Holiday Greetings for Less

We all like to receive holiday greetings … but sending them? Not so much. Traditional cards and letters take time and money. But thanks to new Web sites and tools, plus your own creativity, you can make merry for free -- and skip the trip to the post office. Cheers!

Put Words Into Action!
This year, send your greetings up close and personal, in a holiday mini-video. Thanks to easy-to-use gadgets like Flip camcorders and Aiptek pocket cams, videos are now easy to make. Your iTouch and some cell phones work just as well too. Or if your computer has a camera, you can shoot it right from there. Blogger David Spark of Spark Minute recommends the free site Tokbox to send your video. You can easily set up an account and send as many greetings as you want, all for free.

Tips: Check for sufficient lighting and keep the greeting between 10 and 30 seconds. If you’re providing a complete update, limit it to three minutes. Think about shooting in an offbeat or funny location and make sure the footage isn’t shaky.

Say It With Music
Send the gift of song along with your holiday hellos. It can be a contemplative classical piece or a lively, toe-tapping jingle. You could email a single song or links to all your favorites, suggests Heather Sokol, who blogs at Inexpensively. Amazon offers free downloads of five classics, including “The Nutcracker Suite” and “The Messiah,” performed by world-class orchestras. To hear some thrilling vocals, give a listen to the Web site Feels Like Christmas, with artists like Sixpence None the Richer performing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the seriously hip a cappella group Tonic Sol-fa performing their rendition of “Joy to the World.” All downloads are properly licensed and free.

Elf Yourself
Thanks to the Web site Elf Yourself by Office Max, you can finally find out what you’d look like as an elf -- and so can all your friends. This hilarious site lets you upload family faces (up to five) and pair each with one of four dances (disco, hip-hop, classic, country) complete with music. Think of an elf with your face hustling under a disco ball. You can post the 30-second spot on Facebook or email it to everyone on your list -- completely free.

Send an E-letter
Buying bordered paper at a stationery store, addressing all of those envelopes, making a trip to the post office for stamps: By the time you’ve finished all these chores, you don’t have the time or energy to actually write your annual catch-up letter! Here to help? The Web site My Web Letter. You can choose from among six Christmas and Hanukkah templates, write your letter and easily upload photos in it, then email it to as many friends as you want -- all for free. Your customized greetings can also be shared via Facebook. Expecting moms: This site also offers new baby templates.

Send a Flavor of the Season
It’s the perfect time of year to share a favorite family recipe -- for a special hors d’oeuvre, holiday dish or your killer spiked eggnog -- with the folks on your list. By illustrating your email with eye-catching clip art and adding a photo or two of your clan along with the recipe, you’ve created a delicious way to say “Happy Holidays.”

10 Ways to Reuse and Save

Recycling helps the planet -- that’s a given. But reusing things you might otherwise toss offers other benefits: It can save you money and get your “junk” organized and clean.

“That adage ‘one person’s trash is another person’s treasure’ is really true,” says Kathy Klein, environmental consultant for the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. “I like the challenge of looking at things in a different way and coming up with new uses for them.” Here are 10 reuse ideas for everyday items.

1. Takeout Containers Into Lunch Boxes

If your Chinese food or pasta takeout comes in plastic containers with a re-sealable cover, keep them after the leftovers are gone. Use them instead of sandwich and snack baggies when packing lunches or picnics. For school lunches, write your child’s name on the container so it has less chance of ending up in the trash.

2. Wine Cases Into Shoe Cubbies

Champagne cartons (they’re pretty sturdy) and wine cases may not be in your throw-away pile, but chances are, liquor store staff will be happy to get rid of them. Both do double duty as shoe storage cubbies, especially for smaller items like slippers, flip-flops, sneakers and flats.

3. Egg Cartons and CD Cases Into Jewelry Boxes

Egg cartons are well-shaped for earring storage. And when you’ve used up all your blank CDs, use the case they came in as a stackable bracelet display. Old cigar boxes are also great for jewelry, saved letters and important papers.

4. Old Jars Into Gift Containers

Mason jars -- or empty jam and jelly jars -- make great gift packaging for everything from flower bouquets to spiced nuts to candy. Just tie a ribbon around the neck and pass them along. When Klein’s children were young, she reclaimed their glass baby-food jars, glued multicolored tissue on the outside and used them as votive candleholders.

5. Odd Buttons Into Decorative Displays

Klein saves buttons of all kinds and puts them in glass jars to add a funky boost of color throughout the house. This also works well with seashells and sea glass.

6. Cool Cans Into Artful Desktop Storage

Line up multiple clean cans with the same logo (try Campbell’s Tomato for a Warholian touch) on a desk and turn them into pop-art holders for pencils, markers and brushes.

7. Old Towels, Linens and Clothes Into Craft Fabric

Your mother’s soiled tablecloths, your favorite old skirt or your teenager’s baby clothes can be cut up and remade into lovely and sentimental pillows. If you’re feeling ambitious, turn them into a decorative quilt.

8. Empty Paper Towel Rolls Into Hair Accessory Storage

Take an empty cardboard roll from paper towels or toilet paper, decorate it with glued-on tissue or wrapping paper, and shellac until it’s stiff and sturdy. Place it on the counter of your daughter’s bathroom, and she’ll have a one-stop holder for ponytail elastics, bobby pins and clips of all kinds.

9. Plastic Deli Bags Into Small Travel Bags

Save the little plastic bags you get at the supermarket and then reuse. They’re the perfect size for carrying and protecting electronic items like computer and phone chargers when you travel. They also work for taking small amounts of liquids and creams on board with you. You can use an old tissue box to store the bags you have on hand.

