photograph by Matt Hulsman

To paraphrase Robert Frost, “Something there is that loves a wreath on a door.”

Meaning: You can. You can hang a wreath year-round, dotted with red hearts in February and Easter eggs come spring. In July, it’s not uncommon to see wreaths of red, white, and blue ribbons, and in fall, wreaths of puffy cornhusks. But Christmas. Would it be too much to declare that Christmas won’t come, that Santa won’t find you, if there’s not a wreath on your door?

Because inside, you may have nary a bough, bow, or ball; you may have nary a gift wrapped; you may have nary a menu planned or ingredient bought, but outside, your wreath says, “Hello, friend, and glad tidings to you in this season.”

Like everything else at Christmas, wreaths can go all out, elaborately adorned with fruits and wrapped packages and bells and peacock feathers. But the loveliest aspect of a wreath, in truth, is that it’s a simple shape that requires so little. Curly willow branches or grapevines bent ’round a frame. White pine — already roped into a garland — from the farmers market, wound into a circle. Glued wine corks or raffia or pinecones you can buy by the bag. Nearly everything suffices as wreath material, and not just outdoors, either. A friend who was hosting a holiday party at her home was anxious about decorations, which is understandable these days, what with entire magazines and websites devoted to Christmas decorating. Make your cheese ball a cheese-ball wreath, with strawberry jelly in the middle! Cut the centers out of those sugar cookies! What’s prettier than a wreath filled with flickering votives, as a centerpiece?

• • •

For years, I made my own wreath. The mechanics are simple: Prepare to wreck the kitchen. Locate the straw form, pocked and pricked; the pins, which look like old-fashioned hairpins, dual-pronged and squared-off; and the bucket of greenery — boxwood, holly, magnolia, pine — cut from the yard. Gather a few sprigs, lay them sideways on the form, and push a pin in backward, against their stems. Repeat until beautifully full, and then love your handiwork too much to cover any part of it with a bow, at least for a day or two.

Now, though, full disclosure: Like most people, I buy a wreath, a fresh Fraser fir wreath, made by someone in our own mountains. For a few days, it gets a good soak in a wheelbarrow full of water, to give it a chance of lasting into the new year. Then to the attic to dust off and poof up the bow that dangles from a coat hanger for 11 months of the year.

But here’s the aspect that harks back to homemade that I can’t let go of: the additions. Outside, then, with clippers and bucket, for nandina and mahonia and pyracantha berries. Maybe a few tendrils of smilax.

Somebody stop me.

• • •

Flocked, fruited, gilded. Lit, bowed, beribboned. No rules, just wreaths; we love them all. For the message they send, for the cheer they impart. Why so much attention to this simple circle of green? Because, in a way that trees and gifts don’t, wreaths matter. They’re outward signs of the happiness inside our homes, in our gatherings with friends, in our warm kitchens and beating hearts.

By day, a wreath is a circular, seasonal smile. At night, along a dark December street, a lit wreath is a steady comfort, like a star in the east. A wreath on a door is neither large nor loud, but speaks volumes, with its plain shape, about eternity and simplicity and love. Yes, a wreath answers your silent question: Christmas has come at last, the season for peace on earth. And if not peace, then hope.

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.

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