Chris Higgins looked at the bundle of pine needles, cypress twigs and magnolia leaves in my hand and he tried to be kind.
“Well, you can always plug a hole if you find one,” he said with his gentle and patient-sounding English accent.
Under my mask, I was smiling. No, I was beaming, proudly.
I looked at the wreath, the first I’d ever made. I didn’t see any holes. It looked fine to me. This was the best Christmas wreath I’d ever made, also my first. I was legitimately surprised at how well this had turned out — and on my first try.
When was the last time that happened?
Chris looked the wreath over and then said, “You’d probably want the pine cones more to the outside, right?”
Oh, that. I nodded. Yes, those probably shouldn’t be buried under whatever that green stuff was.
Also, the more I looked at it, the more I noticed that my wreath wasn’t particularly ... well, round.
With words that were only full of encouragement, Chris began plugging some of the gaps around my wreath. He did three and then he tied a pine cone over one spot and offered another pine cone for me to take home — just in case I noticed that it maybe needed one.
There’s no way around it.
This holiday season will be different for a lot of us.
A few weeks ago, just as the COVID-19 numbers began rising, I had to make a decision. I don’t get to visit my family very often and had been looking forward to seeing everyone for months, but I worried about bringing the virus to them or somehow picking it up and bringing it back here.
I decided to stay in Charleston for the holidays, but I’m not giving up on celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Eve.
It will not be easy. Many of my annual go-to events have been canceled.
This year, there will be no local Christmas or winter parade, no “Joy to the World” with Bob Thompson, no singing children (or singing Kanawha Kordsmen) at the mall and I’m not sure what they’re doing with Santa.
There’s also no “Nutcracker” with Charleston Ballet and no ringing in the New Year in a crowded bar while a metal band lurches through some version of “Auld Lang Syne.”
On the other hand, the company Christmas party at the boss’s house has also, probably, been canceled. No tiptoeing around on the white carpet in mortal terror, plate full of barbecue- drenched sausages in one hand and a glass of Christmas punch in the other.
I have no idea what local churches are going to do. Usually at this time of the year, many are revving up for Christmas plays, cantatas and midnight services to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
I’m not a spectacular model of a good Christian, but I typically attend services over Christmas. This year, I also completed the entire guidebook from cover to cover and was looking forward to maybe dropping a reference to Deuteronomy or Leviticus in just the right crowd.
We will get through this anyway — and I will at least try to be joyous.
Already, I’ve picked up a couple of boxes of Christmas cards (send me your address, if you’d like one), ordered a copy of “A Christmas Carol” from Kanawha County Public library to read and I’m wondering who makes the best hot chocolate in the area.
Even if I’m not going anywhere, there will still be presents to share, wonderful things to eat, holiday movies — and crafts, which is how I came to Valley Gardens for a tutorial with Chris Higgins about making wreaths.
As much as I’d like to be, I’m not especially crafty. I’m a modest cook and a middling baker of pies and cakes, but not much when it comes to building gingerbread houses, knitting scarves or assembling attractive Christmas ornaments.
Valley Gardens often offers several holiday workshops on wreath making.
With the pandemic raging, the garden center and nursery is offering the classes on a limited basis with limited class size and plenty of space for students to dive into the odd world of tying twigs together to make something pretty.
I reached out about coming to one of these workshops and Chris offered to take a couple hours out of his day to give me a private tutorial — this would also keep me and my photographer from taking up two of the coveted spaces at a Valley Gardens wreath workshop.
When we arrived, Chris had huge piles of materials laid out for me to work with. As he showed me the basics of tying twigs and swatches of berries, which he referred to as “bouquets,” to a metal frame, he talked and gave me tips in case I wanted to try this at home on my own.
Chris recommended using 22-gauge powder wire to wrap the bouquets of green. Much thinner and the wire might snap if you pulled it too hard. Much thicker and the wire would be hard to manipulate.
He also said to go with a good set of garden pruners to clip and shape the twigs. You didn’t have to get the very best, but the cheap ones tended to not be able to do all you wanted and would wear out sooner.
Wreath forms, Chris explained, can be purchased all over the place, including craft shops and sometimes at a dollar store. You can even bend metal coat hangers to make your own frames, if you really want to go to the trouble.
Most people don’t.
The difference between a wreath that fits on your front door and one that will take up half your living room wall is not necessarily the frame, but how much stuff you put on it.
“You can make them quite flopsy wopsy,” Chris told me.
Use the cheap filler like pine, cypress or cedar for the back of the bouquets and put the magnolia buds, the stuff with berries and anything with pine cones on it toward the front. Those are your accents.
Chris told me to hold the wreath ring and position the bouquets with my left hand and use my right hand to wrap the wire around the pieces. This was because I’m right-handed. If I was left-handed, I might have to do something else, but we didn’t get into that.
Frankly, I should have asked, but I’m not left-handed.
The bouquets are added clockwise around the ring, building upon the previous piece until the ring is covered.
“Once you’re done, if you look back and see that you’ve missed a spot, you can press in twigs or cover,” he said.
Above all else, relax, don’t get too fussy about the wreath and have a good time.
Most wreaths last about a month to six weeks, Chris explained. Beyond that, they turn yellow. The berries will probably fall off and any fruit, like pomegranates or lemons, affixed to the wreath for accent will rot.
Some wreaths last longer, of course.
Rings can be reused. Just clip the wires and discard the old twigs.
I was very proud of my wreath, even though it was “flopsy wopsy,” and not entirely circular. It was also a little too big for my front door, but that was OK. I could put it up in my living room, across from the Christmas tree, which has been up and decorated since June.
I’ve been looking forward to Christmas for a while.