I love the look of natural and food-related Christmas tree ornaments, but it rubs my thrifty nickel-pinching soul the wrong way to take good, edible food and turn it into decorations that end up in the garbage after the holidays. So, I make Christmas knick-knacks that can be eaten right off the tree or enjoyed when the tree comes down, or I use parts of food I would be feeding to my compost pile or my goats.
My tree varies from year to year, but in the past, it's sported gingerbread people, sugar cookie wreaths, popcorn or crisp rice cereal balls, and bells decorated with dried cranberries or other colorful dried fruit, along with colorfully painted blown eggshells, which can be saved from year to year. I've also hung small whole apples, tiny yellow kumquats, golden brown whole walnuts, and dried red peppers and silvery bulbs of garlic. In case you haven't guessed, my very favorite edible decorations start in the garden or produce department and make it to the tree via the oven or the food dehydrator. Here's how to make them.
The things I just mentioned—cookies, walnuts, dried peppers, popcorn balls, whole fruits—are the easiest, and most common, edible ornaments. When you're whipping up a batch of cookies, add a dozen or so extra for your tree. Brushing gingerbread or sugar cookies with egg glaze before baking makes them shiny and especially attractive. Tie a piece of natural twine around the stem of an apple (make sure to choose an apple that your tree limbs can support). When you're making popcorn balls, insert a piece of string into your handful of popcorn mix before you mold it into a ball shape; that way you don't have to thread a piece of string through solidified sugar. Thread a string of dried red peppers and garlic together with a needle and thread, and use spices, such as star anise or cinnamon sticks, in creative ways, as well.
Depending on how long they're hanging up, cookies and popcorn balls may get too stale to enjoy after your holidays have passed. If that happens, cover them with peanut butter and birdseed for the birds.
Cut an apple in half horizontally, not vertically, and the 5 seed cavities form an open star in the center. Cut each half into thin rounds, about ¼ inch or a little less, and dry those on parchment paper in a very cool oven set on 150ºF, in a food dehydrator, or just in a dry room. Drying in an oven takes about 10 hours, but a food dehydrator speeds up the process. Use a needle to thread a string or piece of ribbon through the edge of each slice.
You can do the same thing with starfruit, a tropical fruit available in many supermarket produce sections. Just thinly slice those thinly to expose their star-shaped outline, dry them as you would apple slices and string them up. After the holidays, eat your apple and starfruit slices as is, chop them up into cereal, or even soak them in water (or liquor) to bake into pies.
Dried orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime slices are extra pretty because their flesh becomes almost translucent as it dries, and exotic blood oranges turn into really deep orange-maroon ornaments. Make thin (¼-inch) horizontal slices through the fruit and dry your rounds as you would apple slices. For variety, stud the peel with whole cloves first, and cut your slices a little thicker. Thread a string through one edge of each round and hang. Use the leftover ends of your fruits for making peel ornaments (keep reading!). Once the holidays are over, eat the slices, use them to flavor fish, add them to baked goods or bean soup, cook them with a bit of honey to make marmalade, toss them into your tea or mulling cider, or just simmer them on the stove to release their fresh sent into a stale winter house.
Citrus peel dries nicely and is easy to cut into holiday shapes; tangerine or Clementine skins are especially easy to work with. Cut your fruits in half and scoop out the pulp with a spoon. Use a sharp pair of scissors to make evenly spaced cuts from the rim about two-thirds of the way down toward the bottom. Carefully flatten the cut peel, and use your scissors to shape the sections into points of a star, flower petals, or anything else you like.
Thread some string through one of your sections, and they dry the peel: Spread a few layers of newspaper on a flat surface, arrange your peels on that, cover them with more newspaper, and then stack magazines or books on the top to keep the peels flat. They're ready as soon as they are dry and stiff, and depending on how fleshy your peels are, that may take a few days to a week. You can do the same with pomegranate skins, which are really pretty.
Cleaned citrus halves make great natural baskets! Use a needle to thread three lengths of string through the edge at equidistant points, then set the skin aside to dry (a few hours in a very low oven will speed the process). Tie the ends of the three strings together so it will hang level, and fill it with small edibles or natural pretties, such as rose hips (which can be made into tea or jelly later) or tiny pine cones.
Or make something similar pictured here: Cut open a small hole at the top of an orange and remove as much pulp as you can without tearing the skin, and refill the fruit with cinnamon, cloves or whatever spices you like. Use a paring knife to cut small slits into the sides for a mini citrus sachet.
I've used the word "string" throughout, but thread, twine, yarn, ribbon, dental floss, or wire also work. Select an undyed and preferably organic option if it will be in close contact with food, especially moist food, that you plan to eat. Use something biodegradable if you will be composting the ornaments after the Holidays. And choose a pesticide-free or organic tree if you can, since most commercial fresh trees are sprayed heavily with pesticides.
If you buy a conventional tree or use a faux tree (which may be high in lead) hang your edible ornaments so the food parts are not in continuous contact with the tree as much as possible. Lead is also present in Christmas tree light wiring, so keep any edible ornaments from touching those as well, or go light-free and decorate with strings of cranberries or popcorn, instead (your energy bill will thank you).