Here’s a craft that’s old enough to be a classic: the paper chain!
Okay, hear me out: paper chains are AWESOME. Yes, you did them in preschool. Yes, you made them out of construction paper. I don’t blame you, then, if the phrase “paper chain” unlocks a core memory of that hokey long-ago classroom with its corny, lopsided, faded construction paper chains.
And you can still do those kinds of paper chains, if 1950s Sunday school classroom is your decoration aesthetic. You can hang it above your large-scale bulletin board with the scalloped edging and a laminated, hand-drawn Noah’s Ark set. For bonus points, make both the lions boys.
However, you can do a lot more with the classic paper chain, especially in terms of Christmas tree decor. Because wouldn’t you rather have an eco-friendly, customized garland that fits your specific vibe instead of a mess of shiny plastic tinsel that’s going to break down into micro-plastics and/or live out the next several millennia in a sanitary landfill?
New paper is fine for this project, especially if you upscale it to something handmade or created by an indie artist or small business. Also consider organic cotton paper, hemp paper, or even more unusual offerings like papyrus or vellum.
My absolute favorite materials, though, are upcycled papers. With upcycled papers, you can fit any decorative style without engaging in the manufacture, packaging, and shipping of yet more new products in our already overcrowded world. Book pages give you a clean, black-and-white look. Sheet music gives the same, but is even more festive. Magazine pages are shiny and colorful, while children’s book pages are just as colorful but lack the shine. Brown paper bags are a nice neutral that’s easy to embellish. Children’s artwork and used coloring pages have a ton of personality.
With any of these options, at the end of the season you can make a guilt-free choice to carefully pack your paper chain away for next Christmas, or recycle it and just make a new one next year! If you’ve chosen an unusual paper, just double-check that it IS recyclable first.
To make a paper chain, use the following supplies:
- paper. Holiday-themed scrapbook paper is an easy option, as is paper or cardstock in your specific color scheme. But feel free to be as creative as you like in your choice–after all, it’s only paper!
- cutting tools. A guillotine paper cutter is my tool of choice for batch cutting the strips for paper chains. Simply using scissors to cut by hand works just as well, though, and is a sneakily educational project for a younger kid who could use more fine motor skills practice. Cutting with scissors is SO good for strengthening the muscles in one’s writing hand! for the easiest shortcut, you can buy pre-cut paper strips.
- adhesive. A glue stick works quite well with most paper, but yikes does it have a lot of plastic! PVA glue is a little better, especially if you buy it in a gallon jug and simply decant it into a smaller bottle as needed. A good, eco-friendly option to the glue stick, especially for young children, is cornstarch paste. Cornstarch paste uses only food ingredients and kids can apply it easily using a popsicle stick… or, fine, their fingers.
And here’s how to make it!
Step 1: Cut paper strips to size.
There are two variables that affect the look of your paper chain: your choice of paper, and the size of your paper strips. I raved on about paper choice in my intro, and here’s what I mean about size:
From left to right, the paper chains above are made with the following strips: 1.5″x6″, 1″x6″, 1″x4″, .5″x6″, and .5″x4″.
The 1.5″x6″ and 1″x4″ chains are quite stiff; they wouldn’t drape well, but would hang straight down in a lovely, saturated way that would allow you to create a decorative wall hanging.
The 1″x6″ chain drapes beautifully while retaining some structure. There’s some negative space, but you can still see the paper colors well. Below the blue and green 1″x6″ chain, I made another short chain with the colored sides of paper to the inside, and it also looks lovely.
The .5″x6″ chain looks most similar to a traditional metal chain, but it’s quite fragile and I don’t recommend it.
The .5″x4″ chain is the perfect size for an 18″ doll. Let your American Girl dolls hang it on THEIR Christmas tree!
Step 2: Glue!
Creating these chains makes for a wonderful family activity, especially while listening to music or a podcast or watching a movie together. My teenager and I made this entire glorious paper chain while watching a documentary on M.C. Escher together:
We know so much about M.C. Escher now (did you know that he used to tell people that he was NOT an artist?!? He was only a mathematician, he insisted!), and we have a delightful Christmas decoration to show for it!