Wait, that’s not right.  Those aren’t holly berries at all, but are actually rose hips.  But regardless, it IS a season of picking if you’re anything like me and like to add a bit of greenery to your home during the holidays.  This post is dedicated to one Mrs. Diana Gabaldon, who for the past three Christmases has reminded my forgetful Catholic bum that this is the beginning of the Advent season, and what better way to mark the occasion of the holy season (and holly season) than by creating your own advent display for your home.

To begin… a small history lesson. A traditional “Advent” wreath is built during the month before Christmas as a reminder that we have entered a season of waiting for the ‘advent’ or arrival of Jesus.

The Advent wreath is traditionally composed of a few main elements:

  • The wreath – a circular symbol representing eternity and the unending love of God
  • Four candles – one to mark each week before Christmas
    • 3 purple candles to symbolize a period of prayer, sacrifice and reflection
    • 1 pink candle to symbolize a period of preparedness, is lit during the 3rd Sunday of Lent
  • 1 Christ Candle – this white (and optional) candle is lit on Christmas Day to celebrate the birth of Jesus

There are also symbols for each of the candles as to the timing in which they are lit around the wreath; each offering something to be mindful of as we pray, reflect, and prepare for the season.

Week 1:  Purple Candle, representing Hope

Week 2:  Purple Candle, representing Faith

Week 3:  Pink Candle, representing Joy

Week 4:  Purple Candle, representing Peace

Now keeping in mind that while I myself might be a practicing Catholic, I know many of you are not, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a whole lot of you DO celebrate Christmas and DO try to practice acts of caring, selflessness, and generosity to your fellow man during this time before Christmas.

It’s in that spirit that I’m passing along my meager instructions for putting together your own advent wreath, and it’s my wish that you and your families enjoy a few moments of peaceful reflection during this holiday time.

This entire project really doesn’t take much in terms of time, talent, or materials, and once you get the hang of things (and if you have the space to store & reuse materials) can be repeated for years to come.  To begin, you will need a container that holds water and some oasis foam. If you’ve never heard of oasis foam, check out the floral section of your craft store or ask your friendly neighborhood florist.

Be sure you get the foam that holds water. The other ‘green foam’ is simply just green styrofoam and is NOT what you want.  The oasis foam is denser, can hold water, and is the key to making your very own advent wreath.  After all, we’re using live greenery and open flame.  You want to be able to add (and store) water in a vessel for about a month.

I’ve used this exact set up for the past 4 years and I love it. Just an antique ceramic bowl, stuffed with oasis foam.  When I’m finished using it, I simply take out all of the dead branches, let the foam dry, clean it up a bit and store it for next time.

The beauty of the oasis foam is that it’s density allows you to literally poke heavy branches into it repeatedly but it still holds it shape.

But before the heavy branches, a bit of camouflage… in the form of MOSS.  I’m lucky enough to live on a few acres with big ole oak trees on them, and where the trees meet up with my yard, there’s just enough shade not to grow grass but allows a beautiful little carpet of moss.

before and after moss picking

I use the moss to cover up the foam but it also does a bit of double duty by retaining a bit of moisture, so… win!  If you’ve never harvested your own moss, it’s actually quite simple but takes a bit of patience. The tiny roots only penetrate the top of the soil, so it’s easy enough to just slide the moss off of the soil – just pry it off with your fingers.  You may need a piece or two (or five) to cover your container.

Once you’ve got the moss ‘picked’ just remove any bits of rock, leaves, and/or sticks and you’ll be amazed at how lovely it is.

It’s now time to start shaping the moss over the oasis foam.  This part can get a bit crumbly, so if I haven’t mentioned this already, this is a great project for your garage.

If you can’t find moss growing anywhere near you, you might be able to purchase some at the same place where you find the oasis foam.  I tend to stick to natural materials when making my wreathes as much as possible, so perhaps some smaller landscape rocks might be useful to hide the foam as well.

The picture above on the right shows a completed base with foam, moss and the candles inserted.  I find it easier to do the candles before I add the greenery.

And speaking of greenery, there’s great Christmas symbolism in it TOO!  Advent wreathes are traditionally made with evergreen branches, which symbolize everlasting life.  Holly branches and berries can be used to symbolize Christ’s crown of thorns.  And pine cones or berries often represent rebirth and resurrection.  That’s a whole lot of symbols!

But in the event you just want green things to put in your wreath and would like them to stay green for a month, evergreen branches are the way to go, and a quick look around most yard landscaping often leads to quite a few options.  By all means, use whatever branches you’ve got left over from your tree trimmings, or trim a few tree branches from your own yard. But I like to mix things up a bit and look for some non-traditional items to add a bit of texture and variety.

A quick walk through the neighborhood with a bag and a pair of clippers might just yield a surprising amount of goodies. (Along with the clippers and bag, you might want to grab a pair of gloves to protect your hands.)  I didn’t even have to leave my yard for these beauties.

a weeping cedar off of my back deck & a creeping juniper along my driveway

And while you’re out and about, take a look at the shrubbery. You might not find holly berries, but you just might find some other wild berries like these…..

wild rose hips & juniper berries

I truly LOVE this part of assembling the wreath.  For me, it truly is a time of reflection and a time to connect with a early winter landscape.  The air is crisp. Birds are still flitting about winking at you from their hiding spots, and squirrels are ready to scamper off and warn the natural world of your presence.  Enjoy this part.  Breathe.

At this point, just have fun arranging.  I typically arrange mine from the outside in, using heavier & more densely needled branches first.  Some of the finer needled items are added to the upper layers, with the little splashes of colorful berries added last. Use your clippers, readjust, and keep going.

My last bit of advise is to wait until you are all finished and have placed your wreath in it’s final spot before adding water.  Fewer opportunities for sloshing.   Recheck the water level daily, and never ever ever (never-ever) leave this display burning unattended.  Long tapers like this tend to burn in like, a minute, and catch needles on fire.  Don’t ask me how I know that.

I hope you enjoy this project and wish you all the love and blessings of the season!