Holiday wreaths weave family connections

It doesn't feel like Christmastime until extended family comes together to make wreaths.

"Make sure that the wreath is centered," I instructed my husband as we finished the last of our Christmas decorating. Looking around the house, I was proud of our day's work: stockings hung by the fireplace, colorful candles sat atop our mantel, and bright lights glittered on the tree. But nothing seemed to say "Christmas" to me like our wreath. I quickly grabbed a tape measure to assure its perfect placement on our front door.

The scent of freshly cut pine filled the air as I lovingly ran my hands through the green needles. I imagined my extended family – aunts, uncles, and cousins – hanging similar wreaths on their own front doors. Although hundreds of miles apart, we were connected – bound together by our annual preholiday wreathmaking tradition, the "gathering of the greens" on our family farm in western Pennsylvania.

More than 40 relatives assembled again this year, making their annual late-November pilgrimage to our homestead, a dairy farm first settled by my ancestors some 200 years ago. My uncle, a retired farmer who still lives in the old white farmhouse, looks forward to our descent upon his land.

We arrived bearing pies and casseroles, weary from our travels, but comforted by the warm embrace of family. After a feast of turkey and stuffing, we pulled on warm coats and headed outside.

"Hurry, Daddy! Everyone is getting ready to leave for the woods!" shouted our two young girls as they bolted through the muddy yard, not wanting to be left behind.

Piled onto an old wooden wagon, hitched to my uncle's green John Deere tractor, we made quite a sight – a load of chatty Scottish-Irish relatives, ranging in age from 3 to 70-something.

Stones flew up along the uneven gravel road as we bumped along the rural countryside for about a mile before turning into the woods. A canopy of pine trees welcomed us as we made our way across a muddy trail, ducking to avoid wayward branches.

"This is it," my uncle announced, turning off the engine. Jumping down from the wagon, we scrambled to collect nature's bounty – fragrant evergreens that beckoned to be cut and collected for Christmas wreaths. The youngest children, quickly disinterested in the task at hand, found a little stream that seemed just right for splashing and skipping rocks.

"They can go right in," my uncle reassured me. "When we were kids, we used to play in that creek all the time." Keeping one eye on the children, we searched for pine and spruce branches, cutting only the most wreath-worthy. I walked along and picked up a few sprigs, but mostly I looked around in wonder at the scene before me.

I was walking on the grounds of my ancestors. My great-aunts picnicked under the shade of these very trees. I imagined my mom and her sisters, splashing in the stream where my own girls now played. This place, with its babbling creek and towering trees, seemed almost sacred. I tried to take it all in – the giggles of the girls and the crisp, strangely invigorating air – but all too soon the setting sun signaled that it was time to hop aboard the wagon and head back home.

An old barn shed, our wreathmaking headquarters, soon became a hubbub of activity. An assembly line formed as we carefully wove evergreens through metal wreath forms. Like busy elves, we hummed along in our workshop, swapping family gossip as our Christmas masterpieces took shape.

The bow committee, headed by those with artistic flair, added ribbons, bells, and crimson berries to our festive creations. One by one, completed wreaths hung on the wall for inspection. Which one would we choose to take home this year? What wreath would we take to the cemetery in memory of my dad, a man who never missed a farm holiday?

Nightfall signaled a bittersweet end to a day steeped in tradition. With wreaths packed into minivans and SUVs, we said our goodbyes, and then headed our separate ways. Although we live far apart – from Ohio to New York to the mountains of West Virginia – we would carry a piece of family with us as we went home and prepared for Christmas.

Back home in Ohio, I have hung my wreath on the front door. So much more than a mere Christmas decoration, it is a constant reminder of family. Like the intertwining pine branches, we are connected – forever woven together by history and tradition.

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