Venture to Colonial Williamsburg at Christmastime, and you'll see virtually every building in the historic area dressed in holiday attire. Decorations made of fresh fruit and woodland foliage grace many a door and window. As appropriate as evergreen wreaths and garlands seem for this centuries-old restored village, they're actually a relatively new tradition. While it's known that Virginia colonists displayed freshly cut holly, pine, and mistletoe inside their homes at Christmas, there's little evidence that they decorated the exteriors. For a consistent style of outdoor decor, researchers consulted period prints, artwork, and nursery catalogs.
Ideas at Every Turn
Stroll down the town's main thoroughfare, Duke of Gloucester Street, to see wreaths, garlands, and plaques of greenery adorning dozens of homes and shops. Evergreens provide a verdant base for the decorations. Dried materials, such as okra pods, red cockscomb, cinnamon sticks, peppers, and orange slices give texture and color. Wreaths are often customized for the location: You'll sometimes find cotton bolls among greenery at the milliner's shop.
Creativity abounds in the colorful wreaths of Williamsburg. Designers make them entirely of greenery, pinecones, or vines, and they also combine these materials in various ways. For example, grapevine may be placed on top of a boxwood wreath, and then decorations are added.
For emphasizing garden gates and porch posts, the talented floral designers of Williamsburg often create plaques of greenery and fruit. Some feature plywood as a base; fruit is impaled onto finishing nails that have been inserted into the wood, with magnolia leaves stapled in place around the fruit. When plaques contain cuttings of plant materials that should be kept moist, florist foam cages serve as the foundation. Greenery and other materials inserted into the foam cover the cage.
The design staff uses heavy twine as a base for making garlands or roping of pine, boxwood, cedar, and other evergreens. They use spool wire to attach handfuls of greenery sprigs to the twine, creating garlands. Window accents, made by inserting greenery and other materials into a block of florist foam or into a florist foam cage, usually hang from nails in windowsills. Small decorations often fill window corners as well.
Enjoy each of these ideas, or adapt your favorite elements of this classic Williamsburg spirit for your home.
At least three main sources laid the groundwork for the popular style of holiday decorating that's now classic in the historic village. In their book, Williamsburg Christmas, Libbey Hodges Oliver and Mary Miley Theobald mention these influences.
- Enameled terra-cotta compositions of fruit and foliage by 15th-century Italian sculptor Luca della Robbia inspired lush green wreaths accented by symmetrical placements of colorful fruit.
- Eighteenth-century English nurseryman Robert Furber's artistically rendered catalogs of flowers and fruit outlined materials that were available during the colonial period.
- A third source--ornamental wood carvings of vines, leaves, acorns, pods, and flowers by 17th-century English sculptor Grinling Gibbons--provided a flowing, naturalistic style that was adopted for arrangements.
Based on those sources, floral designers, aided by some of the merchants and residents of Colonial Williamsburg, began creating wreaths and swags of fruit and greenery for exterior use. The tradition continues today.
Get the Williamsburg Look
- Choose only fresh or dried natural materials. (Ribbon is suggestive of a later period.)
- Use plants such as holly, magnolia, mistletoe, pine, ivy, and fir that were common in the 18th century. (Poinsettia, nandina, and pyracantha, for example, weren't available until later.)
- Make use of symmetry in designing and placing wreaths and arrangements. On a wreath, this can be achieved by spacing fruit clusters at equal intervals. To echo the symmetry of lanterns flanking a doorway, mount plaques of greenery.
- Use natural garlands around columns and railings and to outline doors and windows.
SOURCES: Pages 66-69: For more information visit www.colonialwilliamsburg.org. Also see Williamsburg Christmas--The Story of Christmas Decoration in the Colonial Capital by Libbey Hodges Oliver and Mary Miley Theobald (1999, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) and Christmas Decorations from Williamsburg by Susan Hight Rountree (1992, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation).
This article is from the December 2004 issue of Southern Living.