How to Make An Old-Timey Popcorn Garland

photo copyright Cherry Hill Farmhouse and Barn

This weekend, my husband surprised me with high tea at Cherry Hill Farmhouse, a historic property managed by Falls Church parks and rec. Cherry Hill hosts reenactments, concerts, readings, lectures, and teas, and this past Sunday, the tea included a presentation by a costumed interpreter who told us about Christmas celebrations in Northern Virginia the late 1800s. We sat in the parlor of the farmhouse, and learned about the decorations used on a typical Christmas tree. There were small candles clipped to the branches, handmade paper ornaments and a garland made of popcorn and cranberries was wound around the tree.

This reminded me of how much I enjoyed making popcorn garlands when I was a child. So I decided to make one for the little live Christmas tree we bought this year. Making the garlands is pretty simple, but in case you haven’t tried it before, here’s how you do it.

You will need the following materials:

  • popped popcorn (unbuttered, of course!)
  • fresh cranberries
  • embroidery floss or other heavy thread
  • needle
  • Place the cranberries and popcorn into bowls to make it easy to access them as you string.

    Cut the embroidery floss into 5-foot lengths. This makes it easy to manage. You can connect them later for longer garlands. Thread the needle with the embroidery floss (I used 3 strands), then thread one cranberry down to the end and knot the thread around it to make an anchor.


    Thread the popcorn and cranberries in a pattern until thread is full (I did 1 cranberry, 3 popcorns, 1 cranberry, 2 popcorns, etc., but you can do whatever pleases you), avoiding any squishy cranberries.


    Leave enough of an end to tie another cranberry-knot when you’re done. If you would like a garland longer than 5 feet, leave a length of thread beyond the cranberry knot, which you can tie to the next garland.

    This garland looks lovely and when you are ready to toss out/plant/put away your Christmas tree, the garland can go outside where the birds and squirrels will make good use of it!
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    How to Host a Cookie Exchange Party

    a photo of the lavender sugar cookies I made for last year's exchange

    My friend, Meg, and I have held a holiday cookie exchange for a small group of our friends. It’s a fun, low-key way to get into the holiday spirit. And it has become an eagerly anticipated tradition amongst our regular attendees.

    It is not an elaborate event, just a simple gathering, with good food, great company, and a wonderful assortment of cookies, which we in turn give to our friends and family as gifts.

    If you are interested in throwing a cookie exchange, here’s how we go about it. We send out an invitation asking guests to bring two dozen homemade cookies to trade with other guests. We promise our guests that they will walk away with an amazing array of home baked treats that will make them look like a domestic rock star, as if they have spent hours in the kitchen 🙂

    We hold it in the early evening on a weeknight in order to minimize its competition people’s holiday social commitments. It is scheduled so that it is not too close to Christmas, but not too far away, so that the cookies will still be fresh for the holidays (however, if you need to, you can freeze most cookies). Sparkling cider, sparkling water and wine are offered along with hearty appetizers, and a backdrop of Christmas music sets the stage for a holiday state of mind.

    While the piece de resistance is the gathering of the cookies, the party is also a great way to just relax in the company of good friends. And it’s a lot of fun to see what types of cookies people will bring. I never ask ahead of time, and interestingly, there have never been duplicates. The cookies have ranged from classic (gingerbread), to fun (candy cane), to unusual (organic lavender sugar*). Guests are asked to bring containers to transport their cookie conquests, but if they forget, I always have extras.

    I’ve been to cookie exchange parties where the hostess asks guests to bring a copy of their recipe to share, but we skip that part. We feel that it is enough to ask people to make cookies and make time for yet another event during the busy holiday season. If anyone really wants a particular recipe, they can always ask the cookie cook to email it to them. However, we’ve found that our group is quite happy to just bake one type of cookie! I have also see websites that offer elaborate rules around cookie exchanges, but we tend to be fairly lax. All we ask is that our guests bring cookies they’ve made, and if they absolutely don’t have time, they can bring store bought. Again, this is about enjoying time with friends, and the last thing we want to do is add more pressure to our friend’s lives!

