As some of you know, my family really likes making our own Christmas wreaths. This year was no exception. I think six or seven wreaths were made during our annual Thanksgiving Family Retreat and Wreath-making Extravaganza.
In prior years, we’ve roamed our cousins’ property cutting boughs from a wide variety of pine and fir trees. This year we used the scraggly lower branches of a couple freshly cut balsam fir Christmas trees and some showier white pine for accents.
For some reason, I got it in my head that I wanted to go with a white and gold color scheme for my wreath:
My bow is a little small, but that’s what you get for buying a new, unmarked roll of wired ribbon at Goodwill. I still like it, but I’ll probably keep adjusting the bow all season.
Once I get my gold Christmas lights up outside, it should look even better. This may be my favorite wreath so far.
Making wreaths is one of my favorite family traditions. What are your favorite creative holiday traditions?
The only downside of our family’s new Thanksgiving tradition of making our own fresh Christmas wreaths? I’m always the last one to finish. But the effort is worth it.
We’re fortunate to have access to plenty of balsam, white pine, red pine and other random evergreens on our cousins’ wooded property, but this time of year you can usually buy boughs (or maybe even pick up free trimmings) wherever live Christmas trees are sold. For us, going out to cut the branches is half the fun.
We foraged mostly for balsam, white pine, and red pine, but a little spruce, hemlock, and jack pine may have worked their ways into our pile of greens. We didn’t have our full contingent of wreath makers this year, so we only filled one wheelbarrow with boughs.
It gets messy dealing with all those pine needles, so this year we tried putting the branches on a tarp to make clean up easier. It helped, but we still had to do a lot of vacuuming when we were done.
Most of us re-used our old wreath frames. They’re not expensive, and in January when people discard their Christmas wreaths they’re pretty much free for the picking; if you want to take time to remove the old greens you’ll have a usable frame. (One of my older blog posts explains how to deconstruct a wreath.)
This year my sister decided to make a swag instead of a wreath. She made her own frame by bending a coat hanger into a diamond shape, and our cousin, Mark, happened to have some chicken wire to stretch over the hanger.
With a frame in place, it’s time to start bundling. Some people make several bundles and wire them to the frame at once, others wire each bundle to the frame as they go. I did a little of each. Hoping to speed up my work this year, I only used about 5 sprigs per bundle…usually four balsam plus one of the showier greens. Last year I think I did seven or eight.
Here are a few more photos of the process…
Mark had to help me finish the last third or so of my wreath so we could take the photo before dark. The last two years I thought I was slow because I’m allergic to pine sap and have to wear gloves. But in the photos above you can see Lisa and Brice wore gloves this year too. Yet I was still the slowest wreath maker.
Later that evening, Mary helped Lisa and me make bows, and the next day we added our finishing touches. My decorations include a few pine cones, some gold jingle bells I bought at a dollar store in Eagle River, and the bow made of ribbon I bought at Goodwill in Rhinelander. Here are our finished masterpieces:
And the game-changer this year, Lisa’s swag:
As a kid, I always looked forward to when our neighbor, Mrs. Anderson, gave our family a loaf of her homemade cinnamon bread. My favorite way to eat it was to broil thin slices with a little butter on top, and then unswirl my way through each piece so every bite had some of the cinnamon filling.
Before she moved away, Mrs. Anderson gave me this copy of her recipe.
As delicious as Mrs. Anderson’s Cinnamon Bread was, it took me several years before I dared to test her recipe. Why? It might be hard to see in the photos above, but her recipe is a little vague. Sort of like the incomplete recipes contestants are challenged with in the second round of each episode of The Great British Baking Show.
Maybe seven or eight years ago I decided to give it a try, and it actually turned out great.
First problem: I couldn’t tell from her handwriting if she wrote “a scant TB of dry yeast” or “2 scant TB of dry yeast.” I went with one packet of dry yeast. It worked.
Other question marks:
- “a little sugar”
- “2/3 to 3/4 C sugar”
- “enough flour to be able to knead”
- “roll dough into rectangles”
- “spread with softened margarine”
- “sprinkle brown sugar over dough”
- “..and then a mixture of sugar and cinnamon”
- “roll up”
- “[bake] 35 min or so – or until you think it looks done”
This is how I addressed these questions:
- pinch of sugar
- 2/3 cup sugar
- roughly 5 cups of flour
- roll the narrowest part of the dough slightly smaller than the pan I plan to use
- soften one stick of butter and use it to both grease the pans and spread of the dough
- sprinkle two generous handfuls of brown sugar over the dough
- dust about 1-1/2 Tablespoons of cinnamon sugar over the brown sugar
- tightly roll dough starting from one of the narrow ends and seal all edges
- bake at least 45 minutes, depending on the size of the pan
I quickly realized my pans are smaller than hers were, so I usually make two mini loaves as well. Once I started doing that I didn’t have to worry as much about the filling spilling out of the pans and burning in the oven. (Just to be safe I always cover the bottom rack with aluminum foil.)
