It’s that time! I know we still haven’t had Thanksgiving and I’m usually very very strict about posting Christmas ideas until after Turkey day, but I just can’t resist this year. Partially because I’m so excited about my theme and partially because I may have already decorated some (guilty!) and am just too excited to wait.
You all know that I have a somewhat historic home. It’s historic in the sense that it was built forever ago, but with all of the generations of updates and upgrades, it can hardly be considered in historic shape. I’ve always had a bit of a struggle to decorate the nineteenth century home in a way that doesn’t feel, well, old. For this reason, I’ve always stuck with a neutral and sparkly decor palette. There is something about the neutral palette at Christmas, however, that can seem underwhelming. When ‘Good King Wenceslas’ or ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ wafts over the speakers, I wish my home was decked with everything decedent and richly colored with bountiful cakes and sugared fruits adorning my table and mulled wine drunk from pewter. Isn’t it funny how just a song can put you in a certain frame of mind?
So, this year, I’ve decided to succumb to the deep rooted desire of my home to be dressed in old world holiday cheer. And where else would I look for inspiration that to Colonial Williamsburg. You know how I absolutely loved my trip there this fall and I was so intrigued by their holiday traditions, that I wanted to use the colonial decor as my framework.
I had a general idea for how I wanted to take the decorations, but I wanted more information on the how and why behind style, so I reached out to Liza Gusler, the licensing manger for Colonial Williamsburg’s product line, who was so welcoming and informative during our trip in October. I am using her guidance and advice as the basis for our decor, and I was shocked by some of her insights! We asked her some of the burning questions we had about the history of the holiday in Colonial times and loved hearing her insights! It’s a long-ish interview, but it will definitely frame how we decorate and give a little insight into some of our current traditions!
House of Earnest: What does Colonial Christmas mean to you?
Liza Gusler: When I hear “Colonial Christmas,” I conjure up candlelight and the exquisite natural wreaths and swags that are a signature of holiday decorations in Colonial Williamsburg’s “Revolutionary City.” Historically, however, that bountiful vision is a bit of an anachronism.
HofE: Why is that?
LG: There are actually several versions of “colonial Christmas”—the relatively austere religious holiday as celebrated in the 18th century, and the more recent interpretation that takes some artistic license with authenticity. It surprises most people to learn that, historically, Christmas in an Anglican colony such as Virginia was a religious holiday. There were no lavish decorations—maybe sprigs of holly in window panes—and no Christmas trees in America till the 19th century. It’s not until early January, at “Twelfth Night,” (or the Feast of the Epiphany), colonists enjoyed a special meal and games at a more secular celebration.
HofE: Eeek! I was going for that lavish look as seen during the Williamsburg Christmas Tours.
LG: Today, in popular imagination, there’s a more lavish holiday decorating phenomenon that arose from a style of Christmas decorating that Colonial Williamsburg began in the 1930s, decking doors, gates, and halls with swags of greenery, nuts, fruit, and other fresh and dried natural materials. We kick off the holiday season with a “grand illumination” with candles in every window, fireworks, and outdoor entertainment. It’s a celebration based on launching fireworks on the king’s birthday in the 18th century. WILLIAMSBURG Christmas decorating traditions became so widespread and beloved that they became “colonial Christmas” in many folks’ minds.
HofE: What goes outdoors vs inside?
LG: Outdoors Colonial Williamsburg’s landscape crew festoons the town with miles of pine roping, and bounteous plenty of pineapples, berries, apples, and other natural materials. Residents of the Historic Area compete to win prizes for the best house decorations. We were very proud of the blue ribbon we won one year when we lived in the Bryan House on Duke of Gloucester Street. My husband carved lion’s masks and a basket, connected with swags of greenery and fruit—shades of Grinling Gibbons!
Inside the house museums, such as the Governor’s Palace, the curatorial staff and historic foodways staff go to tremendous effort to set gorgeous (and historically accurate) tables. The [wealthy] enjoyed elaborate table settings with glass pyramids and miniature temples, and lots of tempting sweetmeats and exotic fruits. Hence, pineapple as a symbol of hospitality, as it was imported from the West Indies, and an expensive treat to honor one’s guests.
HofE: Very interesting! How is the tree traditionally decorated?
LG: Sorry to have to report that there were no Christmas trees in colonial America. The first tree documented in Virginia was in 1842 at the St. George Tucker House in Williamsburg, where a German professor at the College of William and Mary put one up to thank his host family by sharing a tradition from his native country. Today, in our WILLIAMSBURG products program, we develop ornaments inspired by antique textiles, silver, or ceramics in the Colonial Williamsburg design archives, as well as period ways of decorating and setting tables year round.
HofE: What greenery and fruits were traditionally used?
LG: We have a print in the collection that shows sprigs of holly in window panes. Think “Deck the halls with boughs of holly.” That sort of simple decoration is all we can document. There’s a print that shows King Charles II of England in a ballroom decorated with swags of greenery—but that’s royal, and OTT for Virginia.
HofE: Some parts of the decor seem so frivolous (blown glass, ornate designs) and others seem so primitive and functional (dried fruits/berries). What is that? What (in your opinion) is the divide between the ornate and the primitive?
LG: This is the divide between the historical, documented Christmas as practiced in the eighteenth century (simple natural materials, sparsely used) and the more “suspension of reality” fulsome version (profusion of wreaths, apple swags, lemon cones, pineapples, berries, nuts and other fresh and dried natural materials) that has become a beloved tradition of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area in the 20th and 21st-centuries. The ornaments we make as part of our licensed WILLIAMSBURG Christmas program, such as those now offered by Frontgate, are a further extension of this modern phenomenon. They enable us to use the Colonial Williamsburg design archive to develop goods that would befuddle Thomas Jefferson.
HofE: How do Colonial Christmas customs differ from our modern-day traditions? Do you have any favorite Colonial Christmas traditions that you carry on in your home today?
LG: In 18th-century Virginia, Christmas was a time to give something extra to those less fortunate. It was the custom to give an extra “bit” to the servants and to provide them with special holiday fare. Most of us still like to help others in the season of giving. We’ve moved the big celebratory meal with friends and family from January 6th (Twelfth Night) to Christmas. I love to set a beautiful table, so that’s a carryover from colonial times. True confessions, though my taste in general tends toward the 18th century–one of my favorite Christmas traditions is not colonial, but 19th-century—that’s the Christmas tree. I’ve collected ornaments since childhood, so putting up the tree is a favorite annual sentimental journey.
HofE: I love setting a beautiful table too! Aside from the table, what is the easiest way for a modern day family to get a little taste of those traditional decorations into their home?
LG: Gather something natural and incorporate it into your home. My mother always used magnolia leaves and cones at Christmas. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but an hour on a December Saturday spent gathering some “holly and ivy” to deck your halls is sure to yield a lifetime of memories.
Wow! How much great information does Liza have? Based on her feedback I am going to go a little less ornate than originally anticipated, but I think that a fresh, youthful take on the traditional will bode well with my style. I’m thinking, swags of garlands, fresh and dried fruits and lots of candlelight. I’ve got a few orange clove pomanders on the docket, some dried orange and cinnamon garlands, and a beautiful monogram wreath all on the list of DIYs to share!
I am so excited to do my House of Earnest take on this style and share with you guys the steps I take!
How do you feel about the colonial theme? Are you surprised I chose it? If you’re interested in learning more, check out the Christmas history page on the Williamsburg site as well as their beautiful Pinterest page!
For House of Earnest past themes & inspiration, here are our past 3 years (please forgive early photography!!)