Until today, the homemade clothespin nativity that shelters beneath our little alpine trees in the dining room has included only Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and one shepherd. (Sparkly arctic critters happen to fit in with the high-tech “white sheet as snow” decor.)
The three wise men from the East, along with their flamboyantly curly-haired camel, have been waiting patiently in the background since Advent began in early December.
And now, on the sixth of January, known in the Christian calendar as Epiphany, the long journey of the Magi is complete. They join the Holy Family and pay their tribute to the infant messiah. Their participation in the Biblical nativity narrative is indicative of this important message: God sent his son to be a savior not only for the Hebrew people, but for all the nations. For all of us. For all God’s children.
So in our house, we don’t take the Christmas decorations down until well after January 6th. To do so, it seems, would represent an attempt to symbolically stifle the powerful message of God’s love for all. (It also happens that I’m never ready at this point to begin the laborious process of un-decorating. And it would be inhospitable to kick the Magi out immediately after their arrival.)
On this last day of Christmas, I’ll continue to enjoy the look and lights of the season. They’ll be no boxing up for a while yet.
May the spirit of Christmas sustain, strengthen and bless us all year long. And may it remind us to treat our brothers and sisters near and far, like the family they are.
In May I started work on another dollhouse project, an Orchid House kit from Greenleaf. This was to be my Red Panda House. I envisioned it as home to an extended family of red pandas, to be painted on the house, inside and out. The red panda is a strong contender for my vote for world’s cutest animal. I first learned of the existence of this delightful-looking critter when it was featured in the Pandamania curriculum for Vacation Bible School used by our church in 2011. Since then, it’s become a fixture in pop culture, as in this year’s Disney Pixar film, Turning Red. Development and climate change increasingly threaten the animal’s native habitat, the high-altitude forests of Asia. As a result, the red panda is now considered endangered. I felt the need to build a little painted house that, in my mind, at least, would be a sanctuary for several of these distinctively marked, adorably furry charmers.
This summer, my thoughts rarely strayed too far from Kiko, as I watched his health decline precipitously. My formerly aloof little dog, who typically preferred his own, undisturbed space, had become my constant, needy, anxious shadow. I couldn’t concentrate enough to write much of anything. Few subjects seemed worthwhile or interesting. Plus, it was nearly always time to take Kiko out for another hot, uncomfortable walk. He would be miserable, but perhaps less miserable than he was pacing the house. My mind was a muddle of discordant and undisciplined thoughts. The task of stringing together even a few sentences was often too daunting to tackle.
But work on the Red Panda House helped unclutter my brain. I could cut out a few balsa wood pieces, do some gluing, a touch of painting. I could do it little by little, here and there, a few minutes at a time, yet still know I was making progress. It was slow going, but that didn’t matter. I proceeded methodically, step by small step. Assembling my Red Panda House became, therefore, a therapeutic venture.
In July, as I began to see that we’d be heartless and selfish to let our beloved dog continue to suffer much further in this life, my mother said, “When Kiko is gone, you should paint a picture of him.” She was right, of course. I started thinking about how best to memorialize him. I’d paint a big picture, at some point. But I could also, more immediately, give him a place among the red pandas on the house in progress. I’d completed the front, but the sides still needed inhabitants.
One of the reasons I find the red panda so emphatically appealing is that it reminds me of Kiko. They could be cousins. While the face of the panda is flatter, more like that of a teddy-bear, the muzzle less pointed, the distinctive, perfectly symmetrical markings are similar, as are the ever-perky ears. Like my dog, they have thick, primarily dark red, double-coated fur. Kiko would appear to be very much at home with a group of red pandas, at least when that home was a cozy painted dollhouse of my own creation.
Not long after we said our final goodbye, I painted Kiko onto the house, twice. On one side, he’s a puppy, at about twelve weeks. On the other, he looks as he did on his last day in this realm, at fourteen years, eleven months and three weeks. And like his companions the red pandas, he’s out of harm’s way among the brightly colored flowers and foliage. Never at risk, never worried, never confused. Always present, always confident, always content. And when I’m at home, never far from me.