    If you decide to host a cookie exchange, please let me know how it goes. And if you’ve come up with a creative or fun addition to the tradition, I’d love to hear about it!

    *I buy Fair Trade cane sugar (which ensures that sugar cane farmers receive a fair price for their harvest), both for my home baking as well as for my sugar scrubs. My favorite brand is Wholesome Sweeteners, which is available at Whole Foods. I also learned recently that many brands of sugar are not vegetarian! They use bone char (usually from cows) to whiten their product (ew!). For more information on this topic, you can visit the Whole Foods blog.

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    Lavender Sugar Cookie Recipe

    I have had a life-long love affair with herbs. And back before I first started making my herbal bath and body products, I made the journey to Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, CT to see the abundant herb gardens, arranged by theme (I recall most vividly the Shakespeare Garden and the Saint’s Garden). I planned my visit to coincide with one of their herbal luncheons, which featured several dishes, all seasoned with herbs. The standout for me was their lavender cookies. It was such a unique idea, and such a lovely flavor.

    As I thought about what kind of cookie to bake today, I recalled those wonderful cookies, and decided to try to recreate them. I made them look a bit more festive for the holidays, adding a tint to the icing and sprinkling them with colored sugar. Following is my recipe, which turned out very well, if I do say so myself!

    1 stick of organic butter (1/2 cup)
    3/4 cup fair trade sugar
    1 organic (local, if possible) egg
    1 tablespoon organic milk
    1 1/4 cups organic, unbleached flour
    2 teaspoons organic dried lavender flowers*
    1/4 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
    a pinch of sea salt

    Preheat the oven to 350ÂşF.

    Cream the butter, then gradually add the sugar, beating until light. Add the egg, vanilla, and milk, the beat until thoroughly combined.

    Mix the flour, lavender flowers, salt, and baking powder together, then add this mix to the butter mixture. Blend well. Drop by teaspoonfuls on cookie sheets covered in parchment, about 1 inch apart.

    Bake for 10-12 minutes, until lightly browned around the edges.

    You can decorate them with a simple icing.

    Pour a 1/2 cup of boiling water over 2 tablespoons of dried lavender flowers. Allow to steep for 10-15 minutes. Strain, then add 4 tablespoons of the liquid to 2 cups of powdered sugar, blending until smooth. Add coloring to tint, if desired, and decorate with colored sugar sprinkles. For the icing, I used India Tree natural vegetable colorants, which, unlike most brands of coloring, do not contain petroleum-based ingredents. And for the sugar sprinkles, I used  Joby & Marty’s Amazing Colored Sugar, which is also colored only with vegetable dye. Both of these are available at Whole Foods.

    *You must use culinary grade lavender, so as to avoid any unwanted chemicals. My favorite source is Mountain Rose Herbs, which offers a vast variety of organic and pesticide-free dried herbs.

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    So many thanks, so little time!

    Within the past month, and primarily within the last week, I have received a plethora of great reviews and mentions in gift guides. So, I would like to return the favor and thank all the blogs and websites that have featured my products — I appreciate your kind words! Here are the people I would like to thank, and whose gift guides I would also like to recommend to you, dear reader…

    Dallas Star-Telegram “When you buy holiday gifts that benefit a charity, the good feeling is priceless” A holiday guide to products that support a cause, a charity, a relief effort, a positive change in the world.

    Going Green DC “2nd Annual Going Green DC Gift Guide” A guide to some of the coolest eco-friendly gifts that are made right here in the DC area.

    We Love DC “We Love Really Cool Gifts” Great gifts made by DC area artists and craftspersons.

    Chic & Green Christmas Wishes 2009 Daily handcrafted holiday gift recommendations from the Chic & Green blog.

    Bella Sugar “10 Feel-Good Gifts For Dad on Any Budget” A guide to “the perfect holiday gifts for the Y chromosome who loves you most.”

