Yule Ornament Idea: A Bonnie Wee Mousie

Damn, I can be quite crafty!

This mouse represents approximately 95% of what I did in preparation of this holiday season, and I’ve been working on them since before Samhain.

It all started out as a joke.  See, my housemates and I have been battling various waves of rats and mice in our house since the summer when the city tore up all the streets and sewer lines that flank both sides of the corner where our home is.  Unfortunately, the rats got to be a point of contention.  One group of housemates wanted to call in exterminators immediately, one group thought we could do it ourselves, and another refused to even consider anything that involved killing the mice.  We ended up doing a lot of exclusion and using snap traps, but things got pretty heated.

Just before Samhain, I came across an Etsy store, The House of Mouse, and kind of fell a little in love with their adorable felt mouse creations.  I decided that I would try to make a basic mouse, and the prototype came out pretty cute, so I ended up making a mouse-turned-into-ornament for each of my housemates.  And my covenmates.  And my family.  And all my close friends.  In all, I made 38 mice.

There’s nothing inherently Yule-y about a mouse, but the ornaments are awfully cute and very easy to make.  Should this little guy tickle your fancy, you will need the following materials:

  • This Felt Mouse Pattern, which is a printable .pdf file created by yours truly.
  • A goodly scrap of gray felt
  • A small scrap of pink felt
  • A tiny dot of black felt
  • Small scraps of green and red felt if you’d like to make him hold a bit of holly
  • Gray thread
  • Pink thread
  • Black thread
  • Pink embroidery floss
  • Two large black seed beads
  • Silver-colored bead stringing wire
  • Fiberfill, cotton balls, wool, or something “plush” with which to stuff the mouse
  • Thin holiday ribbon
  • Sewing needle
  • A large, sharp-tipped tapestry needle
  • Fabri-Tac adhesive (optional, but really handy)
  • Scissors
  • Wire snips
  • Sharpie marker

To begin, print out the pattern and cut out the different shapes.  Trace the shapes onto the scraps of felt with the Sharpie marker, then cut out the pieces from the felt.

Place the left and right sides of the mouse together so that the “good” side of the gray felt is faced in.  Thread the needle with the gray thread and sew up the “backbone” of the mouse (the curved side) using a whip stitch.  Turn the two pieces “inside out” so that the seam is now facing what will be the mouse’s interior.

Thread the needle with pink thread.  Take up one of the ear pieces and fold it in half.  Starting about 1/4 inch from the point, sew the two halves of the ear together and travel down until you reach the point.  Find a good placement for the ear on the mouse’s head, then sew the ear to the head.  Repeat with the other ear on the other side of the mouse.

Thread the needle with black thread.  Sew a bead to the mouse’s head under the ear to represent an eye.  Repeat with the second bead on the other side of the mouse.  When done, flip the mouse back “inside out” so that the ears and eyes are now back on the mouse’s interior.

Thread the needle with grey thread and take up the mouse’s bottom side.  Attach it to the mouse’s sewn side parts with pins, then use a whip stitch to sew the edges of all three pieces together.  Once completed, turn the mouse “inside out” so that the ears and eyes are back on the outside.

Pin each of the felt feet to the “front” of the mouse so that each foot rests in the middle of a belly seam.  Take an 18-inch length of pink embroidery floss and double it over.  Twist the floss until it has a great deal of spiral tension.  Holding the tension in place, double the length again, then let go of one end of the floss.  It should automatically curl together to form a cord.  (Confused?  Follow this slide show.)  Knot the “free” end of the cord to permanently secure the twist, then sew the knot to the inside of the mouse’s “backbone” seam.

Stuff the mouse with fiberfill, then sew the mouse’s bottom to the sides and belly using a whipstitch.  Of course, you will need to switch to a running stitch to sandwich the mouse’s feet between the sides and the bottom.

At this point, the mouse should essentially look done, just missing his hands, nose, whiskers, and accessories.  You can attach these by sewing them on, but the pieces are so small that using Fabri-tac adhesive will be much, much easier.  Simply spread a little Fabri-tack on the back of the mouse’s arms, and glue them into place.  Next, snip three or four lengths of the beading wire to serve as whiskers.  Tie them together in the middle using black thread, then attach them to the end of the mouse’s nose with a quick stitch or two.  Cover the back of the black fabric dot with Fabri-tac, then stick the dot over the whiskers and hold it in place until the black nose is firmly attached.  The basic mouse is essentially finished.

