A row of decorated wreaths rests along the front pew of the West Tisbury Congregational Church. There are wreaths with red bows and holly leaves, pine cones and delicate juniper berries. A few feature small, felt cardinals peeking out from amongst the greens. There is also a homemade boxwood wreath with no trappings other than nature’s varied shadings of light and dark green. It glistens next to a faded blue Pilgrim hymnal. And then there are three wreaths at the end of the pew adorned with orange slices.

Mark Alan Lovewell

“Hey Marian,” Ann Nelson calls out upon discovering the orange slices. “You recycling your garbage this year?”

“Oh no,” Marian [Irving] answers. “I roasted the orange slices in my oven. The smell gets even better with time.”

And so it begins, another year with the wreath ladies of the West Tisbury Congregational Church. The wreaths are being created for the church holiday faire taking place Saturday, Dec. 4. The doors of the church open at 9:30 a.m. but the line will start forming long before. Folks in the know pre-order their wreaths and pick them up during the week.

The faire is a major fundraiser for the church with proceeds going to the upkeep of the historic building in the center of West Tisbury. Rumor has it this is the oldest holiday faire on the Island. The exact year it began is difficult to pin down. But Ruth Schaffner has been making wreaths for the faire for 21 years.

“And it has been going on long before that,” she says. “Before I was born, I think.” Ruth is 86.

Ruth Schaffner perfects a boxwood centerpiece. — Mark Alan Lovewell

This year Ruth holds the title of co-chairman of the event. But she doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with the power that goes with her title. “I don’t know about the cochairman business,” she says. “I just like to help out.”

Ruth is in charge of the homemade boxwood wreaths. In fact, she is a team of one at her table. She would like to pass on her knowledge but at the moment there are no takers.

Ruth starts work at 8:30 in the morning and doesn’t punch the clock until 4:30 in the afternoon. She does this, along with the other wreath ladies, each day, from Monday to Thursday, during the week-long binge of activity preceding the faire. But the atmosphere is not that of a disgruntled sweat shop. It is more like a marathon quilting bee.

There have been a few wreath men over the years. Ray Houle spent some time among the greens. So did R.J. Humphreys who joined the team when he was in his 90s. But for the most part it is the church ladies who return year after year to forage in the fields for greens (the exact location of the boxwood crop a closely guarded secret), practice their craft and, perhaps most importantly, take delight in one another’s company.

By the week’s end more than 40 volunteers will have helped in the process. Newcomers usually arrive as generalists, taking a sort of point-me-in-the-most-needed-direction philosophy. As the years pass they become specialists.

“I’m the kissing ball lady,” Rosalie Powell says, a five-year veteran of the group.

For those unaware of the kissing ball movement, it stems from a desire to keep the kissing quotient of the holidays at a high pitch while at the same time removing the danger of mistletoe.

Martha Schmidt chooses a decoration. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“It’s poisonous,” says Rosalie.

“Plus it’s an invasive species,” adds Ann.

Rosalie’s kissing balls are made of boxwood greens. The process involves poking bits of boxwood into a large green ball of styrofoam that has been soaked in water to extend the kissing ball’s life.

At the moment, Rosalie’s kissing ball resembles a half naked porcupine. But an example of the finished product hovers majestically in the doorway to the church kitchen. Slowly it turns in the air, its green tendrils seeking out puckered lips from near and far.

At another table Marian, of the orange slices, and Ann confer on a wreath Ann is decorating.

“What do you think?” Ann asks, holding up what looks, to the untrained eye, to be a perfectly decorated wreath.

And the pews shall be filled with greenery. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Marian considers the wreath. “It’s beautiful,” she says. “But what about adding another few berries? Maybe put them up by the bow.”

Ann nods. “I’m game for anything,” she says and places more berries to the side of the bow. The wreath suddenly jumps to life. The reds complementing each other and the greens seemingly taking on a deeper hue.

The ladies give a slight nod as if to say, yup, that’s a keeper. Then Ann gives the wreath a final spritzing and walks it into the sanctuary where the other completed wreaths hang.

Marian returns her attention to a pre-ordered wreath. “It’s important to know who you’re working for,” she says and calls out the name of the customer.

“Oh, she likes unusual, muted decorations,” says Martha Moore. “You know, a good earth kind of lady.”

Marian nods and gets to work. Beside her on the table are a stack of holiday catalogues. Each year the ladies save up their catalogues to look for inspiration. They pride themselves on being classicists and cutting edge.

Brenda Lehman adds a finishing touch. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“We have elves at home working too,” Ann says.

Marjorie Peirce is in charge of jams and chutneys. They have already pre-sold $1,500 worth of jams. And the church school children are busy creating gift baskets of fair trade chocolate, coffee and Church World Service donation cards for their project in Cambodia. The cards include tiny bells made from land mines and shell casings still being discovered on the farms and rice paddies of that country.

There will be food served at the faire too. Chicken noodle soup, vegetarian chili, quiche, cornbread, cider and coffee, all for only six dollars.

But it is the greenery that is still at the heart of the faire.

Back at the boxwood table, Ruth sorts through branches selecting only the best greens. Then with an artisan’s touch she twists the branches, layering one over another over another until, perhaps two hours later, a wreath blooms into being. It’s painstaking, hard work Ruth readily admits.

Marjorie Ann
JAMMING: Marjorie Peirce with Ann Nelson. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“My hands do get tired,” she says.

But this work is, in many ways, tied to the secret of how at 86 she radiates more energy and presence than those a quarter her age.

When pressed to put into words her secret for a long and energetic life, she says, “Doing unto others and not thinking about myself. That and going to Curves every day.”

Upon completion of the wreath, Ruth shrugs. “It’s homemade. Not perfect. But it’s not supposed to be. None of us are.”

Just then another volunteer enters the church ready to help out. The wreath ladies all shout hello.

The woman is a newbie. This is apparent by the way she stands just inside the doorway to take in the scene; the sight and smell of a room overflowing with greens. She glances at the various tables where the ladies are all working on their specialties, unsure perhaps where her place is among the veterans.

Marian Irving smiles at the woman. “What would you like to do?” she asks. “What would make you happy?”

The West Tisbury Congregational Church Holiday Faire takes place Saturday, Dec. 4 from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Lunch is available from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, call 508-696-8034.