When I leave work at night, and it’s dark and cold and the roads are icy, I think of Christmas.
The headlights twinkle like stars against the frozen ground, and when I stop at a light and look in my rear view mirror, I see the crystallized exhaust glowing in the headlights of the people behind me. It’s beautiful. It’s almost Christmas.
When I have to shout to be heard over the blaring Christmas music in a coffee shop, and I get this strange urge to strangle something fuzzy, and I want to throw things and make a scene, I also feel myself filling with the holiday spirit. Christmas!
I love tinsel embedded in my clothing, and the sparkly poops I get to pull out of the cat box because the cats just WON’T LEAVE IT ALONE. Even the cat shit is festive in December.
But most of all, it is walking into the local grocery store, past the rows of fresh cut (dead) trees. Their sap (tree blood) is the epitome of Christmas cheer and love to me. The smell of pine is different here than it is in the mountains. Here, it mingles with fried chicken and bakery treats, and wet asphalt, and exhaust, and those over-scented cinnamon pine cones. Even the incessant bell ringing changes the smell, I swear. It gives it a metallic flavor.
I find myself smiling.
When I was in high school, I got a job making Christmas wreaths.
It was a temporary job in a warehouse, but I thought it would be perfect because I could set my own hours. We weren’t paid by the hour, but by the clip.
OK, picture this… it is a wreath base. It is made out of painted green metal wires. Every four inches or so, is a crossbeam of more metal running perpendicular. They are four, maybe five inches long and slightly curved.
To make a wreath, you strip branches off of a tree that has been trucked down from the mountains. It is covered in snow and sap, and everything you wear here is going to have sap stains before the month is out, but you have to wear your good coat because the warehouse is unheated and icy cold. The floor is cement, and after about an hour, your feet will start to get numb even though you wore your thickest boots.
You strip out a handful of branches between eight and ten inches long, and you hold them in a little bundle. You will have scratches on your hands and arms, even through your coat, and you will develop a fear of getting your eyeball poked out after getting scratches and jabs in your face on a regular basis. This fear will haunt you for the rest of your life, and require you to wear safety glasses when hiking in anything other than perfect brightness.
Next, you place your little pile of pine boughs inside the crosspiece, or “clip” as they call it in the industry, and hammer it closed.
Congratulations! You have just earned twelve cents (minus the cost of the wreath base of course)! Only fifteen more and you will have a wreath, and you can have it added to your pay sheet (there is no payment for partial wreaths)!
I worked at the Christmas wreath place every weekend, and one or two week days a week after school. We were paid weekly, and I faithfully deposited my checks into my savings account. Only one of those checks was greater than $50.
When I calculated it out, I made about three dollars and fifty cents an hour. This was a bit less than minimum wage (which was $4.25 at the time), but I found it impossible to work an hour in a row without stopping for a few minutes to get my hands thawed. In the evenings, I would run my hands under warm water when I got home to loosen the muscles. My jeans would be wet and stiff, and the skin on my thighs numb and pale. Over the course of the evening after work, my legs would slowly thaw, first tingling like they had fallen asleep and then turning hot and red and angry. After a while, they were chapped all the time.
I was one of the only teenagers working there. Almost everyone else was in their thirties or older. I felt sad for the ones that were obviously trying to make a temporary living making wreaths. There were a couple of family groups there, too that would make dozens of wreaths every hour with their team work, earning extra cash for the holidays, I guess. I would be annoyed with them because they would strip the trees so fast I would get stuck waiting around for a new one to be brought over. Time is money, people!
After a while, the sap felt almost embedded in my skin, and I would smell it in my sweat during PE class.
I worked there for about a month, and made a total of $192. I spent maybe a third of that on gloves, boots, and gas to get there.
I learned that rubbing alcohol will take sap off your skin in a pinch, and that you can be far colder than you think before you are in danger of freezing to death, and that fat gets cold way faster than muscle on your body.
I also learned that no matter what you think minimum wage is, your boss will find ways to pay you less, but sometimes there is nothing you can do about it.
Contrary to what you might think, this is not a bad memory. I made holiday cheer that year.
I will admit, however, that I have a hard time paying over twenty dollars for a fresh wreath when I know how little it cost to make.
Seeing those wreaths in front of the store reminds me every year that it’s time. Get out the booze and hot cocoa, break out the cheesy movies, and unpack the tree. It’s Christmas time!