The story below is an excerpt from our November/December 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
The gardens have been put to bed and the cold air smells like snow. The trees are truly “bare ruined choirs” except for the evergreens which glow green and blue against the gray world. I’m not fond of winter because it forces me to spend more time inside than I like, so I started a tradition that gives me a reason to go outside: the Gathering of the Greens.
I got the idea from my grandfather, Papa, who took me with him to look for mistletoe. His farm was in Dinwiddie, Virginia and when the oak trees surrounding his tobacco fields dropped their leaves the airy mistletoe balls were revealed.
The ancient Europeans were interested in this airborne plant for what they believed was its ability to increase fertility. Papa was interested in it because it made my grandmother, Nana, happy to have a piece to hang in a doorway. So he grabbed his shotgun and we scuffed through the leaf mold until we spotted a ball suspended in the branches above. Papa fired up at the mistletoe and pieces dropped to the ground. My job was to retrieve them and assemble them into a bundle to take to Nana. While we were out, we also gathered armfuls of other evergreens. I felt like the Christmas season had truly begun when Nana decorated the doorways with a kissing ball and festooned the fireplaces with holly and magnolia.
Mistletoe, holly and magnolia don’t grow in my mountains, but other evergreens beg to be gathered and brought inside where the heat of the woodstove will release their spicy scent. Cedar is my favorite of all the native species because it smells so good and holds up well in wreaths. Younger cedars are pricklier than older ones, so I spend all summer running my hands through their scaly leaves. The ones that don’t make my hands burn and itch are noted for winter gathering.
Then, the day after Thanksgiving, my mom, my sister and I each pocket a pair of shears for a jaunt in the old farm truck to the trees I’ve marked. Soon, the bed of the truck is rounded up with pungent piles of branches.
On our way back to the house we stop for rhododendron and winterberry. When we’ve added trimmings from the boxwoods in the yard, we’re ready for phase two: wreath making. After years of decking the halls, I’ve discovered the fastest way to build a bushy wreath is to make small bunches of greens and wire them to a round form. Our hands are sticky by the time we’ve tucked the last bunch of winterberry under a bow.
The leftovers are placed in vases to scent every room, and when we drive out to hang the first wreath on the gate out at the end of our driveway, it’s official. Christmas has arrived.