A Handmade Holiday

When my husband and I first got married, like a lot of people, we had little to no disposable income. We very rarely ran the heat or AC in our apartment. We ate a lot of cabbage. We fought over the one chair we had whenever we watched tv. It was from his grandparents’ house, yellow and lime green striped and not at all comfortable, and I’m kind of sad now we eventually got rid of it.

Needless to say, we didn’t have any extra money to spend on decorations our first holiday season as a married couple, but we were still determined to make a cozy Christmas together. We spent the last of a Target gift card left over from our wedding to buy a cheap, plastic tree that was flimsy and very, very fake looking but was, however, full size! The only problem was that we didn’t have any money left to buy decorations with.

We spent the months of October and November taking walks around the wooded area where we lived gathering pine cones and sticks and fallen pine and cedar branches. (I did find out the hard way that you’re supposed to cure pine cones by soaking them in a bleach bath and then slow roasting them in the oven before using them for decoration… earwigs all. over. the apartment.) I made cinnamon ornaments and salt dough ornaments which I painted to look like gingerbread and sugar cookies. I spray painted some of the pine cones and sticks gold for shimmer. I hand sewed stockings out of old flannel fabric. I was a damn domestic dream. The end result was crude and a little silly and very sweet.

As the years went on, most of the cinnamon and salt dough ornaments broke. The thin worn stockings couldn’t hold their seams, and we collected more store-bought holiday decorations each season. But some of my favorites are still the ones from that first Christmas that have survived even now – the cured pine cones and the tacky, gold spray-painted branches still come out every year.

This year I wanted to return to more of the handmade decorations, especially now that my kids are getting older and love making things of their own too. Here are some classic, beautiful and simple handmade holiday decorations that do not cost a lot to make except time and patience.

Dried Citrus Decorations

I like to use a variety of citrus fruits to dehydrate for decorating, not just oranges. I like the gradation of color and size variations from using different fruits. This year I dehydrated navel oranges, grapefruit, cara cara oranges and lemons. The cara cara weren’t as pink as I was hoping, probably because I bought them too early in the year. I wasn’t able to get my hands on blood oranges yet, but those would make beautiful decorations as well.


To dehydrate your fruit without a dehydrator is easy, though I do recommend using a mandoline slicer if you’re able. It does not need to be fancy or expensive, but you will have a difficult time dehydrating your fruits if the slices are not even. If you don’t have one, just do your best to cut your slices as evenly as possible. Nobody needs it to be perfect.

Laying your slices flat on a parchment covered cookie sheet, place in a 200 degree oven for 2-4 hours. This is an easy project to have going on a day when you plan to be home for most of the day because once they’re in the oven, you don’t have to do much.

dried citrus

I like to check my fruits once an hour or so. I find that flipping them over every hour while they dehydrate helps prevent the edges from curling up on one side, and you get a more even, flat final product.

The great thing about having an abundance of dried citrus is that they can be used in so many different ways. Here I’ve made some into ornaments by poking small holes through the centers and tying different items to the oranges themselves. I’ve also made some into garland with wooden beads and cinnamon ornaments. You can use them for your tree, for your greenery, as gift tags on presents. I keep any extras I have in a clear container or vase to use as a centerpiece for holiday dinners.

What to pair with your dried citrus decorations

Greenery – eucalyptus, rosemary, cedar sprigs

Spices – cinnamon sticks or star anise

Dried flowers – I used baby’s breath and these globe amaranths from PepperHarrow that we sell in the store here at Des Moines Mercantile.


Cinnamon Ornaments

These are a fun one to make with kids though it can be hard to convince them that the dough is not edible because it is so similar to making cookies. Bonus, they make your house smell amazing. You’ll need:

  1. 1 cup cinnamon
  2. 1 cup unsweetened applesauce (you can slowly add more as needed if the paste is too dry)
  3. 4 tbsp white glue

(I added clove to the mixture as well because it’s your life, and you can do whatever you want.)

Mix until the dough comes together without cracking but isn’t tacky. Roll out and cut shapes like you would cookies. Place your shapes on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper and poke holes where you would like your string or ornament hooks to go. I used a chopstick for this. Dehydrate in a 200 degree oven for 2-4 hours.

I find that it isn’t necessary to fully dehydrate these in the oven because they will also continue to dry out on the counter, and sometimes if you try to get out every little bit of moisture in the oven this will lead to cracked, brittle ornaments. Even more than the dried citrus, it’s important to flip the cinnamon ornaments every 30 or 40 minutes to keep them from bending.

christmas ornaments

This is garland I made from cinnamon ornaments, dried oranges and wooden beads I got at a craft store for $2.50. Like I said, it costs mostly time and patience.

We hope this holiday season brings you joy and peace, whether that’s in spending an entire day dehydrating things and fashioning them into decorations or absolutely not doing that at all, thank you very much. We’re grateful for you.

With love and light and hope, from the Des Moines Mercantile Team


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