Christmas Critters

‘Mother Nature’ …  she’s one of the most inspired of all artists! Join the Mountain Farmgirl for a new twist on some nature-inspired Christmas tree decorations that you and your family can make at home, and treasure for years to come!

‘Nature as Designer’…  Does ‘art’ get any better than this? I don’t think so! My husband gave me a book of that title many years ago, and looking at its color photographs, which include amazing seed pods, cones, and a wide selection of the natural phenomena that surround us, I think you’ll agree that Michangelo couldn’t have sculpted anything more beautiful! Our Creator has an infinite sense of style!

The folks at the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania also recognize this fact, and have taken nature’s flair for the artistic to a marvelous and whimsical new level! This museum is located not far from my husband’s family, so we’ve had the opportunity to take many magical excursions through its array of Christmas splendor over the years. For over three decades now, visitors to their annual holiday event (called' A Brandywine Christmas') have enjoyed enchanting, whimsical "critter" ornaments. In the spring of each year,  a "glue-gun gang" of approximately 120 volunteers begins to craft these delightful ornaments from natural materials. By the opening of the annual Christmas show they will have made nearly 9,000 critters  in all (both for display and for sale).

Critters are an ideal gift that farmgirls and their families can make at home for practically no cost at all (except perhaps, the time it takes for a fun afternoon romp through the woods and fields to scout for the natural materials). These handmade ornaments are environmentally friendly, distinctive and artistic, and a really fun way to get ready for the holidays.  (You can also support the museum by purchasing them at their annual Critter Sale on December 3 and 4.  All proceeds from the sale benefit the Volunteers' Art Purchase Fund, which has added more than 200 paintings, drawings, and prints to the Museum's holdings since 1975).







The Brandywine Museum’s critter decorations are now famous, having adorned trees at both the White House and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.






The first critter ornaments were created in 1972 by a group of volunteers who were asked to use natural materials to decorate a small tree for display. The woods, fields, and roadsides near the museum were the volunteers' main resource.


While those first ornaments were simple, unadorned pinecones, teasel pods, milkweed cases and dried flowers and have become more elaborate and creative through the years, the basic ingredients are still the same. In addition to the interesting shapes, colors, and textures of the natural  materials, each person who makes them brings their unique sense of whimsy and distinct character  to their creations. Of course, gathering plant materials is always done with conservation in mind. Plants are cut, never pulled out by the roots, and seeds are shaken out of the seed head at the site, allowing future plants to germinate. Materials are carefully preserved and stored in boxes for future use; and what is not used one year is saved for the next.






The Brandywine museum has a wonderful book that I refer to from time to time with lots of creative ideas. It is called (no surprisingly!) Brandywine Critters! Another one (now out of print) that I picked up used, online, is called Critters, Angels and Stars, and is written by the Brandywine Volunteers. Both are informative and inspirational.






You will find many ideas for making ornaments, Critter trees and even wreaths. Ther is a lot of information on collecting natural materials, drying them and storing them as well.









Create a Critter of Your Own!
Critter construction takes little more than a hot glue gun, good dried materials, and your limitless imagination. Preparation of materials is important but not difficult: all organic material must be dried before it is used. Some materials, such as flowers and grasses, are hung and air dried. Others, such as the more delicate flowers, are dried in silica gel; and still others are dried in a slow oven for an hour or more and left in the oven until cool. Nuts especially, must be oven dried to kill any worms or insects that might inhabit them. Pinecones with heavy sap may be placed in a slow oven (turned to lowest temperature) on cookie sheets covered with foil. The sap “bakes” onto the pinecone, making it easier to handle and giving it a natural shine.

Teasel is one of the most often used components in critter ornaments, and must be cleaned and its seeds removed. This can be done by gently rubbing together two pods with their points facing each other, or cleaned with an old toothbrush. Because teasel is somewhat prickly and hard to handle, care should be taken (you might even want to wear gloves).

Milkweed pods provide the wings, hair, fur, and tails for many critters and angels. Pods are split while they are still green, the “fluff” removed, and the pod  propped open to dry. Soybeans are dried and sprayed with clear acrylic to help keep them from splitting and are used for critter legs and arms. Pokeweed seeds are obtained by crushing the pods and removing the seeds with tweezers. These seeds are used for eyes.







The only mineral used is Mica, which must be washed, separated and dried before it is ground. It can be ground a few layers at a time in an old blender or coffee grinder. Mica adds a sparkling touch to angels and stars.

