Walk the Woods, Deck the Halls

Gathering greens for a festive holiday

Gathering greens for a festive holiday

There’s a version of the holiday narrative that goes like this: Sitting by a glowing fire, blanket over your lap. The tree with all the trimmings sparkles with lights and ornaments, mementos from childhood, delicate glass globes reflecting light. Carols on the radio, drifts of boxes wrapped in cheerful paper spilling into the room. 

I understand the appeal of this scene; I’ve lived it myself. It is absurdly cozy and domestic. But there’s something a bit … close about it, something a little manufactured. In this version of deep midwinter, festivity is a wary guest that you lure in with glitter and consumer goods. 

There is another way, an older way. The oldest songs of the season remember it well: “The holly and the ivy, when they are both full-grown,” “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,” “Deck the halls with boughs of holly.” We hang mistletoe and wreaths and decorate with swags of greenery in honor of this old tradition, without really understanding why. Even your trip to the cut-tree place to pick out your perfect Frasier fir or spruce is a holdover from this ancient ritual—the celebration of the winter solstice. To the druids, evergreens were the symbols of life everlasting. Christianity assimilated those traditional swags of fresh greens of wintertime into the culture of the church, keeping the balsam and yew. 

Each winter as the holidays approach, I have a little solstice tradition I’ve created for myself. I’m no New Ager, but I am a little misanthropic, and I like the idea of finding the original holiday spirit in the woods and the iced-over marsh bottoms along the Chester River. With wellies on, a pickup truck nearby, and some shears in my hand, I set off in the cold to gather greens. The woods are wide open with the leaves thick on the ground, and it is easy to spot the massed white cedar, hollies full of berries, low loblollies, and rhododendron. Sweetbay magnolia is a prized find, and I mix in the seed heads and soft, dun-colored senesced grasses from my wintertime garden for balance. With luck, I’ll find mistletoe, or coax some from a friend who knows a good spot to find it. 

My solitary walk in the woods to hunt evergreens might seem antithetical to the togetherness encouraged this time of year. The true spirit of these holidays is family and friends, as we are reminded by every song, card, and advertisement directed our way starting just after Halloween. And I love my own friends and family, I really do. But there’s a point where that charming, warm glow of twinkle lights and all the happy conversation and questions about your life and eggnog and more questions about your life—and somebody breaks into Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” and shoot, that’s red wine on the carpet and now it’s time for Stealing Santa and Christmas poppers and paper crowns!!!!—just becomes a little overwhelming. Slipping into a frozen landscape, with your only companion your own breath suspended in the air, is a balm. 

I get what those druids were going for. I cut my cedar boughs under the huge cathedral of overstory and feel both small and also interconnected with the whole woods. Slowed down, I take time to notice the loveliness all around me: a beech tree with dried copper leaves clinging to the smooth grey limbs, geese calling overhead, the satisfying sound of my boots crunching the leaf litter. I feel grateful to be here. And that’s what I think all the other stuff, the pageantry and the paganism, is really about at its core—gratitude. The solstice and the holidays mark the conclusion of a year gone by. Our holiday rituals give us the chance to look back with thanks at these last twelve months, with their triumphs and challenges, joys and sorrows. We light candles to keep the dark away as we celebrate our survival with those who got us to the end, and fill our homes with evergreen trees and wreaths as a reminder that life is also evergreen.

I take my thoughts and my cuttings home. With grapevine frames and green wire, I weave the branches into long swags and garland arrangements that please me. I like to add colorful ribbons and seedpods to the mix, for color and to keep the winter birds close. Sometimes my sister will help—she also likes this tradition I made up—but alone, it’s peaceful. As I finish my job, there’s a glow inside me that’s building. It’s my own little ember of spirit to warm me through the next few weeks, an echo of the Chesapeake woods where all is calm, all is bright.