To attach the holly, you must first make it.  I ironed a strip of green felt down the middle, then cut it to resemble half a holly leaf (which would of course be a full leaf once unfolded).  I made a second, then glued them to the mouse’s body so that it looked as if he was holding them in one hand.  I then cut two small strips of red felt and tightly coiled them up, using dots of Fabri-tac to secure the coil.  This made a holly berry.  I then put more Fabri-tac at the bottom of a coil and secured it to the points of the two leaves and repeated the process to make a second berry.

To make the mouse a hanging ornament, I took a length of seasonal ribbon and threaded it onto a sharp tapestry needle.  I forced the needle through the back of the mouse so that the ribbon ran perpendicular to the backbone seam.  (It did take some force to pull the needle through), then knotted the two ends of the ribbon together.

Voila!  A felt mouse!

Yule Ornament Idea: Gilded Walnuts

A Gilded Walnut

I have to admit, the first time I saw gilded walnuts on someone’s Christmas tree, I wondered why they’d bothered.  While the nuts are kind of beautiful in their own right, they are a little small and can get lost in the scope of the whole tree.  But then the party began and I got clued in to the tradition.

As we all know, Christmas trees took hold in the British-influenced cultural zeitgeist in the Victorian era, when the German Prince Albert popularized it by practicing it with his children and allowing artists to capture the moment.  Apparently everyone wanted to be like the royal family, and Christmas trees soon became a holiday mainstay.  Many Victorians, however, decorated their trees with lots of edible treats:  fruits, nuts, hard-baked cookies, and candies were high on that list.  As tradition evolved, it became somewhat popular to rub gold paint into the shells of the nuts–often English walnuts–for extra decoration.

Of course, today we wouldn’t actually eat any of the nuts we gilded.  After all, most paints are hardly food safe items.  However, the Victorian tradition can be nicely updated and made especially pagan by making it a sort of divinatory tradition.  At the party I’d attended, the hostess had split all the walnuts and removed the meats.  She then filled each nut with a paper ‘fortune’ before gluing them back together and hanging them on the tree.  Each guest at her Christmas party chose a walnut from the tree, and its message acted as their fortune for the upcoming year.

"Fortune Cookie" Gilded Walnut

Should you wish to do this ornament craft you will need:

  • 1 lb English walnuts in their shells
  • Acrylic gold paint
  • Paintbrush
  • 1 sheet of paper
  • Markers or pens
  • Thin gold ribbon, cord, or embroidery floss for tying fortune
  • Hot glue gun
  • 1 glue stick
  • Thin ribbon for hanging

To make the ornaments, carefully split the walnuts in half using a sharp knife.  Make sure to keep the matching halves together, and use a butter knife or a meat pick to pull out the nut meats and clear the shells.  Wipe the shells inside and out with a damp cloth to remove any dust or debris, and let them dry.  Then paint the outside of both halves of the walnut with the gold paint and allow them to fully dry.

While the walnut shells are drying, cut the paper into thin strips about half an inch wide and 1.5 inches long. Use a marker or pen to write fortunes on the slips. The fortunes can be as simple or complicated as you want.  For example, you can write single words like “Love, Cheer, Heart, Wisdom, Wealth, Comfort” for each fortune, or you can get a little more “Fortune Cookie” with phrases like “All comes at the proper time to him who knows how to wait.”  Roll the fortunes up into tiny scrolls, and tie each scroll with a short piece of gold ribbon. Tuck the fortune into one half of a walnut shell.

Using the hot glue gun, place a dot of glue at the top of one half of the shells. Loop the hanging ribbon around and secure both ends to the shell with the glue. Use the glue gun to run a bead of glue around the edge of the shell, and carefully seal both halves of the shell back together.  To finish, Tie a little bow in the same ribbon as the hanging ribbon and glue it between the hanging ribbon loop.

