Last Christmas, my friend Mark Nussle contacted me about a box of old Christmas decorations which he found from among his mother’s things, tissue paper snowflake cut-outs from Kimballton, Iowa, that he guessed to be 90 years old or more. Because I grew up in the area, and do papirklip or klippet, Mark thought I might have information about them. The snowflakes looked pristine, which isn’t always the case with old tissue pieces. They must have been saved with care. The style was very like what many children were learning to cut in school from the early 1900’s on. The Kimballton area has been home to Danish immigrants for several generations and papercutting was probably learned at home. My grandmother Anna arrived in the area in 1892 at the age of 14. Her family cut many paper Christmas decorations and gaekkebrev (spring snowdrop letters). In her childhood on the island of Mon, people were very familiar with the papirklip of H.C. Andersen, because he had visited the island. In my childhood in the 50’s she taught me how to fold and cut many decorations, including snowflakes, all the while telling me Andersen’s tales, and stories of our family.

Country schools had their windows covered in snowflakes every winter, even in my day. The combination of a teacher and older students who could help teach the younger ones made for good repetitive experience, and students who learned this way tended to remember the skills better than those learning only at their own level. When I teach adults papercutting skills, we talk during the workshops; those who picked up the concepts more quickly had often attended country schools. Also, those who learned fine handwork skills––embroidery, lacemaking, etc.––in their youth were already accustomed to doing careful, focused work, and learned delicate paper cutting quickly.

The idea behind cutting snowflakes in the early days was to teach cognitive and creative skills––the folding stage is an exercise in mathematical understanding––how to set up a hexagon shape and then “see” the way to cut it to produce six points, not a circle. The structural lesson is to teach how to imagine what different cuts along the edges will produce in the finished, open star, and, when to stop cutting before the whole piece falls apart! Usually, at first, one just experiences cutting a few shapes and then opening the snowflake to be surprised by the result. The creative part comes from imagining how to cut shapes or characters to achieve the design one has in mind (nisser, trees, cats, hearts). Persevering students then begin to grasp the design potential.

Young children are usually given stronger paper because tissue tears easily during the folding. The flakes Mark sent from many years ago seem to have been cut by someone experienced in handling materials carefully, though individual children can be remarkably adept too. Tissue and thin strong rice papers allow for more accurate and detailed cuttings. The thinness and precise folding allows for all the layers to come out almost equally; thick papers produce shapes of different sizes from the same cut.

There are a lot of requests for paper-cutting and origami workshops these days. Sometimes the old crafts represent more sophisticated learning than people have understood. Parents and teachers are seeing them as ways to teach critical thinking, evidently a skill in short supply. Teachers want workshops to gain techniques and try complex patterns, so they can teach critical thinking more effectively. In recent years the appreciation for origami as one of the most advanced mathematical tools in human endeavor has gained ground rapidly.

As I have seen that phenomenon unfold, I have thought back to the first day I spent living as an adult in Tokyo. I was standing on an unimaginably packed train, dazed and amazed at the density and intensity of everyday life. A young mother was sitting on the seat in front of me, with her three children standing close to her. In all that chaos, she pulled out a packet of origami paper and the family set to work folding a variety of shapes, some of remarkable complexity. Fifteen minutes later, they got off at their stop, paper creatures in their pockets, having been quietly and happily occupied amid all the motion and din. I saw the same scene over and over through the next three years, and every time I thought of how my Grandma Anna would have smiled at that. Possibly H.C. Andersen, that intrepid traveler, might have enjoyed it too?

In our family we have been writing down memories of everything saved from the old days, as my brother’s grandchildren are mystified and then curious about relics from another time. Luckily, it seems there are always a few “historians” in each generation; we need that skeleton crew to keep the culture alive. Thanks to our curator mothers.

May we all have a holiday season filled with delights!