Christmas from Scratch

December 5, 2008 • Posted in Beth Finke, Flo, Uncategorized, writing by
My brother-in-law is just itching to use the homemade gift he got last Christmas--a pine cone backscratcher.

My brother-in-law Lon is just itching to use the homemade gift he got last Christmas--a pine cone backscratcher.

My Grandma was “green” long before Kermit was a tadpole. She cleaned houses for a living and walked to all her jobs. She never owned a car; never even got a driver’s license. Her carbon footprint was far smaller then her real one, the one she left all over Elmhurst, Illinois with those practical, black, leather shoes of hers.

Her name even had a green, “friend of wildlife” ring to it: Grandma Moos was 33 years old when the stock market crashed – the great depression taught her to recycle wayyy before the word “green” came to mean “environmentally friendly.”

She cut frayed worn-out wool coats into long ribbons, sewed the strips into tubes and wove them into throw rugs. Burnt-out light bulbs were never thrown away – Grandma Moos shoved them into socks to make the fabric stiffer. You know, so she could darn holes. Because, of course, she neverthrew out a pair of socks! She saved old nylons and hose, too, using these throwaways as stuffing for her hand-sewn pillows.

The list goes on and on. Empty wooden spools of thread were strung on old shoelaces for babies in the family to play with. Used wrapping paper was pressed with a cool iron, then reused. And reused. And reused. Vegetable and fruit crates? They were covered with padding (made from those worn-out nylons I told you about) and cloth, transformed into baskets for our dolls.

Grandma Moos died in 1990, but her green spirit lives on. Especially at Christmas. She left 11 grandchildren, and now many of my siblings and cousins are grandparents, too. – buying Christmas presents for everyone is pretty much out of the question. So we pick names instead. But here’s the rub: you have to make a gift for the person you choose.

New babies press handprints into clay wall hangings, cousins stuff homemade pillows for gifts, pinecones collected in backyards are magically transformed into Christmas ornaments –and back-scratchers!

I get compliments on the earrings my niece Jennifer made me every time I wear them. Every night I cuddle on the couch under an afghan my sister Cheryl crocheted. Not every gift is so treasured, though. Example: Last Christmas Mike chose our nephew Ben, A Cub fan. Mike covered an old pin with white paper, wrote the letters “sh” onto it with a magic marker, and presented it to Ben with a Cub shirt, the one that boldly announces IT’S GONNA HAPPEN. “Wear the shirt as is during the season, “mike wrote in the instruction form he put together for Ben. “And then attach the “sh” pin in front of the first word during the playoffs.” Still scratching your head trying to figure out what cursed the Cubs this year? Now you know. It was Mike Knezovich.

Usually gifts are G-rated, but we're talking Cubs-White Sox here.

Usually gifts are G-rated, but we're talking Cubs-White Sox here.

Some family members get into a groove – one brother-in law is a hunter, so every year he has his catch made into a deerhide wallet, or a deerhide make-up bag, or deerhide gloves. My brother Doug, a jazz trombonist, always writes a song for the person he chooses. Last year I was the lucky one – you can hear Doug performing “Beth, Betha, Best” with his band by clicking the “play” arrow/button below. You’ll hear a little musician talk before the song begins, so be patient.

Doug’s daughter (my niece) Marsha Boyer wrote an article about our Christmas tradition — “Cousin Pen Pal Kit” appears in this month’s issue of Family fun Magazine.

Grant picked his 11-year-old cousin, Anita, who lives three hours away, and whom he had seen only a few times. At the time, Grant wasn’t particularly interested in practicing his writing in school, so we came up with the idea to make a pen pal kit for his cousin.

Marsha’s article describes her 7-year-old son Grant making personalized stationery, including that in a package with a pen, pre-addressed envelopes, postage stamps, a picture of Grant with his bio, his age, grade, and his favorite things to do.

We figured the kit would make writing fun and be a great way for him to get to know Anita….the cousins wrote letters back and forth regularly (well, regularly for two youngsters). Grant liked to send drawings, Anita decorated her letters with stickers. Anita’s mom, my cousin, was happy to see her daughter writing more. Most of all, Grant and Anita loved getting their own mail.

We’re all delighted to add Marsha to the growing list of published writers in the family, and of course we’re tickled to have our homemade Christmas ritual touted in a national magazine. I’d gush more about all this, but I’ve gotta get away from this computer keyboard – I haven’t finished making this year’s gift yet!

A homemade pen pal kit made a writer out of my nephew, Grant.

A homemade pen pal kit made a writer out of my nephew, Grant.

Bev On December 5, 2008 at 11:45 pm

Wonder what Gramma Moos was like before the depression? Did the depression change her? I have a feeling her German backround had her scrimping and saving before the depression. Anyone know for sure?

Marilee On December 6, 2008 at 12:35 am

Loved your blog- noticed that once again you have included “Beth, Betha Best” play action! Surprised that tune hasn’t hit the top 10 yet! Homemade Christmas is always so much fun- I believe this is the 27th year- thanks to the seedling of an idea -“let’s just try it this year” from Beth! I am finishing my gift and placing in the mail this weekend (I hope)

Julie Henning On December 6, 2008 at 4:13 am

Hi Beth,

I’m a friend of Caren Hoover’s in Minneapolis (Caren and I are both in a group of women in business called Mother Venture). Anyway, Caren told me about you and shared your book. Caren made really neat coloring page type cards for kids…teaching them the art of writing hand-written thank you notes as well as keeping their hands/minds busy for a few precious moments of down time. I hope our paths cross some day. Thanks for the inspiration.


