How the Christmas of 1992 Transformed My Cultural Outlook
By Ashley English
Photo by Naomi Johnson
When I was 15 years old, the day after Christmas changed my life forever. I was newly relocated to WNC, living in a rented log cabin with my mother and brother in Montreat. A friend from school, Laura, had invited me over to make cookies and kick back, enjoying together our holiday interlude from the wilds of high school. I couldn’t possibly have known when I accepted her invitation just how life-altering our time together would be.
I knew that Laura’s family was considered “natural” and “earthy,” although I didn’t really know then what that meant. We were in several classes together and I knew from our academic interactions that she was smart and clever. She was also quite quirky, a good thing, in my book. She ate things like radish-and-butter sandwiches for lunch, with an entire lemon, peel and all, as her preferred piece of fruit. She wore rugged, made-for-romping-around-in-the-forest clothes. I’d never met anyone like her.
Laura’s mom was a nurse, her father a sculptor. They lived in a dear little log cabin on the Swannanoa River that her parents had patiently crafted by hand over the course of several years when she and her sister were very young. They kept chickens and a garden and ate tofu hot dogs. It was 1992 and I didn’t know anyone else engaged in anything even remotely close to this lifestyle.
As soon as Laura opened her front door that fateful December day, I knew that hers was no ordinary dwelling. The scent of unfamiliar herbs and spices permeated the air. There were strange, unidentifiable jars of whole grains burdening her family’s pantry shelves. There were candles flickering gently, and inviting throw blankets tossed languidly over worn-in armchairs. More than all of that, though, more than the scents and the fabrics and the quinoa and bulgur wheat, were the gifts.
The vestiges of her family’s holiday exchanges were still strewn around the living room, mostly on their wooden coffee table, but also on various surfaces throughout. There were bottles of sparkling cider and handmade candles. There were bars of soap and hand-knit socks. There were jars of jam and bars of chocolate.
These gifts were modest, simple, and largely made by hand. They struck me as being some of the loveliest items I had ever seen.
What Laura’s family offered was a handmade, homemade, do-it-yourself approach to gift giving that was new to me. I found it inspiring, motivating, catalyzing, and infused with sincerity. From that holiday discovery made all those years ago, my own gift-giving habits were forever changed. I began crafting bottles of bath salts come holiday time. I made my family homemade salted caramels and peppermint chocolates and vanilla marshmallows. I decorated plain brown kraft paper with buttons and pencil-eraser ends dipped into paint. I fully embraced the spirit of handmade gifts and have done so ever since.
This holiday season, I invite you to explore handmade gift giving. Many homemade items can be crafted up in little time and at little cost. They’re great for kids – ever since becoming a parent, I’ve been either whipping out or seeking out handcrafted items for my son. He’s none the wiser, but I certainly am.
Who knows? Your handmade provisions might just change the course of someone’s future, steering them toward a do-it-yourself life. It happened to me.
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