Cornhusks and other materials such as okra, teasel, lunaria and pinecones can be bleached to remove mold and to lighten. Cornhusks are submerged in heavily diluted bleach (five gallons of water to two cups of bleach) for one to three days depending on the amount of mold on the shucks. Husks are turned occasionally during bleaching to insure even coverage. After bleaching, husks are removed from the solution, wrung out gently, and dried on a rack or old screen in bright sunshine. It’s probably a good idea to wear rubber gloves  during this process to protect your hands from the bleach.

Materials should always be stored in paper bags or cardboard boxes to allow air to circulate and minimize mildew damage before they are used to create your ornaments. If plastic containers are used, tops should be removed so that air can reach the materials. (No-Brainer Alert: It should go without saying that when you store your finished critters with your other Christmas decorations, they should be protected from being crushed, and should be stored in a solid type of container. Plastic bins with tightly fitted lids, or  metal cookie tins are perfect. Alas, I learned this the hard way.  One year I stored my large collection of critters in a cardboard box without thinking, and placed it in the attic of a storage shed. Disaster!! The squirrels had a field day eating the seed pods and cones. I was devastated (as were my critters).

Hot glue guns are used to construct critters because hot glue sets more quickly and holds more firmly to natural materials than other types of adhesives. As we all know, hot glue has a tendency to drip or trail, so it should be used carefully. It can also burn fingers, so care should be taken.

It’s a good idea to make a few “practice” critters  to become familiar with the materials and the process. When critters are completed, they are usually  sprayed with a clear acrylic to protect them and make them better able to resist breakage. Spraying must be done outside on a clear day. (Never do the it indoors as it is toxic). Also, don’t discard your leftover materials; save them for another inspiring project! Here are two fairly easy projects to get you started … After  you practice on these, let your creative Farmgirl imaginations soar! Whether purchase these adorable critters as holiday gifts from the Brandywine Museum to support a good cause, or make them yourself, these creative and collectible ornaments will capture your heart!







Creating Your Own  Reindeer Critter

1 small teasel
1 large teasel
2 dried daylily stems
2 golden chain tree seeds
1 small dried red seed

2 white pinecone petals
4 soybeans
1 pussy willow
8" lightweight, green floral wire

pointed scissors
glue gun
wire cutters
clear acrylic spray

1. Using clippers, cut stem and bract from two teasels. The larger teasel will be used for the body, the smaller for the head. 
2 With scissors, trim the smaller and larger teasels where the head and body join. The trimming enables a stronger bond when glued.
3. Using hot glue, glue the trimmed areas of the teasel together. Hold until glue is set. 
4. For antlers, cut dried daylily stems to 1-1/2". Use hot glue on ends of stems and insert into small teasel.
5.With points of scissors, make small holes in front of antlers for the eyes, glue in golden chain tree seeds using hot glue. Make a third hole for the nose and glue in red seed.
6.Trim white pinecone petals for ears, hot glue petals behind each antler, slightly to the outside of each daylily stem. 
7. Using hot glue, glue in the four soybeans for legs. See picture for placement. 
8. Using hot glue, glue in a pussy willow for the tail. 
9. With wire cutters, cut an 8" piece of lightweight, green floral wire. Wrap 2" of wire once around body behind the neck and twist tightly. This is the hanger. 
10. Spray entire critter with clear acrylic spray.