Hang the walnuts on the tree, and let the walnut hunt commence.  Seekers can crack the nuts open to find their fortune.

Yule Log Cake Ideas

A really elaborate Yule Log cake from the Etsy store andiespecialtysweets

As I grew up celebrating Christmas with more Slavic traditions, I was never exposed to the Yule Log until I became an adult.  Even then, I pretty much just assumed it was the biggest log one burnt on a Christmas fire.

I wasn’t entirely wrong;  that is, in fact, what the Yule Log is.  However, I’m becoming more and more aware that the phrase “Yule Log” in contemporary culture largely refers to a cake made to look like a log.  It is the Bûche de Noël of Francophone culture, and they’re typically made of a sponge cake baked in a jelly roll pan, then frosted and rolled into a cylinder, and frosted again on the outside.  Often, one end is lopped off and set on top or on the side of the main log to further resemble a branch, and the cake is made to look as realistic as possible.  The exterior frosting is made to resemble tree bark and the cake itself is often festooned with different marzipan greenery and berries, meringue mushrooms, and powered sugar to resemble snow.  As the above picture shows, the total effect can be quite realistic and incredibly beautiful.

Some day, I should really like to try my hand at making a cake like this.  But you know what?  My family already has tons of favorite holiday desserts.  While I could adapt Grandma’s Pumpkin Roll to be a Bûche de Noël fairly easily…I’m not sure I’d want to.  And it wouldn’t be the Holidays without Mom’s Rum Bundt Cake or the fruit breads we eat on Christmas morning (pumpkin, banana…it changes year to year).

NordicWare Yule Log Pan

I might get the best of both worlds, though.  This year, I was wandering through a cookware store and happened upon a Yule Log pan made by NordicWare.  It’s the same heavy-cast aluminum bakeware that their much lauded Anniversary Bundt Pan is made from, and–having used that pan–I can attest that it bakes and releases like a dream.  At an 8-9 cup capacity, it’s a slightly awkward size, for that’s a little bigger than most bread recipes and a little less than most Bundt cake recipes, but it’s easy enough to bake the excess in a muffin tin.  Best of all, it’s got the same appeal as a Bundt cake:  it’s self decorating!  At most, you’d maybe want to highlight the holly berries with a little bit of red and green icing.  It couldn’t be easier!

NordicWare's "Stump de Noël" Bundt Pan for Williams-Sonoma

As excited as I am about this Yule Log pan, I’m even more excited about a similar product, the “Stump de Noël” Bundt pan that NordicWare made exclusively for Williams-Sonoma.  Unlike the Yule Log pan, which is an odd size, this is a 10-cup capacity pan.  Since almost all Bundt Cake recipes these days are scaled to a 10-cup pan (as opposed to the 15 cups of bygone years), there should be less awkwardness about excess cake batter.  More importantly in my book is that there aren’t any explicitly “Holiday” symbols in the cake mold.  No holly, no snowmen, no candy canes…nothing.  To me, this is important because if I’m going to plunk down $30-$40 for a cake pan, I want at least the opportunity to use it more than once or twice a year.  This mold could be used maybe for Arbor Day (I can just see a Lorax theme going on here) or any time you want an unexpected presentation for a Bundt cake.  As Williams-Sonoma points out in their marketing of the pan, you could also break out the meringue mushrooms and stuff like you would a traditional Bûche de Noël.  Given that you’d save yourself the time and stress of assembling the cake, making up the decorations would probably be a breeze!

I have to admit, I might just be treating myself to a Stump pan for my birthday or Yule.

Yule Ornament Idea: Cute and Crafty Pine Cones

Cute and Crafty Pinecones from Home Made Simple

What could be a more natural ornament to festoon your Yule tree with than a pine cone?  Clearly they’re nature’s own ornaments, and they look fantastic on anyone’s tree.  There’s about a hundred ways to make your own pine cone ornaments, and many of them involve real pinecones.  In fact, I have a distinct childhood memory of taking a pine cone, outlining each scale with Elmer’s craft glue, and then shaking glitter over the whole thing.