Yesterday, January 6, was the twelfth and final day of Christmas. In the Christian calendar, it’s commemorated as the Feast of the Epiphany, marking the visit of the Magi to honor and worship the baby Jesus. Accordingly, our clothespin nativity now includes three richly dressed figures, accompanied by a fluffy and festively adorned camel. The biblical account reveals little about the identity of these visitors. They’re described as “wise men from the East,” likely astrologers, as they were led by a star to Bethlehem and the home of the holy family (Matthew 2:1-12). Their offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh attest to their substantial wealth. Because of their Eastern origins, they were probably not Jews. Some sources suggest that they could have been priests of the Zoroastrian religion, widely practiced throughout Persia. Their inclusion in the nativity story serves to demonstrate that the baby Jesus was sent by God to be a savior not only for the Hebrew people, but for all nations. The first to arrive on the scene of the holy birth could not have been more different from the Magi. They were the shepherds, lowly Jewish locals who received a direct invitation from an angel. Thus, the message is clear: the divine child was sent for the good of every one of us. For people of all societal levels, poor and rich, servant and king, near and far. May those of us who profess to be Christians do our best to extend the message of Epiphany, and the message of God’s love, to all our brothers and sisters.
This post was delayed by a day because yesterday I was transfixed, like people the world over, by images of a mob storming our nation’s Capitol. Ironically, this attempt to subvert our democratic process was carried out by supporters directly incited by the “Law and Order” president. A pastor friend of mine has referred to the calamitous events of the day as the “Epiphany Riots.” I join her in hoping that the sight of these disturbing images might prompt at least some Americans toward an epiphany* of their own.
*According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, an epiphany is a “usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”
During my daughter’s younger years, she and I continued the tradition of making Christmas ornaments that my mother and I had begun in my childhood. (See Working Like Elves, and Next-Generation Elves, both from December 2011.) It’s been quite a while since D and I have created a new ornament, but with the unusual circumstances of this holiday season, the conditions were conducive for at-home crafting again.
In a long-forgotten handmade box among the Christmas decorations at my mother’s house, we found brightly colored vintage bulbs and various other odds and ends. Amidst the jumble were toothpick and pipe-cleaner arms from two of our past creations, the pinecone and cork people.
My daughter and I had the same idea at once: Christmas bulb beings. Equipped with a newly uncovered box of miscellaneous ornament makings from Mama’s basement, we spent several happy hours, much as in Yuletide days of yore, working together at the playroom table. (We spent additional time attempting to remove Superglue from our fingers.)
Our new group of Christmas characters includes several with wooden beads for heads, like these red and green twins in acorn caps and sparkly pipe-cleaner scarves. . .
. . .and this royal-looking girl with gold accessories.
There is one apple-headed figure. My daughter enjoys the surrealist touch.
A pom-pom headed boy in a straw hat carries two miniature Christmas ornaments.
A cowboy in a black hat holds a lasso. There’s room in our bulb bunch for all types.
We made a few angels with wings of silk flower petals or glitter-covered card stock.
The bulb beings appear to be settling in well with their fellow ornaments. They owe their existence to the pandemic. Another Covid silver lining. The biggest, for me, of course, is having our daughter here for an extended stay. May you and your family find special blessings during this most peculiar holiday season.
As I was writing my last post, Spring’s New Box of Crayons, an image kept popping up in my mind, a blurry picture from years long past. One of my most memorable gifts as a child was, indeed, a fabulous box of crayons. I was very little, no more than three, but I can’t forget my first glimpse of it under the tree on Christmas morning. The package was unusual for a crayon box. It was long and flat, and it showed two kids drawing. Those crayons saw constant use. Even in our family of thrifty savers and recyclers, the box disappeared many years ago. I’ve often tried to remember its details, wishing I could see it again.
Today, I did. Thanks to the web, even the vaguest of childhood memories are literally at our fingertips. I googled “Vintage 1960s crayons,” and it appeared, as though I’d snapped my fingers and conjured it by magic, much like Samantha used to do in Bewitched:
72 Different colors including 8 fluorescent crayons.
There was the white box, bearing an image of two ideal early 60s-era children, happily creating Crayola masterpieces. The girl wears a pink, full-skirted jumper and white blouse, a pink bow in her neatly ponytailed hair. She sits with her feet tucked up under her in a ladylike position. The boy wears a striped blue and green shirt and belted khakis. His bright red hair has a rakish flip, and he lies stretched out on the floor. One odd detail I certainly didn’t remember: next to the boy’s elbow is a toy dagger. Why in the world is that there? Perhaps to show that wholesome, red-blooded American boys willingly lay down their weapons for a chance to enjoy Crayola crayons? Tough guys color? No need to worry, macho Dads: these crayons won’t turn your son into a sissy?
Inside the box lies the real treasure (and not a single knife): the crayons themselves, arrayed in two long, beautiful parallel rows. My mother has remarked that she was rarely happier as a child than she was upon opening a brand-new box of crayons. For her, growing up during the Great Depression, that was a rare pleasure. I was lucky to open many new boxes of crayons, but I know what she means. And never was the elation more pronounced than when I first peered at all those perfect crayons inside that new white box.
