Christmas From Scratch


All month long I’m going to be hosting the posts of other people as part of my 2015 Giftmas Blog Tour. All the guest bloggers are welcome to write about anything they’d like so long as their post touched on a December holiday in some way, no matter how tangentially. The blog tour extends beyond my blog as well, and I will do my best to link to each external post from the here and share them on social media using the hashtag #GiftmasTour.

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Christmas from Scratch

By Virginia Carraway Stark

My Mom loved Christmas. She loved the music, she loved the lights, she loved the tree, she loved the baking and most of all, she loved decorating. She adored making arts and crafts and she funneled all her extra creativity into making her family an entire Christmas from scratch. She didn’t do it alone though, the whole family was conscripted to pitch in.

We had a few ‘store bought’ glass globes that were ancient works of art from the fifties and forties. If one of those glass globes was to break my mother would mourn it as though it were a lost child and cradle the bits of broken glass in her hands. They were hand-painted and had carefully portrayed scenes of children mid-way through a snowball fight or a couple snuggling on a sleigh ride. Each one was unique and a little miracle master-piece. Little fake feathered birds with wires coming out of their feet perched on the branches inquisitively.

dough artMost of the ornaments were made fresh every year. My mother was a play dough wizard.

Many of the ornaments were two dimensional cookie cutter pieces of art but some of them, mostly the ones my mom made were honestly pieces of gorgeous folk art.

She would start by making a batch of dough, she would boil the water and mix in the salt so that it wasn’t grainy and lumpy and after that add more and more flour until we had an enormous batch of pale white dough for the whole family to begin creating with.

Nobody was immune from making Christmas decorations, and the dough-art was only the start. Even my smallest brother who was only a toddler at the time was shown how to carefully roll out the dough and push in the cookie cutter. A metal paper clip was pushed into the top of the decorations so that later on we could tie ribbons to them to attach them to the tree and then they were ready to be baked. After they were cooked in the oven at a low temperature they would be removed and allowed to cool while we went on making more trays of artwork.dough art 2

Once the cooked Christmas trees, sleighs, reindeer, Santa, stars and a plethora of other designs were cooled the painting would begin.

The painting was a miracle all in its own to me. A few drops of food coloring would be added to a little bit of evaporated milk and voila: paint! We were allowed to mix our own colors and had fun learning how the different colors combined to form new ones. Dozens of different colored little paper cups of evaporated milk would cover the kitchen as the whole family would sit down and create. For the larger, coarser sections we would use q-tips and for the delicate parts of faces or trim we had little paint brushes that we would pass between us.

My mother was the master at the art of dough. She rarely used the cookie cutters, she was the queen of three dimensional dough art. I swear she could make anything out of dough, In her hands little balls of dough would transform into dolls with angel’s wings. Turtle doves would spring out of her fingertips. She would use a garlic press to make materials to build nests for her birds or hair for her dolls. She made so many works of art.

dough art miceShe would use little bits of this and that to make the little incarnations as realistic as possible and draw on little smiling faces.

Whether it was one of my mother’s works of art or one of my tentative and slightly lopsided attempts to make an angel doll or even one of my baby brother’s barely recognizable Christmas trees they would be sprayed with lacquer to shine them up and keep the color vibrant and bright. A lot of my Mom’s decorations ended up being given away as gifts and we only saved the best of our efforts for the next year so that we could do the process all over again the coming year.

Dough-art wasn’t the only thing to go on our tree either. We would make huge bowls of popcorn and thread needles, put on A Christmas Story or some other movie on and make popcorn garlands with dried cranberries interspersed for color. Threading the popcorn on a needle was harder than it looked but since most of the popcorn ended up getting eaten anyway, it wasn’t the most strenuous of chores.

We would also take construction paper and cut it into short strips. Some of these would be decorated with glitter or markers and others would be plain, but whatever the case they would be looped together in long chains that would be wrapped around the tree along with the dough popcorn garland

It wasn’t a fancy looking tree in the end. It wasn’t in matching colors, it wasn’t a designer tree but we had a lot of fun decorating it and every year it was different. We had little lights that looked like candles and it looked like a tree that was loved. Every year the same angel sat on top of the tree, overlooking our hard work with a pleasant little smile on her face.

Under her benevolent gaze we made gingerbread cookies and houses. We played Christmas music on the piano and sang loudly and enthusiastically while we waited for our sweets to come out of the oven. Sometimes we couldn’t wait for them to cool and with evil indulgence we would dip them into the bowls of multicolored icing and make sweet, warm goopy messes.

We didn’t spend a lot of money on presents but that wasn’t the point of those Christmas’. Not then, the gifts were often handmade and when they weren’t they were rarely expensive. That wasn’t the point. My Dad would often say, ‘If you need something we’ll buy it for you and if I want to buy you a present, I’ll do it anytime of the year that I want.’

Things changed over the years and those sorts of Christmas’ broke apart with my parent’s divorce. My Mom stopped making dough-art and my stepmother decorated the Christmas tree in matching designer decorations that I wasn’t allowed to touch. Christmas presents became more expensive and less important and we didn’t make paper or popcorn garlands for the tree. Nobody sang anymore as a deep self-consciousness crept into the divided family, the piano was long since gone.

My mother is gone now and I don’t have any of her dough-art creations anymore, but I certainly have the memories. We were far from a perfect family, but in the dark of winter with the warmth of the wood stove and knowledge that in the darkness we formed a circle of light kept us together.

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2 thoughts on “Christmas From Scratch”

  1. “…and those sorts of Christmas’ broke apart with my parent’s divorce.”

    And in one line, you dashed my heart to bits, too. What lovely memories! And how sad that they truly became a thing of the past, not because of growing older, but because of such a drastic life event. 🙁

    But, as you so beautifully said, “…in the darkness we formed a circle of light kept us together.” That’s all families can try to do. That’s all ANYONE can try to do, find others to make a light with. Thank you for sharing these memories with us.

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