I had a blast doing that, but I don’t recall those particular ornaments returning to our tree the following year.  Since my mom was religious about keeping all the ornaments we kids made until they disintegrated (I’m fairly certain there’s still an ugly Perler bead ornament or two in her collection), I have a feeling these real pine cone ornaments were very fragile.  Also, glitter is evil.

Of course, making artificial pinecones is incredibly easy, especially if they’re made of materials that don’t take themselves so seriously (that is, you can obviously tell the pinecones are not real).  I’ve found a couple versions I really love, namely this scrap fabric number from Home Made Simple, and this really sharp paper number from The Hybrid Chick.

The Hybrid Chick's paper pine cone

In either case, the underlying philosophy is the same.  You take an egg-shaped base (crumple tin foil in the fabric cone, a styrofoam egg in the paper cone), and–from tip to top–you overlap individual scales atop each other, attaching them with hot glue, pins, or whatever else seems appropriate.  You can cap them off with a special piece of fabric or paper, or attach some decorative greenery for a more festive flair.

Instructions for the fabric pine cone can be found at the website linked above, or your own common sense and this template.  The Hybrid Chick has a great phototutorial for the paper pine cone on her page, but the basic gist is that you cut a 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper into 1″ x 1″ squares, then fold two corners to the center to get a shape that looks a bit like a box house.  Then you pin the scales point-down onto a styrofoam egg and hot glue some embellishments to the top.  Easy peasy.

Yule Ornament Idea: Star-shaped Paper Lanterns

I’ve decided that on every Monday between Thanksgiving and Yule (Dec. 22nd this year), I’ll present a post about homemade tree ornaments.  Why?  Because I want to!

It’s no secret that I love the Yuletide.  I love all the traditions that go into the season:  the decorations, the baking, the family, the fun…I love it all.  Now that I’m an adult with a home of my own (so I share it with 17 other people…), I’m really beginning to love collecting tree ornaments.  Every year I try to acquire at least one or two new ones that really speak to me, and I’ve gotten into the habit of giving them as gifts.  This year, I’ve decided to make holiday ornaments for all of my housemates, and while I’ve already decided on what those will be (and started making them), I’ve still kept an eye out on the Internet for other fun ornament craft ideas.

Home Made Simple's Star-Shaped Lanterns

That’s how I stumbled upon these star-shaped paper lanterns at Home Made Simple’s website.  They’re little paper ‘pentagrams’ made to slip over an ordinary Christmas light.  I believe the website originally posted them as a summertime craft, which makes sense given the orange and pink color scheme they used in the picture.  However, they would obviously make great Yule ornaments, too, especially if holiday-themed colors and prints were used with the paper.

Since all this craft really requires is scrapbook paper, a pencil, a ruler, scissors, and some craft glue in addition to the holiday lights, it’s a really cost-effective home made ornament and offers a lot of visual impact.  With a little time, a dozen or so of these could really enliven one’s Yule tree!

If you’re interested in this craft, the instructions for making the lanterns can be found at the Home Made Simple website linked above, or at this .pdf file.

A Yule-appropriate Rice Salad

I have a whole traditional Yule menu completely down:  my family’s big Christmas supper is celebrated on Christmas eve with the Slovak Vilija table, and that’s what I would prefer to do on Yule as a religious event.  But for Yuletide potlucks and as a general healthy dish to have around the house to stave off overindulgence of sweet treats, it’s hard to beat this wild rice salad.  It uses the only native grain to North America and heavily features “winter foods” like citrus, cranberries, and nuts.  Plus, the contrast of bright green onions and bright red cranberries against the dark rice is certainly a Yuletide color scheme.

Wild Rice Cranberry Pecan Salad

Wild Rice Cranberry Pecan Salad
4 to 6 servings

1 cup wild rice
3 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon butter
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup chopped pecans, toasted
¼ cup chopped green onions or chives
3 tablespoons lemon or orange juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon sugar
Zest of 1 orange
Zest of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Bring the wild rice rice, ½ teaspoon salt, butter, and water to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 50 minutes. Do not stir the rice, and do not uncover the pot. Remove from stove and let sit, covered for 10 minutes. Then uncover, fluff up with a fork, and let cool to almost room temperature.

In a medium sized serving bowl, mix the rice, cranberries, pecans, and green onions together.

