Holiday How-To: Celebrate the Holidays with Ocala Flair

Add some thanks to your giving and some jingle to your bells.

Story by Kelli Hart

The holidays happen at the same time of year, every year. So why do we always feel so overwhelmed and stressed when they approach? They certainly don’t sneak up on us, yet we always feel so far behind in the preparation. Will we celebrate at home? If so, whose home? Did I forget to invite anybody? When will I have time to go shopping or to cook? Is it too late to send out cards? Do people even send out cards anymore? The list of “musts” is a mile long, but there is no reason why checking them off of your list can’t be completely possible and still very painless.

From paper bags to plastic trees, we’re going to cover just about everything you need to know to make this holiday happen without a hitch. No more need to stress over Thanksgiving supper or cry over Christmas gifts.

Under the Tree

Gift giving can be rewarding, but it’s almost always stressful. How much can I spend? Do I buy for co-workers or for my cleaning lady? How can I save on the absurd amount of gift-wrap I’ll need? What if I need to ship a gift? Concerns about gift buying, wrapping and giving never end and have been said to be the leading cause of holiday stress.

Penny-Wise Packages

Have you noticed that wrapping a gift can often cost you as much as the gift itself? Why continue to spend a fortune on something that will ultimately, and usually within seconds, be torn apart and trashed? There are ways of still giving a presentable gift without having to break the bank.

First, look around your home. What items do you already have? Most homes have resources that you may be unaware of, but that make gift-wrapping fun, affordable and best of all, unique!

Newspaper makes for a simple way to cover multiple sized boxes. By adding a wide red or lime green bow, you’ve dressed up a package on a dime! Using gift bags? Newsprint is also a great alternative to costly tissue paper.

Want an elegant look at a dime-store price? Take old potato chip bags, wash them out, cut them at the seam and wrap gifts with the metallic side showing. Add a frosted bow or shimmery blue ribbon and your presentation will turn heads.

And why let those brown bags go to waste? You have plenty of grocery shopping to do, right? Ask your clerk to give you paper bags that you can cut and reuse to wrap gifts. They look great with a plain raffia bow and you can also let the kids dress them up with markers and glitter. It’s great for the environment and for your pocket!

From holiday catalog pages and old gift-wrap turned inside out to mismatched fabrics and Chinese take-out boxes, gift-wrapping should never bend your budget.

The Chopping Block

One of the most stressful things about gift giving is figuring out who all makes the list. Family is a given, but what about friends? Co-workers? Teachers? Hairdressers? Babysitter? The list can get overwhelming because no one wants to leave anyone out or create an awkward holiday situation.

First, no one should ever feel obligated to give a gift. Although the holidays and gift giving have become one and the same, gifts are tokens and there really are no rules when it comes to who gets one.

Expressing gratitude to people who make life a little happier is wonderful, but may not necessarily warrant a gift. Bus drivers who get our kids home safely, mailmen who walk our packages to the door in the rain and the gardener who keeps the lawn looking lovely are all people to whom you may want to send warm wishes this holiday, but a simple handwritten greeting will suffice.

If you want to take it one step further, baked goods, flavored teas, a small homegrown plant or even a handmade bookmark would send a holiday wish without exhausting the gift budget.

The list is yours and who makes the cut is up to you.

After all, it is the thought, not the investment that counts!

Shape Up and Ship Out

Not everyone we love is home for the holidays. But, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to send those who aren’t a little holiday cheer. The problem is, if you don’t ship that cheer out on time, it’s going to miss Santa.

Pay attention to holiday ship dates in your area. Most every parcel service website has a listing of what their cut-off dates are. However, the prices severely increase the closer it gets to December 25. Don’t procrastinate and miss your opportunity to ship while the shipping’s good!

In the Kitchen

One of the most popular meeting places during the holidays is around the family table. Be it whipping up Grandma’s made-from-scratch recipe or carrying on the carving tradition, many blessed memories happen somewhere between a bowed head and a full belly.

With this tradition of cooking comes a lot of pressure. How can we afford all of this food? Will there be enough seats? What am I going to do to dress up this table? Is there a quicker way to make all of this magic happen?

Trim the Fat

June Cleaver made it all look so easy: a perfectly put together meal she whipped up with a smile. In real life, this isn’t the case. Preparing an entire spread, from scratch, on your own, is a lovely idea, but hardly easy. So, here’s something that will ease your mind: You don’t have to, nor are you expected to take on such a task.

