Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Baby Jesus Doll and the Ghost of Crafting Past

Isn't it a joy to get back a memory?  Something from life--a smell, an action, a face--throws a switch in the back of the brain.  Dusty cogs begin to whirl, pistons hiss--there's a rumble,then a clatter, then pop! Out comes a memory--vivid, pristine, and all the more dear for being locked in the machine so long. 

This post is about a little craft project--the making of a doll. I'm fond of this project.  It gave me back a few memories.  I'm hoping that it will seed a few fond memories in the heads of Maria and Louisa .

The doll was part of an Advent and Christmas activity that I discovered on one of my favorite blogs, Ginny Sheller's Small Things. In this activity,there's a manger--a box or basket--and the children of the family add hay to the container for any good deed or sacrifice they perform.  On Christmas morning, a Baby Jesus doll appears  in the padded manger; loving acts make ready a place for the Holy Infant.  Thinking that Maria was old enough to benefit from such a ritual, (hoping it might also distract her from her fascination with all things Pere Noel) I set about to find the materials.

Our manger was a box that held some fancy potatoes from Lidl.  Maria and I collected grass in our wet yard, and dried it in a basket over the radiator. (This was a fruitful activity in itself--good for meditating on poverty.)

Then there was the doll to think about--that is, of course, what this post is all about.  I loved that Ginny made her doll, and wanted to follow her lead and make a Waldorf style swaddle baby.  Waldorf dolls have intentionally simple, neutral faces--the better to allow kids to flex their imaginations.  Wouldn't this kind of spare representation be especially appropriate for a doll of the Baby Jesus?  It steers clear of kitsch and sentimentality, but still produces a unique, cuddly doll.

I hunted for Waldorf doll materials online and quickly grew frustrated.  Waldorf dolls are generally made from pricey organic materials that are often sold in kits.  None of the kits served my purposes, and it seemed a shame to spend money on shipping, when I needed such a small amount of material.  At last, I came across a thread on a German crafting forum.  A parent asked where to buy Waldorf doll supplies.  A grandmother replied: "Supplies?  In my day, we dyed an old white tee shirt with tea and used wool from our sheep for the stuffing."

Well, I didn't have any sheep, but I had a 4 Euro Ikea pillow that I wouldn't mind butchering, and plenty of old white tees.  I prepared my dye, first cooking the tee shirt in a vinegar bath set the dye.  We had some old teas that had been languishing in the back of the cabinet.  Into the pot they went with a bit of turmeric and some instant coffee crystals.  The cloth came out a sallow color--very close to the color of snot--and far from the pinky beige that I wanted.  Donnie encouraged me to continue.  A survey of my stash of embroidery thread showed some gold and brown floss that might complement the tea-dyed fabric.  With luck, the color scheme would call to mind an antique wax doll.   At the very least, using the cloth would give me practice and then I'd feel better about ordering pricier cloth.  I sewed a tube, and  followed this tutorial for making the doll's head.

As I sat sewing the little head, coaxing the polyester batting into a baby face, I realized that there was something awfully familiar about the work.  As I stitched and prodded a little bump of stuffing into a nose, I realized why.  This was very similar to a project I did when I was seven years old, trying with my rudimentary sewing skills, to sew a doll. The project was ill-fated.  After I finished the head, our  beagle-terrier mutt, Brownie, sensing that the doll head was an Object of Great Interest, grabbed it and had me chasing her around the house for it.  The head didn't survive the chase.  But here I was, sharing with my eight year old self, the joy of seeing a face emerge from fabric.

And while sewing the hair, another memory!   My family didn't have a creche set, so when I was seven, I tried to make one out of salt dough.   It came out of the oven, a doughy-looking, lumpy thing--a lost cause in my mind. But my Mum took it up and painted it--ever so lovingly--in bright colors, with patterns, like a medieval wood carving. It was the first time I can remember knowing the joy of having something I'd made (and even come to detest) perfected and made beautiful by someone else.  One thing she did was paint the infant Jesus's hair gold---a choice that struck me as genius at the time! As I sat stitching gold thread over the gold skin of the doll, it struck me that I was being visited by the gold baby of the salt dough creche.

I am pleased with how this gold Baby Jesus turned out--sweet and little uncanny. (That's how I would describe the face of a newborn--sweet and uncanny.)  Tucked in the white swaddle, the yellow color of the skin isn't so strange---just a touch of jaundice.  And there's the smell of the doll--the unexpected benefit of the dye--black tea, orange, berries, cinnamon, turmeric, coffee.   Delicious.  I'm hoping that the smell is riveted into Maria and Louisa's olfactory memory.  I imagine them standing in a Starbucks one day--coffee and tea aromas mingling in the air. A man walks in with a bag of Indian takeout. It hits them: family, happiness, mystery, Christmas.

