The butcher. That’s what I have felt like these last few weeks. Butchering trees for their greenery to make holiday decorations. I would argue, being a fir or pine tree butcher has its perks. I smell like Christmas when I’m done. I’m able to take my kids (and a tag-along cat) for walks as we find the ideal tree for hacking to pieces. So, what inspired such a tradition to cut up evergreens for decorations during the holidays?
In this instance, I am reminded of stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan who points out our behavior around the holidays is like that of a drunk person. “Honey, why is there a pine tree in our living room?” And why are the socks hung over the fireplace? Who put all the lights out in the yard? All this backward behavior does beg the question, why in the world do we cut trees down, chop them up and decorate the inside and outside of homes with tree remains?
History of Using Holiday Greenery
The idea of decorating our homes with greenery has been around for some time. The early Romans used boughs of holly as they believed it had protective powers. The prickly leaves were hung above doorways to ward off or ensnare evil spirits. Holly was also considered a good omen and shelter to elves and fairies. This belief may have its origin in the Germanic tribes outside of the Roman Empire that also favored holly.
It wasn’t until the Victorian era in America that we start seeing the use of evergreens such as pine and fir become popular decorations. These greens along with others were made into lavish arrangements. Historically, Americans in the 19th Century would build evergreen wreaths, stars, and crosses to decorate graves at Christmas. After the holiday, the living family members would take the greenery to adorn their own house, just as we now do today to celebrate the holidays.
The Greenery I Typically Use
What is my greenery of choice to harvest? Well if you’re in Central Illinois, the odds are good you’ll come across some Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). I don’t feel guilty about harvesting this native plant for greenery. Not because it is a bad plant, but sometimes it can be a bit too prolific in natural areas. I must caution you to always have permission to harvest evergreen branches when not on your property.
Learn More About Using Holiday Greenery To Make Your Home More Festive
The Good Growing team is nearing the end of our holiday winter webinar series. We’ve discussed Christmas trees, wreaths, holiday plants, and holiday spices. We’ve even made how-to videos to create your very own holiday planter, wreath, kissing ball, evergreen gnome, and much more! These webinars and how-to videos will be posted on the Illinois Extension Horticulture YouTube channel at go.illinois.edu/YouTubeHort. And subscribe to the Good Growing blog where this article and more can help to personalize your holidays with your own twist. Of course, don’t forget the mistletoe. If I may borrow another elegant line from Jim Gaffigan “…hang some leaves from the ceiling and try to get some action.”
Good Growing Tip of the week: Once cut, broadleaf evergreens like boxwood and holly lose their cold hardiness and will turn black if left out in the freezing Illinois weather. Use these cut greens for indoor arrangements.
Check out these easy and fun activities to decorate your home with holiday greenery
Making a Kissing Ball
Supplies -foam ball, foliage, wire, ribbon, decorations
Step 1 Insert both ends of the wire hanger into the foam ball. Push it all the way through the foam ball, until you just have a small loop on the side you started. Twist or push in the ends of the wire on the opposite side of the foam ball
Step 2 Cut your foliage and trim it to be somewhat uniform in length. Cut at an angle to make it easier to push into the foam ball.
Step 3 Stick the cut ends of the foliage into the foam ball. Space the foliage cuttings so you can’t see the foam ball underneath. Repeat this around the entire ball.
Step 4 You can also add decorations such as pine cones, decorative berries, and more
Step 5 Tie a ribbon to the small loop of wire to hang your kissing ball.
Making a Wreath
Supplies - frame, wire, foliage, pruner
Step 1 Assemble your first bundle of foliage. Wrap the base of the bundle with floral wire. Then secure the bundle to the frame using the wire. Do not cut the wire.
Step 2 Continue to assemble bundles of foliage. Place them on the wreath frame oriented in the same direction as the previous but angled enough to cover up the frame. Secure each bundle to the frame using the same floral wire from the first bundle. The wire should be one continuous piece all the way until the end.
Step 3 Your final bundle of foliage will be back where you started. Tuck the cut end under the first bundle. Sometimes the last bundle needs to be a bit bigger to hide the wreath frame in this location. Secure with the floral wire.
Step 4 Twist the floral wire several times around the wreath frame. You could even create a loop of wire for hanging the wreath. Now you can cut the wire.
Step 5 Attach decorative elements such as pinecones, ribbons, etc.
Step 6 Hang the wreath and enjoy!
Make a Holiday Planter
Supplies – Frost-resistant flowerpot, potting soil or wet floral foam, evergreen foliage (pines, spruce, cedar, and firs create nice contrasting textures), colorful foliage (such as red twig dogwood or holly), other decorative items like bows and artificial berries.
Step 1 Trim your foliage. When it comes to arranging our materials, we will want to cut ends off the foliage that is not freshly cut as we want the cuttings to be able to take up water to last longer.
Step 2 Place potting mix or wet floral foam into the container.
Step 3 Begin inserting the cut foliage into the soil or foam. You can use weaker branched evergreens such as cedar as spiller over the sides of your container, and stronger branches such as pine or spruce for upright filler.
Step 4 Add some decorative features. Once you have completed your arrangement of evergreens, you can add in your bow, holly, red twig dogwood, etc.
Step 5 Don’t forget to water. To keep the arrangement looking fresh, it is important to water it until it freezes. Optional - You can also make a one-time application of Wilt Stop to reduce water loss; this should be done just after you’ve finished your arrangement. Now that you have completed it, you can enjoy your planter for the winter months.
Make an evergreen gnome
Supplies – Tin snips or wire cutter or heavy-duty scissors, wire or string, hand pruners, a potato, sheet of red felt, white felt or cotton balls, a tomato cage, foliage
Step 1 Trim your foliage to be about the same height and maybe a bit taller than the tomato cage.
Step 2 Flip the tomato cage upside down so the wide end is on the bottom. On the top bend the three wire spokes that normally go into the ground when using these in the garden. Tie those together. We’re going to be sticking the cut ends of our foliage in this.
Step 3 Fasten foliage to the vertical supports of the cage. Tie the cut ends to the bent wire spokes.
Step 4 Fill in with more foliage. You should be able to jam the cut ends into the “teepee” bent top of the tomato cage. Use string to fasten foliage that sticks out on the sides too much.
Step 5 Put a large Santa hat on top of the cage which should cover up all the cut branch ends.
Step 6 Place the potato right under the hat so half is sticking out. This is the “nose”.
Step 7 Place red mittens on the sides. And sit your new evergreen gnome outside to guard your front door.