of a button.

Clusters of string lights look gorgeous under glass cloches; Restoration Hardware offers both in various sizes. And snow globes that send up a flurry of up-lit flakes with the push of a button are a twist on the traditional.

Also at the retailer: spare, birch-wrapped branches wrapped in warm LEDs, in various sizes for tabletop or entryway floor.


“This year I’m seeing deep, rich hues,” says designer Taniya Nayak. “Think sapphire, deep emerald and sexy violet. The real wow factor rolls in with the metallic touches. There is a cool juxtaposition that happens when you mix the sophisticated richness of jewel tones and the medley of copper patina and copper shine.”

Pier 1’s peacock-inspired tree skirt anchors a collection of vibrant ornaments in faceted glass, sequins or feathers.

There are accent pillows on the market this year decorated with glitter, bugle beads, sequins or metallic embroidery thread. Look for snowflake or tree motifs, or seasonal words like “Noel” and “Joy.” One or two on an entryway bench greet guests with panache; Target and Homegoods have nicely priced options.

Z Gallerie has the glamorous Folly collection of white and gold pearl wreaths, table trees and garlands, as well as crystal flower spheres and ornaments in trendy turquoise.

Stylized foxes and owls in white or gold acrylic add a soft, metallic accent to the tree or tablescape, from Ikea.

Pottery Barn’s chinchilla, fox or bear faux-fur tree skirts add a touch of luxe. Dress the tree with midcentury-style copper and brass trims for a cool and current vibe.


The rustic, cabin-y look that took off last year has held strong. Woodland creatures populate the ornament collections at Land of Nod, while, in a twist, hedgehogs and raccoons are photoprinted on little stuffed ornaments at Target.

At West Elm, Boston designer Mimi Kirchner‘s felt foxes, deer, raccoons and bears sport jaunty scarves and plaid coats.

Ikea’s Vinter collection features Swedish patterns on cushion covers and guest towels. At Pottery Barn, an advent calendar with farmhouse charm is created out of small, galvanized buckets mounted on a pine frame.

Artists Petra Borner and Fiona Howard have designed ornaments for Crate & Barrel evoking European folk art designs. Here too, clever tree collars made of glossy red or galvanized metal to resemble vintage tubs.


Nayak loves “any mixture of glam and rustic,” including “a winter-white backdrop with reclaimed wood and a bit of polished chrome.”

Crate & Barrel’s got a selection of laser-cut, crocheted and curled paper snowflakes in creamy hues of champagne, bronze and white; add a few glittery, beaded ornaments in silver and muted grays.

Sandy Chilewich has a new collection of mats and runners rendered in gold, silver, gunmetal and brass, in a chic geometric Pebble pattern.

At Target, Nate Berkus’ Ascot Star dessert plates and trays feature a classic foulard pattern in smart black and white that would work for get-togethers straight into New Year’s Eve.

For Hanukah, Jonathan Adler offers a blue, Lucite cube menorah, as well as an array of mod, ceramic-animal menorahs. At Williams-Sonoma, a collection of porcelain plates and serveware in cream with a graphic print of ancient temple menorahs would add style to a holiday buffet.

Sara Peterson, editor-in-chief of HGTV Magazine, likes colorful décor beyond the traditional red and green. “Felt pom-pom garlands are always a party hit, and not just for Christmas trees,” she says. “String them on stair railings and around mirrors, and drape them from your curtain rods.”

Think beyond the living room, Peterson says.

“Add a little decorating twist here and there throughout your house,” she says. “It’s fun to do something beyond just setting the table. In guest bathrooms, use a whiteboard marker to write a fun holiday message on the mirror, and put down a holiday-themed bath mat. In the kitchen, plant mini cypress trees in colorful glazed pots, and swap out regular dish towels for festive tea towels.”

Christmas Decorating: 3 trends to update your home decor

For the third straight year, burlap reigns over holiday decorating trends. But this season, the textile chills out with pairings of white ornaments, white mini lights, glass globes, white flowers and snowy birch twigs for wintry wonderlands.<br />
Source: Trees N Trends

For the third straight year, burlap reigns over holiday decorating trends. But this season, the textile chills out with pairings of white ornaments, white mini lights, glass globes, white flowers and snowy birch twigs for wintry wonderlands. Source: Trees N Trends

Photo by Tim Barber.

Homeowners traditionally haul out the holly the weekend following Thanksgiving to start trimming their trees. But with Thanksgiving falling so late in November — only four weeks to the day before Christmas — many folks are preparing to decorate their homes over the next two weeks, say local florists, hobby and design store retailers.

“I’ve got several customers who’ve come in that already have their houses decorated,” says Gil Cartwright, co-owner with Curt Hodge of Flowers by Gil and Curt. “We’re already booking parties; and usually people wait to book at the last minute.”

