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Szymanski: Where there’s a will, there’s a way — making wreathes, log reindeer helped at Christmastime

Seeing this log reindeer while driving reminded columnist Lois Szymanski of the days she created log reindeer as well as wreathes to make ends meet at Christmastime.
Seeing this log reindeer while driving reminded columnist Lois Szymanski of the days she created log reindeer as well as wreathes to make ends meet at Christmastime. (Lois Szymanski)

My husband and I were driving down a road near Littlestown, Pennsylvania when we saw a gigantic log reindeer. This guy was so big it must have taken two men to lift the log body up after the leg holes were drilled and the legs set. Looking at that log reindeer swept me back in time and got me thinking back … to many Christmases ago.

When my kids were born, thirty-some years ago, daycare wasn’t as well regulated as it is today. My husband and I discussed their future and decided that we wanted a parent at home with them. We didn’t want the hectic pace that comes with early morning daycare drop-offs, and, most of all, we didn’t want to take a chance on choosing a daycare provider who might have different values from the ones we held. Since my husband made more money than I did, it made sense that I would be the one to stay at home with the kids, and let’s face it, I wanted to be at home with them.

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Those one-paycheck days were not easy. Besides living on less money, I was racked with guilt because I was not helping provide. Then it was Christmastime. I wondered how we would ever find the extra cash.

When I was a kid, my grandmother made hand-wrapped wreaths for nearly every church in Reisterstown and dozens of homes. Her fingers cracked and bled as she worked, making over 100 wreathes a year. I remember how she’d sit on a wooden stool on her cold porch, pulling standing spruce and running crows-foot from burlap sacks. We’d hiked through the woods to gather the greens that she crafted into enough wreathes to pay for Christmas.

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Grandma had taught me how to make a wreath. Now I wondered if I could remember how. Maybe I could make the Christmas money we needed to provide for our kids. After I learned that Standing Spruce (also called Standing Pine) and Crowsfoot were on the endangered species, I turned to fresh pine, experimenting. Low and behold, the wreath I made turned out beautifully.

Dan and I found a tree farm on Cherrytown Road with pines that had grown taller than my house. The man who owned the aging tree farm told us he would only charge $15 for any of the aged trees we wanted to cut down. Every weekend after Thanksgiving found Dan at the farm, cutting trees, chopping and stacking the branches into the pickup to bring home. In turn, I made wreaths all week long when the kids were napping, or playing quietly, in between cooking meals, late into the night. Pulling the string tight cut my hands, so I took to wearing gloves, piling the wreaths on the frozen ground behind our house.

Dan put a huge board up in our front yard with hooks. I hung the wreaths out with a for sale sign and wondered, would they sell? We live on the road to Gettysburg, a route to many tree farms. That worked in my favor. The people came in droves. I branched out, selling wreaths and swags and candy cane and heart shaped pine decorations faster than I could make them. I took orders and worked through the night, and the Christmas money came.

“Where there is a will, there is a way,” my grandmother always said.

That very same year, right after Christmas, I saw something new in a craft magazine. Someone had made a reindeer from logs. Maybe I could sell those, I thought. I headed to the shop, asking Dan to show me how to use the chain saw, the band saw, and his drill press. An experienced woodworker, he helped me craft my first log reindeer.

Since no one in the area had seen one yet, I knew I could sell these, but making them was time consuming, so I started in the summer. One day, when I was working in the yard, a car pulled in. It was someone who helped arrange Christmas at the Carroll County Farm Museum. Would I be interested in making reindeer to sell on the Farm Museum porch on the two Saturdays and Sundays before Christmas? I nodded, and then learned the catch. “You have to have enough made to be there all four days without selling out.” I talked to Dan and we agreed.

Our old shed was soon filled with standing reindeer. To fit more in, Dan put hooks on the walls. I hung them by rope on the walls, and then from the ceiling, too. By November, I had well over 100 reindeer in the shed.

My brother, Chuck had a tree business back then, and he let me have as many logs as I wanted. He had a lot of wood from a particularly fast growing tree called the Paulownia. Chuck showed me how to strip the bark from this very light wood — hollow in the middle — and after it was stripped, we could torch it, rubbing it down with linseed oil for a beautiful, stained wood look. Not only that, Paulownia wood doesn’t split as it ages, which is why Paulownia is exported overseas to make violins and other musical instruments.

I was proud of these unique log reindeer — the first in the area — but there was no time to admire my work. It was already November and time to start make wreaths again!

Finally, Christmas at the Farm Museum came. Dan had wired half the deer with a red light bulb in the nose and I’d made a number of baby deer to stand beside the big ones. Dan insisted I could not charge more than $10 each, $8 for a baby, and $15 for the ones with a light in the nose. Even though the magazine had them selling for $25 each without a light, he wanted to be sure we offered everyone a fair deal.

As fast as they sold, I am pretty sure we priced them too low. We could only fit 20 to 25 deer in the back of the pickup truck. Dan would drop off a load of reindeer and by the time he went home and came back with another load I’d be sold out. This happened again and again. At the end of that first weekend we had zero reindeer in stock. Dan took two days off work and we drilled and hammered, glued and tied bows around necks of reindeer around the clock to be ready for the next weekend.

Our log reindeer memories are not only a reminder of days gone by, but proof that the old saying is true. Where there is a will, there will be a way. I learned, by being creative, I could always bring in the extra cash we needed. My cousin, Joanne, and I ended up starting a wood craft business called Country Cousin Crafts. We set up at craft shows and had a lot of fun.

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During that time, I also began to write from home for the Carroll County Times and Highlights for Children, U*S*Kids Magazine, Turtle, Humpty Dumpty and other kids’ magazines. Then it was on to writing children’s books. I not only discovered the reward in working toward a goal and achieving it, I discovered there is a story in everything we do.

Lois Szymanski writes from Westminster. Her Life & Times column, The Great Big World, appears every first, third and fifth Sunday. Email her at loisszymanski@hotmail.com.

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