My daughter understands, as well. She returned home from fourth grade one day talking excitedly about her friend’s wonderful new crayons. That the girl was a talented and imaginative artist gave the crayons all the more appeal. They were in a circular, clear plastic box, so all the colors, arranged by shade, were visible. They were so cool! Could she get some? Please? By the end of the week, she, too, was a proud owner.
Along with two classic boxes of 64 crayons, they still remain on the shelves of our former playroom. Barbies and stuffed animals were boxed up (and some even given away) during this summer’s room redo, but the crayons survive. They’re still used, still fun, still relevant. They abide. And now, with the prevalence of coloring books geared toward grown-ups, more likely to be used by all generations.
Even now I love the idea of opening a new box of crayons for the first time. There’s something close to magical in the sight of those flawless little cylinders of color, each paper cover intact, each point sharp and unused. Such potential. The chance for multiple new beginnings. Much like the promise of spring on an April day like today, when the sun is bright and the breeze is fresh.
These clothespin creatures are some of my favorite Halloween decorations. I made them about ten years ago, when my daughter was small. Seems she helped in some way, but I can’t remember exactly how. Maybe she painted the clothespins? Whatever she did or didn’t do, she enjoyed them after they were finished. We both look forward to unpacking them every year.
Because we fared well with our first batch of decorated eggs this season, my daughter and I pushed on. We experimented with natural dyes, without success. Boiled red cabbage suffuses the kitchen with a pungent smell and yields a vibrant reddish-blue color in the pan. Yet eggs left in this liquid for an extended period emerge an innocuous, industrial shade of gray-white. The same is true for beet juice. This might not be the case if we had boiled the eggs slowly with the vegetables, as we have done, with good results, to make our reddish-brown onion skin eggs (See post from April 2012). Surprisingly, only frozen blueberries mixed with water imparted a substantial but subtle color (a dull gray-blue, seen on the egg in the top center, above).
D and I soon turned to the stand-by, store-bought egg-coloring kit. We wanted to try some easy techniques that did not involve paint or markers. Outside in the biting March wind, we foraged for interesting bits of foliage and flowers. We arranged a sprig or a leaf on each egg, wrapped the egg tightly in cheesecloth, tied the ends with yarn and immersed the egg in the dye. We had used the cheesecloth technique before when decorating some of our onion skin eggs. (Pieces of old nylon stocking, recommended by some, did not work for us; they didn’t create a secure enough hold.) This cheesecloth process produces messily impressionistic images, as on the eggs above, instead of clear-cut stencil designs, which suits us fine.
My daughter created this interesting design with nandina leaves, wrapped very tightly to show the weave of the cheesecloth.
We made bolder patterns by simply wrapping rubber bands
tightly around the eggs before dyeing them.
For this design we used a sprig of pine needles bound with a rubber band. It reminds me of waving seagrass in front of a beach fence.
We made polka-dotted eggs by applying stickers before dyeing.
We used a variety of stickers for the eggs above. Our failure to remove the stickers immediately after dyeing made for the only stress of the evening. We spent considerable time trying,
with incomplete success, to scrape off the shredded stickers and the gooey residue.
We used tape to create simple rectilinear designs. It peels off far more easily than stickers.
This year, my daughter and I continued our Easter-week egg-decorating tradition, but we kept the techniques simple and our approach low-key. We dyed these eggs using the tablets from a basic egg-coloring kit and decorated them using acrylic paints or markers. I am happy to report that no family members were harmed, either emotionally or physically, during the decorating of these eggs, which is more than I can say for some years.
For other approaches to egg-decorating (and the upheaval they have provoked), see several posts from April 2012.
For several years it appeared that our gingerbread structures were none the worse for wear despite constant exposure to household elements. When I started to notice a few small flying moths, I searched the pantry, found nothing, and tried to ignore the problem. But the moths became more difficult to ignore. I began to spot them regularly in the vicinity of the playroom hutch, and I was soon led to the source of the dusty-winged pests. Our cheery, kid-friendly cottage, the first of my daughter’s and my combined efforts, had lost its battle with an invading army of mealworms. I remembered then that I had sprayed the house only once, instead of my customary twice, with acrylic fixative. It was time to rethink the year-round gingerbread display.
