Next-Generation Elves

 

 

 

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My daughter was born on New Year’s Eve.  We attribute her outsized love of Christmas to her so narrowly missing it that first year.  She is definitely her grandmother’s girl—she inherited her talent for and love of Christmas crafts. She and I continue the tradition of holiday ornament-making that Mama started with me. Like her grandmother, D prefers to use found objects whenever possible. (Our family is historically green in the sense that we’d rather use what’s on hand, even if it means turning the house upside-down, instead of going to the store to get the exact right thing.  We like the challenge of improvisation.)  My daughter has always been a scavenger, a picker-upper of little things and bits of things that she sets aside for an unknown future use. She returned each day from Kindergarten with a different unidentifiable something she had found in the hallway or under a desk. Until recently she collected broken pencil tips. I give thanks everyday that she has outgrown the phase in which she pronounced every gray, forgettable rock along the road a priceless treasure: This is pretty! And so is this! And this tiny one is very beautiful! After even a short walk, our pockets were weighed down with gravel. I quietly returned them to the road later.

A more serendipitous find occurred one day after a pine tree in the neighborhood fell victim to a summer storm. We brought back many branches bearing perfect little pinecones. Even in the July heat, their need to be recycled into some kind of fat-bodied holiday creature called out urgently to both of us. Once home, we went to the craft closet to see what other materials were available. (It’s telling that in our old house, where closets are few, we have one devoted almost entirely to crafts.) We gathered popsicle sticks, toothpicks, large wooden beads, pipe cleaners (chenille stems in crafters’ lingo), plenty of small colored beads, and bags full of acorn caps (of course we collect these—I’m a real sucker for a cute acorn cap!)

D was still in preschool when we made our pinecone people, but she already had a good sense of design. She quickly pushed for toothpick arms and legs. I couldn’t see it—the contrast between the rotund pinecone body and the skinny toothpick seemed too great. But she persisted (she’s stubborn, as well as crafty), and so I agreed to give it a try. Thanks to the magic of the hot glue gun, it was possible to affix the toothpicks down in the depths of each pinecone. And D’s idea was a good one. The resulting figures are particularly active and expressive.  They sit, stand, or jump to attention. Wooden bead heads, jaunty acorn caps, and smaller colored beads for hands and feet completed our woodland people. We drew facial features with a Sharpie.  Some of these piney creatures come out in early fall to mix it up with pumpkins, gourds and leaves. Others, outfitted in red felt capes and scarves, don’t appear until December.

I love the charming simplicity of our pinecone folk.  They remind me that a little magic may be born of the most ordinary circumstances and materials, if we pause and open our hearts to the possibility.  Such opportunities between parent and child become increasingly rare as our children mature.  My advice as the mother of an almost-teen:  recognize and treasure those moments!

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The Holiday Newsletter Quandary

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Well, we still live in the double-wide,
But Bubba’s added on,
A bass-boat shed and a workshop,
And new flamingoes for the lawn.
We took down the front yard tire swing,
Now that Junior’s in the pen,
But it looks like a happy new year:
They moved him off death row again!

—Ray Stevens, Xerox Christmas Letter

I used to write a rather lengthy personal note on each Christmas card.  I vaguely remember a time when this was a pleasure, in an era before the responsibilities of adult life kicked in so emphatically.  Three years ago it had become a dreaded chore, one I simply couldn’t face. (This was compounded by my hand-making each card.)  But I also couldn’t bear not to send Christmas cards.  So, I did what our family had never done before: I wrote a holiday newsletter. Each year I confront the question anew.  Is it tacky?  In bad taste?  Categorically offensive?  Or does it depend on the content, the wording, the tone?

We’ve received many holiday letters. When H and I were first married, one grandly worded missive reported the husband’s acceptance of “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” It was also noted that he already had a perfectly good job when this fantastic proposal came his way. We were quickly removed from that couple’s list, because we never sent a card (or letter) in return.