    EcoLeeko “4th Day of Christmas” Twelve days of eco-friendly, artisan gift suggestions handpicked by EcoLeeko.

    Nuorganics’ “On the 1st Day of Christmas” Greenworks offers 12 days of recommendations for handcrafted, unique, quality products from independent artisans.

    Whitz World of Beauty “More Christmas Gift Ideas with Herban Lifestyle” A listing of some of my best-selling products, many of which were featured in…

    Create your own Spa Week with Herban Lifestyle featured in the Examiner in September.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. And Happy Holidays!!!

    Reducing Holiday Stress

    Recently I found myself behind a car whose license plate read: “IMEDIT8.” I couldn’t help but smile. I had been thinking about how stressful the holidays can get – it seems that everyone I speak with mentions in the same breath how the holidays are coming up so quickly and how busy they will be as a result. Quite often, it’s said in the tone of someone bracing for a huge undertaking.

    Every year I find myself taking on a lot of extra responsibilities around the holidays, so I work hard to make sure I don’t overextend myself. I do this by continually reassessing what is necessary and what isn’t, what is possible and what isn’t. For example, during my first holiday season in the DC area after moving from Connecticut, I ended up driving for several hours there and back for Thanksgiving and Christmas. While it was wonderful to spend time with friends and family, I found myself exhausted, and not spending enough time in any one place. This year I chose to limit my travels to just Christmas, but for a longer period of time. So, while it would have been wonderful to spend time with close friends and family at Thanksgiving, avoiding the stress of too much travel will allow me to enjoy the time I do have with them that much more. Plus, I had a wonderful first Thanksgiving in Virginia!

    In addition to trying to do too many things in too short a time, a large source of stress around the holidays comes from our expectations (even if only subconsciously) that everything should be perfect – our family will gather in peace and love, everyone’s wishes will come true and everyone will sing in perfect harmony. However, this Norman Rockwell ideal is generally not in line with the reality of the holidays. Often we become stressed striving for perfection that is neither attainable, nor even necessarily desirable.

    It is important to be alert to signs that you are under too much stress such as irritability, anxiety, inability to concentrate, forgetfulness, headaches, neck and back pain, or stomachaches. If you are experiencing these symptoms, it is probably time to take a breather, delegate, or drop the things that aren’t really necessary. Simplify.

    There is an organization devoted to promoting the idea of simplifying our lives by de-emphasizing the material. The mission of New American Dream is to offer resources that make it easier to live consciously and buy wisely. Last year I attended an alternative gift fair that they sponsored, in which several local non-profit organizations were selling donation gift cards, which make great gifts for the people on your list who “have everything.” There is a Holiday Survival Kit that you can download from their website that includes a booklet on ways to make your holidays more simple and more enjoyable. It also features Gift of Time vouchers to print out and give to people instead of physical gifts, tips for a less stressful holiday season, and much more.

    Here are some ideas on how to reduce your holiday stress:

    1) Don’t demand perfection. Instead, focus on what is most important to you, and be realistic about what you can accomplish given your time and budget. Remember, the holidays are supposed to be joyful!

    2) Set boundaries around how you are willing to allocate your time. If you feel overextended, realize that you don’t have to please everyone. It’s okay to spread out your visits, or have shorter ones.

    3) Many experts recommend humor as one of the keys to surviving the holidays with family. On a physical level, it lowers blood pressure, releases endorphins, and diffuses tension. And from a mental perspective, it helps you to keep things in perspective – if you can laugh off your quirks and your family’s idiosyncrasies, potentially annoying situations will go more smoothly for you and those around you.

    4) Take time for yourself. Make time for fun and relaxation: take a walk, play a game, read, meditate. It’s also important not to let exercise fall by the wayside. Exercise helps to reduce stress, improve sleep, and increase your energy and stamina by increasing levels of mood-enhancing, energy-promoting neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.

    Happy Holidays!