Creating a Ballerina Bear

3 - 3" teasels
3 - 2" teasels
2 - 1" teasels
8" length of lightweight,
8" green floral wire
3 golden chain tree seeds
4 - 1" pinecone petals
1 dried, red chili pepper
18" of raffia
4 lengths of cornhusk
6 Eucalyptus leaves
3 small dried flowers
sharp pointed scissors
glue gun
paper towels
beige thread
wire cutters
clear acrylic spray
1. With clippers, remove the stem and bract from all teasels. Trim 1/4" off the pointed tops of all the teasels.
2. For the legs, with pointed scissors, trim two of the 3" teasels where they will be joined with the other 3" teasel which is being used for the body. The trimming enables a stronger bond when glued. Hold in place until the glue has set.
3. For the arms, repeat the same technique in trimming as in step 2 using the 2" teasels. Glue the arms as close to the top of the body teasel as possible. See picture.
4. Using the 8" length of floral wire, make a 1" circle at one end, twist and place it on top of the body teasel. For the head, glue a 2" teasel on top of the body teasel and wire. The additional 7" of wire will be the hanger.
5. For the ears, glue the 1" teasels in place. Hold until set.
6. For the eyes and nose, glue the 3 golden chain tree seeds in place, using tweezers.
7. For the hands, glue 1" pinecone petals in the tops of the arms. The petals should be facing downward.
8. For the feet, glue pieces of dried, red chili pepper on to the 1" pinecone petals. Trim the pepper to the exact shape of the petals. Tie two bows using 1/8" by 2" lengths of raffia. Glue them to the red shoes. Glue the red shoes onto the leg teasels. (See picture.)
9. With pointed scissors, cut a 1/4" ridge around the middle of the body for the location of the skirt. To determine the amount of cornhusk for the skirt, measure the waist.
10. For the skirt, using scissors, cut a 2" wide by 12" long piece of cornhusk. Soak the cornhusk for ten minutes, to make it pliable. After soaking, remove the excess water with paper towels. With needle and thread, carefully shirr cornhusk strip, to fit around the waist and to overlap 1/4" in the back. Apply glue in 1" sections around the waist and push in cornhusk as you go. Do small sections at a time because the glue dries quickly.
11. From raffia, make a 1/2" wide by 6" long braid. Glue braid around the waist, criss-crossing it in the front and letting the ends extend to the sides. Glue eucalyptus leaves and dried flowers to the ends of the braid. (See picture.)
12. Glue eucalyptus leaves and a small dried flower on the top of one ear.
13. Spray entire ornament with clear acrylic spray.

Until next time, Happy Holiday Crafting!!

As always,
Mountain Bounty, Mountain Blessings from
The Mountain Farmgirl



By: Libbie
On: 11/28/2011 06:05:12
Hi, Cathi! These little critters are so cute! I was looking for a fun way for my little guys to make holiday ornaments this year for our handmade holidays, and this just fits the bill. How clever!!! What a fabulous idea - I can't wait to try it out. Perhaps this week we'll spend gathering materials and wait until a really blustery day to put them together. Thank you! xoxo, Libbie
By: Joan
On: 11/28/2011 11:23:18
How NEAT that you posted so many of the great ideas of what to do with NATURE that so many think is dead this time of year - NOT. There is nothing like creating with the lovely God given crafting supplies. Thank you so much.
By: Debbie
On: 11/30/2011 14:53:11
Hi, Cathi! Oh, I loved seeing all those Christmas Critters made from natures art supplies... How fun and what a great thing to do with the kids... They are so clever... Thanks so much for sharing the projects with the materials list also. Very helpful!
farmgirl hugs... ( Your beachy farmgiri sister )!
By: Marji
On: 12/28/2011 16:25:31
Hi Cathi, I'm a little late in reading this with all the activity this time of year. These are the cutest little creatures. I don't have teasels or milkweed but I bet if I look in my woods here in the Alaskan wilderness I can find something that can replicate those seed heads. Thank you for sharing how to make them. I am on the hunt. :))
Blessings and love to you and your family for a Happy New Year,

By: Carol
On: 02/07/2012 03:25:58
I'm doing a quilt show in Sept. for our Cooperative Extension and Have talked a few of our homemakers to help with one of the displays {an old fashion christmas} These are jusst the thing for the display. Thank you so much for the great idea

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Cathi Belcher

Cathi Belcher,
an old-fashioned farmgirl with a pioneer spirit, lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As a “lifelong learner” in the “Live-Free-or-Die” state, she fiercely values self-reliance, independence, freedom, and fresh mountain air. Married to her childhood sweetheart of 40+ years (a few of them “uphill climbs”), she’s had plenty of time to reinvent herself. From museum curator, restaurant owner, homeschool mom/conference speaker, to post-and-beam house builder and entrepreneur, she’s also a multi-media artist, with an obsession for off-grid living and alternative housing. Cathi owns and operates a 32-room mountain lodge. Her specialty has evolved to include “hermit hospitality” at her rustic cabin in the mountains, where she offers weekend workshops of special interest to women.

“Mountains speak to my soul, and farming is an important part of my heritage. I want to pass on my love of these things to others through my writing. Living in the mountains has its own particular challenges, but I delight in turning them into opportunities from which we can all learn and grow.”

Column content copyright © 2010– Cathi Belcher. All rights reserved.

Mountain Bounty

“Keep close to Nature’s heart ... and break clear away once in awhile to climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods, to wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir