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.
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.
These lambs are reminders of the other animals that witnesssed the miraculous birth.
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.
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.
Because my mother sewed constantly, we had a bounty of spools, which we recycled into these little drums.
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.
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.
Rudolf seems to appreciate the repainted wreath.
We created an entire army of clothespin soldiers.
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!
We first saw the puppies when they were just over a month old and past the point at which they are susceptible to human germs. A tiny Shiba pup can hardly be surpassed for cuteness: a roly-poly bundle of red fur, soft as mink, with a face resembling that of the ideal Teddy Bear. The short muzzle is dramatically dark, and the ears, which will point straight up in a few weeks, still flop over at the tips. The tail is a little thing that could fit on a chipmunk, a far cry from the bushy doughnut-like shape it will take on. So new to the world, the puppies appeared meek and uncertain when we arrived. Four became increasingly active during our visit. They explored the limits of their small home with growing boldness and persistence, while the fifth snoozed soundly. Cuddling a furry bunch of pure sweetness the color of brown sugar, I didn’t mind (too much) when I realized it had peed on my shirt. (We’re pretty sure this was our boy-to-be).
Because the “pick of the litter” male and female had been reserved for buyers in the dog-show world, we couldn’t simply choose a puppy. Debbie was evaluating the pups during their first two months, to determine which would make the best show dogs. In our eyes, only very subtle markings set the five apart, and they all looked perfect. The dog show circuit was not for us. One of the males was somewhat darker that the others. He had inherited his father’s rich red coloring. This would turn out to be our Kiko.
When we visited again in two weeks, the puppies had grown considerably and blossomed in personality. Their bodies were sturdier, their ears stood up, their tails were furrier. This time we went out with them into the enclosed yard, where they exhibited a wildly exuberant fierceness. They ran, they tumbled, they attacked a big stuffed bear. And they assaulted one another (and us) repeatedly with their teeny sharp puppy teeth and toenails. The two females were especially aggressive, often leaving their brothers reeling with bewilderment. Not without good reason are female dogs called bitches. One of the males latched onto our daughter’s hair and clung on tenaciously. Again, this would be our Kiko. During his first weeks at home he periodically treated human hair as his own special toy.
At eight weeks we could bring our puppy home. We had brought the travel crate, but we couldn’t bear to put Kiko in it. D was eight and still in her booster seat, so she got settled and took the puppy in her lap. He was understandably anxious, having just been wrenched from Mama and his pack. Clearly he wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else, and D couldn’t hold the slippery, wriggly, strong-willed little guy. When I leaned back to get him, he looked up at me with such sorrow and confusion I almost cried. Debbie had given us a stuffed fox that had been in the kennel with the pups and had the smell of home. (Foxy is still Kiko’s favorite toy. I have re-stitched her seams several times.) I tried to cuddle Kiko and Foxy together, but the puppy was inconsolable. His instinct was to escape. He was determined to climb up the sides of the car, onto the dash, even onto H’s lap as he drove.
Once home and out on the porch in the sunshine, exhausted from the anxiety of the ride, Kiko promptly fell into a deep sleep in D’s lap. That night, Kiko endeared himself to H by sleeping on his foot as we sat on the sofa. All was peaceful. I marveled that this small fuzzy four-legged creature was with us in our home. I noticed that his little tummy was freckled and nearly hairless. He looked vulnerable and defenseless. Already I loved him so much. But some tough days of puppyhood lay ahead, for all of us.
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!