The great Southern writer and raconteur died earlier this year, but her love for the holidays, like her life, was over-the-top.

By Sid Evans
November 16, 2020
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Credit: Iain Bagwell

Julia Reed grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, a place she longed to return to after a successful journalism career that took her to Washington, D.C.; New York; New Orleans; and all over the globe. Her parents, Judy and Clarke Reed, still live there, but she had always fantasized about having her own home in The Delta, somewhere that she could hide out, entertain, and reconnect with her Mississippi roots. She worked with Birmingham architect James F. Carter to build what she called her “Delta Folly,” a small cottage with 14-foot ceilings and tall windows that make it feel much bigger—“like a light-filled cathedral,” she said. When the paint was barely dry in late 2018, one of the first things she did was decorate her place for Christmas and have friends over for cocktails.

Credit: Paul Costello; Styling: Howard Christian

About a year later, Julia invited Southern Living to photograph her home in all its festive glory. She was obsessed with the holidays and very particular about every little detail. “Christmas is my mother’s favorite thing, so our house always looked like a cross between Santa’s village and Williamsburg, Virginia—just slightly more tasteful,” she joked during an interview this past summer. But Julia still looked to her mother for inspiration, from the Nativity sets to the tree to the flower arrangements. She wanted the holidays to feel fun, elegant, and a little bit glamorous, just like the ones they’d had when she was growing up.

Julia passed away on August 28, 2020, after a battle with cancer, but she would have wanted to share these photographs of her place all decked out for the season that made her the happiest. She was a Contributing Editor at Southern Living for several years and was constantly coming up with creative ways to decorate and celebrate. For Julia, everything was an occasion, whether it was the Kentucky Derby, the Fourth of July, or an excuse to picnic on a sandbar in the Mississippi River, but there was something about Christmas in The Delta that had a special kind of magic.

“I miss the raucous but beautiful parties in people’s houses,” she said. “You always had the same kind of menu—turkey and country ham and some version of beef tenderloin. There was always some hot seafood dip and spinach madeleine. Everything was served in chafing dishes or on silver platters. It was very festive.”

There were a few key elements to a Julia Reed holiday, starting with the tree. “We always had a huge Christmas tree, and my mother was fanatical about lights,” she said. “It would take her like three days to get them on before we could ever touch an ornament.” Julia couldn’t fit a giant tree into her living room, so she put the biggest one she could find in the front yard—a dramatic welcome to her constant stream of guests.

Paperwhites and amaryllis were also musts. “Paperwhites just are Christmas to me,” she said. “Some people hate the smell, but I love it. I put them on every surface where they don’t look ridiculous.” Then there were accents like greenery on the mantel, white berries in antique clay pots, and wreaths hung in the windows with pretty satin bows that matched the furniture. For gatherings, she would have a big silver punch bowl full of frozen whisky sours on the bar, which got her parties off to a good start every time.

Even when she had a million other projects going on (which was always the case), Julia would spend countless hours getting her house ready for the holidays—not just for her guests but for herself. Decorating was a labor of love, and it would make her extremely happy, especially when friends and family started rolling in. Describing her first celebratory get-together in this home, she said, “It was very much like my mother’s parties, with some of the same people. There was lots of food, lots of booze, and lots of people I love.” For Julia, that was the perfect recipe.

Credit: Paul Costello; Styling: Howard Christian

The Nativity Scene

Gracing this table is one of several Nativity sets she grew up with. “That painting was bought by my grandmother. He’s a cricket player, which took us a long time to figure out,” Julia said. The oranges in giant clamshells were a nod to her other home in New Orleans, where citrus is in season in December. “They’re also good for cocktails,” she said.

Credit: Paul Costello; Styling: Howard Christian

The Living Room

“Mama always used colors that matched our decor inside, not necessarily Christmassy red and green,” Julia said. “I found this blue satin ribbon that went with the print on the sofa and the velvet ottoman, so I just thought it was pretty in there.” She used wreaths that were full on the front and back, so they looked good whether you were inside or out. The white berries were foraged from a pasture across the road, and that’s Julia’s beloved beagle, Henry, in the red bow.

Credit: Paul Costello; Styling: Howard Christian

The Dining Room Table

“I’m not a big Christmas-china person, so I just use stuff that’s the color of the house,” Julia said. “I like mixing jewel tones that mirror the fabrics in the living room. The Herend china has the same pink that’s in the chintz on the sofa.” She also loved winter flowers like cyclamen (on the table) and amaryllis (on the bar) that bloomed all season.