Here’s a little photo journey of the bread I made this weekend:
Because this is a rich dough — containing sugar, eggs, vanilla, and butter — it tends to be wetter and a bit softer than traditional bread dough. After five or six minutes of kneading, the dough needs to rise until doubled in bulk.
Luckily, the radiators were just warm enough (without being too hot) to do the trick. I covered the bowl loosely with plastic, and topped it off—as the late great Julia Child might say— with an impeccably clean towel.
I love the idea of taking a photo before the dough rises to help gauge when it’s doubled in size. Compare this to the previous photo of dough.
Next is the fun part—hand kneading the dough, dividing it in half, and then trimming a little extra off each half to make the small loaves.
I don’t want to overwork the dough at this point. I just knead it for a minute or so to smooth it out. I knead until it feels a bit like soft bubblegum. Then it’s time to roll. I like longer rectangles, because they result in more swirls when then bread is sliced.
Next, brush with the softened (in this case over-softened) butter, sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon sugar mixture, then start rolling it up.
Repeat with the rest of the dough and they’re ready to bake.
The smaller loaves were done after about 40 minutes, but the larger ones took 10-15 minutes longer, proving that even when you try to make sense of a vague recipe, you still wind up with inexact instructions.
This bread freezes really well. Because I made it ahead of time and froze it for our big family Thanksgiving, I don’t have a photo showing the inside of a loaf. I’ll try to get a photo of the swirled cinnamon goodness when we finally cut into these beauties. If I do I’ll add it to the post later.
I’m really glad I decided to try to decipher Mrs. Anderson’s recipe. My bread might not be exactly the same (I use skim milk and real butter instead of 2% or whole milk and margarine), but no one has complained about it yet. Not unless they’re complaining that someone else ate the last piece.
When I was still in school, some friends of the family gave my dad a box of chocolate almond toffee from a specialty candy maker. It was delicious, addictive, and very expensive, so I set out to replicate the toffee as closely as possible. That meant testing several recipes and using them as a blueprint for developing my own tightly guarded recipe.
Ever since, I give homemade toffee to friends and family as part of their Christmas gifts each year. I never realized how much my cousin’s family liked it until a few years ago when two of them arrived at our family gathering on Christmas Day greeting me with a hug and, “Merry Christmas! Did you make the toffee this year? We were talking about it on the way here!” They even asked if I’d share the recipe.
They seemed somewhat trustworthy, so I gave them my top secret recipe. I guess their first attempt didn’t turn out well, but candy can be tricky to make. A degree or two the wrong way and it’s either too soft or burnt. It’s my recipe and even I’ve lost a couple batches over the years due to poor timing.
Since we were planning a multi-day Thanksgiving retreat this year, I brought all the ingredients and a candy thermometer. The cousin who helped me make the toffee had to leave before it was set, so my 9-year old niece stepped in and spread the chocolate and sprinkled the almonds on top. It turned out perfectly.
Just to taunt my cousin a bit, we sent her this photo of the final product. The toffee always goes quickly – I just hope her dad was able to resist eating the toffee we set aside for her!
What are some of your family’s favorite holiday treats?
Earlier this month, on I Love Yarn Day, I said the color work cowl I made for my sister was my final non-holiday knitting or crochet project of the year.
Yeah, um…I got lured in by an interesting new pattern.
I can’t justify spending $80-90 on the gorgeous yarn the pattern was designed for, especially when I don’t know if the project will turn out well. Luckily I had plenty of a much cheaper (but nice!) yarn on hand from an abandoned project. I compared the weight, yardage, wraps-per-inch and gauge of the two yarns, and they were close. Very close. I had the right needles, so I cast on. This is how far I was by day three:
The pattern is fun. After a border of alternating sections of garter (knit every row) and stockinette (knit one row, purl the next), the “mixed texture” repeats begin: a simple arrowhead-like lace pattern followed by a few rows of seed stitch. I have a couple more repeats to go before any shaping starts.