Women work. And thankfully, holiday trends have adjusted themselves accordingly. Nowadays, it’s quite common to spread out the culinary responsibilities amongst guests. It’s an “I’ll bring the turkey, you bring the casserole” kind of holiday and it’s perfectly acceptable.

Progressive dinners have also become quite popular – the concept of hopping from home to home, starting with hors d’oeuvres at Aunt Susan’s and ultimately ending up at Cousin Carol’s for pie. This makes preparation less of a task, as the focus is simply on one layer of the entire meal.

Likewise, local businesses typically offer larger portioned side items that can be pre-ordered and picked up, making completing a big meal a cinch. Once his or her mac is in your bowl, no one will ever know. And there’s no shame in “catered cooking.” It not only eliminates a great deal of stress by freeing up shopping, cooking and cleanup, but also supports local business, and there’s always a reward in that!

The Dish on Table Settings

The best side dish to a delicious meal is a beautifully set table. However, the costs of place settings and decor can add up. Thankfully, websites such as Pinterest, with amazingly easy craft ideas, have made setting the table not only fun, but also frivolous.

Local thrift shops are a goldmine when it comes to tabletop treasures. From vintage candlesticks to mercury glass bowls and vases, some of the most beautiful designs have been acquired strictly second-hand. Gone are the days of matchy-matchy china; now, the hot look is in mixed patterns and one-of-a-kind stemware.

“It’s fun to repurpose found treasures in unexpected ways to make your tablescapes unique to you and your family,” says Jennifer Townsend, owner of The White Elephant in Ocala.

Start your design by picking a color scheme – let’s use ivory as a classic example. Find some remnant fabric or vintage table linens that create a base color in ivory. They do not have to be the same pattern as long as the color scheme is fluid. In the event you are unable to find full linens, table runners are a great alternative.

Next, depending on how dramatic or how simple you want to go with your decor, start collecting items that will allow you to line vignettes down the middle of your table. If you are eating on a rectangular table, you can create a design line from end to end. Round and square tables must capture their focus in the middle to leave room for dishes. Items that make great vignettes are candlesticks, holiday bulbs, candle votives, old bottles, strands of crystals or pearls, bells, etc. Creating varying heights attracts the eye and adds dimension to your tablescape.

Finally, check garage sales and secondhand shops for dishes and stemware. From plates to bowls, serving trays to serving spoons, collecting and arranging pieces that are mismatched but in the same color scheme will pull the entire table together without being a huge investment. And, if you use this concept for Thanksgiving, you can re-use it in December but with an added color, say red or black, to change the look entirely for an entirely different holiday!

Around the House

Nothing sets the tone for the holidays like decking the halls and the doors and the mantle. From cornucopias and harvest pumpkins to tinsel-covered trees and twinkling lights, decorations are inviting. They can also be quite costly.

If you aren’t one who goes out the day after Christmas and buys up holiday merchandise at 75% off, then you are like most, who wait until November to start the tedious task of turning the house into a fall festival, then Santa’s Workshop.

On the Mantle

In the chilly months of winter, fireplaces ignite, bringing a warm, cozy feeling too the indoors. And because we celebrate the magic of an open fire at the holidays, it’s important to make this asset a focal point in your home.

As the temperature drops, you should find yourself rearranging your den so that chairs and sofas are facing the fireplace. Likewise, this is the time to adorn the mantle and hearth with holiday foliage, scented candles and heirloom tchotchkes.

Ideas for fireplace fashion include stringing pinecones sprayed silver or gold, a garland of leftover tree trimmings, citrus and gourds, gold painted magnolia leaves and glass jars filled with white sugar sand and iridescent glitter.

Think of the mantle as an extension of your Thanksgiving table or Christmas tree. It should carry on a theme and provide a stunning vision to frame out a crackling fire.

Townsend offers some professional advice by suggesting, “using old family heirlooms, colored jars and bottles or even an old wooden toolbox to create something that nobody else has.” She goes on to remind us that these items can often be used for more than just one holiday.

On the Door

It’s the first thing your guest sees, so it had better be show stopping. Show stopping sounds awfully expensive, right? Well, it doesn’t have to be.

Some people gift-wrap their door and others line it in twinkling white lights. Other than your typical wreath or Santa Claus head, what options are there? There are many.

Grapevine is an inexpensive resource when it comes to decorating. It can be twisted, braided and curled. It can be loaded with feathers, laced with lights or wrapped with greenery. It withstands the weather and adapts to any decor. And the best part is, it’s very inexpensive.

