This jack-in-the-box mouse-elf may be my best-ever achievement in ornament-making.
Santa Mouse, Mrs. Claus, her sister? and elves–the whole mouse gang. These mice are Mama’s favorite of all our home-made ornaments.
When I was growing up, every year beginning in early November, my mother and I went to work on hand-crafted Christmas ornaments. Mama is an expert in the D.I.Y. department. She can sew anything, upholster, refinish furniture and floors, paint, wallpaper, set tile, gold-leaf frames, create really lovely silk flowers, and man, is she a whizz at Christmas ornaments. As the first cool breeze of fall could be felt in Atlanta, she was bursting with ideas she had picked up from magazines, craft programs on TV, and her own lively imagination.
So, like Santa’s elves, we worked. Mama and I hand-stitched many ornaments from brightly colored felt: candy cane stick horses, stuffed angels, Rudolfs, and tiny Raggedy Ann & Andy dolls. There were mice peeking out of stockings, as well as free-standing mice dressed as Santa, Mrs. Claus and elves. One year we produced a huge outpouring of painted bread dough ornaments. These didn’t last for more than a few seasons due to insect invasions. When I was about twelve Mama ordered a big set of pre-cut wooden ornaments for me to paint. Then there were the clothespin toy soldiers and the drums made from spools. I returned from college one December to find that my father had gotten into holiday crafting spirit. His specialty was the adorable pasta angel (rigatoni body, bowtie wings, anellini or stellini hair), and he turned out quite a crowd. We shared our ornaments with friends and relatives, often tying them onto gifts, and there were always many left over for us.
One year when Daddy took a rare out-of-state business trip (he went to Reno, and I still have the postcard he sent me), Mama decided we should undertake an especially ambitious project: ornaments resembling stained glass. The “lead” framing was a stiff bread dough that we attempted, with much difficulty, to force out of a pastry gun. The “glass” was formed from melted, cracked hard candy (we used a mallet to beat the candy, wrapped in a tea towel, on the kitchen counter). This was a project that required the unlikely combination of brute strength and extreme patience. I’m not saying we weren’t up to the job. We got it done, but it took its toll. Mama remembers that I stormed out of the kitchen at one point, around 2AM, yelling about the violation of child labor laws. But I came back in, and sometime before dawn, we finished the last ornament. They really did look like stained glass, and they were beautiful. But I’m not sure if they were worth it.
Due to the flurry of holiday preparations, as well as our family tendency toward holiday illness, I know I won’t be writing much, so I’ll devote the next few posts to photos of some of our favorite homemade Christmas ornaments.
The felt and candy-cane stick horse.
Thanks to Mama, these began to roam freely
throughout our Atlanta neighborhood during the 70s.
Does your family have a tradition of home-made ornaments?
Childhood memories of making ornaments under duress? Let me know!
This Thanksgiving, as for several years past, we will not be traveling. We will miss the blessing of giving thanks with our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. But the two sides of the family lie in opposite directions. Neither Atlanta nor Rochester, New York is an easy destination during this holiday season. The only easy destination, of course, is one in the immediate neighborhood, and we are fortunate to be heading there. We are grateful to our good friends who, once again, have invited us to their Thanksgiving table with their extended family. Our daughters have been in school together since Kindergarten, and we’ve grown close over the years. We know the day will be easy and pleasant. Thanksgiving with our gracious neighbors reminds us that friends are family, too.
As an adult, I’ve probably spent more Thanksgivings with friends than with family, due to the difficulties and expense of travel. During graduate school, I never flew home for Thanksgiving, but I was lucky to have friends who included me in their celebrations. I’ve spent the holiday in various spots along the East Coast, from South Jersey to Boston. One year I fell into a great house-sitting gig in a lovely Princeton neighborhood, and I was able to extend Thanksgiving hospitality to a group of international friends. Together we represented Denmark, the Netherlands, Britain, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, and the U.S. (Sweden, also, if I count my husband. We had recently begun dating, and he’s half Swedish. ) I cooked my first turkey and prepared our other family standards. It was a festive, happy day, and it felt good to be the host, instead of the guest, for a change.
Another Thanksgiving during our student days was less pleasant, although the details are vague. For some reason, it was just H and me, and we were preoccupied and dispirited with our research. H was spending long days in his lab at the E-Quad, and I think I was in limbo, awaiting much-delayed advisors’ comments on my dissertation. Seems like I cooked in an unfamiliar kitchen. As students we each lived in a dizzying variety of low-cost rentals, and we were frequent house-sitters. The temporary homes blur together indistinctly now.
My only vivid memory of that day concerns the potatoes. H said he preferred boiled to mashed, a declaration that shocked and somehow insulted me. Boiled potatoes on Thanksgiving? Are you kidding me? But I decided to take the high road, and so I cooked only boiled potatoes. I quickly fell off that road, though. I was angry about the lack of mashed potatoes, angry at myself for overestimating my strength of character, and angry at H, the source of the problem. I made a couple of cutting comments. H retaliated, the dispute escalated. Our heated exchange ranks up there with the more recent Family Dog-Walking Fight (see earlier post). That night we had planned to see the annual tree-lighting in Palmer Square, but I don’t remember if we went or not. (I have since learned how easy it is to reserve some boiled potatoes and mash the rest; I’ve done this nearly once a week now for the last fifteen years.)