The structure looks simple. Start at the bottom and knit the back and sides as one unit — no piecing, hooray! — and eventually divide the block into sections to form the shape. The tricky bit will come when the main piece is done and it’s time to “evenly” pick up 200+ stitches from the front bottom edge on one side, all the way around the neck, and down to the bottom of the other side. After that you knit a wide border like the one you started with.
One trick to knitting any complicated pattern, like lace, is to add a lifeline every few rows. A lifeline is just a piece of contrasting yarn or string that you run through each “live” stitch. (Live stitches are the ones on the needles.)
If you make a mistake and need to rip some rows out, the lifeline will keep all of the stitches on that row from unraveling. You can slide them back on the needles and continue knitting. It’s a good idea to note which row your lifeline is in, so you’ll know where to resume the pattern.
The sad thing? I only learned about lifelines a few years ago. Before that I’d usually give up when — not if — I found a mistake.
What are some “I can’t believe how easy that is!” tips that make your own projects, of any type, a little bit easier?
I love yarn, but you already knew that.
For some of us, every day is I Love Yarn Day. We see a world of possible projects in every skein of yarn and can’t wait to start a new project.
Some knitters and crocheters will have several WIPs (Works In Progress) at any given moment, but I try to focus on one project at a time. I wish I could share photos of a couple of my more recent works, but I’ve already begun my holiday knitting and some future recipients may be reading.
Instead, here’s a photo of the Colorwork Cowl I recently completed…it’s my last non-Christmas project for the next few months:Looking back at that post, called “Early Signs of Autumn,” it’s kind of funny that the past few days the temperatures have been in the upper 70s. Anything but autumnal. But that didn’t stop me from knitting.
What do you love about yarn?
I’ve mentioned before how creative and talented my relatives are, but sometimes they really out-do themselves. My cousin, Mark (the one with the great old pool table and who built my new porch railings) made the coolest gift for my 8-year old niece, and I asked him to write a guest post about what’s got to be the girliest woodworking project he’s ever done. Be sure to check out Mark’s blog, too: http://www.blackbearjournal.blogspot.com/
THE DOLL BED MADE FOR TWO
by Mark Hendrickson
I believe it may have been last Thanksgiving that my God daughter Reese approached me, with her dad, and asked if I might be able to build her a doll bed sometime. With Christmas just a few weeks away, it seemed like the natural thing to do.
The project began with Reese providing me with the height of one of her dolls so I knew how long to make the bed. She actually has two special dolls — Kit and Ruthie — so it was not to be a single bed but a bunk-style doll bed.
As I planned the project, I thought that the bed should be convertible. That is, the beds could be stacked in typical bunk-bed fashion, or, one half could be lifted from the other and they could be placed side by side.
I looked online to get a few ideas and then drew plans for the corner posts, head- and footboards, bed frames and the simple cleats glued to each post to enable the top bed to set securely on the bottom. When stacked, the beds are 19″ high, 23″ long and 16.5″ wide.
The beds are made of solid pine. The typical pine you buy is ¾” thick, much too bulky for a doll bed. So one of the first steps was to plane down these boards to ½” thickness which seemed to be a better size. I cut and assembled them and then completed the purple painting of all surfaces. [Paula’s note: A master of understatement, Mark makes the process sound a lot simpler than it was!]
In addition, my wife Mary and I enjoy projects where we can combine our skills: mine in the furniture-making arena and hers in the artistic touches once the construction and painting is completed. Mary then stepped in and added the wonderful painted highlights that you can see in the images.
Paula’s note: As cool as the beds look in photos, they’re even more impressive up close. On Christmas we were all inspecting the work and every little detail Mark & Mary put into making Reese one of the best gifts she’ll ever receive.
My family had an elf on the shelf long before the Elf on the Shelf book was first published.
Since the elves came before the book, it means the story about them has to be true, right? Christmas magic is real.
Also real? Christmas obsessions.
My brother and I both veer perilously close to the “obsessive” side of Christmas, but our sister isn’t quite as extreme as either of us. (That said, you know it’s the holiday season when Lisa starts “glinging” Christmas tunes. Glinging is ideal if you can’t remember the lyrics – just sing “gling.” Repeatedly.) But it’s really not our fault. It’s hereditary. And according to family stories from Grandma Bussey, we can trace it back to our grandfather.
