Surprise Your Guests with Holiday Theme Dinners

Family Christmas dinner

Holiday dinners don’t have to be exactly the same from year to year. By adding a theme to your big holiday meal, you can add even more excitement for your children and your guests.

Building family traditions doesn’t have to mean repeating exactly the same decorations, activities, and meals every year. We all look forward to some of our favorites, but the anticipation of seeing what will be new can be fun.

If everyone really craves a big turkey, you could keep the food the same and change the colors and decorations. If the family likes to travel—or wishes they could travel—you might want to eat holiday foods from elsewhere in the world.

In my family, we always have Christmas crackers because that is what my children love about Christmas with their grandparents in England. We always make the Swiss cookies that my grandmother used to make and all of my cousins still make. We generally use the nice china and silverware as well. But, that is all that is consistent. We like to eat foods from other places in the world.

The year of Hurricane Katrina, we had a Louisiana meal in solidarity with all of those who were still recovering. We had gumbo, which fits well with the green and red decorations, dirty rice, and other Cajun favorites then pecan desserts. One year, we couldn’t decide on turkey or goose, so we decided on a theme of Christmas is for the Birds. We started one night with Cornish game hens, the next with duck and goose in a kind of homemade Peking duck, then finally the more traditional turkey dinner. My English husband has a Finnish name, so we played on that another year with the theme I’m Finnish with Christmas. We had traditional Finnish soups and breads that we had not made before. I probably wouldn’t do any of them twice, but we love the brainstorming and planning as well as the meal itself. This year, I’m pushing for a medieval Viking meal with the theme Deck the Valhalls.

If you are looking for a way to add fun to your holiday traditions, consider what you want to stay the consistent year to year and what you might play with to surprise your children or guests at your big holiday meal. Did you travel recently? Do you remember what your grandmother used to make for holidays when you were young? Would you like to see if you really can have an entirely blue meal for a Blue Christmas? (You can! We have.) Look through the ideas that intrigue you, and include your children in the planning. Pulling together the big meal is one of the activities we enjoy the most about the holidays.

Happy Holidays, and eat well!

Image © Monkey Business Images |

Seasonal Table for Young Children

Young child at nature table

A seasonal table or nature table serves as an indoor reminder of the changes of the seasons.

Many families and Waldorf schools add to the table as they find natural treasures like rocks, shells, twigs, small squashes at harvest time, new leaves in spring, and anything else that strikes the fancy of adults or children as they explore nature. The table often includes a setting created with play cloths, wool roving, figures from the toy box or the birthday ring, or even crafts. Whatever reminds us of the turning of the seasons is appropriate on a seasonal table.

Though we do have some figures and special items we add to my family’s nature table, we don’t create scenes so much as we display our found treasures of the season. The right way to create a seasonal table is whatever way you decide. Grow and adapt the tradition with your own family’s preferences.

If you would like to create a seasonal nature table with your family, start by choosing an area you can dedicate to the table. Make it high enough that dogs, cats, and curious toddlers can’t tear it apart, but make it visible even to the youngest members of the family.

Start with a walk in nature. Pick up what interests you and talk about it. For a very young child, try to follow their lead. My son filled his pockets on walks with golf balls and rubber bands, while my daughter was always finding stones. Try stick with natural objects, but don’t reject their personal choices. For older children, ask them specifically to look for natural objects that represent the season. Before you bring your objects indoors, brush off any dirt.

Prepare the table with a silk play cloth, piece of fabric, or other natural ground, then arrange your treasurers and talk about the seasons. Talk about how this season feels, but remind the child that the seasons will keep changing. It is cold now, and the pine cones have fallen off the trees, but in the spring new pine cones will grow on the trees. Those might be put on your spring table.

Avoid that nature deficit that seems so common in industrial childhood, and encourage your child to build an awareness of how nature works and how we as humans relate to nature and the seasons. A season table is a gentle way to help young children become aware of the way nature works.

Image © Nastasja |

Decorating with Nature – Colorful Acorns

Colorful cotton acorn decorations

Whether you are bringing indoors evergreen boughs, a whole tree, or just a smaller reminder of the turning of the seasons, decorating with nature helps your child to connect with nature and the cycle of life, death, and new life.

This year, I adapted a velvet acorns project I found in a surprise issue of Better Homes and Gardens in my mail (which also brings up the question, why am I receiving a magazine I didn’t subscribe to?).

Collect Acorn Caps. I sent my son out to find acorn caps, and they only kind he could find were a bit rough, but we use what we find.