In a separate jar, mix the lemon juice, olive oil, orange zest, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, mix dressing in with the rice mixture. Serve warm, chilled, or room temperature.

Decking the Halls with Pagan Ornaments

My 2010 Yule Tree: the very first I've had as an adult.

When I was just beginning to explore paganism, I was–for some reason–befuddled as to what a Wiccan would decorate her Yule tree with.  All my mother’s ornaments seemed to be the exclusive property of Christmas, though I have no idea why.  Aside from a few crèche or angel ornaments, nothing on our tree was strictly Christian.  If you consider Santa Claus and candy canes Christian symbols, then we had a few more Christian ornaments–but, by and large, the ornaments on our tree had nothing to do with religion at all.  We had artificial fruits, shellacked cookies, artificial birds, animals, toys, and pretty much anything else you could imagine.

Now that I’m a grown-up, I’m fully of the opinion that anything that I deem “Yule-tree worthy” is acceptable on my Yule tree.  While I probably won’t be out buying crèches or angels, I’d proudly display any that I received as gifts or inherited from relatives.  And I proudly feature all the crazy ornaments that have no religious significance whatsoever, but are each evocative of a personal memory.  For example, my goldfish ornament reminds me of my youngest brother winning a goldfish just when he was learning to talk and proudly proclaiming that he’d name it “Golden Opportunity.”  A pair of matrushka doll ornaments remind me of my friend Angela who gave them to me, and of my trip to Russia, where I made myself say goodbye to the first man I loved.  An ornament that says “Drink Green Tea” reminds me of my days working for Adagio and networking with the teaophiles.

Frankly, I think these types of ornaments are the most important ones on the Yule tree, but if you’re looking to make a pagan statement, there are a few types of ornaments you could incorporate on the tree.

  • Stars.  This is pretty much a no-brainer for the Wiccan set, as the pentacle is our main religious symbol.
  • Lights.  Again, this is all but a no-brainer.  We light candles and decorate our homes with lights on Yule–the darkest day of the year–as a sort of sympathetic magic to bring back the return of increasing daylight.
  • Greenery.  What better way to festoon a pagan tree than to bring nature in?  Weaving pine cones, ivy, holly, mistletoe, and oak branches or acorns in among the evergreen boughs will certainly make a statement, and looks incredible.
  • Birds and Animals.  Ornaments with a bird motif are really popular–particularly brightly colored birds like cardinals, goldfinches, and bluebirds.  They are, of course, another natural motif, but pagans can also view them magically.  In her book Wheel of the Year, Pauline Campanelli notes that bird ornaments are a bit like working some sympathetic magic:  they can be viewed as charms to hasten Springs return.  Incorporating wrens and robins are especially significant because, as Ms. Campanelli writes, wrens were hunted and killed on Yule in many European countries “in order to let its replacement, the robin redbreast, reign” (12).  Other animals also contribute to the nature motif, but some–such as stags or reindeer–have special significance to the God.
  • Musical Instruments.  Ours is a bardic religion, and music and dance plays a large part in how we raise magical energy.  As Pauline Campanelli writes, symbols of music “represents continuity, ancient and unchanging.”
  • Food Items.  Incorporating different fruits or representations of baked goods can represent luxury, wealth, or hearth and home.
  • Santa Claus. Even though the modern Santa Claus bears some similarity with the Christian saint Nicholas, who gave little children gifts, Santa Claus is not St. Nicholas.  In fact, he’s not even an ancient figure:  the modern conception of Santa Claus was largely shaped after artists Thomas Nast and Clement Clarke Moore started churning out images of a fat, jolly, red-clad man and department stores started using it to sell their products.  To be very cynical, Santa Claus could probably be considered a god (or a false idol, depending on an individuals religious persuasion) of rampant commercialism.  But the Santa Claus mythos is also informed by various pagan figures such as the Germanic god Odin, and the general figure–an old man clad in fur and holly colors–makes him an appropriate representation of the Holly King.

