Category Archives: Crafts

My Medieval English Gingerbread Village


Back in 1989, home from grad school one winter break, I had enough free time to try my hand at making a gingerbread house. I had spent the previous year living in England researching my dissertation, and visions of picture-perfect country villages were rattling around in my head. I loved the quaint homes lining narrow lanes, the dwellings in use since medieval times and only gaining in charm over the centuries. I was especially fond of the thatched cottages with their half-timbered facades and slanting walls. When I saw Martha Stewart’s masterful gingerbread replica of her Turkey Hill farmhouse, I was further inspired. I liked its relative architectural correctness and its conspicuous absence of frou-frou candy cuteness typically associated with gingerbread buildings.

So I set out to make a thatched cottage. I used Martha Stewart’s recipe and diligently followed her gingerbread-baking tips. I remember thinking my mother was overly uptight when she expressed some dismay at my timing; I began rolling out the dough a day or so before our annual Christmas party. Now I know exactly how she felt. Recently I was struggling to prepare for out-of-town guests when I noted with incredulity that my daughter had plunged into an ambitious beading project that required table surfaces in several rooms. Mama, please accept my belated apology!

That first house took about a week to bake and assemble. If I had thought I could finish it by the party, I was certainly mistaken. It wasn’t even done by Christmas, as that year’s holiday photos attest; it can be glimpsed in the background, roofless, Progresso soup cans supporting its walls. But by New Year’s Eve it was complete, from its Gothic windows, snow-topped chimney and roof of Shredded Wheat, which bears a remarkable resemblance to thatch.

Gingerbread is generally considered a fragile, impermanent medium. But this is not necessarily the case. Like the thirteenth and fourteenth-century cottages I so admired in England, my first gingerbread house has had a long life. It is still with us. The strength of royal icing, a mixture of powdered sugar and egg whites, should not be underestimated, and a clear acrylic spray does wonders to protect gingerbread surfaces.

During the 90s I made other houses and several churches, all in a subdued palette and reflecting various medieval periods. A gingerbread village evolved. Each January I flew back to New Jersey, leaving my mother to deal with the increasingly time-consuming task of storing the houses. She was a faithful (if somewhat understandably resentful) curator of the collection. She kept the village on display atop the hall bookcases until after Valentine’s Day, when she sealed the houses in plastic bags and carefully taped boxes.

By the time H and I bought our home in Virginia, Mama was eager to retire as gingerbread caretaker. House by house, the village began the trek from Atlanta in the back of my parents’ station wagon. I saw, with some alarm, that it would be up to me to deal with the complicated preservation demands of theoretically edible structures prone to decay.  As in every craft project, the fun is in the design and fabrication, not in routine maintenance. I wasn’t sure I wanted this new role, but abandoning the houses to the trash bin was not an option.


The first four buildings of the gingerbread village, displayed
in my parents’ dining room in 1993.

New This Year: Spooky Trick-or-Treaters


This fall, my daughter and I spent several amusing afternoons in production of these big-headed, bug-eyed trick-or-treaters to add to our Halloween decorations.  Using a Dremel, we drilled indentations for the wooden bead eyes, which we anchored with Sobo glue.  Our goal was to create a variety of strange and crazy-looking little figures, so we rather indiscriminately raided the craft closet in search of odd miscellaneous items.

For hair, we used yarn, felt, an old shade pull, and some of the stuffing that Kiko was at the time pulling out from the toy he was attacking.  Hats are acorn caps, wooden craft cups, and in one case, a plastic spider ring.  For bodies we used small spools or corks.  Toothpicks or wooden beads form the arms.  One figure received oversized white plastic hands on springs that came with a set of Halloween pencil-toppers. We made two dogs, one with ears of pecan shells, the other with wooden bead ears.  Maple leaves from a craft punch adorn several of the creatures.  We covered miniature Nerds boxes with orange paper to make trick-or-treat bags.  Because we didn’t intend our creations to be perfect or traditionally cute, no one (and I won’t name names) flew into a rage when a slight crafting hitch or two arose.


Ready for Halloween: Papier-Mâché Jack-o’-Lantern Friends

These two jolly Jack-o’-Lantern friends were inspired by a vintage Halloween decoration my mother found in a catalogue.  Several years ago, my daughter and I made the heads out of papier-mâché, using the tried-and-true Kindergarten method of newspaper strips applied to balloons with watery white glue. For the bodies, we wired together sticks from the yard, which we draped with muslin for the gowns.  The black cloaks were formed from two mens’ drawstring shoe bags.  The friends take their place every October on our dining room sideboard.  This year we surrounded them with bittersweet branches and used two mercury-glass hurricane candle-holders for support.




