The wooden rack outside the supermarket is hung with wreaths for sale, red ribbons flapping in the sea wind. “Now, that’s a gorgeous one,” I murmur, stopping to admire a pleasingly balanced composition of cedar, reindeer moss, spruce, and pine. It’s surprisingly affordable, too. I hesitate, tempted. Then I turn over the tag to check that the wreath was made locally. Nope. North Carolina. Shaking my head at the irony of buying southern greens in a state full of fir trees, I pass up the picture-perfect wreath. There will be at least three places on the way home to buy one from folks who have parked their pickup truck by the side of the road and are selling wreaths they’ve made down in the cellar or out in the garage or on the newspaper-covered kitchen table. The price is as modest as the simple wreath, and it generally comes with a free smile and a genuine wish for a happy holiday.
Alternatively, I may get busy and make one. Lest you think I should default to this as my first option, let me tell you that making a wreath is not, repeat NOT, as easy as the how-to posts all over the internet would have us believe. “Oh, just buy a wire form at any hardware or crafts store, grab a roll of green florist wire and some garden pruners, collect your greens and other decorations, and in a few minutes you, too, can make a really Good Thing to proudly decorate your front door.”
Yeah, not so much.
Okay, yes, I know this is easy for lots of folks. Some can ride herd during the working day on third-graders who are jet-fueled on candy canes starting the week after Thanksgiving, then come home and turn out a dozen wreaths or more a night. Others get up at 3 a.m. to do the milking, tend to the rest of the barn chores, maybe cut some wood, and still manage to make wreaths all day before doing the milking again in the late afternoon. Still others spend the day cleaning people’s teeth, after which I have to imagine the smell of pine sap is a real blessing. I respect these people who are working at their own cottage industry, or with a church or benevolent group who will sell wreaths at crafts fairs to raise money for worthy purposes. Making wreaths was once–and still is for some people–an important source of seasonal income.
I just thank God I don’t have to earn money on the strength of my wreath-making skills. While I know the theory of wiring handfuls of evergreens to a wire form, the actual doing yields what might charitably be called a rudimentary effort. Think of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree as a wreath, and you pretty much have the gist. But what the hell, hang it on the chicken coop and holiday visitors think it’s charmingly whimsical.
The problem is that what looks cute on a coop is just plain embarrassing on the front door. You can decorate your front yard with one of those faintly menacing giant inflatable snowmen that has to be held down with guy wires like the runt of the litter in a Macy’s parade; you can have a herd of twinkle-light deer browsing peacefully beneath the maples (which is pretty ironic, since hunting season for the real ones just ended); you can drape every shrub, tree, porch column and eave with LED light-ropes that change color in time with the music blaring from the hidden speakers under the rhododendrons–all these things people will (mostly) forgive. But make one crummy-looking natural wreath and you forfeit your decorating chops in the eyes of the neighborhood. Even the UPS delivery person won’t leave a package sitting under it.
So if you haven’t made a wreath before and want to give it a try, here are some tips, the important stuff the internet instructions don’t tell you. First, form matters. No, not the form of the final wreath, the wire form on which much of your success or failure depends. When I made my first wreath, I did not know there were different types of forms. This one is cheap, but, trust me, you don’t want it because there’s nothing for your evergreen bunches to grab onto. Which leads to swearing and much infuryment. (Even, occasionally, to the coining of words.) This is the wreath form you want. See that nice channel? When you place the butt-end of a bunch of evergreen twigs in that baby and wire them in, they’re not going anywhere. Well, yes, they can fall out of the front, but let’s not alarm ourselves with imaginings. Yet.
Second, size matters. Unless you have a front door the size of Downton Abbey’s, you probably will want a 12″ or 14″ wreath form. Do not succumb to the temptation to buy a bigger one. That way lies madness! Wreaths grow in the making, and what looks like a pathetically small wire ring at the hardware store will morph into the Wreath That Ate the Front Door if you do not take preventative steps at the outset.
Third, bandaids matter. I can’t for the life of me understand why this all-important step is omitted from all the instructions I have seen. I cannot say it too plainly: if you do not have at least half a box of bandaids, don’t even think about attempting to make a wreath. Buy one instead, and save your fingers for the important things of the season, like dunking biscotti in your cocoa.
Fourth, buy a bow–do not make one. Again, you’ll have to trust me on this, but unless you have fairly extensive experience in bow-making–including the nuances of making multiple layers of wire-edged ribbon look as flouncy as a toddler’s curls–there’s real potential for a horror show in trying to tie the kind of bow that looks so damned simple on a magazine cover.
Fifth, if you don’t have an old pair of scissors or rose pruners to snip your evergreens, do not use a kitchen knife, wire cutters, or a box cutter because evergreens have pitch, and pitch is a bitch. It gets on clothing and eyeglasses frames, in hair and on the inquisitive noses of cats. On the other hand, it does a dandy job of sticking wounds together. I don’t know why they don’t use it in surgery instead of medicinal-grade SuperGlue. A nice side effect is that it makes you smell like balsam pretty much right up through Christmas.
Still, it’s worth a lot to have visitors come through your front door to the jingle of sleigh bells and to bask in their compliments on your beautiful country-style wreath. One final tip: if you get the wine into them quickly enough, they’ll likely think your oval-shaped wreath is charmingly whimsical.