When we traveled to the Midwest for Christmas last year, I figured we’d be cold. But then we arrived at the tail end of a winter storm and our first day in Chicago had a forecasted high of 10 degrees. People. 10 degrees. So yes, we were cold. And when we arrived at my in-laws’ house in Michigan and saw so many animal footprints in the snow, I thought of all those critters struggling to survive the long winter months with scarce food and low temps.
So in the days leading up to Christmas, I wanted to give the critters a little present. The girls, their grandparents and I thought we’d provide a little holiday treat: We made a Christmas tree for animals.
A new tradition: A different kind of Christmas tree
Decorating the Christmas tree is a huge part of Christmas tradition in my family and in Eric’s. In my family, my sisters and I adorn the tree with generations’ worth of handmade angels and vintage baubles, then cover it all in gobs of tinsel. (My brother boycotts because of his disdain of tinsel. Bah humbug!)
At Eric’s parents’ house, we put old holiday music on the record player and linger over framed photos of Eric and his brother as children, and I marvel at all the Hallmark ornaments kept pristine in their boxes. (His grandmother worked at a Hallmark store for years and got her grandkids an ornament every year, without fail.)
The girls have loved these traditions, and I’m excited to add another: a Christmas tree for animals.
A holiday family activity to do good
Eric’s parents go to great lengths to keep the wildlife around their 8-acre property well provisioned throughout the year, but especially during the winter. So they had bags of bird seed and jugs of suet on hand, just ready for us to make bird feeder ornaments—perfect for our Christmas tree for animals.
We mixed together suet and bird seed at a one part fat to two parts bird seed ratio, spread it on a wax paper-lined rimmed baking sheet, let the whole shebang set for about an hour, then cut out shapes with cookie cutters. (If your kids get impatient at this point you can pop the baking sheet into the freezer.) You can also scoop the suet-bird seed mix directly into the cookie cutter shapes.
We also filled orange rinds with the suet-bird seed mixture and strung them with yarn. In addition, we froze chunks of apples (with yarn wrapped around them) in water to make beautiful—and edible—snacks.
We also popped a bunch of plain popcorn (not the microwave kind) and threaded it onto string. Kiwi and Peeper both loved this part—both the eating and the stringing! If you have cranberries on hand, you could add the fruit to the strands, too.
Decorating the Christmas tree for animals
My in-laws had a small potted fir tree ready to adorn, but you could use any tree in your yard. The kids and all us grown-ups took turns hanging the ornaments and popcorn strands along the Christmas tree for animals.
While we decorated the Christmas tree for animals, I thought of the birds, squirrels and other critters who would visit the tree for a very special gift. I imagined their enthusiasm over the surprise source of energy—that they wouldn’t have to work as hard that day to get the calories needed to survive the freezing temperatures.
Making a Christmas tree for animals was also a wonderful gift for our family. Not only did we spend an afternoon doing something together; it was also a chance for Kiwi and Peeper to do something nice for animals. I know Peeper, in particular, is at the age when she is eager to do good for others.
The fruits of our labor
Decorating a Christmas tree for animals took part of an afternoon, but we had fun checking on the tree the rest of our visit. Every time the girls looked out the window at the snow, they’d peek at the Christmas tree for animals, too, trying to see how many of the ornaments were gone.
Whenever we came in and out—on a visit to Eric’s aunt in a nursing home, say, or just to the grocery store—we’d pause in the driveway next to the Christmas tree for animals. We’d peer closely to guess who’d been nibbling away at the decorations.
We will definitely be making a Christmas tree for animals this year at home. I think this will become a new tradition—in addition to hanging Hallmark ornaments and throwing gobs of tinsel.
What is your favorite holiday tradition? I’d love to hear about it!
PS – If you’re looking for more ways to support our feathered friends, see my post on 5 ways kids can help birds.