Thursday, April 17, 2014
fALMOUTH — One by one, children wrapped snugly in coats and hats came tumbling into Michelle Libby's kitchen from outside.
Their ''auntie'' greeted them with big hugs as they walked through the doorway. ''Hi,'' Libby said. ''Did you bring your raisins for the birdies?''
It's the first Sunday afternoon in December, and this gathering of sisters, aunts and cousins is part of a Libby family tradition that stretches from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Every week between the two holidays, the whole family gets together so the children can read ''Night Tree'' by Eve Bunting (Voyager Books, $7), a story about a family that decorates a tree in the forest on Christmas Eve with food for the birds and other woodland creatures.
After the story, the family re-creates the book by having the children make their own edible ornaments for the backyard wildlife that live on Michelle Libby's property.
Then they traipse back to the seven acres of woods behind Libby's house to find just the right tree for hanging the ornaments. Each week, they return to the tree to see what's been eaten and hang more strings of popcorn, fruit, peanut butter-stuffed pine cones, corn and other goodies.
''And the kids get so excited,'' said Jennifer Libby of Westbrook, mother of 2-year-old Chloe. '''Oh, they ate mine!'''
On this particular day, the treats came not a moment too soon. The first major winter storm of the year was brewing, and any food the kids made was going to be especially valuable to the birds, squirrels and other critters trying to stay warm.
The weather changed some of the party plans this year. While the children's grandmother, Irene Libby, was able to join in the fun, their grandpa and other men in the family were out getting snow removal equipment ready in preparation for the storm.
And this time around, the threat of having to walk the kids through a foot or more of snow every week kept them closer to the house. The target became a pretty little blue spruce just steps from the back door.
But first, the story.
''Auntie has a story for you,'' Michelle Libby said as she gathered the children, including her own 7-year-old daughter Isabelle, in the living room to read the tale of two children who ride out to the woods in their father's pick-up to decorate a tree for the animals. Also listening in were her sister Melissa's children, 4-year-old Marshall and 2-year-old Madeline, and little Chloe.
Libby works at the Children's Museum of Maine and has read the book many times there, to other peoples' children, but loved the story so much she decided last year to bring it home to her own family and start a new tradition.
''Our parents did so much with us when we were young,'' Libby said. ''We went camping together. We did so much with our cousins, with our aunts and uncles, that when we were all just having children, we said that we would always keep our children together so we would have a close-knit family like our parents had for us.''
The children liked the story and answered all of their aunt's questions, but soon began to get squirmy. (''Marshall, can you use your quiet body?'')
As soon as Libby asked ''Are we ready to make our animal treats?'' the children scrambled to the kitchen counter, where goodies were displayed on platters. There were pine cones and colorful fall corn, two jars of peanut butter, a bag of popcorn, a sleeve of Fig Newtons that would be strung with the popcorn, and a smorgasbord of birdseed, Cheerios and red berries.
Marshall took a needle and thread and immediately began making a string of popcorn, just as the children do in ''Night Tree.'' Isabelle jumped into the popcorn, too, but then quickly changed her mind and started digging into the peanut butter, smearing it on a cob of corn. She started with a knife, but eventually switched to her bare fingers, clearly having a good time.
After it was covered in peanut butter, Isabelle rolled the cob in the wildlife party mix of birdseed, cereal and berries.
''We have very happy animals in our woods,'' Jennifer Libby said, laughing.
Meanwhile, Chloe and Madeline rolled pine cones their Aunt Michelle had covered in peanut butter into the same mix of seeds, cereal and berries.
''Use your hands,'' Michelle Libby encouraged her nieces. ''Spread it all around.''
Making a mess is half the fun of the get-together, said Melissa Fowler, Marshall and Chloe's mom.
''They love it,'' she said. ''They love getting messy and being creative. My kids eat it up.''
The sisters also value the lessons their children learn from reading ''Night Tree'' and tending to one of their own.
''You know, I love the night tree,'' Jennifer Libby said. ''It helps with gratitude and teaching them giving, the importance of learning to give back.''
They hope it is instilling an early love of nature as well.
As darkness started to fall over the landscape outside, Libby started to move things along.
''Who's ready for reindeer food?'' she asked.
Marshall and Chloe raised their hands immediately, calling out ''I am! I am!''
The children scooped oatmeal and sugar into cone-shaped cups to carry outside.
''Everybody get their coats on,'' Libby said. ''We've got to sprinkle the reindeer food so Santa knows where to come to.''
They headed out into the dusk, sprinkling their oatmeal mixture on the ground. Isabelle made a beeline for the little night tree, circling it while scattering her cupful of reindeer food. Chloe walked slower, sprinkling the food while repeatedly shouting to the sky: ''Reindeer, come!''
When the children reached the tree, they attached their edible ornaments to its branches. When they were done, moms and kids alike cheered and clapped.
''We need a star!'' Marshall called out.
''We need a star?'' his Aunt Michelle asked. ''Well, we'll have to come next week and put one on.''
But Marshall had other ideas. He got his mother to lift him to the top of the tree, and he placed his inverted reindeer food cup there as an impromptu star.
That inspired more cheering and clapping: ''All right! Yay! Good job!''
Not to be outdone by her big brother, Madeline approached the tree with her own cup. She stretched her little arm upward as far as she could and, to much laughter, grunted ''uhhhhh.''
Michelle Libby said she expects to see nothing but bare pine cones and corn cobs on the tree the next time the group comes out to the tree. The plan for the next week was to add apples and cut oranges to the tree, as well as replenish the pine cones, corn and strings of popcorn.
As she strolled back to the house, Susan Robbins of Westbrook, Libby's sister-in-law, explained what she loves about this new tradition that's been brought into the family.
''Teaching the kids to feed the animals and allowing the kids to explore their creativity is probably the thing that makes this more special to me,'' she said. ''It's fun just to get everybody together, anyway. That's what the holidays are all about, right?''
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:
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