10. Plastic Soap Cases Into Portable Storage Units

With the convenience of liquid soap, you may not need that plastic soap case anymore, but once it’s thoroughly washed and dried, it’s great for holding a small camera or an iPod in your briefcase, suitcase or purse when you’re on the go.

Giving Kids a Creative Edge

Children are naturally creative: Their napkins become hats, their drinks are magic potions, and ketchup turns into paint. But aside from being endlessly entertaining, creativity is also critical to their developing brains. Creative and artistic experiences help kids express their feelings and come up with new ideas and ways to solve problems. Studies show that involvement in the arts boosts test scores and promotes academic achievement across the board.

These discoveries may explain why children’s art studios are popping up across the country, giving kids a chance to let their imaginations run wild with paint, clay,  and in the case of Make-a-Messterpiece in Glenview, Ill., even bubbles. In addition to private studios (such as KidsArt in California and Washington) and foundations (such as Creative Art Space for Kids in New York), many YMCA branches and local art museums offer art programs.

You can also get your child’s creative juices flowing at home with some very basic art supplies and the right attitude. Bring out the creative genius in your children with these simple tips.

Start With a Blank Slate
Leave projects open-ended so kids are free to imagine the endless possibilities. For example, if you’re painting pumpkins, don’t paint one first as an example, because your kids are likely to try to copy it, quashing their creativity. Instead, simply give children paint and paintbrushes and let them begin. Keep in mind that there are no wrong ways to paint a pumpkin.

Forget Perfection
Focus on the creative process rather than the finished product. For example, your child may find tremendous fun and fulfillment in shaping, squishing, pounding and poking at clay for an hour -- even if the end result is a shapeless lump.

Don’t Mind the Mess
Art is not a neat business, and nothing stifles creativity faster than a wet mop or a dustpan underfoot. Let your child get dirty -- that’s how she’ll learn to take risks. (Plus, it’s fun!) You can wipe up the glitter later.

Mix It up
Spice up your at-home art projects by using different materials instead of the usual paint, felt, pipe cleaners and beads. Challenge your children to find art supplies in their environment: a sponge, chopsticks, gum wrappers, bottle caps and egg cartons, for example. Head outside and collect leaves, sticks, acorns and small pebbles. Supply children with glue and paper and give no other direction. Be ready for anything.

Expose Them to Diversity
Take trips to museums and zoos; see plays and concerts; attend an African drumming circle, a Mexican fiesta, a Chinese New Year celebration. Every experience your children have with people or situations outside their normal routine widens their range of creative expression.

Make Music
Encourage experimentation with musical instruments without showing how it’s done. Let her play piano with her toes or beat the drum with maracas if she wants. You can make your own instruments too. Dried beans in a toilet paper tube make a great shaker; waxed paper secured over a coffee can is a drum; rubber bands stretched over a shoebox make a guitar. Grab an instrument and play along for a fun family hootenanny.

Allow for Unconventional Ideas
Thinking outside the box is what creativity is all about. When kids come up with a new way of doing things -- making a sculpture out of plastic hangers, for instance -- go with it (as long as it’s safe, of course). Your support will encourage more creative thinking and problem solving down the road.

Filling the Memory Bank

Many people have pictures of their most precious memories -- vacations or birthday parties -- shoved into a junk drawer or lying around on a computer, waiting for someone, anyone, to look at them. These photos tell the story of your family, and yet there they sit.          

Why do we never get around to organizing or displaying them? For many people, there’s not enough of a payoff, says designer and author Lyn Peterson, whose latest book is Real Life Kitchens (Clarkson Potter 2007): “You commit so much time and effort to framing them or putting them in albums, and then what do you have? An encyclopedia of almost-never-opened photo albums or the same ol’ pictures on the wall going up the stairs.” But creating a fun and unusual display that puts your photos front and center is totally worth your while.

String ‘em up Run a “clothesline” with any sort of roping -- ribbon braid, lip cord, braided nylon or even an actual clothesline -- in an area of your house that lends itself to a photo gallery. Attach the photos using binder clips, hair clips, colored paper clips, clothespins or whatever you have around. “If you’re hanging pictures in your child’s room, you could even use sparkly barrettes,” says Paige Gilchrist, editorial director of Lark Crafts and author of At Home with Pictures (Lark Books 2004). “It’s a way to customize your display and make it your own.” And when you’re tired of looking at last summer’s vacation, you can easily sub in this year’s holiday photos.

Put them in card placeholders Peterson uses them to seat guests at dinners and birthday parties. During the holidays, she puts seasonal photos in there as decoration in the living room. But you can use them year-round -- anywhere in the house.

Make a growth chart If you have young children, create a work in progress on your wall, suggests Samantha Moss, contributor to Photos: Style Recipes (Weldon Owen 2005). “Attach a measuring tape -- either a cloth one or a wooden one -- to your wall. Measure your child at a regular interval -- say, every six months. Mark off your child’s height with a white line and then attach a current photo on the side. To make it more interesting, alternate between vertical and horizontal pictures.

Create a collage Every fall, Lisa Newland of Everett, Wash., makes prints of all the photos she shot of family and friends over the summer. With about 60 of them in hand, she goes to her family’s beach cabin and creates a collage on the linen closet door. “There’s no science to it,” she says. “I just overlap the photos in such a way that you can see the subject. I attach the photos with pushpins.” The collage, which takes her about 45 minutes to put together, is ready when the next summer rolls around. Guests love to check out last summer’s memories. At the end of the summer, she takes it down and puts all the pictures in a photo album.

Don’t waste your doubles When Peterson has several similar shots, she’ll send her kids’ lunch in a paper bag with a picture taped to it and a little caption underneath. As she says, “Every little thing doesn’t have to be saved for eternity.”