How did  our manger filling play out for Christmas, 2012?  Maria didn't quite get the whole grass-reward system; it was mostly me filling the manger for her deeds and the odd occasion when Loulou put a book back on the shelf after taking it off .   The girls liked the doll perfectly well, climbing onto the toddler table to free him from the glass cabinet. They cuddled and tossed him around, which resulted in him going lost for a week under a bed.  (I worried this might be a sign of our spiritual state. Never good to lose the Baby Jesus!  I hoped we would find him wedged between some books on spirituality--in the temple, so to speak.)  Now he's tucked away in our box of Christmas things, waiting for next year. I'm looking forward to seeing him again.  I'm looking forward to remembering how I made him.  I'm  looking forward to  remembering the memories I had while I made him. ;)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Advent Traditions: Calendar

In 2011, I sprung for an eight euro chocolate-filled Advent calender for Maria.  All the cheaper options that I found had pictures of  Hello Kitty or Disney Cars--their manufacturers having abandoned all pretense that Advent calendars have anything to do with Christmas.  This expensive one had a pretty Victorian-inspired scene of Father
Christmas trimming a tree. The chocolates were gourmet.  I figured the eight Euros were the price of tradition.  

This year, I opted to make a calendar.  I wanted something that could hold a few treats and a little piece of paper with a Bible passage.  Here's the result.

A piece of cardboard with 24 origami cups made from Ikea wrapping paper. We had some paper beads and origami mini stars on hand, so I strung them onto some yarn for the hanger.  A simple little project, but I was pleased with how it turned out.
Maria sat next to me as I folded the cups.  I showed here how to make them, but she was a little too young for the lesson to stick.

Each pocket held a wrapped chocolate or a tinfoil package with gummi bears or crystallized pineapple.

We printed this Advent chain-- it has a Bible passage and a picture for the first twenty-four days of December.  I cut out the links and rolled them so that each pocket had its own little scroll. We read the text out loud while Maria ate her treat, trying to explain the text to her as best we could.  Maria colored in some of the pictures. My plan was to cut them out and use them as ornaments on our Christmas tree, though I ended up forgetting about them (and there was no room left on our tiny Christmas tree).
A few days after completing our calendar, Mum told me that EuroNews was reporting massive recalls of commercial calenders---the chocolates were potentially contaminated with machine oil. So our choice to make a calendar was especially fortunate!

This is a little craft I hope to repeat next year.  Maybe I'll get some help folding the cups. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Advent Traditions: Cookies

Our jam stars and chocolate roll out cookies. The beautiful madeleines were from Pauline's mum.  I've got to buy a mold learn how to make those!
I've already written about Maria's enthusiasm for cake.  She's no less enthusiastic about Christmas cookies. We did four baking sessions this Advent, building a stash of cookies that lasted through Epiphany.

Maria's little friend Pauline came over for one session.   Baking with two three-year-olds is neither neat nor easy!  But still lots of fun, as you can see.  There was plenty of tasting going on, and I spent a significant portion of my mental energy praying that I would not be responsible for giving our little neighbor salmonella poisoning.  By time the sprinkles and compacted bits of dough were vacuumed from the carpet, I felt like I deserved a medal!  But it was well worth the trouble!

During our baking, I found that not having the right equipment was liberating.  There was no regret when our cookies didn't turn out perfectly.  For our first session, we didn't have cutters so we made some out of a disposable foil container. We didn't have cookie sheets, so we made due with flipping the broiler pan upside down and baking  the cookies five at a time on pieces of aluminum foil.  I became quite adept at manipulating the cookie-laden foil, using a pot lid like a pizza peel to get them on and off of the upturned broiler pan.

Here are the recipes we used:
The Best Rolled Sugar Cookies
Best Ever Chocolate Cutout Cookies
Raspberry Star Cookies

It appears that I'm a sucker for recipes with the word "best" in the title.  The jam stars were certainly the highlight of our Christmas spread.   They disappeared so quickly and sent Donnie into such rhapsodies that we made three batches.  For variety, we swapped in a quince jelly that we picked up at the Church Christmas market, as well as berry, fig and apricot jams.  These cookies are so rich and pretty--I think they could be given away individually as party favors.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dark Days of Advent

Now that I've finally put our sad, Charlie Brown Christmas tree in the compost, it's time to catch up on these Advent posts!

My grandad reminded me some weeks back that the historic birth of Christ is believed to have occurred in April.   The liturgical celebration of Christmas was set for late December because the Church, in her wisdom, knew that people (that is, dwellers of the Northern Hemisphere) needed to celebrate the winter solstice.  The return of the sun provided such an excellent metaphor for the coming of the Savior.  In this way, Christmas, in addition to being a season of abundant graces, is treatment for seasonal affect disorder!

I had fine hopes of having a prayerful and industrious Advent.  This was to be our first Christmas on our own,and I wanted to revel in the freedom of being neither traveler nor host.  Time to make our own traditions!  Time to start filling Maria's little head with shiny, happy holiday memories!  I had great expectations as I sat designing our card in the days following Thanksgiving. 