Wash the Caps. Before you use them for crafts, rinse the caps thoroughly then leave them to dry for a day.

Freeze the Caps. Before you use natural materials for crafts that you plan to keep indoors, you might want to make sure that you aren’t bringing in any small creatures with them. I freeze sticks, corn, acorn caps, or anything else that is going into crafts. Be sure they are completely dry before you freeze them, so they won’t crack, then leave them to warm up to room temperature before you start your project.

Fabric Circles. I have a lot of colorful, organic cotton fabric scraps, so I gathered a nice rainbow and cut 2 ½” circles. You can prepare the circles by making a loose basting stitch around the edge. If you have fast-drying glue, consider this optional.

Stuffing. If you have scraps left over from cutting your circles, bunch them up into a ball about the size of a cotton ball and hold inside one of the cut circles.

Glue. Put plenty of glue inside an acorn cap to hold the gathered fabric.

Gather. Pull the edges of your circle in around your ball of scraps, and hold the gathered edge firmly inside the glue in the cap until the fabric doesn’t try to pop back out.

Repeat. I spent about 20 minutes total cleaning acorn caps and creating a dozen fabric acorns.

Our colorful acorns are going with us to Granny’s house, where we will be celebrating the holidays this year.

The Holiday Smell of Cinnamon

One of the strongest senses evoking our emotional responses to holidays is smell. For this season in our house, pine and bay (evergreens) mix with spices like cinnamon and ginger. We have spiced pumpkin, spiced smoothies, spiced eggnog, spiced cookies, and spiced cider. There is a lot of cinnamon smell in our house.

Every year the smell of cinnamon reminds us to tell the story of my daughter’s first encounter with cinnamon decorations. When she was two and a half years old, I made special cinnamon ornaments. They look like cookies but they last for years giving off that nice, spicy smell.

The cinnamon is made into a thick paste with a small amount of applesauce, pressed into cookie cutters, and dried out. The next year, just sand the surface and the spicy smell is back.

I told my daughter these were decorations that we just smell.

But they look like cookies, so she took a bite.

Then she threw up all over our living room floor.

Even though her brother is nine years old now, she still tells him, “Don’t eat these. They aren’t cookies.” Despite that, all day today she has asked me, “Is it time to make the cinnamon cookies.”

This cautionary tale shouldn’t keep you from making cinnamon ornaments, but keep them away from small children. If you give these as gifts, label them very clearly.

Cinnamon Ornaments

  • About 1 cup of powdered cinnamon
  • About ½ cup of applesauce
  • Cookie cutters
  • Very low oven (~200 degrees)

Mix. Pour the cinnamon into a bowl. Add a small amount of applesauce and mix thoroughly. Keep adding more applesauce until you have a heavy cookie dough consistency. The mixture should not be crumbly (too dry) or sticky (too wet) but should stick together when pressed without making cracks on the surface.

Cinnamon mixture for holiday decorations

Cookie Sheet. Set out molds on a cookie sheet. I like to put a layer of parchment paper underneath. I find that cookie cutters without handles or backs work best because they give space to press the shape out. We have a pancake mold that works well also. Smooth, round shapes are easier to start with so you can figure out the right techniques before you are dealing with tight corners.

Cinnamon paste for holiday decorations

Mold. Press the mixture into a cookie cutter or mold. Press firmly with fingers to be sure that there are no empty spaces, cracks, or bubbles. It might help to use a small spatula or knife to press into tighter corners. Smooth the top of the shape.

Press cinnamon mixture into molds

Release. Press out of the mold, releasing the shape by pressing gently at the edges with a knife.

Hole. Make a 1/8″ hole about ½” from the top or from any edges of the shape.

Cinnamon ornaments ready to dry

Dry. Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Turn off, then leave the cookie sheet in the oven. Or just set the cookie sheet in the oven when you finish cooking dinner. Or, set it on or near a radiator or heating vent. If you leave to air dry, the process can take a couple of days. If your climate is humid, help the process along with a small amount of heat. When the shapes are firm but not yet dry, move them around on the cookie sheet to let them dry on the bottom.

Cinnamon ornaments moved around on parchment

Decorate. Once dry, tie a ribbon or string through the hole.

Cinnamon Ornament

We hang our ornaments on hooks along our mantle. Bigger ornaments may be too heavy for a tree, but smaller ornaments like the leaves we made this year should be fine on tree branches.

When you pack the cinnamon ornaments away for the first year, be sure to include towels or paper that can absorb any excess moisture.

The smell of cinnamon fills our house long after the ornaments have been put away.

Next year, sand the back to evoke your own holiday memories.