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If you live in the D.C. area and the thought of buying gifts in the age of Amazon ignites your fear-of-infinity complex (Endless boxes! Endless trucks! Endless objects that are very likely to end up in the trash! Endless relatives and holiday parties!) this is the gift guide for you.
It’s a great guide if you want the people on your list to know that you care about them enough to spend time thinking about their future joy. It’s a decent guide if you’re broke, want to support independent businesses, or want to feel connected to your community.
Read on for information on the art of giving a plant cutting and how to write a letter to a person spending the holidays in the D.C. Jail. Make a clutch out of one of those glasses cases you never used. Pick out a great used book. Or find a day this month to enjoy all your favorite local museums, stopping by every gift shop to pick out something for each person on your list.
If you love the holidays, this guide is gold, and if you hate the holidays, it might offer you a small way to find some joy this month. —Alexa Mills
How to Make an Origami Ornament
This is a very affordable last minute gift—the only thing you’ll spend is your time! It also feels really good to build something.
1. Gather your tools.
You need a piece of paper (or two); scissors (but the folding-and-tearing method also works); ribbon or string (to turn origami into an ornament for hanging); and a steady hand. We recommend using a print issue of City Paper as your canvas—assuming you’ve already read all the articles and completed the crossword. Not only is City Paper free, but the cover art is hard to beat.
2. Go to the library.
Origami is an art form—and not one that I have mastered. Your first step is getting some help. Sure, you can turn to YouTube, but this is D.C.! So we have a better idea. Get off the couch, take a shower, and head to the public library.
Northeast Library on 330 7th St. NE has an origami expert on site, Robert LaRose. He can construct a paper crane within five minutes and helped me make mine. LaRose says he’s open to helping residents in need of a quick holiday gift make theirs. Just tell him City Paper sent you.
DC Public Library also has over a dozen books on origami. LaRose recommends Fabulous Modular Origami by Tomoko Fuse.
You have so many origami options to choose from: 3D stars, flowers, a miniature Christmas tree. Make your decision based on the whims of your recipient, and perhaps your skill level. Look for a book with pictures of each step in the process.
4. Heed the lessons I learned.
First of all, make your creases prominent. Each time you fold your sheet, fold it the other way as well. If you are making a paper crane, then the secret is whatever you do on one side, you repeat on the other. It’s kind of like making a paper airplane, if you ever did that in school.
Finally, be patient with yourself. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to build a standard crane. —Amanda Michelle Gomez
How to Gift a Plant Cutting In an Instagram-Worthy Vessel
So you’re on the plant parenthood bandwagon and want to spread the love like a hearty, nutrient-dense potting soil. Here’s how to share a plant cutting in a gift-worthy propagation station.
1. Choose the plant you want to propagate.
As a rule of (green) thumb, you propagate a plant by clipping a healthy portion right beneath a node (a bump on the stem) or air root (brown squiggle poking out of the stem). Don’t have a plant to propagate? Give yourself the gift of a new houseplant with the help of a local retailer where knowledgeable staff can help you pick a shareable plant. Try REWILD at 1924 8th Street NW, Suite 100, or Little Leaf at 1401 S Street NW.
2. Pick your vessel.
This is your chance to up your gift game with a touch of home decor verve by paying a visit to Dupont Little Flea Market, open Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the corner of 19th and Q Streets NW, or to Miss Pixie’s at 1626 14th St NW. You’ll be able to find a fun, and possibly cheap, antique container. Cocktail and wine glasses, jars, and funky old vases are perfect for a propagation station. If you’re looking for an extra dash of drama, might I suggest what I like to call “The Plantom of the Opera?” Buy a set of test tubes and wrap just enough plastic wrap around the bottom inch of each tube to stick them securely in the candle holes of a vintage candelabra.
3. Put it all together.
Fill your vessel with tepid water and plop in your freshly snipped stem. If you’re traveling with this gift, wrap the stem in a wet paper towel and stick it in a plastic baggie to assemble on-site.
4. Set your gift receiver up for success.
Let them know that their new plant baby will be ready for dirt once they see a few inches of root coming out of the stem, and that they should change the water when it gets murky. If you’re particularly concerned about a brown-thumbed friend, tell them about Very Sad Lab, the houseplant rehabilitation and education center comme art project in Georgetown.
