With its cold weather and long nights, the holiday season has long been a time when families spend more evenings together, gathered around the warmth of the fire, finding ways to while away the hours. Many traditional activities for this time of year also served a purpose for our forebears: Baking makes heating the home productive; warming drinks and spices help our bodies stay comfortable; and slowing down lets us rest and recharge as the year comes to an end. Although electric lights, televisions, computers, smartphones and video games make it easy today to overcome the potential hardships of this time of year, you might find it does your health some good to honor this portion of nature’s cycle. Consider these old-fashioned recipes, activities and gift ideas to make your holiday hearken to our shared human history, and to spend some quality time with your loved ones while enjoying the traditional tastes, scents and pastimes of the season.
‘Tis the season for the toasty, comforting scents and flavors of aromatic mulling spices, including cinnamon, cloves, allspice and star anise. The hot drinks served up this time of year are deeply satisfying, and folks who live in cold, northern climates have been coming up with ways to serve spiced beverages for centuries. There’s just no getting away from the comfort of sharing big bowls of spicy ales and punches.
My favorite story of spiced wassail involves the indigenous populations of southern England. In the apple-growing, cider-producing parts of Medieval Britain, the winter cider celebrations were a way to celebrate the health of the apple trees. One folktale tells of the ancient “Apple Tree Man” who resides as a spirit in the oldest tree in the orchard. By offering up the last mug of mulled cider (pouring it over the tree roots), the bounty of the next year’s harvest could be expected. I’ll raise a mug to that!
These mulling spices work great with apple cider, wine or other festive drinks. It can also be boiled on the stovetop as a nice spicy potpourri. A gift basket including a bag of spices along with fresh apple cider or a bottle of red wine makes a wonderful gift, indeed. Print the following drink recipes onto lovely cards to go along with it. —Kori Rodley, Mountain Rose Herbs
Few things are more fun and traditional at the holidays than building a gingerbread house. This is a great activity for kids and adults alike, and between making the gingerbread, cutting out the templates, creating the houses and munching on them later, it can provide a week’s worth of holiday entertainment. You’ll find plenty of printable templates online by searching “gingerbread house templates.” Try this recipe for delectable gingerbread and construction-worthy icing. Share pics of your creations with us on Instagram and tag us (@motherearthliving) or use the hashtag #motherearthliving.
Popular as a holiday treat in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, pfeffernüsse (or peppernuts) are spice-laden tiny cookies perfect to make in a huge batch and give as gifts. These crunchy, spicy cookies hold up perfectly in the freezer, so you can make them ahead of time and your recipients can save them for after the holiday sweets binge is over if they wish. Not overly sweet and filled with some of the world’s healthiest spices, including cinnamon and cloves, these flavorful cookies make a perfectly Old World holiday treat.
Cookie Delivery: To deliver holiday cookies in adorable containers, consider making any of the simple cookie gift bags from the blog Spoon Fork Bacon. Bloggers Teri Lyn Fisher and Jenny Park offer a variety of cookie gift bag plans, each made with simple craft-store materials and accompanied by cute printable labels
Mexican Hot Chocolate
Hot chocolate is a must-have after a sledding or snowman-making session. And no culinary tradition does hot chocolate better than Mexico’s. Mexican hot chocolate is rich and delicious with hints of cinnamon and cayenne pepper. Viva el chocolate!
Upcycled Advent Calendar
An advent calendar is a fun and traditional way to make the whole holiday season exciting, as kids (or kids at heart!) get the joy of opening a small package each day of December leading up to the holiday. Alex shares this adorable upcycled advent calendar she made with recycled toilet paper rolls on her blog Northstory, where she shares ideas about projects and crafts as well as fashion, daily life and product reviews.
DIY Fresh Wreath
The making of wreaths is an ancient art that began about 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. The wreath symbolizes the strength of life overcoming the forces of winter. In ancient Rome, people used wreaths as a sign of victory and celebration. The use of evergreens and wreaths as symbols of life was an ancient custom of the Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews, among other people.
The use of evergreens for Christmas wreaths probably arose in northern Europe, Italy and Spain in the early 19th century. In the early days in Europe, people put wreaths on their doors to identify their homes in the same manner house numbers are used today. Each house would have a unique wreath made of plants most likely grown by the homeowner. Making your own wreath isn’t difficult, and it makes for a lovely afternoon if you gather friends to share in wreath-making and a cup of mulled wine or cider.
The True History of Mistletoe
Mistletoe appears in doorways and corners during the winter holidays as part of ancient decorations and rituals. Mistletoe is a semi-perennial parasitic evergreen with more than 900 species. Its seeds sprout from bird droppings in trees and grow into the trunk, tapping into the tree’s water and nutrient systems.
Freshly harvested evergreen boughs, sprigs, and vines were transformed into wreaths, garlands and swags, adding festive touches to doorways, windows, mantels, banisters and chandeliers. Bringing greenery such as mistletoe, holly and ivy into the home at this time of year may have been a legacy of the Druids, who used it to welcome wandering nature spirits seeking shelter from the cold and dark.
Make a Simple Festive Garland
Creating an elegantly decorated home is simple when you use rustic items that lend an air of nostalgia to your home. This easy-to-make garland comes from the blog of Vanessa Pleasants and Jana Roach, who run the annual Vintage Whites Market in Somers, Montana, and Salt Lake City.
Orange Pomander Balls
Every year as a kid, I would visit a museum in my hometown during the holidays—a restored 1800s mansion. Behind the museum, an 1868 log house showed what life would have been like for settlers and servants on the prairie. At Christmas time, while the main museum was decorated with elaborate trees and décor, the decorations in the cabin were humble but beautiful. One of my most distinct memories is the fragrance of the clove-studded orange pomander balls that decorated the room and scented the air.
The spicy scent of cloves combined with the uplifting aroma of citrus makes pomanders a lovely air freshener for stale winter air, and making them is simple and fun. All you need is a bag of oranges and a cup or so of whole cloves. Put several orange pomander balls in a bowl or string them and hang them in the kitchen or on the Christmas tree. —Jessica Kellner
Tips for Making Orange Pomander Balls
• To make it easier to insert the cloves into the orange, start by poking holes around the orange with something sharp such as a nail or skewer.
• Make any pattern you like on the orange. You can disperse cloves evenly all over, in a spiral or rings around the orange (hint: a rubber band comes in handy as a guide), or in any other pattern.
• Wipe off the orange with a towel, then push cloves into the holes.
• To make a hanging version, attach a ribbon by tying it around the pomander and securing with pins or a hot glue gun (mark a spot for the ribbon with masking tape while decorating).
• Finally, to prevent molding, before displaying let your pomanders dry for about a week in the refrigerator, or toss them in a bag with orris root powder.
The Ultimate Tradition
Giving back to our fellow humans is the ultimate holiday tradition.
Cookies for Kids’ Cancer
Founded by the parents of a pediatric cancer patient, this organization allows supporters all over the U.S. to host holiday bake sales. Money is donated to five of the nation’s leading pediatric cancer centers.
This charity supports nutrition and self-reliance by giving impoverished people around the world livestock. They then pass along the gift by sharing animals’ offspring with other community members.
Feeding America’s Hungry Children
The Feeding America’s Hungry Children network of regional food banks and food-rescue organizations serves 16 states, distributing food to about 100 local charitable hunger relief agencies.
United Way Adopt-a-Family
Contact your local United Way branch to form a group to adopt a family, providing those in need with food and gifts to celebrate the holiday season.
No Kid Hungry
The No Kid Hungry network aims to partner kids with effective nutrition programs, to empower low-income families to prepare healthy food, and to shine a spotlight on the crisis of child hunger in America.
Knitting is a great way to pass a long winter’s night, and it yields useful scarves, hats, mittens and sweaters. Learning this craft isn’t hard, and it provides a hobby and a source for gift-giving for years to come. Check out these handy resources.
Craft Yarn Council
Instructions, classes and more
The Knitting Answer Book by Margaret Radcliffe
Solutions to every problem you’ll ever face
A variety of knitting how-to videos
Eco-friendly yarns, needles, gifts and more
Organic Cotton Plus
Organic and hemp knitting yarn
Yarns, free patterns and more
Do you have old holiday cards you don’t know what to do with? Transform them into tiny boxes, perfect for little gifts or to use as decorations, whether on the Christmas tree or stacked in a bowl.