It’s here! This week the winter solstice comes on Sunday, Dec. 21 amid the final crescendo of our massive cultural and commercial buildup to Christmas. In addition, this week brings the generally less frenzied lighting of menorahs and frying of latkes that mark the observation of Hanukkah. What we celebrate points to our cultural identity and the traditions from which we spring, and how we celebrate indicates what we value.
Growing up, my family celebrated Christmas. We were nominal Christians and descendants of people of that faith and North European cultural heritage. I find that my longings at this holiday season are shaped and colored by the experiences of the senses and emotions from my early years: Christmas carols and early Euro-American Christmas music. Evergreen trees and boughs. Twinkling lights and flickering candles. The smells and tastes of holiday foods, especially buttery Christmas cookies. Happy times together. Games and laughter. Creative and thoughtful traditions around gift giving.
Christmas was a pretty big deal in my family of origin. And it still is for me today. The aesthetic look and rich symbolism of evergreens and wreathes, which circle like the seasons, are central to my approach to decorating my house at Yuletide.
There is something about evergreens – pine, fir and spruce, hemlock, yew and holly – that say Christmas to me. They are beautiful and aromatic and speak of the ancient mysteries of the ancestral northern forests. At this grey season, most plant life has died or gone dormant, and the sun has taken off to the southern hemisphere. This leaves things pretty dim around here, and the vivid greens offer color and reminders that light will return and life will awaken once again in the spring. Pair the greens with some red berries, a bright red ribbon or the cute little red hats of the Nordic tomten and you’ve got the Christmasy look I love.
So in early December I begin collecting boughs of evergreens from my yard and those of friends. This year’s Thanksgiving-week storm provided a bonanza of greens that had broken off trees, so my stockpile of greens, stored in buckets on the cool porch, was ready when it was time to make the front door wreath.
I use a multi-strand metal frame as a base and follow the method I learned from my Dad, who always made his own wreath. I take branchlets of 6 to 8 inches in length, mixing 3 or 4 different evergreen varieties if I have them. I bind the bottom of the cluster securely to the frame with thin green florist’s wire and then add and bind another cluster so its bushy top covers the twiggy wire-wrapped bottom of the previous cluster. I continue adding clusters of greens all around the circle until I have a nice, fairly even wreath. Then I might add a ribbon or some pine cones or red berries, like I did on this year’s front door wreath, above.
Another readily available natural material for wreath-making is the grapevine. Birds plant these vines all around my yard and they sprawl on bushes and grow up trees. The vines are flexible and sturdy enough to weave into attractive wreathes.
The trick is to prepare the grapevines by bending them every few inches until they make a cracking sound, indicating that they are almost beginning to break, but not quite. You form them into an initial circular shape and then you twist them around and around the circular base, weaving additional lengths of vine until you reach the thickness you want. Not sure that explanation is clear, but come over some November or December and we can do it together.
As Joni Mitchell sang, the seasons they go round and round, and as they do, we humans mark the holidays and natural cycles in ways both traditional and creatively new. Drawing on family or cultural traditions and looking around for natural and inexpensive materials, our ingenuity can bring beauty and fresh meaning to holiday celebrations. In my next post, I will share the possibilities and complexities of our practice of Simple Christmas.