Growing up, my favorite places to be during Christmas time were my grandparents’ houses. Not even the most exciting outing of pre-ticketed, oversensory holiday cheer could compare to the comfort of how each home welcomed and comforted me with the same decorations out year after year, the same little traditions. I always cry putting out my decorations as an adult missing it all so much, my two deceased grandparents of course but all the little things too – the Christmas songs my grandfather always played in the car while we ran errands together, the ham bone sticking out of my Kentucky grandmother’s green beans from her garden and the crack of walnut shells that my Dallas grandmother always had by my grandfather’s arm chair this time of year.
My grandparents in Dallas decorated their Texas ranch with a fancy flocked tree, wrapped in a long, freshly detangled string of rainbow C9 glass bulbs and Christopher Radko and Tiffany & Co. ornaments. You could count on it, even as time marched on.
It was the same at my grandmother’s in Kentucky, just with a little different but also perfect aesthetic – hand crocheted doilies in Christmas colors, the ceramic trees with little rainbow bulbs sticking out that have come back into vogue and these amazing garlands of faux frosted candy running through her tree of folk ornaments.
Maybe it’s all this nostalgia that led me to my fascination with Putz Houses – those little Christmas villages made from paper, glitter and imagination. They are such an amazing intersection of fancy and quaint, over the top and simple. I’ve admired vintage and reproduction versions in shops for years, before last year when I became determined to make my own.
What is a Putz House?
Named after the German words putz, like a little decoration, and puntzen, to decorate, these little villages would be scenes German families could create a bit at a time over the Advent season. Also called “candy box houses,” the villages were made out of repusposed candy boxes at a time when many were focused on reduction of consumption.
The villages made their way to American homes by way of Woolworth’s, the five and ten that wanted to stand out by bringing the best of the world to you for cheap. (My Mom was fascinated by this story since she regularly went to the original Woolworth’s in Scranton, Pennsylvania!) I love this quote from Collector’s Weekly on the phenomenon of German Christmas taking over America thanks to Frank Woolworth.
“Prior to WW I, most everything toy and holiday was German. Traveling Europe extensively in the 1890s in search of merchandise for his stores, Woolworth came upon a small glass Christmas ornament cottage industry in the Thuringen Valley region of Germany, sent some home for a trial, and the rest is history. Germany was already famed for cheap and charming toys and cuckoo clocks, but America had not seen the glass Christmas tree ornaments. Demand was instantaneous and insatiable. The words “German” and “Christmas” became synonymous.”
Putz Houses are also credited to Japan, thanks to Woolworth bringing production there when WWI ended the ability to do business with Germany. I love how this shift evolved the look of the houses!
DIY Putz House Village
Last year, I finally found “my village” in a group of local artistic Moms. I suggested we buy these DIY Putz House kits as a Mom activity while the kids were in school. Thanks to totally underestimating the project scope, I headed home that day with a bunch of half-painted pieces of cardboard – but also a fire inside my belly. I begged Markus to agree to let them take over our kitchen table for a holiday activity while we were all at home for the Christmas Break. We finished the houses on Mother’s Day. As much work as it was, every bit of working on these was a moment in time that will be hard to forget.
The kit comes with some minimal instructions for assembly, but not decoration. Here’s the approach we took to building our little dream town.
How to Make Your Own Putz House Village
- I ordered my kit and counted days until it arrived from Lithuania. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can try cutting the shapes out of cardboard yourself with these patterns by Think Make Share.
- I originally thought the painting and glitter would go pretty quickly, until I realized all of the house is visible in some way. I ended up painting both the inside and outside walls of my houses and both sides of the roof to hide any cardboard browns. Everyone pitched in with painting a little, so I edited my paint tubes on the table down to some pastels and vibrants that reminded me of the originals so anyone could grab a color and chip in.
- Once we determined which side would be the exterior walls and roof, we painted on our Modge Podge with a foam brush and doused it all in this glitter.
- At this point, Markus became more interested and looked at some photos of original Putz houses. Pouring another cup of coffee, I heard “It looks like they have …cellophane in the windows? It looks good. We better do it.” So we rode our bikes to get some cello wrap (in the perfect shade to evoke warm winter nights) to glue to inside of windows with this stuff.
- The verdict is out on if the hot glue will hold, but that’s what I used to finally assemble the painted and glittered houses.
- Markus used all of our online shopping boxes (plentiful this time of year, even pre-pandemic), to make little stand for the houses, measuring them out around each structure and then cutting little flaps for height that we taped on the interior with a little sliver of Gorilla tape.I decided to paint each stand the color of its house, and cover that will glitter too for good measure.
- Now, it was time to really putz it up. Little wreaths on each house, little trees in the yards and a smattering of little deers and lightposts across town. After these were secured, we started dousing the whole thing with glitter snow – you will be amazed at how much of this you’ll buy. It was after that when we felt like we had really done it, and couldn’t believe how much time we had spent together working on them all!
I think what kept us all engaged was finding the one little part of the project that we each found our flow in. I loved painting the cardboard, glitter coating the houses and gluing them together. Markus was on window “glass” and stands the whole time – making exact cuts and precise gluing are some of his greatest qualities. Our daughter styled our houses with her picks of trees and accessories before becoming a certified snow douser.
This week, I took the box of our finished creations out of the garage and put out our family’s handmade Putz house village for the first time. It felt silly to be so nostalgic since they were only in my home six months ago, but we all know that, this year, that’s been a long time. It’s crazy to think of the world in May, or in December of last year when we started on these. It’s crazy to think of what might lie before us – what next year could even look like, and the one after that. However things move forward, these will mark the moments we’ve had before.
I wonder if our daughter will point them out proudly to the friends I hope she brings home to Christmas over the years, or if she’ll jokingly eye roll me as the dorky Mom who made her craft at Christmas. To me, any of it means that it mattered.
Does your family have a piece of Christmas decor that’s like that for you? Have you ever made Putz houses before?