Simply Christmas: Renew the Spirit. 201 Easy Crafts, Food and Decorating Ideas

Pros: Mostly simple; fairly elegant
Cons: Worst recipe directions I’ve seen in years
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 12/5/2002

Okay, I admit – my wish list for crafts books is a bit stringent. I don’t use many crafts books, but now and then I like to decorate the house a bit, or do a fun project just for the heck of it. Now, while I’m not a religious person, childhood memories have left me with a fondness for some of the trappings of Christmas. So I picked up Carol Field Dahlstrom’s “Simply Christmas: Renew the Spirit. 201 Easy Crafts, Food and Decorating Ideas.” How could I resist? It has a beautiful cover – snowflake patterns in a red border around simple, glittery Christmas ornaments. Elegant.

Simply Christmas. See, that appealed to the stringent list of requirements I alluded to earlier. I want a crafts book that doesn’t require lots of stuff from crafts stores (which I have yet to find in the vicinity), or odd tools (which I neither have nor know how to use). I want a crafts book with short-term projects that I can play with in an evening or weekend afternoon here and there. I also want projects that I can do without having to worry about the cats (okay, that requirement is kind of unreasonable, but there you go). And I also have picky tastes – I like the more elegant kind of Christmas season decorations, the glittery pretty things, not the Santas and big plastic reindeer.

You can perhaps see why it is that I neither buy nor review many crafts books.

It’s clear that I have an odd set of requirements for crafts books. I’ll tell you how and in what ways this book measured up, give you a few previews of what you’ll find inside, and hopefully, by the end, provide enough information so that you can decide whether this book will suit your own, unique set of crafts-book requirements.

Simply Christmas

This book largely delivers in the simplicity department, but not entirely. There are some things you’ll need from crafts stores (hot-glue gun, decoupage medium, glitters and paint pens, chenille stems, Styrofoam cones, etc.), and some tools that you’ll need (mostly simple stuff like drills). Some projects require things like cattails or fresh roses.

My only objection here is that I wish the author had provided some sources for people who don’t have crafts stores near them, either places that can provide catalogs, or those that sell on-line. For instance, if she was going to require beads for some projects, why not include an on-line bead seller or two in a section of resources?

Most of the projects are very simple, at least. Things like putting dots of glue on simple old ornaments and jazzing them up with rhinestones or glitter; painting an old sled to make it decorative; creative garlands or tree decorations; turning beloved collections into intriguing decorations; adding unusual accents to candles; wrapping packages; and so on.

A Pet-Safe Christmas

Okay, so I can’t really expect the author of a crafts book to take this one into account. But our cats do have a tendency to get into almost anything, and suggestions to drape beaded garlands over banisters are tantamount to offering them beads on a dinner plate. (Really. Selene, our black-and-cream tortoiseshell, will eat anything… as long as it isn’t food. Dust bunnies and spider webs are preferred delicacies.)

Many of the projects in this book will never see use in our household for this reason. Some we could manage as long as we tucked them away on a high shelf where no one would see them, but then what’s the point? Someday I want someone to make a “pet-safe crafts” book. (Hint, hint, to any authors reading this.)

An Elegant Christmas

There’s a decent range of things in this book to appeal to almost any taste. I love things like the “snowcapped pinecones” (pinecones dipped in white wax and sprinkled with white glitter); the “celebrate nature tree” (a tree decorated with all sorts of ornaments and garlands made from natural materials like acorns, leaves, pinecones, and twigs, spray-painted in unusual colors); and the “beads and roses garland” (a gorgeous garland made from little beads, fresh rose heads, and some more traditional ornaments).

There are others, though, that I would never make. The “beaded tree trio” which mostly consists of foam cones covered in beads; “smiling snowmen” – clay snowmen used to decorate ornaments; the “children at peace tree” – garlands of paper dolls, essentially, used to decorate a tree; “traditional welcome wreath” – a wreath made of artificial magnolia leaves and beaded fruit.

Hopefully this will give you a decent idea of both ends of the spectrum so you can figure out whether the projects will suit your own tastes.

Christmas Food

Finally there’s a section of recipes. On the one hand, this is wonderful food. The orange rolls and pecan pull-aparts are scrumptious. Delicious. Delightful. I look forward to making the “sweet popcorn treats” and the “heavenly divinity.”

On the other hand, this is the worst section in the book. By far. In spades.

Why? Because the directions of the recipes are horrible. Take the orange rolls and caramel-pecan pull aparts. You get halfway through the recipes and realize that the ingredients for the sugary fillings are only listed in the instructions for the recipe – not in the ingredient list. What kind of recipe author leaves whole sections of ingredients out of the ingredient list? What’s the point of an ingredient list at all if you’re only going to use it for part of the recipe?

And the instructions leave something to be desired, too. I hope you have a little experience with cooking if you try these. Neither recipe even bothers to mention that you might want to mix the sugar and cinnamon together before trying to spread them on the dough, or that softening the butter would make it easier to spread, and those aren’t the only details that are left to your imagination. If you’re an experienced cook you can fill in the gaps – but you shouldn’t have to.

While I didn’t find any out-and-out mistakes (if you don’t count things like how much the recipes make, which is arguable, since it’ll come out a little differently for everyone), there are so many things that are left out, shortened, confusing, or put in a weird place that these recipes will frustrate the hell out of you.

And ultimately, that’s the major reason why I’m giving this book three out of five. The rest of it probably deserves four, as it’s fairly simple, easy, and elegant. But anyone who can make recipes this frustrating really shouldn’t get a rating of four. What I don’t understand is how someone who puts together nice, simple, easy craft instructions can put together such convoluted, messed-up recipe instructions.

Buy this book for the pretty ornaments and garlands. Buy it for the neat candle treatments and the simple, pretty ideas. But don’t buy it for the food unless you’re really confident in your cooking abilities and feeling more than a little masochistic.

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