The pastel candy-covered house went in the trash (despite D’s pleas that it could be saved—the poor child, I fear, has inherited a potential hoarding gene from both sides of the family). I tried to seal and pack the other buildings as thoroughly as my mother would have done. The castle, though, exceeded the size of any box I could find. Mama would have painstakingly pieced together something that would contain it. I did not do this. I wrapped the castle in plastic, tried to tape over the unclosable box flaps, and hoped for the best. We stored all the boxes on shelves in the basement, which, incidentally, no longer flooded.
Just a few months after the village had been packed away, the inadequacy of my storage of the castle becamse dramatically apparent. During every quick trip to the basement, a rustling, scurrying sound could be heard. Before long, we had localized the noise to the castle box. Clearly, it was the pitter-patter of tiny feet. A multitude of mice had hit the housing jackpot; they were living large in a sweet, edible palace. When my husband carried the box to the back yard and opened it, five mice on a sugar high zipped out, ran right back down the steps and disappeared into the murky corners of the basement. The castle had been almost completely denuded of its abundant, exuberant royal icing.
We were forced to reckon with our mice-control system. Capturing them in humane traps, easing their nerves by feeding them Cheerios and then releasing them a couple of miles down the road at the edge of the woods was not yielding the best results. Sadly, we adopted more stringent measures, and we no longer found evidence of mouse parties. But the fate of the castle made me even less eager to unpack the remaining gingerbread houses as December rolled around each year. Seven years passed.
Just after Thanksgiving this year, I decided I had the time, energy and fortitude of mind to confront the stored boxes. Still, I dreaded what I might discover. I knew that our house played host to other creatures besides mice that were likely to enjoy dining on gingerbread.
One by one, I unsealed the boxes and brought out each house. The thatched cottage from 1989 had a few issues with its Shredded Wheat roof, but otherwise it had held up well. The Norman church tower from 1990 was missing only a few crenellations along its roofline. The manor house and its adjoining wing (’91 & ’92) had both survived mostly intact. The white Gothic tower, made to commemorate our wedding in 1995, showed few signs of age. All its surfaces had been completely covered in white royal icing, and I had expected it to have a long life. The replica of St. Kevin’s Kitchen (’96), a playhouse-sized eleventh-century Irish chapel, looked good as new except for having lost its conical chimney cap. Only one building was a loss. The nave of the Norman church (’93) had succumbed to a mealworm infestation like the one that had destroyed the candy cottage. I took each house outside to the back patio for a thorough coating of acrylic spray. The village is back on the playroom hutch again, at least for Christmas (and perhaps through Valentine’s Day).
The Manor House, St. Kevin’s Kitchen (so-called because of its chimney-like tower), the Gothic Bell Tower, and Manor House Wing.
As a toddler, our daughter’s favorite playthings were the various trappings of Christmas. She had little use for actual toys if holiday decorations were at hand. This led to occasional minor heartbreaks when fragile tidbits fell to pieces in her insistent little fingers, but generally she knew how to handle with care.
The first year that I unpacked the gingerbread village in Virginia, D was at my side, bubbling with excitement. She greeted each structure with much admiration, and I was duly flattered. She helped me arrange the buildings, some in the center of the dining room table, others atop the hutch. D could spend hours sitting on the table, setting up various inhabitants among the houses and churches, talking to herself, happily lost in her imagination. The village might host our clothespin nativity figures one day. The felt Christmas mice, or a crowd of Polly Pocket dolls might have the run of the place the next day. The possibilities were nearly endless, just like a child’s busy, growing mind.
D proved to have a knack for creating attractive baked goods. At age three, she was a surprisingly skilled sugar cookie baker. She turned out to be a natural with a pastry bag; her royal icing decorations were top-knotch. Before long, she was asking to help me make a gingerbread house. I realized that she would, indeed, be a capable assistant.
Our first mother-daughter collaboration was a modest cottage. I gave my daughter fairly free reign in terms of decoration, so it was a colorful dream of candy and icing. The next year, we decided to go big. We made an elaborate, turreted gingerbread castle. It was an appropriately exuberant candy palace for a girl who chose to wear a different princess costume every day.
Because I couldn’t face the daunting task of properly sealing, packing and storing the gingerbread village, it became a permanent display in our playroom. Our old house, as I’ve said before, is lacking in closets, and our basement used to flood with every hard rain. The absence of the perfect spot to store the village was a good excuse to simply keep it out all year long. D was glad to have it as a constant companion. Every new holiday brought another chance to redecorate. Our Christmas village had become a town for all seasons.
D, nearly three, arranges the clothespin Mary and baby Jesus on the roof of the thatched cottage.
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.