Anticipating a happy Halloween!

Onion-Skin Eggs

These reddish-brown eggs dyed with onion skins seem appropriately colored for Good Friday.  Simply boil the eggs with lots of skins from ordinary yellow onions.  We cook the eggs at low heat for at least an hour.  The longer the boiling time, the richer and deeper the color.  The low heat helps to seal the yolk in a neat pocket.  If no cracks develop, the eggs may be kept for several years.   To create a print of leaves or flowers, using cheesecloth, wrap the plant tightly against the egg.  Tie the top and bottom ends with cooking twine and add the egg to the pot. 



This egg shows the deep red color possible with a long cooking time.

Easy, Peaceful Marbleized Eggs

An easy, stress-free approach to egg decorating (much appreciated after our Ukrainian conflagration) is this technique for marbleizing eggs.  Having learned a valuable lesson, we began by boiling our eggs.  We used the dye tablets from a typical kids’ egg decorating kit, added a drop or two of olive oil, and immersed the eggs.  The results are pretty, if subtle.  No unusual tools, hot wax or flames required.   


We wanted very pale colors for these eggs.
Darker hues, of course, are possible using longer dyeing times.


A Dangerous Game: Ukrainian-Style Egg-Decorating

One year, Mama sent a kit for decorating eggs in the traditional Ukrainian style. A far more ambitious undertaking than our decoupage eggs, it required actual skill in addition to careful planning and immense reserves of patience.

We knew immediately that the intricate, perfect geometry of the typical Ukrainian patterns were beyond us, so we opted for simplified, free-form designs.  We diligently followed the detailed instructions, using the writing tool called the kistka to draw a design with hot beeswax.  We then immersed the egg in one of the dye colors.  This drawing and dyeing process was repeated several times.  Finally, we removed the wax by holding the egg near a candle flame.  We managed to create some attractive and unique eggs that bore no resemblance at all to those pictured in the kit.

We might have completed the project without incident had the eggs been less fragile.  As instructed, we used raw eggs.  And as we learned, one tends to grip an egg firmly while drawing on it with an unfamiliar, hot-wax dispensing tool.  Sometimes one grips too firmly, resulting in an egg being launched, missile-like, across the room.  The shattered egg stirred up the sudden and fiery wrath of my daughter.  Just as quickly, I was ignited by her anger.  Engulfed in a fit akin to spontaneous combustion, I hurled the egg I was holding onto the kitchen floor. I threw this egg (nearly-completed and painstakingly designed), with considerable force, making the inevitable clean-up all the more painful.  In a household of flammable tempers, holiday decorating has its perils.


The kit, showing some ideal Ukrainian designs.


 Only a few of our Ukrainian-inspired eggs survive.


Egg-Decorating Time

Egg decorating has always been a major concern at our house during the week before Easter.  My mother’s love of Easter crafts is almost as pronounced as her devotion to Christmas decorations.  In order to ensure the continuation of the family tradition, nearly every spring she sends new ideas for egg decorating or a specialty kit.  Several years ago, thanks to Mama, my daughter and I tried our hand at decoupage eggs.  This is a fun and relatively child-friendly approach to egg decorating.  It requires minimal skill, a bit of patience, and a tolerance for sticky fingers.  An appreciation for Mod Podge is a plus. The results can be very charming.   


Some of our favorite decoupage egg designs.



The kit included several blown-out goose eggs, which offer more decorating space.  These eggs adorn our Easter tree each year.


The Best Part of Valentine’s Day: Before the Day


One of my favorite childhood memories is sitting at the kitchen table, eating cinnamon red hots and making Valentines. I can see the bright February sunshine warming up the room. Popi would be sleeping nearby on the dining room rug. After a while we’d hear Daddy’s car come up the driveway as he arrived home from work. Before long it would be time for dinner. It’s a vision of complete, homey contentment.

When I was little, my mother and I would make our Valentines together. We’d each make one for Daddy, and she would help me with those I gave out to my classmates. We used all the typical materials: red and pink construction paper, doilies, flowers and hearts that we cut from old greeting cards. As I got older I might use watercolors to paint my own designs. Our supplies were far more limited in those days. There were no stores that stocked a nearly infinite variety of stickers, archival papers, fancy cutters, punches and the like. Martha Stewart was still just a hardworking caterer.

