Williamsburg Sampler Workshops in the restored Colonial city will help you decorate for the holidays with traditional flair.

November 08, 1998|By Randi Kest | Randi Kest,Contributing Writer

Among decorating cognoscenti, the notion of paring down has gained popularity in recent years. The glossy home magazines have embraced this minimalism with a bear hug, even at the holidays. When was the last time you saw Martha Stewart trimming her trees with tinsel or spraying them with gaudy flocking?

Peeling away the layers of froufrou may seem like a new idea, but the Colonists who settled Williamsburg practiced it nearly 300 years ago. Their idea of decking the halls for the holidays was a display of simple greens in the windows and sumptuous fruit arrangements on the tables (to be eaten, of course, since Colonists couldn't afford to use edible items only for show). Fruits and berries were not added into the holiday decorations at Williamsburg until recently.

This traditional holiday decor is still practiced at the 173-acre historical area where, this year, greater efforts have been made to decorate the buildings more individually, as they might have been adorned originally. In the 60-plus years since the staff at Colonial Williamsburg began decorating for the holidays, the Colonial buildings have been decorated similarly. But this year, they will instead be decked in accordance with their former social standing. For example, the Governor's Palace will be decorated more elaborately than the taverns and the taverns more than the Colonial homes.

The grounds will be decorated in materials available in that area during the 1700s, with no shortcuts, such as spray paint, being taken to re-create the look of the times.

Interest in these decorations has grown over the years to the point where this year, for this first time, Colonial Williamsburg will be offering a full month of daily workshops as well as a three-day decorating symposium where visitors can learn to make their own wreaths and centerpieces (see "Learning How," above).

Those who don't have the time to visit Williamsburg can take advantage of two holiday decorating books with instructions on making some of its best-known pieces. Both offer ideas for creating everything from topiaries to wreaths. "Christmas Decorations from Williamsburg" is available in hardcover or video ($19.95 each). "Colonial Williamsburg Decorates for Christmas," published in 1981, is available in soft cover ($10.95). All can be ordered by calling 800-446-9240.

Colonial Williamsburg's decorations haven't always been such a hit. In 1934, the first attempt was made by an unknown local to brighten the area for the holidays, and colored lights were strung among 10 selected evergreens. The president of the historic area at the time, Kenneth Chorley, was not impressed. He deemed the colored lights too commercial for the historic area and asked the research department to investigate how the holidays were celebrated by the Colonists, and to what extent they decorated.

Researchers discovered that the original settlers decorated little during the holidays. The decorations that now spruce up Williamsburg over Thanksgiving and Christmas have been inspired by traditions that took hold in the years that followed.

One of the first holiday customs that Chorley initiated at Williamsburg was the placement of a single lighted candle in each window, a suggestion passed along by a local landscaper whose family had practiced the tradition for many years. This idea took hold and now more than 1,200 candles (electric - for safety's sake) shine in the windows of buildings around the Colonial area. The simultaneous lighting of these candles takes place during the Grand Illumination ceremony, which will be Dec. 6. The annual event typically attracts about 20,000 visitors.

Today, those lighted candles are only a fraction of the extensive Colonial Williamsburg holiday displays. Throughout Williamsburg during the holidays, balsam and fruit wreaths, orange- and apple-filled plaques and magnolia-, lemon- and pineapple-dressed fans can be seen. There is, however, a downside to these all-natural decorations. Because of weather and local pest damage, the displays must be replaced twice during the season. For the most part, the fruits and flowers last about a week before showing some age.

Certain items have now become signature. Among them are the tabletop decorations covered with sugared fruit, holly, berries and pine cones. Inspired by edible holiday table arrangements popular in 17th-century England, these fruit arrangements are easily made today using pre-nailed wooden cones that are available in two sizes (7-inch, $23.95 and 10-inch, $28.95). With an apple, orange or lemon on each nail (larger pieces on bottom, smaller on top) and boxwood, juniper or cedar used to fill in the spaces, these elegant cone displays dress up any festive table. (Cones can be ordered by calling 800-446-9240 and are available at Everything Williamsburg, the Crafthouse at Merchant Square and the Crafthouse at the Williamsburg Inn.)

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