5. Pat yourself on the back.
You’ve literally given the gift of life. —Elizabeth Tuten
How to Pick Out the Best Used Book for Your Favorite Reader
Books are always a popular gift, especially in greater D.C., a region regularly ranked among the most literate in the country. With our ever-growing number of independent bookstores, it’s easy to stop in and pick up a copy of whichever novel or memoir the Post or the Times declared the best of the year, but your choice might be a dud if the reader on your list consumes new titles voraciously. Opting to purchase a used book ensures your loved one will get something unique.
1. Consider your reader.
Do they love long policy tomes? Are they mad for essay collections? Would they appreciate something old or do they prefer contemporary work? It helps to go in knowing roughly what you want to buy.
Two of D.C.’s best used bookstores, Capitol Hill Books and Second Story Books, allow you to browse and purchase some books online, which is valuable if you’re short on time or don’t know where to get started. This kind of pre-shopping browse also prepares you with regard to price, so you won’t end up accidentally picking out a $2,000 first American edition of Prisoner of Azkaban for the Harry Potter superfan in your life.
Many treasures at used bookstores are only available to those who search with their own two hands, so if you can, take time to visit a physical location and touch all the books. (If you’re planning to do some book-sniffing and you’re particularly sensitive to dust or mold, take an antihistamine before you go to prevent a sneeze attack.)
Diehard book nerds, like yours truly and a certain Pulitzer Prize-winning critic from the Post, head for the large stores that Friends of the Library operate in Wheaton and Rockville, where one can unearth both newish fiction and rarer classics from the past century. (Recent trips yielded award winners by Jhumpa Lahiri and Hanya Yanagihara, as well as an early Nora Ephron essay collection and E.B. White musings from the 1950s.) Any used bookstore will do, however. Don’t be afraid to flip through the musty pages and inhale their sweet, dusty aroma, and count on the booksellers for help if you can’t find quite what you want.
4. Personalize your purchase.
Anyone can buy themself a book, but only you can explain why you bought them this specific book. Tuck a note inside the dust jacket or inscribe a personal message on a blank page and tell your loved one what you hope they’ll get from the gift. —Caroline Jones
How to Select a Produce Subscription From Your Friendly Neighborhood Farm
So you’re breaking out the big guns this year: A community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription will keep your loved one stocked with fresh, interesting produce for as long as you’re able to pay for it, and the present supports D.C.’s sustainable agriculture scene. Now you just need to find a farm.
1. Scope out your options.
Obviously, this is Google-able. But if you’re looking for a hidden gem, just keep your eyes peeled: The D.C. area is flush with scrappy little urban farms, and you might already be living down the street from one. If you ask, more often than not you’ll find that these farms offer subscriptions.
Example: Walking down V Street NW in LeDroit Park any given Saturday, you’ll pass a crew of farmers tending the plots at Common Good City Farm.
You: Hey good morning! What are those plants with the bright purple flowers?
Them: Oh, that’s okra!
You: Wow, who knew—they’re beautiful. By the way, do you all have a CSA? I’m looking for a gift for my nephew.
Them: Yeah, we do! That’s a great idea for a present; let me sign you up.
2. Do your research.
Not all CSAs are created equal. Ask the right questions, and you’ll be sure to pick the subscription that’s perfect for your friend/lover/grandchild. Are they a control freak? Washington’s Green Grocer lets them pick out what produce they get each week, avoiding any surprises.
Do they love to try new things? Cultivate the City’s CSA combines well worn staples with produce you wouldn’t find at Safeway. They’ll learn to cook with kiwi berries, ground cherries, fresh moringa, and passion fruit leaves, to name just a few of the selections from 2019.
3. Sign ’em up.
The main decisions left are how often you want your lucky loved one to receive a fresh box of produce (Once a week? Once a month?), and how many boxes you want to pay for. Some CSAs require you to sign up for a whole season—prices start at around $25 a week. Others, like Green Grocer, let you sign up for as little as one week’s worth.
4. Optional step: Volunteer.
A steady stream of produce from a cool urban farm is a unique and thoughtful gift. A steady stream of produce that you helped grow yourself is an even better one. Many local farms are always on the lookout for volunteers to help pick fruit and till the soil. (And if all this gift-giving has left you strapped for cash, farming is way cheaper than a gym membership.) —Joshua Kaplan
How to Pick Out the Perfect Restaurant Gift Card
D.C.’s dining scene has ballooned with options, and most restaurants offer gift cards year-round. If you’re the type who prefers to give an experience instead of a physical object that may end up in storage, or worse, regifted, give your loved ones a free meal. Here’s how to thoughtfully select a restaurant they’ll love.
