This week I received an email that read: “I’m wondering what Christmas on the Modern Homestead looks like. Do you cut your own tree and decorate it with nuts and cranberries and homemade candles?” I replied that yes, I do cut down a small tree from the back 40. But instead of those traditional tree trimmings, I make decorations from homestead-grown items.

Before I describe my homestead Christmas, let’s consider the origins and modern significance of the beloved Christmas tree and its ornaments.

In 16th-century Germany, evergreen trees were cut and brought inside during the winter months and adorned with nuts, fruits and candles. Over time, this pagan tradition became widely adopted by Christians and families of other faiths, and the decorated tree evolved into the modern Christmas tree. Today, many folks can barely wait until the Thanksgiving dinner table is cleared before setting up their Christmas trees.

In modern times, Christmas trees and ornaments are not only the centerpiece of Christmas décor, but are also big business. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, over 20 million real trees and more than 30 million artificial trees were sold last year in the United States.

Now, choosing a Christmas tree can be a tough decision. Plastic trees are convenient and last a very long time, but they’re made from synthetic chemicals in factories, look fake and have a terrible “carbon footprint,” in terms of their production. In contrast, real trees consume carbon dioxide while they grow, are biodegradable and smell like “O Tannenbaum” should. But real trees need water, drop their needles and are a potential fire hazard. All I can say is choose your preferred type of tree, and love your choice.

Here on the homestead, I cut my own little wild evergreen tree and keep it in a bucket of wet sand on the back porch. I keep it outside because I have indoor cats that would try to climb it, eat it, knock it over, or otherwise ravage it.

Unlike the traditional Christmas trees in old Germany, I don’t adorn my tree with food items that critters can scavenge, and there are no open-flame candles among the branches. Sure, it looks like the humble Charlie Brown Christmas tree, but to paraphrase Linus, I don’t think it’s a bad little tree, and I give it love. After the holiday season is over, I return the tree to the woods whence it came, to decompose naturally.

With regard to ornaments, I’ll never buy plastic, meaningless, made-in-China baubles. And the Scrooge in me just can’t justify spending hundreds of dollars on delicate, shiny keepsakes that make but a brief appearance once a year. Instead, I go back outside and get inspired by nature.

Pine cones are an obvious choice for ornaments. You can hang them with hooks made out of thin wire, twine or twist-ties. For a snowy look, paint them with a dusting of white spray paint. Or if you prefer, use colored, metallic or glitter spray paints. Pine cones also make great wreath adornments, when attached to pine or cedar boughs that are bent or woven into a ring.

Likewise, sweetgum balls make excellent, all-natural ornaments. I’m talking about the spiky seed pod of the sweetgum tree, and not the hard-shelled chewing gum. You might dread stepping on these fallen seed pods in your bare feet, but they look fantastic when painted and hung from the Christmas tree. Believe it or not, gold-painted sweetgum ball Christmas ornaments sell for good money online.

Another dried plant pod that makes for an unusual Southern ornament is an okra pod. If you pick them before they split open and then dry them, they turn into woody, tapered, charming decorations. Painted white, they look like icicles. Painted green, they look like fresh okra. And with a little more creativity, you can even make okra Santas.

With more advanced planning, you can grow small, ornamental gourds in the summer, dry them and paint them. They even rattle when shaken. Some varieties to grow for making ornaments include Ornamental Gourd Small Mix, Goblin Eggs and Gremlins.

Other options for homestead ornaments include shells, deer-antler tips, chicken or turkey wishbones, and various small bones or bone cross sections. That might sound unpalatable to you, but there’s a modern resurgence in “bone décor,” bone jewelry and bone displays. Wishbones, for example, have always symbolized hope for the future and good luck. On the homestead, I’ve kept some cleaned-and-dried wishbones from the chickens and wild turkeys I have eaten, and use them as decorations.

To be sure, the Christmas tree and ornaments on my homestead look a little different from most contemporary versions. But they’re meaningful to me, and they make my little home festive. You might even call me an ornament myself, because I’m hooked on my homestead Christmas tree.

Greg Pryor, Ph.D., is a professor of biology at Francis Marion University and enjoys a self-sufficient lifestyle on his 100-acre homestead. Email him at

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