THE big ship captain's house in which my boyhood ripened had so many windows it took two men a day to put up the storm sash for winter. And another to replace with screens come spring. Back windows, looking on the henyard, never got holiday cheer, but my mother would hang a huge wreath in any window that could be seen from the street, along with an even bigger one on the front door. These wreaths, each with its red bow, went up without fail on the arrival of Advent, and came down as surely on Epiphany. Mother made the wreaths and took full pleasure from the compliments about her Christmas cheer - 'twas I, myself, who had the chore, in my time, of going to the woods and fetching home the balsam fir tips that she tediously attached to the wire hoops. I hated this chore.
Today, our state of Maine is in the Christmas wreath business in a big way. We have a number of mail-order places that send all over the world, and when December arrives our highways are lined with pickup trucks offering homemade wreaths (and Christmas trees) to the passing trade. It's a quick, two-month specialty, and turns a good penny.
To those who lament the slaughter of our forests and promote artificial holiday greenery, it should be said that in Maine the balsam fir is not endangered. It grows like a woodland weed, and is considered such. It can be used as pulpwood, but as lumber it lacks. The tree likes to go hollow-hearted before it grows to log size, and while a fir 2 x 4 is all right, a fir board will likely split if nailed. The balsam fir, before the Christmas wreath days, was good for Christmas trees, and for banking around the house to keep frost out of the cellar. Maine can make a good many more wreaths before the firs face their farewell.
When I was sent for fir limbs for wreaths - an errand known as ``goin' greenin''' - I would tie a handsaw, pruning shears, and hatchet on my handsled, and walk through the snow off into the wilderness beyond. People were not so possessive then about their back acres, and much less about fir boughs, and as our house sat on but an acre and half of land we had only apple trees, one sugar maple, one horse chestnut, and one butternut tree. Not a fir on the place. So I cut on somebody else's.
I do remember one farmer who came upon me, and he encouraged me to take all I wanted and come back for more. He said if I wanted a nice Christmas tree, too, I'd find some good ones over by the pond. That's the way it was with firs.
Mother liked to say, ``Bring enough so I can make good full wreaths - I can't abide a skimpy wreath!'' So I had to pull my loaded sled home until the pile of boughs on the back piazza satisfied her. She bought ``florist wire,'' and would sit and wind it around and around the handfuls of fir tips. The place where the circle came together would be covered by the big red ribbon bow.
It was a tedious job, and I'm told the wreaths are made just the same way now, except that Mother made a dozen, and today a wreather in a wreath mill makes thousands. My lack of enthusiasm for greenin' made me careful in later times to spare my own children the same dislike for Christmas cheer. I was careful to keep greenin' on a higher plane of social joy. I did not make the greens the total object of the outing, nor did I let the big picnic serve to mitigate the basic drudgery. There was always my disclaimer: ``You don't HAVE to go!''
I think I succeeded, and with a pleasant lunch by a cheerful campfire we made greenin' attractive enough so one year they said to me, ``You don't HAVE to go!'' That was the year the lad was eight, big enough to drive the farm tractor, and enterprising enough so he had orders for 10 Christmas trees at the village.
Mother, in addition to skimpy wreaths, also couldn't abide one that was past its prime. There was always a first showing of brown by Epiphany, and that was the end of Christmas anyway. It was easy to take the wreaths down - each window had a cuphook in the sash, and the cuphook was always left in place for next Christmas. The spent wreaths were piled on a snowdrift and burned, leaving a snag of wire that had to be ``disposed of.''
But the Christmas tree was still useful - we trimmed the limbs away and had a good beanpole. And now that I think back, and remember all the compliments my mother got for her Christmas wreath, nobody thanked the young man who went greenin'.