Leading up to the holidays, find a way to casually ask your target if they have eaten anywhere they liked lately, or if they have recently discovered a new cuisine. This will help give you some guidance on how adventurous they are and what they gravitate toward. Also check out their social media accounts to see what kinds of food photos they post.
2. Map it out.
Consider where they live. Don’t select a restaurant in their immediate neighborhood because chances are they’ve tried them all and have a strong opinion about each place, one way or another. Look for a restaurant that’s easily accessible, whether that means near a Metro station or a location that has ample self parking or valet. You don’t want to be the reason your loved one circles the block.
If you can, try before buying. While there are professional reviews and sites like Yelp, handing over a gift card to a restaurant that has your personal stamp of approval will be more meaningful.
4. Do your homework.
Once you’ve selected a potential restaurant, call during off-peak hours and ask them some questions: Do your gift cards come with an expiration date? What’s the check average for a party of two? Do you take reservations and are they hard to come by?
Gift cards aren’t the sexiest things to open, so be sure to include a nice note that contains a fun fact about the restaurant, or a recommendation for a dish or cocktail they should try. —Laura Hayes
How to Make a Glasses Case Clutch
Price: $1.15 or less
This DIY clutch made from an old glasses case is the perfect accessory for holiday parties or the classic D.C. brunch. For studious Washingtonians who have old spectacles cases lying around, each handbag can be made for around a dollar if you buy materials—or practically for free if you recycle them.
1. Get your supplies in order.
An old glasses case: free
60 grams of super glue: $4.99
300 beads with flat backs: $5.29
10 yards of strong fabric ribbon: $6.99
Using a simple design like the one pictured, these purchases yield at least 15 clutches. So the cost per clutch is around a dollar. It’s even cheaper if you salvage pieces from clothes and accessories. The clutch pictured here is made entirely from recycled materials: The beads are from a blouse, the faux clasp on the top is hardware from an old purse and the velvet handle was a pajama drawstring.
2. Get creative.
Arrange the beads in a design on the front of the glasses case.
3. Pay attention to details.
Glue the beads in place, and allow ample time for the glue to dry.
4. Get out your ruler.
Cut the ribbon to approximately 16 inches.
5. Put your nimble fingers to use.
Open the glasses case. If the case has cloth lining, pull it back about two millimeters on one side, opposite the hinges. Glue the ends of the ribbon about three inches apart inside the lining. Then push the lining back in place and hold it until the glue dries. If there is no lining, glue directly to the interior near its edge.
6. Optional step: Donate your old glasses.
Georgetown Optician, Vision Source DC Focus Eyecare Center and Washington Eye Doctors accept donations of used specs. Though their regulars usually contribute, these shops accept donations from anyone outside of their clientele.
“A lot of our customers have been shopping here for like 20 to 30 years, so they’ll end up having a really big collection and not know what to do with them,” says Georgetown Optician’s manager Juliette Voorthuis.
Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center of Northern Virginia processes contributions from opticians. The center’s president Emily Carnes says that in some instances, they gift the glasses case, but they often have to leave the cases out to save on shipping. “A lot of the groups that take missions go overseas either to Africa or South America,” Carnes explains. “So the shipping of eyeglass cases is a bit much.” To donate glasses without the case, Carnes suggests wrapping them in bubble wrap and placing them in a box. —Jennifer Anne Mitchell
How to Find the Best Museum Souvenir
D.C. has an amazing museum scene, but their gift shops are too often overlooked. Most have the same general categories of items—souvenirs from federal Washington, necklaces and shawls in artistic patterns, endless iterations on dinosaur-themed toys, and coffee table books—but each shop puts its own twist on the familiar. In short: Museum gift shops have something for everyone, so you can knock out your entire list at just a few places and infuse local flavor.
1. Write out your recipient list.
Deciding which people on your list will be getting a museum gift store present will guide the rest of the process. Since our museum scene contains multitudes, thinking through your loved ones and their interests will save you the trouble of museum-hopping. Instead, you’ll be focused and calm at each stop.