    I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas

    greenchristmasThe holiday season is a time of sharing,  preparing, celebrating and buying. And it has become, increasingly over the past century, a time of excess consumption. This year, with concerns about the economy, personal finances, and the state of the environment, many people are looking for ways to strech their dollars and green their holiday habits.

    While I admit that I dive unabashedly into the holidays and all their trappings, I have always tried to offset my excesses through greener practices. Here are some of the things that I’ve been doing over the years to lessen my impact on the environment. Because my mantra is “it’s all about balance,” especially during the holidays, all of these ideas are relatively easy to implement, and generally don’t take any more time than their un-green equivalents. And several of these options cost the same or less than taking the traditional commercial route.

    1. Rethink your Holiday greeting cards. I have several friends who have switched over to email-only holiday greetings, which definitely saves paper. However, if you are more traditional, there are earth-friendly ways to send your season’s greetings. You can purchase cards made from 100% recycled paper, or cards from organizations that donate money to environmental or social causes. I’ve always either made my own cards (on recycled paper) or purchased UNICEF cards, as they have great designs and the money goes to helping children throughout the world. Their cards are available online or at Pier 1 Imports. If you’re opting for gorgeous recycled cards, Fig+Sage offers some great recommendations.

    2. Use last year’s holiday cards as gift tags. One of my parents’ friends, an artist, has always done
    this, and it looks great. Just cut off the front of the card and write your message on the back. You
    can either tape the card to the gift, or punch a hole in it and string a ribbon through.

    3. Replace those environmentally-unfriendly paper goods. Several years ago, I purchased about 50
    dessert-sized plates from a discount store, and have used them for parties in place of paper plates. They’ve paid for themselves over and over. If you don’t want to do dishes, there are several brands of eco-friendlier disposable goods, including compostable plastic plates and utensils. Whole Foods
    carries some, and Green Party Goods has a great selection.

    4. Get creative with wrapping paper. In the past I’ve used beautifully printed cloth napkins or larger
    cloths and tied them with ribbon. I’ve also bought reusable cloth gift bags at Whole Foods. I also package collections of smaller items in baskets or other reusable containers. I’ve also taken plain kraft paper and printed it with rubber stamps or potato prints. This is a great activity for kids, as it allows them to be involved in holiday preparations and it’s easy for them to do. There are several companies that offer recycled wrapping paper. National Geographic has an article on earth-friendly paper and cards. Or try wrapping your gifts in plantable seeded wrapping paper from Bloom!

    5. Keep the ribbon and bows to a minimum. We use tons of petroleum-based plastic ribbon in this
    country every holiday season — I heard on the radio the other day that it’s enough to wrap around the entire planet! Replace the plastic with raffia, twine or nothing at all. I often decorate packages
    with an ornament or candy cane.

    6. Purchase gifts that do dual duty by patronizing shops that benefit non-profits. When I lived in
    Connecticut, I would make an annual trip to the Save the Children gift shop. They have a huge
    selection of items and all profits go to their international aid projects. I now shop at Ten Thousand
    Villages
    , a fair trade organization that represents artisans from over 30 countries.

    7. Buy a tree locally, or better yet, buy a live one. Look for local tree farms where you can cut your
    own (when I lived in Connecticut, we would cut our own tree at a local organic farm), or nurseries
    that sell live trees, which you can plant in your yard after the holidays (that’s what my parents did
    every year). The National Audubon Society has an article on live versus cut, and how to find a local
    tree farm.

    8. Buy gifts locally. Every year I make it a point to patronize craft fairs and local artisans. I also go to Etsy and do a search for artisans located in my area. Buying locally is better for the environment and for the local ecomony.

    9. Make your own gifts. They don’t have to be time-consuming or expensive — you can do something simple like making a forced bulb planter, or homemade cookie mix in a reusable jar. You can find tons of great, easy ideas in books at the library or search on Google for “homemade christmas gifts.”

    Happy Holidays!