Grief and an Advent Wreath

12:49:00 PM




Sophie and Gemma-Rose were looking over my shoulder as I removed two plastic bags and four layers of aluminium foil.

“Is it OK?” Sophie asked anxiously and when I nodded my head, a smile spread across her face. “I love our Advent wreath. I’m so glad it's survived another year.”

Why did we worry about our wreath? What could have happened to it after a year of storage? Maybe it would no longer still be in one useable piece. I might have unwrapped all the protective layers to reveal a soft, swollen, damp ring of dough. You see, our wreath is made of salt dough.

Salt dough is a wonderful medium for moulding. It’s easy to work with, holds its shape beautifully and costs hardly anything to make. But there is one downside. Salt dough absorbs water very easily from the atmosphere. It has to be sealed very carefully with several layers of varnish to make it durable, and even then it might still not survive.


The wreath we have just unwrapped is actually our second salt dough wreath. The first one only lasted a year or two. But this one is a survivor. It has held our Advent candles for many years, thirteen years in all, I think.

Our original wreath actually fell to pieces the year Thomas died. I unwrapped it after retrieving it from the storage box and found it soft and damp. I remember how my heart sank as I looked at the useless ring. The last thing I felt like doing was making a batch of dough and moulding a new wreath. 

It had only been several weeks since Thomas' death. My grief was very fresh and nothing ordinary seemed very important. An Advent wreath seemed very ordinary and unimportant to me at the time, but I knew it was very extraordinary to my children. I wasn’t looking forward to Advent and Christmas at all but my children were. And I realised they needed the joy and excitement of Christmas. They needed some relief from the grief of recent weeks and months. I couldn’t deny them the happiness of Christmas.  I knew I had to make them a new wreath despite my reluctance.


The wreath was actually very easy to make. I mixed together a large quantity of salt dough and used about two thirds of it to make the base. I twisted two snakes of dough around each other and fashioned them into a circle. I then used a rolling pin to flatten the circle, although I made sure I kept the ring fat enough so that it would support the weight of four candles.


Next, I made four holes in the top using a candle as a guide. I added a star shaped edging to each hole. (In the photo, a wad of blu-tac lines each hole.) Then it was time to mould leaves and berries and flowers, which I arranged on the dough ring, using water as glue. I added some whole cloves to the centres of some of the berries and flowers. Before I knew it, the wreath was made.



I popped the wreath into a slow oven for some hours until it was thoroughly dry. Did I turn the heat up at the end to brown it slightly? I think I did.

Finally, I glazed the thoroughly dried wreath with a water based varnish – I found an old tin of wood varnish. The wreath was finished and we are still using it all these years later.


Our 13 year old wreath is looking rather forlorn. It is coated in all those years’ worth of purple and white wax that has dripped from the candles. But we don’t mind. We are very attached to our wreath. It represents many Advents and Christmases. It has sat on our kitchen table every Advent and Christmas of Sophie's and Gemma-Rose’s life.  It has become a family heirloom. I think if it were to break or become soggy and damp, we would feel a little grief at losing it.

Today I saw an exquisite fine china statue of the Holy Family while I was out Christmas shopping. It was priced at $110 so I reluctantly left it on the shop shelf. But I am thinking: what would my children prefer? The beautiful shop bought statue or our home-made decorations such as our old waxy wreath? The answer is easy to work out.

Family treasures are hardly ever expensive. They are the things that were made with love. Both Sophie and Gemma-Rose are unaware of how I was feeling when I made the Advent wreath. They don’t know how difficult it was for me to focus on the ordinary things of life that year. They don’t know I was only able to make that wreath because of love. But they do know it is very, very special.


Salt Dough Recipe
Ingredients:
1 cup cooking salt
1 cup warm water
2 teaspoons cooking oil or glycerine
3 cups plain flour
Method:
Dissolve salt in warm water, mix in oil or glycerine. Mix this liquid into flour. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until pliable and smooth. Keep in an air-tight container.
Place wreath on a tray lined with aluminium foil and dry in an oven 100 -150 degrees C until hard.

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