Mom’s hands, skin already roughened by daily chores at our house or someone else’s, became etched with chlorophyll as they danced to the tune of the approach of Christmas. Her sturdy stooping figure plucked ‘feather pine’ from favored patches as she rhythmically fed the bags at her side. My two brothers and I sporadically stuffed the greenery from the woodland floor into our shared black garbage bag as we romped amongst naked trees and fallen leaves. Sometimes the early lake effect snows covered the precious raw material that mom transformed into the paper greenery that provided the extras, by way of the North Pole, for three small children. We were fortunate to know only full tummies, warm clothing and a consistent roof for shelter; innocently unaware of the importance of her winter craft in facilitating Santa’s arrival.
Mom was often missing from the evening ritual of John Wayne westerns or Walt Disney specials during the weeks before Christmas. Busy days left only evenings to craft her magic in the quiet of the basement, perched on her stool nestled between the wringer washer and shelves of glass jars filled with our winter nourishment. Sometimes I watched as she twisted wire coat hangers into perfect circles and proceeded to arrange and secure plump green bundles around them. Sight and touch were the only tools used to gauge fullness and consistency. The process was repeated, and sometimes redone, until the results pleased her. Lengths of black wire snipped from a red wooden spool secured the greenery, but also added to the stains on her hands as cracks and crevices deepened through the season. No amount of soap or lotion could disguise the signs of the work that lead to her creations. I never heard her complain of the extra work or the weathered skin. Instead, I felt her focus and energy, witnessed the effort required to produce a quality product, and observed her face settle into a satisfied smile after each sale.
A parade of wreaths, some decorated with a simple bright red plastic bow and others with shiny bells or balls from the local five and dime, marched on and off the wooden display rack to the beat of tires pulling in and out of our gravel driveway. Others were sent to market. An extra large one was displayed, with particular pride, on the door of the local bank in our small town of just over 600 residents. Mom’s hands were kept busy supplying the small steady demand, producing hundreds of these symbols of the season across the years.
The speed and agility of her practiced fingers and trained eye made the results appear with apparent ease. The truth quickly became evident as I tried to mimic her movements but ended with more abstract results. My attempts were hung with the others and often disappeared in the day’s sales while I was away at school, the profits placed in my hands. I tried to improve my technique on occasion but never achieved the quality of my model, lacking not only the expertise but the drive to hone the craft for anything more than the desire to buy candy at the local store.
During the weeks before Christmas dad scouted out a tree from the limited selection offered in the hardwood forest that surrounded the four sides of our home. When weather and time opened a window we followed in the footprints made by his big felt lined rubber boots. Wide eyed and breathless we watched his expertly angled ax release the trunk from its roots. Three pairs of small mittened hands helped drag it home. Trees varied in size and symmetry through the years. Trimmings included: decorations made by our growing hands, inexpensive store bought baubles, strings of fat rainbow lights, and the precious red glass ornaments that marked the first Christmas following mom and dad’s vows before the Justice of the Peace. Santa’s surprises varied, attuned to the year’s yield of lumber and availability of seasonal jobs that required his big truck or their hard working hands. I never remember feeling disappointed as my brothers and I scampered from our beds in our shared room after falling to sleep listening for the clop of hooves on the roof.
A deeply ingrained work ethic led me through an array of jobs between classes to help fund a higher education. Small amounts of extra greenery often found its way through the mail during those weeks preceding Christmas. I went on to establish a career, marry and add my own children to the family. Holiday gifts often overflowed under our perfectly shaped purchased tree. Despite the fullness of Santa’s sleigh, each Christmas I created handmade items as part of my own tradition. One year I worked into the night, after my day job, making a beaded trinket to sell at a craft fair. Potential customers drifted by but did more looking than buying. Hope was rapidly replaced with recognition that monetary return does not always equal the hours of unseen labor behind a handcrafted product. However, the sense of accomplishment and empowerment traveled across the generational space, past the time of innocence. Along with the realization that experiencing the pride and satisfaction gained through hard working hands and creative and loving hearts was the most valuable gift of all.