Beth On December 6, 2008 at 3:57 pm

Julie thanks for commenting to my blog! Caren is one of the people in the family we all hope chooses our name – she is so clever! Marilee, I am finishing my gift
and placing it in the mail this weekend, too (I hope!) Bev, after writing this post I decided to give a similar writing assignment to the senior citizens I teach. When I told them that the subject for next Wednesday should be “Growing up Green,” Wanda said, “We never thought of it as recycling. We thought of it as surviving!”

Caren On December 6, 2008 at 9:15 pm

Beth, I don’t believe I’ve had your name in a while. Maybe this year is your year. My friend, Julie, is also an accomplished blogger, she’s write about her adventures in our business group, Mother Venture. Check it out.

hazy1010 On December 7, 2008 at 1:24 pm

Hello Beth,
Nice song, nice idea about picking names for Christmas gifts and even nicer that family members take the time to make it for each other. By the way first time I’m visiting your blog.

Laurie On December 7, 2008 at 2:00 pm

I love the song!! Of course, I disagree with the “politically misguided” descriptor, and certainly I see no place for the word “annoying” – even if the word “charmingly” is a preface – but it sure did make me laugh. The best part was that both times I listed to it, I could hear your laugh along with my own. What a great family tradition! Happy Holidays to all.

Beth On December 7, 2008 at 4:55 pm

Dear Hazy, welcome to my blog – I hope you’ll come back for more!
Laurie, I appreciate your kindness, but afraid I must accept the “charmingly annoying” moniker, I think Doug is right on the money. I laugh every single time I hear that part of the song. It’s spot on!
When it comes to “political misguidance,” however, you, Laurie are the one who is spot on. After all, Doug is the brother who was featured in the NY Times a few weeks ago – I posted a blog about the story, he and his wife Shelley were among the undecided voters before the Presidential election! Now tell me: who is misguided here?!??!
At a Thanksgiving get-together I told my south-side Chicago friend Joe, who is around Doug’s age, about my brother’s indecision. Joe laughed and said, “Gee, I wonder if he was trying to figure out which candidate would be more…decisive!”

Cheryl On December 7, 2008 at 8:47 pm

At this time of year I’m often asked “How’s your Christmas shopping going? Have you finished shopping yet? How many more gifts do you have to buy?” I almost feel guilty…. for a minute. Then I feel good. As Marilee said it’s been about 27 years of “Finke Homemade Christmas” and a lot of the last generation doesn’t even remember not making a gift for someone at Christmas. Beth mentioned that one year you might receive a beautiful afghan and the next year you might receive a handprint of a one-year old on construction paper but it doesn’t matter. We’ve learned the true meaning of Christmas and have learned that Best Buy, Sears, Macy’s, Target and all the rest are not part of our Christmas. Thank you for your inspiration, Gramma Moos.

Beth On December 7, 2008 at 9:26 pm

Amen! In a twisted way, this family ritual of ours teaches the children that it truly is better to give than to receive –they are FAR more interested in seeing a relative open the gift they made (running over to watch, jumping up and down as the recipient opens it) than unwrapping the funky homemade thing they get themselves, usually resulting in a shrug, sometimes a question – “What is this?!” — and then (of course!) a “thank you.”. One thing we’ve all discovered – adults and children alike – is that the very act of creating something for someone makes you think a lot about them — both while you are deciding what to make, and while you’re making it.

nancy On December 7, 2008 at 11:35 pm

Hey Beth, Loved the stories of your grandmother. My aunt annie, who was really my only grandparent did the same things. Chicken necks for lunch, made apple cores into vinegar, the shavings from around the pie crust dough brought together again and made into a little pie for a little kid. You might enjoy reading “Little Heathens” by Mildred Kalish, who grew up in that generation. Great book with interesting stories about growing up in the depression; she’s a great story teller. I am so thankful that we don’t really do any gifts anymore in what little family I have. I was just at the grocery store and the bookstore today and you can feel the stress in the air. I like your family idea much better.

Beth On December 8, 2008 at 1:39 am

I’m adding “Little Heathens” to my book list right after I post this comment, I have heard a lot about this book, at least I *think* this is the book –is Mildred Kalish from Iowa? I seem to remember that…in any case, will add the book to my reading list, thanks for the suggestion!

Jake On December 23, 2008 at 11:30 pm

Loved the song! Good for you folks for going green. I would kind of like to get a couple of those compact fluorescent light bulbs for my apartment, but I’m not sure they’ll work here. I’ll have to ask around. Regarding Christmas shopping, I did mine already. My family and I drew names this year too. I already gave myself a few early Christmas presents. I made two stars out of plaster of Paris. I did this in an art activity that happens twice a month here. I also installed the Klango Player, which I highly urge people to check out if they have the time and resources to do it. It’s free and you can learn about and download it by clicking on the link at the end of my blog. The URL is . My mom also set up the artificial Christmas tree in my living room, the same tree I had last year. This time I have musical lights which are very cool. People tell me I’m on the cutting edge of technology and they’re right! Happy holidays to everybody!

Beth On December 24, 2008 at 5:53 pm

Jake, you *are* n the cutting edge! Thanks for the link to the Klango Player, I’ll give it a listen.

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