Yule Trees: Balancing tradition against the environment

I do love me the Christmas tree.  When I was growing up, trimming the tree was the one vestige of the holiday season that was never ruined by family travel plans.  Sometime between the end of Thanksgiving weekend and December 8th or so, Dad would haul our artificial tree and all our ornaments down from the attic.  He’d set up the tree and string it up with lights, then Mom and Dad would artfully drape the garlands, and then Mom and us kids would get down to the business of hanging the ornaments.  Eventually Dad and the boys set up a train set under the tree while Mom and I managed the crèche.  We even had a particular way of setting up the ornaments, so I could really count on the constancy of that tree.  Pretty much the only thing that ever changed was the great raffia revolution of 1994 and the slow addition and subtraction of various ornaments.

Luckily for me, the Christmas tree is Pagan in origin–as are all the best parts of secular Christmas celebrations, really–so decking the halls with all manner of greenery is something I really look forward to now that my main December day is Yule and I’m an adult who can establish her own traditions.  But negotiating these traditions with Pagan environmental ethics is a little tricky, especially now that there’s a pretty big environmental sustainability discourse surrounding the practice of Christmas (or Yule!) trees.

As members of an earth religion, I do think it is important that we remain conscious of our environmental impact–after all, you could consider us the ultimate guardians of Gaia–so I think it is important that we are aware of this discourse and continue to question the environmental sustainability of our traditions.  Now, I am not arguing that trimming a Yule tree is a practice that should be abolished–even though that would be the most environmentally friendly option–nor am I crafting a definite opinion that live trees are better than artificial trees or vice versa.  What I do think is important is that pagan practitioners who wish to use a Yule tree carefully consider their immediate environment and all the options available to them before conscientiously choosing the best option for their unique situations.

It might be best to begin the comparison of the options with the more controversial one:  artificial trees.  For an earth religion, using an artificial symbol seems counterproductive, but there may be good reasons for choosing it.  My own parents, for example, chose an artificial tree when I was five on the grounds that it would be better for the environment as they would no longer have to contribute to ‘senseless tree murder’ (though I suspect Mom didn’t want to worry about us small kids setting a dry tree on fire, eating pine needles, or setting the baby’s asthma ablaze).  To my parents’ credit, they saved about 20 conifers from certain death with that tree, but there was a definite environmental trade-off.  Their tree was made of metal and plastic–a petroleum product.  Therefore, it not only relied upon the use of non-renewable resources in its creation, but upon the environmentally destructive practices of mining and drilling.  The twenty or so trees saved by my parents’ decision sort of looks insignificant compared to the irreplaceable use of resources that took millions of years to form.

Of course, there are additional arguments against the use of artificial trees.  For example, not only do they incur a significant carbon cost in their manufacture, but something like 85% of all artificial trees are manufactured in China, so–at the very least–they’ve built up a fairly large carbon footprint in transportation, too.  This involves still more fossil fuel use and compounds it with the problem of global warming.  In the same vein, there’s plenty of issues with the specific plastics used to create artificial trees:  nearly all artificial trees are made using polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is not biodegradable–any degradation is really ‘granulation’, which means that smaller PVC pieces break off the main piece–and cannot be easily recycled.  In fact, most recycling programs in the United States do not accept PVC plastics, and less than 1% of PVC plastics are recycled worldwide.  Of more concern in popular discourse, though, is PVC’s connection to many toxic chemicals, which manufacturers use to make the plastic more flexible.  For example, lead (which greatly impairs the nervous system) and phthalates (which may affect many endocrine processes) are used or have been used in the production of PVC and can remain in the plastic, and some chemicals–most worrisome being dioxin, which is one of the most deadly man-made poisons on the planet–are actually created from manufacturing or destroying PVC.

Thankfully, it is true that these secondary concerns have been addressed or can be mitigated.  For example, many people cite lead concerns as a reason to avoid artificial trees;  however, China banned the use of lead as a PVC stabilizer ages ago.  Similarly, the PVC used in most Christmas trees is actually recycled PVC; in fact, Christmas tree manufacturing is one of the few markets available for recycled PVC.  Modern trees also use less PVC than they have in the past.  In fact, some manufacturers offer PVC-free trees made of polyethylene (PE), which actually gives a more realistic look as the PE has to be set in a three-dimensional mold.  Many of these manufacturers are American-based, which also improves the transportation carbon footprint of the trees.  And while none of these trees are biodegradable, they can be used for decades, with some manufacturers guaranteeing their product for fifty years.  Given all this, it would be totally irresponsible to discard an artificial tree any sooner than before it has seen 10 years of use.

Really, the one thing that just can’t be avoided with artificial trees is the use of non-renewable resources.  But this might be acceptable in certain conditions.  For example, over the course of a few decades, it’s probably a better idea for someone living in Tuscon, Arizona to buy an artificial tree rather than rely on real ones trucked in from Oregon or North Carolina, then using precious water to keep them alive.  After all, it’s not as though a Tusconian has ready access to tree rentals or could successfully plant a live fir tree after the holiday season.  Likewise, those living in large cities might want to opt for an artificial tree.  Live trees are more flammable than artificial trees, and fires in apartments or closely built houses have the potential to create unspeakable damage.  But one family burning their old tree safely, in addition to possibly damaging their own chimney with resinous pine tar, also contributes to city smog, which affects everyone’s quality of life.  And many cities aren’t equipped to do something useful with the old tree carcasses–like turning them into mulch for city or private use.  Instead, they’re consigned to the landfill.  City dwellers also lack the necessary land to plant a potted pine themselves, and most can’t afford a “tree rental” service that would do it for them.  Finally, many people choose to live in cities in order to minimize allergies, and live trees can introduce molds and pollens into a house that could prove irritating.

If an artificial tree is chosen–for whatever reason–then taking time to carefully select a quality tree that will be used for decades from a reputable, local manufacturer–preferably one that uses PE instead of PVC–is the responsible thing to do.  Once you’ve secured your artificial tree, though, you should find a way to safely store the tree after the holidays are ended.  After all, that tree will be in storage for at least 48 weeks out of the year, so it would pay to make sure it is in a dark, cool, and pest-free place.

As I suspect, however, most pagans who opt to use a Yule tree will do their best to use a live rather than an artificial tree.  Unlike many Christians, we have a practice where we save a good section of the trunk of this year’s Yule tree to use as next year’s Yule log–and that’s not exactly something you can do with an artificial tree.  But there is an environmental cost to using a live tree, too.  There’s the obvious loss-of-a-tree cost:  even though timber is a renewable resource, cutting down a fir tree to admire for just a couple weeks removes a valuable carbon-fixing organism from our global ecosystem, as well as removes habitat and food from local ecosystems.  But there’s also a more hidden agricultural cost, too.

The overwhelming majority of live trees will come from tree farms, which have their roots in forest conservation.  The use of Christmas trees had become so popular by 1901 that President Teddy Roosevelt banned the use of a White House Christmas tree over concerns of deforestation as it became evident that the forests could not safely keep up with the holiday demand for young pine trees.  That year, W. V. McGalliard started the first Christmas tree farm, planting 25,000 Norway spruces on his New Jersey acreage.  Roosevelt’s chief of the U. S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, saw the conservation potential in this project and advocated its use to the President.  Soon, other farmers followed in McGalliard’s footsteps.

Today, America has thousands of Christmas tree farms, and it is estimated that 41 million seedlings were planted in 2010 to replace the 2009 harvest.  Each one of these trees represents a family that didn’t have to trek into our increasingly decreasing forests, disrupting ecosystems and inadvertently destroying habitat.  Many of these Christmas tree farms also represents a small, local, family-run business that keeps capital within a community and makes use of resources that might otherwise be wasted; after all, most Christmas tree farms are on ground that could not sustain other crops, either because the soil is too poor and rocky or because the terrain is so hilly.  And, of course, a live tree is an easily renewable resource and supporting tree farms ensures that every tree cut will be replaced–two trees are planted for each tree cut (though this is done because only half of all new pine seedlings are likely to survive beyond one year of age).

But even though tree farms offer some highly desirable environmental benefits, modern agribusiness has mitigated their ecological boon.  In theory, a live tree has practically no carbon footprint:  it fixes as much atmospheric carbon dioxide as it contributes to the environment.  Transportation, however, gives the live tree industry a pretty significant carbon footprint.  The Christmas tree farmers obviously use petroleum in canvassing their land and planting and harvesting their crops, but there’s also petroleum use in transport from the farm to retail location, from the retail location to the consumer home, and then from the home to disposal site.  While many consumers buy live trees from a stand very close to their home, the trees themselves may have traveled hundreds of miles.  For example, Oregon was the leading Christmas tree producing state in 2002, with 6.5 million trees harvested.  A great number of those trees, however, were sold in southern California and the southwest.  Although Oregon is a lot closer to Los Angeles than China, it’s hardly a local exchange and costs a significant amount of petroleum and diesel, each of which have their own environmental cost as a non-renewable, refined fossil fuel.  Similarly, many cities dispose of used Christmas trees in the trash, and that trash is often trucked to far away landfills.  New York City trash, for example, ends up in landfills in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio.  Cities that route trees through a mulching chipper also use petroleum products to fuel that machinery.  In fact, if an artificial tree is re-used for several years (different studies stating somewhere between 10 and 20 years), it–a product made from non-renewable resources–might actually use less total petroleum than the annual repurchasing of a live tree.

Transportation issues aside, Christmas tree farms also incur a decent carbon cost in their use of oil-based fertilizers and pesticides.  Even if these chemicals don’t have a petroleum origin, they still have a significant environmental impact.  Located as most tree farms are are on hills, rocky soil, or both, and as shallow as young pine roots are, most of the fertilizers and pesticides end up in local water ways.  This can result in algae blooms, fish death, and eventually have effects on land animals that rely on aquatic flora and fauna in their own diets.  The chemicals can also have a health effect on the tree farm workers and on those who may fish or hunt from local water ways and their surrounding lands.

Luckily, purchasing a live tree from a local, organic tree farm mitigates a great deal of the transportation and chemical concerns, and there are several small companies that supply potted fir trees that can be replanted after holiday use.  Some companies even “rent” these trees, then use the returned trees to help forest-fire afflicted lands regenerate–an excellent choice if the company and lands are local.  Another excellent option is choosing a wild tree.  Many states allow this, so long as a permit is purchased and the wild tree is one that would have been removed by forest services anyway, and these precautions help preserve the local forests and forest ecosystems.

If you have the land, the climate, the time, and the resources, the best option for procuring a Yule tree would be to grow it and dispose of it yourself, thereby removing all non-renewable resource and chemical concerns.  As pagans, we could even ritualize this practice, and the subsequent replanting later in the year.  If, however, you lack in any of these things, then a sacrifice of more than a tree life will have to be made.  We are a religious group that embraces sacrifice, but we must be cognizant of the fact that we are making a sacrifice first.  Understanding the environmental implications surrounding a particular choice–especially around a ritual item like the Yule tree–is something we all have a spiritual obligation to do.

Day 77: Yule, Incense and Oil

Just a quick note:  today is my baby brother’s 16th birthday!

I’m still broke, and outside of a little rosemary oil, I’m SOL in terms of ingredients…or substitutions for those ingredients.  But in a perfect world, this is what I’d be crafting:

Yule Incense
A handful of powdered sandalwood
Dried pine wood or bark (or dried cedar wood chips)
Crushed, dried pine needles
Vegetable glycerin
3 drops pine essential oil
4 drops rosemary essential oil
2 drops bay essential oil
12 small frankincense chunks

Place the sandalwood in a medium-sized bowl, and stir in two tablespoons of vegetable glycerin one at a time, then mix with a metal whisk or fork to create a soft, fluffy compound.  Don’t add the 2nd tablespoon if it looks like it would cause the incense to be too wet.  Add in the oils and whisk.  Crush the frankincense, add, and stir.  Finally, add the other dry ingredients.  Wait for at least a day for the compound to settle before you sprinkle it on hot coals.

Yule Oil
Vegetable glycerin
6 drops pine essential oil
8 drops rosemary essential oil
2 drops bay essential oil
12 frankincense tears

Find a one-ounce bottle.  Fill it half way with vegetable glycerin.  Add plain water until the bottle is 3/4 full.  Add the essential oils and frankincense tears.  Close the lid and shake the bottle.  After you’ve created the oil, anoint yourself with it and see what changes it evokes for you.