When I was a child, earning extra money was an important part of life for me and my twin brother. My father was a forklift driver at a plywood mill, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. With five children, there was not a lot of money for childhood fun.
In the summer, we had neighborhood bottle hunts, looking for glass pop bottles that would earn us three cents each—five cents for the big ones. We had lemonade stands, too, and at eight years old, I started picking strawberries at the farms. They paid a few pennies for every box of berries picked, and it added up. I still remember the three dollar church shoes I bought with my strawberry money.
In the fall, my twin brother and I sold pumpkins we had grown over the summer in our parents’ garden. We set the pumpkins up on picnic benches in the front yard, with a big sign, and people came to our door to buy them.
The winter, though, was our big money-earning season. We made evergreen swags and sold them door to door, earning enough money to buy Christmas presents for our family. Back then, we used pruning shears to hack off any branch within reach. My mother must have shuddered, watching the trees she had raised from seedlings being so carelessly pruned. She allowed it, though, hoping we would learn the value of money.
We pooled our allowance money to buy basic materials: craft wire, ribbon, and spray snow. Our father loaned us his tools–with threats of terrible consequences if they were lost or damaged. We worked together in our garage, wiring branches together and adding large red bows, pine cones, and the occasional spritz of snow.
I became more purposeful over time, and more careful. During the last year, I took note of branches that needed to be removed: a branch that continually triggered a motion-activated light on windy nights; one that rubbed against the garage roof; another one that drooped in the rain, to brush my head with dripping greenery.
I tried to trim the branches more carefully, too. Most of the time, I clipped the branches as close to the trees’ trunks as possible. When that wasn’t possible, I tried to clip them where branches divided, or at least bent.
I have always liked to use a variety of greenery in my decorating. In my childhood, we had two Douglas Fir trees, and one Mountain Hemlock. We also had a holly tree, but that was out of bounds. After retirement, back in Western Washington, I had a small property that included fir, cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees, as well a a large, berry-covered holly tree. The holly tree was ten times larger than the one in my parents’ yard, so I didn’t feel bad stealing a few branches—especially low hanging ones.
When I went out to gather greenery, I was planning a swag and a wreath. I also liked to hang tiny swags and garlands around the house. They smelled good, and brightened my mood.
I clipped all of the problem branches I had identified, and a few others as well, moving around my yard, leaving piles of clipped branches below the trees I trimmed. Some problem branches would have required a ladder to reach, and I wasn’t able to wrestle my very heavy ladder around. I’d have to get those later. For the moment, I was focused on getting branches for decorating.
Once I had cut as many branches as I wanted to, I gathered them near the house. I couldn’t work on the deck, because my daughter’s dogs would have chewed, eaten, or dragged away a fair portion of my greenery. That meant I had to work near the driveway.
It seemed logical to make separate piles of the different types of branches. I had a very large pile of hemlock, because we had a lot of that. Smaller piles of cedar, fir, spruce, and holly added to the variety.
I began the swag—my first project—by stacking a few nicely shaped branches of hemlock together, adding other types one by one. Hemlock, cedar, and fir were easy to handle. Spruce required a gentler touch, because it was very prickly. My cat came to help, and to soothe my sore fingers. I knew he really just wanted to be petted and carried, but I tried to pretend he had generous motives.
I had picked up some craft wire at a fabric store a few days earlier. Any thin, sturdy, flexible wire will do, and hardware stores had often been my source. It just had to be strong enough wire to hold without breaking. Of course, as soon as I unfastened the end of the wire from the spool, it unwound itself, leaving me with vast coils of thin wire.
My wire clipping pliers worked well to cut a two-foot length. I wrapped the bottom layers of greenery first, twisting the wire around the top of the branches, just below a fork, so the branch couldn’t just slip out of the wire loop. There was nothing as disheartening as hanging a swag and finding a branch or two on the floor later.
Layer by layer, I added greenery. After the hemlock came cedar and fir. Spruce brought a blue tinge to the swag—and a few grumbles as the much more prickly foliage scratched my hands. Maybe I should have let the dogs eat that one! When it was all safely wired together, I brought out my roll of wide red plastic ribbon. The ribbon was not expensive, and could be re-used, so a roll lasted a very long time. I wired the bow in place.
My brother and I used to attach large pine cones to the swags we sold. None of my trees made the right kind of pine cones, and I didn’t think I could re-train them. I decided to watch for cones during the year. Meanwhile, three non-breakable round ornaments added a note of colorful contrast.
The last step in this process was to loop a triple strand of wire around the top of the swag, and twist it into a loop for hanging the swag. A single strand would probably have done the job, but I wanted to be sure the swag did not fall.
We used to recommend putting a tack into the top of the door, and dangling a wire from that to suspend the swags we sold. A few years ago, though, I bought a wreath hanger, so I used that. The prevalence of metal doors has made the tack idea less practical.
The swag was larger than I anticipated. I got carried away, for some reason. It was green, and fragrant, and colorful, and the process of making it had brought me sweet memories. I didn’t mind the size, though my son-in-law laughed at the jungle hanging on the door.
I still had a wreath to make, though. Wreaths have always been harder for me, and there were several options for making them. I didn’t like to buy foam or straw wreath bases in craft stores, though. They work, and are easy, but I wanted something more natural. Instead of buying a base, I trimmed my greenery until I had a number of thin, flexible, branches of decent length.
I laid them out in an overlapping pattern, and began to wire them together into a straight line of green foliage. As I wrapped the wire around them in a spiral, I tugged small twigs free of the wire, for a fluffy wreath. If I had stopped after making straight bundles of greenery, I could have used them as garlands, with a few pine cones or ornaments added, and some wire looped for hanging them.
I wanted a wreath, though, so when I had the four- to six-foot line of branches securely fastened, I overlapped the ends, and continued spiraling the wire. The wreath was complete, and after easing a few more pieces loose, I was ready for the fun part. What that was depended on my mood.
Some years, I have used wire to attach a few ornaments to the wreath. Other years, I preferred pine cones. Once, I attached small red and white gingham bows. The decorations added to the wreath depend on taste, so I learned to have fun, and I’ve seen wonderful wreaths decorated with chili peppers, cinnamon sticks, candy canes, hard candy, plastic birds, gold garland, and many other things.
I usually wanted a big red bow on a wreath, but a bow of any color, or no bow at all, has been just as pretty. The wreath was always beautiful, and more versatile than I would have expected. One year, my daughter wanted an advent wreath, so I found a way to attach bows and candles, though not the right colors. Instead of hanging the wreath, I set it on a table for her.
I have always loved Christmas: the lights, and trees, the tinsel, all of it. I love the public decorations, and the mood in town. I enjoy the energy of the season, and all of the busy things I get to do for other people. Being able make swags, garlands, and wreaths allowed me to decorate a lot more than I could have if I had needed to buy everything. I think, if a child came to my door selling swags, I would find a way to buy one, just for the joy of seeing my own childhood tradition carried on.