Gourds make natural additions to Thanksgiving decorations. Instantly associated with a bountiful harvest and autumn, they hark back to the original celebration when life hinged on the turn of a season. Some might even say gourds initiate memories of friendships and generosity received, as a garden planted with gourds is sure to produce enough to share in fellowship (another Thanksgiving hallmark). Dried, gourds become hollow and make excellent baskets – perfect for showcasing an autumn still-life arrangement as a centerpiece or lined with a linen breadcloth to serve up Grandpa’s homemade dinner rolls.
Personally, I find that making Thanksgiving gourd baskets, alone or with my family, propels me into the spirit of the holiday – bounty, goodwill, generosity, maintaining relationships, and a celebration of the harvest, as well as the goodness one has experienced. As such, essential features for a thanksgiving gourd are as varied as the people who make them. If a particular feature seems a necessary thing in your Thanksgiving tradition, then necessary it is.
Following are tips as you create your Thanksgiving gourd basket. Let your creativity guide you.
Like a lot of projects, creating a gourd basket starts off with grunt work. The gourd must be sanded, dried, cut open, and scooped out before the decoration begins. Fortunately, the internet offers a wide variety of tutorials to aide you.
Often, the gourd is sanded smooth with sandpaper before painting to produce an even surface. Be sure to wipe the gourd off with a damp towel after sanding to remove any grit. Start with a somewhat course sandpaper and then finish off with a fine paper. The bumpier the gourd surface, the coarser paper you should begin with. Alternately, don’t sand at all for a more rustic look.
However, the gourd must be sanded, and the thin outer cover of skin removed, if the gourd will be kept in its natural state and not painted. According to Grand Gourds of Grand County, Utah, there are a couple ways to do this, either scraping the skin off with a paring knife just after harvest before it dries or scraping off with a knife and a scouring pad after it dries.
After allowing the gourd to dry out thoroughly – it takes a long time, several months, and you shouldn’t be concerned that they are molding because that is normal – you will need to cut the gourd open and scrape out the insides. Cutting the gourd can be done with a jigsaw or a craft knife. If using a jigsaw, make a starter hole with a drill or craft knife, then insert your saw and carefully saw around the gourd. If using a craft knife, simply insert the knife and begin cutting. Always remember to cut away from yourself, use caution, and never try to cut a gourd if you are tired or have been drinking. Parents can help their young children by asking them to draw a line where they would like the gourd cut, and then the parent can do the actual cutting.
Grand Gourds suggests wearing a dust mask while scraping out the insides, to avoid inhaling the fumes which are very bad for your health. I’ve found that an ice cream scooper can be pretty handy as a tool to clean out the inside.
After the gourd has been prepared, you can begin decorating. Generally, the baskets have themes suggesting the season, such as thanksgiving or harvest scenes, autumn leaves, relevant passages from the Bible or other Holy Scripture, or expressions of thankfulness. Fanciful or cutesy depictions of turkeys, large sailing ships reminiscent of the Mayflower, or pilgrim hats will draw the attention of children and probably more than a few smiles from adults. Thanksgiving gourd baskets may also be more abstract, featuring stylized corn kernels, acorns, or feathers, or simply an autumn-inspired color palette.
Start by asking yourself what you want to accentuate about Thanksgiving. This can be something as concrete as “acorns and pumpkin pie” or as abstract as “gratefulness”. Think of images that conjure up the sensation you want to convey. Play with the possibilities a bit before you start – maybe even sketch out a rough idea on paper. Great artists start with some semblance of a plan. You should too.
A wide, yawning opening at the top is more suggestive of the abundant and giving spirit of the holiday, though narrower baskets are not unheard of.
If you will be painting the entire gourd, try using oil or acrylic paints. After the paint dries, apply a protective coat of varnish thinned a little with mineral spirits. If you will be painting only portions of the gourd, start with a coat of varnish thinned with mineral spirits, let dry, and then paint. After the paint dries, apply a second coat of the thinned varnish.
Painting isn’t the only way to decorate a gourd basket – think about using lace, ribbon, twine, or decoupage materials. Roll a corn cob in paint and roll it out onto the gourd as a sort of harvest stamp. Or use rubber stamps. Don’t limit yourself!
Thanksgiving gourd baskets are one craft area where the rustic look is particularly prized. Consider using a crackle paint to make it appear aged, or just free-hand it and don’t worry about the crooked lines. Crooked lines add character and give it a homemade feel just right for a family-oriented holiday like this one.
Gourd pyrography, also known as woodburning, would create a distinctive look for your Thanksgiving gourd basket. This would be a more intense artistic endeavor, as Daniel Dunkin, pyrographer, states that the woodburning pens sold at craft stores often get too hot. If you feel comfortable enough in your electrical skills, he also offers tips on modifying the pens to make them suitable for gourds. Imagine a gourd basket with dancing leaves and wispy wind swirls burned into the shell in the center of your Thanksgiving table! Links to Daniel’s articles can be found in the “sources” at the end of this article.
If using the gourd basket as a container for food, be certain that all paints, glue, etc. used are non-toxic; even better, always line the gourd with a breadcloth, festive napkin, or something similar before use. In the case of a dish traditionally served in a bowl, such as cranberry sauce, place the entire bowl inside the gourd basket rather than serving the dish straight from the basket. This will protect both the basket and the health of your guests.
Of course, a Thanksgiving gourd basket isn’t complete until it’s been filled. There are so many options to invoke the spirit of the holiday. To put the focus on the season and the harvest, fill the basket with garden produce, various kinds of fruits (real or plastic), pine cones, vibrant red, orange, or yellow flowers such as mums, mix in a few autumn leaves or acorns, or simply fill the basket with nuts still in the shell. Abundance can be signified by some of the preceding options, or by using the basket as a serving dish. The abundance will be particularly apparent if the basket is filled to overflowing. A religious tone can be struck by filling the gourd with a large autumn-colored napkin on top of which has been carefully placed a book of scripture accompanied by a miniature pumpkin or a few acorns to signify the season. For the family with a penchant for wine, place a bowl full of ice in the basket and use it to hold the wine bottle.
And finally, the fun doesn’t stop with just a gourd basket. Create Thanksgiving gourd napkin rings to accent your custom centerpiece. Use a smaller gourd than your basket, possibly the neck of the gourd would be the right size once cut into one-inch pieces. Decorate the napkin rings to match your Thanksgiving gourd basket, and you have an instant theme for your table which will be the talk of the celebration.