My ambitions were partly foiled by moodiness--December was a grumpy month.  We had  weeks of gray, rainy days.  I struggled to adjust to Maria's napless days. I missed my English-speaking friends at Mom's group ---Maria's 11:30 pickup from school prevented me from attending. (I find this to be the greatest difficulty of  being a stay at home mom--having a day short in both solitude and adult companionship.) Louisa had her first double-ear infection.  Maria continued in her refusal  paint at school.  Bad news of the events at Newtown and the fiscal cliff seeped in.   Donnie's energies were stretched between research commitments, administrative chores, and job applications. (Even when it's going well, the Job-seeking state of life is marred by uncertainty. ) These things, as slight as they were, conspired to make us irritable.

When Christmas came, it felt less like a carefully planned and highly anticipated event, and more like a reprieve.  We stumbled our way through Advent and fell gratefully on the lighted threshold of Christmas.

And that, perhaps, is how it must be!  Help comes from the outside--just as it did that night in Bethlehem.

Despite the December pall, we did a few Advent activities that I hope we'll continue in future years.  In the next couple of posts, I'll be sharing them with you.  If I were a savvy blogger, I'd probably reserve these for next year, when people are more in a mood to look at Advent calendars.  But you are all so terribly indulgent--even of my tardiness.  Thank you and Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Face It: Paris Ate My Knitting

A friend once proposed a rival site to Facebook, called Face It. People would only post when they were having a bad day and wanted commiseration. No vacation photos or adorable kiddie antics allowed. Face It posts are written in that spirit. They are "complaining songs" to put it in the parlance of Winnie-the-Pooh.

"I can't really love Paris.  She's too expensive a mistress."  These were the words of our friend Justin, who works in France and occasionally visits the capital city. When I heard them, a big part of me agreed.  Yes, you do well to keep your heart aloof.  This city is too pretty, too popular, too expensive.

Living in the suburbs, we don't pay the exorbitant Paris housing prices, nor do we live on a daily  basis with the city's costly enticements. Our flirtation with Paris happens on weekend and holiday trips. During these outings, it's easy to feel like we are hemorrhaging money.  There's the train fare, the museum entrance, the carousel ride, the menu fixe lunch in the Latin quarter, the cafe gourmande that give us courage for the train ride home.  Sometimes, there's shopping--a beret, a children's book from the museum shop.  We don't stint on little purchases that make traveling more comfortable--after all, we won't be here much longer, and it's not often that we muster the energy to get ourselves into the city. These expenses are par for the course.

But Paris isn't only greedy for our money.  She also likes our stuff.  It seems like a rarity that we return home with all that we brought. We've lost umbrellas, sweaters, stainless steel water bottles and whole boxes of pastry. We once took a trip into the city to shop the seasonal sales.  We returned plus a stylish cardigan and blazer for Donnie and minus a smartphone.  The phone may have fallen out of my pocket, but more likely, it was helped out by some light-fingered denizen of the Paris underworld. Needless to say, Whatever we saved that day by buying clothing on sale was lost in the cost of replacing the phone.

For a while, the city seemed satiated. We had a few visits with no losses and I forgot her rumbling tummy.  But she was just between courses.

This time, she got my knitting--an aviatrix hat in Debbie Bliss merino wool.  It was a Christmas gift for Loulou, and one of my first forays into knitting from an actual pattern.  It took about a week of evenings to knit, but that doesn't count the small practice hat I knit in a coarser wool.  I sewed the button and wove in the ends, and the next day I foolishly--ever so foolishly--put it on Louisa's head for our outing to the Louvre.  We managed to hold onto it until the trip back. And then it was gone.

Luckily, there are a few photos of the hat.  They're not-so-great, but I'm thankful to have them.

Rest in peace, deep purple aviatrix hat!  I like to think you might survive to warm the head of a different toddler.  My misgiving heart tells a different story.  It sees legions of uncaring feet grinding your fibers into the urine-spattered asphalt of the Paris Underground.

Despite the loss of the hat, the outing was a success--our first time going inside the Louvre. On previous visits, the long security line always dissuaded us from entering.  We almost turned away this time as well, but two security guards waylaid us as we were casting about for a place to eat our lunch.  As it t turns out, if you have small children, they rush you to the front of the line!  So, if you're going to the Louvre, be sure to bring a kid or a convincing doll in a carrier.

We saw an exhibit of paintings from the last years of Raphael's life.  I often feel numbed and overwhelmed by art museums, but the focused nature of this exhibit made for a wonderful experience.  The Raphaels were truly great---they seem more real than real.

And as for the hat...I might say that the it was actually on the small side for Loulou, and during the short time she wore it, I fretted over its flaws and its prematurely fuzzy appearance.  I might philosophize that being lost is the most merciful fate possible for an early knitting project---the knitter must neither live with her mistakes nor admit defeat and unravel.

I might also say that losing the hat made the whole day more memorable, and thanks to its loss,  Raphael's luminous virgins are all the more deeply engraved in my mind.

Would this be superstition?  Sour grapes?  Positive reappraisal?

Regardless, it will be a while before I knit Louisa another hat.  And when I do, I won't allow her to wear it---at least, not to Paris.