Four thousand years ago, Germanic tribes celebrated Yule to chase away evil spirits, to bring sweet scents and life into their homes, and to dull the edge of winter’s chill.
Though many other meanings have since become associated with the season, its essence remains unchanged. We gather during the dark months to express gratitude for what we have and keep each other company until the light returns. And as our ancestors did, we can still develop and observe traditions that do little harm to the earth that sustains us through all the seasons.
For our ancestors, bringing greens into the house was a way to extend the fertility of the earth during a barren time. You can make your own wreath from any greenery you have access to, as long as it doesn’t wilt. In fact, pruning your evergreens in early December can be the perfect way to give them a second life indoors. English ivy and holly, Japanese holly, cedar and yew are all good local choices. You can even use trimmings from your Christmas tree.
To make a wreath, wrap and tie short lengths of your cuttings to a metal coat hanger bent into a circle. Add a ribbon made from bright cloth you have on hand, and you’re ready to deck the halls. If you’re from the Christian faith, you can use your creation as the Advent wreath.
Making an evergreen spray is even easier. Just wire a bunch together, tie them with a ribbon, and add your own flourishes like pine cones and cutout felt decorations.
Traditionally, the greens weren’t thrown away but were disposed of ceremoniously or saved to start the next year’s Christmas fire. If you don’t have a fireplace, the best use of a wreath might be as mulch around your favorite garden plant.
To add a spicy seasonal scent to your house as people did in the Middle Ages, you can create a pomander ball. Use an apple, orange, lemon or lime for the base. Insert cloves in the fruit until it is evenly covered, then dust it with cinnamon and allspice. Since the fruit will shrink, let it dry for a week before attaching a ribbon for hanging.
You can also share the fragrance of the season by tucking a sprig of homegrown dried herbs in your Christmas cards.
Long, dark evenings create a great setting for family sharing. Just as Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in “Little Town on the Prairie,” arrange a night where every member of the family gets to share something special to them. A person could read aloud, sing, pantomime or suggest a family craft. You can also end an evening by turning out all the lights and burning candles for a bit. This can set the mood for “I remember” or make-believe stories.
Most importantly, enjoy the season for what it is. Marvel at the frost patterns on your window. Take the kids for an early morning walk. Identify animal tracks in the snow. Make a snow angel. Really look at the snowflakes that fall on mittens and coats.
Whether sun is shining or snow’s your lot;
May you find in the coming bright new year
You get what you like … and you like what you’ve got.
— Kelly Barth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.