A New Twist on Timeless Classics

Five fun and festive activities to try this year

Decorating rituals, gift exchanges, holiday parties, family get-togethers—the holidays are a time for celebrating traditions, and everyone has their favorites. But who says there isn’t room to try something new? Start a new “we do that every year” moment and celebrate the season and ring in the new year with a few of these merry and bright activities!

Holiday traditions making cookiesBake some memories.

Leaving out cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve is a tradition in many families, and making a gingerbread house is ALSO on the list...so why not combine the two? Try these cute little gingerbread trees this year. Bake the cookies and then assemble the trees...make one giant tree, or assemble a mini-forest. They make wonderful gifts, are great to take and share at gatherings and parties, and are tasty gifts to send home with guests and holiday visitors. Make it a family affair, and enlist the kids’ help with baking and decorating.

Instructions are below!

Snowy Gingerbread Trees

You will need:
• Gingerbread cookie dough (we like this recipe from Baked by an Introvert
• Icing (see below for recipe)
• Pastry bag for icing (if desired)
• Star-shaped cookie cutters in a variety of sizes—3 or more works best; we used 5 for medium sized trees, and 10 for larger ones. (You can also trace a pattern on card stock and cut the cookies by hand) 
• Parchment paper to roll out and bake on.
• Any additional decorations (powdered sugar for snow, colored icing for tree trimming, silver or gold sugar pearls, etc.)

gingerbread tree ingredients

How to make it:

1. Prepare dough according to recipe. For ease of use, separate into 2-3 batches, and freeze or chill, working with only one section of dough at a time.

2. Roll out dough to ¼” thick on parchment paper.

Homemade Holidays_gingerbread tree craft

3. Use cookie cutters to cut out stars. For taller trees, use 2-3 of each size, per tree. For each tree, make an extra star of the smallest size for the top.

4. Ball up extra dough, re-roll and cut additional stars (or make extra cookies!).

5. Bake according to recipe directions; allow to cool. While cookies are baking, make the icing (see next step).

Homemade Holidays_gingerbread tree craft

6. Prepare icing. Sift approximately 3 cups pure icing (confectioners’) sugar through a fine sieve. In a separate bowl, lightly beat 2 egg white until mixture is just broken up (do not whip into peaks). Beat in the icing sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, until it reaches desired consistency. Using a wooden spoon mix in 1/2 tsp. lemon juice. Separate into multiple bowls if different colors are desired. For precision icing, use a pastry bag or a bottle.

7. Assemble trees. Stack stars starting with the largest at the bottom, ensuring that the points of the stars alternate. Depending on how many sizes of stars you have, and how tall you would like your trees, you may use 2-3 of each size, per tree. 

icing tree

8. Use a dollop of icing as “glue” between each layer. Use a little if you want it to remain hidden, or more if you would like it to double as “snow”.

ginger tree

9. Decorate! Get creative—pipe trim onto each tree, use icing to affix silver or gold pearls, dust with powdered sugar for snow.

Homemade Holidays_gingerbread tree craft

10. Enjoy!

Go green.

New Holiday traditionsThe holiday season is one of kindness—kindness to neighbors, to friends and family, to yourself. So why not show Mother Earth a little love, too, and put an easy eco-twist on your celebrations.

For example, instead of using regular disposable plastic plates for yoru holiday parties and meals, try compostable/ecofriendly ones—they come in a variety of colors and finishes to match your theme.

You can reuse and recycle when it comes to packaging, too. Save your bows and ribbons to use year after year and instead of traditional wrapping paper (much of which is NOT recyclable) use brown crafts paper (a la grocer bags)—you can dress it up or down…stamp it, glitter it, accessorize it with a sprig of spruce and some winter berries—get creative. Or, do a double gift—wrap your presents in cute scarves or shawls. 

Looking for environmentally friendly gift ideas? How about a subscription to a bike share service? Or, plant a tree together as a family. Stuck in the frozen tundra (like we are in Minnesota!) and not able to plant right now? Look into virtually planting a tree by making a donation to an organization like American Forests, which plants a tree in a threatened ecosystem for every dollar donated.

Make your own fun.

Whether it is stringing popcorn and cranberries to make garlands, crafting New Year’s hats out of newspapers, or making paper snowflakes to decorate the windows, there’s something magical about making decorations with family and friends (or even just taking some “you” time for your own personal arts-and-crafts hour).

Find some time to be creative—and without digital distractions. Designate a “Silent Night” this season to turn off everything but the lights and sounds of the season. Power down your smart phones, tablets, and televisions and make it marvelous. Need some ideas to get started? Try the step-by-step guide below for making pomander balls.

Pomander Ball Tealight Candle

Orange pomander balls are a natural perfume, as well as a cute accessory for the home. These pomander tealight candle holders make for a multipurpose decoration that smells as good as it looks. 

For a longer lasting piece (as well as a more kid-friendly craft), you can also forgo the candle portion, and place your pomander balls in a bowl; hang them from your tree, mantle, or chandelier; or nestle among tabletop greenery, as a fragrant, but less flammable, design accoutrement, as well. To go that route, simply skip ahead to step 5!

