Decking halls in Williamsburg Home: The historic town makes sure its decorations keep to 18th-century materials, so put away that ribbon and go buy some okra.

November 26, 1995|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Each Christmas, Colonial Williamsburg's floral services staff creates what may be the most famous traditional holiday decorations in America. For the past 60 years, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the historic area to take part in Williamsburg's celebration of Christmas. Countless magazine articles and books have been written about the decorations, made from the natural materials -- such as greens, berries, fruit, cones and pods -- that would have been available in 18th-century Virginia.

More than 25 elaborate greens and fruit wreaths grace the historic area's doors, along with more than 200 plain pine wreaths and 900 yards of white pine roping. The numerous exhibit rooms display elegant table and mantel decorations. Interest in the holiday decorations is so intense that the staff conducts how-to workshops for visitors.

After attending one of these workshops, a Catonsville man decided to spend his vacation in Williamsburg this year. G. Brian Comes is working as a volunteer on holiday decorations for the historic district's inns, taverns and guest houses.

He isn't a floral designer by trade but a credit training officer for NationsBank who picked up flower arranging as a hobby. "It's a stress reliever," he says.

When his job with the bank had him traveling in Virginia between Norfolk and Richmond, he would stop over in Colonial Williamsburg, halfway between. "I've always admired and enjoyed the period," he says.

On one visit he dropped by the office of floral designer Clark Taggart with his "portfolio," which consisted of photographs of his holiday decorations. He also sent an application to Vernell Sutherland, head of Colonial Williamsburg's volunteer services.

"We have several long-distance volunteers," says Ms. Sutherland. The volunteer process is somewhat informal, she explains. "We don't have X number of volunteer positions. We try to identify what the volunteer would like to do and match them up." (If you're interested, the number to call is [804] 220-7174.)

Mr. Comes is in Williamsburg now until Dec. 4, working with the full-time floral-design staff. He's wiring fruits and berries into wreaths, creating elaborate cones of apples and greens for tavern tables and much more. Although he must follow guidelines set by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, there's plenty of room for creativity in the designs, as long as he uses the greens, fruits and flowers that would have been around in the 18th century.

These guidelines are also given to people living in the historic area, who are asked to decorate their houses in an appropriate manner. Residents may be asked to remove inappropriate decorations, such as bows, unless they "interpret specific buildings."

"We might use some ribbons on the door of the millinery shop," explains Libbey Oliver, manager of floral services and one of the two designers on the new "Christmas Decorations From Williamsburg" video (see below.) "They might have had some scraps of ribbon for decorating."

Other no-nos include kissing balls, which are Victorian; silk foliage; feathers; and various endangered greens such as running cedar and princess pine.

Santa Claus wasn't around in Virginia in the 18th century, nor was grapefruit, bamboo, poinsettia, variegated holly, jalapeno peppers or eucalyptus.

Recommended materials include apples, bayberry, bittersweet, boxwood, cedar, chinaberry, cockscomb, cotton, cranberry, globe amaranth, holly berry, honesty, honey locust, Japanese lantern, lotus pod, milkweed pod, okra (!), orange, cayenne pepper, pine, poet's laurel, pomegranates, rose hip, rye, local shells, strawflower, sumac, wheat and yarrow.

"Symmetry and elegance are the essence of each decoration," says Ms. Oliver.

With all this attention to detail, it may come as a surprise to some that the Colonial Williamsburg Christmas isn't strictly authentic.

The biggest difference is scale, according to Ms. Oliver. Early in the 18th century, the whole town would never have been decorated as it is today, with every government building, home, tavern and shop hung with wreaths and garlands, from the Governor's Palace to the George Wythe House. Perhaps only a house or two would have been festooned.

You will also see the lighting of the community tree at the $H beginning of the holiday season, even though the townspeople didn't have Christmas trees until 1842, when a German professor at William and Mary introduced the custom.

"These are 20th-century interpretations," says Mr. Taggart. "Very little, really, is known about real Christmases in Williamsburg."

What does he mean by interpretations? For instance, Colonial Williamsburg is famous for its decorative cones of fruit and even sells the wooden forms that are their base (for $19.95 and $26.95). Although the Colonists didn't make these fruit cones for table decorations, they did "pile heaps of food to make a formed shape," says Mr. Taggart.

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