2. Head to the right institution.
For kids’ items, the National Museum of Natural History is the obvious choice—they have an entire kids’ gift shop with stuffed animals, solar-powered light-up keychains, and slap bracelets. (The Air and Space Museum is a good runner-up for things like astronaut ice cream and rocket ships, but renovations mean their selections are more limited.)
If you’re buying for nostalgic parents who are looking to recall their youth, head to the National Museum of American History or the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where beloved characters adorn an array of tchotchkes.
For your most fashionable friends, consider the museum clothing option—a shawl, scarf, wrap, or statement jewelry printed with the pattern of a piece of art. The best of these are found in galleries like The Phillips Collection, though the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s funky necklace selection is nothing to sniff at.
Millennials with attitude will be best served by the snarky, self-aware merch on sale at the Hirshhorn—they’ve got Kruger, Warhol, Ai, Basquiat, Haring, and plenty from the Guerrilla Girls. If that’s not quite to your intended’s taste, try the National Museum of Women in the Arts, full of shirts and notebooks emblazoned with cheeky feminist slogans.
For the true art appreciators and big readers in your life, there’s nothing better than the National Gallery of Art’s shop in the breezeway between the West and East buildings. If you’re looking for posters or artist monographs, this is the spot; they’ve also got the best book collection of the museum gift shops, which includes pop-history writing and trade paperbacks, not just coffee table books.
3. Stay specific.
Avoid items you could find in the dollar bin at a big-box store. If the person you’re shopping for would be happy with a fancy eraser or a bouncy ball that isn’t full of sparkly wild animals, then you can probably head elsewhere. Avoid logo mugs and shirts, unless the Smithsonian Institution’s sun gets your recipient unnaturally excited. One exception to this rule are museum tote bags, which universally rule, especially for the fashionable and eco-conscious. —Emma Sarappo
How to Make a Last-Minute Catchall Tray
You have decided that you want to make something out of wood this year. Maybe it’s because you know one of the few universal truths in this world: People who make things out of wood are always hot. Maybe you’re feeling anxious about the fact that you don’t know how to do anything with your hands that would be remotely useful in the climate apocalypse. Maybe you just like wood.
So you Google “easy woodworking projects” and quickly learn that you and the internet have different understandings of what makes a woodworking project easy. You can’t cut a circle in wood for a birdhouse! You don’t even know what a SAWZALL is, much less own one!
So give yourself a full year to get into woodworking, and in the meantime make a catchall tray. Everybody has stuff that they carry with them, and by the end of an afternoon someone you love will have a handsome place to put their junk.
1. Pick out your frame.
You’ll be fashinoning this catchall tray from a picture frame and felt, but before you grab your scissors and glue, you need to think about your intended recipient. How big is their phone? Do they have a massive keychain? Are they always carrying sunglasses and lip balm? How big is the space on their desk or side table where they’ll be putting your catchall? After thinking, pick out a frame that meets your recipient’s needs.
“Measure twice, cut once” is something that woodworkers like to say, and now you can say it too. You’ll be removing the glass and mat that come with your picture frame and replacing them with a nice felt surface, so make sure you measure that space and cut the right size of felt, leaving a little bit of extra to fit under the frame. Pro tip: Buy more felt than you think you’ll need. Felt is very cheap and can be found at any local craft store.
Take the time to stretch the felt across the back of the frame and glue it in place. It may not be absolutely necessary to glue it down, but it will make everything stay in place and look nicer. Then reassemble the frame without the mat or glass.
When you give it, explain what it is and how you imagined they’d use it. You can drop in a subtle “I made it” and maybe, just maybe, they’ll think that includes the frame too. —Will Warren
How to Send a Holiday Letter to Someone in D.C. Jail
Price: $0.55 per stamp
Connectedness is a central part of the holiday season. This time of year, the isolation of prisons and jails is particularly hard for those inside.
Conditions in D.C.’s Central Detention Facility, or D.C. Jail, are notoriously hazardous and even life-threatening. Eighty-nine percent of people there are black. Those incarcerated suffer through sweltering summers and icy winters, and deal with vermin, filth, and poor lighting. People in the jail reported earlier this year that they hadn’t been allowed outdoors for eight months.
Writing letters is a low-cost way to express to people in D.C. Jail that they are cared for and not forgotten. But you have to follow a few specific steps to make sure your letter gets through.