You will need:
• Medium-sized orange
• 1/2 cup whole cloves (or more, depending on your pattern/design)
• Ribbon or greenery for additional flourish (optional)
• Tea light 
• Poking instrument (e.g. small sharpened dowel, bamboo skewer, toothpick)
• Sharp knife (paring knife, craft knife, or both)
• Marker or pen

Homemade Holidays_pomander candle craft

How to make it:

1. Place tealight on top of orange and trace diameter of candle with marker or pen.

2. CAREFULLY cut around the circle with craft knife or paring knife. Cut on the diagonal, angling toward the center, following the traced line.

Homemade Holidays_pomander candle craft

3. Remove and discard cone-shaped cutout from the top of the orange.

Homemade Holidays_pomander candle craft

4. Press the tealight down into the opening—it should fit snugly, leaving the top of the candle flush with the surface of the fruit. Use the knife to trim away more orange if necessary.

Homemade Holidays_pomander candle craft

5. Mark your design on the orange. Get creative! Try swirls or lines or even geometric shapes.

Homemade Holidays_pomander candle craft

6. Then, using your skewer or toothpick, poke a pattern of small holes in the skin of the orange (do not make the holes too big, or the cloves will not stick. You can always make the holes bigger, if need be). 

Homemade Holidays_pomander candle craft

7. Insert small end of cloves into the holes. 

Homemade Holidays_pomander candle craft

7. If necessary, trim a small circle of skin off of the bottom of the orange to get it to set flat on the table. If you are making a simple pmander (no tealight), feel free to add ribbon or other adornments. Either way, your pomander is now ready to enjoy!

Homemade Holidays_pomander candle craft

Celebrate giving.

Hosting a party? Instead of the traditional gift exchange or white elephant activity, encourage all your guests to bring clothing or toys or food items, and then donate them to local shelters (battered women, homeless). You could also collect pet toys and pet food and take them to the local animal shelter (or, many food shelves also have a place to bring pet food so families in need can keep their beloved furry friends at home even when times are tough).

When you are headed out to the grocery store to do your meal prep, bring the kids (or friends/family) and make a day of it. Donate your purchases to a community food shelf or food distribution group. Many of these organizations list most-needed items online, which can give you a head start on your shopping list. Also, many stores also have lists posted on behalf of local groups that you can complete and drop off right there.

Adopt a family charity for the year. Have each family member share a cause or group that they are interested in helping, and share why, and then plan to donate your time, funds, goods, or skills in the weeks and months to come.

Having a cookie exchange? Why not try something new that satisfies your sweet tooth and helps a good cause. You can get together in person and share cookies, or set up a Zoom get-together with friends or family. Ask everyone to bring their two favorite cookie recipes, and after the exchange or on the call, let everyone explain why they love their recipes. Then have people “sell” their recipes by having everyone make a donation to their local food bank or pantry in exchange for each recipe. 

Ride the tide.

New Holiday traditions

We don’t mean go surfing (but that is fun, too…if you aren’t ice-bound like those of us here in Minnesota!)—we mean join the flood. Jólabókaflóð—or The Yule Book Flood—refers to the Icelandic tradition of exchanging books on Christmas Eve and then spending the day reading. Iceland is a highly literate country—and reading is next to a national sport. One 2013 study showed that 50 percent of Icelanders read at least eight books per year, while 93 percent read at least one. Aside from the U.K., it publishes more books per capita than anywhere else in the world—nearly one in 11 people will publish a book in their lifetime. And roughly 80 percent of the very robust Icelandic publishing industry’s revenue comes in in those two month’s leading up to The Flood.

While we have Black Friday to kick things off here (who are we kidding? Stores have flocked trees and jingle bells aplenty before the clock strikes midnight on All Hallows Eve, these days), in Iceland, their holiday flood starts with the November release of Bokatidindi (roughly translated into "Journal of Books"), a catalog of nearly every book published in Iceland. On Thorlaksmessa (December 23), the bookstores in Reykjavik will be packed; on the 24th, the new treasures are unwrapped, and then everyone grabs a hot drink and curls up with their tome.

Looking for a book to give (to someone else or yourself) to celebrate Jólabókaflóð? Check this list of 100 Books to Read in Your Lifetime from the editors at Amazon.

Commit to community 

help a neighborVolunteer to help a neighbor during the week before or after the holidays—maybe they are harried parents who could use a couple of hours of childcare so they can run last-minute shopping errands. Perhaps there is a single person next door who has no nearby family or friends, but would love a half-hour of social time and a plate of food. Why not help an elderly neighbor put up or take down their tree, lights, or other decorations? Many older people would love to enjoy the lights and color of the season, but do not decorate because of mobility issues.

Offer to serve a meal at your local Salvation Army or other shelter. Don’t forget to call ahead/plan ahead, if you would like to volunteer ON the holidays, however—many organizations book out weeks in advance, and have more hands than they have work for. Another way to get involved…volunteers are needed year-round—so why not use the December days to research the group you’d like to help out with, and then plan to donate your time when help is scarce?

Patronizing local businesses is also a great way to support your community. Many people spend New Year’s or Christmas Day at the movies taking in a blockbuster. This season, why not keep it local and support some of the fine talented folks in your area by checking out your community’s theatre listing for live plays or dance performances during the holiday season. Most metro areas also host many free music events during this time of year. You can even check out your favorite coffee shop, restaurant, church, school, or local library for performances!

Regardless, whether you uphold old traditions or start new ones; whether you are out on the town or enjoying the quiet on your own…from our house to yours, a peaceful and wonder-filled holiday season from Renewal by Andersen!

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