The Volunteer Magic Behind Natural Christmas
By Anna Foster, Program Director
This November, while the rest of the peninsula is winding down, The Ridges is preparing for one of our biggest – and certainly the most festive – events of the year. Staff and volunteers spend countless hours getting ready for the event of the season. Two volunteers in particular have spent the last seven months gathering, drying, and organizing natural materials for the big day.
Jane Whitney and Julie Knox are the elves that bring you Natural Christmas. Throughout the year, you might find them leading owl programs, wildflower hikes at Logan Creek, Festival of Nature programs on clubmosses and conifers, or hikes at one of our many properties. With all the time they dedicate to volunteering during the busy season, you’d think that they would take a break come autumn… but that’s when the preparations for Natural Christmas ramp up. For 16 years, Jane and Julie have gone above and beyond to make Natural Christmas the magical event that it is, so much so that it has become a holiday tradition for many families all across the state.
If you’ve never been to Natural Christmas, you might be thinking, “What makes this event so special?” There’s something a little magical about the event that I can never quite put my finger on. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic, old-time feel of the cabins and bonfires that harken back to the days before Black Friday commercials and social media influencers. Perhaps it’s simply the time spent outside enjoying the beautifully decorated cabins and the Sanctuary with family and friends. What I can say for certain is Natural Christmas wouldn’t be the amazing community event that it has become without Jane, Julie, and our other amazing volunteers who dedicate their time and energy.
I wanted to ask Jane and Julie about their preparations for Natural Christmas. Of course, they’re so busy getting ready this month that finding time to sit down is impossible. Instead, I sent them questions via email, which they answered during their breaks from decorating. I assume they answered as they ate some cream puffs (a Christmas elf’s fuel of choice for decorating magical winter spaces). Here are their responses:
About how much time goes into the planning, gathering of materials, and decorating each year for Natural Christmas (for you two, specifically)?
Jane: I typically record about 150+ hours starting in late summer drying flowers.
Julie: I start in April, starting seeds for flowers, and put in a few hours nurturing them and another couple hours planting them out. June through early October I spend at least a couple hours each week weeding, picking, stripping leaves and hanging them to dry. Probably another 10 hours collecting and cleaning wild stuff like goldenrod, fern fertile fronds and winterberry. So, figure at least 50 hours before we even start the heavy-duty greens collecting and decorating at the beginning of November.
What is the most challenging aspect of decorating for Natural Christmas?
Jane: Besides getting everything done on time, the weather has to cooperate (not rain) so we can gather enough greenery for wreath making and decorating and get the outside decorated too. Or it could be collecting enough sumac seed heads (candles) since the Ridges doesn’t have any sumac anywhere. Or it could be coming up with a new theme every year. Or it could be not gaining weight from our delicious smorgasbord lunches.
Julie: I’ll second Jane on all of the above!
I know you have a network of places from which you collect materials for Natural Christmas in a sustainable manner. Can you explain that process?
Jane: Julie coined the term “tree-age”
Julie: (“triage”- get it? 😂)
Jane: …for how we go about cutting. For example, balsam firs frequently grow in densely packed clusters which means that many of them will fail to thrive, become spindly and sparsely needled. We’ve seen groves of 10-15 balsam firs that may be 25-30′ tall but only the top 10′ will have any needles. So, we cut down as many as half of the balsams in that cluster giving the remaining trees a greater chance to flourish. Or sometimes we make a judgement call…. If two different species of trees such as white pine and cedar are crowding each other out, we’ll cut the least healthy one or cut the species which is less common in that area. We also let people know that if they’re planning on cutting evergreens back that we’d be glad to help so we can use those greens instead of having them go to a brush pile. We also cut non-native Scots Pine which is great for decorating and removes it from the property.
What has been your favorite Natural Christmas theme so far?
Jane: Wildlife? Cabin Life? Music on a Starry Winter Night? Scandinavian Christmas?
Julie: It’s kind of like picking a favorite child – I love all of them. Toys was so much fun we did it twice. The second time in 2021 was extra special since Covid prevented us from decorating for an inside party in 2020.
How many cream puffs do you consume in the month before Natural Christmas?
Jane: Not enough!
Julie: My best estimate is about 150 between the two of us. Maybe a bit more since we sometimes pack some for fellow volunteers and if they don’t eat them, we need to do it so they don’t go to waste!
Is there anything else you’d like folks to know?
Jane: There are many people who work and volunteer to make Natural Christmas so special. We all want people to come and enjoy the event whether they participate in everything or simply sit in the cabin enjoying the music and a cookie or two and looking at the decorations. It’s a fun, low-key start to the winter holidays.
Julie: We love doing all the preparations but are REALLY thankful for the help and support from the Ridges staff and the many volunteers and especially for our “volun-tolds” – our husbands who don’t see much of us for the six weeks before the party and who are good natured about our calls for help to deliver things we forgot, to paint things, chainsaw a tree that is too big for us to hand saw, and, and, and….
Whether this year is your first year coming to Natural Christmas or it’s a holiday tradition, we hope you are able to experience the magic of it all… and if you see Jane, Julie, or any of our Natural Christmas volunteers, be sure to thank them for making this year’s event extraordinary!
We hope you can join us in celebrating the holiday season at The Ridges Natural Christmas on Saturday, December 9th from 3:00pm – 6:00pm. Stroll down the softly lit Hidden Brook Boardwalk and join us in our beautifully decorated Kaye Cabin while sipping on warm cider, eating delicious cookies and listening to holiday music. This program offers a wreath-making workshop, holiday crafts, and even marshmallows and chestnuts around the open fire. Guided hikes and tours of the Range Light are available throughout the event. Natural Christmas is a free event apart from wreath making, which is $30 and includes materials for 1 wreath per household. Additional wreaths and swags are $15 each. We hope to see you there!