A Colonial Christmas

December 09, 1990|By Beth Smith

Volunteers who decorate the Hammond-Harwood House and the William Paca House, two 18th century architectural treasures located in Annapolis, are well versed in decking the halls of Colonial homes for the holidays.

But Boots Michalak, chairman of the decoration committee for the Paca House, is quick to note that while feasting was quite elaborate during the 12 days of Christmas, decoration was spare at best. Many decorative customs, essential today, were simply not around in the 1700s.

An 18th century home, or cabin or mansion, never hosted a decorated evergreen. Christmas trees, except in a few German settlements, did not appear on the scene until the 1840s, says Barbara Brand, administrator of the Hammond-Harwood House. Candles were used strictly for illumination, never for decoration. Dr. Joel Poinsett of Charleston, S.C., didn't introduce the poinsettia to U.S. shores until 1835. Ribbons were very expensive in the 1700s and used mainly to embellish clothing. Wide, red velvet bows were never attached to wreaths for front-door decoration. In fact, wreaths were never hung on doors or windows.

The holiday decorating scheme often referred to as a Colonial Williamsburg style, featuring arrangements of fruits, nuts and dried flowers, worked elaborately into magnolia leaves and other greens as wreaths, door fans, sprays and centerpieces, was not reflected in 18th century homes.

"What we have in Colonial Williamsburg," says Williamsburg research associate Emma Powers, "are modern-day ideas of how to celebrate Christmas based on ideas that originated in the 19th century. The present-day elaborate holiday decorations for which Colonial Williamsburg is noted are 20th century adaptations from an earlier period," she adds.

Because there are no documented references to 18th century American holiday decoration, researchers look to graphics from 18th century England for authentic ideas from the period.

"What we see," says Ms. Powers, "are greens, sometimes arranged in vases or along mantels, holly sprigs attached to windows and large clumps of mistletoe hanging from ceilings in the center of the rooms. The key word for decorating in the true Colonial style is simplicity," she adds.

But sometimes authenticity has to have a little Christmas sparkle. Especially when hundreds of holiday visitors are expecting to see elaborate Christmas decorations gracing the rooms of the 1774 Hammond-Harwood House and the 1765 William Paca House. A few sprigs of holly, garlands of pine and clumps of mistletoe, no matter how historically correct, just don't fill the bill.

"We try to keep to the spirit of Colonial decoration," says Ms. Michalak, "but we compromise."

For the volunteers of both houses, that means creating designs in a Williamsburg style and always using materials, fabrics and plants that were available in the 18th century, but adding imagination and flair.

At the Hammond-Harwood House, Barbara Brand sets up guidelines for the 15 area garden clubs whose members draw lots to determine which room they will decorate. Included is a list of acceptable plant material that was available in 18th century Maryland. English and American holly, English boxwood, magnolia, laurel, juniper, pine, hemlock, ivy, heather, lavender, mistletoe, Christmas fern, all types of nuts -- chestnuts, walnuts, pecans -- and berries -- cranberries, hawthorn, sumac and red pyracantha -- are permitted. Not on the list are baby's breath, large redwood pine cones, Burford and Japanese holly, orange pyracantha and poinsettias.

Ms. Michalak and her volunteers are decorating the fireplace mantel in the brilliant blue parlor of the Paca house with a boxwood wreath and evergreen garlands accented with dried flowers, including yellow and white yarrow, red amaranth, Queen Anne's lace, silvery artemisia and blue larkspur. But she adds that dried flowers were never arranged as floral displays in 18th century homes.

"Dried flower arrangements are Williamsburg adaptations," she adds. "If there were any dried flowers in Colonial homes, they would most probably have been used in potpourri."

Fruits were available, often stored in barrels of straw, or grown by the wealthy landowners in their private orangeries. Ms. Brand cites historical documentation for the "fruit tree," the cone- or pyramid-shaped arrangement of fruit, usually apples, that often graces the center of a Colonial table in photographs. But she says the fruit was much smaller in size than what is available today.

Plus, adds Ms. Michalak, "the fruit was not nailed or secured to the cone as we do today. The apples were simply balanced in a pyramid shape, with a bit of boxwood tucked in."

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