More than 300 women packed into Trees N Trends in Cleveland, Tenn., last weekend for its annual holiday decorating seminar led by Kevin Roberts and Michelle Sowder. Although there aren’t any new, unseen trends in holiday decorating this season — burlap and Deco Mesh still reign — Roberts did show accessory items for updating decorations that homeowners have collected over the years.

These updates can be categorized as: new in lighting, nontraditional trees and a sophisticated use of burlap.

1 Lighting: “Lighting brings the magic to your decorations,” says Roberts. “You can have the most beautiful pieces, but if they aren’t lit properly, they fall flat.”

Roberts and Sowder wowed visitors at the design seminar with ideas incorporating metal candle display holders ($19.99 for box of six). Designed like a small hanging basket, one end holds tea lights, LED votives or mini-pillar candles while the opposite end is shaped into a hook to suspend the basket.

The designers used them inside lanterns in place of candles, hanging from pedestal arrangements and dangling from Christmas tree branches. Roberts even created a chandelier from an inverted wreath then suspended candles at staggered heights

Miniature white lights have been popular for several years, but this year’s light strands are even smaller. Rice lights — so named because each light is the size of of a grain of rice — are strands of thin wire with tiny lights spaced along the length. They can be purchased in battery-operated or electric styles, and in lengths from 6 1/2 feet to 25 feet. Other trade names for these dainty strands are Starlights or fairy lights.

“Anywhere you can run a tiny wire, you can use LED lights,” advises Roberts.

Ginnia Staley, creative director for The Great Christmas Place at The Pool Place, says LED candles with timers on them are “another thing that is really taking off.”

“Once you turn them on, they will continue to come on at that time and then turn themselves off four or six hours later,” she says. “When used in arrangements, you have the look of a glowing candle, but you don’t have the mess that goes with it.”

Domed glass globes, used singly or in clusters of three, were a strong theme in holiday lighting. The globes are lit from within by rice lights; some use only lights, others mingle lights with a “filler” such as pine cones, metallic balls, Santa figurines or other

Large block letters spelling out holiday welcomes have been popular mantel accents for several years, but this season’s versions are illuminated in white bulbs. Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres recently pitched her own line of these lit letters on television retailer QVC.

“You buy them in sets, either in your monogram or spelling words such as ‘Joy.’ They are battery-operated so you can put them on the mantel or table or even in the tree,” says Roberts.

2 Nontraditional trees: Both permanent trees and their color schemes are veering from the traditional.

“Black and gold — we’re seeing a lot of that,” says Michael Greenwell, general manager of Hobby Lobby on Gunbarrel Road. “We sell a black Christmas tree that can be decorated in all-gold ornaments. The cool thing about a black Christmas tree is that you can use it for Halloween, then turn right around and decorate it for Christmas.”

Dreaming of a white Christmas? White or flocked trees will be trimmed in garland and ornaments of one nontraditional color. Most prominent: turquoise/teal. Think “Frozen” movie colors, which retailers say most likely inspired this look.

One retailer already expects this look to evolve into a major color trend for Christmas 2015.


“There are a lot of ‘Frozen’ colors out now, but in the next year we’ll see a resurgence of a more elegant blue, like cobalt, and icy colors. I think we’ll see icy blue and purples on next year’s color palette,” Staley predicts.

3 Sophisticated burlap: Burlap … sophisticated? Sounds like an oxymoron, but that nubby textile so integral to the country/rustic look takes on chic style this Christmas when combined with white lights, metallic textures, glass globes, gold- and platinum-colored ornaments.

“We’re seeing burlap with sparkling accents, seeing it get more feminine with laces and glittered looks rather than just plain burlap,” says Staley. “We’re seeing a resurgence of more natural looks this season — using pine cones, birds and mixed greenery — and burlap goes with natural greens.”

Use Your Credit Wisely This Holiday Season

By Courtney Soinski


As you buy holiday presents for your friends and family this year, using your credit cards wisely may actually save you money.

Follow these tips this holiday shopping season to help you save money, stay on budget, and protect your credit in the future.


SET Your Limits (and stick to them)
  • Set a budget, spend what you can afford, and plan how you will pay it off.

Make a list of those for whom you’ll buy gifts and set a dollar amount for each. Total to determine your holiday budget – and then stick to it. Have a set number of how much you plan to spend this holiday season, and don’t spend more.   Plan out how you will be paying off your holiday purchases and set a deadline.

  • Leave your cards at home unless you plan to make a specific purchase.

Retailers are experts at temptation and it’s easy to get caught up in the holiday spirit. Find something that is perfect, but outside your budget? Go home and re-evaluate your budget before splurging. If it’s still a good idea and you can fit it into your budget, you can go back to the item. It also gives you an opportunity to price compare online to make sure you are getting the best deal.

