An Endless Circle of Green

A wreath from Marder's Nursery in Bridgehampton on November 6th, 2017

It’s not that I’m anti-holidays, it’s just that every year there seems to be a touch more craziness peppering the atmosphere over these four to five weeks, so it’s with a tiny bit of elation that I tell you I won’t be attending Christmas this year due to a surgery. That’s actually a bit of hyperbole. I’ll be present Christmas Day, but there’s a good chance I’ll have a legitimate reason to spend most of the day in bed. My husband accused me of scheduling my surgery so I could skip the whole stress of “doing the stockings” and although the date wasn’t something I chose, there’s a good chance my subconscious did a bit of a happy dance when the hospital told me not to make plans for the 23rd.

I revel in the spirit of Thanksgiving and try to take the time to honor everything I’m grateful for; the health of loved ones, being able to touch living things I’ve planted myself as I walk out the door every morning, my chickens still numbering 12 and not doing an Agatha Christie, “and then there was none” thing. I’m also thankful that I have a roof over my head, especially as it belongs to the house that when I was 13 I insisted would one day be mine every time we drove by, and that I have a job which both challenges and excites me. And yes, I can appreciate that a groaning, overloaded table was a large part about what those original celebrants were grateful for, but I am blessed nightly with delicious food thanks to a partner who would have enjoyed an alternative life as chef, and so really don’t want to eat until I feel a little ill. That’s just not my idea of fun.

And please, don’t get me started on the direction that Christmas has taken. How did we end up with stuff equals love? I know this is meant to be a season of giving, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all the taking, as well as the taking for granted of the giving, and it makes me want to scream while running in the opposite direction. I’m even a little over the drama of the Christmas tree.

Now granted, a lot of this negative emotion is purely a reflection of my ways of handling the holidays — if they’re getting to me, it’s because I’m letting them do so. If I don’t want to be caught up in relentlessness commercialism, there’s a gazillion homemade ways to offer love to those around me. And, if I really want to experience these holidays in the spirit in which they are intended, there’s a wealth of places I can go to support those who have less than I do. I can be of service. There are plenty of places where I could offer my time, energy and caring to those who would truly appreciate it.

I need to change my whole approach to these few weeks, reinvent them entirely, with one exception. The part of this season I will always adore – making an evergreen front door wreath from scratch. Wreaths have been with us far longer than Christmas has, and although they have taken on an association with Christianity, I prefer their older ancestry.

The first wreath was one woven from laurel and worn by Apollo who was madly in love (lust) with a nymph named Daphne, whom, having no interest in in hooking up with Zeus’s son asked another god, Peneus, for help. That assistance involved her transforming into a laurel tree, and thus escaping pursuit. From that day onwards Apollo chose to wear a wreath woven from that trees branches for the rest of his life (a fairly impressive display of unrequited love IMHO). From this a wreath of laurel rapidly became the symbol of Apollo and all he stood for: knowledge, light, victory, achievement, athleticism, etc. The reason they were used to crown the victors at the original Olympic games.

From Apollo it was a quick hop and a leap to other handmade rings woven from fresh leaves, twigs, branches and flowers being worn as headdresses by ancient Greeks and Romans to designate their status, rank, and achievement. A practice continued to this day by celebratory Italian university graduates.

Or perhaps we should consider the harvest wreath, woven predominately from wheat, but also from laurel or olive branches and hung by your door as part of a ritual thought to protect your home from plagues and crop failures. And to express to the gods that had helped in this endeavor, a farmer’s gratitude and pride. These wreaths were kept on the door year-round as a constant reminder.

The way these circlets of green have become entwined with Christmas seems to stem from Advent wreaths and their ancestors. Created at the end of the year from evergreens (there’s not a lot of other choices this late in the year) to represent perseverance in the face of harsh winters, these wreaths were adopted by Christians, who believed they could represent the strength of their beliefs as they faced being tested by the harshness of winter, tested and yet able to survive and be renewed each year. It helped that wreaths were circles – a circle is a lovely representation of immortality (it has neither a begin nor an end) and meshes nicely with the immortality Christ. These wreaths were not hung, but laid atop tables, decorated with candles and used to count down to Christ’s day.

There’s also a theory that evergreen wreaths (and crosses) used in the early 19th century to honor the graves of the dead were brought home by family members during these holidays to decorate their homes, which seems sort of a peculiar way to liven up the holidays. I prefer the ancestral midsummer wreaths, wreaths that evolved from pagan celebrations like May Day –a celebration of fecundity which involved the transformative power of the plants woven into crowns, plants that had been picked early on the morning of the celebration, before the dew had dried upon them and stolen their magical properties.

One can make a wreath at any time, from almost anything that’s flexible enough to be woven – I’ve made them all season long from the grapevine-like weed that is determined to smother my shrubs every season, as well as from armfuls of rosemary or boxwood clippings wired to a frame one bunch at a time. This is the same method I use to make my yearly holiday wreath. My wreath tends to be foraged, but mostly from my own property, or from properties where I’ve received permission to transverse with my clippers in hand.

I’ve also made them from nothing but the trimmings of Christmas trees after they are given fresh cuts right before being loaded for delivery. Or they can included a cacophony of ingredients including, but not limited to all members of the cedar family, Southern Magnolia, rose hips, almost every kind of fir, White Pine, berry-laden juniper branches, Hinoki Cypress, Arborvitae, eucalyptus, dusty miller, sage, all hollies and now Osmanthus too, all members of the Ilex family, Callicarpa, seed pods and cones, blueberry branches as well as those covered by lichens and moss, twig dogwoods and all kinds of willow ­— especially the curly or colored kinds. It depends on the year, on what’s available and on how I feel.

This year my wreath is Hinoki Cypress, Fraser Fir, White Pine and Eastern Red Cedar complete with berries. I also tucked in some twigs I sprayed with a rose gold metallic paint, because why not? And it came out how they always do. Different every year but never too tidy, fairly unkempt, and definitely free flowing. Very much my kind of wreath.

Paige Patterson recommends foragers ask permission before they clip. Otherwise it’s thievery and that’s really not in the holiday spirit.