1. Identify a recipient.
Everyone in D.C. Jail is given a DC Department of Corrections (DCDC) identification number, and this number is needed in order to communicate with them. You can get someone’s DCDC ID number by calling the Department’s Records Office at (202) 523-7060. If you don’t know anyone in D.C. Jail, reach out to organizations like the pARTner project, Free Minds Book Club, and BYP100 DC (a group I volunteer for) to get connected to someone to write to.
2. Keep your first correspondence simple.
Use black or blue pen on regular, white 8.5 x 11 paper, placed in a standard-sized, self-seal envelope. Don’t use any craft materials, colors, tape, glue, or glitter on the materials. You can elect to include prints of art or photography, as long as there is no nudity.
3. Get the envelope right.
Envelopes should have the mailing address, your complete name and return address, and a stamp. For the mailing address, D.C. Jail requests that you include the incarcerated person’s name, their DCDC ID number, and the jail’s address, which is 1901 D St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003. For the return address, use your personal address or connect with a local organization, like the ones listed in tip 1, to see if you can use their organizational address. If you’d like a response, make sure you also include your name and address in the body of your letter. Sometimes envelopes get discarded.
4. Get the contents right.
Put the page number, the recipient name and DCDC ID number, and the date on each page of your letter. Make sure their name and DCDC ID number is on any photograph or art prints you include. There’s no limit to the number of pages your letter can be, but you can only send up to 10 photos.
5. Plan for the future.
Your letter should communicate what the recipient can expect with regards to frequency of communication. If you receive responses to your letters, what’s your capacity for replying? Once a week? A few times a year? Make sure you are honest and don’t give false hope. Expectations are key to a respectful, affirming experience for the recipient.
6. Prison officials will read your letter.
Don’t include risky or incriminating information, but spread some holiday love and express your solidarity with the recipient.
7. Send your letter as soon as you can!
Letters to D.C. Jail tend to get delayed during the holiday season. Still, a late letter is better than none.
8. Check your work.
If you have additional questions on how to send mail to someone in D.C. Jail, you can call the mailroom at (202) 523-7050. You can also get information on how to send books to people there, which can only be sent through a publisher or bookstore.
To get plugged in to letter writing locally, you can register for the letter writing circle with Free Minds Book Club, an organization that uses creative writing to make sure people from D.C. in jail and federal prisons are connected to the outside. You can also reach out to the pARTner project from the Justice Arts Coalition, a group based in Silver Spring that runs a pen pal program for incarcerated artists. And the organization Survived & Punished provides an excellent “Toolkit For Organizing Letterwriting Events.” —Jordan N. DeLoach
How to File a Freedom of Information Act Appeal
Price: $0, plus a tiny portion of your soul
What’s better than the gift of information? Especially if that information is enlightening, interesting, scandalous, or otherwise sheds light on how elected officials are behaving. Follow the steps below to file an appeal of your Freedom of Information Act request—because we assume you already know how to file the original request, and it will almost certainly be denied.
Get yourself a glass and pour two fingers of your preferred brown beverage.
2. Consider your original request and understand what the government is refusing to release.
Is it a complete denial? Are portions of your requested records redacted? You can appeal both decisions. Requesters can also file an appeal if the government is taking longer than 15 days to respond to a request.
4. Write a letter to the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel.
The appeal can be submitted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, through the online FOIA portal, or by mail. In your letter, explain in plain English (no lawyer required) why you believe you are entitled to the records or why you believe the government has redacted information that should be public.
A. It can be as simple as: “I am appealing the agency’s decision to withhold the requested records. The agency said the records are all private, but I doubt that. It’s OK with me if they take out the private details and release the rest.”
B. In our experience, one of the most common exemptions is for personal privacy. Generally, it is not enough for the government to rely on the personal privacy exemption without justifying why the records should be withheld. The government must balance a person’s privacy with the public’s right to information about what government agencies are up to.
C. Along with your appeal, include in your email your original request and the letter of denial.
D. Write “Freedom of Information Act Appeal” in the subject line of the email or on the outside of the envelope.
5. Watch the clock.
Once you hit send, the mayor’s office has 10 business days to respond to your appeal.
6. Ask for help.
If you get stuck, call or email the folks at the DC Open Government Coalition. They are generally happy to help.
NOTE: Only requests to the executive branch can be appealed to the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel. The D.C. Council does not have an administrative appeals process. To appeal a Council request, unsatisfied requesters must sue the Council in D.C. Superior Court. — Mitch Ryals