Another dramatic entryway solution is to simply change out your porch lights with glowing red and green bulbs. Lighting is always a simple and easy fix when it comes to setting the mood.

Luminaries have been used to light “Santa’s Runway” for years. So why not incorporate this concept into your entryway? Classic luminaries can be made from simple brown bags, a little sand and tea lights.   Fancier versions of this classic have been made using mason jars covered in materials such as gauze, lace, fabrics and frosted snow. These luminaries can be used to line a walkway, light up a porch step or can be hung using a simple wire or ribbon.

Welcoming your guests or carolers shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg and that should put a smile on your face!

On the Tree

Oh, Christmas tree! From the 1880s Christmas Pickle to 1950s tinsel, Christmas trees have been adorned with a variety of different styles of ornaments, themes and light strands.

From year to year, we have to keep up with what the season’s “look” is. Do I top the tree with a star or a bow? Are white lights the “it” color or do I use multi-twinklers? Solid bulbs or mercury glass? Tall, skinny tree or short and squatty? Does anyone use tinsel anymore? What does Martha Stewart have to say about all of this? The task of decorating a tree can be daunting.

This year, we have taken the fuss and muss out of decorating by providing you with a simple list of what’s hot and what’s not when it comes to trimming the tree.

This year’s trends have taken a cue from current fashion. This season’s “must have” colors include cool shades such as ice-blue, turquoise, Caspian green, silver and white, concentrating on looks such as frosted surfaces, transparent and filigree. Likewise, this year’s “Pop of Color” Award goes to (insert drumroll) – spicy orange. Yes! Adding hints of burnt orange to white, silver or blue is the trend and will be seen on many a tree.

“These holiday trend predictions for holiday color is spot on,” says Interior Decorator Shannon Roth from Ocala’s Shannon Roth Collections.

Roth and Co. are doing a custom Christmas tree and complete home holiday decor for a customer and the colors they have chosen are varying shades of turquoise, orange and silver, with ice white mixed in.   The scheme was primarily chosen to complement the homeowners original art work that is hanging adjacent to the area where the tree will stand.

Nature still plays a huge role in the influence of theme. This season, owls are the forerunner in decor, alongside the elements of wood and snow. Yes, even Floridians are enjoying a white winter, playing with snow-covered tabletops, frosted candles and pinecones, white drapes and linens, shimmery candlesticks and bulbs and blooming foliage such as white Poinsettias, orchids and roses. Wooden accents such as stumps, bark and shavings add a subtle woodsy feel to any classic motif.

Decorators will be going heavy on iced branches, wreaths, antlers and deer” this holiday season. “It is definitely not the lodge look that we are aiming for,” states Roth, “but an elegant rustic atmosphere.”

Remember grandma’s old quilts? Remember the star patterns and the stitching that gave it that country cabin feel? Well, get it down from the attic, because this year quilted patterns are hot! From quilted bulbs and table runners to accent pillows and gift-wrap, quilted, countryside patterns are popular and impressive.

Paper is a huge staple for the tree this year. From papier-mâché ornaments to paper ribbons and garlands, this texture is taking Christmas by storm. Paper chains, paper stars and paper toppers are on the “must have” list for 2013. Paper, paper, paper – write that down on, well, you get the idea.

Roth explains that this year’s popular Christmas décor is “exactly the feel, look, color and textures described here. Papier-mâché is very hot for ornaments, as well as felt and boiled wool.”

Peppermints and candy canes are great Christmas candies, but they are not meant for decorating with. Candy cane sticks look great in an apothecary jar, but please stop hanging them on your tree. Unless it is an absolute family tradition, canes are no longer considered cute when dangling from a tree.

When choosing a tree size, ask yourself, “Do I like the look of a very covered tree or do I prefer sparse decorations?” This is a very critical question, because the larger the tree, the more decorations and lights you will need to adorn it. Some folks like the look of a very busy, jam-packed tree. If this is you, unless you want to spend hundreds of dollars on ornaments and hours decorating, consider purchasing a shorter, smaller tree with less of a surface to cover. If you are the type of person who likes sparse decor, purchase a larger tree that will leave you with plenty of green showing through after the bulbs and garlands are added.


If you’ve never been to an ugly holiday sweater party, go to one. Plan one. They make for great pictures and it’s as fun shopping for an atrocious sweater, as it is to wear one.

