A Baltic Christmas is a complex mix of pagan rituals, religious customs and modern tradition, celebrating not only the birth of Jesus but also the winter solstice. It was in the Latvian capital city of Rīga that the Christmas tree was born as pagan traditions such as the decoration of firs on the winter solstice were incorporated into the Christian holiday. In modern times Latvians still decorate their homes with natural materials: straw ornaments, evergreen branches, junipers and most anything else that can be found outdoors during a Baltic winter.
In addition to Advent calendars to count down the days until Christmas, we fashion an Advent wreath every year to grace our home. Although the concept of the Advent wreath originated in Germany in the 16th century, it traveled to Latvia with the conversion to Christianity and Lutheranism. Beginning with the fourth Sunday before Christmas, one candle is lit each week. By the last Sunday all four candles are lit; many Advent wreaths include a fifth candle in the center which is lit on Christmas Eve.
Making an Advent wreath is really a simple yet beautiful way to help count down the days until Christmas, as well as bring some of the splendor of the outdoors this time of year into your home. There are many options ranging from completely DIY to decorate-it-yourself, and once you’ve collected the materials needed, the wreath really makes itself.
The time spent outdoors searching for beautiful things to weave into our wreath is as valuable as the effort the boys put into the construction. Over the years we’ve tried a variety of different methods for the base; ranging from the wire frame with adjustable clamps which works well with thick branches, to the simple frame for a more horizontal display, to the all-natural vine-wreath. The wire frame is possibly the hardest to work with as it is meant for use in a special wreath-making piece of equipment and requires pliers and patience, while the simple frame isn’t as durable and can’t be hung upright. I most often use the wire frames when working with holly* as each clamp will hold a multitude of branches and the result doesn’t need to be filled out.
My favorite option is to make our own base from grapevines, since we have them growing in the backyard and it allows for a lot of flexibility, repositioning and imagination. Really, any type of vine could be used (except watch out for poison ivy!), as long as it is flexible. Take a long piece of vine and form a circle the size of your desired wreath, fastening with a small piece of string or florist wire, then continuing to wrap the vine around, tucking the end in to secure it. Keep adding additional sections of vine until you have reached your desired thickness; a skinny base will result in a skinner wreath, a thicker base in a shaggier product. Vine wreaths are available at most craft stores, and the same base can be used again year after year as long as you’ve taken all the old stuff out after the holidays.
Next we continue with an evergreen for our base layer, whatever we have abundant and available. This year some large pines down the street from us were sheared, the trimmings perfect for our needs and easy to carry home with us on the way back from picking Lauris up from school in the afternoons. Many Christmas tree vendors will give away the branches trimmed from the bottom of the tree for free (or you may even have the branches from the bottom of your Christmas tree). Trim these into manageable pieces and stick the ends into your base, working your way around. When you’re satisfied, clip off any stray ends – that is if you prefer a more uniform result.
Next tuck in your ornaments: a bunch of holly*, pine cones, dried weeds, evergreens of different types and textures. Cones, acorns and other seeds can be attached with florist’s wire, and little finishing touches such as bells or dried orange slices can add more color and variety. I usually orient all the branches in the same direction until I get to the decorations, highlighting the differences in color and texture by placing them in a contradicting flow. The trick is to use materials that will generally hold their shape over the next four weeks; fresh leaves will wilt, and although the result might also be beautiful be aware it will look different in a week than it does upon finishing. Even holly will wither, although if your entire wreath is not constructed of the same material this will not matter as much. Another reason to utilize a vine base; as time progresses you can switch out wilted branches for fresher materials.
Continue adding to your wreath until you’re satisfied with your result, or until materials, time or patience run out! A piece of twine can be tied on to hang the wreath if you’re not using as an Advent wreath, and a few clippings from your rosemary or lavender shrub will nicely complement the evergreen aroma. A big red bow might nicely tie it all together, or a string of battery operated lights if not using with candlelight as an Advent wreath.
Wishing you all a happy first Advent, and please join us tomorrow for the third day of the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas with a Baltic gift guide and giveaway sponsored by BalticShop!
*Please remember holly is extremely sharp, and holly berries as well as many other winter berries are poisonous; as little as two or three can cause severe symptoms in children and pets.
Please visit the Lithuanian website Mano Namai for more ideas on how to form the base of your wreath, including utilizing straw or even newspaper - Kaip pasigaminti advento vainika (how to make an advent wreath).
And here on the Latvian website kasjauns.lv you can find an article (in Latvian) on the meaning of the four candles in an Advent wreath - Daudzi nemaz nezina, ko īsti nozīmē 4 sveces Adventes vainagā. Izskaidrojam! (Many don't know what the 4 candles in an Advent wreath signify. We explain!)