The preparatory time was what I enjoyed most. The lead-up was always better than the day itself. I have few recollections of an actual Valentine’s Day during elementary school. The clearest memory I have is painful. In fifth grade, a boy gave me a heart-shaped box of Valentine candy. Of course, he was not a boy that I “liked,” so the gesture made me feel sad and uncomfortable. I wished I liked him. I knew how he felt; I was familiar with the misery of unrequited love. I liked another boy who didn’t like me. Fortunately, though, I hadn’t given him a special gift that made me feel even worse.

This seemed to set the pattern for my Valentine’s Days throughout middle and high school. A card, flower or candy, if one came, would be from a nice boy I didn’t like. If I ventured out and gave a gift, it was unlikely to be reciprocated. Although I kept my expectations low, the day was either mildly disappointing or fraught with anxiety. Best, then, to enjoy making cards for my parents and a few extras that I could pin on my bulletin board, eat red hots, and appreciate the winter light.


Sitting by the kitchen window prompted me to paint this Valentine tree.  I painted lots of heart-trees during my early teens.
They were easier than trees with other foliage.


This heart is made from strips of rolled paper, inspired by a library book Mama found on the art of quilling.  Now, there are kits to do this type of thing.

Cape Cod Shell Angels


My husband’s family has vacationed in Cape Cod since he was a little boy. They cherish their time on the Cape. It’s a Family Tradition marked by capital letters and exclamation points. They will battle illness and adversity to reach the Cape. Fortunately, I appreciate the unique environment as much as they do. We began taking our daughter there when she was two. Her love of the Cape was immediate, as natural to her as breathing. H’s parents were immensely pleased with the discerning wisdom of their young granddaughter.

Our quaint little rental cottages look out across the bay to the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown and the lighthouse at the tip of the Cape. We feel privileged to spend time each summer in this transitional, luminous, glorious spot. As in such magical places as Cornwall, Mont St. Michel and Key West, the expected balance of land and water has shifted. The land resembles a narrow ribbon drifting on the water. The sky is vast. The light is awe-inspiring, ever-changing.

The land itself is in constant flux. I was unprepared for the quiet drama of the bay. Growing up, my beach experiences were limited to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coasts of Georgia’s  islands. Both are beautiful areas, but they lack the sharply defined tidal contrasts of Cape Cod Bay. Every year without fail, soon after we arrive, a knock at our screen door signals Grandpa’s delivery of our copies of the tide chart, our guide to daily life. At low tide, the flats extend nearly as far as the eye can see. The shallows glimmer like silver in the shifting sunlight. When the tide begins to rush in, the change is at first almost imperceptible. Before long, though, the water is swirling around us, its determined, unstoppable force clearly evident. At least once every day, we watch as the expanses of sand shrink into islands, smaller and smaller, before they become completely submerged again.

The bay is not a prime beach for shelling, but occasionally it offers up its particular treasures. Every so often, during an especially low tide, scallop shells dot the flats like pale, muted jewels, their colors subtle and austere. Naturally, my daughter and I collect them. Over the years we had acquired several sand pails full before we discovered an ideal, simple way to transform the shells into appropriate mementos. With the addition of a few beads and smaller shells, they became Christmas angels. (Once again, the hot glue gun allowed us to turn out a host of ornaments quickly and easily.)

Our little angels keep Cape Cod with us during the off-season. The medieval pilgrimage connotations of the scallop shell give the angels a certain dignity and make them all the more evocative. One of the world’s first souvenirs, the scallop shell became the emblem of the pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela, the several routes of which stretch through the mountains of France to northern Spain. Tourism on a grand scale was born in these pilgrimage routes, and the Way of St. James continues to attract pilgrims, many still on foot. Medieval pilgrims were, to some degree, tourists, just as many of today’s tourists are, in a sense, pilgrims. For travelers of the eleventh or the twenty-first century, whether navigating the perils of wilderness paths or the trials of Interstate 95, the goals of the journey are similar and elemental: an escape from the daily routine, the promise of adventure, a firmer grasp of life’s real meaning, and the opportunity for spiritual renewal. I love it that such richness of meaning is tied up neatly in the humble shell angels on our Christmas tree. *

*One final, fitting point of interest: our scallop shells wash ashore near the place where our country’s first pilgrims landed. As most of us learned and later forgot, the Mayflower’s initial stop in the new world was in what is now Provincetown Harbour.