Ruth Booton smiles when recalling the Depression-era Christmas of her southwest Louisiana childhood.
Charlie and Myrtle Beard's three children, of which Ruth was the middle, strung popcorn for garlands. They painted pine cones for ornaments and they colored strips of paper and then linked them for more decorations.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, the family would seek out the perfect pine for their Christmas tree. Their house was small, so the tree looked big regardless of whether it really was.
“We had absolutely nothing and had more fun than most people have in a lifetime,” Booton said. “We never knew things weren't perfect.”
This year, as they have for several years past, Booton's hands and heart return to those days through the “Saturdays for Kids: Old-Fashioned Ornament Making” at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. While Booton will share her time and her talents, she doesn't like to share her age. It's not really important, since on that creative day — which is Dec. 7 this year — she'll go back in time and blend with the children who range from about 5 to 12 years old.
“It makes me wish I had thought of some of these things to put on my tree because they are clever, and made by hand,” Booton said.
At the museum, the old-fashioned ornament-making activity dates to 2001. That year, 20 children attended. Now they average about 100 children in the come-and-go two hours. There are 12 age-appropriate activities. Typically at least two docents are at each activity to teach the children how to craft that ornament.
Gretchen Jeane, the museum's director of education, said one of the primary goals of the Saturdays for Kids events — typically held on the first Saturday of a month — is to help educate families and children about Western culture through art and through different activities they can do at the museum.
“If we can get them in the door to do an activity,” Jeane said, “then they can tour the museum and hopefully relate whatever activity they're doing in the classroom with what they're seeing in the galleries.”
Sue McCoy was a docent for 10 years at the museum and has served as the assistant educator for 12 years.
If the children choose, they can put one of their ornaments on either the big tree or the schoolhouse tree in Prosperity Junction, a replica of a turn-of-the-century cattle town. The town is inside the museum.
“We always notice on the big tree that up about a third of the way were ornaments,” McCoy said. “Then the rest of the ornaments were ones that the adults had put on because that's as far as the children could reach.”
An item they almost always leave behind is the bird feeder made using pine cones, lard and birdseed, McCoy said. The children place their finished work on the fence at the museum for the birds and squirrels.
But in addition to what they leave behind, the children usually leave with a sack of their handmade ornaments. Bob Gerling, the museum's outreach coordinator, said they leave with more than that.
“Part of the goal too is to get them accustomed to coming out here expecting to do something fun and learning something,” Gerling said. “It's great any time we can get them to put aside other things that they are accustomed to and try something different, that might be a throwback to an exhibit we have here or something that is a part of Western history.”
Booton recently sat in Prosperity Junction and held a couple of the old-fashioned ornaments children have made in past years at the museum. Basically, they involved a thread spool, a pipe cleaner and a tiny piece of paper attached to the spool that serves as a “wish list.”
“This is dear,” Booton said. “Nobody can say to them ‘What do you want?' Read it.”
Then Booton picked up another ornament.
“As far as I'm concerned it is art,” she said. “This is punch work, they take a hammer and make their pattern and then put it in ... and that makes a beautiful ornament. The children are certainly proud when they get it done.”
The children get their ornaments, but Booton believes she receives even more.
“It's rewarding because you see happy people,” Booton said. “That's the greatest thing you can find today is a happy person. And these people are happy.
“They're not frustrated because they have a hard time doing it, they just keep trying.”