Grandpa Bussey died way before any of us were born, but left a wonderful legacy. I have tons of Grandma and Grandpa’s old ornaments on my tree, even if you can’t see them all here:
Grandma loved bells, and pretty much every bell on my tree used to be on hers.
In the basement I have a heavy, old, battered tree stand. It only holds about a cup of water (that’s before the tree is added), so it’s not exactly practical. Grandma said she hit the roof the year Grandpa bought that stand – which at the time had poinsettia lights on its decorative base. It was expensive even by today’s standards. One day I’d love to see it restored, but poinsettia bulbs aren’t easy to find.
Grandpa Bussey didn’t just buy things, he made things too. I’m told he made this wooden Santa that’s so cool I leave him standing in the stairwell year round. It makes me smile to see Santa waving at me when I go up or down the steps.
He’s a little hard to see by the tree, so here he is in broad daylight….
And check out the log fence Grandpa made for beneath the tree (hey – one of Grandma’s bells got in the shot):
Grandma said Grandpa collected all of those branches on their property (which she referred to as a “farmette”), cut them to size and assembled the fence. It even folds up for easy storage. The fence is made of ten 12″ sections that are hinged and can be positioned however you like. It still has faint remnants of “snow” on the top of each rail, too.
I never got to meet my Grandpa, but his love of Christmas lives on through us – and the cool things he made.
What are some of your family’s special holiday keepsakes or traditions?
Most of us are on pretty tight budgets these days, which has more people than ever looking for inexpensive gift ideas. Instead of going cheap and buying someone another five-dollar fleece throw (as warm as they are, they are sort of impersonal), try putting your own skills to use.
Not everyone has the talent of my woodworking cousin, who has made things like table trays, mantel clocks and cutting boards all of us over the years, but everyone has at least one thing they’re good at.
Here are some other memorable gifts I’ve received in recent years:
- Homemade Pumpkin Chili from another cousin, complete with the recipe. It was frozen, easily transportable, and so delicious that I’m looking forward to making it again very soon.
- My niece and nephew’s framed artworks.
- The cool yarn Christmas wreath my sister-in-law made me that I’ve been dying to put up this season.
- Personalized ornaments.
- Glass coasters (the ones you’d put photos in) with individual pastel drawings instead of photos, from my sister.
- Handmade jewelry from another cousin.
- The hat a non-knitting friend made for me on a knitting loom.
- Framed scrapbook page with photo of my newborn nephew and me.
- Kitchen task lights installed by (and from) my brother.
- Framed felted piece made by my sister.
Still not sure you can make a great gift? Worried you won’t have time to make gifts? How about these ideas:
- Duplicate a favorite photo – Copy the photo, pop it into a simple frame and give it to someone who can appreciate the memories. One year I copied photos of my paternal grandparents at their jobs — he was a train engineer, she was a telephone operator – and put them double frames for my sister, brother and cousin. (Perfect photos for a home office.) Another year I found an old photo booth strip of my sister and me as little kids, put it in a simple landscape frame that could be turned on end and gave it to her.
- Make a favorite recipe – Cookies are great, but change it up like my cousin did with the pumpkin chili. That froze well, but unfrozen perishable foods can be “wrapped” in insulated lunch bags. Look for a large recipe you can split among several people. Spiced nuts, chai latte and peanut brittle are a few edible gifts I’ve enjoyed in years past.
- Offer your time – If you’re good at DIY projects, offer your time and skill with things you’re good at. It might be painting a room, planting a garden, moving heavy furniture, shoveling snow – anything you think the recipient might like a little help with.
- Print some coupons – A friend who doesn’t cook much loved my homemade veggie burgers, so I gave her a coupon to redeem at a later date. My sister loves Fudgy Bonbons, but they’re best fresh, so when she visits her in-laws for Christmas, I usually give her a coupon to redeem for a fresh batch.
- Make plans – My grandma was always hard to shop for – by age 90 there wasn’t much she didn’t already have. One year my aunt & uncle and dad decided to take her out to lunch on alternating months throughout the entire new year. Grandma always loved going out for lunch, so I’m sure she enjoyed that more than a more traditional gift.
I try to give some homemade or handmade gifts every year. Sometimes they might not quite hit the mark, but when they do it’s a great feeling, like hearing how much some folks look forward to my chocolate almond toffee each year, or arriving at my cousin’s house on Thanksgiving and seeing he’s wearing the socks I made him last Christmas.
Even better? When you start getting special requests for handmade items.
What are some fun homemade gifts you’ve given or received over the years? Why are they so special to you?