  • Know your interest rates.

It’s common for credit card to have a variable interest rate. If that’s the case, your interest rates could increase without you even realizing it. Know this information before you go shopping to avoid using a higher interest card versus a lower interest one.


PREPARE to shop
  • Look for credit card based discounts

More credit card companies are offering coupon codes or other ways to save money on things you might have purchased anyway. Most now have websites where you can sign up for special offers, like a $20 discount off a $100 purchase at a certain store. Review these offers and you may save big.

  • Use points and rewards.

This may be the best time to cash in on rewards or points on gift cards – to use as gifts, or to purchase gifts at the retailers from whom you’ve planned a purchase.

There are even free apps that can help you make the best purchase decision based on the rewards offered on each card.   For example, Wallaby keeps track of the rewards available for each card – even rotating offers with deadlines. Use the app while shopping to determine which card will give you the best rewards for each gift you buy.


WHILE You Shop:
  • Monitor your credit limits.

Know the credit limits on all your credit cards and the balances you are carrying. Getting too close to your limit can negatively impact your credit score.

  • Be wary of retail credit card offers at checkout.

When you check out, you may be asked if you want to save 10% on your purchase if you open a credit card. Many of these cards have high interest rates and low credit limits – using a large percentage of your credit can be bad for your score. Your credit score may also be negatively impacted by opening a new credit line.

  • Be wary about identity theft.

The holiday season is definitely prime time for identity theft. Get your credit card back after making a purchase and take the receipt. If you decide to shop online, make sure you look for security symbols like “VeriSign” or “TRUSTe” because those sites protect your personal financial information using encryption.

  • Remember to pay your bills on time.

Did you know that 35 percent of your credit score is determined by how reliable you are to pay your bills? It’s important to not miss even one payment. Life can definitely get hectic during the holidays, but don’t let parties, decorating, or shopping distract you from your financial responsibilities.

Happy Holiday Shopping!

Make It a DIY Holiday

MISSION, KS–(Marketwired – Nov 17, 2014) – (Family Features) Whether you’re a do-it-yourself beginner or experienced crafter, show off your personality with simple DIY projects to make your home shine this holiday season.

From handmade centerpieces for your holiday table to personalized holiday party gifts, you can put your personal touch on each and every project.

Katie Brown, editor in chief of Yahoo DIY, a new digital magazine for do-it-yourself enthusiasts, offers expert tips for creating a successful DIY holiday:

“The first step is to leave perfection at the door,” Brown says. “The homemade look is part of the charm.”

Brown also encourages crafters to keep these suggestions in mind when preparing for holiday season:

Do’s and Don’ts of Holiday Entertaining

  • Do search thrift and dollar stores for inexpensive materials that you can repurpose and up-cycle.
  • Don’t try all new recipes for your holiday party. Make things you know how to make well, so you’re not worried about the outcome.
  • Do think of useful projects. Give your guests something they can actually use and enjoy as opposed to something that will just collect dust.
  • Do pick a signature drink like a spiced cider or hot chocolate that you can have on hand. That way you’re always ready for company, and your guests know they can always pop by for something delicious.

Tips for Homemade Gifts

  • Create a toolbox for your home full of crafting staples. That way you have everything you need when the inspiration strikes.
  • Look to Mother Nature so you don’t have to spend too much money. Create a wreath out of pinecones or turn cedar greens into place mats. Feathers make beautiful bouquets, too.
  • Keep personalized, no-bake gifts on-hand. Decorate mason jars and bottles with homemade tags and labels and fill them with oils, vinegars and other no-cook food items.
  • Transform photos into special gifts. Jazz up frames, turn photos into ornaments or wrap them around vases.
  • Throw a crafting party. Whether it’s with your family or with friends, set up both a food and drink buffet and a craft supply buffet. It’s a great way to get together and be creative.

Dive into your DIY holiday with inspiration from the following centerpiece projects, and find more how-to tips and ideas at

Apple Bouquet
The fall colors of these apples will give your home just as much pop as any floral arrangement, and they will definitely last longer.

Oasis flower foam
Any kind of pot or container
Pointy edge floral sticks
Coffee filters


1. Cut flower foam to fit inside pot or container. Poke apples with floral sticks.
2. Arrange apples by pushing sticks into foam, and place coffee filters between apples for filler.

Twigs Under Water
For a unique approach using a vase, put branches under water and top them with floating candles.

Pruning shears
Branches or twigs with berries (either faux or natural)
Tall glass vases in various sizes
Floating candles


1. Cut branches or berries into pieces slightly shorter than vases. Place branches into vases, leaving room for candles at the top.
2. Fill vases with water and float candle on top. For extra ambiance, light the candle just before your guests arrive.