Americans love to shop for holiday gifts, but what if there were no stores, sales or affordable goods? Our homesteading ancestors often had to deal with this reality and they did what they were good at: They improvised.
Creativity is at the heart of the pioneer spirit, and we’re going to cover some gifts you can make for kids, friends and family that everyone will remember.
- We’re going to start with the fundamental concept of the Christmas wreath. They’re easy to make.
- We’re also going to explore a simple way to make a log-cabin dollhouse. It takes time, but the result will be appreciated for years if not generations.
- Finally, we’re going to explore a simple baking gift. It’s a harvest bread in the shape of a wreath that can be filled with anything you like or simply enjoyed as a symbol of the season.
Wreaths as a concept emerged during a Scandinavian festival called “Jool.” The English pronunciation is “Yule,” and this season and festival – which takes place around the winter solstice — became known as “Yuletide.”
The wreaths were often worn as crowns improvised from pine, herbs and other plants around a circle of woven vines. Eventually the wreath became a symbol and the circle of branches, herbs and fruits evolved into a decoration we still pursue today.
Our ancestors appreciated a wreath hanging on a wall not only to represent the celebration of the season, but the aromatic sprigs, branches and berries provided an aroma to offset the smell of wood smoke, body odor and mildew that sometimes permeated cabins long ago and still today.
A wreath is a circle that can be any diameter, and the fundamental foundation is an intertwined circle of vines. Grape vines work great for a larger wreath, but any plant with a long stem, from grasses to tall weeds, can do the trick. The key is to bind them together so they make a circle as a base for the branches, stems, trimmings or other items you want to incorporate into your wreath.
What’s great about vines is that they are very long and make it easy to wrap in a circle to create a good foundation for a wreath, I’ll usually wrap the vines in some twine to keep them together and retain a circular shape. Once this is done you can easily insert branches from trees, shrubs and plants to hold them in place and use either wire or more twine to keep them there. Sometimes just pushing the branch into the bundle of vines will do the job.
Given the season and time of year in most of North America, pines or other evergreens make good material for a wreath. I like juniper, balsam and Scotch pine. They’re pliable, durable and easy to find, depending on where you live.
Holly and other sturdy plants are also good options but remember: Holly berries are poisonous. You also can make a wreath out of corn husks that have been dried and dyed. I’d use traditional dyes like onion skins, blueberries or beets to get a variety of colors and then weave them into my vine circle once they’re dried.
2. A log cabin dollhouse
This is surprisingly easy to make but it does take some time. You have to gather materials, cut them to shape and then build the house and the roof. The roof is usually a separate construction, so it can be removed to allow a child access to the interior.
It’s also easy to craft rustic furnishings from benches to tables and beds, and if you like you can visit a hobby store like Hobby Lobby and find rustic dollhouse furnishings.
It’s Not Just A Little Girl Thing
I built a log cabin miniature for my daughter and another for my son. Both loved to fantasize about living in their little log cabins, and they spent hours moving things around and adding details, like more firewood in the fireplace or the dried minnow my son hung on the side of his little cabin.
On one occasion, I gathered small sticks about an inch in diameter and shaved them to build a cabin. I chinked the cabin with caulk. I built the roof separately and used bark as shingles. I used small rocks to build the fireplace and placed it all on a board that I detailed using sand and railroad modeling grass to create a feeling of a place. I surrounded it with fences built from small sticks and the general clutter that surrounds a homestead. Use your imagination. What would your son or daughter like to see?
Measuring And Cutting
For my young son’s cabin, I gathered reeds that resembled wood and stocked and glued them in pace. I cut smaller lengths and glued them in between the spaces. Our ancestors would have used pine sap, but I used carpenter’s glue. I also used moss to chink the cabin walls, which is still a common form of chinking used to this day.
Like many rustic cabins, this is a one-room setup. There’s a fireplace, bed, table, shelf and the other things you would expect to see in a one-room cabin. Here again, use your imagination. If you and your son or daughter were going to live in this imaginary place, what would you want to have?
Small sticks can easily be made into furniture, and I used paint-stirring sticks to make a bench and table. Be creative.
3. Christmas bread
This is a simple recipe with a simple idea. You knead the dough, let it rise and then make it in the shape of a wreath. You can serve it plain or fill it with a dip if you like. This was often a Christmas gift because it was simple to make with some flour and other ingredients and could be enjoyed by all. Here’s the recipe and some photos to guide you through the process.
- 1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons water (70 to 80 degrees)
- 1 egg (room temperature)
- 3 tbsp. butter, softened
- 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- Pinch of allspice
- 3 3/4 cups plus 1 tbsp. of bread flour
- 2 tbsp. active dry yeast
- 1 cup dried fruit that could include dried cherries, cranberries and raisins, depending on your preference
- 1/3 cup chopped pecans
Knead for 20 minutes or add to a mixer with a dough hook for 15 minutes. Let rise for 30 minutes. Cut half of the dough ball into chunks and use the other half to roll a rope of dough that you make into a circle. Do this on a buttered baking sheet.
Surround the circle of dough with the dough chunks and let it rise again.
Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes or until browned. Fill with a fruit sauce like cranberries or a cheese mix if you like.
Christmas gifts don’t have to be something you buy. In fact, a handmade and homemade gift is often more appreciated because it demonstrates the love and attention of the person giving the gift. I still try to make gifts from scratch and by hand and am always grateful when I see my old gift still on display or talked about years after the holidays are over. Give it a try if you have the time this Christmas season.
What are your favorite homemade or old-time gifts? Share your tips in the section below: