Merry Christmas! And a Winter Wonderland of Crafts

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It almost snowed today! At least, we got a few half-hearted flurries. Which fit wonderfully with our latest crafty ventures — winter wonderland painted creations. The supplies are simple, the options endless, and — most important — the toddler happy.

We whipped up three crafty projects using more-or-less the same materials: a few pieces of holiday-colored construction paper, some white tempera paint, and silver glitter. Life is just better with glitter, despite the fact I couldn’t really figure out what the sparkle is made of …anyway, even I sometimes think you just have to go for it.

For all these little adventures, the first step is to decorate four construction paper pages (2 pages of red, and 2 of green) with patterns in thick white paint. I did spots and stripes; Maya preferred a more abstract appearance. No matter, it all looks like snowy loveliness.

The “beads” for the garlands are excellent, easy lacing beads for a toddler — especially one, like Maya, who still needs help with regular lacing beads and their smaller holes.

Of course, no holiday theme needed. If you’re feeling like doing less, no reason not to just snip the cardboard rolls into pieces (covered with construction paper or not, as you like) and let the toddler draw on them with crayon, and them lace them onto whatever’s handy for a ribbon.

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What you’ll need for the basic supplies:

  • 2 pieces of red and 2 pieces of green construction paper
  • White tempera paint (I did not use “eco” paint, as the consistency is critical, but did use Crayola “non-toxic” paint)
  • Brushes (small ones — like those in a watercolor set — are fine)
  • Craft glue (I like this one, which claims to be less toxic and safer than most)
  • Decently sharp scissors

Project 1:  Garlands and ornaments

In addition to the above, to make a “garland” you’ll need:

  • Paper towel or toilet paper rolls
  • Ribbon for lacing

To make the garland, paint on the 4 pieces of construction paper with the white paint and let dry.

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Cut to size and glue the paintings onto the cardboard rolls, then let dry.

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Once dry, using the pointed end of sharp scissors, cut through to make “beads” of about an inch each. Cut your ribbon and let the toddler string ’em up! (See image at top.)
To make the “ornaments,” you’ll need:
  • A steady hand for cutting shapes or cookie cutters in holiday shapes
  • Silver glitter

To make the ornaments, trace and cut out — or just freehand — the shapes as you like.

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Paint with white paint and decorate with glue and glitter.

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Cut a small hole and hang from a ribbon, tied with a bow. String onto your garland, if you or your tiny artistic visionary would like.

Project 2: Easy holiday cards

In addition to the basic supplies above, to make these you’ll need:
  • Glue pen (I used this one, from my pal Martha Stewart, which was just ok)
  • Silver or gold glitter
  • White cardstock or all-blank cards from a craft store

To make the cards, paint on the 4 pieces of construction paper with the white paint and let dry. (Note: our 4 pieces were enough to make all of these projects.)

Next, cut a simple holiday shape from the painted paper and fold the white cardstock into a “card.” I used a very basic Christmas tree, cut to fit nicely onto the “card.”

Arrange and glue onto front of card. Using the glue pen, decorate with messages and glitter as you like.

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Project 3:  Holiday door or wall hanging

In addition to the basic supplies above, to make these you’ll need:
  • Ivory felt (we used a piece about 1 1/2 feet square)
  • Silver or gold glitter
  • Glue pen or small-tipped glue bottle
  • Narrow ivory silk ribbon
  • Square piece of white cardstock
  • If adding fringe, a ruler is useful
  • Double slit hole punch — but only if you have it handy

Again, paint and let dry your construction paper. Cut out simple holiday shapes — I used a Christmas tree again, and arrange your designs on the white cardstock square.

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Using the sharpest scissors you have (and fabric scissors if you have them). cut the felt to match the square, leaving 2 1/2 to 3 inches at the bottom for a fringe if desired. Glue the cardstock to the felt, matching the top edge.

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Lay the ruler on the felt just at the white paper, and cut a fringe at about every 1/2 inch, all the way across the bottom.

Lay out and glue on your painted shapes. Using the glue pen or glue dots, add glitter as you like.

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With a hole punch if you have one, or the scissors, punch or cut a pair of slits in the top corners. Cut two two-foot lengths of ribbon. Using the scissor blade as you need, thread the first ribbon through the hole. Then thread the second ribbon through the other hole and repeat on the other side.
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Tie a bow on one side, and then the second side, keeping the ribbons an even length and straight.
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Hang and enjoy! It’s a charming and not too cheesy way to allow your child to make something for display. I’m sure that years from now, taking this out at Christmas will make me smile.

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Sitting here tonight, I do have a Christmas eve feeling of being blessed. The craft supplies are tidied up, and there are an abundance of trinkets under the tree.

The flurries evaporated, but for Maya, it’s the first Christmas that she will notice, and today we made our own snow! She’s been talking about Santa all week, with a kind of wistful curiosity. And demanding we play Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, over and over again.

After what we have all been through in the past few weeks, we should all take comfort — and joy — whenever and wherever we can. I deeply appreciate the readers of this wee blog, and hope your blessings are as ample this year as ours do feel to me, just now.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Have Yourself a Merry (and Non-Toxic!) Christmas

IMG_5821Just like the folks at Fox News say, at my house every year there is a War on Christmas. A War on Christmas hazards, that is.

I actually get all ooey gooey over Christmas. I love bedecking the mantel with snowmen (where are all the snow ladies, anyway?), reciting the Night before Christmas until even Maya is rolling her eyes, and I’ve already festooned our house iPod with overly cheerful holiday tunes.

But I’ll skip the excessive materialism, toxic chemicals, and baubles made by enslaved children, thank you very much. Or at least give it the old elfin try.

I’ve been making my list, and checking it twice. So here’s a few things to think about this holiday season as you contemplate the true meaning of Christmas:

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O Christmas Tree

If you can find a source for organic trees — or find the time to go get your own — this is worth doing. Ours comes conveniently from a lovely neighbor in Takoma Park, who runs a CSA farm and also cultivates sustainable, organic trees.

Why go organic? Keep in mind that trees are brought into your house in the middle of winter, when you are least likely to open the windows, and the needles tend to get everywhere. While no one appears to have measured pesticide exposure in the home from bringing in a Christmas tree, this is an utterly avoidable risk, and we do know that trees are sprayed liberally with nasty pesticides and fungicides. In places like Oregon, the pesticide atrazine is sprayed from the trees aerially on Christmas tree farms, and such indicriminate spraying harms both animals and water quality.

Need more convincing? Here’s two well done articles, one from the New York Times, and another recent piece that notes:

No independent, comprehensive studies are widely available on how much pesticide residue is released once a tree is set up in a warm home environment. However, atrazine and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals are nonmonotonic, meaning even at extremely low exposure levels, damage can occur.

While you’re at it, be aware that conventional liquid tree food is full of toxins, and are in a bowl which can be lapped up by the dog or splashed in by a toddler. There’s no point in going organic halfway, particularly when it’s so easy to make tree food with sugar, lemons and water (or with store-bought lemonade if you like). I use half a lemon, fresh squeezed and a tablespoon of sugar in as much water as needed (the proportions aren’t picky).

Although natural is best, keep in mind that many holiday decorating plants are quite toxic if eaten. Both holly and mistletoe berries are very poisonous, and can even be fatal if consumed by children. Bittersweet, boxwood, and even pine can also cause problems if eaten. So hang those wreaths high!

Allergies can be an issue too. And if you live someplace like South Texas, as the allergist Dr. Claudia Miller wrote to me today, be very wary of the evergreens like the Texas Mountain Cedar, which have, as she wrote, “some of the highest pollen counts known to mankind.” They pollinate right in time for Christmas, and unsuspecting folks have been known to develop allergies overnight from bringing them indoors.

Even with all this, the natural options are preferable, because artificial trees and fake greenery are typically made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a terrible plastic that off-gasses, mixed with lead, a potent and notorious neuro-toxin. Again, the heath risks are not clear. As one study concluded:

Results from these experiments show that, while the average artificial Christmas tree does not present a significant exposure risk, in the worst-case scenarios a substantial health risk to young children is quite possible.

Another article debunks the notion that fake trees are somehow “greener” (after all, PVC is not a biodegradable material), and describes a troubling federal study on exposures:

In a 2008 report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a multi-agency review panel on U.S. children’s exposure to lead noted, “Artificial Christmas trees made of PVC also degrade under normal conditions. About 50 million U.S. households have artificial Christmas trees, of which about 20 million are at least nine years old, the point at which dangerous lead exposures can occur.”

Smith explained, “Recent studies have found that as plastic trees age, they can start to release a kind of lead dust into your home. That alone could have a real impact on how long we want to keep an artificial tree before replacing it – perhaps with a live tree.”

Why bring these risks into your home? There are so many other ways to decorate, as well as more natural options for greenery! I heartily recommend tchotchkes as one way to go.

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The Stars Are Brightly Shining

Sadly, Christmas lights are also a problem: most commercial lights (like most appliance cords, btw) are made of a mix of PVC and lead as well. Here’s what one lightmaker says:

The lead in holiday string lights is used as an additive to the Polyvinyl Chloride wire covering. The lead acts as a heat resistant insulator and is also used to help stabilize the coloring of the wire. All PVC contains some sort of metal stabilizer including lead, cadmium or tin. Christmas lights have contained lead since they have used PVC as an insulating coating and pose no danger with normal use. Lead containing PVC is used in many common household applications including the PVC piping used to deliver our drinking water, other electrical cords which are insulated with PVC, and even car keys.

You should wear gloves, ideally, when sorting them out from their inevitable spaghetti tangle, and/or wash your hands well after hanging them up. Do not let kids touch or play with them either, obviously. She does not cite a source, but toxics expert Debra Lynn Dadd does say “they are fine when hanging. They don’t outgas lead, you just don’t want to touch them.”

For better options, some LED lights — allegedly such as those sold by Ikea or this Environmental Lighting site — meet the European Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), which requires them to be virtually lead-free. I did schlepp to Ikea last year to look at the LED options, which was a special kind of awful given the amount of off-gassing particle-board in any Ikea, but I did not like the LED lights at all. They were faint, tiny and gave off a cold white light without enough twinkle to be Christmas-y.

I also checked out the Environmental Lighting site, but you need to buy a controller and power source for the lights, which makes changing to LED a significant investment of around $100 or so.

When I think of the amount of PVC and lead involved in traditional lights, it makes me sad. At least some places have recycling programs for them (and some LED sellers offer discounts in exchange)! And perhaps the LED types will improve over time. If folks are aware of nicer LED options, please do let me know.

Candles are also a common holiday touch, and a nice one at that! Unfortunately, conventional candles are made of paraffin wax, and many wicks contain lead. From Healthy Child, Healthy World:

Though the US Consumer Product Safety Commission asked candle manufacturers to replace lead wicks with zinc, compliance is voluntary and imported candles are not checked; in addition, commercial-grade zinc and zinc alloys used in wicks contain lead.

Aside from the wick, the candle wax can also be a respiratory irritant. Wax can be made of petroleum paraffin, which emits toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde when burned (these are carcinogens, neurotoxins, and reproductive toxins).

And the now-ubiquitous scented ones use chemical scents that typically contain pthalates, a chemical used in fragrances for many household items that has been linked to diabetes and heart disease, among other health problems. At our house, we do have some regular unscented candles to use as decorations, but we only burn the ones that are natural beeswax.

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Deck the Halls 

Those lovely ornaments on the tree are a source of additional concern. They’ve been known to contain lead paint or mercury (some are even called “mercury glass” ornaments!), so be sure that they do not get handled or mouthed by children.

And speaking of children, you may be interested to know that on December 5th, 14 children in India were freed from enslavement in a sweatshop where they were working to make Christmas ornaments for Western customers. Where you can, it’s always best to buy Fair Trade, to buy them from craftspeople, or make your own decorations. Ten Thousand Villages, Serrv, and Fair Indigo are great resources for these, which also make wonderful gifts!

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Joy to the World

I’ll be posting soon with a round of gift options on the greener side and some DIY ideas for presents. In the meantime, I’ll try to resurrect the real spirit of Christmas (and shake off the toxic bah-humbugs) by commending to you some of my favorite, more off-beat, holiday tunes.

First, what could possibly be a better deal than Sufjan Steven’s wonderful 4-disc Christmas music set for a cool $15? Simply called “Songs for Christmas,” these are ethereal takes on familiar songs, alongside his own eclectic synth-folk signature songwriting. (Just order the actual box-set, because it comes with some extras and a cute little book.) Along similar lines, I adore the un-done beauty of Low’s album, “Christmas,” and especially am grateful for “Just Like Christmas,” which is Low at it’s pop-highest.

Because nothing says the holidays like a nostalgic political anthem, I’ll also throw in a plea for you to give Steve Earle’s earnestly progressive “Christmastime in Washington” a listen, if only just to recall what the early aughts felt like ’round these parts. And then, last but not least, kick up your heels and stoke your indignation about why the GOP won’t bend to reason on tax rates for the wealthy by indulging in The Kinks’ completely awesome, rockin’ ode to Xmas equality: “Father Christmas.”

Have a safe and happy holiday!

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A World of Geegaws: Making Discovery Jars

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Tchotchke (/ˈɒkə/CHOCH-ka) is a small bauble, doodad, doohickey, gewgaw, gismo, goolya, kitsch, knickknack, lagniappe, swag, thingamabob, thingamajig, toy, trinket, whatchamacallit, whosie-whatsit, widget, etc.

— Wikipedia

I thought about calling these “low-rent snow globes,” but…

When I saw jars like these at my crafty friend Beth’s house, I knew that they were destined to be my next easy project with Maya. If you have a toddler hanging around, and you are anything like me, you also have a drawer somewhere with stuff too small for playtime. Ours includes dominoes, game pieces, dollhouse doodads, coins, buttons, beads, pine cones, seashells, a busted kazoo and other flotsam.

This easy project transforms these hitherto hazards into a safe toy, without even needing a run to the craft store. The materials are all re-purposed and the time it takes to put together more or less corresponds to a two-year-old’s attention span, so that this is actually a toddler-friendly crafting adventure. They do notice such things: Maya periodically will pick our jars up and proudly pronounce, “We made it!” — which is payback plenty for me.

Snicker as you like, but I actually had to request plastic jars from our local list serv, which came through for me as it always does, because I’ve so habituated myself to buying food in glass. My pal Laura also helped by saving some nice-sized jars, so we had enough.

IMG_5747 IMG_5748What you’ll need:

  • 1-2 well-sized plastic food jars (we used a peanut butter and an apple sauce jar), cleaned, with labels and gummy stuff removed
  • Household jetsam: small objects, such as dice, coins, pom-poms, cut pieces of felt in shapes like stars or hearts, beads, thimbles, craft supplies, game pieces, dollhouse items, feathers, erasers, party favors, seashells, stones, pine cones, paper clips, etc. (You could also make a holiday themed version if you have that sort of stuff on hand.)
  • Glue: I used a small hot glue gun, but Superglue would also likely work.
  • Rice: Short-grained cheap white rice would likely work best, though we used what we had in the pantry.
  • Optional: ribbons or paper for decorating the jar and lid.
  • Toddler with 20 minutes of focus and attention

IMG_5749Directions:

Lay down newspaper or a cloth to catch the stray rice and objects. Put the objects in a large bowl and let the toddler sort them for a bit.

IMG_5751Divide them up among your jars and add the rice, leaving room at the top for the rice and objects to be able to move around. Most toddlers can help pour the rice, which is great fine motor practice.

IMG_5758IMG_5760Glue the lid and make sure it’s secure. If desired, decorate the jar with paper on the lid (I used origami paper) and/or ribbon. Et voila, geegaws! Enjoy turning the jar to reveal the shifting contents.

There’s really no limit on what small objects can be included — I even finally found an appropriate location for an hilariously hideous little framed school photo of me circa 1985. Shudder. Happy to have that disappear under the “snow.”

IMG_5808 Here are some other related holiday crafts you may want to check out: