She knew that invited her boyfriend to the family Christmas party was risky, but just how risky she couldn't have known...
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She knew that inviting her boyfriend to the family Christmas party was risky …

Every Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember, my extended family has gathered ’round the tree for a grab bag gift exchange. And every year, competition for the year’s hottest items — garlic choppers, wine glasses, tasteful volumes of nude art photography — is fierce. In a cheerful nod to the season of selflessness and giving, when your turn comes up you can either open a new present or steal an opened one from someone else.

This year was no different, save one twist: This year, we’d decided, all the gifts would be homemade. Because aren’t gifts that involved someone accidentally bashing his thumb with a hammer just that much more meaningful?

Curiosity had reached fever pitch by the time we circled up last Monday night, rum punch in hand. Would this handmade decree bear fruit in the form of 12 packages of Christmas fudge — an easy-to-make option for pretty much everyone? Or would my relatives, inspired by this new challenge, reveal hidden talents and reach a level of DIY glory heretofore only seen in Martha Stewart publications?

Given the evidence at hand — some of the gifts piled in the center of our circle were impressively big and bulky — I suspected we all might be in for a treat. But I had no idea just how amazing it would be.

My cousin Liz kicked it off by opening a set of plates decorated with photos of and handprints by two of our baby cousins — promptly stolen by the boys’ grandpa, but really, that one was kind of a gimme. Next came a plush set of couch pillows sewn by Liz herself. Next, a mod concrete lamp constructed by my cousin Ryan.

OK, OK, Liz has mad thread skills, and Ryan’s a freakin’ artist. But the hits kept on coming, even from relatives I never knew harbored such talents. A three-dimensional, metal Christmas tree that looked like it involved soldering: “Wow, you made this?” A gorgeous quilt sewn by an aunt who, as far as I knew, had never wielded a sewing needle before: “Wow, you made this?” A recipe book illustrated with step-by-step demonstration photos of my little cousins in chef’s hats (that one came complete with a tray of cinnamon rolls — score!): “Wow, you made this?”

Some relatives got especially crafty. One aunt had somehow conjured up concrete votive holders, molded from a two-liter soda bottle and a Solo cup and decorated with colorful tile. Another cousin turned Corona bottles into drinking glasses (like this) with a string and a torch, then packaged them with mini bottles of tequila and a lime. The only thing missing was a decorative plaster mold of my seven-and-a-half-months-pregnant cousin’s belly, but sadly for all of us, Lindsey was celebrating with her husband’s family this year.

We only had a couple of cheaters, one of them only a semi-cheater. My mom contributed a lovely, leatherbound journal: “Wow, you made this?” the recipient asked. “Well … someone did,” she replied. A quick conference determined that handmade gifts made by other hands were still legal. And then there was the hulking, cubic box opened near the end. “A floating cooler shaped like a bobber?” said my cousin Laurie. “Um, nice work?” Hey, if you’re gonna flout the rules, might as well flout big.

Here’s the funny thing about this year’s exchange: While these things usually devolve into a gift-stealing frenzy, complete with cutthroat strategy and attempts to deceive would-be thieves by hiding one’s gift under the couch, this time around we only had a handful of swipes. Perhaps we were all extra-infused with the gift of gratitude this year. But more likely: We all genuinely loved what we’d opened. Who wouldn’t want to keep something uniquely handcrafted by an uncle, aunt, or cousin, after all? Especially if your gift included tequila.

And what of the fates of the gifts Ted and I brought? I’d contributed a collection of homemade jams, syrups, and cherry booze. My mom went straight for it early and held on throughout the rounds (and I don’t even think she did it to make me feel wanted, either!). That leaves Ted.

Last time, I asked you all for ideas for something he could craft for the grab bag. You responded with some excellent ideas — I especially liked the recipe book of his favorite dishes and the fancy infused olive oils, and I was pushing hard for the hand-tied hammock — but in the end, he remembered that homemade beef jerky is one of his specialties. So he whipped up a big batch in his dehydrator and packaged it in a tin shaped like a Christmas mailbox. My cousin Kristina ended up opening it. “Ooh, beef jerky is my favorite snack!” she said, gnawing on a chunk. And with that, Christmas Grab Bag 2012 came to a close.

The big question in the air now: Was this a one-time experiment, or a new tradition? An informal straw poll taken immediately after the exchange revealed a deeply divided family. Half of us wanted to go handmade again next year, while half lamented, “Hey, I just used up the one good idea I had.” I think it’ll work out just fine either way. The inspired ones among us can always make something, and the less craftily inclined can reap the benefits. If this experiment results in a 50 percent increase in handmade gifts next year, hey, that’s a pretty big win in my book.

Me, I’m already brainstorming something even more creative and exciting for next Christmas. It may require some practice with a chainsaw — and wait a sec, let me check my insurance policy for blowtorch-related exceptions — but it’s going to be so worth it. For now, a very merry, crafty Christmas to you all, and a DIY-inspired New Year.