21/12/2011 09:51 GMT | Updated 18/02/2012 05:12 GMT

Home(Made) For The Holidays

10 years ago this Christmas my sister made a proposal that would change the way we celebrate the holidays forever. My sister and I were in college on opposite ends of the country and we only met all together in Colorado a couple of times a year. It was a wrenching change for she and I, and when we did meet for Christmas we never saw each other, and the stress of spending money we didn't have put a strain on the time we did spend around the dinner table or decorating the tree. Fed up, my sister made her Christmas challenge: no buying gifts, just making them.

So this year, like every year for the past decade, I will be spending the day before Christmas hiding in my childhood bedroom making a mess with arts and crafts. It's always insane around the Wojczuk house right before Christmas. We pass each other in the house smiling mysteriously, asking each other detective-like questions such as: "do you need the paintbrushes? I might use them..." or, "Dad, do you have any blank tapes? Not CDs, actual tapes..." We race over to block each other from entering certain rooms, where our gifts are strewn about in pieces like the guts of a Frankenstein monster.

This way of celebrating the holidays made more sense for our family. Both my parents were freelancing at the time and we didn't have financial wiggle room. My sister and I always felt like we had enough, but the holidays always made us feel like we ought to have more than enough. If the holidays are about giving thanks for what we have they also make what we have feel a bit shabby and "last year." Buying things makes us feel momentarily richer--because we are spending our money on luxuries life feels that much more luxurious, and as the presents pile up under the tree the sense of being provided for increases. But the paradox is that once that feeling of giddiness fades we are in fact poorer than when we started, often having spent far into next year.

By suggesting we change the rules of the holidays, my sister had offered us an amazing opportunity to work to our strengths and, we hoped, to feel a sense of abundance that didn't force us to mortgage our happiness for the next few months. Creativity is something my family has in abundance, and, we discovered, the more you spend it the more there is.

So we launched into our first handmade Christmas experiment, and soon found that the challenge of making art someone would actually want was a fun and useful constraint. The first year it was a challenge enough to make art that was "gifty" rather than simply "artsy," in other words, something the rest of the family might actually want. We all stuck with our own main areas of expertise, though being a writer and not a visual artist I worried I was at a disadvantage. Dad is a professional painter and an art teacher, my sister studied fine art as an undergraduate and has inherited my seamstress grandmother's "golden hands." Mom, like me, is more writing inclined but unlike me she mulls over things, spending months getting the concept just right before she sits down to make something.

With these resources, and leaving our credit cards in our wallets, we started by making things we'd done before and over the years began to push ourselves creatively, some of us (me) even discovering talents we never knew we had. One year mom found some brilliantly colored handmade paper, covering it in looped mantras written in her graceful script. These I framed and hung on my apartment walls. Another year dad made masks, begun as a project with his young art students--they were plaster of paris and painted and decorated with feathers, as vivid and "rough" looking as Picasso's Les Demoiselles d' Avingon.

My sister's projects lead her to some new discoveries about how details can tell a story. One year, for instance, she made a menagerie of monsters--gargoyle-like heads made of sculpy, with feather headdresses. The key, she discovered, was adding their teeth at the last minute. Another year mom developed her own accessory line, cutting belts out of leather and embellishing the buckles with pieces of her great-grandmother's costume jewelry.

The real disasters were mostly mine, as I struggled to work around my perceived lack of aptitude as a visual artist. One year I cut out superheroes from playing cards, varnished them and made them into bolo ties. Geek goes Western, I suppose. It looked like the little flying superheroes were trying to reach up and throttle their wearers by the neck.

The gifts I'm most proud of let me scratch my storytelling itch but also pushed me to actually draw, something which I feel a bit self-conscious of in my family. My sister once told me: if you want to be an artist either work with your natural style or learn a new style that matches what you see in your head. I never seem to have time to learn new art skills so I used my own style--I cut up pieces of paper into Eric-Carle style creatures and used them to illustrate a series of broadsides, each one with a short holiday-themed story: a Chameleon who doesn't fit in in the jungle and finds his true colors in the city, a terrifying Santa story. They became one-page graphic art stories that could be read in one eyeful and framed to hang on the wall. None of these broadsides is actually framed as art, that I know of, but as someone who fears "drawing" it was a great challenge to actually illustrate my own writing.

A free-for-all Christmas has had a surprisingly deep impact on my family and myself. It's not just that we save money, which we do, but we also approach the holidays with a sense of fun that we lost for a few years (beginning when we grew out of being children). This playfulness is a symptom of an even stronger emotional reaction--a feeling of having more than enough. In fact, so much more than enough that we sometimes make more than one project at a time, not wanting to cut one out or wait until next year. The biggest change for me has been that, as the holidays approach, my thoughts turn inward rather than scatter outward. Instead of wandering by stores looking for gifts, I start to calm down, to take stock of my inner resources and look for the glimmer of an idea that could become a gift. It's a subtle change but a powerful one. When I start looking at the materials I do have--whether these materials are ideas or actual raw materials like paper, glue, paint, clothes, beads--I look around my own apartment and see abundance. It seems every year like I have more than enough.

We continue the tradition today, and as of this writing my kitchen is strewn with the makings of what I hope will be a cool gift, though the smell of Sandalwood and Rose Absolut is making me a bit high. My husband has also jumped into the fray, employing the blender to good use. For the sake of populating the Christmas tree (actually the Christmas rosemary bush, which still has the olfactory appeal but stays alive in its pot through the year), a few bought presents sometimes creep in. But when they do, they're not random junk we had to go out and buy but little things that reminded us of each other throughout the last few months when we were apart. The spirit of the season, for me, is being able to look at a free book or a pile of art supplies and see them as special because they are soon to be a gift for someone you love. The philosophical equivalent of transforming an object into a gift simply by wrapping it in festive paper.

--Tana Wojczuk is an arts and culture critic and Online Editor at