Most of the newsletters we receive are generous in spirit. The humor is self-deprecating, the tone is not boastful.  They account essential family milestones, ages and interests of the kids, and a few funny incidents.  Most of all, they refresh old friendships.  They help maintain a real connection with those we can’t see on a regular basis.  I enjoy and look forward to letters like these.  I would worry if a regular writer didn’t send one. Was their year too dire for words? Or was our letter considered inappropriate? Did we sound smug, self-aggrandizing, too pleased with ourselves? Or, on the other hand, were we too pitiful or too boring for further correspondence?

In my first letter, I was hesitant to include anything of substance about my husband or me. He went to work and I moved the family’s stuff around. I was more comfortable writing about our daughter and dog.  The next year was filled with bad news, which I tried to report in a comical way.  Following that, there was a frightening medical diagnosis that nevertheless ended on a good note.  This year has had fewer obviously low points, so once again I’m wary of sounding boastful. H doesn’t help. Each December, when I show him my first draft, he asks: Should we really send this? I know exactly how he feels, but I still get angry because I spent two days writing it.

Will it go out this year?  Probably.  But I’m not sure.  Still pondering the question of the holiday newsletter.  Maybe just one more revision.

Meanwhile, our family welcomes your letters!

Happy Holidays to All!

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The Christmas Donkey and Little Lambs

Family and friends began giving my daughter Christmas picture books as her first birthday approached.  She has quite a collection now. Two of our favorites are The Donkey’s Dream, by Barbara Helen Berger, and The Christmas Donkey, by Gillian McClure.   The subject of both books is the donkey that carried Mary and her unborn baby to Bethlehem.  The life of this ordinary donkey is powerfully transformed by his participation in the Christmas miracle.  The stories are lovely, as are the illustrations, which recall medieval illuminated manuscripts. 

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The two books brought special meaning to this sweet little gray donkey I made as a somewhat later addition to our felt ornaments.  He is unique–strangely, I only made one.

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These lambs are reminders of the other animals
that witnesssed the miraculous birth. 

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The Christmas Donkey and Little Lambs

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Family and friends began giving my daughter Christmas picture books as her first birthday approached.  She has quite a collection now. Two of our favorites are The Donkey’s Dream, by Barbara Helen Berger, and The Christmas Donkey, by Gillian McClure.   The subject of both books is the donkey that carried Mary and her unborn baby to Bethlehem.  The life of this ordinary donkey is powerfully transformed by his participation in the Christmas miracle.  The stories are lovely, as are the illustrations, which recall medieval illuminated manuscripts. 

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The two books brought special meaning to this sweet little gray donkey I made as a somewhat later addition to our felt ornaments.  He is unique–strangely, I only made one.

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These lambs are reminders of the other animals that witnesssed the miraculous birth. 

 

Pasta Angels

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These little angels are made of pasta except for their wooden heads, the occasional bead halo or acorn-cap.  Assemble them with a good white glue like Sobo or use a hot glue gun.  While they can be painted or dusted in glitter, I prefer the natural color of the         pasta,  which glows beautifully in the tree lights.

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The two angels on the right show their age in their darker color.
They date from my father’s angel-making period in the 1980s.

The lighter colored angel was made a year ago. 

Drums & Drapery Ring Ornaments

Because my mother sewed constantly, we had a bounty of spools, which we recycled into these little drums.

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The round red frame for this ornament is a painted clay drapery  ring.  We used these summery Joan Walsh Anglund cut-outs (two, to create a 3-D effect) simply because we had them, I assume.  My mother is a stickler for seasonal appropriateness (no white shoes after Labor Day, etc.), and I’m surprised she let this one slip by.

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Recently, for a more elegant look, Mama gold-leafed these rings and I added images from Renaissance Madonna and child paintings.

Painted Wooden Ornaments & Clothespin Soldier

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This rocking horse arrived in a big set of wooden ornaments when I was twelve.  I was strongly encouraged to paint them all.
I used the chalky water-based paint in the set,  and they began to look shabby in a few years.  We never throw anything away,
so I repainted them with Testor’s enamels when I was in college.
Now they should last through the 21st century.

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Rudolf seems to appreciate the repainted wreath.

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We created an entire army of clothespin soldiers.

 

Working like Elves

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.

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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! 

A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.