I crushed some of the red berries by mistake as I climbed into the seat of Clark Mackenzie’s white panel truck. It wasn’t exactly my fault. I was overcome by the scent. Pine and sap mixed with a cup of very stale black coffee. The truck belched a nuanced aroma of New England holiday, dozens of handmade pine Christmas wreaths, layered on top of fresh-cut trees. Welcome to the traveling office of the Sheffield Wreath Co. of Sheffield, Vt., where Mackenzie has been making handmade wreath for 27 years. By deft foot action, I didn’t spill the black coffee on a bag of red ribbons.
I’d agreed to spend the afternoon with Mackenzie, riding shotgun as he delivered and installed wreaths and trees. I’d met him when he was delivering a wreath to Rialto in Cambridge, Mass., the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. On a whim, I bought one too and pocketed his business card.
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We stood in the lobby of the Charles Hotel as Mackenzie manically but methodically wired up my wreath, artfully burying crimson berries among the green branches. In the three minutes, I learned Mackenzie had been up since 5 a.m., driving around greater Boston, installing his handmade Christmas wreaths all over town, on front doors and hotel entrances, on real estate offices and private homes. I learned that he has been doing it for 27 years (“All but one year!”), collecting branches near his home in Sheffield; and that the Sheffield Wreath Co. was one of the only “male” wreath companies in New England. (“It’s an occupation that women dominate in the Northern Kingdom because it is tedious and repetitive.”) I also learned that Mackenzie went to the Culinary Institute of America and was a classmate of Anthony Bourdain and washed pots and pans for the infamously nasty French chef-instructor described in “Kitchen Confidential.” One of the times he got kicked out of the CIA was for wearing his black chef’s pants to class when they were still coated with flour. Mackenzie calls himself a “dropout,” not just from cooking. “But pretty much everything except for the wreaths.”
Making wreaths can be painstaking and painful
The wreaths are a pretty big deal. Especially if you are making 800, and every one of them by hand, as Mackenzie does. When Mackenzie and his brothers decided to start a wreath company, they had to wheedle the know-how from a local Vermont lady. It’s tedious work for sure, and even a little painful. “I don’t use gloves, so I get a lot of ouches,” Mackenzie says. It’s also very time-compressed, the essence of seasonal employment. The branches are collected in the fall, before the snow season, and have to be woven into wreaths before they begin to dry out. In the Northern Kingdom of Vermont, that means the window is six weeks max to collect the brush before the snow buries it all.
Mackenzie doesn’t have a tree farm, so he collects the pine boughs wherever he can find them. “By the highway, in the forest, in the back yard. I get some from friends with tree farms who are trimming natural pine-trees into the classic Christmas tree shape.” During “wreath season,” i.e. November, Mackenzie’s day starts at 4 a.m. He sits down in his swivel chair; sets up his plywood frame; assembles his needle nose pliers, wire, and stapler; and puts on his ear buds. “Books on tape are a wreath-maker’s best friend,” he says. Right now each wreath takes about 20 minutes, a little slower than a few years ago — but much faster than at the beginning. “I try to keep a positive attitude. It took me forever to make each one until I got the hang of it.” Mackenzie used to make his wreaths with white bows and red bows until one customer married a Buddhist who was repelled by the white ribbon, a symbol of death in Asian culture. “Other than that, everyone pretty much likes the red. And everyone likes wreaths. They are Christian and pre-Christian, pagan even. A wreath is about holiday, not religion.”
He’s skeptical of people who say they buy their trees from the Boy Scouts, “a paramilitary organization” in his opinion, and gets riled when people confuse wreaths and trees from Vermont with wreaths and trees from Maine. “Maine trees are heresy. It’s like the Red Sox and the Yankees.”
Mackenzie fills his truck the day after Thanksgiving and heads into the city, where he bunks in with a friend until just before Christmas. Over the years, Mackenzie has built a pretty stable core group of customers for his wreaths in the Boston area. He doesn’t have a website, or even an email account. His card has only a name and a cellphone number. He simply arrives at homes and offices, kitchen and lobbies with his wreaths and trees. “People know to expect me,” he says. Sometimes customers change jobs, get divorced, even die from one year to the next, but by the holiday Mackenzie is sold out, and everyone knows the Sheffield Wreath Co. will be back next year.
Top photo: Clark Mackenzie hangs one of the hundreds of wreaths he makes and delivers each year. Credit: Louisa Kasdon
Sheffield Wreath Co. (“So Fresh You Can Smell the Difference”) can be reached at P.O. Box 309, Sheffield, VT. Phone: 802-626-5412 Cell: 857-366-0548