Gifts of service can mean more to a person than something tangible. Help feed a family, wrap gifts for the elderly or do someone’s shopping. These are the gifts that keep on giving.

Yes, people do still send out holiday cards. However, more and more people are waiting out Christmas and sending “Happy New Year” cards, wishing their friends and loved ones a blessed upcoming year. This may be where that ugly Christmas sweater picture comes in handy?

Designer Jennifer Legge, of Marley Mae Designs in Ocala, offered some holiday advice by saying, “In recent years I’ve had clients request a “year in review” card that has a photo from each month, which acts as a photo journal of sorts. It allows their family and friends to see what they’ve been up to during the previous year and is especially great for families with children to show how their kids have grown throughout the last twelve months. I think it’s a fun alternative to sending out traditional holiday cards.”

So, there you have it! How to save money, save time and still pull off a holiday season that will bring joy to the world – or at least to you and yours!

Food on the Fly

Let’s face it, not everyone is Rachael Ray. But during the holidays, no one wants to let that cat out of the bag. So, what can you bring to the office party or to the in-laws’ that won’t have everyone scraping his or her tongue? Not every recipe calls for culinary training. In fact, not all recipes even call for heat! Here are some simple recipes that will please the palette and have you looking like a pro.

Sesame-Lime Chicken Salad

Serves 4| Hands-On Time: 20m| Total Time: 20m


1/4  cup  canola oil

3  tablespoons  fresh lime juice

1  teaspoon  sugar

1/2  teaspoon  toasted sesame oil

1/2  red chili pepper (such as jalapeño or serrano), sliced

kosher salt and black pepper

1  small head romaine lettuce, leaves torn into bite-size pieces (about 6 cups)

2  carrots, grated

1  2- to 2 1/2-pound rotisserie chicken, meat shredded (about 4 cups)

1  tablespoon  toasted sesame seeds

1  cup  crispy Chinese noodles

1/4  cup  fresh cilantro leaves


In a large bowl, whisk together the canola oil, lime juice, sugar, sesame oil, chili, ¾ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Add the lettuce, carrots and chicken and toss to combine.

Serve the salad sprinkled with the sesame seeds, noodles and cilantro.


Creamy Spinach Dip

Makes: About 2 1/2 cups Active Time: 15 minutes Total Time: 15 minutes


1 small shallot, peeled

1 5-ounce can water chestnuts, rinsed

1/2 cup reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchâtel)

1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese

1/4 cup nonfat plain yogurt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

6 ounces baby spinach

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives


Pulse shallot and water chestnuts in a food processor until coarsely chopped. Add cream cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, lemon juice, salt and pepper and pulse until just combined. Add spinach and chives and pulse until incorporated.

Tips & Notes

Make Ahead Tip: Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Stir before serving.


Chocolate Peanut Butter
No-Bake Dessert

Prep Time: 15 minutes Total Time: 3 hours Yield: 8 servings


20 Oreo cookies, divided

2 tablespoons butter, softened

1 package (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup peanut butter

1-1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar, divided

1 carton (16 ounces) frozen whipped topping, thawed, divided

15-20 miniature peanut butter cups, chopped

1 cup cold milk

1 package (3.9 ounces) instant chocolate pudding mix


Crush 16 cookies; toss with the butter. Press into an ungreased 9-inch square dish; set aside. In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese, peanut butter and 1 cup confectioners’ sugar until smooth. Fold in half of the whipped topping. Spread over crust. Sprinkle with chopped peanut butter cups. In another large bowl, beat the milk, pudding mix and remaining confectioners’ sugar on low speed for 2 minutes. Let stand for 2 minutes or until soft-set. Fold in remaining whipped topping. Spread over peanut butter cups. Crush remaining cookies; sprinkle over the top. Cover and chill for at least 3 hours.


Gift Ideas When You Have No Idea

There will always be those last minute people you forgot about or the people on your list for whom you have zero clue what to buy. Worry no more! Here’s a simple list of items that are easy to find, affordable to buy and always readily available.

  • Corkscrews & Wine Stoppers
  • Daily planner for the next year
  • USB port
  • Coasters
  • Holiday Collectibles
  • Bottle of dessert wine
  • Board game
  • Ear buds
  • Bluetooth Speaker
  • Local Artists and Authors
  • Decorative Candle
  • Survival Bracelet
  • Cutting Board
  • Accessories
  • Soap Sets
  • Cigars
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