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. ;)

1 comment:

  1. David glanced at the photo as he walked by and asked how you got the skin to be that nice (historically accurate) olive color. :) It looks great--thanks for sharing those early memories too--