I thought about my episode of Thanksgiving pettiness a few days ago during the youth Sunday school class I lead. We had been discussing the story of Jesus healing a group of lepers (Luke 17:11 – 19). Of the ten that are restored to health, only one returns to offer thanks. Apparently the others are so immediately caught up in their earlier lives that they miss the magnitude of the transforming event. No longer slaves to a disfiguring disease that made them grotesque social outcasts, yet they forget to thank their healer. I was like one of those ungrateful, unthinking former lepers that day, lost in the distractions of everyday life. I forgot about the blessings that surrounded me: the presence of H, a kind and loving person who had linked his life to mine, the luxury of higher education, a comfortable place to live, a delightful environment, and most of all, God’s unwavering love. I let the absence of mashed potatoes poison the day.
Therefore, on this Thanksgiving, I will give thanks for life’s tremendous blessings, for friends and family. I won’t let a lack of mashed potatoes* blind me to God’s grace.
*I can proclaim this with confidence, because our friends agree that mashed potatoes, not boiled, are the Thanksgiving standard!
Now that another Halloween has come and gone, I find myself reflecting on the evening, considering some ideas that may improve next year’s experience.
This Halloween we welcomed fewer trick-or-treaters than in previous years. The weather was chilly, but a cold, clear night seems to pep up the kids, not keep them home. The main reason for the deficit, I believe, was that Halloween was on a Monday night. A Monday night! For children, it was a day of school and homework, with another early morning to follow. For working parents, it meant rushing home in traffic to handle costumes and try to deal with dinner. There is no way around it—Mondays (and all weeknights) are awkward nights for Halloweening.
There is a solution. Halloween should be celebrated on the final Saturday of October. If we can move Presidents’ birthdays, why can’t we move Halloween? Congress has the perfect opportunity to make things right with the American people for the distress they caused during the debt-ceiling debacle: they can pass a Halloween-observance law. I am almost serious when I suggest writing our representatives. This is the chance for legislators to do something worthwhile, something that would benefit Americans in all income brackets. This is the first step towards improving Halloween.
The next step is to encourage trick-or-treating among teenagers. I know it’s become acceptable to gripe about “all these big kids” expecting Halloween handouts. But why should we mind so much? Isn’t it good for the collective health of a neighborhood and our country that teenagers are out with the younger children accumulating treats? On this one night each year, shouldn’t we reward their continued interest in the childhood pleasure of candy? Would we rather they be elsewhere attempting to buy alcohol, cigarettes and drugs? These older kids, of course, should abide by the same rules we try to instill in the younger ones: wear a costume, say “Trick-or-Treat,” be polite and show gratitude. I agree that a logo T-shirt is not a costume, and a sullen silence at my door will not earn candy.
We found the teen trick-or-treating presence negligible this year. Our daughter and her six middle school-age friends were among the very eldest of our trick-or-treaters. The only more senior group consisted of three courteous ninth-grade boys who came to the door toward the end of the evening, almost as an afterthought, as though they wanted to see if they could still get candy. We were more than happy to give them chocolate. My daughter will soon be a teenager, and I hate to think her trick-or-treating days are severely numbered. This is only the second year that we have allowed her to go out unaccompanied by an adult on this night. She and her friends are just starting to hit their Halloween stride; it would be a shame for them to have to stop.
It seems to be the tallest children who provoke the most negative feedback when trick-or-treating. Short kids may observe Halloween without community comment until they go off to college, but those blessed with height better stay home once they reach sixth grade. Isn’t this height-based discrimination alarming? My daughter is on track to be taller than me by next year, so I am understandably worried.
If anyone is really working the system, it’s not the teenagers, but the adults who tote around their babies costumed adorably as peapods, caterpillars, fat pumpkins and such. Parents who would never think of allowing their six-month old to put one pearly tooth near a Snickers bar are out on Halloween encouraging tiny fingers to pick out something good and big from the candy bowl. But that’s accepted behavior, and my husband and I capitalized on it, like everyone else, during the first few years of our daughter’s life. An essential part of the Halloween social contract is pretending that the candy is intended for those babes in arms. Because babies are small, cute and very short (again, it’s a height issue), they therefore deserve mass quantities of sugary treats.
And finally, one last point for Halloween improvement: enough with the healthy snacks! On this topsy-turvy night, when the focus is on the weird, the unusual and the unexpected, let’s get with the spirit and allow our kids (the tall and the small) to indulge in the glory of real candy. And let’s stop trying to pass off raisins and pretzels as coveted treats; they have their merits, but they are for the other nights of the year. Halloween should be a much-anticipated departure from the norm. If we start eating healthier on the other days, we’ll really be able to enjoy breaking the rules on that last night of October.